The story of the man who was born blind is one of the longest in the New Testament. Maybe we should think about that.
The people following Jesus see a man, begging by the side of the road. They point to him and ask Jesus, for whose sin was he born blind?
What a question. In the entire passage, the only people who have a grasp of God are Jesus and this nameless blind man. (Surely someone knew his name. Either the gospel writer did not, or perhaps the anonymity of the man frees him in our minds.)
His blindness has nothing to do with sin, Jesus tells them. He might have said, Your ideas of God are wrong, extinct, yet you carry them around, use them to blind yourselves—this blind man sees better than all of you.
We stir up our ideas about God and smear them like mud across our eyes.
Wash it off, he says. Open your eyes.
We want reasons. The gospel writer gave us a story. We want to know the purposes of God. The gospel writer only gave us one.
Mary wasn’t surprised by the angel, just by what the angel said. She was blessed, it said. She was going to carry a child, no man required. God, the Other, was going to enter the world as a child. Her child.
Not to be surprised by the angel itself, Mary must have carried some expectation that God could break the boundaries of her world, that angels would open the doors of her mind. And Mary responded the only way that anyone can ever really respond to God.
Here I am, she said.
Sometimes the world rises, or sinks, to our expectations. Angels appear, maybe because we believe they will. We see God at work because we are watching, waiting for something to happen.
But when it happens, it’s not what we thought. The angels tell us things that make no sense.
And there you are.
“Behold I am the servant of the Lord,” Mary said. “Let it be as you say.”
That behold is sometimes translated here I am. The Greek Ἰδοὺ idou “behold” substitutes for the older Hebrew הִנְנִ hineni, a response to the calling of God: here I am. Abraham said it to God and to Isaac. Moses said it. Samuel said it. Isaiah said it.
And Mary says it. Here I am.
Strangely enough, this story is all about God saying the very same thing to Mary. Behold, here I am with you.
Mary didn’t expect her story to start as it did, just as she did not expect her son’s story to end as it did. It isn’t about God meeting our expectations. It is simply a matter of expecting God.
Here I am with you. Emmanuel.
Advent is the season of anticipation, a time of mindfully expecting the impossible, that there is a God, and a God who chooses to be with us. Among us. Within us.
We may not receive a visitation from an angel. We may never know God dwelling with us the way that God dwelled within Mary. Still, we may hope. And that hope, all by itself, is a miracle.
John writes of simple things. Light. Bread. Water. All of them speak to us of God, of this person Jesus.
In the noon-day heat of the story, Jesus sits by a well and tells a woman about water that is alive. Those who are raised in Christianity, who grew up surrounded by its imagery, will not even pause at the words—living water—being already steeped in such language.
It is an odd phrase, particularly in modern English. In Greek in the first century, the phrase meant water that moves. Living water comes from a stream or a gushing spring: it is water that is not still, unlike the water of a well. In John’s gospel, though, the words point to the source of life.
The woman doesn’t seem to understand. Jesus tries again. He claims that the water he could give would keep springing up inside the drinker, an odd thing. The woman, being of a practical mind, takes his words literally and so misunderstands, thinking only of freedom from hauling buckets of water from the well.
Jesus stops trying to explain the water. He finds other ways to open her mind.
We might see that like Jesus and this woman, God waits for us at the point of our need. When she arrived at the well, Jesus had arranged to be there. That gives us hope that when we find ourselves in the noon heat with an empty bucket, God is already there waiting.
Like the gospel writer, we might also pay attention to simple things. While God could make an appearance with trumpets and a chorus of angels, this gospel tells us that God is more likely to be present in a drink of water, the taste of bread, the sunlight. The evidence of scripture is that God prefers simple things.
Light. Bread. Water. These are the most basic things we need for life. John uses them to teach us of the nature of God.
