The Moment to Spring Up
A Sermon Preached by
Rev. Osy Nuesch at
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
October 28, 2018
Can you believe all the excitement and energy that the mid-term elections are generating? I can’t remember two political parties considering this such a crucial and urgent time. You can’t watch TV or open your mail (regular or electronic) without being assaulted by ads about one candidate or another. The stakes are so high that it’s all you will hear for the next week. It’s that kind of excitement and urgency that surround today’s text in which we meet a blind man by the name of Bartimaeus.
I. Bartimaeus may have been blind, but he wasn’t deaf or mute. Like everyone else, he had heard a lot about a wonder-working prophet from Nazareth who spoke about God making things new, establishing a new empire where the poor and vulnerable, young and old, blind and lame would not be left out – just like Jeremiah had promised. Lying on the side of the road begging all day, gave Bartimaeus plenty of time for dreaming about such a time. Something had been sown in the fertile regions of his imagination and his passion had been awakened. Perhaps he would meet this famous travelling rabbi and prophet. And if that chance presented itself, Bartimaeus would grab it and thus change the reality he lived with day in and day out. He couldn’t do much about the present; but his future could be changed.
The present: being handicapped, dependent, poor, bitter, alienated, the object of people’s pity, even blind, was no longer acceptable. What was it about this Jesus that could fire up such hope, such dreaming, such longing, such restlessness within one’s spirit?
The musings stopped and it was time for Bartimaeus to seize his moment: for today the itinerant preacher was in his neighborhood. Jesus was leaving the city with the rest of the priests and the pilgrims; once he left, Bartimaeus’ hopes and dreams would be gone as well. That much he was certain of. So this was it! This was his last chance.
Can you sense the urgency of the moment? An intense sense of destiny descended upon him. It was now or never! So he did the only thing he could: he started yelling at the top of his voice, furiously calling as if the rest of his life depended on this: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
I want you to feel the urgency of this moment.
Have you ever felt like you stood at a tipping point in your life? One decision could trigger sweeping positive change, or slip from your fingers forever? Do you remember when you knew you had to act “then and there” or you stood to lose something precious forever?
Moments of intense anticipation/drama are not just for the young, although many of us can probably remember some: the first kiss, a romantic marriage proposal, the birth of the first child. There are a whole bunch of less dramatic moments, but none-the-less real and important.
I like to tell about trying to convince my parents of the importance of starting piano lessons. By the time I was 14 it was my existential crisis. I remember arguing with them. “If I don’t start now, it’ll be too late. My brain and my fingers will be set and I will have lost the opportunity.”
I also recall the decision to change careers and attend seminary. I was 33 years old. If Juli and I were to do this crazy thing with two young children, it had to be done then; otherwise life would run its course: my mind would not be able to learn Greek and Hebrew and the fine details of theology and history. It would be too late.
Have you had those tipping points that promise to upset the present & rewrite your future? They come even later in life. When to start something new: that new business, start dating again, become more involved in some activity. When to retire. There is a window of opportunity when you can sell your home and move into a retirement community. It has to be done at the right time or it becomes too late and not really worth it.
All these moments call for Jesus to be very near, for us to act with pure motives, for our consciences to guide us, for the community to support us.
There was a moment like that on October 31, 1517, when a young priest took the daring step of making his many (95) questions public and challenge the way some things were being done by the Church to which he belonged. He was a serious student/teacher and what he learned about the Christ, and about the life Christ called his followers to lead, and the nature of the Church as revealed in scripture, and the conditions he observed – they did not align.
Brother Martin’s convictions were being formed at a time when other developments and circumstances were coming together and leading providentially to this moment. There could be no backing down now. There would be consequences for his decision: He could be tried and probably convicted of heresy. Those caught following him might be condemned. But at that moment, it felt like it was the right/only thing to do.
Great moments of decision demand courage, and the assurance that comes from a deep place within, which we ascribe to the working of divine Spirit in us.
Facing that great moment of decision is where we find Bartimaeus. He knew this was his time to catch Jesus’ ear and attention. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
There would be consequences for such bold move. The consequences followed quickly. “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet.” We can be sure that they told him in no uncertain terms: “Hey, buddy! Put a lid on it!” “Someone give the blind guy something to shut him up!” But he cried out, “Jesus, have mercy!” “Get out of the way, man! You’re ruining the whole thing!” But he cried out even more loudly.
