This is the message that I presented at Neon (KY) United Methodist Church for the 4th Sunday of Lent, 14 March 1999. The Scriptures for this Sunday were 1 Samuel 16: 1 – 13, Ephesians 5: 8 – 14, and John 9: 1 – 41.
About eleven years ago, I got the chance to go through the Newfound Gap and Cades Cove in the Great Smokies National Park. This was special for me because a number of years before that, my family had gone there but there were so many people that it was almost impossible to appreciate the beauty of the park and to just even stop. When I came back, it was in early March and I drove through just after sunrise. I still remember the crisp, cold morning as I could look over the hills of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.
I also had the opportunity to walk on the portion of the Appalachian Trail that passes through Newfound Gap. The Appalachian Trail is a hiking path that runs along the Appalachian Mountains from north Georgia to Maine. I have wanted to hike this trail since I was about 12 and while this brief encounter with the trail in 1988 doesn’t quite mean that I have done so, to spend a few moments on the trail was very special. I still want to go back and walk a longer distance on the trail and perhaps someday even walk the whole length of the trail as others have done.
There are a lot of people who wish that life were like the Appalachian Trail, a long journey with a beginning and an end and very few deviations along the way. The Pharisees in the Gospel reading today were like that. They believed that the blind man Jesus had healed was blind because of something he had done, some sin he had committed. Their belief in someone sinning caused them to believed that somehow one could sin while still in the womb or even be punished for sins in a previous life. This idea is not limited to the time of Jesus and the Pharisees.
When John Wesley first began to preach the Gospel, he struggled with why people were in torment because of society. The development of the Methodist Church, later the United Methodist Church, came as a result of Wesley trying to answer two questions: What was the nature of salvation and what was the role of the church in dealing with society’s problems.
England in Wesley’s time was undergoing a series of rapid changes brought about in part because of the Industrial Revolution. We tend to think of the Industrial Revolution in a positive light because it enabled more people to work, earn more money, and, in general, improve their way of life. At the beginning, however, that was not always the case. For many workers, the pay was low and there were no retirement or health care plans. Because there were no child labor laws, it was not surprising to find children as young as 10 working in the factories. People worked from sunup to sundown six days a week and dare not take a day off for any reason because they were likely to get fired. If they owed someone money, they were likely to be put in a debtor’s prison until their family could get the money to pay the debt. Alcoholism was not uncommon. Welfare was dependent on the whim of the rich and the patience of the poor.
Against that background was the belief that being poor was a fate given to you by God and there was very little you could do about it. If you were poor, it was because you lead a sinful life and were to be pitied. To this, Wesley responded
"Has poverty nothing worse in it that this, that it makes men liable to be laughed at?…Is not want of food something worse than this? God pronounced it as a curse upon man, that he should earn it "by the sweat of his brow." But how many are there in this Christian country, that toil, and labor, and sweat, and have it not at last, but struggle with weariness and hunger together? Is it not worse for one, after a hard day’s labor, to come back to a poor, cold, dirty, uncomfortable lodging, and to find there not even the food which is needful to repair his wasted strength? You that live at ease in the earth, that want nothing but eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to understand how well God hath dealt with you, is it not worse to seek bread day by day, and find none? Perhaps to find the comfort also of five or six children crying for what he has not to give! Were it not that he is restrained by an unseen hand, would he not soon "curse God and die"? O want of bread! Want of bread! Who can tell what this means, unless he hath felt it himself? I am astonished it occasions no more than heaviness even in them that believe." (From John Wesley’s sermon "Heaviness Through Manifold Temptations")
Wesley asked, "How should the church respond?" There were those who felt that the troubles of society at that time – the terrible working conditions, the lack of care the upper classes showed for those less fortunate, the terrible health conditions, the alcoholism – were an indication that God had lost faith in the people on earth.
It was Wesley’s contention that society could be changed and that it was the church that could make that change. It was through Wesley that the first Sunday school was started; not as we know it, but as a way of educating the populace (keep in mind that many children worked six days a week in the factories and Sunday was the only day when they could go to school). It was also Wesley and his followers who took the lead in dealing with the alcoholism and substance abuse so prevalent in English society at that time. Some argue that Wesley’s concerns and actions were one reason why there was no social unrest in England at that time.
The challenge that we face, the choice that we must make is how we are going to react to what is going around us. As we progress into the next century, be it next year or the year 2001, I think we are still a society that feels that poverty and disease are inflicted upon us and that it is up to those who are the victims to seek the solutions for their problems.
I am not saying that they shouldn’t try to solve their problems but rather that sometimes they cannot do it alone. After all, Jesus directed the blind man to go to the pool at Siloam and wash his eyes before he could see. But He also said that
“but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
We are faced with choices, just as Samuel was faced with the choice of finding a replacement for King Saul. Samuel’s first choice was David’s oldest brother, Eliab, who appeared to have the proper characteristics.
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider the appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
The important thing that we have to consider is not what we see on the outside but what it is in the person’s heart. The Israelites had found out the proverbial hard way that though Saul looked and acted like the King that they desired he did not have the disposition or character necessary.
But when we are faced with a choice, we have to be willing to make the choice. Samuel listened to the Lord in finding the next King for Israel, even if he did not fit the image that everyone had in mind for a king.
So he sent and had him brought in. He was ruddy, with a fine appearance and handsome features.
When Jesus challenged the vision of the Pharisees, they could not see the world as it was but only in terms of their limited vision.
Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”
Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”
Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”
But the man who was blind saw Jesus in an entirely different light. As the Pharisees questioned him, each time making it more and more difficult for him, he saw Christ first as just a man, then a prophet, and finally as a person to be worshipped. This is something of the path that we often follow. C. S. Lewis wrote
People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, “If you keep a lot of rules, I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.” I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a Heaven creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is Heaven: that is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other. (From Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis)
We would like life to be simple journey but we have to make choices. The man at the pool could have accepted his life and believed as others that his life was without hope, trapped in sin. But he chose to listen to Jesus and follow the directions that he gave him. Jesus came into this world to change the vision of those who were spiritually blind. As Paul wrote
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of the light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible. This is why it is said:
“Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Jesus gave light to the blind man; but for those who could physically see but whose mind was closed, there was not much hope.
When I began working on this sermon and I thought of those brief moments on the Appalachian Trail those years ago, I could not help but think of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”. It is a poem that is a personal favorite of mine in which Frost speaks of choices.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
and sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The prophet Isaiah spoke to the people of Israel about the choices they had to make.
O people of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you. Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, you teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” (Isaiah 30: 19 – 21)
In two weeks we celebrate Palm Sunday, the day that Christ began the final journey. He knew the outcome of that journey and while He may not have wanted to take it, it was a journey that he did for us. It is not a journey that we have to make. But today, we must make a choice. We hear the voice speaking in our ear telling us the way to go; we can see the light shining in the darkness of this world. There is a choice that must be made. Do we follow Christ?