Friday, September 7, 2012

Wax and Clay

This is the text of the sermon I delivered today in chapel. It is based on the gospel reading for today, John 9:18-41.

“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe” (Ephesians 1:15-19).

In our gospel reading for this morning, we catch the aftermath of Jesus healing a blind man on the sabbath. The previous chapter details the Pharisees’ burgeoning opposition to Jesus, capped off by the Lord’s radically offensive claim that “before Abraham was, I am.” We might therefore see the action of our chapter, chapter nine, as Christ’s active unpacking of that declaration through another offensive act. He equates himself with the creator God in one chapter and follows it up with a creative miracle in the next. But he will not do it in a way that satisfies his opponents. Even as he is giving solid evidence of his grand theological claim about himself, even as he is drawing this formerly blind man into saving faith, he is pushing away the Pharisees who ultimately reject both his claim and the saving faith that comes with it.

Of course part of what’s so troubling for the Pharisees is that this man was born blind, meaning his sight could not be restored by something that only seemed miraculous. We see them over the course of our reading attempt to systematically dismantle the proposition which has been put to them: the man flouting their religious authority and tradition is exercising power only a man blessed by God could use. In order to defend themselves they must insist against Jesus. How did this happen? they want to know. Surely this man is evil, they insist. As Jesus acts to make himself known, they put up barrier after barrier in order to refuse to acknowledge who he is. And therefore these self-professed men of God are refusing to acknowledge who God the Father is.

The healed man, however, has had his physical sight restored and is gradually being given spiritual eyesight as well. There is a blunt simplicity to how it begins for him: he simply knows that he was blind, now he sees, and he sees because of Jesus. The Pharisees’ interrogation of him has a clawing desperation by comparison. They must strive to maintain the facade while he only has to cling to the truth.

These two responses to Jesus echo Origen’s observation that it is the same sun that melts wax and hardens clay. It remains a mystery to us why it is that some people respond to Jesus in faith and others in indifference or hostility. It seems we are best, along with Article 17 of the 39 Articles, acknowledging our ignorance on this point. It does not convert souls to dispute the difference, it does nothing for our confidence in God’s grace either. In his commentary on this chapter, our professor Rod Whitacre writes that “Unless God opens our eyes we will not see, but he is offering sight to all who will receive it--such is the biblical antinomy of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.” We stand at the intersection of these contrasting biblical truths, and we must trust that our anguish for the injustice and suffering put on humans bound by and condemned for sin pales in comparison to our Father’s.

I am reminded of my own spiritual journey which, although it began in the Charismatic church, has not been a straightforward Wesleyan tale of my personal choices for Jesus. My spirituality and convictions are rooted irrevocably in the strange moments where God has been powerfully present to me. As a result, I’ve ended up with a much higher view of God’s initiative and a much lower view of my own than a lot of speech from my tradition would seem to imply. I will spare you the sordid tale, but I have not been the best Christian! I even abandoned the faith entirely as a teenager, an event which occurred only after the very profound holy encounters that shaped me relatively early in my life.

I have found that God is often ready to show up and that I am not always ready to meet him. I have found that despite my sin and rebellion, he has doggedly pursued me for at least two decades, if not even back further than I can remember. In short, I’m not at seminary because I believe in myself so much as the God who keeps bringing me back to himself; the God who can’t seems so stubbornly unwilling to let me out of his grasp. Jeff Goldblum once said, “Life finds a way.” Well, God finds a way. And he keeps on finding a way with me.

This keeps me, and I think it should keep us, from being too proud of our faith in the Lord. I think about my life and wonder sometimes, “Why me? Why is it me, Lord, and not this other person whom you reached out to in this way, whose heart you turned toward you?” When you praise him, when you love him, when you thank him, when you pray to him--are you in some sense proud of yourself? Is there a part of you that might think about “unbelievers” and “sinners” and thank God that you are not like them? This passage should give us pause, because we must all know that we at least started out no better than the Pharisees. Yes, their words and deeds are abhorrent and Jesus clearly condemns them, but we need to be able to see ourselves in them. We need to be able to understand that, without God’s intervention in our hearts, we could have been them. We could be left to the darkness of the world, to be warped and corrupted by sin into people of hate and selfishness.

It is a mystery and one that we should not take upon ourselves to solve. But as part of the humility which God desires for his people we must recognize that our redemption from sin and wickedness does not belong to us; it is not ours to take credit for. “If you were blind,” Jesus says, “you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see’, your sin remains.” Jesus is using the healing of this blind man to expose the hardened hearts of men who have claimed to be the spiritually illumined leaders of God’s people. The blind man’s simple, faithful response in and of itself becomes a rebuke to their calculated hostility and pride. It serves as a lesson to us as well.

We all are blind or began blind! We are all at the mercy of the God who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. That’s what lead Jesus to the cross--that’s the gospel. God’s mercy has been extended to us who deserved none. We may wrestle sometimes with the question of “why me and not this person or that person”, and I think those moments are part of God’s invitation to ministry. Recognizing that God pulled us from darkness and into the light should give us hope that the same can happen for anyone else, that God desires this for every person we meet.

Let us remember today, then, the Pharisee in all of us. The hard heart in need of a gracious God to pursue us and draw us to him. It will strengthen our relationship with him to do this, to have a consistent attitude of humility before his grace. And it will remind us that the same God who called us out of darkness and into the light is ready to go on doing that, ready for us to join in his mission of finding once hostile and corrupt hearts and melting them with his grace.

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