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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Thursday, April 03, 2014

Would You Know Something Good If You Saw It?

This sermon was first preached at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church on March 30, 2014.

Lectionary Gospel Text:  John 9:1-41

Today I want to reflect with you on a question raised by this story.  The question is, “Would you know something good if you saw it?  Would you recognize good news if you heard it?”  On this fourth Sunday of Lent, we continue in our journey of self-examination, of repentance, of seeking to turn in the path of following Jesus.  We have a story from the time of Jesus’ ministry that was filled with conflicts.  It is a story of how people were not ready to receive what Jesus brought to them.  It is their story and our story too.  Would you know something good if you saw it?  Would I?  Would I recognize the good news if I heard it?  Would you?
What a crazy, mixed up story this is!  People are looking at one another, whom they have known for a long time, trying to figure out if they recognize each other.  People are asking the same people the same questions over and over.  It’s almost as mixed up as the famous Abbott and Costello routine about “Who’s on first?”  Yes, he is.  Who is?  The first baseman.  That’s who I’m asking about.  That’s who it is?  What?  He’s on second base? etc., etc., etc.  These people could not stop asking questions long enough to think and figure out what was going on.  Religious people, the teachers and preachers, were arguing with one another about whether what they were seeing can really be happening.  They were arguing about their doctrines and ignoring what they saw and heard right there in the streets of Jerusalem.  Some people were afraid to say what they thought.  One man in the middle of it all was flabbergasted at how everyone was acting toward him.
When you and I look at this story, we tend to be drawn to a key aspect of it.  A man who had been born blind received his sight because of Jesus.  We might even tend to ignore the rest of all these goings on.  On the other hand, if something like this happened in our neighborhoods, there would probably be a commotion.  People would wonder how it happened.  And if we understand the situation in which this story occurs, maybe we can also get the picture of why all the arguing came about.
John’s gospel is full of stories of what happened when Jesus was in Jerusalem.  Unlike the other three gospels, which tell Jesus’ story in a familiar and similar way about his ministry that is focused in Galilee, this fourth gospel is different.  It has mostly stories the others do not include.  And at this point in the middle of the gospel of John, Jesus has been in Jerusalem long enough to have become a major topic of conversation and controversy in the city. 
If you look back through several chapters, you will see how some people, especially the religious and political leaders, are trying to do battle with him.  They want to discredit him, prove him wrong.  They want to try to show him up in front of the crowds.  But every time they try, Jesus comes out looking great in the eyes of the people.  His popularity grows.  He outsmarts them, makes them look foolish, makes them look selfish and greedy and arrogant.  He shows he understands God and theology better than they do.  He keeps urging people to care about one another and not so much about who is in charge or who tries to appear perfect before the law.  Jesus is winning the battle of public opinion, and his opponents are becoming his enemies.  They get madder with each encounter. 
If you look at the chapters which follow, it continues to intensify.  Eventually, he has to leave the city and go to the outlying villages.  He knows that he is in danger.  He recognizes that people are plotting to kill him.  Seeing it coming, he is trying to make the most of his last days.  He is designing a plan to bring the crisis to a head in a way that will make it clear what God was doing through him.  So when his disciples ask him an important theological question, he offers an multilayered answer in hopes they will come to see better who he is and what God sent him to do.
They ask him a question that comes from what we might call pop theology or the folk tradition.  They see a man who has been blind from birth.  They wonder aloud to him about why the man is blind.  They assume it is a punishment from God, either upon him or upon his parents for sin.  How they would think a man born blind could have sinned before birth and been punished, I have no idea.  But I suspect their puzzlement had to do with fairness or justice.  If it was because of his parents’ sin, why would God bring the punishment on their child?  So in order to try to make it seem more fair, they tried to imagine that it was the man’s own sin.
It’s a strange question as we analyze it.  But it’s not so far from the pop theology and folk religion of our own time.  We see something happen to someone in our community or neighborhood, and we imagine that God did it to the person because of some sin they have committed.  We tell ourselves that people who get sick or don’t get well must be being punished by God.  Or we say they did not have enough faith, another way of calling them sinners.  We act like it’s a simple cause and effect rule, an input-output machine.  Do something bad, God gets you.  Be good, God blesses you. 
Well how is it, then, that people who risked the savings and retirement funds, the mortgages and jobs of millions and billions of people in the world, lost all that money and put people out of their homes and jobs—these very same people got bonuses and raises and continue to be the richest people in the world?  Did all those people who lost their jobs get punished for their sins, but the crooks who caused the companies to fail and the economy to go into recession get blessed for being good?  Of course not.  All we have to do is read the book of Job carefully to see that this kind of thinking is bad theology.  Evil that occurs in the world is not by God’s design or cause.  It’s not a simple input and output.  Sometimes the unrighteous and evil prosper.  We see that way too often.
So Jesus first answers them by saying that they have it all wrong.  The man is not born blind as punishment on anyone.  Sometimes blindness or other hardships or disabilities happen in the process of fetal development.  Children are born with challenges.  Yet we also find that people with challenges can flourish.  Those who cannot see may find as much joy in life as those who can see.  The many variations in human gifts and abilities allow many variations in the form of a joyful life.  I would not belittle the hardships that people may face who find their abilities significantly different from most people.  But we don’t make sense of their struggles by trying to blame them or their families and tell them God is punishing them.
Then Jesus goes into a deeper theological truth.  He begins to talk about the specific meaning of his coming into the world.  He tells the disciples that he has a unique task and a limited time to accomplish it.  As we have already mentioned, this story appears in the Gospel of John.  This is one of four writings in our New Testament that we call “Gospels.”  The Gospels are the writings that tell us the story of Jesus.  They convey to us what he did, why he did it, and what it all means.  And if we remember our Sunday school training well, we remember that the word “gospel” means “good news.”  They are stories of good news.
It is an interesting time in churches and in theological studies to be thinking about this word gospel.  What does Gospel mean?  What constitutes “good news?”  When I was growing up, we were trained to “share the gospel.”  The people who came up with this training believed that gospel was about individuals getting right with God, and that was all that it was.  It could be fit into a small paper tract, a leaflet smaller than my hand.  So if people could read that tract and learn that their sins could be forgiven, and if they would ask for that forgiveness from Jesus, who made it possible, then they could be right with God.  Well of course that training was true, as far as it went.  Jesus did make it possible for us to be forgiven.  We do need to be right with God.  And many of us find ourselves longing for forgiveness, under a weight of sin.  Thanks be to God for the forgiveness of sins we receive because of Jesus Christ!
But the reason I needed more than that training offered is that when we read our Bibles and find the word gospel, there is a lot more going on than this message of inward peace through forgiveness.  The Gospel is grander, deeper, richer, and all around “gooder” news that touches everything about our lives and about the history of the world.  One New Testament scholar has referred to that version of the gospel as the “soterian” gospel.  He’s showing off his knowledge of New Testament Greek by using the Greek word “soter,” which means savior.  This is a version of the gospel that is narrowly focused on sin and forgiveness as an individual’s problem.  I got sin, you got sin, all God’s children got sin.  One by one, this soterian gospel says, we get right with God.  And God is satisfied with individuals being sorry for sin and asking for forgiveness. 
When John Perkins was converted in evangelical churches in Southern California, he began to participate in this kind of sharing of the gospel.  But the longer he ministered, the more he realized that the message of the gospel was bigger than just a simple sinner’s prayer.  It was for the whole person.  Not just the heart, the gospel was for the mind, the body, the entire life.  And it was not just for a person, it was for social life, for communities.  He became the great advocate for a wholistic view of the gospel.  Jesus brought us the whole gospel for the whole person and the whole community.
This scholar I mentioned, Scot McKnight, is an evangelical himself.  He is not denying this soterian message is an element of the gospel.  But in his thick book, The King Jesus Gospel, he says that this aspect of the gospel is a reduction, a minimizing, of a much richer meaning of the word.  The Good News is the whole story of what Jesus did, from coming into the world, living and loving, teaching and preaching, challenging the powers and lifting up the lowly, and finally being executed for his words and deeds.  God raised him from the dead and vindicated all that he had done.  What does McKnight say that Jesus had done?  Jesus had come to bring an end to the exile.  He had come to restore God’s promises.  He had come to fulfill the true purpose of God’s calling of Israel.  He was the announcer of the Kingdom of God, and he was even the Kingdom of God in himself.  That story, that life, that person, those words and actions, all of that is the Good News.  It’s not just about me, myself, and I, all alone, getting right with God.  It’s about all of us, all of the world, being called together by God to be a new kind of people, a loving, caring, forgiving, reconciling, sharing, righteous, humble, peaceable people.
If we think about it, whenever Jesus taught us about asking for forgiveness, he also had another thing he liked to say.  He said, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”  Asking forgiveness from God for myself, if that is all I do, starts to look a bit selfish, especially if I cannot be changed by Jesus to become a forgiving person.  Jesus says not to expect to be forgiven if we don’t become forgivers.  The good news definitely includes your forgiveness and my forgiveness from God.  But it also includes that we don’t have to keep holding grudges and counting demerits and merits toward others.  We can be free to forgive, and that is the kind of person Jesus wants to turn us into.
So Jesus explains to the disciples that neither the parents’ sins nor this man’s sins caused the blindness.  But now that they have seen this man on this glorious day, it is an opportunity for Jesus to show the man, his family, the neighbors, the disciples, and anyone who wants to see it, that Jesus came to bring the light of God into the world.  He is restoring Israel to the purpose to which they were originally called.  He is turning things around and upside down.  As long as they have not killed him yet, he has some more light to shine.
Maybe some of you already have been thinking about a theological matter that I have puzzled over concerning the good news.  Quite a few years ago, I first talked publicly about this matter at a Wednesday night Bible study here at Mt. Level.  I’ve been thinking about it off and on ever since.  I recently gave a presentation to a group of baptist professors in Atlanta about it.  That matter I continue to think about is much like the one that Scot McKnight has been thinking about.  But it may be even more specific than his discussion of the gospel.  I keep wondering about this word gospel in a specific context: when Jesus himself says the word “gospel” or “good news,” there are some very specific things he means by it.  Now I’m not going to go into a boring lecture about all the different times Jesus says the word gospel.  Actually, it might not be boring at all for those of us who love the Bible.  But I’m not going to do that today.  Today I want to point out one central, very important time when Jesus says the word “good news.”
It was recorded in Luke chapter 4.  He was preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth.  He was announcing to the people there why he had become a preacher and teacher, and what God had sent him to do.  He quoted from the prophet Isaiah.  He quoted texts about the restoration of Israel, the fulfillment of God’s promises and purposes.  And he said he came to bring good news to poor people.  That’s right, he specifically singled out poor people.  And to drive the point home, he named all kinds of people who are poor and need some good news:  oppressed, imprisoned, and yes, blind people.  When we meet blind people in the New Testament, they are usually beggars.  To be blind meant that it was hard to learn a skill and earn a living.  To be blind meant that folk religion and pop theology made you out to be a sinner.  Lots of people were not very friendly to the blind.  And that’s exactly what we found out in this story from John 9.  This man born blind was a beggar.  He is one of the ones Jesus announced that he came to give good news.
What is that good news?  If it is the news of the Jubilee and the Sabbath year, it is that the poor don’t have to stay poor.  It is that the beggars can get a fresh start.  It is that slaves can be free again and debtors can have their debts forgiven.  It is the good news that among God’s people, there must be no need among us.  For anyone who is in need, God has a provision—the open hand of those who can share from God’s bountiful blessings.  That is good news.
But if you are among the rich and powerful, it might not seem to be good news immediately.  You might resent the idea that you should part with some of your wealth so that others can eat.  You might not like the idea that your second or third home could be a home for the people who have been set out and homeless because of the loss of income or foreclosure.  You might not think it’s to your advantage for the blind to no longer be viewed a sinners who caused their own hardship.  Since you aren’t blind, and you have some money, you have been claiming that God is blessing you for being righteous.  Now this rogue preacher says the good news is this man does not have to be poor, and he will shed some light in this moment of time by giving the blind man sight.
And now we get to the serious issue that causes this text to turn into a circus.  The issue is that when some people hear or see good news, they don’t recognize it.  They don’t understand it.  They call good, evil, and evil, good. 
As we noted earlier, some of the people seem confused at first.  They probably never really got to know the blind man.  He was just there all the time, begging.  They hardly looked at him.  He probably looked down at the ground or off in the distance.  So they did not recognize his face very well.  They kept talking to one another about him, as if he were not there himself.  They asked one another whether he was the same beggar who hung around the neighborhood.  Some were sure he was, others not.  He kept telling them, “Hello!  I’m right here!  Yes, I’m the same guy.  I was blind.  I was a beggar.  Jesus made me able to see.  I am that man.”
As if they had not been rude enough already, some went off to find the preachers, I mean the deacons, I mean the Pharisees.  They brought them in to offer an expert opinion.  So they started quizzing the man and the witnesses.  But before long, they were back to their usual ways, arguing with one another, trying to prove who was the most clever in understanding theology and the scriptures.  One is focused on the Sabbath laws, a favorite topic of theological dispute.  Another is trying to understand how such a transformation as ending blindness could occur at all, unless it was from God.  They can’t get it settled among themselves.  So they keep quizzing the man, almost as if he were on trial.  They want to quiz Jesus, although many have already decided that Jesus is a no good liar, a blasphemer, a sinner of the worst kind.  Of course Jesus could not have done this because he is such a sorry sinner.
They ask the formerly blind man questions, but they really don’t listen to his opinion.  They are sure they are the ones who know it all.  They get everyone upset.  Then they call for the man’s parents to be brought.  They get them so worried that they won’t even offer an opinion.  They are afraid they are going to get in trouble.  The man who got his eyesight gets so flabbergasted that he starts being sarcastic with the Pharisees.  He asks why they want to hear the same thing again.  He asks if they are trying to become Jesus’ disciples.
That made the Pharisees blow their tops.  Now they could be united.  They had a common enemy.  Jesus and anyone who might seem to like Jesus.  They accuse the formerly blind man of being Jesus’ disciple.  They brag that they are disciples of Moses.  They follow the law.  They don’t know what foolishness Jesus is up to, and they want nothing to do with him.
After all this outburst, the formerly blind man lays it on the line.  He says, “Man, I thought you guys were supposed to know something about God.  Listen to the junk y’all are saying.  Something amazing happened here.  I’ve been blind from birth.  But Jesus came along and made a way for me to see.  Now I can see.  How else could something like that happen except from God?  And you so-called teachers of God’s ways can’t even see the good that God is doing.  This is good news, folks.  Why can’t you hear and understand that?”
They can’t take his uppity words.  They try to cut him down to size.  They start preaching that folk religion.  They say he is a sinner, or else he would not have been blind.  They are not blind, so they must not be sinners.  Lord, they are full of themselves.  They are full of pride and self-satisfaction.  They can’t stand this kind of talk, so they chase the poor man away.  Once he was gone, they stood there shaking their heads.  Can you believe that guy?  Acting like he knows more about God than we do?  We are the ones who know how things are done.  We are the ones who can teach and live right.  Who does he think he is?
I suspect the man who ran off was shaking his head, too.  The so-called wise and religious ones sure came across ignorant that day.  Right before their eyes, a great thing had happened.  He figured most people would be overjoyed to get to see such a thing in their lifetime.  But these jerks just wanted to make it another reason to fight and argue and try to prove their superiority. 
What a blessing that Jesus was still nearby.  He got a report on what had happened, so he went looking for the man.  He found him and encouraged him.  He made sure the formerly blind man understood that he, Jesus, was sent from God.  And he put the crazy events into the right context.  He told the formerly blind man about why God sent him into the world.  He says that by bringing good news, he also brings judgment.  For people who refuse to receive the good news, the message becomes a judgment.  And it turns out that the ones who thought they could see are the ones who are really blind.  The Pharisees got mad all over again, but Jesus says they are bringing this judgment on themselves.  He has brought good news.  Why can’t they see it?  Open your eyes.  You have all the opportunities of studying God’s word.  Look. Listen.  There’s good news.  Receive it.  God has a way for us that is justice, its mercy, its walking humbly with God.  That’s what God requires.  That’s what God asks.  That’s what God made us for.  It’s good news for all of us.  The blind man sees it.  The poor can hear it.  You religious, law studying people, you privileged people—you all can hear it too.
The summary of all the law is to Love God with all that you are, and to love your neighbor.  Love this man.  Love that he can see.  Love that God makes a way for all of us to have what we need.  Love that God forgives, and that God can make us into forgiving people.  Love the grace that personal sin in your life can be forgiven, and that God can break down the walls and structures of sin that oppress and impoverish and imprison our sisters and brother.  God knows our needs and our struggles, our failures and our troubles.  God comes to find us where we are, and God brings good news.  Wherever we are, God has good news for us.  
 For those of us who are sick, the good news is that Jesus is the Great Physician.  For those who feel marked and stained by the crowd they are running with, the good news is that Jesus can sanctify us to God.  For those who feel the weight of sin, the good news is that Jesus forgives the sinner.  For those who are alone, the good news is that Jesus is a friend.  For those who feel abandoned, the good news is that Jesus embraces us and makes us part of the family.  For those who are in neighborhoods where trouble abounds, the good news is that Jesus came to restore streets to live in.  Wherever we are and whatever our condition, Jesus is bringing us good news.  Thanks be to God for this good news.  Let us hear and receive it, all of it, leaving none of it out.  Jesus saves us from our failures, our oppressive ways, our sins, our blindness, our lostness.  Thanks be to God.  Thanks for good news.  Thanks for Jesus’ coming to bring it to us.  Amen and amen.

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