Have you even been in an impossible situation? Rather than name one for you, I will let you remember yourselves a time when you faced the impossible. You felt trapped. You felt there was no way out. You turned the situation over and over again in your mind and viewed it from every angle—but still no solution.
An impossible situation is one that poses a problem—either one we created ourselves or one forced upon us—that admits of no solution. All we can do is endure it. Perhaps there are some among you today who are still enduring an impossible situation—one for which you have still not found a solution.
A close look at the Gospel of John, which it has been our treat to read during this Lenten season, shows us that Jesus deals with impossible situations.
As a good dramatist, John does not tell us this directly. He does not usually insert himself into the narrative to comment, with words like: “Now this was an impossible situation.” Instead, he embeds the reality in the narrative itself, so that we, the readers, can figure it out for ourselves. In his art of portraying the characters, he leads us, his readers, to draw our own conclusions, so that we exclaim: “Well, that person really is in an impossible situation!”
Steve Zeoli, who tells stories through film, has said to me that the first rule of good storytelling is to “show, don’t tell.”
Thus John does not tell us that Nicodemus is in an impossible situation. He shows us through the dialogue the old man has with Jesus that in fact he is in one. Nicodemus discovers he needs to undergo deep and radical change. But he’s old. To change in the ways that Jesus describes is tantamount to entering a second time into his mother’s womb to be born—an impossible situation.
Thus John does not tell us that the invalid at the pool of Bethsaida is an impossible situation. He shows us that in the 38 years that he’s been lying there, he’s been quite unable to help himself into the healing waters whenever the pool is stirred—an impossible situation.
Next week, we will learn through the dialogue between Jesus and his disciples that his friend Lazarus has died. But as if to remove all doubt about his death, John adds that by the time Jesus and the disciples had arrived at Bethany, they learned that he had already been in the tomb four days. Lazarus is not only dead, he is really and irrecoverably dead—an impossible situation.
John underscores the impossible situations with which can all identify at one time or another.
In our Gospel lesson today we meet a blind man. But again John underscores the impossible situation in which the man is caught by adding the detail: that he is a man blind from birth. This implies that which cannot be altered. To have a congenital condition, especially in the ancient world, means that nothing can be done about it. One can only learn to endure it and adapt to it.
As a man born blind, this man was dependent for his livelihood on begging—a very humiliating way of life.
He was never able to achieve a life for himself, independent of his parents, never able to assume responsibility for and to himself.
Most of us know a few people about whom we can say the same. They may not be blind. They may not even have a congenital condition that limits the extent to which they can care for themselves. But they’ve been unable to achieve a life for themselves, to assume responsibility for their own lives.
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Whenever pain and suffering and loss visit us, especially if it is undeserved, we inevitably ask the “why” question. We have this need to make sense of our lives.
Some of you know how this question has been classically formulated: If God is good and all-powerful, then why did he permit this to happen to me?
The question is a well-known crux. Pain and suffering exist. Therefore one or both of these attributes of God must be false. Either God is not good but is all-powerful and therefore wills pain and suffering. Or God is good and not all-powerful and therefore cannot prevent it or remove it even if he does not will it.
Only if we can make a direct connection between our suffering and sin, either that which we or our parents commit, can we resolve the dilemma posed here. God remains good and all-powerful. Evil does not lie with God, it lies with us. It is our sin that brings divine punishment down on our heads in the form of pain and suffering.
Note that Jesus does not go down this rabbit hole with his disciples. Instead, he denies the connection between the man’s present condition and his past, as well as his parents’ past, and redirects the disciples’ attention to the present.
How do we feel about that? Can that be a totally satisfying answer to our question about suffering?
There are so many today who are trapped in the past. The unspeakable happened to them, and it continues to haunt their present, thereby robbing them of their future. We don’t stand in judgment of anyone for whom this is the case when we say that this is not God’s will for them, when we say that God in fact wills to set them free from a past to which their pain holds them captive.
“This happened that the work of God might be displayed in this man’s life.”
We may never be able to make sense on this side of the grave of the unspeakable that happened to us, whatever it may be for you or for me. But we do not need to remain in bondage to our pain, to our despair.
And why? Because God is always at work in our present. Of God Jesus says earlier in John’s Gospel: “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working” (John 5:17). Jesus reminds the disciples of this fact here also, when he declares that as long as it is day, he must do the work of him who sent him.
