Our LONG Gospel reading one of the richest and most important stories in the Gospel of John. But I want to start this morning is with our Old Testament reading.
It’s about Samuel, the great prophet of his generation. God commissions Samuel to go to Bethlehem to anoint as Israel’s king one of the sons of Jesse.
But which son? When Samuel sees Eliab, the eldest son, Samuel assumes he is the one. Eliab just looked like a king. But God says no, Eliab isn’t the one. Jesse’s other sons come forward one after another, but God hasn’t chosen any of them either. Finally, Samuel asks Jesse if he has any more sons. There is one more, the youngest, the one Jesse didn’t even consider as a candidate for king. His name is David, and he becomes the greatest king in Israel’s history as well as the namesake for our patron saint.
As an eldest son, I have always felt sorry for Eliab who has to bow before their youngest brother.
But this year, for the first time, it occurred to me that God didn’t have to do it this way. God could have told Samuel up front which son to anoint. God didn’t do that. Why not? Why did God just tell Samuel it would be one of Jesse’s sons and force them all to go through the process of figuring out which one? What’s the lesson here?
I think God wanted Samuel to know that, as Terry said last week, you can’t judge a book by its cover. God was reminding Samuel, and teaching us, that “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they [we] look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
God does not see the same way we are inclined to see. We are routinely blinded by the outward appearance of things and so fail to see the heart of the matter, the deeper truths under the surface, the place where God works.
That lesson from the Old Testament reading is also the lesson from our Gospel.
It starts with a man born blind, a man who literally cannot see. Jesus heals the blind man, and the whole town goes berserk. The crowd can’t believe it’s the same man. Or maybe it is the same man, but he wasn’t really blind before. They interview him. They interview his parents. They interview him again. Nobody can make sense of what has happened.
The Pharisees in particular are totally bumfuzzled. Remember that they are the religious elite of the day, the scholars and teachers. In theory, the Pharisees should be the ones helping others to understand what God is doing here.
But the Pharisees can’t make sense of it any more than the ordinary people. A miracle has clearly happened. But the Pharisees insist that Jesus cannot be from God, that Jesus must be a sinner. Why else would Jesus have healed a man on the Sabbath? The Pharisees are blind to what has just happened and even more blind to the reality of the person standing before them.
Not so the formerly blind man. He held on to one simple fact: “If [Jesus] were not from God, he could do nothing.” The man’s last words to Jesus were, “Lord, I believe.”
It turns out, the man born blind really does see. He can see in the literal sense that he is no long blind. But he can also see in the deeper sense that God was teaching Samuel about, the deeper sense that the Pharisees were blind to. He can see beyond the surface appearance of things. He can see God in the man standing there in front of him.
This is a story about blindness and learning to see as God sees.
So, how about us? How well do we see? How well do we see the deepest truth of God’s presence all around us? How well do we see God in the people we meet? How well do we see beneath outward appearance to the heart of all things?
My own experience is not exactly like the people in our Gospel reading. I’m not totally blind like the Pharisees, but my vision certainly isn’t perfect either.
As in our story, I begin with literal sight.
A couple of weeks ago, I had my first eye exam in several years. It didn’t go well. At one point, the technician put this big machine in front of my face that was supposed to figure out if I needed new glasses. She put up a chart of letters, and asked what the was the lowest line on the chart that I could read. When I told her I couldn’t read any of them, she gave a startled gasp. Clearly it was time for new glasses.
I didn’t think to ask exactly how bad my eyes had gotten. But when I got new glasses this week, I realized the answer was, bad. It is only a slight exaggeration to say, “I was blind, but now I see.”
When I first got my old glasses seven years ago, I could see clearly. Over the years, my vision got worse, much worse it turns out. But the decline happened so slowly that I never noticed, not until I was checked.
I think for many of us that’s how our spiritual vision develops, too, in both directions.
For some people, there is a dramatic moment when they are touched by the Spirit and their eyes are suddenly opened to the reality of God in their lives. They go straight from blindness to full sight. But for me, the process has always been slow.
As a young adult, my spiritual sight grew gradually dimmer and dimmer, although I didn’t recognize that at the time. Looking back, I can see that I turned away from God. I became more self-absorbed. Ironically, like the Pharisees in our reading, I also became more and more sure of my own insight and wisdom.
Thankfully, God turned me around and got me moving in a better direction. God opened my eyes and helped me to see a little better. But that process has been slow, too. It’s still slow, slow enough that I don’t notice the improvement any more than I noticed the decline.
And, complicating matters, the movement has not all been in one direction. For a time, I’ll see God better. Then not as clearly. Then a little better again. And so on. My guess is, most of you can identify with that back and forth movement.
In Lent, the Church invites us to self-examination. That self-examination is like a spiritual eye exam.
I invite you to focus (pun intended!) on self-examination this week. Ask yourself how well you are seeing these days. Are you seeing beneath the surface of things to the heart that is God’s presence, as Samuel learned to do? Can you, like the blind man in our Gospel reading, see Christ who is with us always? Or are you a little more stuck with the outward appearance and unable to see the hand of God at work in the world around us?
For all of us, the answer is likely to be a mix of both.
But seeing better starts with the recognition that we are at least partially blind, that we need God’s help to see. So end your self-examination with thanksgiving for the sight you have and a prayer that God will continue to strengthen your eyes.
That is my prayer for all of us: that Christ will help us to see God better all the time and in every place. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan