John 9:24-34 (New Revised Standard Version)
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
This morning we kick off the first Sunday in Lent by diving into a mini-series titled, "Songs of Faith," that uses hymns you submitted. The first of these hymns that we will look at is "Amazing Grace," which was written by John Newton...
John Newton, who was an English poet and Anglican clergyman, penned the words to this beloved hymned in 1779. For being such a well-known hymn, you would think that John Newton was a deeply religious man, but he really didn't come to grasps with his faith until later in his adult life. Newton had been conscripted into the Royal Navy, and after leaving the service, he found work in the growing Atlantic slave trade. It was during one of his voyages that a violent storm battered his ship, and it caused such tremendous damage that it led Newton to cry out to God asking for mercy. Newton would remain in the slave trade for a few more years until he left to study theology and later work as one of England's most well-known abolitionist. The words, "I was blind, but now I see," held new meaning for Newton, who considered himself a lost soul during his years as a slave trader.
Grace allows our eyes to be opened to new possibilities… Grace allows us to see beyond the chaos, beyond uncertainty, hate, and anger and lets us catch a glimpse of what it means to live in the Kingdom of God. This is the grace that carried John Newton to the point in his life where he heard the call of God. This is the grace that the blind man felt when Jesus restored his sight. This is the grace we are called to embrace and share with those around us because this grace is liberating, this grace is what gives us strength, this is the grace that enables us to go on day after day after day. This is the grace that feeds our souls.
As much as we need to seek out the grace that feeds our souls, we also need to be aware of the things that we consume, that prevent us from obtaining the grace that is liberating and freeing… Because there are things that get in the way of grace, the grace that we receive and the grace that we give as well. So what are the many dangers, toils, and snares for you in your life? What are the things that keep you from being in the presence of the amazing grace that flows from the throne of God? It can be bitterness… It can be anger that things didn't go the way you wanted them to… It can be a grudge that we refuse to let go of, it can be a longing for a time that has long since come and gone. These are just some of the many dangers, toils, and snares that we need to overcome to be in a state of being where we can connect fully with the love and grace that comes from God.
At the beginning of this section of the Gospel of John, we find Jesus crossing paths with the man who was blind. And there were those, who like us, blamed the man for his own suffering. But once again, we find that Jesus breaks our expectations, our understanding of how the world works. After hearing the words of those who were standing around Jesus said that no one can be blamed for the man's blindness and he adds that the man in front of them had been born blind "so that God's works might be revealed in him." If we aren't careful, we'll end up on the side that blames others for things that are out of our control. If we aren't careful, we'll find that instead of being on the side of righteousness, we'll be on the side of self-indignation. Grace will catch us by surprised whenever Jesus is involved, because grace is extended in ways that go beyond our sense of what is right and wrong, what is just, and unjust.
The man who was healed in this morning's reading had his sight restored after Jesus had spit into some mud and rubbed it on the man's eyes. And after his sight is restored, he walks around, and people don't recognize him at first… Some people ask if this was the same man who begged outside, to which the formerly blind man replied, "Yep, I'm that man." And that brings us to the reading today where this man who was healed was being interrogated by the Pharisees. But the man who was healed by Jesus didn't get swept up into their speculation about theology and politics. All this man knew is that Jesus restored his sight and that all he could say was, "One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." This is the kind of grace that God offers, but it's also the kind of grace we wrestle with as we know that we are only human beings who have a complicated relationship with grace as people who want to receive it freely but give it stingily.
This is something that we struggle with… As much as we may rationally, in our heads, know that we need to let go of the things that get in the way of grace, we have a habit of clinging onto hurts, onto feelings of anger, and we refuse to let go of these things even though we know they need to be cast away in order for us to be free. This is what caught the Pharisees off guard as they talked with the man whom Jesus healed. They couldn't get over the thought of a someone who they thought was a sinner being reconciled… They couldn't get over the idea that God speaks to us in different ways… They were so caught up in their own self-image that they refused to hear the words of grace, the words of compassion and love, that came from the blind man's testimony and the retelling of his encounter with Jesus. Just like the Pharisees we too are guilty of refusing to hear the story of amazing grace, because it doesn't fit our mold, it doesn't conform to what we want, and so, in the end, we end up feeling nothing but frustrated and angry.
When we reach the point of feeling like we can't feel the grace of God, because of the hurdles of life that keep getting in our way, I can't help but think of the rest of that verse that John Newton penned, Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come. T'was grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead us home. We've all be in place of the Pharisees who refused to acknowledge the grace of God, and we have all been in the place of the blind man who needed grace, and as we have walked through life experiencing both of these things we can find solace and comfort in the fact that whether we know it or not, God's grace is the thing that brings us to where it is we need to be. Through all of the dangers of life, grace is there, through all of the toils, grace is there, through all of the snares, grace is there to set us back on the path we need to be on and allow us to see God working in the world around us.
In the reading for today, we are challenged to look for how the hand of God is working our lives. All you have to do is listen again to the testimony of the man who was once blind, "One thing I know, I was blind, but now I see." This is what scared the Pharisees and what scares us because when God gets involved, we are no longer in control, and for that reason, there was a price to pay. For those of us who refuse to welcome in the grace of God that opens our eyes, we will find that we are poorer for it. When we turn our backs on love and compassion, when we hold onto bitterness and petty grudges, we will find that our spirits are not as filled as they could have been. The price of not paying attention to the grace-filled work of God is pretty high.
During this Season of Lent, perhaps we should try to set aside some time to allow our hearts to get attuned with the movement of God in the world around us. Grace may be the catalyst that nourishes the ground that makes way for new and good things to grow within your soul. It may be grace that gives you permission to work through the tougher things in life and ask hard questions of God and of yourself, it may be grace that allows you to let go of the things that weigh you down and allows you to see a future filled with possibilities when you allow the Spirit of God to be your guide. When we allow ourselves to be filled with that kind of grace new opportunities are opened, and what we thought was chaos, uncertainty, turns out to be a blank canvas that is ready to be filled with a modern telling of God's creation.
In the end, I think all we can do is look back on our journey and our relationship with God's grace as something that is always evolving, always changing. Today we may not have mastered grace, but tomorrow is another opportunity to live into the plans that God has set before us. Are you, are we, willing to surrender ourselves to the grace of God that is life altering? Grace that as John Newton wrote, Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed! That is the kind of grace that pushes us, that challenges us to see God's hands at work around us. We stand in the footsteps of the Pharisees who doubted, and we stand in the steps of the man who was healed by Christ. All of these things together are what bind up this beautifully complex thing we call faith, and it is all these things that allow us to be in the presence of God's amazing grace.