II. To the crowd, the blind man screaming by the roadside was a perfect nuisance. There were bigger issues than his trifling concerns. And he was ruining a perfect plan. This was a special day, after all.
Let me describe what was happening here. The Passover was quickly approaching. Thousands of priests started the 15-mile journey from Jericho, where many of them lived (it was a priestly city), to Jerusalem, where at this time of the year, every priest was needed.
They were quite a sight in their ornate and beautiful robes, aware of the significance of the rituals about to take place on the holiest of days. There was an atmosphere of celebration and excitement. The noise of the lambs to be sacrificed mixed in with the songs and psalms of ascent that would be sung on the way to the holy city. The last thing anyone needed was a loud beggar! He should know better. His cries, his presence, his condition… it was all out of place. He didn’t belong! “Suppress that voice!”
And yet, Bartimaeus plays a decisive role in the development of the Jesus story. The irony is not lost on us that a blind man is the first human character in [the Gospel of] Mark who precisely sees who Jesus is and openly identifies him using a messianic title. (Pointed out by Mary Ann Beavis, “From the Margin to the Way: A Feminist Reading of the Story of Bartimaeus” in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 12/1 (1998): p. 37)
“Jesus, Son of David.” The title had to be heard; the truth had to be proclaimed; the need had to be acknowledged. But “many in the crowed ordered him to be quiet.” They sought to silence the annoying beggar. It ruined their plan; it was disrupting; it slowed the progress they thought they were making. There was an agenda that was bigger than this tiresome, inconvenient bum.
In the same way, Brother Martin’s ideas back in 1517 also were not welcomed by many. They were disrupting; they would upset carefully laid plans; they would lead to drastic changes.
Auspiciously, Germany was very receptive to his cries. Soon his ideas travelled to the neighboring countries. Switzerland, Belgium, Holland would embrace those concepts and eventually carry them to the British Isles and in time to these shores.
Four short years later, April of 1521, the infamous 95 theses had tipped the balance. Four years of sweeping change had taken place accompanied by turmoil and violence. As expected, the young priest and professor was brought to trial for his ideas. The archbishop with the task of examining Luther asked him to retract what he had written, taught and preached. “I ask you, Martin – answer candidly without horns – do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?” And from this side of history we can sense the pathos and poignancy of that moment. Recant and make it all go away, or stand up and seize the moment.
“Since, then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply,
I will answer without horns and without teeth.
Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason –
my conscience is captive to the Word of God.
I cannot and I will not recant anything,
for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.
Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me.”
Many sternly ordered him to be quiet. But he cried out even more loudly. We know that the road to transformation travels through uncertainty, risk, and discomfort. No one likes that! Every system resists change, you have heard me say. The anxiety that adjustments provoke must be reduced somehow. The established church sought to silence the troublemaker. Nations worked to restore the old ways. A semblance of balance was needed – and so a Counter Reformation followed.
III. Right now, all eyes are now on Jesus to see what he will do.
We must also turn our attention to the Son of David. What will Jesus do? Jesus does not let the moment pass him by. Mark, with his usual economy of words ends up being the shortest Gospel to tell Jesus’ story. And because of that economy of words we know that we must pay very careful attention; there is subtlety here that can be easily overlooked. So we notice that “Jesus stood still.” Imagine: the whole procession heading to Jerusalem comes to an abrupt halt! Something is going to happen. Jesus pauses. A decision has to be made. And Jesus takes this one very seriously. Since the 8th chapter of Mark, Jesus has been at pains to make clear to the disciples that in Jerusalem he will be handed over to the authorities, tortured, killed, and after three days be raised from the dead. Jesus knows that leaving Jericho he is headed into trouble.
And some people are ready to welcome the trouble with Rome. Different insurgent groups were more than happy to co-opt the Master’s mantle for their own violent revolutionary agenda. But Jesus knows what’s ahead for him and for his companions. That’s why this is a tough decision for the Master. Compassion and sensitivity are very much at play in this moment.
Jesus knows what Bartimaeus wants and needs; that much is obvious. Jesus has been at this healing business for 3 years. He has healed other blind people in Mark’s Gospel and just a few weeks ago we saw him healing a paralytic by the well at Bethsaida. Jesus knows what to do. Then why the hesitation? “Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’”
Bartimaeus’ excitement is captured in one word used only here in all of the New Testament: “He sprang up.” Like a spring or a coil, he jumped! He jumped as he had never jumped before and he was ready when Jesus asked him to be very specific about what he needed: “What do you want me to do for you?” And Jesus heard it crystal clear: “My teacher, let me see again.”
