4th Sunday in Lent

March 10, 2002
See Also: 

Lenten Candle Liturgy
John Cobb on redemption
Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

Reading 1: 
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Reading 2: 
Psalm 23
Reading 3: 
Ephesians 5:8-14
Reading 4: 
John 9:1-41
By Keith McPaul

The story of the God’s selection of David as the new King of Israel was no doubt included in the Lectionary reading for its emphasis on the selection and anointing process. Throughout their history the Israelites have seen their leaders as being the ‘anointed’ of God. They were specially chosen to do God’s will; they were the messiahs of their day. The anointed one was seen to be set apart for a special purpose. Yet we all say in Psalm 23 "you anoint my head with oil". Does this mean that we are all set apart by God for a special purpose? Interestingly, in the Psalm we are not told to do anything (except to lie down in green pastures) in order to be one of the ‘anointed ones’. The Psalm does imply that when the Lord leads we follow. It does imply that we acknowledge that the Lord is with us all the time and that we follow in the "right paths" when we are shown them. Why would the Psalmist say that the Lord prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies? Is this a test? Or is a public witness that we are prepared to follow the "shepherd" wherever we are led? Samuel was told to make a public witness and find the new ‘anointed one’. Samuel trusted the Lord to lead him in the "right path" even though he knew he would have to walk in danger of retribution from Saul. It is fortunate that the anointed ones are not chosen for their good looks or for their obvious talents, David’s only training was as a shepherd. We tend to respect status, power, and achievement. God requires truth, faith, and justice and only sees potential. We are all chosen because each of us has something to contribute to the extension of God’s kingdom. Notice that Samuel was told not to grieve over Saul; he was not to be ruled by the past. The past is always part of us, we learn from the past, and the past influences the present, but we should not allow the past to control our actions.

Ephesians 5: 8-14
What hit me between the eyes in this Epistle reading are the words, "Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them." Whoever wrote these words certainly understood the real world! Where do we start? Children of light are not like electric light bulbs, automatically turned on or off by the flick of a switch. Understanding what pleases God, and living out "all that is good and right and true" demands a lifetime of learning, being gradually changed so that more and more Christ-light shines through us. But this is what most Christians Churches have done throughout history, and yet we still argue about the rights and wrongs of theology and practice. We tut-tut at what society is doing and what the Government is doing, maybe even write a letter to the Editor or take part in a march. Then we go back to our comfortable little community afraid to rock the boat. I recently watched a programme on TV about the philosophy of Socrates. It seems that Socrates embarrassed everyone in Athens, especially those in power, by asking them to explain why they believed what they believe, and why they did what they did. Theologians such as Spong, Cupitt, Holloway, and others, are asking us to question our Christian beliefs and actions. Process theologians are asking even more, they are specifically asking why we should not ‘rock the boat’. The P&F Hard Issues publications and the two books by David Polk, What’s a Christian to do? encourage us to question our beliefs about many of the social issues that impact on us as Christians as we live in today’s world. Jay B McDaniel in his book, With Roots and Wings, examines how we can live a Christian life that has both spiritual roots connected with "heaven and the earth, and with the God in whom they are enfolded" and with the wings of freedom to explore the new futures which are "a dimension of God’s ongoing life." McDaniel quotes the well-known hymn; they will "know that we are Christian by our love", and "also by our roots and wings." John Cobb Jr says in Lay Theology, "if one is a Christian, one should think about the important matters in a Christian way. The alternative would be to define one’s Christianity in terms of certain practices, such as prayer, Bible reading, church attendance, with no expectation of their affecting the remainder of one’s life."

In, Becoming a Thinking Christian, Cobb suggests that Christians mount a ‘counter attack’ after having been far too long in a period of retreat. He says that we need to re-engage the world on those issues that were important to Jesus. When we meet injustice and inequality in the world we should challenge the system that brought these about, whether it is in the area of suffering, poverty, economics, the legal system, ecology or any of the many other social issues that are affecting the world in which we live. We should each question our own assumptions about these important issues, and then, like Socrates, question the assumptions and actions of those about us, especially of those in authority. Cobb says that as we become skilled in questioning, analyzing, and improving the assumptions that underlie the practice within the church and our own moral judgments, we can start to counterattack the secularism that has so restricted the relevance of the Christian faith over the past decades. Where do we start? We can start in our own back yards, with the poverty, drugs, hatred, and environmental damage we find there. For those in a position to do so, there are the wider issues of world debt, world hunger, corruption, economic inequality, and ecological disasters everywhere.

"Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you."

John 9: 1-41
The periscope from Ephesians has as its theme ‘darkness and light’ which fits very nicely into the Gospel reading which uses the giving of sight to a man born blind to expand on the issue of darkness in the world being overcome by the ‘light of the world’. The narrative is in three parts, the healing itself, then the interrogation of the ‘blind’ man and then his parents, and finally a second interrogation of the man before he is driven out of the synagogue. Marcus Borg explains the two intrinsic metaphors in the story as ‘light’ and ‘seeing’. These metaphors connect to the major theme of John’s Gospel; Jesus is the light who brings enlightenment. John makes use of the opposites, darkness and light, blindness and seeing, and ignorance and enlightenment both as cross-cultural images for the human condition and for deliverance from them. Enlightenment is a central metaphor for salvation. To have one’s eyes opened, to be enlightened, is to move from darkness to light, from death to life, from falsehood to truth, from life in the flesh to life in the spirit, and from life below to life from above. To be enlightened is to be born from above and of the Spirit; it is the experience of knowing God in Jesus.

The issue of ‘sin’ also runs through this story. The Pharisees ask the question, if sin cannot be identified with suffering or Sabbath-breaking, what does it consist of? This question is answered as we watch the flowering of the blind man’s faith; sin is unbelief. Over the course of this narrative his spiritual sight develops. First he ‘sees’ Jesus as "a man", then as "a prophet", then "one who is from God," and finally as the "Son of man" and as "Lord". As John Parr says, "Jesus speaks of sight and blindness as metaphors of faith and unbelief. Who then really sees? Who is truly blind? Who is really a sinner? The Pharisees’ condition is only aggravated by their refusal to recognize it."

Lord, strengthen those whose faith is being stretched today.
Encourage them by the examples of people like the man whose eyes Jesus opened.
Use my prayers to make faith more resilient, and help it to grow.