Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve Sermon: The Birth of a Child Changes Everything

    A couple of weeks ago as I was listening to an Advent Sermon, I heard a pastor make a very interesting point.  I won’t quote him exactly, but the point was this: the most tragic thing that can happen to us during the Christmas season is that we will not be changed by anything that goes on.  His point was well taken.  I mean, think about it: during this time of year, we especially emphasize peace on earth and goodwill toward all men.  We talk about joy.  We proclaim a spirit of giving instead of getting.  Even in those places in life where they try to exclude religion or at least minimize it tremendously, these things are talked about.  I mean, I’ve been attending my kids’ school Christmas programs for the past five years, and all of the programs have something about peace, love, and joy–and nearly all of them were completely secular.

    We talk a good talk about such matters during the Christmas season, but how many of us are truly changed by our experiences this time of year?  How many of us live a completely different life?  Have a completely different attitude?  Really and truly have a sense of peace throughout the year?  Really and truly have goodwill toward all of our fellow man?  Really and truly have hearts that leap for joy each and every day?  Anyone here willing to admit that they have experienced such a change and have had it last for a whole year?  Month?  Week?  Even a day?

    I’m not counting too many hands, and the question I have is why?  Why don’t we change?  Why don’t we have that sense of peace and goodwill?  Why aren’t we filled with joy? 

    The Christian faith has an answer to that question, and it is not necessarily an answer we like to hear.  However, the answer Christianity proclaims must be said because it has also been said by many philosophers and scientists throughout the generations.  If you listen very carefully–despite what some in society would say–the answer proclaimed by Christianity and by various philosophers and scientists is: we are simply too self-centered to have peace, goodwill, and joy. 

    Biologists tell us that the way the world evolves and moves is by genetic mutation and natural selection.  Those are fancy words to say that life changes by our genes being changed deep within AND by survival of the fittest.  The strongest survive.  And, if in nature the strongest survive, then we are forced to get stronger or manipulate the process for our own benefit.  Even deeds of kindness are not done for kindness sake: they are done out of our need to keep from being trampled by the strong.

    Nietzsche, the philosopher who laid most of the groundwork for the transitions and upheavals in contemporary society said that all people have a will to power.  All people are working for their own benefit–to further their own stations and situations in life.  This is the main driving force for all decisions; all institutions; all philosophies and religions.  It is a self-centered process innate in all beings.

    Christianity says that we are infected with original sin.  Going back into the very beginnings of creation, man and woman chose to live for themselves apart from God. Instead of submitting to the Creator, they chose to be like the Creator knowing good and evil for themselves.  They did not want God telling them what to do.  They wanted to do things on their own.  Self-centered.

    And when you are self-centered, you will never be at peace.  You will never have goodwill toward all men.  You will never be full of joy.  You will always be looking over your shoulder and comparing yourself to others.  You will always want one more thing.  You will be angry when others disagree with you and will not conform to your way of thinking.  You will become more and more fearful about circumstances in life, and hold others in contempt when they do not meet your standards. 

    If you have listened to my words this far, I think you can see that what I am talking about is exactly what is happening in much of our society today.  People are self-righteous.  People are more interested in what they can get than what they can give.  People hold the opposing viewpoint in contempt.  People are angry.  People are frustrated.  And nothing is really going to change.

    I hate to be the bearer of bad news in that regard, but it is the truth.  Things just aren’t going to change, especially with people trying to get people to change by pointing fingers and yelling and screaming that their positions are ignorant, stupid, asinine, idiotic, and the like.  No one is being persuaded by argument no matter how rational or irrational.  No one is being persuaded by rules and regulations to become better people–to form a better society–to change the way they live. 

    Why?  Why don’t we change?

