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Bible readings:


Proper 30 Year B (October 25, 2015)                             St James', Peace River

If you take it in isolation, the story of the blind man being healed at the end of Mark 10 looks just like many similar stories in the gospel. It's what Jesus does – it's what he's done from the beginning, what made him famous – the reason so many people came out of the woodwork whenever he was around: because he healed. He would talk to people, give them his attention, touch them – and they would feel better; no, they would actually be better, in whatever way they most needed to be. If Bartimaeus, whose story we just heard, sounds awfully familiar, it might even be because there was another man just like him two chapters ago – a blind man whose sight was restored, first partially so that he could see people again but they looked “like trees walking”, and then when Jesus touched him again, he “saw everything clearly”. [Mk 8.25]

But the stories Mark tells aren't just randomly selected. They each highlight something of what was going on at that particular moment in Jesus' journey. And this one is no exception. Bartimaeus is the last person Jesus healed, and it happened as Jesus was heading into Jerusalem for the last showdown with the authorities, the one that would lead to his arrest, trial and execution. And his time with Bartimaeus comes after several encounters with would-be disciples, and conversations with Jesus' inner circle too, when a different kind of blindness was on display. People just weren't getting it. Jesus would try to explain or demonstrate the upside-down values of the kingdom of God, and no one could see it.

That's actually a repeated theme in the gospel of Mark. Over and over again, even Jesus' own closest followers just don't get what he's talking about. Earlier on he gets mad with them about it, or at least frustrated, asking them, “Do you still not perceive or understand?... Do you have eyes and fail to see?” [Mk 8.18] But as their journey together heads towards its close, it's as though Jesus realizes he is simply going to have to go through with its last act, and hope and pray and trust that God will finally move the hearts of these dense followers of his, as they watch him go to his death for their sake and for the sake of the kingdom.

Sometimes as I read those earlier sections of the gospel, I wonder how it's possible that the disciples didn't see and didn't understand. I mean, Jesus was right there with them! They got to talk with him and listen to him and watch him and live alongside him every day. How could they not get it? Long before the cross, Jesus was modelling a kingdom in which the king was the servant of all, where you had to give up everything in order to receive everything, where the hungry and the sick and the children were the most honoured citizens. How could they miss something as powerful and compelling as that – wasn't it obvious?

But the truth is, I'm in this story too, as are you, and no, it's not obvious. I have the same access to Jesus that the disciples in the gospel did – the same opportunity to converse with him and watch him and live alongside him – if I recognize those opportunities, and if I take advantage of them! But even then, what Jesus is telling us and showing us about our way into the kingdom of God is hard to see, and even harder to accept. In general terms, we might be able to recognize what that upside-down kingdom is about; but it never actually comes to us “in general terms”, it's always a specific personal challenge to see where God's kingdom confronts us in our own life.

Looking back, you may recognize a moment or two in your life story when that challenge happened. People do tell stories about themselves like that. One person may have had a health scare that seemed like the worst possible disaster at the time, but as they came through it, it changed their perspective on what really mattered. Another person may have had to give up ambitions or plans for how their career would go, but it opened the door for them to live a meaningful life that didn't just revolve around work. Someone else may tell about how the arrival of their children changed their life; or how being forced to pay attention to other people's serious needs, struck to their heart and made them a different person.

I'm sure you can look back and see a story like that in your own life. But when it happened, I'll bet you didn't have the faintest idea how it was going to turn out, and certainly not that there would be any kind of positive outcome. Even when the story has happened to us once or twice before, it doesn't necessarily get any clearer or easier the next time. Letting go, in order to receive, isn't something that comes naturally to us. Dying to self, in order to truly live, isn't a language that's easy for us to learn.

There's a real challenge in there for the gospel, both when it comes to us embracing it ourselves, and also when we think about how to share it. On the surface, at least, it doesn't feel like the kind of thing that appeals to people. The kingdom of God which Jesus announced and founded, probably wouldn't have won the election we just went through. It's not the kind of thing people who haven't already got there can easily understand or look forward to – and that's true even for those of us who feel like it might actually be something we would ultimately want.

That's why I think it's so important to listen to what blind Bartimaeus actually says in the gospel story. First of all, the story starts with him calling out to Jesus. He does think there can be something better for him, even if he doesn't know what it is. And then, when Jesus stops to talk to him, did you notice the conversation they had? Jesus asks him what he wants, and Bartimaeus says, “My teacher, let me see again.” If this were just a story about being healed, that would be kind of obvious. But in context, it is a lot more profound. First of all, Bartimaeus is identifying himself as a disciple – calling Jesus “my teacher”. Then he's asking to be able to see – exactly what has been frustrating Jesus about the disciples who followed him around, that they weren't able to see what he was trying to tell them. But here is a disciple who actually does want to see. He knows he's missing something, but he wants that to change.

And when Jesus healed Bartimaeus, Mark says, “he followed him on the way”. “The way” wasn't just the road to Jerusalem – the people to whom Mark first wrote or recited this gospel would have recognized it instantly as a reference to them. Before Christians were called Christians, that is how they were referred to – people of the Way. So there is Bartimaeus, a fellow disciple who has asked to be able to see, following Jesus to the cross but also committing to following him in daily life. Somehow I think that might have been the encouragement that Jesus needed, to know that there was even one follower in his entourage who actually wanted to see, to have his eyes open to what was really going to happen. Most of the rest, from Peter on down, could only see what they wanted to see, which was Jesus riding in to take control as the crowned Messiah. And because that was all they could see, not only did the bottom fall out of their world, but they were nowhere to be found when the story turned into something far more amazing than they could have imagined.

I think Mark tells us all that, not so that we can be critical of those first disciples, but so that we can recognize ourselves in them. When we're coming up to any of those crisis moments in our lives when God's purpose can really break through for us – we see what we want to see too, or perhaps just what we expect to see. But maybe, just maybe, there's a little bit of Bartimaeus in you or in me: a little voice saying, “I want to be able to really see. I want to see what is really going to happen, not just what I think will happen but what God can do. Please, let me see.” That's already an act of faith, isn't it – Jesus says as much in the gospel, when he tells the blind man “Your faith has made you well” - simply believing there is more to see, means that you will be able to see more than you think you can.

But Bartimaeus isn't just to be found in our own stories – he's all around us as well. I wonder if you've ever met anyone who wants there to be more in their life, but doesn't know where to look. Someone who wants to make sense of things, but can't make the picture fit together. Someone who would like to have more hope than they do, and is reaching out for a reason, but hasn't quite got it yet. These are the people in our place and time who are calling out, “I want to see.” Or perhaps, like Bartimaeus actually says, “let me see again” - perhaps feeling that there was once a time when they believed the world could be different than what it is, and they have lost touch with that faith and that insight. I think there are a lot of people like that around us. If today's story means anything, it's that Jesus stops and listens when he hears someone like that. In that version of the story, if we have any role it's to be the people who say “Take heart, get up, he's calling you.”

And if you're anything like me, it may be that only when you watch someone else discover the different world that Jesus opens up to them, that you really see once again what he wants to offer you too. Seeing God's sacrificial self-giving love in Jesus, and seeing it transform us when we accept it, into people who want to offer ourselves in the same way, and become part of a kingdom based on giving ourselves away in service to one another, which turns out to be the best world we could possibly live in.