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Let’s pray. O Lord, you are good and do good. Teach me, teach us, Your statutes. The insolent smear us with lies, but with our whole hearts, we keep Your precepts. Their heart is unfeeling like fat, but we delight in Your law. It is good for us that we were afflicted, that we might learn Your statutes. The law of Your mouth is better to us than thousands of gold and silver pieces. We give thanks in Jesus’ name. Amen.
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to John chapter 9 as we continue with our series through John’s Gospel as we have been doing for the last year and a half. And this morning we come to John chapter 9. It says verses 1 through 15 in your bulletin; we’ll just read through verse 12 this morning. John chapter 9.
“As he passed by,” that is, Jesus, “he saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ Having said these things, He spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing.
The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar were saying, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some said, ‘It is he.’ Others said, ‘No, but he is like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ So they said to him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud and anointed my eyes and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went and washed and received my sight.’ They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’
There are a number of ways that we can look at this familiar story and we’ll, Lord willing, get to some of those next week when we read the remaining verses in chapter 9. We could look at this as the sixth of seven signs in John’s Gospel. You know that in John’s Gospel there are seven miraculous signs, there are seven “I am” statements, and here we have the sixth of those signs. First the water into wine, the healing of the royal official’s son, those are in the Cana cycle in chapter 2 through 4, and then in this festival cycle in chapter 5 through 10, the healing of the paralytic, the feeding of the 5000, walking on water, and then healing this man born blind, and then finally in chapter 11 will be the seventh sign of Lazareth, Lazarus.
We could look at this as a unit in itself. It is an exquisitely ordered story. First you have the miracle, and then as we see, Jesus disappears for a time before coming back at the very end, and in the intervening sections following the miracle are four conversations. Just look at your Bible quickly. You can see this with the paragraph headings in most English Bibles.
So first there is a discussion between the neighbors and the man born blind, that’s verses 8 through 12. They have some questions for Him; we just read that. And then in verses 13 through 17 a conversation between the Pharisees and the man born blind, because of course they are hard-hearted toward Jesus. And then beginning in verse 18 through 23, the next paragraph, a conversation between the Jews and his parents. They bring his poor mom and dad into the situation. And then when they say “Well, he can answer for himself,” there’s a final conversation in verses 24 through 34 between the Jewish crowd and the man himself. So a miracle and then four distinct conversations, following which Jesus will re-enter the picture.
We could also look at this incident through the lens of several important themes: Faith, unbelief, the power of a changed life. We’ll get to some of that next week, but I want to focus our attention this morning narrowly. In fact, you could argue that the whole point of this sermon finds its anchor point in one little Greek word. We’ll get to that in a moment, comes in verse 3.
But first, notice the context. He passes by, Jesus does, and sees a man blind from birth. We don’t know the exact time or location or how closely this is connected to the Feast of Tabernacles and the scene we just departed in chapter 8, but somewhere in this festival sequence of events Jesus sees this man. It’s suggested, I think, that this is with some intentionality. He’s a beggar. A man born blind in the ancient world would have little other recourse in life but to be a regular beggar. And so perhaps Jesus wanted to take them by the certain spot where they always knew this man would be. Maybe Jesus was ready to make a lesson, ready to perform the miracle, or perhaps the disciples knew where he would be and pointed him out, or maybe Jesus as He passed by sees him there and draws his attention to the disciples, which prompts this question.
However it happened, they go by and there’s the man. And the disciples ask a question. It is a common question. It’s the sort of question that might be asked today, and it certainly was a common sort of question among first century Jews. It’s a question that many of the rabbis were asking.
Okay, why do bad things happen to some people, and good things happen to other people? It’s a contemporary question. Don’t many of us, without realizing it, perhaps even as Christians, we inhabit this morally mechanical universe. Bad things happen to bad people, good things happen to good people, and heaven is a place where good people get the good things they deserve, and hell is a bad place where bad people get the bad things they deserve. That’s the default religion that many of us inhabit.
