Sunday, November 8, 2015

Sermon: Last Call For Jerusalem

Grace Presbyterian Church
November 8, 2015
Mark 10:46-52

Last Call For Jerusalem

This is not a miracle story.
“Hold on, pastor,” you say. “There’s a blind man who gets his sight back right here in the middle of the story. How do you say this isn’t a miracle story?”
True, there is a man, named Bartimaeus, who is blind when the story begins, and whose sight is restored by a word from Jesus. There is a miracle in this story. But it is not a miracle story.
There are miracle stories in Mark, lots of them. We’ve encountered quite a few over the course of this year in this gospel. There were two dramatic mass feedings; five thousand in Jewish country, four thousand in Gentile territory. There were two dramatic “water miracles,” so to speak; Jesus first calms a storm in chapter 4, and later Jesus walks on water in chapter 6, offering his disciples a spectacular if misunderstood theophany, or vision of the divine. There was strange transfiguration story.
And there were healings. There were many, many healings. Early in this gospel it seemed as if Jesus would never be allowed to get on with his teaching for being so pressed with so many seeking healing.
Demons were cast out. A leper was cleansed. A paralyzed man was made able to walk after his friends tore a hole in a roof to get him to Jesus. Jesus healed a man’s withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath, an incident which set Pharisee and Herodian to the task of destroying Jesus. And all of these happen by chapter 3, verse 6.
Later, another demoniac is exorcized, a little girl is restored to life and an old woman is healed just by touching Jesus’s garment. Healings also happen in Gentile lands, with people bringing the sick into town centers and marketplaces to be healed by Jesus – imagine people bringing the sick into Butler Plaza or the Oaks Mall to be healed. A Syrophoenician woman pesters Jesus into healing her daughter.
There was, late in chapter 8, a blind man restored to sight. It might be useful to look at that story quickly to see what these miracle stories tend to look like. In Bethsaida, some locals bring a blind man to Jesus, begging that Jesus “touch him.” The action in the healing gets quite elaborate in this case. Jesus takes the blind man to a spot outside the village, spits and puts the saliva on his eyes, and lays his hands on them. At first the man can see only in part; people “look like trees, walking.” Jesus puts hands on him again, and the man can see clearly. Jesus sends him home, telling him not to even go back into the village.
I hope you’ll see that in comparing that healing story to our reading for today, there are a lot of differences. For one thing, today we have a name. The recipient of healing isn’t anonymous in this case; we are told he is Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus (which is actually what “Bartimaeus” means). We are also told he is a beggar, sitting by the roadside on the way out of Jericho to Jerusalem. We are also told that he himself is the one seeking healing for himself; in many of the healing stories others are bringing to Jesus the one needing healing, or interceding on behalf of a sick person not even present. But Bartimaeus is pleading for himself, and far from having friends help, he is being shushed by the crowd.
Bartimaeus also seems to have some unusual insight about Jesus. We are told that he doesn’t begin calling out until he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth passing by. It’s an interesting choice of identification, given that the only other characters who call him “Jesus of Nazareth” up to this point in Mark are the demons being cast out in Capernaum, way back in chapter 1. As Bartimaeus continues to cry out to Jesus, he himself calls Jesus by yet another unusual name: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Not that “Son of David” is all that unusual to us in general, but this is the first time anybody has called Jesus by this name in the gospel of Mark.
Whether it was this unusual form of address or the beggar’s sheer persistence, Jesus stops and orders the crowd to call Bartimaeus forward. And Bartimaeus does not hesistate!  This is no ordinary verb for getting up from the ground; Bartimaeus sprang up! he jumped up! and somehow makes his way to Jesus through the crowd.  The text even tells us he threw off his outer cloak – a gesture of haste, maybe?  Throwing off anything, down to the last possession, that might keep him from getting to Jesus?  We can only guess what was going through Bartimaeus’s mind at that moment, we can only speculate how his mind was racing and his heart pounding as he sprang up and burst forward, maybe stumbling, maybe crashing into others in the crowd before finally (as far as he could tell, in his blindness) getting to Jesus. 
It might seem strange that Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” It’s also curious that this is virtually the same question Jesus asks James and John in verse 36 of this chapter. Their answer, to be seated at Jesus’s right and left in glory, demonstrates just how blind they are, still not understanding or not willing to understand what Jesus had just said to them about his death and resurrection. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, has no illusions about his condition. He knows his own blindness. “My teacher, let me see again” is all he asks. And Jesus’s answer isn’t unprecedented; the woman with the blood issue is told something similar.
No, what sets this story apart from miracle stories is its ending:
Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”
Do you see the difference?
“Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”
This is not a miracle story.
This is a discipleship story.
Bartimaeus followed Jesus, just as James and Peter and John had followed Jesus, leaving behind their fishing boats in chapter 1, and just as Levi followed Jesus, leaving behind his tax collector’s booth in chapter 2. Bartimaeus didn’t have as much to leave behind as they did; we are only told that he threw off his cloak as he jumped up to go to Jesus, and as far as we know that’s all he had. But for all that Bartimaeus left all and followed Jesus, something that is not recorded as happening in any of the other miracle stories in Mark.
Now the main thing that sets Bartimaeus’s story apart from those other discipleship stories is its timing. Peter and James and John, as well as Levi, got up and followed at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, jumps up and follows very near the end. You can look and notice that the very next story in Mark, in chapter 11, is the story of Palm Sunday, Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We are approaching the end.
The way on which Bartiameus follows Jesus is not just the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. It is the way of the cross. It is the way of suffering, of humiliation. It is the way that Jesus has chosen to travel, and Bartimaeus follows him on that way.
This is a discipleship story and this is a call story, for us.
We are called to name our blindness. When Jesus asks us “What do you want me to do for you?” how do we answer? Do we seek glory and power, continuing in our blindness like James and John? Or do we, like Bartimaeus, name our blindness? Do we confess our sinfulness? Do we lift up our weakness and fallenness and name them before Jesus? Bartimaeus’s response is our call; to name our blindness and to give it up to Jesus’s healing.
We name our blindness, we receive Jesus’s healing, and then we follow Jesus on the way. The way that leads to the cross. Nothing glorious, nothing that brings us power or fame or public renown. Just a cross.
Bartimaeus follows a fool. As novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner describes, “God shows us a man who gave his life away to the extent of dying a national disgrace without a penny in the bank or a friend to his name. In terms of men’s wisdom, he was a Perfect Fool, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without making something like the same kind of a fool of himself is laboring under not a cross but a delusion.” And yet, Bartimaeus follows him on the way.
Do we dare follow? Do we dare give up our blindness, our illusions of power or self-sufficiency or influence, and follow the way of humility, of sacrifice, of the cross?
Will we be something more than mere Christians? Will we be disciples?
For Bartimaeus’s sight, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (PH 466), “When God Delivered Israel” (PH 237), “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling” (GtG 418), “Will You Come and Follow Me (The Summons)” (GtG 716)

Not sure what I'll do when I'm preaching a text that doesn't have an cartoon.

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