4th Sunday in Lent

March 5, 2005
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 Rick Marshall

Trusting God’s Reality

All four texts assigned for this week speak to God’s leading to true perception. Themes of seeing and not seeing, light and dark predominate.

The text from 1 Samuel comes on the heals of an extremely disappointing experiment in kingship. Saul has failed as a king and it is evident to all concerned. Samuel has just delivered God’s judgment on Saul and the text for the day shows God leading Samuel to choose the next king, David. But the story is not aware of this choice until the end. The story begins with God telling Samuel to go to Jesse in Bethlehem to anoint the next king, which is one of his sons, one who Samuel does not know beforehand; God will identify the king at the appropriate moment. The story is charged with fear; Samuel is afraid that if he goes, Saul will find out and kill him. The elders of the city come trembling when Samuel arrives at their gates. “Do you come peaceably?” At God’s suggestion for safety, Samuel goes on the pretext of making a sacrifice to the Lord. “Peaceably,” he says. It is dangerous to move toward another king while the current king is still alive. The choice of the new king is fraught with danger and dark ramifications.

The story draws out the suspense of revealing the king through a series of Jesse’s sons passing before Samuel. At each appearance, Samuel asks “Is this the one?” God says to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance . . . for the Lord sees not as humans see; humans looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (vs7). Even the prophet Samuel is not able to perceive the way the Lord does. The heart is not the physical organ that pumps blood, but is a symbol of the center of life. The Lord is interested in qualities of character. Yet, as it turns out, David is beautiful and, later in the story, even God is smitten with him. David comes last in the series, but also as an afterthought. Choosing the least likely or the last is also a theme in Jesus’ teaching.

The reader gets the impression that God is teaching Samuel (and us) how to see value and character. We focus on the external, the obvious, the literal. But true value is strength of character, the ability to trust, lead. There is an outward reality and an inward reality, both distinct, but connected. From a process-relational perspective, this makes sense because there are external relations and internal relations. I will speak to this more below.

The text from John is classic. Nowhere else does the Bible deal more directly with seeing and not seeing than in the famous story of the blind man being healed. It is a playful story with many things going on in it; it is multivalent. At the most obvious level, it is about physical healing. Yet, we are reminded that the Lord does not look upon external appearance, but upon the heart. At deeper levels, it is about seeing and perceiving. As in many of the gospel stories, Jesus is dealing within a highly religious context, where thinking is rigid and interpretation of perception is ideologically imposed. The “World,” or the powers that be, says something is true because it is correct and affirms the world’s way of thinking, with its attempts to control and manage its own future. Any sense of the divine is highly controlled and monitored and used to justify its own efforts of control. Hence, this religious problem is not simply Jewish in nature, but is the wider human attempt to trust in self rather than the Creator. Therefore, status quo religion tends to worship coercive power which is the most condensed form of control and manipulation. Seeing or not seeing is a function of trust in either ourselves or in the Creator.

Harkening back to the first story in John’s gospel, Jesus changing water into wine, we do not know how Jesus heals the blind man. It just happens. Again water is involved. Jesus instructs the man to “Go wash in the pool of Siloam.” Which means “sent,” connecting this story with many call stories.

The religious authorities want to know what happened. Laws have been broken in the act of healing, an account must be made, a defense must be mounted. Why was the healing performed on the Sabbath? This thing has happened outside the control and perception of the religious authorities; they will have none of this unauthorized activity. They will decide if this is from God or not. Of course, at the end, they decide this healing is not from God. But the healed man knows better. He doesn’t know what has happened to him; all he know is that once he was blind and now he can see. His experience of God falls outside the permitted grid of perception. All the man knows is that he trusts the power that healed him; how could he not? Who, in their right mind, would not trust the power that heals them? This is a conundrum for the religious authorities, any religious authorities, not just Jewish. The question hangs in the air: who authorizes healing, life, well-being?

The theological point comes at the end. Jesus says, “For judgment I came into the world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind” (vs 39). And the haunting conclusion hits us: we ask with the religious authorities, “Are we also blind?” That question rings down the centuries to us now. What religious grid have we rigged for ourselves, to prop up our thin lives in answer to our fear and anxiety and the illusion that we are lord and master of our own lives? Do our  perceptions of the world actually hide the world from our eyes, or do our perceptions allow the power of God into our lives? To which reality are we oriented: Our own rickety illusion of mastery, or God’s power of life?

