A few years ago, I realized I was going blind. Now, long before my sight began to be radically diminished, a medical doctor told me there was a good chance it would happen. Just learning about the possibility of blindness was actually worse than when my sight began to dim quickly about four years ago.
Well, thanks to the goodness and the healing power of God, to modern medicine, and to two unknown persons whose premature death made it possible for me to receive corneal transplants, today I can see. My sight is getting better and better still, three years after the original surgery.
All this has provided me ample opportunity to think carefully about sickness and health, and particularly about blindness. Therefore, I'm particularly interested in this story from John, chapter 9, about the man born blind. It's one of the most interesting stories in the New Testament. This fellow who could see nothing is described by John, as you read the whole of chapter 9 of his gospel, as one of the most colorful characters of all of the New Testament, even though he lived in darkness.
Today we see what we can learn about Christ's attitude toward disease and toward undeserved suffering. In the classroom of one of my younger daughters, there is a bright and handsome little boy who was born without any arms. How would Jesus approach such a situation? That's really the question that's behind this story of the man born blind.
Jesus healed the man born blind.
First, I want you to notice two or three facts about this man. Although we never know his name, he apparently was someone known to the people of the community in Jerusalem. He didn't approach Jesus. Nobody brought him to Jesus. He didn't ask to be healed. All of his life he had lived in darkness. He was blind from birth, and he had no idea what it meant to see. His physical condition was every bit as hopeless as if he had no eyes, no hands, no arms at all. He was a beggar. He was supported by the generosity of other people. As one reads the entire story, it is evident that the man was intelligent. He was able, he was a logical thinker, and he was a skilled communicator, but he really had no hope of ever seeing.
Two things happened to him in the course of this chapter. He was healed physically, and then, after going through an incredible gauntlet of challenges, he was healed spiritually as well. Let me read you a little bit of this story:
"Later, as Jesus walked along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. 'Master, whose sin caused this man's blindness?' asked the disciples, 'his own or his parents'?' 'He was not born blind because of his own sin or that of his parents,' returned Jesus, 'but to show the power of God at work in him. We must carry on the work of him who sent me while the daylight lasts. Night is coming, when no one can work. I'm the world's light as long as I am in it.'
Having said this, he spat on the ground and made a sort of clay with the saliva. This he applied to the man's eyes and said, 'Go and wash in the pool of Siloam.' (Siloam means 'one who has been sent.') So the man went off and washed and came back with his sight restored."
The Lord was in a hurry that day, as best we can tell. Just prior to this event, in the 8th chapter of John, the Lord had been involved in a major, serious confrontation with the Jewish religious leaders. Jesus had made bold claims about himself and about his relationship with his Father in Heaven. He had claimed to be one with the Father. He had claimed to be greater than Abraham. He had said that these religious leaders were sons of the Devil. And he made that day his boldest claim to divinity. The Pharisees had begun to run and pick up stones so they could stone the man to death for blasphemy, and he had escaped from them somehow by slipping away through the crowd.
So Jesus wasn't exactly relaxed. He wasn't exactly available for a lot of heavy counseling at that particular moment as he was going out the temple gate. But apparently it was in this context that this fellow, who customarily sat by one of the exits of the Jewish temple, was approached by Jesus. Jesus approached the man. He didn't engage him in prolonged discussion. He did not ask him questions as far as we know. He did not tell the man to follow him and become his disciple. He did not discuss the man's past or his sins. He didn't tell him, like Nicodemus, that he had to be born again. All of this came later on in his relationship. He simply made a little poultice out of damp clay, following an ancient custom. He applied it to the man's eyes and gave him an assignment. There was something about his words or the manner of the Lord that convinced this beggar to do what Jesus told him to do.
Jesus moved on without ever waiting to see the outcome. Later on, Jesus sought this man out and talked to him about who he was, and the man worshiped Jesus and became a convinced disciple of Christ. This is the only instance in the whole Bible where a person who was born blind was healed by the power of God.
Jesus has a deeper response to the problem of pain.
The disciples couldn't bear to let this opportunity slip away. They were just like you and I would have been. All their lives they had wondered about this age-old problem of pain. If God is a good God, and all powerful, why on earth would God allow a person to be struck down with such a problem?
It was easy enough to understand if this person had been some despicable person. He would deserve to be punished. But this poor fellow was totally blind from the very beginning. When he came out of the womb, he couldn't see. He had lived in total darkness. And so the disciples raised this question to their teacher.
