The not so Curious Case of Benjamin Button
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is the title of a 1922 F. Scott Fitzgerald short story made into a 2008 movie. It's about a baby born with the features of a 70 year-old man. As he "ages" he grows ever younger. Anyone baptized into the Faith as an infant starts as a mature, full grown Christian. So the case of Benjamin Button is not so curious at all; it's the norm for the majority of Christians, and it's a tragedy because we don't grow in the faith we regress.
We need to start where the newly sighted man did, with the Man Jesus. When asked by others how he who had been born blind could now see, he answered, "That one, the Man called Jesus did it." That's the only place any of us can start. We can only start with what God sends, gives, reveals. Although Scripture says that God's ways and thoughts are as high above us as heaven is above the earth, we think otherwise. We think knowing the things of God is less difficult than understanding quantum physics, calculus, a foreign language, or computers.
Stephen King has a novel From a Buick 8. A totally alien universe sends a 1953 Buick Roadmaster to 1975 Pennsylvania in an attempt to establish communication or find about our world. Everything it tries only terrifies. The true God sent a human Baby into the womb of a Virgin. Start there but don't stop there. Don't think you've matured as far as you can once you sing "veiled in flesh the Godhead see/ Hail the incarnate deity."
The man born blind didn't stop there. He was hauled before the Pharisees to demand how he saw again and who dared to do this on the Sabbath. They insisted on knowing what he would say about such a man? He said that Jesus was a prophet. This is an advance; this is growth. Jesus was a special man sent from God.
In King's novel the Buick belches forth hideous, disgusting things that look vaguely like something from our world but only because the mind can only work by analogy when it is confronted with what it can't get its head around. God sent a Man who looked, lived, and spoke like a Man, but He spoke things about God as a Prophet, things that no ordinary man can know on His own. Like what the Sabbath was really about. God had not given this day of rest as a burden as the Pharisees had made it. God gave the Sabbath so mankind could be served by it.
Moving from the Man sent from God to the Prophet is a necessary step in growth. 1,500 years earlier God had predicted it. In Deuteronomy 18, Moses said, "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you. You must listen to Him." And he based this prophesy on what happened on Sinai. There God had shown up like King's Buick belching forth smoke, thunder, lightening, and Laws causing the Israelites to pee their pants and beg that God not speak directly to them but through an intermediary. You're not growing but regressing Benjamin Button-esque if you think you can deal with God apart from the Man, the Prophet Jesus.
Moses had said emphatically, "You must listen to the Prophet God sends after me." At the Transfiguration, God appears, again in a frightening way and says, "Listen to Jesus." It's as if in King's novel a message came saying don't listen to the squealing, ghastly, otherworldly things coming from the Buick. Ignore all that. Listen only to what I say about this other world, this other life, this other reality that you can't begin to understand. No such message came in King's novel. It emphatically comes in Scripture, but we "grow" past it. We listen more to our ways and thoughts about God than we do to what He says in Jesus.
The man born blind matured not regressed. The second time he was hauled in by the Pharisees to give an account of who Jesus is he says that He is more than the Prophet sent from God. He is "with God." All translations of verse 32 have "from God." This is the preposition para. Look it up in any Greek grammar. It will be diagramed as a line right up against the object. This is an advance over being the Prophet. He is here on earth but He is with God in a realm that could only frighten and dismay us. Check out John 3:13 in the King James. "And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man who is in heaven."
The Man, who is the Prophet, is here on earth yet He remains in heaven in that realm of six wing cherubim, of monsters covered with eyes, where God speaks and it sounds like trumpets or the roaring of the surf. So when you think Jesus, think God. God's roaring surf in the hands of Jesus is the Waters that baptize you. The thunderous voice of God that splits your ears in Jesus' mouth is the word that forgives you. The face of God that if you saw you would scream and die you see in Bread and Wine that not only you can look at but eat and drink and live.
