Now I See

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Fourth Sunday in Lent.

John 9:1-45

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.

So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now I’m found
was blind but now I see. 

Do you know the story behind Amazing Grace?

John Newton was an English sailor in the late 1700s. Newton was a wretched, swearing, jeering atheist, who made his money by trading slaves, stealing humans from Africa, and selling them in England. One day, his ship got caught in a ferocious storm; in his panic and fear, he called out to God to save him. God did, and he became a Christian from that day on, quitting the slave trade and even sailing back to Africa to return the people he had stolen. Amazing Grace tells the story of this incredible, miraculous conversion. John Newton’s famous words “I once was blind, but now I see” refer back to that one life-changing moment in the storm. He is like a modern day Saul, saved from violence to grace. 

Perhaps some of you know the story I just told. It’s often told and retold, because it makes the powerful hymn Amazing Grace, perhaps the most beloved hymn in the English language, even more powerful. Powerful, and inspiring. Lives really can change, this story says.

The problem is that this story, this powerful, inspiring story, is a myth. 

John Newton was an English sailor; and when somebody says you swear like a sailor, Newton was the kind of sailor they are thinking of; and he was a committed atheist, and made fun of his fellow shipmates if they dared display their piety.

His fellow shipmates, who were committed Christians, working on those slaving ships. Let that sink in.

At 23, he did encounter a tremendous storm off the coast of Ireland, and he and another crewmate worked for hours bailing water from the ship in an attempt to stay afloat. He recalled later that he shouted at his captain, “if this will not do, then God have mercy upon us!” 

In the weeks that followed, he began to wonder about that spontaneous appeal to God. Even before the storm, he had been reading a book of Christian disciplines; now he began to wonder if God was real, and could redeem him after all. 

When Newton decided to live a godly life, he gave up swearing, proposed marriage to a girlfriend, and obeyed his commanding officers more humbly and readily. He also signed right back up with another slave trading ship. His new work ethic gave him a leg up, and he moved his way up from mere sailor to lordly captain.

Newton continued brutally enslaving other human beings for six more years, and when he stopped, it was because his health would not allow him to continue. No one—no one—batted an eye at this newly pious man helming a slave ship. No one saw the contradiction. 

On land, he became a priest. Amazing Grace was written in 1772, for a sort of hymn writing competition with a friend. It was first sung on January 1, 1773, making this year its two-hundred fiftieth anniversary. In the hymn, written in a characteristic testimonial style, he declared he was saved; he declared he now saw; he declared he would possess a life of joy and peace in heaven. But it was not until 1780 that we see any evidence—any evidence whatsoever—that he was beginning to doubt the morality of using and abusing other humans based solely on their race.

It wasn’t until 1788—sixteen years after Amazing Grace, and thirty-two years after crying out to God to save him, that he wrote publicly against the slave trade, and began the work of saving others.

Although slow to form, his voice was influential. His writings, especially his ability to describe first-hand the horrors of the Middle Passage, made an impact on a Parliament that was beginning to debate. Towards the end of his life, Newton came to realize that his early conversion and faith and piety had not really been complete as long as he supported the slave trade—by his action or by his silence.

It takes a lot longer to tell that story than the first one. I’m already a good way into this sermon and haven’t touched the scripture yet. But I think it’s an important story for us to tell, in full, in all its conflicting, complicated details. 

We tell the first story, the myth of the instant conversion, because it is inspiring and miraculous, and it makes us feel good, like maybe one day we or someone we love or hey—maybe even our worst enemy—will wake up and God will change everything about them, and everything will be wonderful. 

We tell the second story because it helps us realize that faith is a journey, that change is slow, that very few of us can see more clearly than the people we surround ourselves with can, and that it is a very dangerous thing to declare ourselves saved and sighted in the past tense, as if God was all done with us. 

Our gospel today could also be broken into two stories. The first is more simple—Jesus walks by a blind man and heals him. We tell this story to remind ourselves that Jesus can do miracles, and is full of both power and compassion. 

The second act of this story is more complicated. The Pharisees and other local Jewish people are concerned—very concerned—about where Jesus’ power comes from. Is he divine, or demonic? And so they get a hold of the blind man, and his parents, and his neighbors, and cross-examine them. And they come across as so suspicious, and so short-sighted, because of course we know that Jesus really is the messiah—but you could also read them as very faithful, and cautious, and full of integrity, because they are not just going to follow anyone who comes by with a few flashy tricks handing out messiah business cards. 

But today I am more interested in the man born blind than the Pharisees, because I find his honesty refreshing. Jesus has given him a miraculous healing. But when he is asked who Jesus is, his best guess is that Jesus is a prophet. And later, when they ask if Jesus is a sinner, the man says he doesn’t know—he only knows he is healed. And later still, when Jesus asks the man if he believes in the Son of Man, the man born blind doesn’t know who that is. It isn’t until Jesus reveals himself as the son of man—some thirty-one verses after he performs that first miracle—that the man born blind begins to worship him. That he sees.

And at the very end, Jesus says a very curious thing to the Pharisees. “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

It is a very dangerous thing to declare that we see. A very dangerous thing indeed, because it declares an end to God’s work in our lives. As if God were done with us, and we were finished, complete, perfected. 

Becoming a follower of Jesus is not a one-and-done event. We may fall in love with the simple stories of the miracle, the flashbang conversion, the spontaneous baptism, the devout resolution to live a different life from this moment forward; but the true stories are almost always much more complex than that. We grope forward in this Christian life, hoping that our steps take us closer to the Light of the World. We give generously, only to find what we really wanted was to be applauded; we try again. We combat our internal prejudices, only to find them popping out in new ways; we try again. We pray daily, only to find that we just wanted God to obey our commands; we try again. 

Faithfulness takes a long time to unfold. Just as John Newton realized eventually that he was called to join in the struggle to abolish slavery, there may be Christian work that God is calling us to that we cannot now imagine, but will in hindsight seem clear as day. 

It turns out, it is entirely possible to mistake spiritual blindness for spiritual sight, to mistake stubborn certainty for strong faith. To go through life with an open-eyed faith is harder, because we may see suffering we would rather shut our eyes to. We may have to give up our simple stories of right and wrong, good and bad, then and now, and live a much more complicated life.

But God came to this world with open eyes, knowing just how complicated, and horrible, and wonderful humans were. And we crucified him, and closed his eyes in death. And three days, those eyes opened again, and looked on this suffering and insufferable world with love. So much love. 

I was blind, and am blind, and will be blind again. But in between, in glimpses and flashes of faith, I see. What a miracle.

Thanks be to God. 


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