March 30, 2014

I Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
John 9:1-41

“God Sees Differently”

The story of the day that God asked Samuel to choose a new king for the People of Israel is a good illustration of the way that God sees differently from the rest of us.

The first king of Israel, King Saul, was not doing a very good job, as far as God was concerned. He wasn’t honouring God or following God’s ways, and God wanted him replaced as quickly as possible. The prophet Samuel, who had once anointed Saul to be king, now had been instructed by God to anoint a new king from among Jesse’s sons. Samuel had to go to Bethlehem, meet up with Jesse’s family, and God would show him which one of the sons was God’s chosen one to be the king.

I’m not really sure why God didn’t just tell Samuel right away that David was the chosen one. While God was giving all those instructions anyway, God could easily have added, “Oh, and by the way, the kid’s name is David.”

But the story is not just about the practical process of finding and anointing a new king for Israel. It also tells us something about that new king. It tells us that he wasn’t the biggest, strongest, most obvious choice for a king. His father didn’t even bother having him come in from the fields on the off chance that he might be the one.

But David had the right attitude, the right sparkle in his eyes. And God looked on his heart, chose him, and blessed him. And from the moment Samuel anointed David, God’s Spirit came mightily upon him, and God’s Spirit would remain with him to help him as he served as King of Israel.

Through the ups and downs of King David’s life, we are reminded that he was chosen and blessed and accompanied by God. Like Psalm 23, traditionally attributed to David himself, says, “Even thou I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me.”

The story also tells us something really important about God. And that is that God sees differently from the rest of us. While most people notice and judge others based on appearance and image, God looks at our hearts. This is good news for us when we are feeling ugly. It’s good news for us when we are feeling incompetent or unaccomplished.

It’s good news when we haven’t accumulated much stuff in our lives (while the world is telling us that we should have), or when we don’t seem to have many friends. It’s good news when we’re unemployed, or out of style, or when we just don’t seem to fit in with the people around us.

You see, God sees differently. People tend to value and focus on all those external things… money, appearance, reputation, accomplishments… But God doesn’t judge us based on those things. God looks at our hearts, and God is able to see both the divine image within each one of us, and all the gifts and talents that God has given us to use for God’s work in the world. God saw the shepherd boy, and saw the potential he had to be the king of Israel. God sees our hearts and our potential as well.

During Jesus’ ministry, he demonstrated that different way of seeing people as well. Like God, his father, Jesus saw differently than most people, and it led him into quite a bit of trouble with the authorities of his day. Jesus chose to spend time with, and teach, and heal, and share meals with the kind of people that were ignored, belittled, and despised by others. Tax collectors, prostitutes, and people with contagious diseases. Beggars, foreigners, and women.

All those who were not seen as valuable by most people, Jesus saw differently. He saw their gifts. He saw their faith. He saw the divine image within each one of them, and he blessed them with his presence, his love, and his call to make their lives about following him.

In today’s Gospel story, Jesus encounters one such person. His disciples are wondering about the reason for the man’s blindness. Was he cursed with this affliction because of his own sin, or was it his parents’ mistakes that caused him to be born blind? The automatic assumption is that sin has led to his disability, but Jesus disagrees. Jesus doesn’t see the man’s blindness as a problem, but as an opportunity for God’s works to be revealed in him.

For the last several Sundays, we have been hearing these long stories from John’s Gospel. And one of the things that I have been emphasizing is that these stories about Jesus that we find in the fourth Gospel were written by a Jewish Christian community at the end of the first century.

These Jews have become separated from their friends and neighbours who do not share their faith in Jesus as the Son of God and Saviour of the world. And in today’s story, as elsewhere in the Gospel, they are struggling with the reasons why some people believe and others do not.

This is not a simple and straight-forward story of a blind man being healed by Jesus, though the healing itself is not too complicated. Jesus spreads mud on the blind man’s eyes. The man washes in the pool of Siloam (as instructed) and he comes back able to see. But then there is a long and complicated debate about who healed him, and how, and why.

Though members of the Jewish sect called the Pharisees would not likely have been too impressed by Jesus’ breaking the Law and healing on the Sabbath day, none of the other Gospels report such a long and involved process for investigating a healing. It’s all a bit too much! Why include all that detail? Why all the interviewing and questioning, when the other Gospels tell a similar story in about ¼ the number of words?

But John’s stories are different because they’re not really about Jesus healing people and the reactions of the people around them. Instead, the stories are really about Jews at the end of the first century and how they come to believe (or refuse to believe) in Jesus.

The Pharisees represent those Jews that refuse to believe in Jesus. They’re the ones who are persecuting the Jewish Christians. They’re the ones that have kicked the believers out of the synagogues. The Pharisees represent those religious people who think that they know and understand God. They think they’ve seen God, so they won’t open their eyes to see God in Jesus. Unlike the blind man, who is willing to have his eyes opened, the Jewish Christians condemn their fellow Jews (the ones who do not believe in Jesus) because they will not admit their spiritual blindness.

The metaphor being used throughout the story is about sight. Seeing is believing. A man who can’t physically see receives the help of Jesus to see for the first time. And then slowly, after being questioned over and over, after reflecting on his experience, he really starts to “see.” He begins to understand who Jesus really is. He begins to believe.

There are others in the story too… disciples, who don’t do much to help, but who ask Jesus theological questions about the man’s sin… neighbours, who witness to the change they see in the man. They don’t understand it, but they can at least see that his life has been changed… parents, who are scared of the Pharisees. They know that their son has been healed, but they’re not willing to say much. They don’t want to take the risk. They don’t want to say what they believe.

During the first few centuries of the Common Era, becoming a follower of the Way was not a risk-free personal choice. The community of followers from which John’s Gospel came had experienced severe persecution. But unlike the parents in the story, they felt that they must speak up and witness to what they had seen and heard and come to know in Jesus. They believed that he was indeed, the Messiah, the long-awaited Saviour. And they believed that those who encountered Jesus, like the blind man of the story, would be healed and restored. And more importantly, they would come to see who Jesus was — the very Son of God. And that recognition would change their lives completely.

The theme running through all of this is that of “seeing differently.” God sees differently than we usually do, looking not at our outward appearance, but at our hearts.

Jesus saw differently than most people, taking the time to notice each person, and choosing to spend most of his time with those who were pretty used to getting ignored, overlooked, excluded, or even reviled.

The Jewish Christians of the first century saw differently from most of their neighbours. They saw that God had reached out to them in Jesus of Nazareth, and they just wanted others to see what they could see.

Today, we are invited to see differently too. When we go out from this place of worship, we are invited look around us and to see God’s presence when we are feeling alone; to see God’s hopeful possibilities when we are feeling like giving up; to see ourselves and our neighbours as God’s beloved children when we are feeling frustrated with our own or others’ failures.

May God help us to see, and to believe, and to go out to live and to serve as God’s people in the world with courage, hope, and joy. Amen.