    Here’s a hypothesis: we don’t change because rules and regulations cannot change a heart.  Simply knowing what one should do will not compel one to actually do it.  I mean, think about it: each and every one of us here tonight know several rules and axioms to live by.  Here’s a good one that just about everyone knows: if you have a problem with someone, you should talk to everyone but that person.  Right?  That’s the rule?  Of course it isn’t, but that’s what happens anyway, isn’t it?  I mean, we know we shouldn’t say things, but then we find ourselves in a conversation, and things start slipping out–things we wouldn’t dare say in the presence of that other individual.  We say it, even though we know we shouldn’t.  And we do it over and over and over.  And we will continue to do it over and over and over until our heart changes–until we begin following the rules with a different motivation.

    What do I mean?

    I want you to think about what I just said about talking about someone behind their backs.  I want you to think about who you have talked about.  Think about your relationship with that person you have talked about, and let me ask you this question: do you love them?  Really, ask yourself that.  Do you love that person, not in some “I love everyone” fashion, but really love, respect, and appreciate that other person–not for who you want them to be, but for who they are?  Do you love that other person in such a fashion? 

    You know the answer to that.  You know that deep down, when you truly love someone, it is very, very difficult to talk about that person in a hurtful way.  When you really, truly love someone, you go out of your way to talk about that person with kindness.  You go out of your way to minimize their flaws.  You go out of your way to tell others how much you love and appreciate that other person.  You are willing to defend them to the hilt, and if you are hurt by that other person, you are willing to forgive and move forward.  Love does that.  Love changes you deep within, and that change deep within changes the way you live as you reorient your life.  No longer do you only think about you: you think about the one you love and rearrange your life to accommodate that other person.

    Oh, and if you are a parent, your life drastically changes because of the love that you have for your child.  I remember vividly the last birthday I celebrated before adopting our oldest.  I remember that Dawna and I hadn’t made any real plans for the day, so on a whim we ran down to Pizza Hut ate and then decided to go to a movie.  As we were sitting in the Pizza Hut, knowing that we were days away from adopting, I said, “You know, we won’t be able to do this anymore.  Things are really going to change.”  And Dawna replied, “Yes, but they will be a good changes.”

    And she was right.  We adopted Kiera, Kaylee, and then were surprised with Kevin.  Each child brought changes, but we loved our children.  We still love our children, and we adapt our schedules all the time to care for them.  We sacrifice for them.  We put off the things we want to do for their sake.  Love does that.  When you love someone deeply, your life is transformed because of that love.  Your life is transformed by the arrival of a child.

    The Prophet Isaiah proclaims, “6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  

    The angel proclaimed, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

    A child changes everything and transforms your life.

    You may wonder how.  You may wonder how the birth of this baby so long ago changes and transforms you.  You may wonder how the birth of Jesus brings you peace, goodwill toward men, and a lasting joy.  How does a simple birth do that? 

    Well, the birth doesn’t.  The birth is just the beginning for as this child grows, He will accomplish something that you and I cannot.  He will live the perfect life.  He will live sinless and blameless.  He will not talk about people behind their backs.  He will utter words of truth.  He will love His neighbor as He loves Himself.  He will love God and be obedient unto God.  He will live the life we are supposed to live.

    And He will die the death we deserve.  He will go to the cross to reconcile the world unto God.  He will offer Himself as the sacrifice of atonement for our sins.  Oh, there is much to be said about this, but I do not have the time tonight.  If you want to hear more about how this works, please call me.  But for this time, let me say this: Jesus, this child will lay down His life for you.  He will die for you even though you do not deserve it.  He will love you when you are unlovable.  And He will not hesitate to do this for you.  He loves you that much. 

    And when your heart is touched by His love...

    When your heart is moved by Jesus’ sacrifice for you...

    When you know what it cost for Jesus to make things right between you and God...

    Your life will be transformed.  You will indeed be changed.  When the storm rages around you, you will be at peace.  When events of sadness occur, you will have hope.  When circumstances in life seem to go against you, you will still have joy.  When others disagree with you, you will not hold them in contempt but will see them as fellow children of God.  The arrival of this Child on this night leads us to the cross where these things happen over and over and over again. 

