Sunday, March 2, 2008

Where Was God? - John 9:1-7

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 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 and was able to see.

When you finished high school physics, did you think you would never have to recite Newton’s laws of motion again? So did I. That’s part of the reason I majored in humanities and not in the sciences. I was never going to balance another equation or determine the velocity of a watermelon seed spit by my cousin. But this morning, I need to review one of those laws with you. Finish Newton’s third law of motion for me: “For every action . . . . there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

Whether they knew it or not, the disciples were articulating this law quite well in this morning’s Scripture passage. As they’re walking down the road, they ask Jesus a question. Spotting a man born blind, the wheels in their heads start turning. In their worldview, hardships are the result of sin. In fact, they are the direct result of sin. That is, some specific sin causes each specific hardship. It would be only logical, therefore, that the man’s blindness is the direct result of some specific sin.

The only question that remains, then, is whose sin is the root cause of the man’s blindness. The disciples come up with two plausible sources; either the man’s sin caused his blindness, or his parents’ sin caused his blindness. It’s actually a pretty good question that deals with an important theological issue. We all want to know why bad stuff happens in our lives and in the lives of people we know and love. Do bad things happen to me as the direct result of my own sin? The sin of my parents? The sin of other people? Is it random? Is it purposeful? Is it arbitrarily administered by a sadistic God who wants to watch us dance like so many puppets on a string? Is it karma? Or, maybe it’s some combination of all of these things. The disciples are engaging in theology at a practical, down-and-dirty level. They have made observations about the ways in which the world works, and combined that with their knowledge and experience with the ways in which God interacts with the world, and they’ve come up with some conclusions.

The disciples question represents one end of the spectrum, in which we humans chart the course of our own destiny. Good things happen when we act righteously, bad things happen when we act sinfully. It’s a sort of a “What goes around comes around” flavor of theology. Before we get into too much of a rush to dismiss their question, we have to admit that a whole lot of what happens to us is the natural consequence of decisions and actions we’ve already made. If you choose to tell your significant other they look fat in whatever outfit they’re wearing today, there will be negative consequences directly related to your decision. If you choose to embezzle money from your employer, there will be negative consequences directly related to your decision. If I choose to regularly and excessively exceed the speed limit – now you know we’re dealing in the hypothetical – there will be negative consequences that even the combined legal powers of Four Eggers, PW Glidewell, Don Watson, and Jim Deal can’t get me out of. There are certainly a number of hardships that are the direct result of our own sin.

Before we dismiss the disciples’ question too quickly, the sins of our parents can also have a harmful effect on us. When a mother addicted to crack gives birth to a child, the child suffers the direct consequence of its parents’ sin. When parents spend all their money on their own selfish indulgences and there is nothing left to adequately feed, clothe, and shelter their children, children suffer the direct consequence of their parents’ sin.

At the other end of the spectrum is a theology in which God dictates the results of our lives. That is, God sets forces in motion and orders the world in such a way that only the results God desires actually happen. Indeed, St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” This premise is easily misinterpreted, however. We often hear that all things that happen to us are good, or that all things have a good in them. We can spend our lives trying to find the purpose behind every incident of pain and suffering. In this view, God sadistically places obstacles in our path in order to teach us something or make a point. Remember, according to this view, every instance of pain or suffering is there on purpose because some good is going to be worked out of it.

We see this viewpoint lived out when bad things happen to good people. It’s almost a default mode that we go into when there is unexplainable tragedy. When my mom was first diagnosed with aggressive stage 4 breast cancer in June of 2004, I can’t tell you how many times I saw this lived out. As she kept a daily journal in those first few months and continued to keep it, she toyed with the idea of turning her daily musings into a book. One of the chapters in that book was going to be, “Stupid things people say when someone has cancer.” One of my personal favorites was, “I’m sure God did this for a reason.” I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, “God didn’t do this! And if he did, that’s a God I don’t want anything to do with.”