“Do you know what you’re asking?” “Do you have any idea of what you are about to see if your eyes are opened?”
Bartimaeus shows no hesitation. It is Jesus who is more aware of what the future might bring and what is best for this man’s future. Knowing how the disciples will be scattered, afraid, disconsolate, even in danger of their lives, what will his healing mean to Bartimaeus?
Knowing what Jesus knew, was it reasonable to allow this man to join him in the road to discipleship at this – the eleventh hour? What was the most honorable thing to grant Bartimaeus (literally: the son of honor)? And what was the most compassionate thing to do? Not to heal is sometimes the more compassionate act. Think about that for a moment.
“Bartimaeus, you really don’t want to see what is about to happen. Go back to your simple life. You’ll be safer there.” There is a frightening burden that comes with new sight. (See Annie Dillard, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” quoted in The Clergy Journal, May-June 2006, p. 59.) You may not like what you will see – and someday you’ll figure that you were a lot happier when you were blind to it.
In the short run it could be argued that healing Bartimaeus and allowing him to follow Jesus may have been a cruel thing to do. The dilemma stopped Jesus on his tracks. “Jesus stood still.” To heal or not to heal, that is the question. What point of view won the day?
“Go; your faith has made you well.”
We are going to be hearing about faith challenging and sustaining one’s journey. Some of you know what Jesus knew: that faith can heal, comfort, sustain. Unfortunately, “his is not a clearly espoused doctrinal confession but merely a persistent belief that Jesus has the ability to make a difference and just might do it” (Tito Madrazo, “Living by the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary, October 28, 2018 in Christian Century, October 10, 2018, p. 18).
So Jesus heals Bartimaeus and tells him to go. Apparently that was the most compassionate thing to do. Healing, allowing for new beginnings, giving clear sight, imparting full knowledge – such things may bring struggles, pain and change – now and in the future – and yet they are worth experiencing regardless of the outcome.
“Immediately he regained his sight.” The future Bartimaeus envisioned was now a reality! The future was now in Bartimaeus’ hands. But notice that he did not “go”. Mark reports that he “followed Jesus on the way.” We’ve notice in this Gospel previously that this is code language to refer to discipleship. “On the way” refers to the way of Jesus. Bartimaeus followed with the others into Jerusalem where in the next 5 days our Lord would suffer through Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, an arrest, trial, beatings and crucifixion.
On the other hand, after the Passion, Bartimaeus might also be able to see our Lord’s resurrection, and later share in the coming of the Spirit: the birth of the Church; Bartimaeus was probably among the 120 in the Upper Room, witnessing the in-breaking of the kingdom of David’s Son into our world with the power of love and grace.
We live in the future that Martin Luther and the Reformers looked forward to. 500 years ago they could only imagined where their vision would take the Church. I doubt that in their wildest dreams they could anticipate the freedoms, the availability, the truths and the blessings that we enjoy. Blessings that were gained through much pain and suffering, struggles, wars and misunderstandings.
We must honor our past, learn from our mistakes and affirm the price that is paid for being reformed and willing to be always reforming. Someone has said: “It is not the church’s task to moralize, scold, scare, or demand, but to hear the cry of the oppressed, to show mercy, and to heal.” (Rodney J. Hunter, “Pastoral Implications” in Lectionary Homiletics, Oct.-Nov. 2006, p, 40).
In Bartimaeus and in Martin Luther we see how faith and hope in Jesus can change the present and the future. It is Jesus’ faith in us that fires up hope that allows us to dream of what can be, to long for what should be, to be restless when confronted with injustice, suffering and everything that contradicts the future that God desires for God’s children.
We know that when Jesus calls us and touches us we will see with new eyes. What we see may not be what we would have chosen to see, but at least we will have full vision as we follow in the way that Christ leads. May we be as eager as Bartimaeus and as courageous as Martin Luther, to spring up into action when we hear the Masters say: “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”
The Chancel Choir reminds us that Christ has called us, that we are chosen and beloved and made God’s very own in order to show kindness and compassion as we are bound together in love.