A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”
“It Is Not God”
Every now and again you encounter something that allows you to see everything in a new light. As a pastor, I am often present with individuals and families in the immediate aftermath of such occasions.
Perhaps it is the birth of a child, or the death of a friend.
Perhaps it involves a deep betrayal by a relative, or a near-dump truck load of generosity and kindness heaped upon them by a stranger.
Perhaps it involves a radically-widening worldview after travel or a near experience.
But all of a sudden, everything is different. You just can’t go back to seeing the world in the same way—not anymore.
There have been a few times—rare times, for sure—but a few times where this dramatic change happened to me because of something I read. In these instances, the words I encountered reverberated so absolutely with truth, and the concepts that were communicated allowed me to see so clearly that it was like “scales” fell from my eyes, as Acts 9:18 describes when a blind Paul regained vision at last.
One of these reality-altering quotes came from the pen of Augustine of Hippo, one of the most important theologians of Christian history. While discussing God, Augustine, a Christian leader from around 400 AD, says:
“Why wonder that you do not understand? For if you understand, it is not God.”
(85 Serm. 117, 5: PL 38, 673.—cited by Pope John Paul II in Augustinum Hipponensem, 28 Aug 1986)
Now, maybe that seems like a lot and maybe that seems like nothing. Let me try to put it into more clear and current language for you. What Augustine is claiming is that everything we think about God is incomplete and faulty. Every profession we make about God has some inherent untruth to it.
Many talk of God as “father.” But God does not equal father and father does not equal God.
Many talk of God as “eternal.” Yet how are we finite beings supposed to comprehend the infinite?
Many talk of God as “creator.” Yet as creations we cannot even begin to imagine what this means.
Many talk of God as “love.” But even this is decidedly inadequate, because our experiences of imperfect love hinder our ability to comprehend God’s complete love for us.
All of these are metaphors—comparisons between someone we cannot comprehend (God) and things we can comprehend. As such, they are all imperfect and they will all fail some of us.
How (for instance) does a child of a deadbeat dad connect with God as “father”?
How does an abused spouse comprehend God as “love”?
How does a regularly shuffled-around foster kid comprehend God as “eternal”?
These metaphors break down. And when they do, they must be abandoned. But that doesn’t mean that I give up on God if I give up on the metaphor of “father.” Instead, I just lean on the many other metaphors to help me learn and live and grow.
What Augustine argues here is firmly anchored in the Bible itself. In 1Corinthians 13, Paul argues that “we know in part… but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears… Now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1Corinthians 13:9-10, 12 NIV11).
You see, both Paul and Augustine are trying to help us resolve to hold our convictions cautiously. They want us to be open to new discoveries as our friendship with Jesus grows. They know all too well how assumptions and metaphors and prejudices can become intertwined into the fabric of faith, and that (if we are going to be following Jesus) we need to resolve to challenge and change our thinking on these old prejudices and assumptions.
Traditional “Wisdom” vs. Outsider Experience
Our Scripture text today provides us with a perfect illustration of this. Jesus and the Jewish leaders again go toe-to-toe, this time with a recently-healed blind man caught in the middle.
This story begins, however, with genuine theological inquiry. As we were made into curious and creative human beings, we have questions. How many of you have said (or heard someone say) something like: “I guess I’ll have to ask Jesus when I get to heaven”……yeah? The disciples have questions—and they realize they can ask Jesus right then and there. So they do.
In the traditional wisdom of their faith (which as a reminder is the traditional wisdom of our faith too), bad things are thought to be the result of bad choices:
A poor person is bad with money
A chronically unhealthy person has made bad health decisions
Someone who has been to prison deserves to be punished and ostracized
It just goes on and on:
A single mother must have been promiscuous
A lonely person must have made bad relationship choices
A hungry person hasn’t spent their money on the right things
We don’t often admit these prejudices within us, but a quick read of the news or a couple days in intentional self-awareness reveals they are the dominant patterns in our culture.
You see, we tend to operate under the assumption that everything works equally for everyone everywhere. It doesn’t, but that is just one of the many deceptions we buy into in our world and culture. We also believe (again falsely) that the world works like a vending machine: put your 55 cents in, push P6 and a Milky Way comes out. In terms of life, that formulaic mentality says if you do good you get good; if you do bad you get bad. And yes, that does happen—much of the time that happens. The Psalms and Proverbs in the Bible are testimonies to this reality; we could call it the “normal pattern.”
But remember: everything does not work equally for everyone. And so there are always those whose experience falls outside the norm. For some of us, this fuels the question of why bad things happen to good people. But in other circumstances, it takes a strong resolution to not prejudge those experiencing bad.
Take, for instance, Proverbs 10:4: “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.” There are, no doubt, those in poverty because of their own carelessness; and there are, no doubt, those who are rich due to their personal diligence and care.