The theologian William Barclay lost his 20-year-old daughter in a horrible boating accident. Years later, he received an anonymous letter. “Dear Dr. Barclay, I know why God killed your daughter. It was to save her from corruption by your heresies.” “I wanted to write a letter back,” said Barclay. “Not in anger and fury, because that came and went in a flash. I wanted to write back in pity telling whomever ‘Your God is my devil. Your God is the God I don’t believe in.’”

Or, think about what gets said around other tragedies in which people specifically make God the author of suffering, always for some divine purpose. When a child dies, someone will inevitably say something like, “I guess God just needed another cherub in heaven.” Theirs is the God I don’t believe in. When the AIDS epidemic broke out 25 years ago, how many Christians rejoiced in what they perceived to be God’s judgment on homosexuals? Theirs is the God I don’t believe in. On September 11, how many Christians announced that God was angry with us for coming loose from our moorings as a nation? Theirs is the God I don’t believe in. How many Christians divide and separate, and sing wonderful songs of praise to God, yet bar from their pews anyone unlike them? Theirs is the God I don’t believe in.

Here’s the reality. We live in a world in which the rain falls upon the just and the unjust alike. There is a great deal of suffering in the world due to sin. Some of that is our sin, some of that is our parents’ sin, and some of it is the sin of people we’ll never know. But there is also a great deal of suffering in the world that is random and senseless. God is not the author of this suffering. God has not caused this suffering. So where is God in all this?

Back in our text today, why was the man born blind? Jesus tells us it was not because of anyone’s sin. Rather, the man was born blind in order that God might be revealed and glorified in him. He was not born blind as an object lesson. He was not born blind in order to teach us something. He was not born blind in order to be given sight. He was born blind in order that God might be revealed and glorified in him.

Where was God? God was being glorified. God was being glorified in the man’s blindness. God was being glorified in the man’s sight. God was being glorified in all the conditions and circumstances of the man’s life. In fact, later in this story, the man is brought before the Pharisees and religious leaders to give an account of his healing. They are concerned with procedure, offended by a healing taking place on the Sabbath. They point out the man’s sin that they believed caused his blindness, and they point out Jesus’ sin for conducting a healing on the Sabbath. Heaven forbid God would actually show up on the day his people gather to worship! The irony is that the religious leaders are shown to be spiritually blind by the end of the story, failing to see God at work because the miracle did not fit within their boundaries of acceptable religious practice. Indeed, God was being glorified, yet they failed to give glory to God and chose to focus on circumstances of little consequence.

Friends, that’s what blindness is. It’s focusing on the wrong things, on insignificant things, on periphery things, and failing to recognize God’s glory. We can be blind, or we can have sight. We can focus on things that exclude, or we can focus on things that show God’s radical hospitality. We can focus on things that hurt and destroy, or we can focus on things that heal. We can focus on things that breed anger and division, or we can focus on things that bring hope.

Perhaps the question to be considered this morning is not, “Where is God?” but rather, “Who is God?” As I wrestled with that very question this week, here’s what I came up with. I cannot believe in the God who loves pain. I shall never believe in the God who does not know how to hope, or the God whom only the wise, the mature, or the comfortably situated can approach, or the God who sometimes regrets having given us free will. I cannot believe in the God who only cares about souls and not people, who is unmoved by human suffering or thinks it’s simply people getting their just desserts. I cannot believe in a God who is incapable of making all things new, who never weeps, who has no mystery, and is nothing more than a little more powerful, vindictive version of ourselves. I cannot believe in a God who is not love and does not transform everything he touches.

I believe in a different God. I believe in the one who rose from the dead for you and me. I believe in one who knows our suffering. I believe in one who calls us ‘friend’ rather than ‘stranger.’ I believe in one who sets a table before us in the presence of our enemies, who calls us to this table, and who promises to strengthen our bonds with him and with each other in the breaking of this bread and the taking of this cup. That is my God and I shall have no other. Amen.

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