There’s an old joke, which is probably not worth repeating, but here we go, of a man who was in heaven and he was quite a plain man, rather a sort of odd, strange man, nothing much to commend himself, not very attractive, not very successful, but he was a good man and so when he was in heaven, his friends were noting “Well, look at him, look at our friend there. He has received a fabulous sports car and a massive mansion. And look, he has this beautiful wife upon his arm.” Okay, no marriage in heaven; they’re not theologically correct jokes, but [laughter] he has this beautiful wife upon his arm. And someone, you know, one of the angels relates, “well, that was all, that was his reward for living such a good life.” And another friend says, “Well, but I don’t, you know, what about the woman?” “Well, that was her punishment.” [laughter]
So, yeah, you get the joke. That’s how many of us view life. You’re going to get to the great pearly gates and you get what you deserve. And even more than that perhaps, in this life. You look around: Good people get good things, bad people get bad things. It’s a sports contract. You are a 20-something-year-old slugger, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and you look to have a bright future and you get $300 million. Or you work hard, you get a fantastic GPA, you score very highly on your standardized test, you might get in to Wheaton, maybe. [laughter] And you work hard and you are rewarded. If you work very hard, maybe you’ll get a scholarship.
This is how we think life ought to operate on every plane. And sometimes even spiritual people will suggest this is the way life operates.
Remember Job’s so-called friends? Job 4:7, they say “Remember: Who that was innocent was every punished? Or where were the upright cut off?” That’s what they say to Job. Yes, Job, you’re suffering. Would you just get on with it? Repent of your sins, confess your wickedness before God, for the upright are not cut off. The righteous man is not persecuted. Surely, you’ve done something wrong.
And so the disciples ask this very common question. “All right, Jesus, we got two options for you. Here’s a man born blind. Did he sin?” Now maybe they didn’t know that he was born blind at this point, so maybe they thought it was punishment at some point in his life, or maybe they thought something even before he was born. It’s true that some of the rabbis speculated that you may be able to sin even in the womb and so affect the outcome of your birthed life. So, Jesus, option number one, this man is blind. Did he sin or maybe more likely, Jesus, how about his parents? This must be a punishment for these parents, to have a child like this, right, Jesus? Because after all, we all know good parents have good, healthy, happy children. Bad parents have bad, infirmed children.
Now hopefully I don’t need to tell you what errant thinking that is, and yet every parent in this room we are tempted to believe those lies.
Now we understand that we shape our children. We understand that we can do good or ill by shaping our children. And yet it is often of the great works of the devil to come at parents and say “You see this? You see this? That’s your fault. That’s you.”
I had a wise older mother once tell me most parents think their kids are the best or the worst in the world, and both of those parents are wrong. Meaning your kids aren’t the greatest thing, and they’re not the worst to have ever lived.
But many of us fall into that temptation, and we think, and in fact we think, we look at other people, don’t we? And we think that the children are just a reflection, is a walking, breathing, report card on parents. So we sometimes get over-invested. That’s why Christians lose their salvation at soccer games sometimes. [laughter] That’s why we behave the way that we do, because we think “Well, look at their children. Wow, what great children. Must have done something right.” And most of those godly parents who have godly children will be the first to tell you “I don’t know what in the world we did. We prayed and prayed and prayed. God’s grace.” Because we all know godly parents who end up with children that walk away.
But here the situation, of course, is a little different. It’s not spiritual departing, but it’s a physical ailment, and yet the logic is the same. The disciples are thinking a man born blind… Who sinned? It’s a common question.
Bad things, bad people.
Jesus, however, gives an uncommon answer. Jesus says, in verse 3, “It was not that this man sinned or his parents.”
To be sure, there are plenty of biblical examples that do link personal sin and personal suffering. It’s not that the link is never present. Adam and Eve; Miriam’s revolt and struck with leprosy; Korah’s rebellion, swallowed up in the earth; Nadab and Abihu unauthorized fire, struck dead; Uzzah putting his hand on the arc, is killed; 1 Corinthians 11, some of you are sick and some have died because you partook of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner; Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus warns “I throw some of you on a sick bed until you repent.”
So, yes, the Bible has plenty of examples of reaping what you sow.
But Jesus here reminds us of something that we must never forget, and that is that the link between personal sin and personal suffering is not absolute. That is to say, it is not always the case. And who better, more powerfully will exemplify that then the Lord Jesus Christ Himself?
Jesus says, look, this is not the case that this man sinned or his parents. Now some of us would never think to blame ourselves. It’s never crossed our minds that we might be chastised by the Lord. But I’m sure there are others of you here, by upbringing, by temperament, by personality, you are very quick to assume that you failed God. What’s going on in my health? I, I’ve disappointed God. What’s happening at the workplace? This new diagnosis, this disintegration in my family. Surely bad things are happening to me because I have been a bad person.
And so you make two fundamental mistakes: You’re too hard on yourself, and you’re too hard on God.
Now, ultimately we, in one sense, we can’t be too hard on ourself in understanding our own depravity and sin, but we can be too hard in making the wrongs sorts of connections, and thinking that all of life works in this mechanical way. And on Wednesday you put in obedience and on Thursday you get out blessing. And if Friday you put in sin, then Saturday you get out cursing. And so if you are going through a season of difficulty, it’s because of something that you put in the wrong input to now get this accursed output. Jesus says it does not always work that way.
Now there are other things Jesus could have said when they asked the question “why was this man born blind?” Jesus could have said, “Well, we live in a fallen world.” That would be true. So though there may not be a personal connection between sin and suffering, there is always a cosmic connection. He could have made that, but that’s not the point.
I think in our day if this question were asked, most people would gravitate toward an exclusively physiological explanation. Why, if somebody just asks you “Why was this man born blind? Why was this child born with disability? Why was this child born with certain handicaps? Why was this child born with special needs?” The direction most of us go in our mind is an exclusively physical explanation.
Well, here’s why, it has something to do with a gene that was missing, or there was an extra chromosome here. Or we understand that when this gets out of order and this is rewired that then this happens. And that’s why this was malformed, or that’s why this was not adjusted, or that’s why the person cannot hear correctly, or see correctly, and we look for exclusively biological explanations.
Now this is not the point of the sermon, but just as a parenthesis here, there may be no bigger gap between the world of the Bible and the world we inhabit than this. For them, everything was spiritual, metaphysical. For us, everything is natural and physical. That is to say the world that they inhabited is a world that is animated by the spiritual; there’s demons and there’s angels and there’s devils and there’s spiritual realities, whereas we inhabit a world where everything should have a natural explanation. It’s something to do with your hardwiring, with your genes, with your biology, with your chemicals.
Now it’s certainly true that in the first century there were elements of spiritism and animism that we now know are false, though devils and demons and angels are real. And there are things that we have learned in science and medicine and physics that are immensely helpful to humankind. And yet we must realize this huge gap, that we tend to think there is a material, physiological explanation for this. And sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t. And even when there may be, God would say “you can get the biological answer correct, and miss the most important answer to the question.”
Some people would simply have answered the disciples’ question “why was this man born blind?” and said “no reason at all, nothing but chance. Perhaps survival of the fittest, maybe an evolutionary maladaptation.” Or there’s a religious version of this: Deism. God created the world and He stepped back and He just, this is what happened, the laws of nature sometimes break down. Or perhaps the view of open theism, that God does not really know all things, He certainly does not control all things, and so stuff just happens.
But what does Jesus say is the reason? And here’s where we come to the little Greek word that I think is the anchor point for this entire sermon and may be an anchor point for your entire life. It shows up very innocuously enough in English with the word “that.” “It was not that this man sinned or his parents, but,” it’s the Greek word “all’, “but” adversative, okay, not this but, and the little Greek word “hina.” It means “in order that, so that.” It is a purpose clause. Jesus says not this, not that the man sinned, not that the parents sinned. Okay? Train going in that direction, wrong direction. We’re going to turn around and we’re going to go this way on the tracks, but “hina,” in order that, why? He gives the answer: The works of God might be displayed in him. That’s why, disciples.
Yes, there may be a physiological explanation. Yes, suffering may be connected to cosmic sin and suffering. And yet Jesus says “I want you to get this, disciples. I want you to get it absolutely clearly: This man was born blind because God has a plan in it.” And not simply that God will respond to it. In order that. Does not say that God looked down from heaven and said “well, there, oop, problems. I’m going to turn those problems, you know, turn your lemons into lemonade, I’m going to turn your problems into potentialities.” No, no, no. It goes farther back than that. Into God’s sovereign disposal of all things. This was His plan.
You remember the end of Genesis, after Jacob dies and all the brothers are worried that Joseph is going to turn on them in Genesis 50:20, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good, for the saving of many people alive.” You meant it for evil; God meant it, not God turned it, God shaped it, God used it… He meant it from eternity passed. He meant it. His plan, Joseph says, was I’d end up in the well, and I’d get sold off to traveling Ishmaelites, Potiphar’s wife would lie about me, I’d end up in prison, my prison mate would forget about me, I’d come, there’d be a famine, you would be here… All of that God meant. In order that God’s purpose, His might, His works, would be displayed in him.
Now remember, there’s no evidence that they had met Jesus before. They may have never considered God’s part to play in this plan. We see in verse 11 he doesn’t even know who the man is, he just knows this guy, I think His name is Jesus, I don’t know where he went.
And yet even if he had been ignorant of Jesus, even if had been ignorant of God’s designs, now he knows, perhaps for the first time in his life, that this was not ultimately an accident. And this man was not born blind simply because something didn’t fire right when he went through the birth canal, but God all along had a plan and a purpose.
It is a sign miracle to point people to the supremacy and the sufficiency of Jesus Christ, our savior and Lord. Jesus goes on to explain this imagery again that He is the light of the world, a darkness is coming. He’s thinking of the darkness that will come upon them literally and metaphysically in those days when He’s in the tomb before His resurrection. But He says “I am light” for this man, literally, and “I am light to all who have the eyes to see, but night is coming for everyone who refuses to open their eyes.” And He tells the man to go to wash in the pool, the pool aptly named “Sent” because this man is sent to it.
And what great faith. You have mud on your eyes, you’ve been blind your whole life, this strange rabbi who you can’t see comes up and He spits and He makes a mud pie and puts it on your eyes and says “go to Siloam.” How does he get there? Somebody must lead him. Go, wash there. And he goes!
I don’t think many little brothers would do that. Their brother [sound effect] slaps a mud pie on their face. Go! Yeah, he’ll go, tell mom. [laughter]
This man goes to Siloam, maybe in a moment of desperation. “What have I got to lose?” Maybe in an act of great faith. “Okay, if you say it, I’ll do it.”
Now you say “Well, that’s, that’s wonderful for the man born blind, and I can see how God’s power was displayed in him because He did a miracle. He healed him. I get it. Yes, he was born blind, that was God’s plan so that God could heal him and bring glory to Jesus and people would believe in Jesus. But where’s my miracle?”
Well, it’s true. Not many of us get miracles like this. But don’t miss this fact: You still can be a sign pointing people to the supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus Christ.
I just said not many of us get miracles, but actually we all get miracles. If you’re born again, and have gone from darkness to light, dead in trespasses and sin, alive together with Christ, you’re a miracle. If you persevere through suffering, that’s a miracle. If you endure in your faith in the midst of trial and difficulty, that’s God’s sovereign miraculous work in your life. So yes, most of us do not get the miracle of sight when we are born blind, but we can still be walking miracles, pointing to the supremacy and the sufficiency of Christ.
Remember at the end of John 21, when Jesus is speaking about Peter’s death, He says when you were young you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old you will stretch out your hands and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go. This, he said, to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God. Peter, you’re going to glorify me in your death. How do you glorify God in death? You glorify God in death by believing all the way to the end. By giving Him glory to the uttermost. That shows the worth of Christ.
