Thoughts on Blindness and Seeing

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, March 26, 2017

John 9:1-25 GNT

You likely have heard the proverb that was made popular by 17th century biblical commentator, Matthew Henry.  Henry wrote, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”  Perhaps such is what John the gospel writer had in mind in the story of Jesus and the man born blind.  As often is the case, there is much going on under the surface in this story.  And the theological and spiritual points that John sought to make may be much more important than the literal, physical details of the story itself.  There are several theological points in this story John did not want us to overlook.  In other words, we do well to be sensitive to the purposes John had in mind in giving us this story.

For instance, there is the question of the cause for the man’s blindness.  A common belief of the day was that such a physical ailment or physical deformity was the result of human sin.  But was it the result of the man’s sin, or the sin of his parents before he was born?  That was the question posed to Jesus.

But the answer given is neither.  Within John’s theological framework, it was so the works of God might be made manifest.  Such, I think, has more to do with John’s theology than the actual words of Jesus.  My theological framework finds it hard to accept that, first, God would will that any baby should be born blind; and second, that a baby would be born blind and live with that blindness until adulthood, so that one day the works of God might be made known.  Such seems a bit cruel to me and out of character with a God of love as revealed by Jesus in other places.  But such was the way John reasoned.

However, with all of that aside, as the story progresses, Jesus is revealed to be the “one sent by God” because of the great thing that has occurred in the life of the man who was once blind, but now is able to see.  That is the point John wants us to get at this juncture in the story.

A second theological truth John doesn’t want us to miss in this story is that Jesus is “the light of the world.”  We see this over and again throughout John’s gospel.  So it is only natural that the theme would come up in this story involving blindness, as light is such an important element of seeing.

A third point in the story to be noted has to do with Jesus’ relationship with the religious establishment of the day.  The story presupposes a bitter conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees.  One point of contention is the fact that Jesus has healed on the Sabbath Day.

A question we need to ask, however, is, To what extent was there this much conflict between the historical Jesus and the Pharisees in his own day, compared to the amount of conflict between the Jesus followers and Jewish leaders of the writer’s day, at least 60 years later?  Often what was going on at the actual time of writing colored the gospel writers’ accounts, which got written back into the stories about Jesus.

Yet another point of the story, and one that is most likely the primary point John is seeking to make, has to do with believing in Jesus as the “Son of Man” and a warning about spiritual blindness.  John’s purpose in writing his gospel from beginning to end as he states it himself is that all “may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through . . . faith in him you may have life” (John 20:31).  So the irony of the story is that the man born blind sees and believes in Jesus as God’s Son, whereas the religious leaders who should be able to see spiritual truth are blind and stand condemned, at least according to John.  Ironically, the man who had been born blind becomes the teacher of the religious leaders who in essence are spiritually blind, in that they fail to see the workings of God in their very midst.  The last verse of the chapter sums it all up, where John has Jesus say to the religious leaders, “If you were blind, then you would not be guilty; but since you claim that you can see, this means that you are still guilty” (9:41).  Well, such are some of the theological and spiritual points at work in this story of the man born blind that John wanted us to get.

Regarding being blind and then later coming to see, there is a beautiful story that seems most appropriate to be shared in conjunction with this passage.  Another John, who was English born, endured somewhat of a rough life as a child.  His mother died of Tuberculosis just before he turned seven.  At the age of eleven, John went to sea with his father, who was a commander of a merchant ship.  After sailing several long voyages with his father, John ended up being pressed into service in the Royal Navy.  Being dissatisfied, at one point, he tried to desert and was severely punished in front of a crew of 350, as he was stripped to the waist and then tied up and given a flogging of eight dozen lashes.  He was then reduced to the rank of a common seaman.

Eventually, John found himself on a slave ship bound for West Africa.  Ultimately John became captain of his own ship whose main business was the transport of slaves.  The life John was living was a life marred by greed, sin, and disregard for the lives of others.  Indeed, if anyone was guilty of inhumanity to man, it was John.  In fact, John would later refer to himself during this time period as an “infidel.

During one voyage, the ship got caught in a violent storm.  When all seemed lost and it appeared the ship would surely sink, John exclaimed, “Lord, have mercy upon us.”  The ship did make it through the storm.  As he later reflected on the experience, he believed that God had saved them from the storm and that grace had begun to work in his life.  Later he believed that experience to be the beginning of his spiritual conversion.  He began to read the Bible and other literature.

The curious thing is John continued in the slave trade for some years following this experience.  But around the age of 30, John experienced a serious illness, and he gave up seafaring for good.  He began to educate himself and asked God to take complete control of his destiny.  At this point, he believed his conversion was complete.  Soon thereafter, John became acquainted with the famous English evangelistic preacher, George Whitefield, and became one of Whitefield’s enthusiastic disciples.  During this time period he also met and came to admire John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church.

John decided he wanted to become a minister himself.  It took some years before he was to be accepted, but eventually he was ordained as an Anglican Priest and became rector of an Anglican Church.  So many people crowded into John’s church to hear him preach, the building had to be enlarged.  It was likely during his time as rector in his first parish that John began composing hymns that would become Christian classics, including the one that chronicles his experience of being spiritually blind but enlightened and saved by the grace of God.  John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” is one of, if not the most famous Christian hymns of all times, probably sung and played as an instrumental more than any other hymn.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

It is likely that the story in the gospel of John on blindness and seeing was the biblical inspiration that John Newton drew from to accompany his own life’s story of being saved and awakened by the grace of God from his spiritual blindness.

Surely one of the lessons of the season of Lent is the importance of being willing to see, spiritually speaking, the workings of God in our very midst.  One may have 20/20 physical sight and be spiritually blind.  And as Matthew Henry so eloquently put it, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”  Conversely, one may be physically blind, yet have perfect spiritual sight, as in the case of another hymn writer, Fanny Crosby, who was blind but wrote thousands of hymns.

We owe gratitude to both Johns – John the gospel writer and John Newton the former slave trader turned minister and hymn writer – for enriching our faith with their stories about God’s amazing grace that gives new sight to the blind and changes lives.  May it be so.  Amen.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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