A little over nine years ago, I – along with five fellow students from Concordia Theological Seminary and Professor John Pless – made the very lengthy trip from Fort Wayne, Indiana to the island nation of Madagascar, located some 1,300 miles east of southern Africa in the Indian Ocean.
Madagascar is very much a third-world country. A very poor country. Roughly seven people out of ten live below the Malagasy national poverty threshold of one dollar per day. This nation of 22 million people is served by fewer than 3,200 doctors and only 57 dentists. The government and various religious groups struggle mightily to provide modern and effective health care – but the money and resources are woefully inadequate.
For eight days we travelled from one place to another, visiting Lutheran churches, a Lutheran hospital, a Lutheran orphanage, two Lutheran seminaries, a Lutheran nursing school, a Lutheran agricultural school, and a number of refuges of last resort known as tobys. We also visited a place I would like to tell you about today – a Lutheran school for blind children.
The children who lived at this school ranged in age from probably four or five years old to somewhere in the early to mid teens. We saw their classrooms and their dormitory rooms and their play areas. They sang to us – something that Malagasy people often do to greet their guests. And one of the many interesting things we learned is that none of those children were born blind. All were born with natural sight in both eyes. But their diet, as you might expect in a poverty-stricken nation, was lacking in essential nutrients – specifically, was greatly insufficient in vitamin A. All of the children had what is called “avoidable blindness” because from birth they lacked enough vitamin A in their diet to develop healthy eyesight. And once their eyesight was gone – well, it was gone permanently.
Much like the man described by St. John in this morning’s Gospel lesson, which describes the time that Jesus met a blind man sitting by the side of the road. Unlike the children in Madagascar, his blindness was not avoidable. He had been blind from birth. I don’t think any of us can fully understand what that would be like. Never seeing colors. Never seeing shapes. Never seeing words. Never seeing the face of a loved one. Never even seeing the light.
What makes this account even more heart wrenching is the understanding that 2,000 years ago, there was absolutely no help for someone who was blind. No Braille system that allows blind people the ability to read and write, nor any audio books to listen to on a CD or MP3 player. No trained guide dogs and no canes like those that blind people use today to feel their way as they walk. No schools or social agencies that work with the blind to help them live independently and hold down meaningful employment. Two thousand years ago, the only way that a blind person could walk from one place to another was by being led there by another person – a person with sight. Two thousand years ago, the only way that a blind person could earn any money for basic survival was to beg for it. St. John writes that this was a man beggar, and that’s probably what he was doing when Jesus first saw him. His life and his very livelihood depended entirely on the kindness and mercy of others.
And then, one day – one Sabbath day, to be specific – the God of all mercies and all creation walked by and noticed him. Took pity on him. And healed him.
It’s interesting that when Jesus first saw the blind man, the disciples who were with Jesus didn’t show the slightest bit of compassion for him. Instead, they wanted to lay a guilt trip on someone. The Jews believed that whenever something bad happened to someone, it represented a direct divine retribution by Almighty God. They ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Now before we start shaking our heads and thinking that disciples are just a bunch of insensitive dolts, let’s do a reality check – because we often think that way, too. You know what I mean – we all pretty much think that sooner or later, people get what they deserve. In both fiction and real life, don’t you just love it when the bad guy gets what’s coming to him? At one time or another probably every one of us has tried to connect specific sins with specific punishments – either our sins and punishments or those of others.
Please understand this: our actions and sins do have consequences. And there were, indeed, times in both the Old and New Testaments when God did specifically punish people for specific sins. In a world that has been totally corrupted by sin, Jesus never rejected a connection between sin and suffering – but He doesn’t allow us the wisdom, the knowledge or even the reason to make those judgments with our sinful and woefully imperfect human minds. So something else is obviously taking place here. In fact, Jesus quickly corrects the disciples and says: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” He is telling them to stop all of this hurtful and pointless nonsense and watch – and see with their own eyes – what God is doing here.
This is how John describes what they saw: “He spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing.” For the first time in his life, this man could see – could see everything with perfect 20/20 eyesight.
