Every so often I have an opportunity to hear one of our military veterans tell of their time in service to our country. Sometimes they talk about basic training. Most of them say basic training was a miserable time in their lives. However, they often tell me that the basic training experience made them into better people.
Martin Luther had a similar experience with his spiritual basic training. He said, "I myself am deeply indebted to my papists that through the devil's raging they have beaten, oppressed, and distressed me so much. That is to say, they have made a fairly good theologian of me, which I would not have become otherwise." What he meant was that when the Pope's people persecuted him, he had to study Scripture deeply in order to defend himself. There were also times when it seemed that the whole world was against him. Through this persecution God strengthened his faith. He understood that he was a better theologian because of this persecution.
The Gospel for today tells of another man who became a fairly good theologian because God's enemies persecuted him. The persecution began at birth. It was hard enough to grow up blind, but it was even harder to grow up believing that this disability was a sign of gross sin in the family. When the disciples asked the question, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" they reminded this man of all the people who had told him that he was damaged goods, that either he or his parents must have committed some horrible sin. Think of people you know who are absolutely convinced that everything wrong in their family is their fault and you will have some understanding of this person's guilt. Think of the rabbis who came by with their disciples and speculated on the gross nature of the sin that caused this man's blindness.
Now imagine that another rabbi approached with more disciples to teach. He expected another guilt trip, but this rabbi was different. He said, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life." A little while later, this rabbi made some mud with his saliva and put it on the blind man's eyes. Then he told the blind man to wash his eyes in the Pool of Siloam. Suddenly, the blind man could see. The rabbi had given him sight!
This might have been the end of the story if it weren't for one tiny detail. Some Pharisees heard about the healing and they launched an investigation. They subpoenaed the man who had been born blind and forced him to testify. The Pharisees hoped to intimidate this man who had been blind and convince him not to follow Jesus. You see this man's story caused a major contradiction in their theology.
The Pharisees had hundreds of traditions and according to their traditions, making mud from saliva and dust was work. This would be all right on an ordinary day, but John tells us that Jesus did this work on a Sabbath. This would seem to indicate that Jesus was a sinner.
On the other hand, God obviously listened to Jesus and gave sight to the blind man. This would seem to indicate that Jesus was not a sinner. This contradiction really bothered the Pharisees. They either had to resolve this contradiction or they had to change their theology.
Here is where we see the Holy Spirit at work. As the Pharisees applied all this pressure, the testimony of the man who had been blind only got bolder and stronger. Listen to his reply at the start of the interrogation, "He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and now I see." This answer is as short as possible and it volunteers no additional information. The Pharisees intimidate him. These are the people who have made his life miserable all the years he was blind. He hopes that he can testify and go home.
He doesn't know it, but he is about to have another eye-opening experience. You can almost see the wheels turning inside this man's head as the interrogation continues. He perceives that these Pharisees are only human after all and he grows bold enough to contradict them. "Whether he is a sinner or not, I don't know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!" Finally, at the end of the grilling, he begins preparing his first sermon. "Now that is remarkable! You don't know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."
As we read the account of this interrogation, we see the control slip away from the Pharisees. They had hoped to break this little beggar and get him back under their control, but God made him into a theologian instead. God had taken a blind beggar and made him into a spiritual David and these Pharisees were beginning to take stones between their spiritually blind eyes. The Pharisees witness a miracle much greater than giving sight to the blind. They are watching a faith grow and mature right before their eyes. Ultimately, the Pharisees lost control and, with all the bluster they could muster, they expelled this man from the synagogue.
The man who had been born blind now understood that the Pharisees had no answers for him. Their faith in a collection of man-made traditions could not save him. His only hope was in the great prophet who had given sight to him. It was then that this greatest of all prophets found him. Jesus heard that the man was expelled and He found him in order to continue the work that He had started. The Holy Spirit prepared this man's heart so that when Jesus asked him, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" he was ready to listen, "Who is he, sir? Tell me so that I may believe in him." Then Jesus revealed Himself with the words, "You have both seen him and the one who is speaking with you is he." The man's faith took action as he confessed with his mouth and fell to his knees to worship the one who brought light to both his eyes and his soul.
So what do we learn from this story? Jesus himself provides the answer, "For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind."
The Pharisees who opposed Jesus are perhaps the most tragic characters in the Bible. They were the cream of society. They had attended the best schools, studied under the best Rabbis. They could probably recite all of Moses' writings from memory. They certainly knew the words from Deuteronomy 6:5 "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might." And the words from Leviticus 19:18 "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." In spite of all this, they loved themselves more than they loved God. They only loved their neighbors when it was profitable, and they didn't love their enemies at all. They pronounced judgment on themselves when they said, "We are disciples of Moses!" For, although they could see to read the words of Moses, they were blind to the meaning. They did not see that they could not keep the laws of Moses. They did not see that they needed a savior. They actually believed they could earn their own righteousness before God. If these Pharisees could talk to us now, they would say, "We saw the savior. We heard his explanation of the books of Moses. Deep in our hearts we knew he was right. Never the less, we rejected him and the gift of salvation he offered. We were truly blind. We now see and understand that we truly deserve the torture we now experience."
On the other hand, the man who had been born blind received much more than his sight from the savior. The Holy Spirit worked faith in his heart. He understood that he was a sinner and could not save himself. He learned that Jesus was not just a prophet, but that he was the Lord of the prophets and even more. He was the fulfillment of all the prophets. When Jesus Christ died on the cross, rose from the dead, and showed himself to his disciples, this man saw that his sins died with Jesus Christ and remained in the grave when Christ rose. He saw that Jesus would never leave him and when he died, he would immediately see Jesus again face to face.
God often allows disabilities into our lives to help us understand that we are all born full of sin and spiritually blind. It is when God allows persecution into our lives that the Holy Spirit works to make theologians of us. It is when the Holy Spirit moves us to admit our sinful, spiritually blind condition that Jesus Christ gives us spiritual sight. It is when Christ reveals himself to us in Word and Sacrament that the Holy Spirit creates and sustains faith in us. Like the man who was born blind, the Holy Spirit shows us that Jesus is our prophet, priest, and king. As a result, we will become fairly good theologians. Amen.
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