The TV game show Jeopardy is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Jeopardy, as you probably know, is a game in which contestants don’t answer questions; they’re given the answers first; the contestants win by successfully asking the right questions. So, for example, if Alex Trebek, the host of the show, were to say, “This West Coast U.S. city is home to the Space Needle.” The correct question would be: “What is Seattle?” Or, “This Seattle-area resident holds the record for the longest winning streak on Jeopardy.” The correct question would be, “Who is Kenneth Jennings?”
Jeopardy may be just a TV game show but as I see it there’s an important life lesson to be learned here. It’s natural for human beings to want answers to our big questions, and that’s where our energy often goes; but the answers we crave are often not as important as learning to ask the right questions.
In today’s long reading from John’s gospel, I count no fewer than 16 questions. Some of these questions are asked by the blind man’s neighbors: Is this not the man who used to sit and beg? How were your eyes opened? Where is this Jesus? they ask.
Many of the questions are from the Pharisees and religious leaders:
How did you receive your sight? How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs? What do you say about him? Is this your son? How then does he see? What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes? Are you trying to teach us?
These questions are all in response to a miracle. The recovery of sight for the blind man was a blessing and could have been reason for celebration within his community! But good news can feel like a crisis if it turns upside down the world we think we know.
Crises happen all the time and we find ourselves asking questions in response. Think , for example, of current events: How could that Malaysian jetliner disappear? What happened? Where is it? When will it be found? Or, closer to home, How could that mudslide happen? How many people died? When and where will they be found? These are questions on the minds of family and friends and rescuers. They’re on our minds, too.
There’s another question that’s been asked over and over again these past days in response to these tragedies: Who’s to blame? In the case of the Malaysian airliner, Is it the pilot? Is it the weather? Is it the Malaysian government? Is it terrorists who are to blame? In the case of the mudslide, Who is to blame? Is it the county or state government? Is it the logging companies who are to blame? Is it Mother Nature? Is it the victims, for choosing to live in a dangerous area? These are questions people ask. These are questions we ask!
In today’s reading Jesus’ disciples ask similar questions! Who sinned, they ask, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? The human impulse to find someone to blame is pretty powerful! Notice Jesus’ answer. He says, Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. The people in this story are almost all distracted by the kinds of questions we ask: what, where, why, when, how, and, Who can we blame? But there’s one question—the most important question–they’re not asking.
When we, Christ’s disciples today, are confronted by tragedies or miracles we can’t understand; when we want to make sense of the situation we tend to ask, What? Where? When? And, especially, Why? How? and,
Who is to blame? These are natural questions. But often the answers are unknowable. Those we can answer can provide the satisfaction of closure, but ultimately the answers cannot satisfy our deeper needs for peace. They can distract from hope. The questions Jesus leads us to are, “Who is Christ in this situation? Where is Christ to be found? Where we find hope, courage, compassion, there we find signs of the Living Christ. There we find power to save us from our grief, our confusion and our fear. This man was born blind, Jesus says, so that God’s works might be revealed in him. One way to understand this: Wherever there was kindness or compassion toward the blind man, there was the power of the Holy Spirit, there was Christ, through the words and deeds of ordinary people.
This is our faith at its best. It’s why the 23rd Psalm—today’s psalm– is so powerful. Who is my shepherd? The Lord is my shepherd. Who makes me lie down in green pastures? The Lord! Who restores my soul? The Lord! Who guides me along right pathways? The Lord! Who is with me? The Lord! Who prepares a table before me? The Lord!
While we are tempted—especially in times of loss or crisis–to fix our attention on what, where, why, when, and how, these questions often have no answers that we can discern, or, they lead us to look for someone to blame, or, to ask, Why me? How could this happen? If that’s where we spend our energy or fix our hope, how can we expect to experience what the Bible calls the “peace that passes understanding”? How can we expect to experience what the Bible calls the “joy of your salvation”?
How different the story of the blind man would have been (and a lot shorter!) if the man’s neighbors, the Pharisees, and Jesus’ disciples had spent less time on “what, when, where, why and how,” and more time on who is
Christ in this situation? Who has the power to heal and to save? What kind of deep healing is taking place?
In the story of the blind man, it was only the blind man who asked this question. It was only the blind man who saw clearly! It was only he who asked the question that mattered most. John writes, Jesus heard that they had driven [the blind man] out [of the synagogue], and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man? And who is he, sir? Tell me that I might believe in him. Who is Jesus? Who is this one who offers saving power?
Over the past couple of days I’ve had a number of opportunities to ask this question. On Friday I gathered graveside in the dumping rain with Bob and Arlene and their family to bury Seth and Tatum’s mom. Yesterday I gathered with friends and colleagues at worship, in celebration of a pastor’s 25th ordination anniversary. After that, I came back to the church where 100 people gathered downstairs to celebrate the 16th birthday of a young woman. Then I went into the library, where Velma and Nicole and Terri and Gene and Don were all preparing to welcome homeless men. And here this morning one among us turns 60 years old! In each of these situations—in joy and celebration, in grief and sorrow, in faithfulness of service—I saw the living Christ in those who grieved, celebrated and served.
Like contestants on Jeopardy, Jesus’ disciples move forward in life by learning to ask good questions. In response to the circumstances of each day we ask the blind man’s questions. Who is Christ? Where is Christ among us in this moment? The answer to those questions is in the living, breathing, often unexpected human beings all around us. And, Christ is in us. Jesus said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” He is no longer in the world. As he assures us in Matthew’s gospel, now, “You are the light of the world!”
Dear friends in Christ, you are the light of the world! Whether in times of grief and sorrow, joy and celebration, faithfulness in service—or in the very ordinary circumstances of everyday life—may we fix our hearts on seeing Christ, and being Christ to the world!