Sunday, October 25, 2015

Called Out of Darkness: What We Need to Follow Jesus on the Way

Year B • Track 2 • Proper 25

Jeremiah 31:7­9 • Psalm 126 • Hebrews 7:23–28 • Mark 10:46–52

                           Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
                            our lips and speak through them.
                           Take our hearts and see through them.
                           Take our souls and set them on fire. Amen.

The Question
What do you need to follow Jesus? What do you need to follow Jesus more closely, more consciously, and more faithfully? That’s the question we are going to wrestle with today. What do we need to follow Jesus?

This question is directly related to the question that Jesus poses in today’s episode: “What do you want me to do for you?” It’s a simple, straightforward question. Yet how one answers this question has profound implications for the life of discipleship. Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus is a blind beggar, so his answer does not surprise us: “Master, let me see again” (10:51). Jesus is merciful and grants his request: “Go; your faith has made you well,” and immediately, Bartimaeus regains his sight.

How remarkable, not simply because it happened immediately, but because it happened at all. Of course, we are not surprised that Jesus restored his sight; this has become all too familiar. But sometimes we need to pause and reflect because, despite its familiarity, it is still remarkable. Can you imagine what it would have been like for Bartimaeus to receive his sight, to be called out of darkness into light, to see the face of the one who just gave you sight?

That being said, today’s gospel is not only about the recovery of one man’s sight. For notice how the story ends. After Bartimaeus regains his sight, he follows Jesus on the way (10:52b). Jesus had said, “Go,” but Bartimaeus followed. So, today’s episode is not simply a miracle story, it’s also parable, a parable about discipleship.

The Way
Transformation Beside the Way
For several weeks now, we have been traveling with Jesus on the way to Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover. And as we have traveled, we have noted the numerous references to “the way,” an expression that is saturated with significance because we all know what lies in store for Jesus when he arrives at his destination. We know this, not only because we know how the story ends, but because, on three separate occasions, Jesus himself informs his disciples of the rejection, suffering and death that await him. Therefore, those who wish to follow Jesus, must follow him on the way, the Way of the Cross (8:34). So again, in Mark’s gospel, the expression, “the way,” is pregnant with meaning. And it occurs twice in today’s story.

First, when Jesus and his entourage are leaving Jericho, the  last major stop before Jerusalem, Mark writes, “Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside” (10:46). A clearer translation would be, “Bartimaeus was sitting beside the way.” So Mark wants us to see two things: Jesus and his companions traveling on the way and Bartimaeus sitting beside the way. Of course, by story’s end, Bartimaeus is no longer sitting beside the way. Rather, he has thrown off his cloak, which represents his former life of darkness and beggary, and has joyously begun to follow Jesus on the way. So again, today’s episode is not just about Bartimaeus receiving his sight, it is about Bartimaeus receiving what he needs to follow Jesus.

Transformation On the Way
But Bartimaeus is not the only person in the story to receive sight. Those traveling with Jesus do so as well. Notice the difference in how the crowd responds to Bartimaeus before and after Jesus calls to him. In the beginning, when Bartimaeus is shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!,” those traveling with Jesus rebuke him and order him to be silent. This is exactly how Jesus spoke to demons. So the companions of Jesus aren’t simply treating this blind beggar as an annoyance; they are treating him as though he were an unclean spirit. But the moment Jesus calls to him, the crowd is transformed. Their dismissive tone of rebuke is replaced by palpable excitement. They begin shouting, “Take heart; get up. He is calling you.” In short, Jesus’ reaching out creates a connection that others participate in.

There is an important lesson to be learned here. Never underestimate your power to effect transformation in those around you. When you show the love and compassion of God to others, when you acknowledge others and welcome them and include them, especially those who are sitting on the sidelines of life, it has the power transform others, to open eyes and to soften hearts.

What Do You Want Me To Do For You?
So in calling Bartimaeus, Jesus not only made it possible for Bartimaeus to follow him on the way, he made it possible for those who were already on the way to follow him more closely and more faithfully. This brings us back to the question with which we began. What do you need to follow Jesus? So today, if Jesus asked you, “What do you want me to do for you?,” what would you say?

