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Sunday, 3 April 2011

Can you see?

This is a very splendid story in John's Gospel, although it's rather long, which is why I divided the reading into two bits. It's not just about a healing, it's about what happened afterwards.

We start with the man born blind, and first of all the disciples want to know why this had happened. We all want to know why, don't we, when dreadful things happen. Why was this child born disabled? Why did that earthquake and tsunami devastate part of Japan? Or part of New Zealand, for that matter? Why did so and so get cancer? Why did so and so get cancer and then get better, when someone else couldn't get better, and died? And so on and so forth. It's human nature. Even though we sometimes know the answers, or at least part of them – that city was built on a fault line, which is why the earthquake happened just there; that person shortened their lifespan by smoking. And so on. But other times there seems to be no reason for it.

And so the disciples ask Jesus whether the man's blindness was some kind of punishment for him, or for his parents. I wonder if the parents were asking, too: “Why us? What did we do wrong?”

But Jesus said no, it wasn't anything like that, but to show how he, Jesus, is the Light of the World. And he proceeds to heal the man.

Now, all the Gospels tell of Jesus healing a blind man, sometimes called Bartimaeus, but this is the only one that takes it further, and looks at the consequences. You see, after all, if your life is touched by Christ there are, or should be, consequences. If nothing changes, was it a real touch?

For the blind man – and let's call him Bartimaeus for now, as it makes life easier with pronouns and such – life changed immediately. My sister-in-law, who is blind, says that not only would he have been given his sight, but he would have been given the gift of being able to see, otherwise how would he have known what he was looking at? He wouldn't have known whether what he was looking at was a person or a camel or a tree, would he? But he was given the gift, so he knew.

And he could stop begging for his living, he realised, and he went and did whatever the local equivalent of signing-on was. And, of course there were lots of mutterings and whisperings – Is it him? Can't be! Must be someone new in town, who just looks like him!

“Yes, it's me,” explains Bartimaeus, anxious to tell his story. “Yes, I was blind, and yes, I can see now!”

“So what happens?” asks the neighbours.

“Well, this bloke put some mud on my eyes and told me to go and wash, and when I did, then I could see. No, I don't know where he is – I never saw him; Yes, I'd probably know his voice, but I didn't actually see him!”

And the neighbours, thinking all this a bit odd, drag him before the Pharisees, the religious authorities of the day. And they don't believe him. Not possible. Nobody born blind gets to see, it just doesn't happen. And if it did, it couldn't happen on the Sabbath. Not unless the person who did it was a sinner, because only a sinner would do that on the Sabbath – it's work, isn't it? And if the person who did it was a sinner, it can't have happened!

They got themselves in a right old muddle. Now we, of course, know what Jesus' thoughts about healing on the Sabbath day were – he is on record elsewhere as pointing out that you'd rescue a distressed donkey, or, indeed, lead it to the horse-trough to get a drink, whatever day of the week it was, so surely healing a human being was a right and proper activity for the Sabbath. But the Pharisees didn't believe this. They thought healing was work, and thus not a proper activity for the Sabbath at all.

So they decided it couldn't possibly have happened, and sent for Bartimaeus's parents to say “Now come on, your son wasn't really blind, was he? What has happened?” And his parents, equally bewildered, say “Well yes, he is our son; yes, he was born blind; yes, it does appear that he can now see; no, we don't know what happened; why don't you ask him?” And the Bible tells us they were also scared of being expelled from the synagogue, which is why they didn't say anything more.

Actually, they must have had a fearful mixture of emotions, don't you think – thrilled that their son could suddenly see, scared of the authorities, wondering what exactly Jesus had done, and was it something they ought to have done themselves, and so on. And, of course, wondering how life was going to be from now on. Very soon now, their son probably wouldn't need them any more; now he was like other people, he could, perhaps, earn a proper living and even marry and have a family.

So the authorities go back to Bartimaeus, and he says, “Well, how would I know if the person who healed me is a sinner or not? All I know is that I was blind, and now I can see!” And then they asked him again, well, how did it happen, and he gets fed up with them going on and says “But I told you! Didn't you listen? Or maybe you want to be his disciples, too?” which was, of course, rather cheeky and he deserved being told off for it, but then again, I expect he was still rather hyper about having been healed. And he does go on rather and tells them that the man who opened his eyes must be from God, can't possibly not be, and they get even more fed up with him, and sling him out.

And then Jesus meets him again – of course Bartimaeus, not having seen him before, doesn't actually recognise him – and reveals himself to him. And Bartimaeus worships him.

Then Jesus, the Light of the World, says that he has come so that the blind may see, and those who see will become blind – looking hard at the Pharisees as he said it. The Pharisees are horrified: “What, are we blind, then?”

And Jesus says, “If you acknowledged that you were blind, you, too, could be healed. But but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains!”

That's the thing, isn't it – the Pharisees wouldn't admit they needed Jesus. They wouldn't admit there was anything wrong. Jesus has picked up on this before – you remember the story he told about the Pharisee and the tax-collector, and the Pharisee was too pleased with himself to be able to receive God's grace. The tax-collector knew he was a rat-bag, and thus God could do something.

We know that bit. We know that we need to acknowledge our need of God before God can act – we must make room for God in our lives. But when we have done that, and God has touched us, in whatever way, things change. For Bartimaeus, it was about learning to live with his sight, and about dealing with the issues that it raised.

I wonder what it is for us. For make no mistake, my friends, when God touches our lives, things change. Sometimes it is our behaviour which changes – perhaps we used to get drunk, but now we find ourselves switching to soft drinks after a couple of glasses. Perhaps we used to gamble, but suddenly realise we haven't so much as bought a Lottery ticket for weeks, never mind visiting a bookie! Perhaps we used to be less than scrupulous about what belongs to us, and what belongs to our employer, but now we find ourselves asking permission to use an office envelope.

Very often these sorts of changes happen without our even noticing them. Others take more struggle – sometimes it is many years before we can finally let go of an addiction, or a bad habit. But as I've said before, the more open we are to God, the more we can allow God to change us. Sometimes, of course, we cling on to the familiar bad habits, as we don't know how to replace them with healthier ways of acting and thinking, and that's scary.

But the point is, when God touches our lives, things change. They changed for Bartimaeus, I know they changed for me, and they will have changed for many of you, if not all of you, too.

But it's easy to fall out of the habit of allowing God to touch you and change you. I know I have, many times. The joy of it is, though, that we can always come back. We aren't left alone to fend for ourselves – we would always fail if we were. We just need to acknowledge to ourselves – and to God, of course, but God knew, anyway – that we've wandered away again.

That's a bit simplistic, of course – there are times when we are quite sure we haven't wandered away, and yet God seems far off. But I'm not going into that one right now; nobody really knows why that happens, except God! But for most of us, most of the time, if we fall out of the habit of allowing God to touch us and heal us and change us, we simply have to acknowledge that this is what has happened, and we are back with him again.

It can be scary. Bartimaeus was scared, and with some reason as his healing ended up with his being chucked out of the synagogue. That was relatively mild compared with what has happened to some of Jesus' followers down the years, though. But then, we are always given the strength and the ability to cope with whatever comes. We don't have to cope alone. God is there, not only changing us, but enabling us to cope with that change. And we are changed and grown, and God gets the glory! Because it's not just about what happens to us – although, human as we are, that's the bit we think about most. It's also about showing God's glory to the world, showing people that Jesus is the Light of the World. As happened when Bartimaeus was healed; as may well happen if and when God touches our lives. Amen.

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