The relationship between Nicodemus and Jesus is strange, as is the story in the third chapter of John’s Gospel.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus, acting out the role of a thief in the night, though that phrase is not used to describe the messiah in John’s Gospel. In this gospel, the thief comes to steal (John 10:10). Are we to consider Nicodemus as a thief, coming to take what is not his?
Another oddity is the shifting voice of verse 11. Suddenly Jesus is speaking in the plural—we speak of what we know…what we have seen. The same shift occurs at the end of the gospel in 21:24, where we hear the voice of the Johannine community speaking. 1 John 1:1 offers the same plural voice, a similar attestation to having seen. Are we seeing layers in the text, the words of the early community placed alongside the words of Jesus?
How about the reference to Moses and “the serpent in the wilderness” in verse 14? Did anybody really understand the first time this image occurs in Numbers 21:9? It sounds less like faith and more like magic.
Perhaps it is a suitable objection. After all, a great deal of what passes for faith is actually magical thinking cleverly transformed into religion. Magic is the practice of ways to control hidden power, ways to get the deity to do what one wishes to be done. The question is whether that is so very different from the way most of us practice Christianity: if we do this, God will do that.
True faith does not ask for a response from God. True faith is a response to God. Anything else is just us fooling ourselves.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Spirit of God is like the wind, coming from places we cannot imagine and going anywhere it likes. The wind, like the rain, does not touch only the righteous. Instead, the wind blows across everything in its path.
Nicodemus found that God was already waiting for him, even in the dark.
Last Sunday the lectionary marked Transfiguration Sunday, a remembrance of the story of a mountaintop experience in which Jesus transformed into a glorious figure. Moses and Elijah made a striking appearance as well.
For the first Sunday in Lent, we remember a different story of visiting a mountain. This time Jesus has the devil for company.
We know the story of the temptation of Christ, though we may wonder who told the details to Matthew. Jesus has purposefully fasted for forty days and nights. Along comes the devil with three temptations: turn stones into bread for your hunger, throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple and let the angels catch you, and worship the devil to gain the whole world.
We get that last temptation, because it is reasonably clear to most of us that worshipping anything less than God is wrong, even in order to get everything in the world. The other two, well, it is a little more difficult to find anything wrong with the ideas.
Throwing oneself down from the pinnacle of the temple is not unreasonable, given that one was up there anyway and angels are really going to catch you. No harm done, and it would be amazing. The idea seems to be that one should not put God to the test, just for the sake of doing it. God doesn’t perform circus tricks on demand.
That first temptation, though, is the hardest one of all to understand. What is wrong with having a little bread? Provided one has the power to do it, and nobody in the story seems to question whether Jesus actually could turn stones into bread, why not?
On one level, it seems to be about observing human limitations. Human beings cannot, generally speaking, turn stones into bread. On the other hand, human beings cannot, generally speaking, heal the sick, raise the dead, feed thousands of people with a child’s lunch, or pull tax money out of the mouth of a fish. Yet, in Gospel stories Jesus did all of these things.
Maybe it was also a question of doubt. The devil does not propose the bread simply as food: “If you are the Son of God…” Such a miracle would prove, presumably to Jesus himself or to the devil since no one else is present, that he is indeed God incarnate. Still, self-doubt doesn’t seem to be a problem. The gospels do not record an instance of Jesus wondering about his own identity, except in the eyes of others.
The real problem of these temptations is that they would alter the true nature of Jesus. He was an authentic human, complete, what our species aspires to become. Acts of self-doubt, or self-acclamation, would have torn the fabric of Jesus’ being, would have made him less than he was.
Perhaps that is how we can measure temptations that come our way. Regardless of the hunger that might be filled, or the apparent lack of harm, or the ends that we might achieve, we measure our choices by the injury done to our humanity, to our souls. There are worse things than hunger, obscurity, and the lack of wealth.
Matthew tell us that Jesus went up on another mountain, and this time he was followed by crowds of people. Maybe when he sat down to speak, he remembered his own temptations.
“Blessed are the poor,” he said. “Blessed are the meek…blessed are the hungry….”