22nd After Pentecost (B) Sermon

A sermon delivered at St. Paul’s (Chatsworth) on October 25, 2015

Lectionary Readings: Job 42:1-6; 10-17; Hebrews 7.23:-28; Mark 10:46-52.

I.

Jesus said to Bartimaeus: “Your faith has made you well” (Mk. 10.52).

Wait a minute: this is a rather strange thing for Jesus to say, isn’t it? I mean, it sounds like something one of those so-called ‘faith-healers’ you see on television would say: if you simply have enough faith, your sickness will vanish; if you believe strong enough, you will be given your heart’s desire.

If this is true, then the implication is that if you remain sick or poor, then you simply do not have enough faith; your belief is not strong enough; you did not pray hard enough.

But is this what Jesus means? Is Jesus suggesting that faith-healers and prosperity preachers are telling the truth: that the fervor of one’s faith will heal them and grant them wealth? Was Bartimaeus healed because he reached a superstar level of faith that only ‘true believers’ can attain? Of course, the answer to this question is a resounding ‘No!’ Jesus is neither a faith-healer nor a prosperity preacher.

Nevertheless, the popularity and influence of faith-healers and prosperity preachers who claim to teach and act in Jesus’ name remains. Some of the largest congregations in the world are led by such people. Stadiums are filled with tens of thousands of people who are desperate for healing, desperate for financial security, desperate for hope. They are told that all they have to do to receive the healing or financial windfall they so desperately need is just to give what little money they have to the super-star healer or preacher and just believe enough that their desire will be granted.

The problem is that faith-healers and prosperity preachers peddle a view of faith that is completely at odds with the kind of faith that Jesus is talking about.

II.

Too often we assume that faith is a kind of “special power or faculty” that we have, or, at least we should have.[1] If only I had more faith, I would be a better Christian; if only I had more faith, then I would be able to tell others about Jesus. I have too many questions and doubts, so I guess I just don’t have enough faith like so-and-so. Faith, it seems, is something that is quantifiable, depending on the ‘spirituality’ of the individual believer.

However, the problem with this kind of thinking is that is starts on the wrong foot: it begins with us: “with our attitudes, our emotions, our inner lives”.[2] The assumption is that faith is “basically a matter of figuring ourselves out”, a kind of naval-gazing for the spiritually inclined.[3] The ‘spiritual’ among us are those who’ve reached a level of self-understanding to the point that they appear to be thoroughly in control of their own lives. But, can faith be measured? Is faith really all about me and my spirituality?

Today’s Gospel reading makes it clear that faith is not a subjective turning-inward; rather, faith is objective. In other words, faith is directed toward the object of faith. This means that “what matters about faith is…not us but God the object of faith”.[4]

The object of Bartimaeus faith was Jesus Christ. Bartimaeus does not identify Jesus as yet another faith-worker who promises to work miracles if the price is right; Bartimaeus identifies Jesus in three ways.

First, he names Jesus as “Son of David” (Mk. 10.47; 48). Even when the crowd tries to quiet him down, Bartimaeus’ cries become all the louder. Bartimaeus sees that Jesus is the Son of David, the one who will restore Israel’s fortunes and return her to glory. Living under Roman rule, the Israelites were once again a subjected people living in the shadow of empire, desperate for liberation. Bartimaeus’ claim that Jesus is the Son of David is politically subversive; it directly challenges Roman rule. No wonder the crowd wanted this old blind man to be quiet: he could get them all in a lot of trouble if any Romans or sympathizers to the empire where listening, which they undoubtedly were. Bartimaeus is not simply trying to get Jesus attention by saying something shocking: he is publicly and fearlessly proclaiming who Jesus is. Jesus is the object of Bartimaeus’ faith.

Second, Bartimaeus identifies Jesus as one who will extend mercy. The Romans were known for their harsh subjugation of those whom they conquered; they enforced the Pax Romana with an iron fist, destroying all opposition. Jesus, on the other hand, already named by Bartimaeus as the heir and true king of Israel, is also identified as a different kind of king: a merciful king, one who exercises his authority with compassion. Bartimaeus is identifying Jesus in stark contrast to Caesar: here is a king completely unlike the kings of earth. Look to him and he will give you mercy!

Third, Bartimaeus calls Jesus “my teacher” (Mk. 10.51). He does not identify Jesus as a teacher, one among many other teachers. Rather, he claims Jesus as his teacher; I am a student of this teacher. Jesus is not a good religious or ethical teacher that sits among the pantheon of other teachers in human history. Bartimaeus says I follow him and he alone because he is truth embodied.

