The Unnamed, X: The Man Who’d Never Seen a Blessed Thing
During Epiphany and Lent this year we're preaching a sermon series called The Unnamed. It’s about all the important characters in the biblical story who don’t get a name including this story in John chapter 9. As you heard last week from Christine's sermon, John tells beautiful stories but he's a little prolix, he tells long stories. The lesson today is 41 versus long, 857 words, so I'm going to tell you the story in my own words.
In2004 Jamie Foxx won the Academy Award for Best Actor as Ray Charles in the film Ray. “Ain’t nobody gonna have pity on ya because you’re blind,” says Aretha Robinson to her son Ray Charles.
Ain’t that the truth. At the beginning of the film, a bus driver refuses to pick up a Black man until Ray tells him he left his eyeballs on Omaha Beach.
“Ain’t nobody gonna have pity on ya because you’re blind.” Well, sometimes someone will have pity on the blind. One day as Jesus and his disciples are making their way through the teeming streets of Jerusalem at Festival Time, a blind beggar with a tin cup pleads for a quarter so he can buy a sandwich.
Instead Jesus spits in the dirt, takes the lump of mud in his hand, and spreads it across the blind man’s eyes like a healing salve that today comes out of a tube you get from the ophthalmologist.
Want to gross out a bunch of teenagers? Just tell this story to a confirmation class. But I always tell the kids it’s like when your mom gets a facial. They smear mud all over her face and put cucumber slices on her eyes.
Now the beggar is not only blind but filthy, but not to worry; Jesus tells him to go wash in a pool called Siloam. The beggar does, and—voilà!—for the first time in his life—he was born blind, you see; he’s never seen a blessed thing—for the first time in his life, he can see his mother’s face, a sunset, the resplendent gilt of the Jerusalem Temple, and the miracle of his own hands. “Ain’t nothin’ free in this world but Jesus,” says Aretha Robinson to her son Ray Charles.
This story teaches us that sometimes the blind can see better than the sighted. It shows the growing enlightenment of the apparently blind and the increasing benightedness of the apparently sighted.
There they stand—face to face—the blind beggar and the 20/20 Pharisees. As their antagonistic interrogation intensifies, his unlettered confession amplifies. As they fall further and further into darkness, he walks ever forward into the lux mundi, Jesus Christ, the Light of the world.
“Who healed you?” they demand. “A man named Jesus,” is his first answer. That’s not really much information. They already knew that. So they ask him again: “Who healed you? He did it on the Sabbath so he can’t possibly be any good.”
This time the man answered not “A man named Jesus,” but “He is a prophet.” But this is not the answer they were looking for either. Jesus doesn’t look like any prophet they know anything about.
They ask a third time, “How can somebody who breaks the Sabbath heal the blind?” He says, “I don’t know; all I know is that once I was blind and now I see.” In other words, not just “A man named Jesus,” not even just “A prophet,” but “A Miracle Man.” “Once I was blind and now I see.”
They still press the point: “How did he heal you?” The blind beggar gets a little sassy: “Look, I’ve told you already, and you wouldn’t believe me. Do you too want to be his disciples?” In other words, “The lady doth protest too much methinks,” as Gertrude tells Hamlet.
In other words, “I don’t know who this guy is but he’s a lot bigger than you bozo’s.” That’s not an exact translation but it’ll do. And then of course their patience finally snaps and they excommunicate him from the synagogue, and then Jesus, who’s been absent from this whole long middle part of the story, reappears.
And then the blind beggar lets loose with the most extravagant confession of them all: “Rabbi, you are the Son of Man.” That is to say, “You are the prototypical man, you are unfallen humanity, you are what all of us were intended to be. You come from God.” John is tracing for us the thickening cataracts of the apparently sighted and the waxing enlightenment of the apparently blind. From ‘Jesus,’ to ‘Prophet,’ to ‘Healer,’ to ‘Son of Man.’
Isn’t it amazing how much the blind can see? Blind poet Homer wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey with such perfect, pictorial poetry that Achilles is more vivid and brave and handsome in the written text than buff Brad Pitt on the silver screen in the film Troy.
