After mass, a stranger approached the priest and said, “I’d like you to pray for my hearing.”
The priest placed his hands on the man’s ears and said a passionate, earnest prayer.
“How’s your hearing now?” He asked.
Looking surprised, the man said, “Well, it’s not until tomorrow.”
The priest, of course, thought the man was looking for a much different kind of miracle!
A couple of years ago I got up from bed and I was seeing brown designs floating across my eyes. I went to my ophthalmologist, who immediately sent me to an eye surgeon, telling me I needed to get there without delay.
I found out I had a torn retina. The cause was that the gel-like substance inside the eye shrinks and separates from the retina as a person ages, causing a tear— just another adventure in the delightful process of aging! He said it needed to be dealt with immediately and he gave me laser surgery. The laser basically burns around the edges of the tear so that it doesn’t continue the separation. He did the operation that day, and then a few weeks later did it some more. I was healed completely after the second time.
Thanks be to God! God healed me, for all healing comes from God. The eye surgeon, who happened to be a member of my parish, was known to be one of the best in the country. He’s God’s instrument of healing, and I give thanks to God for Dr. Niffenegger.
My healing was gradual. It started with my recognizing that I had a problem and then seeking help. Then I went to a well trained and talented surgeon, who basically brought about the healing over a few weeks in a two step process. I’ve had the blessing of sight ever since I was born, but that problem with my retina could have eventually ended up with my becoming blind.
In today’s Gospel, we heard the account of Jesus’ giving of sight to the man who was born blind. St. John gives a detailed description of the miracle: Jesus spat on the ground, made clay from the spittle, and smeared the clay on the man’s eyes. He then told the man to go and wash in the pool of Siloam, and after doing that the man was able to see.
Of course, our Lord could have simply said to the man, your sight is restored, and it would have been restored. Yet, in this healing, he goes to a lot of extra trouble.
It was believed in that day that spittle had curative properties, especially the spittle of a distinguished person. While we find such a notion to be unhygienic and superstitious, Jesus used a belief of his time to gain the confidence of his patient. Even doctors today know that the effectiveness of treatments of many illnesses depends, at least in part, upon patients’ beliefs in those treatments. On many occasions in which Jesus cured a person, he told that person, “Your faith has made you well.“
But there’s more to this miracle than simply the gift of sight. When first asked how he received his sight, the once blind man said, “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes.” So early on, he describes Jesus as “the man Jesus.” When questioned further by the Pharisees, as to Jesus’ identity, he said, “He is a prophet.”
The Pharisees were upset with Jesus, because he healed the man on the Sabbath. In other words, Jesus worked on the Sabbath, when the healing could have been done just as well on another day. By this time in his ministry, Jesus had done many things that upset the religious leaders, and so the supporters of Jesus were always in danger of being excommunicated, cut off from the faithful, prohibited from worshiping with the community.
When the man born blind continued to speak in defense of Jesus, he was excommunicated. After he had been cast out, which is the way John speaks of excommunication, Jesus sought him out, and told him that he was the Messiah. The man who had been given the gift of sight, then said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshipped him.
Thus, we really have heard about two miracles, one physical, the other spiritual, but both miracles are recalled basically for one purpose: that we might be cured of our spiritual blindness.
Unlike all of the characters in the story, we know the story from the other side of the resurrection. We have the benefit of the insight of countless generations of Christians who have gone before. And yet, we’re still as susceptible to spiritual blindness as people of any age or culture. We still are often blind to the needs of those around us. We’re blind to the fact that our own spiritual health depends upon our willingness to forgive. We’re blinded by prejudice toward and fear of others who are different from us. We’re blinded by the idea that happiness comes from acquiring money and things; we’re blinded by the temptation to believe that what we have and what we are belong to us by right, and not as gifts from God. And a host of other things. One way to state the goal of the Christian life is to be cured completely of our spiritual blindness.
In the 1700s, an Englishman by the name of John Newton was a slave merchant. He took African natives from their homeland and sold them to people in the American colonies. Newton became acquainted with three Anglican priests: George Whitefield, and John and Charles Wesley. As a result of their teaching and of his reading of Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, Newton was converted to Christianity. He gave up the slave trade, and eventually entered seminary, and became a priest himself.
You may not know the name John Newton, but you have memorized at least part of
one of his hymns. “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.”
Newton’s story is a story of conversion. For most of us conversion isn’t a one time occurrence, but a lifelong process. Throughout our lives, we need many conversions, many turnaround’s, and I suppose that’s why Lent comes around every year.