How did Jesus respond? Jesus could have explained that, although God is perfectly good and all-powerful, this world in which we live, which he made, has been corrupted by man's sin. It's a fallen, bent, crooked, broken place in which there are many selfish and harmful people, and in which there are millions of types of dangerous bacteria and viruses. All these forces are at work to make this a dangerous environment in which all people, evil or wonderful, are equally at risk, and no one is safe from danger. He himself, God's own Son, was soon to be murdered.
"All of us look to heaven as the only perfect environment." Jesus could have said that. Or he could have explained that, yes, there are some situations in which the sin of the parent brings pain or grief or sickness on a child. We certainly see this in the case of children of alcoholics, or in instances where children suffer blindness or worse because of a parent infected with a venereal disease. Jesus could have gone into that.
He could have explained that all suffering is not alike. He could have said, "Well, there are no pat answers. Here are several different things for you to think about." He could have said, "Suffering has a place in God's planin the lives of certain people and certain situations."
Jesus missed an opportunity. He could have preached an unbelievably good sermon that would have gone down in history as the most penetrating analysis of the problem of pain ever given. He was the Son of God. He knew the answers to this problem. So much of our own inner pain and philosophical bewilderment could have been once and for all settled if Jesus had just preached that sermon that his disciples had begged him to preach.
Why did my father die as a young man? Why did this young mother and child die so cruelly in an automobile accident? Why that avalanche? Why that earthquake? Why that little boy without any arms? Why Auschwitz? Why Afghanistan? Why AIDS?
He could have explained all of that, but he didn't. He didn't. And as a result, we still have only an imperfect, incomplete understanding of the answers to the problem of pain. Often, we still find ourselves perplexed and grief-stricken in the midst of tragedies that befall all people everywhere.
What did Jesus do in this situation? He said: The only thing I'm going to tell you right now is that this situation is an opportunity. It's an opportunity for God to be glorified. It's an opportunity to show what God can do.
This is an important point: When you face tragedy, whether it's sickness or natural disaster or whatever, you might be able to discern reasons why this is happening, and you may be able to lay the blame on someone or something. You may even be able somehow to see the hand of God in it. You may not, and it may seem God is not answering you when you pray. Why?
It just may be the only answer you will get is this: "This has happened; don't dwell on why. Rather, it has happened, and having happened, we now have an opportunity to see God at work." That really is a much better answer.
Gail Burley is one of four gorgeous Southern ladies, sisters from the same family. Last summer, one of her sistersan older sister, who is one of the loveliest and most beautiful girls I've ever seenhad a tragic accident. She was diving into a pool, and she dove into a shallow spot and she broke her neck. She came that close to being killed by a broken neck. The family gathered round. She was rushed to the hospital. In this tragedy of incredible proportions, they drew close to one another. They drew close to God. They prayed and begged God to be at work. This girl was healed. It was a miracle. The doctor, the nurses, everyone involved, said, "We could never have expected to see such healing in such a way so quickly!"
God worked, and they all saw God work in response to that tragedy. There were other ways God might have worked. He certainly does not always give miraculous healing, but the healing power is there. It is real. Just as he healed the blind man, he may still do that same miracle today as we ask him to. Nothing is impossible to God, and our faith is the crucial factor.
What a shame that Jesus didn't give us an answer to our questions about the problem of pain. All he said was: Here's an opportunity to see what God can do.
Sickness and suffering are opportunities for us to show the love and compassion of God.
I thought about that this week, and here's what I thought: Sickness and people who are suffering around us provide us with an opportunity to show the love and compassion of God by caring for them and praying for them and working for their healing. It may be that God is calling you to medicine. It may be that God is calling you to work for the relief of suffering in areas stricken by famine. Perhaps God would have you become a part of our sick- and hospital-visitation ministry. It may be that God is calling you to a ministry of healing and relief for the sick and suffering. Affliction, sorrow, pain, loss, disappointmentthey give us opportunity to demonstrate the love of God to people who are suffering.
Many people, like this blind man in John 9, are too overcome by their suffering to be open to giving their lives to Christ. But when they are loved and cared for, when they sense the compassion of Christ through our deeds of mercy, they may, like this blind man, eventually come to Christ and find spiritual healing as well as physical healing.
I want to say a word, parenthetically, about a sickness, a tragedy of the first order that is confronting us in the world today. I want to say a word about AIDS. I haven't mentioned that in this church, I don't think. This disease is the most frightening since the plagues of the Middle Ages. It's only been identified for the last five or six years. We know very little about it, except that as far as we know, it's 100 percent fatal apart from the miraculous healing power of God. It's spreading at a horrific rate.
Back in '85 and '86, over a period of just nine months, the known number of people infected in the U.S. jumped from 13,000 to almost twice that many. A conservative estimate is that within five years, we will see a tenfold increase in this disease in our country.
