Monday, April 04, 2011

Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, on Sunday, April 3, 2011.]

John 9:1-41
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” We’ve all heard that advice. It warns us to avoid making judgments based on outward appearances and to instead, see life and people at deeper levels.

This theme is seen in our first lesson for today, 1 Samuel 16:1-13, which tells the story of when a shepherd boy, David, was anointed to be king of Israel.

The theme is carried forward in the Gospel lesson. In it, we catch up with Jesus nearly midway through John’s gospel account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Already, by this point in John’s narrative, there have been groups of people laying in wait for the chance to have Jesus executed.

Then, on a Sabbath day, Jesus’ disciples make a mistake. They judge a book by its cover. They see a blind man and decide that somebody has to be to blame. “Rabbi,” they ask, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus tells the disciples that they’re looking at things wrongly. The sins of neither this man nor his parents were responsible for the man’s blindness.

Aren’t we prone to think as superficially as the disciples, though? We look at the cover and don’t bother to take a look inside.

Jesus repeats something He’d already said. It's something that John wrote about at the beginning of his gospel. “I am the light of the world,” Jesus says. Jesus here is pointing to the fact that He’s not only about to help a blind man see, but also has the power to offer all who repent and believe in Him, new life.

Mixing His spittle with some dust from the ground, Jesus spread mud on the blind man’s eyes. He then told the blind man to wash his eyes in a nearby pool. The first miracle in our lesson took place: Jesus gave sight to the blind man.

But another miracle is in the offing.

Other people in the rest of our lesson will prove to be the real  blind ones. Not only don’t they see the blind man for who he is and the miracle of his recovered sight for what it is, they also, most tragically, can’t see Who Jesus is. They refuse to see Jesus for Who He is!

The reason for their blindness is that they’ve turned the faith revealed to Israel and chronicled in the Old Testament into a legal system they could control.

Those of you who have been participating in Read the Bible in a Year know that in Old Testament times, God laid down a lot of laws for His people. As I pointed out last week, only the moral law—or the Ten Commandments—and the laws that issue from them, like Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or the apostle Paul’s explanation of the commandments in 1 Timothy 1:8-11, remains valid today.

But there are limits to what God’s moral law can do. In the book of Romans, Paul says, “The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12). But the most that God's holy, just, and good law can do is show us our need of the forgiveness and new life that comes only to those who repent (turn from sin) and believe in (that means, entrust their lives to) Jesus Christ. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” Paul writes later in Romans 8:1. No condemnation! That’s good news! When you and I surrender to Jesus Christ, our sins are covered over, Christ has paid our debt for sin, and we belong to God for all eternity!

But there are always people who want to turn the gospel of new life for those who rely completely on Christ into some religious or political system they can control. This was true of some of Jesus’ fellow Jews whose reaction to the blind man’s returned sight wasn’t happiness or celebration.

They became upset because Jesus, Who had restored the blind man’s sight, had, according to their rules, worked on the Sabbath day. Kneading (k-n-e-a-d-i-n-g), which Jesus had done when He mixed His saliva with dust, was one of thirty-nine activities which Pharisaic Jews saw as a violation of the Sabbath day.

Never mind that a man born blind could now see. Never mind that, as the newly-sighted man said, such a sign could only have been done by someone sent by God. Jesus wasn’t playing His culture’s religious games. That’s why His opponents couldn’t see Jesus for Who He was (and is) and why a blind man, open to the promptings of God could see Jesus for exactly Who He was (and is).

Toward the end of our lesson, Jesus asks the man to whom He'd given sight, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” This is a consequential question, the most important question any of us will ever be asked.

The term “Son of Man,” first appears in the Old Testament book of Daniel. In Daniel 7:13-14, for example, Daniel records a vision he had of a Son of Man Who would one day come to set things right in the world:
I was watching in the night visions,
And behold, One like the Son of Man,
Coming with the clouds of heaven!
 He came to the Ancient of Days,
 And they brought Him near before Him.
 Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom,
 That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him.
 His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
 Which shall not pass away,
 And His kingdom the one
 Which shall not be destroyed.
Son of Man is a designation Jesus uses of Himself 84 times in the New Testament's four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Jesus clearly saw Himself as the fulfillment of Daniel's vision of the Savior sent from God.