Imagine you’re on a vacation with your wife, if you’re a woman you can think of your husband, but you’re on a vacation with your wife and you’re away from the kids, so you could be anywhere and it’s a vacation. You could be in the closet, it’s a vacation. [laughter] But you’re someplace and you’ve got someplace planned, it’s going to be a fabulous trip. You’re going to go someplace warm, dry, sunny. [laughter] And everything goes wrong. Flights are delayed and delayed and canceled and you, you spend the night on the floor in the airport and your rental car isn’t there and you wait and you get and it breaks down and somebody rear ends you and you get to your hotel and the room isn’t there that you wanted and you finally get a room and it’s too small and you see cockroaches and you hear little rodents nibbling in the corner. And the weather, oh, it turns out to be miserable. No rain, but snow! And your luggage never shows up and just to throw in more disaster, a snake bites you and your neighbors in the hotel next you are filled with loud music and something you ate gave you Montezuma’s revenge. [laughter]
And then, when you get back and your friends say “How was the trip?” you say “You know what? It was rough, it was hard, but you know what? I got to spend the whole week with my wife, just the two of us. We talked, we held hands. She made the whole trip worth it.” Does that not bring honor and glory to your wife? With all of that, does that not speak of the immense treasure she is to you? People would say, “Wow. All of that, and you’re still giving thanks? She must be amazing.”
And how much more so with God.
But that, verse 3. Not this, but that.
Do you believe God has a purpose in your pain? Maybe to heal you. He can do it. Maybe to make your strength His strength perfect in your weakness. Maybe to show the world through you that though the fig tree should not blossom nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, though the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet you will rejoice in the Lord and you will take joy in the God of your salvation. Maybe through you to be a blessing to others. Maybe through your loved ones or through your children or through your friends with special needs, you actually see more of Christ. You see more of the joy of Christ. You see more of dependence upon Christ. Maybe the purpose of your pain is to teach you something about God, or teach you something about yourself.
I know many of you saw this last summer when it came out on the Gospel Coalition website from Joni Eareckson-Tada, Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of My Diving Accident. You know Joni, in ministry Joni and Friends, and some of you are part of it here in Charlotte. Fifty years in a wheelchair. It’s one of TGC’s top posts in the last two years, over 320,000 page views. It’s well worth reading; you should go find it. Here’s just one paragraph. And if you have had the privilege of meeting Joni, you know that what she says here is not just putting on a good face, but is the very depth of her heart. She’s an amazing woman.
She writes: “The core of God’s plan is to rescue me from sin and self, and to keep rescuing me. The apostle Paul calls it ‘the gospel . . . by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you.’ I’m in constant need of saving. My displaced hip and scoliosis are sheep dogs that constantly snap at my heels, driving me down the road to Calvary, where I die to the sins Jesus died for. Sure, I have a long way to go before I am whom God destined me to be in glory, but thankfully my paralysis keeps pushing me to ‘strive to reach for that heavenly prize.’ The process is difficult, but affliction isn’t a killjoy; I don’t think you could find a happier follower of Jesus than me. The more my paralysis helps me get disentangled from sin, the more joy bubbles up from within.”
It’s amazing. You can read it and you know that she didn’t come to that the day after it happened or the week after or the month after… There are deep valleys and continue to be, but fifty years on it is the Lord’s work of grace in her life and it can be the Lord’s grace in your life.
There’s a saying that God whispers to us in our pleasure and He shouts at us in our pain. Yes, we need breaks. Yes, vacations are good. Spring break is coming. Many of you will depart to one place or another. But no doubt we will look back on our lives and though we give thinks for wasn’t that a great break and wasn’t it a wonderful time and to relax and to read a book and to sleep in, no doubt when you look back on your life and you think of the times you really grew, where God really showed you levels to yourself you did not know and heights of His character you could not have imagined, you will look back, and I will look back, and we will see those lessons came through trials, through suffering.