A great mystic once said, “Of what avail is the open eye, if the heart is blind?“ As God gave sight to the man born blind, as he renewed my sight, so he can cure us of a much more debilitating blindness—blindness of heart. You and I may be guilty of some blindness this past week, or of some blindness that lies deep within our personality. As always, Jesus offers us his forgiveness, and a new chance to learn more fully what it is to follow him as Lord.
No matter how hard we try; no matter how many sidewalk cracks we jump; no matter how many vitamins we take or risks we avoid, we will all end up in the wilderness at some point in our lives.
Some of you — maybe many or even most of you — know what I’m talking about. Whether you have encountered the deserts of chronic illness, or the valleys of broken relationships, or the ocean storms that threaten to sweep us away when life slips out of control — we know that these times can leave us feeling unmoored, alone, and afraid. And no matter what we do, no matter what we buy or what ends we will go to to distract ourselves, the horizon stretches out before us, with no oasis in sight.
Which begs the question: What hope do we have when we are lost in the wilderness?
In our OT lesson today, we hear just a snippet from the story of Israel’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land — and what we hear doesn’t sound good.
Less than a month had passed since the Hebrew people had left Egypt, weighed down with the riches of their enemies. Less than a month had passed since God had parted the Red Sea, so that all of Israel might be saved — and all of Pharaoh’s armies drowned. Less than a month had passed, and already the people of God doubted that the One who had redeemed them from slavery, the One who had called them into existence, cared for them or could care for them now.
All it took was a little bit of thirst. The people of Israel had just moved on from the wilderness of Sin and camped at Rephidim, where they quickly realized that there was just not enough water to go around. And so the people quarreled with Moses and grumbled against him, saying, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”
So Moses cried to the Lord: “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
And no wonder. The human heart so readily turns to anger when we are afraid; and God’s people were afraid. Bad as it had been in Egypt, they had known who they were, known their surroundings, known what they wanted. But now the Israelites walked a seemingly never-ending path of rock and sand and heat and struggle. The present, with all its troubles, loomed before them, taller than the mountains, vaster than the desert. The Israelites could not imagine a future, and they had forgotten their past. Hungry, thirsty, exhausted, and afraid, they were done waiting for paradise.
But God wasn’t done with them.
As the story unfolds we see what most of us would not be able to give: Mercy. Patience. Love. In the face of what wasn’t simply grumbling or quarreling — the Hebrew words used there have more of a sense of open rebellion and strife — God gave water to his people. “Behold,” he said to Moses, “I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.”
There, in the midst of the wilderness, God provided for his people — not according to their deserts, to use an old term, but according to his love.
Does that sound familiar to you?
This is an age-old story, the only True Story, we might say. For God proves his love for us, again and again, in that while we were still sinners, while we were still weak, he chose to save us. This is the Gospel. This is the good news. This is the water of life and the bread of heaven that will sustain us even when we suffer — because we will.
More than any other season in the church year, Lent reminds us that life is not all sunshine and roses. Every Ash Wednesday, we commit ourselves to following Jesus toward his crucifixion. We fall in behind and pick up our cross and begin (again!) the work of reckoning with the fact that our leader never sought the easy way out. He chose willingly to enter the wilderness of Sin that we might follow him to Paradise. And we won’t walk a different path. This is the way that leads there. God forms his people through the desert and in the valleys; he shapes us in the depths and in the heights. But he also waits for us. Guides us. Nourishes us.
As our Lord said to the woman at the well: “Everyone who drinks of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Our hearts may quake, our faith may fail. We will fall — and then get right back up again. For our God stands before us, the Rock of our Salvation, and the water he would give us can create a garden out of even the driest of ground. AMEN.
Nicodemus is a fascinating character. Nicodemus is a wealthy man. He’s a learned man, a man respected for his great religious knowledge. He’s a leader among the Jews. He’s one to whom people come for answers to deep religious questions.
As someone who knows a great deal about the faith, and unlike many of his friends, Nicodemus can’t simply dismiss Jesus as some religious nut who’s attracting crowds with false teachings. No, he secretly admires Jesus and sees in him something that he himself does not have. And he wants, very much, to have what apparently only Jesus has to offer. By all measures of success, Nicodemus has arrived. And yet, at the top of the proverbial heap, one can almost hear him asking himself, “Is this all there is?”
He has to talk with Jesus. But the “In” crowd, the circle of people in which Nicodemus moves, would surely disapprove greatly of his treating Jesus with anything but contempt. So he has to go to Jesus secretly, at night, under cover of darkness. After all, he has his reputation to protect.