“Do you believe in Me?” Jesus is asking the man. “Do you entrust your whole life to Me: all your past sins, all your dreams for the future, your whole destiny in this life and in the next? Are you utterly surrendered to Me? Will you live each day in repentance and renewal as you follow Me to eternity? Will you let My Holy Spirit empower you to confess and live out your faith in Me? Do you believe in Me?”

Jesus had already made it abundantly clear in His conversation with Nicodemus, which we talked about a few weeks ago, just how much is at stake when anyone is asked if they believe in Jesus: “For God so loved the world,” Jesus said, “that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

When asked if he believed in Jesus, the newly-sighted man had just one question, “And who is he, sir?” That's when we read about the second miracle in our lesson. When Jesus said that the One he was looking at was the Son of Man, the blind man worshiped Jesus. He saw what others—what many today—refuse to see: that Jesus is God the Son, the only way to forgiveness and reconciliation with God, the only means by Whom you and I can become all that we were made to be by our loving God.

If we only look at the humanity of Jesus, we need to ask Him to open our eyes and see Him as the only God and Lord we need to believe in and worship. The miracle of faith in Christ can happen in us…and in anybody!

We who have been called and commanded by Jesus to share the Good News of new life for all who repent and believe in Him must ask God to use us as His agents in helping to dispel the blindness that keeps so many of our neighbors from knowing and following Jesus.

We must share Jesus’ call to repent and believe in Him lovingly and unapologetically. Otherwise, people with whom we live, work, and play—people we like and people we love—will be separated from the life Jesus so desperately wants to give to all people.

I’ve cited it often, but it’s worth mentioning again that Jesus has made it as clear as possible, when He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me”  (John 14:6).

If our neighbors, family members, or friends see Jesus as anything less than the God Who has conquered sin and death for all who believe in Him, we must pray that God will help them see…and that the Lord Who gave sight to a blind man will use us to share a true vision of all that Jesus is and all He can be for those who call Him Lord and God.

But this means that we also must ask the God we know in Christ to help us see others not by their “covers,” but for who they are as children of God.

At the end of an Easter evening service at the Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York, Pastor Jim Cymbala sat exhausted close to the altar area. He wanted to relax and unwind a bit. But then he caught sight of a man dressed in shabby clothes. His hair was matted. He looked awful.

He stood about four rows from Cymbala, awaiting permission to approach. Cymbala nodded, but thought how horrible that this was how his festive, if tiring, Easter was going to end. “He’s going to hit me up for money,” Cymbala thought.

As the man approached, the odor—a mixture of alcohol, sweat, urine, and garbage—took Cymbala’s breath away. It was so bad that he instinctively turned his head to inhale while he spoke with the man.

"What’s your name?" Cymbala asked. “David,” he said. “How long have you been homeless?” “Six years.” “Where did you sleep last night?” “In an abandoned truck.”

Cymbala said that he’d heard this story many times before. He reached into his pocket for some money he could give to David and send him on his way.

“No, you don’t understand,” David said. “I don’t want your money. I want the Jesus that red-haired girl talked about [during the service].”

Cymbala says that he felt “soiled and cheap.” He silently asked for God’s forgiveness. “I had wanted…to get rid of [David],” Cymbala writes, “when he was crying out for the help of Christ I had just preached about. I swallowed hard as God’s love flooded my soul.”

David seemed to sense this change in Cymbala's view of him. He moved forward and fell on Cymbala’s chest, burying his grimy head against the repentant pastor's clean clothes.

Holding David close, Cymbala told him about Jesus’ love, how Jesus had died and risen to give David new life. “I felt love for this pitiful young man,” he says. And the foul odor? “I don’t know how to explain it,” Cymbala writes, “It had almost made me sick, but now it became the most beautiful fragrance to me.”

In this moment, he sensed Jesus telling him, “Jim, if you and your wife have any value to Me, if you have any purpose in My work—it has to do with this odor: This is the smell of the world I died for.”

When Jesus looks at us, He doesn’t see us as the world does. He sees prodigal children worthy of the sacrifice of Himself on the cross. 

May we see Jesus as our Lord and God and, seeing others with the same love, passion, and concern He has for us, may we tell the whole world about Jesus. Amen!

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