Now before you answer let me add a stipulation. It must be something for yourself. You cannot request something for somebody else, for a family member or a friend. You can do that later, but in this exercise, you have to ask for something for yourself. Imagine, you are Bartimaeus. You have been crying out, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me! Lord Jesus, have mercy on me!” Sometimes you have cried this in a soft voice, but sometimes you have had to shout it at the top of your lungs so that your request could be heard above all the voices and turmoil in life. Jesus hears your cries at whatever decibel they are offered and he summons you. He draws you close to him, and he asks you, “What do you want me to do for you?”

“What do you want me to do for you?”

I wonder, would you have an immediate response, or would you have to think about it? Perhaps your answer is related to something you have done or something you have failed to do, or perhaps something that has been done to you. Maybe you want to be healed of something physical or psychological or spiritual. Maybe you want an awareness of God’s love and presence in your life. Maybe you don’t know what you really want or need, and you would like Jesus to show you.

This past week, I have been asking people this question, both adults and children: “What is one thing you would like Jesus to do for you?” I heard a variety of answers.

• “I want what I need.”
• “I want to be a better parent.”
• “I want to stand on my own two feet.” “I want to provide for my family.”
• “I want to live without shame and guilt.”
• “I want to be forgiven.” • “I want to know that I am forgiven.”
• “I want to be able to forgive someone.”
• “I want to live without fear.”
• “I want to live in the freedom that comes from knowing
    that God loves me unconditionally.”
• “I want to know God’s will for my life, and the courage to do it.”
• “I want joy.” • “I want peace.” • “I want rest.”

Lots of the answers I received had to do with faith.
• “I want to have more faith.”
• “I want to believe.” • “I want to believe in God, in Jesus.”
• “I want to know that I believe, and that I am going to heaven.”

Perhaps one of these responses resonates with you. Maybe you have never had faith, and you have come here because you want to believe, you want to know how to believe. Maybe you have lost your faith, and you would like to find your way back to believing in God again. Or maybe, your faith hasn’t gotten lost, but it has changed. Maybe life has become too hard, and your faith doesn’t seem strong or relevant enough. Maybe life has become so busy, so filled with distractions that faith has been pushed to the side and you feel disconnected from God, from people, and even from yourself. Maybe you feel that your faith has become domesticated, and you long for a courageous faith. Maybe the whole business of faith has become too complicated, and you wish you could just return to the faith of your childhood, when faith seemed simple, straightforward, and strong.

So if faith is what we want, how do we get it? We ask for it. We make our way to Jesus, the giver of all good gifts, and we ask for it. Sometimes we have to shout over and over again, not because Jesus isn’t listening or paying attention, but because, like Bartimaeus, our voice has to rise above the din of all the other voices—some external and most internal—the voices of judgment, of doubt, anger, fear, the voices of depression, addiction, self-hatred, shame, anything that keeps us on the side of the road.

At the same time, we have to listen carefully, listen for the voice of Jesus who loves us and who is always calling to us, summoning us, and asking us, “What do you want me to do for you?” All we need is courage to answer his question, a mustard-seed of courage, just enough to say, “Jesus, have mercy on me,” or “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” And Jesus will grant our request because he is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

But know this, when Jesus grants us the gift of faith, it comes immediately, but it rarely, if ever comes fully formed. The faith that Jesus plants within us must grow and mature. Now there may be great drama and excitement when faith first comes, or faith may come more quietly. But either way, faith takes time to grow and mature. And be prepared because faith doesn’t always grow like other plants. Sometimes faith grows in the light of day, but sometimes it grows best in the valley of the shadow of death. Unfortunately, in the darkness of the valley, you may not see the growth. In fact, the leaves of faith may start looking dry and brittle, even dead, but below the soil the roots of faith are growing stronger and stronger. So we must be patient. And as we wait for our faith to grow, we simply walk with Jesus on the way.

And perhaps that is all we need in order to follow Jesus, simply to know that he is with us on the way. So maybe that is what we want Jesus to do for us. “Lord, we want to see again. We want you to open our eyes and make us aware of how you are present with us every moment of every day, for if we know that you are with us, we can endure anything.”

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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