Jesus knows what Nicodemus is up to. He knows that Nicodemus doesn’t have the courage to show his respect publicly. He could send him away with a proper rebuff: “Come back in the daylight and ask your questions, you hypocrite,” he could have said. But that isn’t Jesus’s way. He receives the man, as he is, lack of courage and all, because he perceives in him someone who is genuinely searching for truth.
Jesus doesn’t wait for Nicodemus to ask a question. He gets right to the heart of the matter: “Unless one is born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God.” “You’re wondering how you can have achieved so much. You have it all, Nicodemus—wealth, power, prestige—yet still there is a void in your life that makes everything else insignificant. You want that one added ingredient to your life that will make everything fall into place, give it all ultimate meaning.”
Nicodemus expected perhaps an elaboration on the meaning of the Ten Commandments, or an admonishment to give more money to the poor, or to say more prayers—something he could do to make his life meaningful.
The significance of Jesus’s answer was essentially, “You can do nothing to be a part of the kingdom of God. It is completely God’s doing. Just as you were born into this world through no effort on your part, so you are born into the kingdom of God through no effort on your part.”
And how does God bring about this new birth? Through baptism. At baptism we are reborn of water and the Spirit, for the Holy Spirit is given at baptism. One is, therefore, made a Christian at baptism. St. Augustine maintained that baptism marks the soul as the property of the Trinity and that even in the case of an apostate person—a person who has renounced his faith--that character remains just as the royal seal remains on a coin.
Here in the United States it’s not uncommon to be asked, “Are you a born-again Christian?” What is usually meant is, “Have you had an emotional experience in which you sensed the presence of God calling you to commit your life to him, and did you respond affirmatively to that experience? Furthermore, was that experience so strong that you date the beginning of your Christian life from that point?
We Episcopalians as a rule are uncomfortable with that kind of theology and terminology, just as we are uncomfortable with the same kind of question, “Are you saved?” So when someone asks the average Episcopalian, “Are you a born-again Christian, a not uncommon response is, “Why, no, I’m an Episcopalian.” The person who asked the question then believes that what he thought all along about Episcopalians is true and either goes about trying to convert a newly-discovered pagan or takes his leave quickly.
To talk about a born-again Christian is to be redundant. It’s like saying, “I’m a flesh and blood human being.” A person is born anew through water and the Spirit, in baptism. So look up the date of your baptism, memorize it, and the next time someone asks you if you’re a born again Christian you can say, emphatically, “yes,” and give that person the date.
Yet, while baptism does give a person rebirth in the Spirit, it still is only a beginning of a life lived totally in devotion to Christ. The non-Christian, living without Christ, has an excuse, in a sense, for living a self-centered life. The Christian, on the other hand, should live a life worthy of this new birth given at baptism. What does that look like? It means not doing what comes naturally, for one thing. When you have an urge to look at some pornography, a growing problem in our society, you don’t do it because it is not worthy of the newly-born creature in Christ. When you are drawn to cheat on your wife or husband, even when the chances seem slim that you’ll be caught, you don’t do it because of your new-born status. In the old life of sin that might be done, but not in the new life of grace. It means constantly learning about one’s faith—reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting Holy Scripture. It means putting our Sunday obligation at the top of the list of obligations in life. It means spending time with God in prayer daily. All of these things we do, not in order to inherit the kingdom of God, for we inherited the kingdom at baptism, but in order to reflect that new reality into which we have been born anew.
The sad fact of the matter is that Christians can all too often identify with Nicodemus, asking ourselves, “Is this all there is?,” finding little real meaning in our lives. When this is the case, we have not surrendered everything to Christ. We may be doing a host of right things—saying our prayers, attending church faithfully, giving sacrificially—but it still isn’t really life-changing. We think we want what Christ has to offer us, but we also want to maintain a style of life that isn’t completely Christian. And then we wonder why our lives are not completely blessed.
William Sloane Coffin writes, in Sermons from Riverside, 1987: “…all of us are like Nicodemus most of the time. When we find ourselves in distress, and when we seek guidance, we think we want to change. In fact, we want to remain the same, but to feel better about it. In psychological terms, we want to be more effective neurotics. We prefer the security of known misery to the misery of unfamiliar insecurity.” Similarly, Diettrich Bonhoeffer said, “The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.”
Apparently Nicodemus continued to follow Jesus, although probably always secretly. You may remember that Joseph of Arimathea provided a tomb for Jesus’s body. What you may not remember is that Nicodemus brought for Jesus’s burial about one hundred pounds of spices to be bound up with the linen cloths, which was a Jewish burial custom.
Lent is a time, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, when we examine our consciences and seek by God’s grace, to live more nearly into the reality of the new life we were given in baptism. May this Lent be such a time for us all.