But you're still not done growing in the Faith. John 1:6 says the same thing about John the Baptist as it does about Jesus. "There came a man after being sent was para God." This says a great deal about John and why Jesus says, "Among those born of women there was done greater than John." But it means that saying Jesus was para God does not say enough. John too was sent of God. John too was with God but Jesus was more than that.
We're not meant to regress in the Faith as Benjamin Button does in years. We're meant to grow in the Faith. The people in King's novel grow little in their understanding of the Buick 8 and less about the realm it comes from. It remains an object of fascination alright, and one of fear and dread too, but the realm it comes from is forgotten about. That about sums up the relationship many Christians have with God's kingdom. They don't understand it. They know there are things about it that could kill and even damn them, but they're content with what they know and don't know and easily put out of their mind ever understanding any better that other realm especially as they "grow" which is really Benjamin Button-esque regressing.
Not so the man who was unblinded by the Light. He comes to see that the Man Jesus was more than the Prophet, more than with God, He is God. He is none other than Jehovah. Of the 300 plus times the New Testament uses Lord, the Old Testament word for Jehovah, it references not God the Father but God the Son. Jesus is not just another Person from that realm which is so mysterious and terrible. He's not just another John the Baptist, or an angel. Jesus is the One who runs that realm, rules that realm, created that realm and this One too.
The Man who had made mud with spit and put it by His human hands on a blind man's eyes sending him away to wash with ordinary water is none other than Jehovah who walked with Adam in Eden, met with Moses and Elijah on Sinai, was Abraham's Shield, and David's Lord. The Jesus who baptizes you with Water, absolves you with Words, gives you His Body as Bread and His Blood as Wine is none other than Jehovah.
This is going to strike you as a non sequitur but it's not. This year the readings on the insert are the historic readings; they date to the early 4th century before there was a season called Lent. Our text was picked because this was the Sunday the catechumens had grown to the stage where their eyes were opened. This Sunday was called Oculi, Latin for "eyes", from the appointed Introit which we chanted, "My eyes are ever on the Lord." The catechumens' eyes were opened enough to stand before the assembled church and renounce the devil, all his works, and all his ways (Reed, 494).
Have you so grown? Only if you can see that the only way you can know, appreciate, or desire the realm of God that is so far above our thoughts and ways is through the Man God sent to us from that strange and terrible place. If not, you will desire the realm that Satan controls and offers to you as he did Jesus in the Temptation. A land where you're physical needs, wants, and lusts can be wildly fulfilled. A land that you can get your head around, that makes sense to you, where Water is water not forgiveness, Words are words not absolution, and bread is bread and wine is wine.
But you have been rescued from that realm. The Man sent from God who is God in flesh and blood rescued you from the Devil, all his works and all his ways. He came into this world not as some ghastly creature from another dimension but as a Baby. He acted not like a creature that couldn't live in this reality but as one who could thrive here, and do everything we can't do. And those things had to be done before we could ever have any part or any understanding about the world without end, about the reality where no one dies, no one suffers, no one cries, no one is separated from each other or the God who created them.
In King's novel every creature that pops out of the Buick 8 from the other world immediately starts to suffer horribly and if it doesn't die on its own the people kill it savagely. Jesus came unto His own and He thrived, but His own rejected Him and killed Him savagely as if He were some terrible creature from an alien realm. But this was His Father's way to give us the other world that is not terrible at all but very far better. Jesus paid our entrance fee by atoning for our sins. He paid for every last cuss word, every last lustful thought, every last worry, every last doubt, every last lie. And in doing so "He opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers."
In King's novel the characters never grow to understand the other realm. In fact like Benjamin Button, they grow increasingly more immature toward it; they interact with anger, paranoia, and eventually apathy. Today you've grown to be able to stand with the catechumens of 17 centuries ago and reject the Devil and his realm that he paints so desirable and understandable and embrace the realm of God that seems so foreign but is your real home, salvation, and satisfaction. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday in Lent (20140323); John 9: 1-41