Why do we confront Hope?
John 9: 1-41.
There is something deeply troubling in this passage.
And it is deeply troubling because it is not about what we think it is about.
We think we know what it should be about, but it isn’t about that, and because it isn't about that we can't understand it, it just seems all complicated and messy.
Let me explain...
We think this incident is about a blind man.
And you know what...it should be about that.
If this story was about that then it would have been a really short incident, a good incident, but a short one.
It would have gone something like this...
‘As Jesus was walking along he saw a man born blind. His disciples asked him, “Teacher, whose sin caused him to be born blind? Was it his own or his parents sin?”
Jesus answered, “His blindness has nothing to do with God punishing anyone. The question you should have asked was not whose fault this blindness is, but how can we bring God’s love into this situation.”
After he said this Jesus spat on the ground and made some mud with the spittle, he rubbed the mud on the man’s eyes and said,”Go and wash your face in the Pool of Siloam.” So the man went, washed his face, and came back seeing.
Everyone rejoiced; the disciples, his parents, the man himself obviously, and even the Pharisees who said to themselves, “This is an amazing act of God, a man who was blind can now see. Let us help him see how he can repay such a gift by glorifying God and helping others.”’
And you know what, if the passage had been that short, Margaret (our reader today) would have been a lot happier. We all would have been a lot happier. And we might even have been inspired to look at our life and see the gift it is and see how we can help others.
But that isn't the passage. And it isn't the passage because the passage isn't about a blind man. The blind man doesn't matter.
And that is the point.
Jesus sees a hurt and seeks to heal the hurt. The suffering of that blind man matters to Jesus, so he instinctively reaches out to him to help him.
But to the Pharisees the blind man doesn't matter.
What matters is what they have and protecting what they have.
And what the Pharisees have is a way at looking at the world that works for them. It is a very simple way of looking at the world. It is the way that the disciples comment on at the start of the passage.
“Teacher, whose sin caused him to be born blind? Was it his own or his parents sin?”
This is a very simple philosophy.
In fact this philosophy is an answer to one of the questions that was asked a couple of weeks ago at the Children's address when we considered what one question would we ask God....that question being, ‘Why is there suffering in the world?’
In this philosophy God is all powerful and in charge of everything.
So why is there suffering in the world?
And the answer has to be, because God put it there.
So why would God put it there?
Well if we believe that God is a fair and just God then God must have put it there because those people deserved it.
So if someone is born blind for instance, that must be because the parents did something bad, something that warranted such a punishment. Or maybe the sin isn’t the parents; maybe it is something that the man did himself, or something that he was going to do.
So there you have it.
The reason evil is in the world is because people sin and God punishes them.
This was something that the people had faced as a nation. They had gone against God as a nation and as a nation they had been taken into exile. The exile was their own fault because they had gone against God. Then, when they had finished their punishment, God returned them to the Promised Land.
There are a lot of good reasons why such a philosophy was appealing.
It is really simple to understand. You muck up God punishes you, you repent, God saves you.
It means we don't need to care for people who are suffering. Thousands in the world dying of malnutrition. That is a lot of guilt to live with. It can seem a problem that drives us to despair. But if we believe that God has caused it then it hasn't anything to do with us. We don’t need to get involved. In fact to get involved might be to go against God. So we can walk on by the wounded person in the street with a clear conscience.
It makes us feel smug. Because if nothing bad is happening in our life that must be because we are basically good people. Because if we weren't then God would be punishing us. And all the good things in our life are there because God thinks we deserve it.
That was the philosophy of the Pharisees. It was nice and simple. It was easy to understand. And, let’s be honest, it’s something we like to believe...good things happen to good people, especially if we are good people, and bad things happen to bad people, especially if others are bad. We all get what we deserve in the end.
The problem the Pharisees had with Jesus, was that Jesus was rocking the boat.
If good things happen to good people then this blind man must be good because he has been healed.
But they had already said that he was bad, that was why he was blind.
Jesus was talking about a far more complex philosophy.
Yes, the world has evil in it. But maybe it is caused by mistakes made that ripple out and affects others, others who are innocent. And those that seem to have the good life might even be the cause of that evil. Those with the blessed life, or the life that seems blessed, may be the ones causes the ripples that affects those who seem to be struggling.
