The below text was preached as a sermon for the Sunday Morning Eucharist Service at Good Shepherd Anglican Church in Opelika, AL, on 28 October 2018. A podcast recording this sermon is available on PodBean.
“And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. And Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ And the blind man said to him, ‘Rabbi, let me recover my sight.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Go your way; your faith has made you well.’ And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.” Mark 10:50-52 (ESV)
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be always acceptable in your sight; O LORD my rock and my redeemer.
Is there anyone here who has difficulty seeing? How about anyone who is required to wear glasses to drive? Is there anyone here who is literally or legally blind?
For all of us, whether you deal with loss of vision or other physical impediment, I rejoice that new bodies await us after Christ’s Return, and that these and all other infirmities will be removed so that we may enjoy the Creation as God intended, in perfection and without physical ailments dulling our senses. Amen.
While I will mainly be focusing on the Gospel reading for today, this is one of my favorite Lectionary arrangements, because there appear to be clear connecting lines of application between all of the readings. I encourage you to come back and read all of the readings again later this week and see what fresh insight or questions come to you.
We are told throughout the Gospels that Jesus performed many miracles of healing, and that restoring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the mute, and mobility to the lame were the remarkable signs that he worked that got people’s attention. The Gospels contain several separate accounts of restoration of sight, and our Lectionary – the three-year cycle of readings which we read every Sunday during the worship service – captures two of them, the other being the account of the man born blind whom Jesus healed by spitting in his eyes.
What is so great about restoration of sight? Why is it that all of the Gospel writers included more than just one account of the blind being made to see? Why not just one and then lump the rest in with the many other healing works Jesus did? Why does our Lectionary make a point of recounting these and other healing miracles?
To answer these questions, it is important to consider what it means to be blind. Specifically, let us consider Bartimaeus. We don’t know much about Bartimaeus, beyond his name and that he was a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus. Mark does not say that he was born blind, and textual cues make it reasonable to assume that he was born with his sight, and lost it at some point – through disease, trauma, or perhaps just due to age. The way the crowd treats Bartimaeus, as well as other blind men approaching Jesus, tells about his social status; the crowd believes that he is beneath the notice of Jesus, and rebukes him, hoping to cause him to scurry off.
Just for a moment, I want everyone in here who is wearing glasses to take them off, but keep your eyes open and try to take in what’s going on at the front of the Sanctuary. If you don’t wear glasses, or if you wear contacts, close your eyes. I’m not about to ask you to consider anything very deep right now, this isn’t a segue into some sort of meditation. I only want you to briefly consider what it’s like to have your vision degraded or taken away. What is your immediate concern? If you were never allowed to open your eyes or put your glasses back on, what would that mean for you?
This is something like what Bartimaeus lived with. We don’t know whether his blindness was total, or if it was “merely” debilitating. He certainly couldn’t do any meaningful work, otherwise he wouldn’t have had to resort to life as a beggar. Standing up here, I am having to alternate between squinting, hoping that I have correctly memorized what I’ve written, and get close enough to the paper to make sure I’m on the right track. My life would be severely altered faced with the kind of reality that Bartimaeus lived with.
You may put your glasses back on and open your eyes.
Thanks be to God, that we live in a time that unless we have serious disease or trauma affecting the eye, most causes of vision problems can be corrected. Thanks be to God that Jesus, the Great Physician, healed Bartimaeus and the others recounted in Scripture of their physical blindness and gave them the gift of sight.
But this was never just about restoring sight to the blind, or opening up the ears of the deaf, or loosening the tongue of the mute.
Each of these works were important personal ministries from God the Son to the people he ministered to, but that is not the chief reason why the Gospel writers chose to capture them in their accounts.
Think back a few moments – having experienced a brief time of failing vision, what is the chief impact to you? Is it not that your ability to perceive the world around you is degraded?
In Mark’s Gospel, the account of Bartimaeus is the second of two sight restorations that occur on either side of Jesus providing key instruction on what it is to be his disciples. During this time, Peter has enjoyed favor after confessing Jesus as the Christ but has also been rebuked for speaking against the plan of salvation, in denying that Jesus would be handed over to the Gentiles and killed. Jesus has repeatedly predicted his death and resurrection, and the disciples have been reluctant to hear it. Peter, James, and John have seen Jesus Transfigured on the Holy Mountain. Finally, the disciples have been taught that to be first they must become last.
All of these events showcase particular areas where Jesus’ disciples had impaired spiritual senses regarding the ministry and purpose of Christ’s mission on Earth. All of them were physically seeing and hearing and walking with Jesus, but spiritually they were poor in sight if not totally blind; their ears were dull if not fully stopped up; their legs took halting steps when they didn’t collapse under them.
Jesus’ healing act regarding Bartimaeus is also instructive. In the earlier account in Mark, the first healing doesn’t appear to “take” – Jesus has to repeat laying his hands on the man. In contrast, we aren’t told that Jesus laid hands on Bartimaeus at all! The extent of the healing act is that Jesus tells Bartimaeus that his faith has made him well, and his sight is immediately recovered. The difference in the two healings is striking – why did Jesus apparently need a second try with the one, but barely needed to speak to Bartimaeus to heal him?
