Sunday, March 2, 2008

Dig Deep

Fourth Sunday Lent
Sunday, March 2, 2008
John 9:1-41

We might think it a quaint notion, a mystical view of the universe, the question the disciples posed to Jesus about the man who was born blind. He must have sinned, or his parents must have committed some atrocity to bring about this unfortunate curse of not being able to see. We might think we know better in our enlightened age.

Especially in America we pride ourselves on digging deep within ourselves to make our lives better. Even in many churches today you might not find so much of a questioning of why a person would receive the fate of being blind as you would of a motivational appeal that even they, too, can be empowered to live a fulfilling life. That, in fact, we’re all in need of motivation; that we all have problems—but also the potential to be all that we can be.

But when you look inside yourself, what do you see? If you dig deep will you find inner strength to have the victorious life you hear of in much of contemporary American Christianity, that is yours for the taking? Will you find that who you are as a Christian calls for the same kind of digging deep for success that the American spirit does?

This is popular because we want to hear this kind of message. We want to believe it’s true. We want to believe that we can somehow make a difference in our lives, that it’s up to us to make it happen. That we have the power to be more than we are.

The problem with this brand of Christianity is that it takes its cue from numero uno. The Bible’s brand of Christianity takes its cue from God Himself. It’s a dangerous thing to look within ourselves when God tells us to look to Him. And what does God tell us is deep within our hearts? A heart that is far away from God. A heart that is deceitful and looks to itself for the fulfilling of its own desires. That is why the success-oriented brand of Christianity is so appealing—it appeals directly to our sinful hearts.

We’re told that when we look inside ourselves we should like what we see. Be proud of writing a little note to your child telling them how much you appreciate them. Feel good about yourself because you go out of your way to help people who really need it, even when they don’t ask you. Be pleased with yourself at the progress you’ve made in becoming a better you.

There is a word for this kind of self-congratulation. It’s called being a Pharisee. You are not seeing yourself for who you really are, but for who you would like to be. The sinful flesh always looks to itself and likes what it sees. That’s the way of the Pharisee. The Pharisee doesn’t want to see himself for who he really is. He hears what God says about him and rebels.

Now, you may be thinking, well it’s a good thing that I’m not that way. I’m certainly not a Pharisee. I do believe what God says about me, and I am aware of my sins and my faults. But in thinking this about yourself you prove that you are a Pharisee.

In the Gospel reading today Jesus used the situation of the blind man to show us what we need to know about ourselves. Most of us wouldn’t want to be blind. But if you’re spiritually blind the consequences are eternal. Did you notice how Jesus turned things around on the disciples? When they asked how the blind man came to be in the condition he was in, Jesus turned it around to focus on the fact that God was the one who would do the work to help this man.

Have you ever been at a loss for words in trying to comfort a loved one suffering from serious illness? Wouldn’t it be so great for a miracle to happen? And isn’t it somewhat disconcerting that Jesus in His three-year Ministry was seemingly healing people left and right while today it seems that we’re merely reliant on doctors and medicine? It almost seems to not be comforting that Jesus was performing spectacular miracles two thousand years ago but doesn’t waltz into the hospital to do the same for your loved one.

It’s one of the hardest things to do, but it’s in times like these—but really in our entire life—that we need to dig deep into the well of God’s mercy rather than into the desires of our heart. Looking deep within ourselves we will ultimately be disappointed. Looking into the heart of God we will find freedom and hope. We must re-train ourselves in how we pray. There’s nothing wrong for praying for what we want. In fact, God even encourages us to do so. But we often forget the parameters of these prayers. He tells us to pray according to His will. So often our prayers for what we want are according to our own will.

That’s why it’s so important not to look within ourselves. Much better is to look at God’s Word. The Church’s prayer is formed by the Word of God. A wonderful example of that is the collect we prayed a few moments ago:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, Your mercies are new every morning; and though we deserve only punishment, You receive us as Your children and provide for all our needs of body and soul. Grant that we may heartily acknowledge Your merciful goodness, give thanks for all Your benefits, and serve You in willing obedience.

We may not think of it much, but when we pray, we are praying to the one being who has all power. The one who actually has the power to help us in needs of both body and soul. It’s more important than we think in how we address God when we pray to Him. And not really so much for His sake as for ours. In the collect we prayed, “Almighty God, our heavenly Father.” He knows who He is. But in our words of prayer to Him we remind ourselves of who He is. Almighty. Our Heavenly Father. The one who has eternal power and loves us as His very own children.

When you pray, do you find yourself simply asking for things? God gives us the invitation also to give thanks for His blessings. The collect did not begin by asking for what we need but by a statement of who God is and what He does for us: “Your mercies are new every morning.” How often do we think of this? How often do we believe it? Could the blind man say this every day when he woke up? Can you say it every day? Or do you let your physical ailments supersede the kindness and compassion God shows you?

Maybe we struggle with this because when we pray we so often are praying for what we want rather than praying for God’s will to be done. Today’s collect guides us in praying according to God’s will: “You receive us as Your children and provide for all our needs of body and soul.” We got the praying for our needs of our soul down, don’t we? We know what we need there: forgiveness of sins, eternal life, spiritual guidance and strength. And we also believe that God abundantly provides for us with these eternal blessings. But what about our bodily needs? What about when we’re sick? How about when money is tight? What about when our friends seem to turn on us? When these things aren’t miraculously addressed by God the way the blind man’s were, where does that leave us? Do we think that God is not providing for our physical needs?

This is tough to come to terms with. And we may not like the answer God gives us, but the answer doesn’t lie in what we would like to see happen. It lies in what our true needs are. While we certainly would like to see immediate help in our physical needs, only God knows what is truly best for us. Praying according to God’s will is praying for the wisdom, the patience, and the strength to endure whatever may come our way—even if that means that healing doesn’t come immediately. Even if that means that our relationships with our loved ones remain strained though we are trying to seek reconciliation. Even if that means we don’t understand why God is allowing us to struggle.

Oftentimes, the answer God gives us is not what appeals to our heart. We American Christians are right at home with digging deep and coming out on top. Or at least attempting to be the best that we can be. The call Jesus gives to us is not about this kind of victorious living. It is rather concerned with a humility that seeks solace in the humble God who Himself gave us the gift we ultimately need: and that is Himself. In any cross we bear we will find true comfort in the cross Jesus bore. In looking deep inside ourselves and confessing that our Lord is right, that there is nothing good within us, we will find eternal comfort in looking outside of ourselves to the pure heart of Christ who was slain on the altar of Calvary.

We may then pray that this will be our prayer both now and into all eternity: “Grant that we may heartily acknowledge Your merciful goodness, give thanks for all Your benefits, and serve You in willing obedience.” Amen.


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