    If you take the time to think on this; if you take the time to ponder these things in your heart, you will find the peace that passes understanding.  It is a peace rooted and grounded in love.  The love of God that He has for this world.  For God so loved this world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him may not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.  Behold, the Son has come.  Merry Christmas.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

No Room in the Inn?

During the bulk of my 15 years of preaching, I have not given the due diligence to my sermon preparation.  Content that my seminary preparation had given me enough when interpreting the biblical text, I would read over the text, pick out a topic that the text seemed to address, and then put together a short, sweet sermon that ensured that everyone would reach their favorite restaurant before other congregations finished their worship.

I realize no how not only was I giving my congregation the short end of the stick, I was also neglecting my own personal growth in understanding this marvelous story of God's love.  I was also allowing the biases of what I had been taught throughout the years dominate instead of truly digging in to what the Scriptures really said.  And I have found that in some cases, the translation of one, single word can make a huge difference.

I have seen several links in my Facebook feed from fellow clergy and others this week about Mary and Joseph being turned away from the inn.  Some have tied this event to the current refugee crisis even proclaiming that we are all "innkeepers."  While there is indeed a tie between how we treat refugees and our Christian faith, using the story of Mary and Joseph's travels to Bethlehem to make this point isn't necessarily the best thing to do.

Why?

What if I told you Mary and Joseph weren't turned away from an inn?

Maybe that strikes you as odd considering everything you have ever been taught.  Maybe that strikes you as sacrilegious.  Maybe I am ruining the Christmas story for you.  

I would apologize, but there is something even more significant going on.  I never realized it until this week when I actually picked up my commentaries and read through what they said about this text.  

Let me walk you through what they say:

John Nolland, Word Biblical Commentary: κατάλυμα (kataluma) is a flexible word and can denote any kind of place where one might stay, from a primitive inn to a guest-room of a house to a totally unspecified place where one might stay...On this reading it is best to think of an overcrowded Palestinian peasant home: a single-roomed home with an animal stall under the same roof (frequently to be distinguished from the family living quarters only by the raised platform floor of the latter)...κατάλυμα will, then refer to the living quarters provided by a single-roomed Palestinian home in which hospitality has been extended to Mary and Joseph.

Walter L. Liefeld, New Expositor's Bible Commentary: The word katalyma, usually translated "inn" may mean a room (e.g. the "guest room" used for the Last Supper [Luke 22:11], referred to as an "upper room" in [Luke 22:12], a billet for soldiers, or any place of lodging, which would include inns.  It is not, however, the usual Greek word for an inn--pandocheion, to which the Good Samaritain took the robbery victim (10:34).

Joel B. Green, New International Commentary on the New Testament: The term Luke employs here for "guest room" is often translated in English as "inn."  However, the same term appears in 22;11 with the meaning "guest room," and the verbal form occurs in 9:12 and 19:7 with the sense of "finding lodging" or "be a guest."  Moreover in 10:34, where a commercial inn is clearly demanded by the text, Luke draws on different vocabulary.  It is doubtful whether a commercial inn actually existed in Bethlehem, which stood on no major roads...That "guest room" is the more plausible meaning here is urged by the realization that in peasant homes in the ancient Near East family and animals slept in one enclosed space with the animals located on the lower level.  Mary and Joseph, then, would have been the guests of family or friends, but their home would have been so overcrowded that the baby was placed in a feeding trough.

According to the Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament: κατάλυμα: guest room, dining room, Mk 14:14; Lk 22:11.  Since Lk 10:34 uses the more specific term for inn, πανδοχειον, the term κ in 2:7 is best understood as guest room.

There are a couple of possibilities on this: one, the house was so crowded that Mary and Joseph had no place to set down the baby Jesus, and so they headed downstairs to lay him down in the manger. That's the nice reading.