The World Health Organization estimates that in Africa at least 50,000 people have died of AIDS. And another two to five million people in Africa are carriers of the virus. In Uganda alone, according to the WashingtonPost, the number of AIDS victims is doubling every four to six months. Some villages have become ghost towns. Surveys in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, have found that between 10 and 13 percent of the adult population carry the virus. In some areas of Rwanda, it's believed that 15 to 25 percent of the adult population is affected by this disease. Sixty percent, the paper said in another article, of women with AIDS will pass it on through pregnancy if they have children.
Death by AIDS can be among the ugliest known to medicine. The person can be reduced to a mindless, incontinent creature. It seems almost inevitable that before too many more years, most of us here in this church will have been personally affected in one way or another by this disease. Already one member of our church has lost her mother through AIDS, which she contracted through a blood transfusion. Another fine young man, thoroughly converted to Christ a few years ago and seeking to live for Christ, went to give blood, and the virus was discovered in his body: a deadly reminder, a remnant left over from sin a long time ago in his life.
We all know the reason that AIDS has spread so. It's the result of sinful promiscuity. How it began, we don't really know. It has been through promiscuous homosexual relationships and, more in Africa than in the United States, promiscuous heterosexual relationships that it has been spread. That, and also by the use of contaminated needles for those who are taking drugs intravenously. Immorality, in other words, has resulted in tragedy. At first, it was just affecting those who were engaged in sexual perversions and sexual promiscuity. But now many other people are being affected.
Our society is dealing with it by research, first of all. Second, our society deals with it by saying, "You better take precautions before you go to bed with somebody." Planned Parenthood was giving out free condoms in heart-shaped boxes in celebration of Valentine's Day. The amazing thing to me about all this is that almost no one is speaking out in favor of abstinence. Maintaining sexual purity before marriage is so out of date that the president of the American School Counselors Association was quoted the other day in the paper as saying, "Well, I mean, really, abstinence is pretty unrealistic in today's world."
"Be careful" is about the best advice anybody can give. Television is advocating more and more teenage sex under the euphemism of "responsible sex." I wonder when is it that our pleasure-seeking Western culture is going to learn that God has created nature such that promiscuity leads to tragedy. One would think that the history of venereal disease in the world would have taught us this.
I'm not going to spend all morning talking about this, but let me just say this: I'm personally all in favor of talking with children about the dangers of these diseases, and I think they certainly need the basic information about birth control, but what I think we must work for is that our teachers teach the beauty of virginity and that our teachers seek to communicate the importance of saving oneself until marriage. Of course, it begins in the home. We have a long, uphill battle, but we can't blame anyone but ourselves if we in the church don't speak out on this.
I didn't bring this up to make this point primarily, but to make another point. Let's go back to the story. Here was a man tragically ill, but in this particular case, Jesus didn't go into his illness and the reasons for it. He said: Here's an opportunity for God to be glorified.
Some people seem to feel that AIDS victims should be treated like lepers. We shouldn't have anything to do with these terrible people. That is clearly unacceptable to God. How would Jesus have treated an AIDS victim? I believe he would heal him just as he healed this blind man. I don't think he would have stopped there. I think in his time he would have pressed this person to seek to bring this person into a full relationship with himself and with the Father. Sexual sin is serious, but so is all other sin, and all of us have sinned. In this story, Jesus' concern was that the man be made well.
We know that AIDS has resulted from immorality, but still we must do all we can to work and pray for a cure. God cares about these people, even the ones most gruesomely involved in the worst perversions. Our concern must not be to condemn, but our concern must be their healing.
There are some in this parish who have been visiting and caring for AIDS victims. There are some that are involved in AIDS research. Maybe God wants you to become similarly involved. We must pray and work for both a recovery of sexual morality and for cures for sexual diseasesboth. And may God give us compassion for those with AIDS.
When tragedy comes, we always want to focus on the why. Jesus said it happens for a purpose, and that purpose is that the power and love and greatness of God might be seen more deeply through this. Even AIDS. You may have a tragedy in your life one day. Will you see it as disaster, a terrible defeat, or will you see it as an opportunityas awful and as painful as it might bean opportunity for God to do new things? Will you look backward, or will you look forward?
Many years ago, a little girl was totally blind. She was blinded as an infant as the result of an accident. She lived to be over 90 years old. She became a saint of the American church. She wrote many popular Christian songs and choruses. Her name was Fanny Crosby. When she was only 8-years-old, she wrote:
Oh, what a happy child I am, although I cannot see.
I am resolved that in this world, contented I will be.
How many blessings I enjoy that other people don't.
To weep and sigh because I'm blindI cannot and I won't.