Lent 4, (Year A)
March 30, 2014
1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Today’s lessons don’t seem to have a common thread, at first glance. Sometimes you can see very easily why the church decided to pair certain readings together. But I think there are two things that link the first reading and the Gospel, and those two things are fear and expectations that can get in the way of God’s work.
In the first lesson, the prophet Samuel had strong expectations about what kind of a person God is going to want as the next king. God told Samuel to go and God would tell him who. But when it gets to be time, Samuel isn’t just waiting for instructions from God. He sees Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab. And he thinks to himself, “That’s gotta be the one.” Eliab was the oldest son, he was tall, he was handsome, and he was just the sort of guy people want to see on a throne or leading an army. But no, Eliab wasn’t the one God wanted. God wanted the youngest son, the one who got left behind to take care of the farm while the rest of the family went out, the one who was a cute kid but still the runt of the family. David was not who Samuel was expecting. But God was using different judgment than Samuel was. Samuel was a prophet, but even Samuel needed to learn to listen to God’s desires rather than his own expectations.
The Pharisees in the Gospel lesson also had some pretty strong expectations about what God wanted. They had spent years studying God’s word, trying to figure out the best ways to incorporate it into their daily life. And they had turned those ways into traditions, so that there was only one right way to do things, and if you didn’t follow those ways, well, then, you weren’t following God’s Word. There was only one way to honor the Sabbath, for example; you went to worship and you studied God’s word and did nothing else all day but rest. Healing is work—just ask any doctor or nurse. So to the Pharisees, even doing something good, like healing someone, wasn’t honoring the Sabbath. Then along comes Jesus, and he heals a blind man on the Sabbath. Giving someone their sight is a good thing! And in those days, without things like cataract surgery, giving sight to the blind was something only God could do. But they thought that God wouldn’t work on a Sabbath, so therefore it couldn’t be an act of God. This gave them quite a dilemma: if it wasn’t an act of God, what was it? That’s why they spent twenty-five verses trying to figure out who Jesus is and what happened to the man born blind. Their expectations of who God is and what God was doing got in the way of seeing what God was actually doing among them.
But why did they cling so hard to their expectations? Why didn’t anyone in that community say, “Wow, I guess we must be wrong—maybe this is a sign from God that we need to rethink some things”? I think it was because they were afraid. There was a lot of conflict in Jesus’ day, and a lot of change. The Jews were pawns in a larger world. They were a conquered people, subject to the Romans, and the Romans made things a lot easier for people who followed Roman ways instead of Jewish ones. And charismatic leaders like Jesus kept popping up, each with their own spin on how Jews ought to live and worship. Other people called for rebellion against the Roman overlords. With the world changing around them, devout people like the Pharisees clung ever more tightly to their traditions and their ideas of what good and faithful people should be like. Their traditions were their anchor in a stormy world; their traditions kept them from being blown all over the place. Jesus was a threat to their stability—he challenged them by telling them that the traditions they clung to weren’t the most important thing God wanted them to be doing.
In this case, Jesus did something he’d done many times before, that always got people upset: he healed on the Sabbath. God told them to keep the Sabbath holy, and they were very strict about doing just that. They clung to their strictness as a protection against all the changes happening around them. And here Jesus is, publicly showing God’s power in a way that breaks their traditions about the Sabbath. If Jesus is right, that means that their traditions—the things that they cling to for stability in turbulent times—are going to have to change. So they’re afraid, and looking for any way they can to discredit Jesus and show that they were right all along. And they let their fear get in the way of seeing God. Their fear of change and their expectations of what God wanted got in the way of being God’s people. Their fear made them blind.
The parents of the man born blind were afraid, too. They were afraid that if they didn’t say what people wanted to hear, that they’d get thrown out. And that doesn’t mean they could just go on down the road to the next synagogue. It means they wouldn’t be able to go to worship anywhere, or go to any festivals or events. Put yourself in their shoes: can you imagine what it would be like to be thrown out of church? To not be allowed in to any community event? To know that wherever you go, people are talking about you behind your back, whispering about what a horrible person you are? It’s no wonder they were afraid. But they let their fear be stronger than their will to follow God.
Back to the story of Samuel anointing David as king. There’s fear in this story, too. At that time, Saul was king of Israel, the first king the nation had ever had. And although he’d started out as a pretty good king, things were starting to go downhill. Enemies were attacking Israel from the outside, and there was strife and deadly politics brewing inside. Nobody knew what was coming, and everybody was afraid. So God tells Samuel to go out and anoint the person who’s going to be the next king. Samuel says he can’t go because King Saul will kill him! He’s afraid. If Samuel followed his fears, he would stay put and Israel would be stuck with Saul as king. But God tells Samuel to go and worship with a religious sacrifice—a perfectly normal action for a priest—and God will tell him to anoint along the way. Well, Samuel decides to trust God despite his fears.
When Samuel gets to Bethlehem, the people of Bethlehem are afraid, too. Remember that things are very unstable, and so when they see Samuel coming, they’re afraid. Samuel is the prophet who put King Saul on the throne (and probably has his ear), and as a prophet he definitely has God’s ear. He can call down an army or the wrath of God. So when they see Samuel coming, the elders of the city came out to meet him literally trembling with fear. “Do you come peaceably?” they ask him. Imagine how relieved they must have been when Samuel said he came in peace and invited them to the sacrifice! I wonder what they thought and felt later, after the conflict between David and Saul put them squarely back in the hot seat?
In both the stories, people are afraid. And in both stories, people have expectations about God and God’s will that turn out to be wrong. In one story, people let those fears and expectations stop them from following God. In the other story, people follow God even when they’re afraid, even when God does something that surprises them. So my question is, which are we? What fears do we have that prevent us from following God? What expectations do we have that blind us to what God is doing in us and around us? And are we following them, or are we following God?