Bartimaeus does not yell provocative things in order to get Jesus attention and he does not flatter Jesus in order to get what he wants. Though he is physically blind, Bartimaeus fixes his sight on Jesus. When his physical sight is restored, Bartimaeus follows Jesus “on the way”, as it says in verse 52. Because Bartimaeus’ faith is focused on Jesus, his life is dedicated to following Jesus who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Jesus response to Bartimaeus that his faith has made him well is not about the restoration of his physical sight; Jesus is telling Bartimaeus his ability to see Jesus as the promised Messiah means that there is nothing wrong with his sight; Bartimaeus is able to see what others cannot. Though Bartimaeus is physically blind, when it comes to Jesus he has 20/20 vision. Yes, the restoration of Bartimaeus’ sight is miraculous. However, it is not the focal point of the story. Indeed, the healing is almost an afterthought; the focus of the story remains on Bartimaeus’ faith as it saw and proclaimed Jesus’ identity. Bartimaeus’ faith made him well not primarily in terms of the restoration of his physical sight but because he could see the one who will restore all things. Jesus’ healing of Bartimaeus is an affirmation that underlines the truth of Bartimaeus’ confession of faith.

Furthermore, when this story is place within its larger context, it seems as though the author is suggesting that despite his physical blindness, Bartimaeus’ could see what others could not. You see, the story of Bartimaeus takes place within a set of stories that demonstrate the disciples’ blindness. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ disciples are portrayed as completely blind to what was happening around them. Last week’s Gospel reading is a direct counter point to this week: the disciples were arguing about who would hold the place of honor in God’s kingdom. They were essentially blind to the radical nature of God’s kingdom where the first are last and the last are first, where sinners are shown mercy and the spiritual elite are rebuked.

The first 10 chapters of Mark seek to demonstrate Jesus’ identity as the Son of God (cf. Mk 1.1) and the Messiah by focusing on Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry, culminating with the story of Bartimaeus. Following this, the author of Mark narrates the events of Passion week. You see, Bartimaeus’ faith acts as a hinge in the Mark’s Gospel; it anticipates Jesus’ identity as it will be fully revealed on Good Friday and Easter Sunday as echoed in the words of the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross: “Truly this man was God’s son” (Mk. 15.39). Bartimaeus fixes his sight on the one who is truly human and truly God, the one who will restore all things, and will bring his healing mercy – spiritual and physical – to all of creation.

III.

Faith is “the way in which we meet and response to the God who sets himself before us” most clearly in Jesus Christ. (Webster, 193). Therefore, faith involves the process of learning to take God on God’s terms. It is the height of religious hubris to demand that God fit our expectations of what God should be like before we are willing to trust him. Indeed, this demand is indicative of our need for healing, the need for our sight to be restored. When faith becomes focused on ourselves and our demands, we cannot see the healing that Jesus offers us, we become blind to God’s kingdom.

When the church does not place the Triune God at the centre of its faith and becomes fixated on other concerns, be it bottom-lines or attendance lists, the church cannot perform its God-given mission to follow the example of Bartimaeus in shouting out the identity of the one in whom it moves and lives and has its being, proclaiming the good news of the healing that Jesus offers, and helping others to see Jesus in our words and deeds.

So, let us ask ourselves: who or what is the object of our faith? Upon who or what are we focusing our eyes?

Come, let us fix our eyes on Jesus, and accept the healing that he offers us by setting aside our demands and laying our burdens at his feet.

Come, let us call out to him now, ready to hear his voice.

Come, let us with eyes of faith see that Christ comes to meet us in the bread and wine of Communion, offering to restore us to relationship with God and each other.

Let us pray:

Heavenly Father, we confess that we allow our faith to become focused on ourselves. We confess that we are often blind to who you are and to the life you offer us. By your Holy Spirit, help us in faith to take you at your word, the same word spoken to us who is Jesus Christ. Equip us by the same Holy Spirit that we might fearlessly and publicly proclaim that Jesus is Lord, keeping our eyes fixed on him and ready to receive his healing mercy. We pray this in the name of Christ, our heavenly High Priest. Amen.

[1] John Webster, The Grace of Truth, 189.

[2] Webster, 189.

[3] Webster, 189.

[4] Webster, 190.

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