March 30, 2014, Lent 4 – The Song of Judgment
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Yesterday the Youth Group went to see the new movie version of the story of “Noah”. It is definitely a modern take on the story, and Aronofsky, the director went beyond taking liberties with the story; he basically re-invented it, complete with rock monsters and epic battle scenes, so that it ended up kind of Lord of the Rings meets Transformers, with a shot of Bible for flavor.
Flights of fancy are OK, and that’s what storytelling is all about, but what disturbs me most as I continue to think about the movie is the way it misunderstands and misrepresents the judgment of God. Noah is portrayed, by Russell Crowe, as a man of faith, desperate to carry out the will of a distant, non-communicative Creator. The movie does a very good job of showing the depths of man’s sinfulness and violence – movies are generally good at that sort of thing – but God’s response can only be seen through Noah, who is tortured by his sense of God’s judgment on mankind. He feels called by the Creator to make sure humankind is utterly destroyed for its sinfulness, the guilty and the innocent alike, because even the innocent carry the potential for evil. Noah feels that it is his job to ensure that not one human being – not even his own family – remains on the earth. And the ultimate, terrible scene of God’s judgment comes when Shem’s wife gives birth to twin girls – girls who have the potential to grow up and become mothers and perpetuate the human race – and Noah feels it is his duty to kill them. Aronofsky’s Noah worships a Creator whose judgment on man’s wickedness is so vindictive, so merciless, that he only sought to punish and destroy those who had corrupted his good Creation. There is a scene at the end where the family is making a new beginning – because of course Noah, as a human being, can not bring himself to kill his grand-daughters even out of obedience to God, and there is just the glimmer of an idea that Noah had it wrong, that maybe God chose Noah, knowing that he would NOT carry out the full sentence of judgment. But the story ends on a dark and lonely note, and if it leaves us with any hope it is not in the mercy of God, but only in the fragile goodness of these few surviving people.
Storytelling is like music – a song begins in a key, and continues with a series of different melodies and maybe some accidental notes that don’t even belong in the key, but then it resolves in that same key. The Noah movie began with Noah as a child, alone with his father, isolated in a violent world, and ends with Noah’s family, as isolated as man could possibly get. And the story we just read about the man who was born blind is told in that same way.
It begins with the question that the disciples ask Jesus, when they see the blind beggar. “Who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” They wanted to know – who is God judging here, that such a terrible thing could happen to a man? Whose sin was it that caused God to strike this man with blindness? Because they knew how sin works. Sin is the cause of all evil in the world; it is because of man’s sinfulness that blindness and all other suffering of man exists. They knew that, and they knew that God judges sin. They knew the story of Noah, for one thing – the REAL story, and they knew that God is good and holy. And the logical conclusion that they draw is that when we see the result of sin in the world it is God’s way of punishing sinners. And therefore, this man’s blindness must be God’s punishment on someone for some very great wickedness.
And so the story begins in the key of judgment. The story is going to be about the nature of God’s judgment, which, it turns out, is nothing like the disciples thought. Jesus said this man’s blindness was not a punishment at all. No one’s sin had brought God’s judgment down upon them. The life of this blind man wasn’t a curse; it was an opportunity for God to show himself, because Jesus had come for that very purpose – to make our Father visible to us, so that we can understand things like – just what exactly is judgment?
And Jesus healed the man. Sometimes the stories of healing in the gospels are very brief. Jesus speaks and the person is healed. Or he touches the person and they are healed. Jesus didn’t need to go through any kind of ritual or procedure to heal someone; the power to heal came through him. But this time, this healing, is different. The events of the healing matter, because this healing is here to reveal something to us.
The first thing Jesus did is he spat on the ground. It may be my modern sensitivities, but that seems to me to be a shockingly human act. It is fleshly and intimate, a part of his physical person. And then he took the earth he had mixed with his spittle and he formed mud, or clay. The Greek can be translated literally he “made eyes” for the man from the clay. He was revealing the Creator in the act; because healing isn’t just patching up, it is re-creation; it is not just life repaired, but new life. And then he told the man, who was still totally blind, to go to the pool called Siloam and wash the clay from his eyes. He didn’t have to do that; we know from his many other healings he could simply have spoken a word and the man would have received his sight. But because this healing was meant to reveal the way God works, Jesus invited the man to participate in his own healing, not to be a passive object but to be a co-worker in his own re-creation.
And I think it is important that the man obeyed, but he didn’t yet know who Jesus was. I can’t even imagine what he was thinking as he stumbled to the water to wash the mud from his eyes – some mixture of hope and confusion, I imagine, and in the background that doubt and fear we all feel that God won’t really do what we ask, and nothing will really come of all this. But of course when he washed the clay from his eyes he saw, for the first time in his life, light, and color, and form. And then he began to believe.
Faith came after the healing because healing is an act of grace. Just as the man’s blindness was not God’s punishment, his healing was not some kind of reward. God healed him in response to his need, purely out of love and mercy and kindness. And then the man believed – how could he not believe? And it is wonderful to read how the healing changed the man, not merely physically, but his whole character. He had been a beggar his entire life, an object of pity, sitting by the side of the road in darkness year after year. And then Jesus healed him and suddenly he is well and whole in every way. He sees with his eyes, but he also sees clearly with his spirit, and he speaks to the Temple authorities with incredible boldness. How could a beggar say such things, things like, “Why, this is an amazing thing! You don’t even know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.” He could see, and it was irreversible, no one could ever take that from him no matter who they were. The could never make him UN-see because his sight was a gift of God.
And so that healing becomes a picture of the way God works. It’s a picture made out of the real life of a real human being – and it is a picture of what God’s judgment is. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who are blind might see, and those who see might become blind.”
The story of the healing of the blind man has revealed to the disciples, and to us, that the purpose of judgment is not punishment, it is healing. And judgment works in a most glorious and unexpected way.
1. All sin is blindness, because it is separation from God, who is Light (John 1 – in him was life, and that life was the light of men)
2. But when darkness meets light, light always wins – open a door out of a dark closet, and the world is not flooded with shadow; instead, the sunshine floods the closet – light prevails every time – Eph. “anything that is exposed by the light becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light” Light transforms
3. Jesus came to transform us out of our blindness – incarnation (flesh, spittle), re-creation (molding us from clay into his image), our participation (washing, repentance) – so that we may see him, not because we asked or deserved but purely because we needed and because he loves us and is merciful.
And now we come to the final, resolving chord, bringing us back to the theme of judgment, when Jesus said to the Pharisees – Now that you say you see, your sin remains.
Does that mean that he had given up on them and now they’re on their own? They’re out, like the desperate Noah in Aronofsky’s movie. They are under God’s judgment without any grace?
The joy and glory of the gospel is that the answer to that is no, because if judgment is about healing man’s blindness – it is also about revealing all blindness in order that all blindness can be healed. Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” But all God’s judgment is mercy, not condemnation, because God’s judgment is on those he loves. If he wanted to condemn, he would not have come at all. He could have swept us all away in the great Flood and been done with us, or even easier, he could have left us alone to destroy ourselves in our violence and selfishness and greed. But he didn’t come to condemn – he came to heal. And he came to discipline his children out of love, so that we will grow into the fulness of all that he created us to be.
By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment (who sinned, that this man was born blind?) and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love – not because we are nice people or better at keeping the rules, but because he first loved us, in all our blindness and helplessness. And now we, who were blind from birth, have been called to be the light of the world, as he was the light of the world, and to call our brothers and sisters in the world into the light of God’s loving judgment, the light that heals and re-creates us, the light that brings life.