So what do we learn from today’s Gospel lesson? Jesus himself provides the answer. First, His words again from verse 3: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Then the words of Jesus from verse 5: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
Because of sin, our hearts, our souls are a thousand times, a million times darker than the darkness of being blind. Job 18:5 says that “the lamp of the wicked is snuffed out; the flame of his fire stops burning.” When Jesus was betrayed in the garden of Gethsemane, He said to those who came to arrest Him: “this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” Scripture also tells us that darkness cannot serve to hide our sin. Again from Job: “There is no dark place, no deep shadow, where evildoers can hide.” St. Peter says of sinners that “blackest darkness is reserved for them.”
Only one source of light can cut through the darkness of sin. It is Jesus who says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” St. Paul writes that Jesus “has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness,” and St. Peter describes Jesus as the one who called us out of darkness “into his marvelous light.” That light can’t fade or vanish when the power goes out on the darkest night and you don’t have any batteries for your flashlight. It can’t be stopped by a thousand feet or ten thousand feet of impenetrable rock. And it can’t be denied to a man or woman who has no physical sight. Instead, it saves. It gives us the light of life. Eternal life.
I’d like you to take your bulletins and look at the photo that is on the cover this week. It is a picture I snapped soon after we arrived at the Lutheran School for the Blind in Madagascar. What it shows is a stone path, only about three feet wide.
You see, these blind children didn’t have guide dogs and they didn’t have walking sticks. They also did not wear shoes. They were taught to navigate their way through the school grounds only and entirely with their bare feet on those stone paths.
Although you can’t see it in this picture, just off to the right of this path was a pretty steep drop off of probably 20 feet or more. In fact, much of the school was built on very hilly ground overlooking the city of Antsirabe. But even the youngest children quickly learned to put their trust in the feeling of their feet on those stones. As long as they could feel the stones of that path beneath them, they knew that they were safe.
In the ancient words of Psalm 119 verse 105, the Psalmist proclaims: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Many centuries later, Martin Luther wrote this about this verse, noting that God’s Word “guides the feet and the heart, and faith does not require understanding … Thus faith does not enlighten the understanding, indeed, it blinds it, but rather the heart. Faith leads where it will be saved, and it does so through the healing of the Word.”
We live in a world of paths that are far more dangerous and far more treacherous that the stone path on a hillside used by those blind children in Madagascar. But Jesus Christ – the Word who “became flesh and dwelt among us” – has given us a path to everlasting life. It is a path that we faithfully follow during this season of Lent – follow to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, follow to Golgotha on Good Friday, follow to a borrowod tomb later that day before the start of the Sabbath – and finally, on Easter morning, follow to the heavenly brilliance of Jesus’ resurrection.
Unlike the children at that school in Madagascar – but very much like the man in our Gospel lesson – you were born blind. Spiritually blind. You weren’t just blind at your birth – you actually were blind from the moment of your conception. Blind in sin and hopelessly unable to find your way. Unable to find your way without a path. The path of Jesus Christ.
John 9 verse 5: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” To paraphrase the words of Psalm 119, Jesus truly is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. He is your only path – your only way – your only hope – to escape the infernal darkness of eternal damnation and live, forever, in the resurrected eternal light of His boundless love.
One final footnote about the Lutheran school for blind children in Madagascar. Earlier this year the school caught fire. All of the children and staff were safely evacuated – but the school was destroyed. The dormitories – destroyed. The classrooms with bookshelves of Braille books – destroyed. Everything gone – except the students, the teachers, and the determination of the Malagasy Lutheran Church to somehow find the money to rebuild and continue their mission of bring Jesus Christ to those severely disadvantaged children. Let us pray.
O Lord, who gave sight to the blind and gives life to all who believe on His Name, bless the Malagasy Lutheran Church with the means necessary to continue their ministry and their works of mercy to provide for the children who lost their school in that devastating fire. Empower them not only to rebuild the physical structure of that school – but, more importantly, continue to preach Christ crucified to those who need your healing touch. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.