But there are also many who are rich on account of someone else’s diligence, a problem described as a “great evil” multiple times in Ecclesiastes (cf. 6:1-2). And there are those who are held down by poverty no matter how diligent they may be with their meager resources. While these “exceptions” may have been outside the norm two-and-a-half thousand years ago, I’m not so sure today. But they remain places of tension and prejudice where we as followers of Jesus must resolve to challenge and change our thinking.
In John 9, the disciples see a man who has been blind since birth. He poses for them a theological conundrum—a challenge to that “normal pattern” of life. If misfortune is the result of sin, then his blindness has to be the result of sin. But if he has been blind since he was born, how could he have sinned? He didn’t have the chance, did he? Or is this (they wonder) a case of God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation,” as Exodus 20:5 describes?
Jesus, in his characteristic way, rejects both their theological solutions: his blindness was not the result of his own sin, nor of his parents: “but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” In other words, Jesus says: “Neither, you doofs. But watch while I take what you see as a handicap and turn it into something amazing and beautiful.”
Jesus then paints his eyes with the custard filling from a mud pie, and tells the man to wash it off. When he does, he can see—for the first time in his life.
But our story does not stop there. And that’s because this isn’t a story about theological inquiry; it is about prejudices and the destructive assumptions we make about people less fortunate than ourselves.
This man—now healed—goes back to his life. And the people who know him cannot believe their eyes. They won’t even admit it is the same person. (You know, in the same token—it’s a terrible consequence of our own blindness when we cannot allow the people around us to be better than they once were).
To each inquirer, the man tells his story. Eventually—with unstated purposes—they bring him to the Pharisees—the religious leaders. They too query him, but quickly dismiss him as a liar. Their reasoning is explained in a long, circular argument that exposes their own prejudice. Here’s what they say:
The healing happened on the Sabbath, so whoever did the healing broke the Sabbath
Whoever breaks the Sabbath is a sinner.
And obviously God would not give the power to heal to a sinner.
So that means—even though they have an obviously seeing person in front of them—they decide he has lied about the whole thing.
This inquiry—or perhaps by now we should say “witch hunt”—then escalates. The man’s parents are even questioned. They establish this is their son, that he was in fact born blind, but they cannot explain anything else. So the man is brought before them again and grilled some more.
The man, now sounding a bit peeved, offers some pretty powerful words of testimony that Jesus must be from God. But the blindness and prejudice of the Pharisees here overpower him. This time they dismiss everything he has said because he was “born in utter sin” and thus has nothing of value to offer. And then they throw him out—literally!—like yesterday’s garbage.
These Jewish leaders are so blinded by their prejudices and assumptions that they cannot see what is right in front of them—a blind person seeing. They cannot and will not accept it because it does not line up with what they expect.
It’s hard to read this story and not to pity them.
It’s also curious to me that the disciples don’t weigh back in down the line. Like the Jewish leaders, they too had their assumptions and prejudices challenged by Jesus and this once-blind man. Maybe they were open to the teachable moment? We don’t really know.
What we do know is that Jesus sought this man out later on. He might be the only person healed by Jesus that he intentionally checks up on. I find that intriguing. Perhaps it is those who are wounded and damaged by this kind of stick-in-the-mud thinking that most need our care and concern. I don’t know. But Jesus does seek him out.
Starting in v.35, we read that Jesus sought out the man after having heard that “they had cast him out.” Here, one who is marginalized by the religious voices of the world is deliberately sought out by the Presence and Incarnation of God. Here (again, rarely) Jesus wants the man to understand who Jesus is so he can live in hope and fulfillment of God’s love. Yet even this tender moment is again spoiled by the blindness of prejudice, as the Jewish leaders hear and react with vehemence against the man and Jesus.
This is a roller coaster of a chapter. In it we have curiosity, hope, disgrace, kindness, healing, a power struggle, a revelation, and some lines drawn in the sand. We read it and feel all the feels, yet when it concludes we don’t know really what we feel anymore. Is it a melancholy hope? A silver-lined tragedy? We are unclear.
And I think part of why we are unclear is because it so illustrates some of the broken pieces within us. I started this morning with that quote from Augustine of Hippo, and I think it might be helpful to hear it again now.
If you understand, it is not God.
The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day mistook the “dim reflection” of their own understanding for absolute truth. They were so certain of what they thought they could see that they completely missed it when the actual Messiah, God-incarnate Jesus the Christ, was standing right in front of them.
In the same way, when we become so rigid and inflexible about the convictions we hold, we risk missing the eyes of Jesus in the stranger in front of us.
This Lent, let us resolve to change our thinking on old prejudices and assumptions. Let us follow the path of our Savior.