4th Sunday of Lent
FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT
1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a | Ephesians 5:8-14 | John 9:1-41
Oh, God, who through your word reconciled the human race to yourself in a wonderful way, grant, we pray, that with prompt devotion and eager faith, the Christian people may hasten toward the solemn celebrations to come. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
THESE Sundays of Lent, as I’ve often mentioned, are crucial to our understanding of Jesus's core message. For almost 2,000 years, the five gospels were always the same. But 50 years ago, the church included more readings to the experience we have of Scripture through the liturgy of Sunday’s word. We realize that these readings, which have taken the place of the classic ones, are on the same subjects. It’s not always so obvious, but you’ll see the temptation of Jesus in the first one, which is all about God revealing his Son as one who seeks the truth, trusts in the truth and realizes it’s different from the way the world lives. Then we see Jesus somehow being turned into light on a mountaintop with Peter, James and John, and it’s clear that Jesus doesn’t just speak the truth. He is the truth, and truth has something to do with being enlightened. Then he meets a woman at a well, and he talks to her about how he knows her. He has no judgment of her whatsoever, and she runs and tells everybody, “this man is amazing. He knows me, but he doesn’t judge me." And then he says, if I listen to him, I’ll have something inside me that will well up, that will continually refresh me. It’s like living in water, and I won’t have to come to the well anymore. And then this Sunday originally was the one of the man who was born blind, about seeing, being enlightened, finding something that gives you life. Then last Sunday, as you know, is the raising of Lazarus, and so it’s all about life. There’s something about truth and light and life and non-judgmental care for someone. These are all core teachings of this Christian tradition that we adhere to, that we believe in, that we trust. So let’s look at this set of readings and see how it underscores the work of Jesus healing us of our blindness. In that original story, it was so interesting that the scribes and the Pharisees had no way of taking in the fact that, first of all, a person who is born blind is a sinner, so no one is going to be interested in taking care of him. So if Jesus really is who he says he is, he’s not supposed to take care of sinners. He’s supposed to destroy them, and another factor was simply that Jesus claims to be the Son of God. If the Pharisees said, “Well, wow, he did that,” but instead they say, “He didn’t do that.” It’s so interesting to listen to the dialogue between the man with new eyes and the church saying, “This can’t happen.” And the church or the Pharisees literally are saying, “Well, I don’t care. It still didn’t happen.” It’s crazy. It’s like anybody who can't see is caught in a lie, and it’s so obvious. Yet, “No. No, he couldn’t have made you see. "No. Well, I can." “Well, I don’t know how that happened, but he can’t, and you can’t.” So it’s crazy. It says something interesting about human nature when a person is caught in a lie.
Now, it’s fascinating to me that the first way we hear about sin is in a story of Adam and Eve; that's when we see that the origin of sin is a lie. And the lie is that, if they would like it, they could be like God, being in charge, being in control, deciding what’s right and wrong, and they could rule their own life, and that’s just like being God. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Adam and Eve thought, “Well, yes. Yeah, that would be. I’d like that.” Eve thought it was a good idea. So they bought into it. They decided that they would be the determiners of how life would be. Sounds awfully familiar to me. It’s in me. It’s in you. It’s in everyone. We ask God to fix it, to destroy what we don’t want in our lives, and we are miserable sometimes when the life we thought we should have is not there, and then we think that somehow it’s all a waste of time. “There’s nothing in it for me. Nothing’s being done for me.” It’s a disease we all have, an infection.
In the first reading, we hear the story of sin, and it goes like this: God invites people out of a life of blindness into a way of seeing, and he calls that a journey from slavery to freedom, because when you’re caught in a lie, you’re a slave to it. You’re not free to go against it. The insidious part of a lie can become the truth so easily. When a group of people believe in a lie, it becomes the truth, and you’re blinded to what’s real, what’s true. So we see these people getting caught in that, and all we see in God is compassion, understanding. He wants them to change, so he sends them message after message, and they not only stay in their blindness and in their lie, but they treat these messages with contempt and hatred. And they destroy themselves and the person who brings them and kills them. Then it says God became angry (which is really tricky because people would expect a God to be displeased, really displeased.) Now, they couldn’t understand a God who said, “Well, I’m still going to work with them and still going to try.” Well, then it’s as if he wasn't really against what they were doing. No, he wanted them to know that the lie has to be exposed, and so he’s angry. So he lets the lie take its course, and we know what happens. A culture, a way of life that goes from truth to lies, that lives in lies, is always going to self-destruct, and it does. What gets destroyed is the temple, which holds the Ten Commandments in the heart of it, as well as their wisdom. Somehow, their lifestyle ends up destroying even the existence of what is true and what is real about them and about life and about God. Then there are 70 years of slavery, of serving. What are 70 years? Well, let's say basically all the people who were really caught in that lie also have died. They haven’t lived necessarily in a world where they were in control. They’ve been slaves, so they’ve learned, perhaps, to be more docile, and God tries it again. And so he rebuilds the temple and gives them wisdom again. Notice the pattern.
