02/28/21 “Seeing Clearly”

Mark 8:22-33

The singer/songwriter Johnny Nash died last October at the age of 80. He was 32 years old when he wrote his Billboard chart-topping hit, “I Can See Clearly Now.” You’re probably familiar with this upbeat song with the reggae beat. The words go like this:

I can see clearly now the rain is gone; I can see all obstacles in my way.
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind;
it’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) sunshiny day.

It’s rumored that Nash wrote this song after having cataract surgery. He would have been a little young for that, and his publicity team was known to embellish his biography a bit, but even babies can get cataracts, as well as people who’ve had eye-related injuries or an illness like diabetes. Cataracts, as many of you know, make your vision blurry. They increase glare, and colors are muted. Cataracts are the world’s leading cause of blindness, although in the U.S. more than two million people each year have surgery that enables them to see clearly once again.

We have no way of knowing what caused the man in our Scripture passage to become blind. He wasn’t born blind, like the man blind from birth whom Jesus will heal later on. We know this because when the man’s vision began to clear, he could tell that he was seeing people, and he could liken them to trees walking around. So, he had seen trees and people before.

Some people brought him to Jesus and begged Jesus to touch the blind man. This isn’t so surprising. People afflicted with diseases and demons of all sorts crowded around Jesus everywhere he went. Jesus had already performed many healing miracles: a man and a little girl both with unclean spirits, a leper, a paralytic, a man with a withered hand, a man possessed by demons, a little girl near death and a woman with a bleeding condition, Peter’s own mother-in-law who was ill with a fever and, not long before our story, a man who was deaf and mute.

What is surprising is that it appears to take Jesus two tries to heal the man’s blindness. There had been that incident in Nazareth, when Mark tells us that in the face of his skeptical hometown neighbors, “Jesus could do no deed of power there.” But even there, Mark adds that Jesus laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. So, what’s going on in our story for today? Why would it take Jesus two tries to clear the blind man’s vision? What’s Jesus’ problem?

Jesus’ problem is not an inability to heal the one physically blind man in one try. The problem is all the spiritually blind people surrounding him. He’s surrounded by people who have spiritual cataracts hearts.  They can see something of what Jesus does, but they don’t see clearly who he is.

Confusion around Jesus’ healings had already surfaced. Most in the crowds were simply amazed. Others, from suspicious observers to the scribes and Pharisees to Herod himself, questioned the origins of Jesus’ healing power. But, it’s likely that the crowds saw in Jesus what they expected to see: a magician. Magicians were the most common kinds of “healers” in their world. Jesus engaged in many of the actions that magicians of the time employed in their apparent healings. He used his spit, as they did. He touched bodies, although not in the same dramatic way they did. His healings were sometimes accompanied by sighs, as the magicians’ were. Jesus’ words may have sounded a lot like the magicians’ incantations: “Be silent and come out of him! Be made clean! Take up your mat and go home! Stretch out your hand! Little girl, get up!”

It’s understandable that the people who brought the blind man to Jesus came expecting a magician. They may have heard the reports about Jesus’ recent healing of a man who was deaf and couldn’t speak—how Jesus had put his fingers in the man’s ears, how he had spat and touched the man’s tongue, how he had sighed and spoken the word “Ephphatha! Be opened!” In spite of Jesus’ orders not to tell anyone what had happened, word about the healing had spread like wildfire. The crowd came with expectations, but they weren’t expecting what and whom they actually encountered. Their expectations blinded them to Jesus’ true identity and the true source of his healing power.

Jesus takes steps to heal the blindness before him—both the physical blindness and the spiritual blindness. He first performs the steps that the crowd was expecting. The result is positive, but incomplete; the man could see something, but his vision was still cloudy. He couldn’t see clearly. The actions Jesus took, so reminiscent of the common magicians, demonstrated that these human attempts couldn’t effect the complete healing the man needed. So, Jesus took another step—he simply placed his hands on the man’s eyes. There’s no spit this time. No words or sighs. Jesus does something that has virtually no precedent in ancient literature outside the New Testament: he heals the man completely using his touch alone.