Homer’s genius is why the film is only okay: you can’t get more photographic than Homer, you can’t get more physical than Homer, you can’t get more kinetic than Homer, who couldn’t see.
Or if you’ve no taste for Homer, how about Drew Brees? Pity poor Purdue, but the Boilermakers have made important contributions to the world of sport. Drew Brees is first or second all-time in every important quarterback statistic. When Drew Brees is not first, guess who is.
This happened a long time ago when he was playing for the San Diego Chargers. Every day after practice, he talked a fourth-string receiver into staying on the field at the end of practice at dusk long after the other players had hit the showers, and Drew Brees stands there at the 50-yard line and sends the receiver on pass patterns into the end zone and lofts soft spirals straight to the receiver’s hands, perfect pass after perfect pass, didn’t matter that the sun was down and it was getting dark, because, as the receiver later discovered, Drew Brees was throwing every pass with his eyes closed. Fifty yards! Have you ever tried to hit a moving target at 50 yards with a football? Now try it with your eyes closed.
Says Drew Brees, “It’s taught me that even if you can’t see, that doesn’t mean you don’t have vision.” There’s a difference between sight and vision, right?
Michael Hingson was working on the 78th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, when he heard and felt a deafening, shaking explosion. The first plane crashed into the North Tower between the 93rd and 99th floors, 15 floors above Michael’s office. The tower swayed 12 inches before it righted itself back to vertical.
Like me, Michael takes his dog to work. She was sleeping under his desk when the first plane hit. Her name was Roselle. They called her The Thunder Dog because she was terrified of thunder. It was the only thing she was scared of.
Michael always took his dog to work because, like the man in John’s story, he has been blind from birth. He’s never seen a blessed thing. He was born prematurely; they put too much oxygen in his incubator.
Roselle led Michael down 78 flights of stairs to the plaza below. There were 20 stairs between each floor. At about a second per step, it took Michael and Roselle a little over 20 minutes to get to the street.
There was a steady stream of people fleeing the tower that day. Obviously, there were no windows in that tower stairwell. When someone asked, “What do we do if the building loses power and the lights go out?” Michael said, “Don’t worry! Roselle will get us out.” The blind leading the seeing.
Michael and Roselle were walking away from the plaza when the South Tower fell. They started running, but they and everyone around them were covered with a thick coat of dust. The air was opaque with powder. You couldn’t see a thing.
One woman was so terrified she was weeping. She said, “I can’t see. I don’t want to fall into a subway stairwell.” Michael said, “Here, take my arm. Roselle will keep us safe.” Can you see the tableau? A sighted woman taking the arm of a blind man?
Who is blind and who can see? Was Ray Charles blind? Ray Charles who sang Georgia on My Mind and then refused to perform it there at a segregated theater, or the Georgia authorities who shunned him for his audacity?
“Who is this guy? Where does he come from? How did he heal you?” the Pharisees ask the blind beggar. And the blind beggar just says, “I don’t know. One thing only I know: that once I was blind, but now I see.” Where do you think John Newton got the language for his famous hymn: “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see”?
What do you see because of him? Did you think once that you were entitled to the multiple serendipities with which the path of your life is littered, and then were your eyes opened to the fact that it’s all grace and it’s all splendid gift, and the only fitting response is to fall on your knees to choir the proper praise?
Do you say, “Once my world was so small I thought I was the center of it and all other sentient creatures were satellites orbiting my existence, but now because of him I see that I’m here to live for others.”
“Once I was bored and boring, but now my hours shine and dance.”
“Once I was lonely and despairing and stumbling around in the darkness of a living death, but now I live, now I really live.” What do you see because of him?
Lee Jenkins, “Brees Opens Many Eyes, Partly by Closing His,” The New York Times, January 7, 2005.
From the book Thunder Dog, by Michael Hingson and Susan Flory (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011).
*You may use these prayers for non-commercial purposes in any medium, provided you include a brief credit line with the author’s name (if applicable) and a link to the original post.