Sunday, October 28, 2018

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 31:7-9
Psalm 126
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 10:46-52

Yahweh has done great things for us, and we are glad.

It is not surprising that a congregation is centered around the clergy. They are the most visible people in the life of a church. They lead worship and preach God’s Word. They pray for us and visit us when we are sick. October has been Clergy Appreciation Month, a time to honor our pastors and thank them for all they do for us.

Sometimes they aren’t appreciated for the work they do. I recall hearing a story about a pastor who turned in a record of his work to the council president. They pastor listed prayer time as part of his work. The council president questioned him about this. “Shouldn’t you pray on your own time?” he asked. Many parishioners think the pastor only works for an hour a week. They don’t consider the hours of preparation for worship as part of their job. They think the pastor should fix the toilet and sweep the floor.

Others are overly appreciated for the work they do, to the point that a congregation has difficulty letting go. Too many churches go through a crisis when a pastor chooses to retire or move on to another congregation. “Woe is us,” they say, “how can we go on without our beloved pastor?” Unfortunately, members struggle with the change and many leave for other churches or even to follow their own path. They loved the pastor so much that they lose faith when there is a change. They rely too much on one man or woman and forget that the focus of our worship and our church work is the Lord Jesus Christ.

It is good that we love our pastors, but we have to remember that the men and women who serve us in that way are human. They are limited. They aren’t God. It is good that we thank them for the service among us as long as we remember to thank God for calling them to be in our midst. They are a gift, but God is the giver. We just need to remember that their life and ministry among us will not last forever.

I don’t know if the people loved their priests in the days of the Temple, but the work they were doing was no more eternal than the work of our clergy today. In their case, the change most often came with death. The writer of Hebrews tells us, “Many, indeed, have been made priests, because they are hindered from continuing by death.” Many were made priests because they had to be replaced when their human life ended.

Jesus was different; the work of Jesus was eternal. The writer of Hebrews tells us, “But he, because he lives forever, has his priesthood unchangeable.” Jesus the Messiah was the end of the line, the last priest, because He was the only one who could save anyone completely. The other priests could offer sacrifices, but they could not intervene forever because they were imperfect and perishable. But Jesus who is “holy, guiltless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and made higher than the heavens” is able to provide eternal intervention. His sacrifice was sufficient to restore us to God forever. Unlike the clergy who will one day move on to another place, whether it is through death or a transfer to another congregation, Jesus Christ is with us always.

Bartimaeus was a blind beggar. Today the blind can find many opportunities to be productive members of society, but in Jesus’ day they had no chance. It was difficult for them to earn a living, not only because there was little they could do without sight, but also because people would be hesitant to support their work. If they were blind, then they were rejected by God for some reason. They must have sinned to have to suffer in this way. In the case of Bartimaeus and others who are seen begging in the scriptures, unscrupulous people may have dumped them in a place where they could beg instead of taking care of them or helping them find something productive to do.

Bartimaeus was on the side of the road begging when he heard a commotion. We don’t know if he there by choice or was dumped by someone who didn’t want the responsibility. We do know that Bartimaeus knew about Jesus. He had probably heard stories of other healing, perhaps even stories about men who had been blind. He couldn’t run up to Jesus the way others who sought healing could do; it was dangerous for him to even try; he could trip over a rock or a child. He might make a fool of himself trying to find Jesus in the crowd. He couldn’t move out of fear.

However, faith is stronger than fear and Bartimaeus called to Jesus. “Son of David!” This is the only place in Mark’s Gospel where this title is used. It is interesting to note that it is unusual for the man to be named. We don’t hear the names of many of those who interact with Jesus. Even the rich young man is nameless. Yet in this particular story, we are given the blind man’s name: Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus.

This naming of Bartimaeus is unusual, but it is even more unusual that Mark writes the name twice. Since “bar” means “son,” so Bartimaeus literally means son of Timaeus. Why did Mark tell us the same thing twice? The language used is a strange Semetic-Greek hybrid that might not have been understood by the earliest readers. It is also possible that this character has something to tell us about the philosophical understanding of the world in Jesus’ day.

As it turns out, one of Plato’s final dialogues was titled, “Timaeus.” The dialogue in this piece is between several philosophers including one named Timaeus who is the source of a lengthy monologue about the nature of the world, both physical and eternal. Timaeus seems to lay out Plato’s understanding of physics and the role of man in the world. That understanding includes the idea that sight is the foundation of knowledge.

The Greek philosophers, including Plato, have impacted Christian thought from the beginning. Is it good or bad? I can honestly say that I haven’t studied it enough to know for sure. We do not have time to debate the ancient Greek philosophers, but I wonder if the importance of Bartimaeus’ name has something to do with his understanding of the world. Was he someone who followed platonic philosophy? Did he see the world the way Timaeus does in the dialogue? And if so, does this brief encounter tell us more than just how Jesus healed him of his physical sight, but also how Jesus helped him see the world in a new way, to gain knowledge through God’s eyes?