Listen, suffering stinks. It does. Physical pain, inconveniences, unknown maladies, chronic illnesses, never knowing when they’re going to flare up, emotional toil, wayward children… Suffering hurts. It’s exhausting. When you’re in the throes of it, you, you throw up your hands to God and say “God, why? I don’t get it. How, how is this helping me serve You more? I’m just, I’m tired all the time. I can’t do what I want to do. I can’t get up and around. Wouldn’t it make more sense to give me health and strength and energy? Why?”
Suffering stinks. But do not remove God from the equation. It never occurred to Job, all of his miserable comforters, to take God out of the equation. Though He slay me, he says, yet I will trust in Him. Yes, the Sabeans came and they robbed him and the whirlwind came and the devil was… There’s all sorts of, there’s natural disasters, there’s sinful people, there’s the devil… And yet Job always knew… I, I can’t take God out of this equation.
Now that’s hard. That can be hard on a theological level, it can be hard when we want to do a theodicy, that is, absolve God from the problem of evil and suffering. There’s lots of difficulties there. But I’m telling you, and don’t listen to what I say, God is telling you: The cost is much higher if you remove God from your moments of greatest pain and think that God had nothing to do with this and God has no purpose in it.
In his book Therefore I Have Hope, Cameron Cole talks about God’s promises to him in the pain of losing his son. At one point, he tells the story about a woman who was lamenting her son’s death in a car accident, and as she was questioning why God did this to her, a well-meaning chaplain replied, “Ma’am, God didn’t have anything to do with your son’s death.” To which the wailing woman replied, “Don’t you take away the only hope I have.” And that’s right.
The Heidelberg Catechism is divided into 52 Lord’s Days, and you’re meant do one each Sunday. Today, as God’s timing would have it, is Lord’s Day #10, question and answer 27 and 28. Grew up with it, had to memorize it. It’s my favorite. The Catechism asks “What do you understand by the providence of God?” Answer: “God’s providence is His almighty and ever present power by which He upholds as with His hand heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules over them, that leaf and blade, rain and drought, health and sickness, food and drink, prosperity and poverty, all things in fact come to us not by chance, but by His Fatherly hand.”
Brothers and sisters, your pain is not random. Your suffering is not meaningless. Your trial is not without God’s purpose and God’s plan. God is making all things new, and God has a plan in your pain, and Christ ought to change everything.
Scholars wrestle with “Why mud pies, Jesus?” You know, Jesus is perfectly capable of saying “Open your eyes” and you say “Why? Why go spit, [sound effect] get some mud, put it there, go wash in the pool of Siloam. Why?” And some people say, well, it’s an act of recreation, from dust we were created and so He is sort of recreating the way his eyes ought to work; that may be. Other people say well, Jesus is counteracting ancient notions that the ground was dirty and polluted and that saliva was somehow accursed and God is using these things; well, maybe.
But I think there’s a simpler explanation. I think it’s Jesus’ way of showing to us “I’ll take ordinary dirt, I’ll take ordinary water, I’ll take human spit if I have to, and I will do something extra-ordinary.” Nothing wasted in God’s economy. No accidents in God’s universe.
Jesus’ way of saying “Nothing is the same now that I’m here. I’ve transformed everything, even dirt, even mud pies, even saliva. I’ll use it all. Anything and everyone can be an instrument for My glory. Even a man born blind.”
Do you believe that there is a “hina” somewhere in your suffering? In order that. Suffering is made worse for us when we believe that it is absolutely without purpose, without end, without cause, without origination, without any hope of redemption. At the bottom of your heartache, there is a “hina,” in order that. And we may not know what it is, we may not know when we see it, we may not see it on this side of glory, but it is there.
So let the Master touch your eyes. See what He sees. Do what He tells you to do. And let us trust Him that He has a purpose, even in your pain.
Let’s pray. Our gracious heavenly Father, these are not mere academic things for most people in this room, not merely a philosophical or theological problem to solve, but a life filled with pain to be lived. Help us, Lord. Give us confidence in Your all-sustaining, ever-present power and glory, Your providential care, that You are not only sovereign, but You are for us. And so we can sing Your praise and join with all the living creatures in giving you glory, for You have a purpose. We pray in Jesus. Amen.