After sending the man back to his home, Jesus must have had the crowd’s myopia on his mind as he walked along with his disciples. He asks the disciples what they’ve heard about him—who do the people think he is? They answer that some think he’s John the Baptist, or Elijah, or another one of the prophets. Then Jesus takes a brave step. He asks his disciples who they think he is. No doubt he was hoping that by this time, they’ve begun to understand, and Peter’s answer is promising: “You are the Messiah.”

This answer seems to indicate that the disciples are ready for some hard truths. Jesus began to teach them about what lies ahead on the road to Jerusalem and how the journey would end for him: in great suffering, rejection, death and, three days later, resurrection. After many days of speaking through healing and teaching, Jesus lays it all out in plain view. His glory will come not through the political and military power they expect from the Messiah, but through scandal, pain, and death.

Then, Peter shows that his vision is still blurry, too. He rejects what Jesus is saying; this is the complete opposite of the Messiah he’s been waiting for. Peter’s words reveal that he can see a little, but he’s still seeing people who look like walking trees. He can’t see past his expectations of the Messiah to the true Messiah. He hasn’t yet surrendered his human desires to the divine will in a way that will heal his blindness and allow him to see clearly that the Messiah is the suffering servant who will bring freedom and victory through death on a cross.

I’m a lot more like Peter than I care to admit. Maybe you are, too. If someone were to ask me who Jesus is, I’d probably describe Jesus in ways that our society is comfortable with rather than who he truly is. I’d likely tell them that Jesus is my friend who walks with me everywhere I go. I’d tell them that Jesus is the guide who speaks to my heart, that he’s the brother who’s glad I‘m part of his family. I’d tell them that Jesus is the person who shows me what it means to care about others, and who motivates me to call my legislators on a regular basis to tell them not to forget the hungry, the sick, the poor, the young, the old, the homeless, the refugees and the rejected.

None of that is wrong, but it’s also not the whole picture. I’m less likely to tell them about the prophet who wouldn’t stop speaking bold and honest words that made some people think he was nuts, or possessed, or a political threat. I’m less likely to tell them about the One who is both human and divine, who announced that in himself, the kingdom of God had come near, and who was anointed by God to gather all the world into that kingdom. I’m less likely to tell them about the human being whose body was nailed to a cross where he bled and died a criminal’s death, and in some mysterious way freed me from the power of sin. Too often, I tell them about people who look like moving trees. I’m focused on human things rather than divine things.

Like the crowds who surrounded Jesus, we suffer from spiritual cataracts that blur our vision. Like the disciples, we prefer not to focus on the ugly event that revealed Jesus’ glory—an uncomfortable truth that offends our society’s expectations as much as it offended his. Our worldly understandings of him aren’t wrong, but they are incomplete. We can see something of him, but our vision is blurred. The only way our blindness can be healed is to keep our eyes on the cross. Only there can Jesus touch us and enable us to see him for who he is.

Jesus healed the blind man in an instant. It may take longer for us to gain that 20/20 spiritual vision. Paul acknowledged this when he wrote to the Corinthians, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.” Now, when we try to see Jesus, we tend to see a reflection of ourselves, shaped by human expectations. We see the friend, the brother, the moral teacher. But, the more we focus on the cross—the more we seek God’s will for the world and for our lives, the better and more completely we can see the face of the Savior.

Jesus wouldn’t allow 1st century expectations to limit who he was or what he did, and we needn’t allow our 21st century expectations to limit our ability to see him. When we embrace the divine but difficult truth of how his glory was inseparable from the cross, we see our Savior and Redeemer more clearly, unclouded by the world’s expectations, free of the earthly obstacles that stand in our way. The spiritual cataracts that darken our vision lose their grip on us. When we allow Jesus to touch us with the victory that came through the cross, we can make Johnny Nash’s words our own:

I can see clearly now the rain is gone; I can see all obstacles in my way.
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind;
it’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) Son-shiny day.  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young