The Ephesians text speaks of light and darkness in relation to understanding. The issue is the perception of things either as we want them to be, or as they really are. The writer also uses such term as “truth” and “falsehood.” Truth has to do with an awareness of the real nature of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Themes of light and darkness can be centered around worship of self or worship of the Creator. The true nature of God is embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. The nature of God and the kind of power God values and uses can be seen in the contrast between David as Messiah, the Anointed One, as narrated in 1 and 2 Samuel and the person of Jesus as Messiah. Who is the true Messiah? Are the qualities and powers King David embodied attributes of God’s Messiah? Or are the qualities and powers Jesus embodied attributes of the Messiah? This is a fundamental question posed by the Bible. Yet, this is not a mystery. David embodied worldly power, empire power, coercive power at it’s best, in all its seductiveness. This is to be contrasted with the power Jesus embodied, which is loving power, persuasive power, the power that heals and creates well being. Which is the true power of God? It is clear the Bible claims God’s power is persuasive and not coercive, especially as exemplified in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as the true Messiah. God is the source of life and well-being, not violence and death. Being a child of light means, then, that one accepts the God revealed in Jesus Christ and the power that implies, and rejects the coercive power exemplified in King David, a power which leads to violence and death. This is not a Jewish problem; this is a human problem, and it goes directly to the human propensity to claim coercive power as divine and then emulate that power by being coercive toward others. This strategy leads to a cycle of violence and death that perpetuates itself. Coercive power is a consequence of self-worship and is therefore sinful. To trust coercive power is to be in darkness.  

Or another way to speak of these texts is to use the word “reality” very precisely. If God is the source of well-being and God is the power of life, and if God is the power of creative transformation, then to embrace life is to orient one’s self to that reality. We are then back to the simple call to trust our lives into the hands of that power.

Psalm 23 can be used as liturgy in worship. It is also a powerful poetic expression of a dynamic relationship between the Creator and the creatures. God’s regard for us is one of tender care and love. If we would but trust God, God would guide us through all the transitions of life, through all of our experiences of death. Even though it is impossible to imagine life beyond any form of death, this poem imagines it as a place filled with life. God not only guides us through the valleys of shadows of death, but is there to welcome us. It is a poetic expression of trust, life, welcome, homecoming, hospitality.

Preaching the Texts:
All the texts taken together imply a dynamic, interrelated world. A process-relational view is a very good way of pulling these texts together in such a way as to display a dynamic relationship between Creator and creatures. The Samuel text recognizes two forms of relations. One is external, outward, appearance. The other is internal relations, matters of the heart, inwardness, connections through feelings, love and care, in other words, heart matters. One way to preach this text is to recognize these two realms of value, external and internal. If the church is the body of Christ, then it would be easy to take that image seriously and say we are all connected inwardly. When one member suffers, we all suffer.

Biblical-relational theology affirms all the organic images used in the Bible to describe God’s relation to creation. Jesus uses many natural images of growth to describe the realm of God.

Another way to preach these texts is to compare and contrast the two primary models of Messiah, one model as King which is embodied best in David, the other model as trusting creature which is best embodied by Jesus. The focus could be on what kind of power is divine, coercive or persuasive power. Care must be used, if this approach is taken, to be clear that this contrast is not between Jewish and Christian, or Old and New Testaments, but is a contrast that is made within the Jewish context. Ultimately, it is a question of structures of human existence that goes beyond the Jewish/Christian divide. What kind of power is divine is a fundamental question that cuts across all religious differences and divisions.

Another way into the texts is to talk about the question of relating to ultimate reality. The way Jesus describes the Realm of God could easily be lifted up in a sermon as a way to address the question of which reality we chose to orient ourselves to.

Another way to approach the two narrative texts is to become familiar with the stories and their contexts, and simply tell either story, with commentary along the way. The story of choosing the next king is imbedded in a larger, theologically charged story. And so is the story of Jesus healing the blind man. The sermon could be imaginative and even poetic in its sensibility, hooking the imaginative power of the listeners. This form of preaching uses the narratives as vehicles of creative transformation.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.