The second is one my wife had insight into when I was telling her about the appropriate translation.  Mary and Joseph were no married when Mary became pregnant.  Despite what I am sure Joseph said, his willingness to stay with Mary undoubtedly brought shame to Joseph's family.  Joseph and Mary would have been seen as outsiders; breakers of God's Law.  Mary should have been stoned to death.  The fact that Joseph didn't have this done or dismiss Mary from betrothal would have been seen as an absolute blemish.  The couple would not have been welcome into the midst of their very own family, and they were relegated to staying with the animals as no room was made to accommodate them in the guest room--even though Mary was in advanced pregnancy.  This means that even at His birth, those who should have been making room for Him were rejecting Him.  This adds more emphasis to what the Gospel writer John says in chapter one, "He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him."

In my estimation, the proper translation of κατάλυμα sends the reading into a deeper pain of rejection: the closest family to Jesus--his earthly father's--should have welcomed Him, made space for Him, and made sure He did not rest in a cattle stall.  Yet, foreshadowing His ultimate rejection, even at an infant, they turned their backs on Him when He was in need--all because of their perceived shame.  

Thursday, December 17, 2015

It's Just a Moment

It's hard to quantify the job that I do as a pastor.

I know that most of the time, I am judged by whether or not my congregation shows a positive trend in worship attendance and membership.  I know that more often than not my "worth" is gauged by whether or not people join the congregation or the church budget is met.  These tangible things are usually the yardsticks.

But there is so much more.  There are moments that are not quantifiable.  There is simply no way to measure them.

Today, I visited one of the elderly gentlemen of our congregation.  In recent months, he had been attending our "Senior Service" being brought by a good friend.  Last month, he missed.  This month, he missed again.  His friend said, "He cannot walk."

Cue my immediate response that it was time for a personal visit--including home communion.

I've known this gentleman for the entire time I have served this congregation, and he has been through a lot.  He is now in his 90's and has lost much of his vision; and hearing.  He does not have the strength to walk much more than 20-30 feet without breathing heavily.  He told me today that he feels like something is wrong with his mind.  Yeah, things aren't that great at all.

In the last three years, this man has been hospitalized numerous times.  He had his gallbladder rupture and had a massive infection.  His heart valve had to be repaired.  He still has a hernia that needs repair.  There are other issues.

I am not trying to paint a picture of despair.  I am being real.  Perhaps too real.  Oftentimes we don't like to hear about people going through such suffering because there is literally nothing we can do to fix it.

"People tell me I need to get out of the house," I was told today.  "But how?  I can't drive.  I can't walk.  How can I get out?"

I think, what is really needed in this situation is companionship; visitation; interaction with others. But there are not many who will take the time to sit down with a 90 year old who has a much different view of reality.

I get that chance from time to time.  And it is a privilege.

How so?

Here is where things get a little complicated because words tend to do the experience a great injustice.  For just a moment today, there was a transcendence about our visit that is hard to describe.  For just a moment today, there was a sense of a different reality.

After I gave this gentleman Holy Communion, he thanked me profusely.  He was genuinely touched by the visit.  It meant the world to him.  And in that moment, all the bullshit disappeared.  I mean, in most of our relationships, I think we have guards up--barriers that prevent us from getting hurt.  Those barriers also prevent us from really being with someone else.  But every once in a while, those barriers disintegrate.  You see someone for who they really are.  You connect.  In those moments, when you see someone like that, you genuinely love them.  You aren't looking to get anything from them.  They are not looking to get anything from you.  You just stand in one another's presence, and you sense a fullness.

External circumstances don't change.  No one miraculously becomes healed of disease or hurt, but there is a connection.  A connection that means a lot.

Perhaps such things happen outside of religious settings, but in my limited experience, they happen at a much higher rate when I am engaging another in prayer; with Holy Communion; or when walking through a difficult time and that person knows that in a real way I am representing God.

It's just a moment, but an important moment none-the-less.  Not only for that one who needs a connection to something greater than themselves, but also for me.  For in that moment, I too know that I need such a connection.