There was a popular Christian song that came out a few years ago. I believe it is called “Waymaker.” Some of you may have heard it before, either on Christian radio or perhaps at a service at an evangelical church. In the bridge are the words:
Even when I don’t see it, You’re working
Even when I don’t feel it, You’re working
You never stop, You never stop working
You never stop, You never stop working
Even when we don’t see it or feel it, we can trust God here and now, the God who is working to heal and restore, not only us, but all creation, in order to display his work.
Jesus gets to work. What he does to the man recalls the other biblical miracles such as the healing of Naaman (2 Kings 5:1-19), by the prophet Elisha. You will remember that Elisha required Naaman to wash in the Jordan River. If the man were aware of this story in his people’s tradition, that might explain why he later refers to Jesus as a prophet. In any event, in response to the command of Jesus, the man went and washed and came home seeing (John 9:7).
To say that the miracle, the resolution of the man’s impossible situation, transformed his life is to state the obvious. But we are meant to see beyond the mere fact that a man once blind now sees. We are meant to see how his encounter with Jesus transformed his very being. For Jesus not only gave him his sight. He also gave him a new confidence, a new way of showing up in the world.
We are all painfully aware of our flaws, aren’t we? Indeed, most of us have waged a life-long battle against these flaws to keep them from forcing us to hide our faces from the world.
We have already mentioned that this man’s blindness made him a beggar, kept him dependent on his parents, never able to become his own person, with his own sphere of influence, never able to make his own mark in the world. No doubt his blindness kept him in the shadows, shut out from the light of life.
We say of people who have been crushed by shame that they have no voice. They feel diminished. They do not feel worthwhile as a person. They have needs, but they don’t feel worthy enough to admit to them. They have rights, but they do not feel worthy enough to advocate for themselves.
Today we live in a culture that is preoccupied with calling attention to the mistreated, the marginalized and exploited people groups, however these may be identified. Indeed, the culture has succeeded in convincing most of the mainline churches in recent years that their primary or even exclusive mission is to advocate for them, to be their champions in the pursuit of social justice for them.
The church, mainline or otherwise, ought always to be on the side of these people groups. But the primary mission of the church, mainline or otherwise, is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. The church needs to recover the conviction that this gospel still has the power to transform lives.
Because what this blind man has become–from a man hiding in the shadows, with no self-confidence, with no voice, to a man who is recognized to have come of age, who has found his own voice, with which he speaks wisely and fearlessly to the ruling authorities—this is a result of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, who has the power to transform lives, then and now and always.
Who is this one? We don’t have the power to make him who we want him to be, to press him in the service of our own causes. He is who he is and claims to be from eternity past to eternity future. Indeed, it is the burden of John’s Gospel to demonstrate this very thing. But in encountering him, we encounter a power who changes us. After this encounter, we will never be the same.
John is an evangelist. That is to say, his vocation is to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. Indeed, he states this explicitly in his Gospel in a passage that we cited before: “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
What are these things? They’re testimonies! At least what we have seen so far. “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did,” we heard the Samaritan woman declare last Sunday. “The man they call Jesus…He put mud on my eyes…and I washed, and now I see,” we heard today.
Testimony is central to the Gospel that John tells. It can always be tested and cross-examined, but in the end we are always faced with the question: “Do I trust it?” There is a necessary correlation between testifying and believing (or not) (David F. Ford).
Perhaps you have been in churches before where people come forward to give personal testimonies. What they are they doing is telling a story about their lives. Usually it is organized into two halves—the first half is the life they lived before they encountered Christ. The second half is the life they lived after they encountered Christ. They want to testify to the change that Christ made in them.
If we were to ask John, he would say that each one of us who has encountered Christ can testify. This after all is how the Gospel spreads, as it did in the Samaritan village, as we learned last Sunday.
God is not a mental construct. He is not a container for our causes. He is the living Lord who is at work in our lives to free us from those impossible situations, so that we can testify about him before others, in the hope that they too might believe and put their hope in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for their own impossible situations.
In this connection, let us recall our theme for the Lenten journey this year. Jesus goes his own way, a way that in the end only he can go, but he desires companions on his way. May we not hesitate to say to others what Jesus Christ has done for us. Amen.