Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sermon for Lent IV

Christ the King, Normal--John 9:1-41, I Samuel 16:1-13, Ephesians 5:1-14

While I was in college, unlike many of my contemporaries, I never really lost the Christian faith in which I was raised. I struggled with it, and rearranged it, and it ended up in a package very different from what I might have imagined when entered college, but I never lost it. And I also never lost my sense of duty to share that faith, to talk about it—at the appropriate time and place—to those whose lives mine might touch. One day, after flying back to southern California from an academic recess of one sort or another, I found myself on a Greyhound bus en route from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. Seated next to me was a woman just a few years older than I was. We started to talk, and I inwardly groaned because she was giving off all the signals of someone in a state of real spiritual flux—definitely in a “teachable moment,” we might say—ripe to hear the good news of God’s love in Christ.

Yet, I felt utterly unequal to the task. I wished I had sat next to somebody else who only wanted to talk about sports or politics or the weather—anything except the deep issues of the meaning of life and how human beings ought to behave. I was too unsure of the answers myself. A year or two earlier, or a year or two later, I might have been more confident, but at that moment, there were way too many intellectual loose ends floating around in my brain. I didn’t have a coherent grasp of the gospel—at least, not one that I thought could stand up under the rigorous questions she would no doubt hurl my way. It wasn’t fair of God to put me in this position. Couldn’t He have warned me in a dream, or something? Maybe I could have read just the right book on the plane out from Chicago, one that would have prepared me to answer any question she might ask, any objection she might pose.

Many Christians, I suspect, have felt the same way when confronted with a similar situation. The obligation to bear witness—in word, at least, if not in deed—the obligation to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ ought to be restricted to those who have been thoroughly trained and tested; it’s way too important to leave to amateurs! After all, a lawyer has to pass a grueling bar exam before being allowed to represent a client in a courtroom. And the military doesn’t let just anybody take an F-16 fighter jet up for a joyride—you have to be rigorously trained and certified. Why should speaking up on behalf of the gospel be subject to any less exacting standards?

Well, such reasoning makes a certain amount of sense, from a human perspective—but, apparently, not to God. In the economy of the Kingdom of Heaven, the ruling norm is on-the-job training! We learn to bear effective witness to Christ—both in deed and in word—we learn to bear witness to Christ by just doing it. Sure, there is training available, and lots of help along the way. But, bottom line, we learn it by doing it. And when we stop and think about it, that’s really more the rule than the exception in just about every area of life, isn’t it? Practicing law and flying fighter jets are exceptional categories. Even doctors learn by practicing on real patients while they’re still in medical school. So there was no convenient and honorable way out for me as concerned my obligation to my seatmate on the Greyhound bus forty-something years ago. I don’t know whatever became of her; we didn’t exchange addresses or phone numbers, and I never saw her again. But I did speak honestly to her of my own faith, and my own personal relationship with God in Christ. What effect that witness had on her, I will never know. But I was faithful to my duty—however inept and inadequate my words undoubtedly were.

And this business of on-the-job training for Christian witness should not surprise us the least bit, if we are familiar with the ways of God. Back in the days of ancient Israel, when the first experiment with having a king turned out to be a dud, the LORD spoke to the prophet Samuel and told him to go to the house of Jesse the Bethlehemite and anoint one of Jesse’s sons to replace the hapless King Saul. The LORD would show Samuel which one it was to be at the proper moment. Jesse parades the most likely candidates in from of Samuel first, but Samuel doesn’t get the spiritual “thumbs up” on any of them. The voice of God tells him, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart."  Now Samuel was a wise and mature, highly-trained, very intelligent individual. Yet, none of those assets were of any avail to him in the critical moment of anointing the next king of Israel. He just needed to listen, and obey. That’s all.

We see the same principle operating even more dramatically in the rich and profound narrative of the healing of the man born blind as we find it in St John’s gospel. Jesus met and healed an adult man who had been blind from the day of his birth, and could eke out a living only by begging. When his friends and neighbors saw him, they couldn’t believe their own eyes, and when they asked him what had happened, he responded very directly, “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes, and now I can see.” He didn’t take courses or get personal coaching in order to say this. He didn’t try to “package” or “spin” his story. He was a little na├»ve, though, because, as events unfolded, he was put under a lot more pressure before everything was said and done. The Jewish authorities, who were already feeling threatened by Jesus’ popularity, decided to make hay out of the fact that this act of healing was performed on the Sabbath, when work was forbidden by Jewish law. It’s quite significant that, when they interrogated the man on what had happened, Jesus is nowhere to be seen! We might have expected him to show up on the man’s behalf, and speak for himself—defend his own actions. The formerly blind man is on his own. No one bails him out. He is in a position of being called on to bear witness to his relationship with Jesus and what Jesus has done for him, and he’s learning his witness-bearing skills on the job, in the very moment they are needed. At first, he is tentative. He just gives the facts—hoping, perhaps, that they will then leave him alone to enjoy his new life of being able to see. But they turn the screws, and after questioning his parents, they put it to him again. “Come on,” they say, “This guy Jesus is a low-life, a sinner. How could he possibly have given you your sight?” But the healed man rises to the challenge, matching the intensity of the Pharisees’ questions with the incisiveness of his responses: "Whether he is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see." Finally, he is so bold that he virtually takes over the interview, and puts the Pharisees on the defensive:
I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you too want to become his disciples… You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.  We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if any one is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.  Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind.  If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.
What a long way this guy has come—from a simple statement of the facts, to a penetrating analysis of the Pharisees’ spiritual condition—and all from purely on-the-job training! Then, and only then, does Jesus reappear in the story, revealing himself more fully, and confirming the man’s faith. But I think it’s fair to speculate that such a consoling encounter was made possible only by the manifest faith and obedience expressed in the man’s witness-bearing in front of the Jewish authorities.

When it comes to guidance and assistance in witness-bearing situations, apparently, God employs a “just in time” method of inventory control. He doesn’t give us more than we can use in advance of the need. He supplies the need at just the right moment. If we put off bearing witness to Christ until we feel fully equipped to do so, we will wait a long time! We will be trapped in our muteness. Meanwhile, we will become more and more anxious and discouraged and feel more and more guilty. The gospel itself—in the story of the man born blind, prefigured in Samuel’s recognition of David as the next king of Israel—the gospel itself provides us with the means to open the doors of our own prison. When we decide to “just do it,” two beautiful things happen. First, we learn to trust that Christ is present even when he is unseen, and we begin to experience that presence. This is the gist of the proverb St Paul quotes to the Ephesians: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, for Christ will give you light.” Second, we are available to him on a moment’s notice, ready to declare in word and deed the saving love of God in Jesus Christ. That, after all, is our job. Amen.

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