I wish that for you, my readers.

I wish that for you.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Lessening of Religious Intensity

While reading last night, I was struck by the following words by church historian Rodney Stark in his book The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World's Largest Religion:

Because erstwhile monopoly religions inevitably are relatively lax, lazy, and worldly, most of their opposition will come from groups promoting a far more intense faith--from sects, that being the name given to high intensity religious groups.  Monopoly religions slide into accommodation with their social surroundings even when they were first established by those committed to an intense faith.  One reason that a monopoly religion drifts toward laxity is that religious intensity is never transmitted very efficiently from one generation to the next.  Inevitably, many of the sons and daughters of sect members prefer a lower-tension faith than did their parents.  So long as leadership positions in a sect are restricted to those who are committed to the original standards, a sect can sustain a relatively high level of intensity.  But when these positions are hereditary, and when they are highly rewarded as well (so that the less "religious" seldom depart for other careers), the institution will soon be dominated by those favoring a lower level of intensity.  (Kindle Edition page 38)

Stark uses the term "monopoly" rather loosely, and I would use the equivalent as dominant.  Stark readily admits that no culture has a complete monopoly religion--all cultures have some sort of religious diversity, but his point, I think, has to do with how as generations pass the mantle, the level of religious intensity wanes.  Whereas the religion at first stood against many of the cultural values and norms, as time passes, the religion accommodates those same norms and values.  If the leadership is well paid and "seldom depart for other careers", the religious intensity drops further.

There is no doubt in my mind that Christianity in the west has made such cultural accommodations, and I will not even delve into the theological battles between progressive and conservative Christianity.  That tiresome war will never cease.

What I would like to share is a personal observation rooted and grounded in congregational experience.

I have served long enough in my current setting to see three generations of Christian families worship.  That is somewhat of a rarity in these days of massive mobility and families being scattered to the four winds.  So, what do I see?

The oldest generation is entering their twilight, but when I first arrived, many were still vibrant and able to get out easily.  You could count on them being at worship and church events like clockwork.  Rarely did they miss any event.  Their involvement and faith life was intense, to say the least.

The next generation--a bit less intense.  Instead of regular, weekly worship, church attendance has lessened to two to three times a month.  Sometimes, especially during seasons of harvest (or hunting) attendance is less.  This group is less apt to attend certain church functions, and attendance at Bible study is extremely rare.  Church is an option among many options, and the other options win at an alarming rate.

The third generation--second removed from the first--is the least intense of all.  Church is actually more of a nuisance than anything.  It is one more thing in a long laundry list of activities that one can be involved in, and it is the least fun of them all.  Character building and entertainment can all be wrapped up in weekend sports.  God can be worshiped in a deer stand or on the lake.  Verbal commitments to attend activities are broken without a second thought.  This does not mean this generation is not moral or concerned with dealing with a broken world--far from that.  In fact, many are working hard to help others and make a difference, but they don't see how being actively involved in a congregation helps with this process.

These are broad generalizations.  There are exceptions to the rule, and for that I am thankful.  In fact, I have several congregation members who have traveled in the quite the opposite direction.  Their parents and previous generations have not been active in the church and had no religious intensity what-so-ever.  Their involvement is light-years ahead of previous generations; however, many of these folks are still caught up in the busy-ness of our current society.  They want religious intensity and involvement in the church community, but it is a struggle.  I am greatly thankful that these folks are dedicated to that struggle.

As I ponder these things, I wonder just what can be done to reverse such a thing?  Does this have to be the natural progression of things?  Does religious intensity have to decline?

I don't think it does.  I think the faith can be passed down, but it is a much more difficult job. Somehow the head and heart must be captivated; captured; by the radical love of God.

Simply finger pointing and telling people to do good things or get their act together isn't going to do it. (Witness the contempt many in society have toward churches who do just this.)

Just telling everyone God loves you just the way you are isn't going to do it. (Witness the rapid decline of denominations who use this as their central proclamation.)