The answer of course is not that for some reason Jesus had to perfect his healing on the first man. Rather, this healing prefigures the spiritual healing that Jesus will perform through his instruction to the disciples, and the healing of Bartimaeus is the final instruction in this block of training – if you have faith, you will be made finally and perfectly well.
So, what does this mean for us?
We all have spiritual blind spots. Just as our physical eyes can become degraded or damaged, our spirits, which start out enthusiastic and open to the Word of God, can over time become heavy with the cares of life, cares which rise up like spiritual cataracts taking our sight off of the big picture. For we who are baptized and remain faithful to Christ Jesus, that is the extent of it, we don’t have to be worried about losing our spiritual sight altogether. Nevertheless, we should always strive for the removal of those blind spots, seeking our healing by faith in Jesus.
What are spiritual blind spots? What are things that degrade our vision of Jesus and his Kingdom?
Anything that seeks to take the place of Jesus as Lord of our Life, even if only for a season, fits the bill. These can either be things that steal our focus from what God calls us to do, or they can be things that blot out and make it difficult for us to see that call. Our lives are full of things clamoring for our attention, and sometimes we pay attention with God-colored lenses (meaning that we rely on God to inform us about these abstract things), and sometimes we attempt to approach God while wearing glasses that are shaded and smudged (meaning that we interpret our view of God based on the cares of the world that are stealing our attention).
Moving from abstract talk to specifics, let me give a couple of examples, which I think are especially applicable for our culture and moment.
Just as Fr. Ben preached a couple of Sundays ago, money is a major blind spot that most of us at some level struggle with. And our culture makes it very easy for us to miss what the Scripture says, by setting up monetary security as the lower bar of wealth. This is a sneaky work of the world against us, because it becomes very easy for me to say that because I still pay student debts, I’m not really financially secure. But Scripture clearly teaches over and over that God desires those who have to give to those who do not have.
I really want to exclude myself from that hard teaching, but the Spirit won’t allow me to. The fact is that I make decent money, and even with our current circumstances, there are still small luxuries that I know I am holding too tightly to when I should be looking for ways to serve others with the financial blessings that I do have. When I try to dodge out of the way of what the Scripture teaches me about how to handle money, seeking to not even let the words stir any kind of concern, then my spiritual senses are dulled, and I do not perceive the world rightly.
In this country, in this state, in our communities, politics is a blind spot that leads many into tragic conflicts and disagreements and steals our sight off of God’s works of wonder and love. We live in what seems like it must be one of the most divided times in the recent history of our country. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, a dyed in the wool capitalist or a bleeding-heart social liberal, the inclination to look for someone to rally behind who will lead us to electoral victories and right the wrongs we identify in our society is very strong.
It was the same for our forebears in faith, the disciples – part of the reason for their blindness was that they saw in Jesus not the Savior of mankind, but as just another – albeit divinely favored – earthly king who would restore Judah to its rightful place in the politics of Palestine and the surrounding countries. They were blind because they did not see that for Jesus to become that great ruler would actually be a hindrance to the salvation mission; for, contrary to the wisdom of the world, might does not make right and oppression cannot be overturned by oppression, but wounds are healed through mercy and sacrifice and the justice of the only One who can mete out Justice.
Likewise, we are blind when we put our trust more in politicians or platforms than we do in the might and mercy of God in Jesus Christ. I do not speak only to the right or to the left: there are Christians on both sides who come very near to falling into this trap. We must always be careful to keep concerns about the powers of the world in their proper place – informing our politics based on the whole witness of the Holy Spirit to the Church, and not informing our image of God based on our politics. When we despair over the “other side” gaining ground in the political arena and allow that to dampen our joy or incite us to bitterness about the state of the world, we reveal that we trust too much in princes and chariots and not in the Lord Our God.
How are we to overcome these and other areas of blindness in our lives?
A couple of weeks ago, we heard that “with man, it is impossible; but with God, all things are possible.” Today, we have heard Jesus tell Bartimaeus that “your faith has made you well.” This is the Gospel: that despite our spiritual infirmities, if we have faith in God, His will and His Word, we will be healed and made whole before Him. Jesus’ statement to Bartimaeus is not a one-off curiosity in the mystery of miraculous healings; instead it is an instruction and assurance to us just as surely as it was to the disciples who walked with Jesus.
This faith comes not from willing yourself into belief; rather, it comes from prayer and remembering the promises of God to His people. God has shown His character from the beginning of the world as a loving and merciful Father. Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, related the same truths both in teaching crowds and through personal acts of ministry and charity. I know for my part that when I look back on my life I can identify specific examples when God reaffirmed and renewed my faith in Him. I expect it is the same for most if not all of you.
Having this faith, therefore, I encourage you to reflect on the areas in your spiritual life where your vision is smudged of blurred. Ask in prayer for Jesus to heal those cataracts, and to remove the distractions from your sight which impair your ability to see Him fully.
In closing, I echo the writer of Hebrews in encouraging all of us to greater things, saying that “Though we speak in this way,” bringing up the hard and uncomfortable truth that we are all afflicted with spiritual wounds and ailments which apart from faith in Jesus lead to death, “yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
Grace and Peace to you in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is our Good Shepherd and Great Physician. Amen.