So a rich king increases the taxes so that he can have a bigger palace and because of that the poor at the bottom can’t afford the irrigation system to make sure they have enough water to grow their crops.
Or the Pharisees seek the completion of the temple sooner so they increase the cost of the exchange rate between the Roman coins and the Temple coins. But because of that the pilgrims have less money to give to the beggars and some of the beggars starve to death.
Evil becomes a more complex thing.
And the question that then becomes important to the people of faith is not, ‘Who’s fault it this?’ That question is a dead end, that question is a waste of time.
And I am not saying that that question doesn't need to be answered.
What I am staying is that it is not the most important question. The most important question, the first question should always be, ‘How can I bring God’s hope into this situation? How can I, with what resources I have, help people to see that God has not given up on them, that God cares?’
That is the question that Jesus was asking of himself.
That’s why Jesus reaction to the situation was so different to the disciples, to the Pharisees.
So way is that important to us?
It is important because I think the church is in a place that the Pharisees are in.
That maybe we are in a place where we are being distracted by the wrong questions. That maybe we are trying to protect something that is already there instead of asking what Jesus was asking.
Let me give you a very direct example.
We all know that the church is struggling to have ministers, that there is a bit of a shortage.
In our own Presbytery, Stirling, for instance, we have 33 charges, 33 sets of churches that need 33 ministers. At the last presbytery we were told that by 2022 we need to get that number down to 19 ministers. Somehow 19 ministers have to look after 33 charges.
And the question we are tempted to ask ourselves is, ‘How can we protect what we have?’ because deep down we think we are a good church so we should have a good minister in charge to make sure we stay a good church.
How do we protect our minister? And by our minister we mean, ‘our minister’, not ‘our minister shared with anyone else’. Because we know that if we share our minister with anyone else, or maybe two or three or four anyone else’s, then they stop being there for us when we need them.
And because that is what we are thinking we start asking other questions that are a distraction.
Questions like, ‘How did we get into this mess?’
‘Who’s fault is this?’
‘How can we keep as much as we have the same?’
And again, I am not saying that these are unimportant questions, what I am saying is that they should never be the first question, the important question.
The only important question is the one Jesus asked, ‘How can I bring God’s hope into this situation? How can I, with what resources I have, help people to see that God has not given up on them, that God cares?’
You see when that becomes the question then the story we tell is the right story.
It is the story of the blind man who is made well,
it is the story of the widow who is comforted,
it is the story of the lonely child that finds laughter on a Friday night,
it is the story of person in hospital or prison who is visited,
it is the story of someone giving help in Alva to people in South Africa, just because they can,
it is the story of a gift of a tin of food that finds itself donated to a family in Alloa or Coalsnaughton,
it is the story of people helping asylum seeker from ‘wherever’ try to create a new home in a land culturally very different from the one they left,
it is the story of a neighbour who looks after another neighbour,
it is all these stories, and so many more of people finding hope.
When the question we should ask isn’t, ‘How can I bring God’s hope into this situation? How can I, with what resources I have, help people to see that God has not given up on them, that God cares?’
But instead, how do I protect what I have then the story becomes...
how we spent so much on the church so that Presbytery doesn't close it,
how do we improve the manse so that it is in our community that the minister stays, how do we show presbytery that other churches aren’t as good as ours so that they might close first.
I will state again the first lesson of churches that I ever learnt. I was in charge of Camphill; Queens Park in Glasgow. Their treasurer was in his 90’s. The average age of the congregation must have been about 85, and that was brought down because one granny used to bring her 5 year old granddaughter to church. They were a million pound in debt and weren’t allowed to call a minister or even do any work on the church building....and yet they were open. They should never have been open. But the thing is, I believe, that if we are doing what God wants us to do, being what God wants us to be, then nothing can stop us being open.
But if we are not doing what God wants us to do, not being what God wants us to be, then no matter how much money we have in the bank, no matter how nice our church building is, or how cosy our manse is...we will not have what it takes to stay open.
So what do we need to do?
Ask the right question...see the importance of other people and simply ask, ‘How can I bring God’s hope into this situation? How can I, with what resources I have, help people to see that God has not given up on them, that God cares?’