Somehow, I think we must find a way to do as Tim Keller said in a lecture I watched numerous times.  "You've got to drill down with the truth, and then put the dynamite in.  Then, you've got explosive transformation."

And that's a lot of work.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Seeing Before Receiving Sight

How do you know someone is telling the truth?

We live in an age of spin.  You’ve all seen it take place.  The President of the U.S. gives a speech, and less than a minute later, the media pundits start in, “Well, what the President REALLY just said was...”fill in the blank.  And if the President said something that was actually good, those on the opposing side of the fence will spin the words into something horrible.  If the President said something controversial, those who are on the same side of the fence offer any interpretation which will soften the words.  The speeches and spin leave your head reeling wondering if anyone heard the same thing you heard to begin with.

But this is not simply relegated to politics.  The quest for truth goes even further.  You are gathered here this morning listening to my sermon.  You will hear me interpret scripture in just a few moments.  There may be a few things that I say that will leave you scratching your head, so you may wonder where I am getting these things.  You could go home and do a search on Youtube for pastors who have preached on this same text.  You will find them saying some quite different things.  Which of us is right?  Which of us is telling the truth?  How can you judge?  Are we all right?  Are we all wrong?  Just for your information, as part of my sermon preparation, I will generally listen to around 10 sermons per week on a given biblical text.  I know how different these interpretations can be.  I know how well meaning most of us pastors are.  How do I discern what is true and what is not?  We’ll get there in a little while because I want to continue down this rabbit hole a little more.

In politics; in religion there is quite a bit of spin and difference given, but surely this doesn’t apply to real life.  Surely, the facts are the facts and there is no spinning them.  Right?  Wrong.  We just witnessed another horrendous shooting in California this past week.  Facts are being gathered.  Motives are being examined.  We know that one of the shooters spent a month in Syria, came back changed, and began growing his beard out.  We know he and his wife were Muslim.  Terrorist attack?  Workplace violence?  We’ve heard both–again depending upon how one wants to spin the event. Who is telling the truth?

I want to walk through this short text today from the book of Mark which recounts the healing of Bartamaeus, but I want to begin by putting it into the larger context of the book of Mark.  We have been walking through this book for some time now, and we’ve still got a ways to go.  We are actually completing a section on Mark that has focused on discipleship, and this section began with the healing of another blind person.  Several months ago, I preached a sermon about a blind man that Jesus had to “heal” twice.  This story began in Mark chapter 8, verse 22.  The first time Jesus touched him, the man responded that he could see people, but they looked like trees.  When Jesus looked at him intently and spoke, then the man was completely healed.

I talked about how this healing was not only historical, but it was also metaphorical.  It was also to help us see how oftentimes the disciples–and we–understand Jesus to be the Messiah, but we don’t see Him clearly.  Then, from Mark chapter 8:22 until today, we have seen example after example of disciples who understand that Jesus is the Messiah, that He is from God, that He is of great power and might, but they don’t understand ultimately what Jesus is all about.  The disciples and others around get caught up in power struggles; in hunger for prestige; in thinking that Jesus is too important for children; in their love of wealth; in a desire for status and privilege when Jesus comes into power.  Time and again, the disciples don’t see clearly, but today, we see someone who does.  Today we see someone who comes to a knowledge of the Truth.  Perhaps what Bartimaeus sees will help us see and come to know who speaks the Truth.

Jesus and his disciples are on the way to Jerusalem, and as they travel, they go by the city of Jericho.  Outside this city, on the side of the road is a man by the name of Bartimaeus.  He is blind, and he is begging.  If we take a moment to remember how this story is playing out, we know that the Jewish holiday of Passover is only days away.  Pilgrims from throughout Israel would travel to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, and many would pass by Jericho.  Bartimaeus knew this, so he situated himself where there would be deeply religious people passing him by–deeply religious
people who hopefully would have compassion on him.  But, as we see, there are many who don’t.

Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is passing by, and without hesitation or thought for embarrassment, Bartimaeus cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  Now, what Bartimaeus says is important.  He does not simply cry out, Jesus, have mercy on me.  No.  He says, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  You see, Son of David was a Messianic title.  Bartimaeus has no doubt heard about the things that Jesus has said and done.  Bartimaeus has come to realize something as he reflected on what Jesus had accomplished.  One of the best lines I heard this past week was this: what Bartimaeus lacked in eyesight, he made up for in insight.  He knew that Jesus was the Messiah.  He knew that Jesus was God’s anointed, and Bartimaeus addressed Jesus with this title; loudly; unabashedly; without reservation.

And the crowd tried to shut him up.  Now, granted, we don’t exactly know why the crowd tried to shut Bartimaeus up.  There could be several reasons.  The crowd could have been scared.  After all, if someone was addressing Jesus as, “Son of Man” or “Messiah” this could have been seen as seditious.  The Roman guards would have been extra cautious during Passover fearing an uprising with the gathering of so many Jews.  They would have been on alert for those who might be trying to start a revolt.  If someone was using Messianic language in such a case, the Roman guard could start arresting people just on pretense.  This is actually a pretty positive spin on why the crowd would have tried to silence Bartimaeus, but there is a negative possibility as well.

You see, as I have said before, in that day and age, there was a strong belief that if you had a physical ailment, then God had wrought that ailment upon you.  If you were blind, God was punishing you for your sin or your parents’ sin.  You were generally held in contempt by others.  You were seen as lower than low.  So, it is also a possibility that those in the crowd would have thought, “This blind, begging, sinner has no right to call upon Jesus in such a fashion.  He is being punished by God and should not be trying to get the attention of a holy man.”  Given what Mark has shown us in the previous two chapters, I think the odds are better that the crowd was not being kind to Bartimaeus.  My guess is they thought he had no business calling out to Jesus.  They tried to shut him up.

But Bartimaeus was undaunted.  Bartimaeus did not give in to the crowd’s attempts to shut him up.  This was too important.  The Son of David was at hand.  The Messiah was here.  And if Bartimaeus knew anything of Scripture, he knew that the Messiah had promised to bring about healing and restoration.  In the words of the prophet Isaiah, the Messiah “bring good news to the poor...to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  To bring recovery of sight to the blind.  Bartimaeus knew this, and he believed it.  Is it any wonder he was clamoring for Jesus’ attention?  Is it any wonder he was raising his voice when others tried to shout him down?  Bartimaeus trusted the promise!  Bartimaeus trusted that Jesus was the promised Messiah who would do what Isaiah said.  “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”

And Jesus stood still.  Mark Edwards, in his commentary says this, “How remarkable that the Son of Man allows the cries of a poor and powerless person to stop him in his tracks.”  Some people have said to me and asked me whether or not God cares about ones as insignificant as us.  Why would God hear our cries and our prayers when we are so small and insignificant compared to Him.  And yet, the Son of David, God incarnate, stops in His tracks because of the cries of a poor and powerless man.  This is the God revealed to us here–a God who deeply cares about the least and the lost.  Jesus says, “Call him here.”

How quickly the crowd changes its tune.  How quickly they discard their cries for quiet.  How quickly they suddenly accept Bartimaeus when Jesus shows him compassion.  Think this is just limited to them?  I remember once attending the ordination of a colleague.  My wife and I sat at the back of the church.  As is custom for me, I was not wearing my clerical collar.  I did not robe up.  I simply attended–a stranger in the midst of this congregation.  My wife and I were heartily ignored by all around us–until it came time for the laying on of hands.  All clergy were invited to come forward, so I whiffed out my clerical collar, put it on, and laid hands on the man being ordained.  When I returned to the pew with my wife, the reception we received was markedly different.  Because of a collar?  How quickly things change.