Bartimaeus addressed Jesus as the “Son of David.” He saw Jesus as a savior, as the Messiah. This is not just about Jesus changing his life by giving him sight; it is about Jesus giving him the sight to see the reality of God. In verse 50, Mark tells us that when Jesus called Bartimaeus to Himself, Bartimaeus got up and “casting away his cloak” went to Jesus. Was that cloak a piece of clothing or might it have been his ideology and philosophy? In answering the call of Jesus, Bartimaeus not only went to Jesus in hope of being healed, but in humble recognition that he needed Jesus to help him gain knowledge by seeing God. Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus answered, “Rabbi,” identifying Jesus as a teacher, “I want to see.”

Jeremiah talks in the Old Testament passage about a remnant. Those who sew know that a remnant is a leftover piece of cloth, the end of a roll, often sold at a discount. The pieces are usually too small to make anything, certainly not a piece of clothing. I search the remnants for material to use for craft projects, and quilters can often use pieces for quilts they create. Usually, though, these pieces are worthless and unwanted. The word “remnant” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a usually small part, member, or trace remaining; a small surviving group -often used in plural.” The remnant of Israel was a small surviving group, a group with no power, no authority, and no position in the world.

In this case, the remnant includes those who turned to the Lord, who returned to the Lord. Israel had been lost, forgetting the works of God and turning to the nations for aid. The judgment they received for their unfaithfulness was exile in Assyria. But God did not send them into exile without a promise: they would be saved. In today’s passage, God called His people to praise Him. “Sing Hosanna” which means, “Save, O LORD, your people.” They were called to rejoice in what God has done and what He will do.

In this passage, He calls His people both “the chief of nations” and a remnant. This doesn’t make sense in our mind. How can a remnant be a chief? Then He says, “For I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my first-born.” The irony here is that Ephraim was the second son of Joseph who was the eleventh son of Jacob. He could not be the first born. The nation could not be chief. Israel was just a remnant. But God can do whatever He wants to do.

Jeremiah says, “Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the uttermost parts of the earth, along with the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her who travails with child together: a great company shall they return here.” God was not going to bring together the best of the best. He wasn’t going to gather the strong or handsome. He wasn’t seeking the smartest, richest or most powerful. He gathered together the weak. He restored the weak and the lame, the women at their most vulnerable. They were the ones that He promised to take home and He promised to protect them along the way.

The trip into exile did bring His people back into His heart. The remnant did turn back to Him and they were returned to their home. Jeremiah tells us that they would come with weeping. See, those who are weak recognize their need and weep because they see that there is someone who cares. The strong have no need of a savior; they can save themselves. But the weak need someone who is willing to do the unexpected. The weak need someone who is willing to turn the world upside down, to find value in imperfection and to lift up those who the world would rather throw away. God is the One who does this. They may have returned with weeping, but it was tears of humble thankfulness and joy.

The Psalm for today is a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s saving grace. The mouths of the congregation were filled with laughter and their tongues with singing. Can one weep and laugh at the same time? I know I have. “Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.” There is a time for sorrow and a time for joy. Those who suffer are more readily available to receive God’s help. They look to Him. They trust in Him. They accept their own weakness and count on His strength. The tears of penitence and humility will be sowed into sheaves of bountiful blessings.

We can read the story of the blind man Bartimaeus as it plainly is: a healing story. He received his sight because he believed. His faith made him whole. He could see and he could become a productive member of society again because his blindness no longer forced him to beg. But the story might reveal far more than just the physical healing of the man. This is a story of one man recognizing the reality of Jesus, the first in Mark’s Gospel to publically identify Jesus as the Messiah, the Savior, the Eternal One manifest in human flesh. Whatever the Greek world thought about God, creation and the created order, Bartimaeus saw the truth.

Do we believe this? Are we willing to follow God with tears of sorrow, humbling ourselves before the only One who is able to make us truly see? Will we see ourselves as we truly are: imperfect and weak, requiring the grace of God to make us whole? Will we remember that those who serve us and Him are also imperfect, weak, requiring the grace of God to make them whole?

Jesus came that we might see not only with our eyes but with our souls. It is easy to get caught up focusing our religious life in a human being we honor and respect or in the philosophies of our world, but Jesus came to save the world, and us, from ourselves. Our pastors deserve our thanks because they do so much for our spiritual lives, but they are limited and temporary. Jesus came to make an eternal mark on our lives, to restore us to the Father. We all have our weakness, our reason for sorrow and tears, but God calls us to Himself and He will turn our tears into joy with His bounteous blessings. He has done great things for us, let us be glad and sing!

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