When I was in fifth grade, in the weeks and months that led up to Christmas, two men in our church learned that they had brain tumors. One of the men was a man named Gary. The other was my dad.
Gary’s tumor had been discovered first, and as I recall, it came with a prognosis more grim. His tumor was cancerous, and something about it (either the location or the shape of the tumor or both) made surgery cuts especially complicated. My dad was cancer-free, and we were told that physicians removed tumors like his most commonly of all.
Still, each of the two men required a procedure that involved the work of sharp instruments in his head, so that Christmas was a stressful one for both our families. My parents found solace in a new friendship with Gary and his wife, and I think the feeling was mutual. Both couples were about the same age with a handful of kids, both worked hard to make ends meet, both were facing complicated decisions about doctors, hospitals, surgeries, and radiation, not to mention added financial strain and the all-too-real awareness that everything could change in an instant. They became close. That’s how my parents found out about The Comment.
It had happened at a bonfire. Late that fall, in the weeks before his surgery, people from church had thrown a party/benefit for Gary’s family. Because Gary’s medical bills were already enormous, and because he was expected to be out of work for a while during his recovery, a whole bunch of friends and strangers got together and showered the family with cash, gift certificates (this was in the time before we all went electronic), and all kinds of encouragement. And at the event, with a fire roaring and support blazing all around, someone pulled Gary and his wife aside to share an “important” piece of information. It went something like this:
You know, you have this brain tumor because there’s some sin in your life that you haven’t turned away from. If you would simply repent, this whole medical thing would be over.
It was dense and unfounded on multiple levels. And it was the kind of comment that religious people have been making for centuries.
In John 9, we meet a blind man who was once a blind young man, a blind child, a blind baby. Never in his life has he been able to see. When Jesus and his disciples walk past this man, the disciples ask Jesus about him:
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2, ESV)
Their assumption is obvious: when something is “wrong” in someone’s life, that wrong can be traced directly back to a specific sin-cause. Essentially, the pain we feel is our punishment for going against God’s ways.
Jesus’ response to his disciples dismisses this assumption:
Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him…” (John 9:3, ESV)
Then, with his students watching, the Teacher goes on to form a mud-paste for the blind man. John notes in his text that Jesus “anointed” the blind man’s eyes with this paste, telling him to go wash it off in a pool. The man goes where Jesus sends him, and he comes back with—for the first time ever—sight.
But that is not the whole story. That’s just the first act.
Next up: people who knew the formerly blind man disagree about whether he’s in fact the same guy. Some say he looks like the blind man did, some say he doesn’t. (One wonders how much attention these people gave the man during his days begging on the roadside.) He insists he is who he claims to be. Some respond to this with a sneer: Then how were you healed? He tells them about Jesus.
So they take him to the Pharisees, the extremely pious and extremely devoted religious leaders of the day. These men knew their Old Testament law, so when the seeing man tells them that Jesus made mud-paste on a Sabbath, the Pharisees have a disagreement of their own. Some of them say a righteous man would never do the work of healing on the Sabbath, which was commanded as a day of rest. Others in their ranks argue that if Jesus were a sinful man, he wouldn’t be able to accomplish healing on any day of the week.
The seeing man and later his parents are brought in to help the Pharisees settle their dispute. All of them testify that, yes, he’s the same guy, and no, he couldn’t see before. The man is forthright with details about Jesus. His parents avoid the controversy, deferring all healing questions to their son. When the man is brought back for a second time and asked the same questions he was asked the first time around, he gets a little sassy about it:
“Whether he is a sinner I do not know. 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?” And they reviled him… (verses 25-28a)
They answered him, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out. (verse 34)
John 9 has a blatantly visible recurring theme: it’s all about sight. The passage begins with Jesus seeing the blind man (verse 1). Then that blind man sees. Then men who have physical sight are yet unseeing; they choose not to acknowledge multiple obvious, mud-washed clues standing right in front of them. In the final verses, Jesus tells some unbelieving Pharisees that blindness would be their innocence. The fact that they claim to see, he says, is what makes them guilty.
Worth noting: In the beginning of the passage, some students are asking their teacher to identify the guilty party. At the chapter’s end, he has done so.
They wondered: Was the problem the kid whose eyes don’t work, or were his parents at fault?
Jesus answers: The problem is when people don’t see me for what I am.
Jesus is everywhere in December. This is the season for seeing him. He is on Christmas trees, on wrapping paper, on cards, in light-up plastic lawn ornaments, even on doormats. But like the Pharisees, we can refuse to open our eyes to who he really is. We can do this without even knowing it, by expecting Jesus to match our carefully-drawn expectations of him. Surely he wouldn’t work on the Sabbath!
And surely he wouldn’t have criticisms for some of the cultural norms I’ve absorbed. Surely he wouldn’t demand repentance from the kind, well-meaning people I love. Surely he wouldn’t open my eyes in ways that make me uncomfortable.
But Jesus never matches our expectations. Not mine, not yours, not anyone’s. He jolts them off their hinges as he exceeds them.
The blind man in John 9 was someone whom people noticed so little that later they would be incapable of recognizing him. And yet this lowly, lonely, begging man—the Lord of the universe sees him. He stops and lets the man’s life interrupt his teaching. He gives the man what he lacks: physical sight, yes, but more importantly, guidance on what, out of everything, should ultimately be seen.
“Do you believe in the Son of Man?…You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.”
Like the blind, forgotten man on the roadside, you and I do not deserve to be noticed by Jesus. But he sees us. He sees our uniquely-felt pain. He sees the ways others neglect and overlook us. He sees the ways in which we are at times, yes, weighed down by consequences of our sin. He sees the ways we try and fail to measure up. He sees every piece of what makes today, tomorrow, or this particular Christmas impossibly hard.
Like the blind man’s was, our pain is an opportunity for God’s good and loving work to be displayed. God knows that what we lack in life, more than anything else, is him. And he has stooped under the weight of a cross and death to give us all of himself. The only way to do something so drastic is to do it in pure love. Because of his love, we can live. We can see him and believe.
I once was lost. I once was blind.
Amazing grace! He sees me. I am found.