There is an important detail that happens next.  Bartimaeus throws off his cloak.  This might not seem like much to us, but remember that Bartimaeus is a blind, beggar.  What do you think his possessions consist of?  He has nothing–except his cloak.  The commentaries I consulted and sermons I heard made note that Bartimaeus would have spread his cloak on the ground to catch coins that people gave him.  He would have used it to wrap up in to keep warm as he had no place to go.  He would have used it to give him shade from the son.  It was the thing he used for protection; for earning a living; it was all that he had.  And he cast it off.  He comes before Jesus with nothing.  Remember the rich young man who could do no such thing?

Bartimaeus comes before Jesus, and Jesus asks him a pointed question, “What do you want me to do for you?”  I want you to remember last week when James and John sought out an audience with Jesus.  I want you to remember how these two disciples of the inner circle begged Jesus to give them whatever they asked.  I want you to remember how Jesus responded.  Do you remember?  It was with the same question, “What do you want me to do for you?”  James and John ask for power and prestige and status.  James and John don’t get the Kingdom of God.  Bartimaeus does.  “He has come to bring recovery of sight to the blind,” Isaiah says.  “Rabbouni,” Bartimaeus says, “Let me see.”

Again, let me quote Mark Edwards.  Your bulletin says, “Teacher, let me see, but the Greek word is Rabbouni which is significant.   Edwards says, “In extant Jewish literature, rabbouni is seldom used with reference to humanity, and practically never as a form of address.  It is frequently used as an address to God in prayer, however.  Its use here suggests Bartimaeus’s–and Mark’s–estimation of Jesus.”  Bartimaeus essentially offers a prayer, “Let me see.”

And Jesus says, “Go, your faith has saved you.”

What does Bartimaeus do?  He has been released from the captive of his blindness.  He now has the ability to go and work.  He now has the ability to earn a living.  He will now be seen by others to be blessed by God for he no longer carries the curse of blindness.  He can go anywhere and do anything, so what does he do?

He follows Jesus along the road.  Now, an interesting thing can be said right here because the Greek word for road is “hodos” which is also translated, “The Way.”  In the early Church, Christians were not initially called Christians.  Initially, they were called followers of “The Way.”  Bartimaeus follows Jesus along the Way.  Here is an example of discipleship at its finest.  When those closest to Jesus couldn’t see and had difficulty seeing, this once blind beggar trusts Jesus, throws off his cloak, is healed, and follows Jesus toward the cross.  He truly sees.  He has found the Truth.  How can we?

As you can see at this point, I am asking you to delve deeply into this question of truth.  I am asking you to look at Jesus to understand the Truth.  I am asking you to look to Jesus to give you the criteria in understanding how to discern the Truth.  I am asking you to see what Bartimaeus sees.

And what does Bartimaeus see?  He sees the Messiah–the one who brings about restoration.  But, as we have seen all along, the restoration Jesus brings is not by military might, but as the verse leading right into this story says, “He came to give His life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus came to be the suffering Messiah who dies on the cross to give His life for yours.  He does this because He loves you with a love beyond measure.  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.”

Why is this so significant?  Why is this such an important thing in knowing the Truth?  Because of this: when you look at people who spin things today, they have an agenda.  They are trying to win you over to their position.  They are trying to further their own positions of power and prestige.  They are trying to get you to go along with them, and if you do not...guess what they think of you?  Guess how they treat you?  With contempt.  With scorn.  With anger.  Sometimes with hatred.  If you don’t agree with them, they want nothing to do with you.

But how does Jesus respond when you don’t agree with Him?  How does Jesus respond when you don’t like what He teaches?  How does Jesus respond when you inwardly and outwardly say to Him, “I won’t do what you say.”

Jesus stretches out His arms and dies for you.  Jesus loves you and is willing to die for you even when you don’t love Him.  How do you know if someone is telling the truth?  How do you know when someone is immersed in the truth?  When they are willing to die for you even though they know you hate them.  This is Jesus.  This is what Bartimaeus saw.  This is what I pray that we might see.  Amen.