1 Sa­muel 16:1-13 Eph­e­sians 5:8-14 John 9

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One of the most fa­mous books ever writ­ten was John Bun­yan’s Pil­grim’s Progress. It is said that there was a time when ever y home had a copy of the Bi­ble and a copy of this work of lit­er­a­ture.

The im­age of the pil­grim with his staff mak­ing his way through the dif­fer­ent land­scapes of life is an evoca­tive one. But the idea of progress evokes move­ment from A to B, the pur­suit of a goal and maybe even an up­ward climb to­wards some­thing bet­ter. The Chris­tian life doesn’t al­ways feel like that for many of us strug­gling with the same old weak­nesses and sins. It can be ver y de­press­ing dis­cov­er­ing that the things we are wrestling with this Lent are the same ones we con­fronted last time round and we seem to have made lit­tle or no progress at all. A spir­i­tual check-up is all ver y well, but how do we find en­cour­age­ment?

It’s not about grades or mea­sur­ing progress against a le­gal­is­tic yard­stick. Noth­ing we can do will im­press God or se­cure our sal­va­tion any more than the cross achieved once and for all. We can never progress be­yond jus­ti­fi­ca­tion by faith, but we can al­low jus­ti­fi­ca­tion and faith to progress in us.

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween the work of the Holy Spirit and our ef­forts to grow in grace is one that Chris­tians con­tinue to ar­gue about and of­ten get out of bal­ance. The de­bate goes back to the be­gin­nings of the early Church and it lay at the heart of the con­tro­ver­sies of the Ref­or­ma­tion of the Church in the 16th cen­tur y. It rose to the sur­face with the charis­matic move­ment in the 1970s on­wards as some Chris­tians ad­vo­cated let­ting go and let­ting God, while oth­ers saw all the warn­ing signs of let­ting go and invit­ing chaos. So how do we al­low jus­ti­fi­ca­tion and faith to progress in us?

It’s all about where we fo­cus our gaze. Pil­grim had his eyes on the goal ahead of him. The grace of the Lord Je­sus Christ drew him on. If we look at our feet as we walk we will miss the view and even­tu­ally adopt a pos­ture that is hunched and un­healthy. Walk­ing won’t bring the ben­e­fits it is meant to any longer.

If we lift our gaze, not only will we en­joy the view and see where we are go­ing, we will en­joy the health ben­e­fits of move­ment suited to our bod­ies and cul­ti­vate good pos­ture. The Bi­ble tells us to walk in the Spirit and to fix our eyes on Je­sus, two com­mands that will help us adopt and main­tain a healthy spir­i­tual pos­ture (Gal 5:16; Heb 12:2). The path may get rough and the way ahead be ob­scured from view from time to time. It is im­por­tant to pause and check we are on the cor­rect route at var­i­ous points, but fo­cus­ing our main at­ten­tion on the Lord rather than our­selves is the way to keep go­ing and al­low grace to do its work in us. This week it is Moth­er­ing Sun­day (with Ex­o­dus 2:1-10, 2 Corinthi­ans 1:3-7, and Luke 2:33-35 as one set of pos­si­ble read­ings). But we will stick here with the stan­dard pro­vi­sion for the fourth Sun­day of Lent. And those read­ings fo­cus on light and sight, day and night, and the dis­crim­i­nat­ing dis­tinc­tions that God makes.

The key to 1 Sa­muel 16 is of course the cru­cial word from God to Sa­muel con­cern­ing his choice of the new king of Is­rael: “The LORD does not see as mor­tals see; they look on the out­ward ap­pear­ance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” The LORD has re­jected Saul as king, and now looks for a man af­ter his own heart, but Sa­muel has not quite un­der­stood the proper cri­te­ria for a king.

He sees the tall hand­some Eliab and im­me­di­ately thinks that he must be “the one.” Each of Jesse’s sons pa­rades be­fore the prophet, yet the LORD has not cho­sen but re­jected them. Only one is left, the youngest, but thrones do not usu­ally pass to youngest sons. David just so hap­pens to be hand­some (un­like his glo­ri­ous de­scen­dent of whom it is said “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should de­sire him”, Isa­iah 53:2). But the vi­tal thing is that the LORD has cho­sen him, and the Spirit comes upon him to em­power and en­lighten.

John chap­ter 9 is a cru­cial pas­sage in the Gospel, a key mo­ment that John will al­lude to again (see John 10:21, 11:37). This clearly made an im­pact on people at the time. Je­sus says that the man was born blind for a rea­son; he has been cho­sen so that God’s works might be re­vealed in him. “While it is day”, says Je­sus, we must do God’s works, be­cause “night is com­ing when no one can work.” The dif­fer­ence be­tween the night and the day is Je­sus him­self, “the light of the world.”

As if to il­lus­trate what this means, he im­me­di­ately goes on to heal the blind man, who sees for the very first time. We then see, as clear as day, what it means that God has blinded the eyes and hard­ened the hearts of many (John 12:40), as the Pharisees and oth­ers dis­pute what has hap­pened and doubt Je­sus’ power and call­ing. Je­sus makes a teach­ing point of this, and clarifies why he has come: “I came into this world for judg­ment,” he says, “so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may be­come blind.” He has come to re­verse the judg­ment of the world.

Paul takes up the theme of dark­ness and light in the ap­pli­ca­tion sec­tion of his let­ter to the Eph­e­sians. From Eph­e­sians 4 on­wards he urges them to live a life wor­thy of their call­ing, as those who are now one in Christ. In the Lord they have changed from dark­ness to light, and so they must live dif­fer­ently to those around them. As “people of distinc­tion”, their over­ar­ch­ing aim must be to find out what is pleas­ing to God, rather than pur­su­ing the ageold chimera of their own per­sonal hap­pi­ness. To pur­sue “all that is good and right and true” means dis­tanc­ing them­selves from “the un­fruit­ful works of dark­ness”, the se­cret, shame­ful self-ab­sorp­tion of their past, and the sur­round­ing cul­ture.

As they are brought into the light of Christ, his search­ing gaze ex­poses the true na­ture of such things. As they see them for what they are, their re­pen­tance and faith bring them back from the sleepy death of sin, as Christ shines his glo­ri­ous light into their dark­ened hearts. Lee Gatiss is Di­rec­tor of Church So­ci­ety and edi­tor of the NIV Procla­ma­tion Bi­ble Lord, the light of your love is shin­ing

And can it be? Light of the world Open the eyes of my heart, Lord Come, Lord, to our souls come down

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