Usually, when we’re in charge and we want life to be a certain way, and it’s not the way we want, we destroy everything and everyone we think is causing it not to be the way we want. We don’t know much about sin in human nature — at least not from Adam and Eve. We don’t know anything about their life, but we do know about the first human beings in the world, according to the book of Genesis, and what you see in them is that they had a disagreement. Cain didn’t like Abel being more giving, or God giving more praise to Abel than to Cain, and so he didn’t like it. He didn’t want it to be that way, and so what did he do? He killed him. It was very simple. When something isn’t right or someone causes something I don’t like, I kill him. You have to understand, that was a part of the pattern of the early years of Judeo Christianity. That was where people were. That’s a kind of primitive, lower-consciousness action. It’s about wanting to exist more than anything else, and I’ll do anything to protect my existence. And if my existence has to be the way I want it to be, then I have to get rid of anything that causes it to be not what I want, and I kill.
So then we look at the second reading, and we hear something about this God who is in the first part of the first reading, but if we look at that reading, it says very clearly that God is compassionate, that God looks on everything that we do and he doesn’t have the same reaction we do. His reaction to everything that is not as it should be is compassion and love, and Paul knows that, because he went through it himself. Paul was in blindness. He was persecuting people who believed in Jesus, holding garments while other people killed them, and he thought that was fine. He was in the lie, and Jesus comes to him and tells him how much he loves him and wants him to work for him. And it’s as if all of a sudden we realize that we are getting such a clear message about the New Testament. No, this God, when he’s incarnate in us, reveals fully who he is, which didn’t happen in the Old Testament. It’s not that God changed, but he couldn’t be who he ultimately is in order to deal with the people where they were. So what we see is that Jesus described himself as, “My only reaction to a sin, to a person who’s caught in a lie, is love, meaning I will not reject them and want them destroyed, and forgiveness. That’s all I offer, love and forgiveness, love and forgiveness.” He’s offering love to the lie that produces hate. And the most interesting thing about the lies we live is there is something deep inside us that keeps growing from generation to generation, called consciousness, and there is something of it in us. If we didn’t have it, we would have self-destructed. We would have never made it, and that is simply the idea that there’s something in us that knows the lie is a lie. And we hate ourselves for that lie. We hate ourselves for whom we’ve become, unconsciously, so if you think about it, if you hate yourself for who you are and then God comes along and says, “I hate you for who you are. I want to destroy what is in you that you want to destroy in other people. I want to be just like you,” which means that you, if you really are aware of your sin, have to think that, “Well, then if I am the sin and God hates it, then I’m going to be destroyed.” It’s a frightening thought. It’s like, “I don’t want to face the fact that I could be destroyed by God. I need to survive.” So it locks us in this vicious cycle and circle. It’s weird. So we see in the second reading the fullness of who God is and how he relates to us when we fail, when the world is not what he wanted it to be. In the early stories, he did want to destroy everything that wasn’t right. Does that mean that he’s grown and changed? No. He had to get their attention. He had to be someone like them.
Then we get to the gospel. Now, Nicodemus is a very interesting character, because Nicodemus was one of the Pharisees. And in the story we had, the normal story about the blind man, all the Pharisees were blind, but here comes Nicodemus. And he’s open, but he comes at night so as not to be seen. He knows. He knows somehow that Jesus is onto something, and he asks him, “What are you onto?” And Jesus tries to describe to him his work, and he’s saying — he doesn’t say these words, but I know he’s saying, “Well, my job is to give people a new beginning. I need them to see through all the lies they’re caught in that are causing them so much pain. If they could see the pain and know that I’m just there to relieve it. I’m not there to add any more pain to their lives. I just want them to be free, free of their bondage to this thing that keeps them from finding the path that their life is made for.” We’re made for love. We’re made for giving life, not for destroying. And so Jesus describes it this way. He says, “Well, you have to be reborn.” And what I think is so fascinating is his response: “Well, do I have to go back in my mother’s womb?” And Jesus said, “No, but you have to become a new creature, a new creation.” It’s almost like he’s saying, “When you came into the world, you did not have any lies in you, and you learned these lies from the people you lived with. You learned them from the culture you lived in. Go back and try to see who you really were when you came into the world, an innocent longing for love and anxious to engage in things, and you were mesmerized by the beauty of the things you saw.” He said, “Go back to that and start there, and then let me take you from there. Let me show you who you are. Let me invite you into a place where you will believe in that part of you that is often overshadowed by lies, that part of you that loves being in the disposition of not destroying life, but creating it, making it fuller, making it more than it’s supposed to be.” And what is that? That process is called enlightenment. It’s moving from the darkness of a lie to the lightness of the truth, and that is the heart of the work of this man, God, Jesus. It’s our work to receive this incredible gift of seeing and knowing and living and creating more and more life and to leave the illusion and the insanity of a world based on hate — on illusion. It’s such an incredible gift, and it’s there for anyone who is willing to see, just as that serpent was lifted up on the cross. That was the image of the sin that was destroying these people. It was a poison, their hatred of God, their disagreement with God, their wanting life to be different. If you look at what it is, how poisonous it is, you’ll be healed. That’s the mystery of the heart of the message of Jesus.
Father, your love, your understanding, your mercy, your grace, your unmerited love is the key for us to be freed from the trap that we’re so often in when we fear that we are not acceptable to ourselves or to you. Help us to know that our faults are nothing but our human nature, that your love sees the goodness that we often forget to see in ourselves. So bless us with insight into our goodness and the future we have when living in the truth, and we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.