There was once a man named John Henry Newton. Born in 1725 and raised up hard by his father (after his mother died of tuberculosis), young John Newton was not a nice man. “Newton lost his first job, in a merchant’s office, because of “unsettled behavior and impatience of restraint” – a pattern that would persist for years. He spent his later teen years at sea before he was press-ganged aboard the H.M.S. Harwich in 1744. Newton rebelled against the discipline of the Royal Navy and deserted. He was caught, put in irons, and flogged. He eventually convinced his superiors to discharge him to a slaver ship. Espousing freethinking principles, he remained arrogant and insubordinate, and he lived with moral abandon: “I sinned with a high hand,” he later wrote, “and I made it my study to tempt and seduce others.” Newton took up employment with a slave-trader named Clow, who owned a plantation of lemon trees on an island off of west Africa… (he was eventually) transferred to the service of the captain of the Greyhound, a Liverpool ship, in 1747, and on its homeward journey, the ship was overtaken by an enormous storm. Newton had been reading Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, and was struck by a line about the “uncertain continuance of life.” He also recalled the passage in Proverbs, “Because I have called and ye have refused, … I also will laugh at your calamity.””1
Newton knew right then just how alone he was, and in finally turning his life over to God he wrote some of the most famous words ever put to song:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.
Was blind, but now I see. John Henry Newton was not the first to say those words; it seems that whenever Jesus is around the blind received their sight, always spiritually and sometimes, like in the case of the man we heard about in our Gospel today, physically. Our man, blind from birth, sat at an intersection in town where the people go by, begging his only recourse. The disciples of Jesus see the man, kind-of, but they don’t engage him as much as they use him as a set-up for a theological debate. “Rabbi,” they asked, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.”
Let’s ignore for a moment the strangeness of asking if a man born blind had caused his own blindness by way of sinning in the womb; Jesus dismisses the common notion that a physical ailment must be caused by sin – not that physical ailments couldn’t be caused by sin, just must – and then He reveals what God has intended for this man, that the work of God, of God making all things new, would find its way to this particular blind man.
The rest of the story is long and we just heard it: the man is cured, his eyes made new; the Pharisees did what Pharisees so often do, they argued about the little things while the big things went on all around them; and finally the man born blind got fed up with the nonsense, with being asked how he received his sight. “I don’t know who this Jesus is,” said the man, “I didn’t ask Him for anything, I don’t even know where He is right now, but one thing I know: that though I was blind, now I see.”
Though I was blind, now I see. I would say that I can only imagine the joy and the relief and the hope and the comfort felt by John Henry Newton and our once-blind beggar, except that I know those things in Christ Jesus. And every time He opens my eyes again, every time He opens my eyes to truths I never knew or injustice I didn’t see or to a person to which I turned a blind eye, I can’t help but feel those things. Though I was blind, now I see. Our once-blind beggar went as far as to call out the Pharisees after having experience the power of Christ; John Henry Newton wrote hymns and went on to inspire the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. As we turn to the corner this Lent and head for the Cross, will you ask the Lord to open your eyes to the things toward which you were blind, and how will you respond when you can see?
1John Newton, Christian History, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/131christians/pastorsandpreachers/newton.html