A sermon by Graham Low for the Fourth Sunday of Lent (22 March 2020).
This is the complete list of today’s readings:
1 Samuel 16.1-13
The anointing of David to be the king of Israel (1 Samuel), the celebration of Yahweh’s love (Psalm 23) and the healing of the blind man (John) have all been key texts down the centuries as we seek meaning in our encounters with God. The passage from Ephesians explores some other fundamental matters too.
In the first reading, Yahweh, having been frustrated in the selection of Saul, took a big risk in anointing the young shepherd David. The problems with Jesse’s sons underline the vulnerability of all parties in this new development in human kingship. Psalm 23, linked so closely to David, is an unparalleled text about the mercy and benevolence of God. Although 1 Samuel may make us wonder about the weaknesses of all human shepherds, Psalm 23 is a reassurance about the one shepherd who never fails.
Both New Testament passages are about the tension between light and darkness, as a metaphor for the conflict between goodness and evil. The conflict is resolved in the passage from Ephesians, although the continuing existence of sin and the need for God’s people to challenge it is emphasised.
The passage from John’s gospel is high drama, acted out in seven stages. We are challenged to look at the characters involved and to see which we may identify with, and, importantly, why.
As we read and reflect on this passage, we can see that it is not only about a physical healing over 2,000 years ago, but also about the state of our spiritual wellbeing now. Thus, the Pharisees reveal a good deal about themselves when they say “surely, we are not blind, are we?”. They are confident that their outlook is completely sound and fully in line with God’s own view of how things are.
If we look at the gospels as a whole, we find that Jesus usually does not answer people’s questions directly: instead, he questions their answers. Frequently Jesus gently challenged peoples’ first impressions about God, or themselves, or other people. We all tend to form first impressions and often hold on to them. We fail to recognise that first impressions are not actually new or first. First impressions are actually shaped by our past experiences of many kinds, ranging from hurt to happiness. These so-called first impressions are dangerous because they emerge very fast.
I recently learned the Jane Austen’s famous novel Pride and Prejudice was originally to be titled First Impressions. It is clear that our first reactions to situations or people can easily be distorted by our own prides and prejudices, of which we can be largely unaware. So, if we look at them carefully, first impressions can be very revealing to us. If we do look at them critically then we may have a means by which we can transform our inner motivations and our outward behaviour. In this passage Jesus tells the Pharisees that their sin is they think they are right and see situations correctly. In fact, they are not open to transformation. They cannot see that the view of everything changes when seen through faith in God. For these Pharisees sin is about a desire to hold on to old perceptions that reveal self-justification. We live in a culture where easy answers or quick decisions are often accepted without critical assessment. Giving quick and persuasive or smooth answers is indeed quite seductive, and can also be a means of self-defence.
In this passage John clearly shows us that Jesus can subvert people’s poor judgement. By contrast Jesus’ divine judgement draws the blind man to be astonished and thankful as he says “he opened my eyes”.
May we have the grace to let go of our pride and prejudice so that our eyes may be open to the forgiving love of God. Amen.