Sermon 03-22-2020: “The Works of God on Display”

Scripture: John 9:1-41

Good news! A couple of days ago, Tom Hanks tweeted the following: “One week after testing positive, in self-isolation,” Hanks said, “the symptoms are much the same. No fever but the blahs. Folding the laundry and doing the dishes leads to a nap on the couch. Bad news: My wife @ritawilson has won six straight hands of gin rummy and leads by 201 points.”

I’m relieved that Hanks and Rita Wilson are on the mend.

I’m not proud to say this, but when I heard about Tom Hanks getting the coronavirus, I judged him. “What did he do wrong? He must have done something wrong!” And then when I found out, I was like, “A-ha! That explains it! He was surrounded by a large cast and crew while filming a movie. He wasn’t limiting himself to ten people or fewer. He was bound get the virus that way… you know, unlike me who’s being so careful!” 

But surely I’m not the only one who’s tempted to judge: Many of us hear about people who’ve contracted the virus and we think, “They did something wrong! They didn’t wash their hands while singing ‘Happy Birthday to You’ or the Alphabet Song. Or maybe they failed to heed the warning about ‘social distancing.’ Or maybe they were selfish and wanted to hang out in crowded bars and restaurants, rather than stay at home where they belong during this crisis.” 

I’m not saying we ought to think things like this, only that we often do. We look for reasons to blame the victim for contracting the virus… because it makes us feel better about ourselves!

And I think that impulse is behind the disciples’ question in verse 2, when they encounter a blind beggar who had been blind from birth. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 

Now we may rightly ask, “What sin could the man have committed inside his mother’s womb that would make him responsible for being born blind. But… strange as it seems, this was a theological idea debated among the Pharisees. And for biblical support, they would point back to Jacob and his twin brother Esau, fighting one another in Rebekah’s womb, when their mother was pregnant with them. So perhaps, they thought, it’s possible to sin in utero. And if someone is born blind, or with some other congenital problem or birth defect, well… that’s God’s punishment.

Or maybe God saw that this child was especially sinful when he was conceived—and God foreknew the man he would grow up to be—so he punished him in advance.

But if it wasn’t this man’s sin, it was surely his parents’ sin that caused him to be born blind! Or so the disciples thought…

But you can see how this theology would make you feel better about yourself. “I’m healthy, after all, which must be a sign that God is pleased with me; it must be a sign that I’m okay in my relationship with God; it must be a sign of my own righteousness! I’m not like this man born blind!” And we can feel morally superior. We can feel safe. We can feel in control. “As long as I avoid sinning in any spectacular way, I won’t get that particular disease; those bad things won’t happen to me. I’ll be okay.” In this scary world, the disciples wanted to feel safe. They wanted to feel secure. They wanted to feel in control.

And don’t we all desperately want to feel in control right now? Have we ever felt more out of control—as a nation? In my experience, the only time to which I can compare our present one is the days following 9/11: “Be alert,” we all said. “Don’t go out in public. Don’t go out in large crowds! Don’t fly on airplanes. Don’t go to the concert. Don’t go to the ballgame. Stay vigilant. Terrorists could be anywhere! They’re waiting to attack.” 

So this COVID-19 crisis is like that. But the truth is, as in the case of terrorism, we can do everything right during our present crisis—we can practice social distancing, we can wash our hands adequately and often, we can remain quarantined—and we should!—but we can do all those things and still get sick! It’s not a judgment against us. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve done something wrong. It doesn’t necessarily mean we were careless or selfish or irresponsible. It doesn’t necessarily mean we failed in some way.

And so it was in the case of the man born blind. The disciples and the Pharisees believed that you always reap what you sow. You always get what you deserve.

And don’t we sort of believe that, too? 

After all, do you remember that song from the Sound of Music called “Something Good.” Maria is falling in love with Captain von Trapp. And she can’t believe her good fortune to know the love of someone like him. And she sings, 

Perhaps I had a wicked childhood

Perhaps I had a miserable youth

But somewhere in my wicked, miserable past

There must have been a moment of truth

For here you are, standing there, loving me

Whether or not you should

So somewhere in my youth or childhood

I must have done something good

I must have done something good. Because we always get what we deserve, right?

But Jesus says no. In verse 3, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

Now we need to be careful: Jesus isn’t denying that human sin isn’t ultimately the cause of suffering. We remember the Fall: When Adam and Eve sinned, they introduced sin into this world, which leads to suffering and death. If not for sin, then, there wouldn’t be congenital problems like a child being born blind or with some other disability; there wouldn’t even be things like COVID-19! 

No, contrary to what his disciples and the Pharisees believed, Jesus’ point is this: the fact that the man suffered in this way is a consequence of sin in general, but it’s not the consequence of any particular sin. And it’s safe to say that’s usually the case in our world. How could it be otherwise? Psalm 130:3 says, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” 

The answer: none of us! None of us could stand because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And “the wages of sin is death.” That’s what we all deserve! The fact that we’re all still living and breathing is an indication of God’s grace!

So let’s finish looking at verse 3: Jesus says, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” But that the works of God might be displayed in him.

Jesus sidesteps the question of what caused the man’s blindness altogether. Because what caused the blindness… whatever went wrong when this child was conceived… however he got to be the way he is… isn’t nearly as important as how God is using the man’s blindness… what God is going to do with it… how he’s going to transform it into something good. 

After Jesus used this miracle to bring this man to saving faith, do you think the man spent any time regretting all those years he suffered from his blindness. Of course not! Because God had a purpose for it. And one of those purposes was to save him from his sin, give him eternal life. Isn’t that worth everything!

Because God’s purpose is always worth the pain!

We see this throughout scripture… Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, gets sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt. He suffers for years—through no fault of his own. It was because he was a man of integrity. He’s falsely accused by enemies. Abandoned by false friends. Finally God shows Joseph his favor and he rises to the rank of second-in-command next to Pharaoh. Through Joseph’s wise leadership he saves the lives of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands.

And when he reunites with his older brothers, his brothers are afraid for their lives—because they know they badly mistreated Joseph, and now he has power to destroy them, if he wanted. Instead, in Genesis 45:5, Joseph says to his brothers, “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” 

God didn’t cause Joseph’s suffering; Joseph’s brothers did. But the works of God were on display so powerfully that Joseph could say, “You didn’t send me here. God sent me here.” God had a purpose for it.

And God’s purpose is always worth the pain!

Or consider Esther, who becomes queen in Persia. But out of fear, she keeps her identity as a Jew a secret from her husband, the king… until an evil man maneuvers to have all the Jews in the empire annihilated. Esther’s cousin Mordecai urges her to intervene, to go to the king and try to stop it… even though it might cost Esther her life. She’s desperately afraid. Mordecai says, “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” 

God didn’t cause Esther’s suffering or the suffering of her people. But God was working his plan through it. He had a purpose for it.

And God’s purpose is always worth the pain!

Or consider the many ways that the apostle Paul suffered. He lists some of the highlights in 2 Corinthians 11: Five times he received 40 lashes minus one; three times he was beaten with rods; once he was stoned and left for dead; three times he was shipwrecked; once he was adrift at sea for a night and a day; he was in constant danger from his enemies; he was hungry, thirsty, cold, and naked. He was imprisoned on multiple occasions.

Yet toward the end of his life, when he was in prison facing execution, Paul could write, “For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”

In other words, if all these things that Paul suffered enabled him to gain Christ, and know Christ more deeply, and treasure Christ above all, and glorify Christ, and live for Christ, and fulfill Christ’s purpose for his life, then it was all completely worth it! God had a purpose…

And God’s purpose is always worth the pain.

Now more than ever, we need to hear the same message right now: God’s got a purpose in everything that’s happening to us—even for allowing this current crisis in which we find ourselves. These are strange, frightening, and uncertain times we’re all dealing with. 

You think I’m not worried sometimes?

What am I worried about? Getting the virus itself; the economy; my job security; the ability to do effective ministry when we can’t gather in large numbers; the possibility of not being able to gather for worship on Easter Sunday! Our ability to pay our bills when we’re not even collecting a regular offering each week.

I’m also worried about being judged: will people think I’m not leading our church effectively through this crisis. 

Every morning I wake up with these kinds of fears: I have dreams about these things! And I wake up with these fears and insecurities. And that’s bad… except…

These fears and insecurities have a way of driving me to my knees in prayer… and that’s good! And if a small part of God’s purpose for me during this time is that I learn to depend on Jesus more, well… I’d say that’s a pretty good purpose!

Listen… I got this from pastor Kevin Myers’s sermon from 12Stone, which I watched online last Sunday. And he probably got it from a Casting Crowns song from 2014… But I love this quote, and I’m going to paraphrase it:

From our perspective, it may look like the world is falling apart. But from God’s perspective it’s falling into place. 

It may look to us like the world is falling apart… Don’t believe it! It’s falling into place.

It’s falling into place. Trust the Lord! God’s got this. It’s falling into place! I know it’s painful right now. But God’s got a purpose. 

And God’s purpose is always worth the pain.

Listen: Maybe one of God’s purposes for you during this crisis is to wake you up to the same reality that the Pharisees in today’s scripture were unwilling to face: You realize now that you’ve been spiritually blind… you realize that you are a helpless sinner… that you’ve thought for years that you were a “good enough” person to get into heaven, and you’re realizing you can never be good enough. And you’re afraid. This crisis has got you thinking about how fragile our lives are, and there are no guarantees… All you know for sure is that, by God’s grace, you have this moment, this breath, this heartbeat… to turn to Jesus and repent. Maybe you’ve believed in Jesus, intellectually, up here… But now you realize that he isn’t here, in your heart… that he’s never become your Savior and Lord… Well… even if we’re not in person, we can do something about that. If you’re ready to say “yes” to Jesus’ gift of eternal life, will you pray this prayer with me—pray it out loud as I say it:

Dear Lord Jesus:

I confess that I’m blind and have not been able to see the truth about me: that I’m a sinner… that my sins have separated me from you… but on your cross, you suffered and died for my sins… you paid the penalty for my sins…  I believe that your resurrection from the dead proves it… It proves that you are Lord and you deserve every part of my life… Please forgive me of my sins… and save me from their consequences… give me your gift of eternal life… and give me the gift of your Holy Spirit that I may follow you faithfully… for the rest of my life. Thank you, Jesus. Amen.

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