The first thing we learn from our scripture lesson this morning is that Jesus and his disciples are with a large crowd, and they are on the move. They were on the way. Jericho was not the final destination. There is one last stop to make. Jerusalem: Where furious religious leaders offended by the good news of the gospel, ashamed of the grace of the gospel, have been plotting to put an end to it all. Jerusalem: Where a selfless Jesus is prepared to sacrifice his very life for the sake of others.
It is on this way, this way of self-denial and self-giving, that Jesus is confronted by a man in great need. His name is Bartimaeus. He is not only blind, he is also a beggar. He is helpless, and he is poor. He is disabled, and he is marginalized. Because many believed there must be some purpose driven reason for his blindness, he has been judged and he has been demonized. And, in desperation, he is waiting for Jesus on the side of the road. He is waiting for justice, and he is waiting for grace.
He jumps up and pleads: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
And notice the actions of the crowd. They try to silence him. They simply don’t want to hear his cries.
Does that sound familiar?
Have you ever been on the way somewhere, met someone, nodded your head and asked: “How you doin’?” It’s a stereotypical pleasantry, an informal greeting. You expect them to nod back, and say something like, “Good, how you doin’?”
But then, to our surprise, the person doesn’t answer the way we expect them to answer, the way we want them to answer, the way we believe they should answer. No, this person decides to unload on you. She has all of these aches and pains, all of these troubles and frustrations, all kinds of maladies that you label as TMI, too much information.
We don’t like that TMI, especially when the TMI has to do with suffering.
I believe this is one of the reasons why we do not eagerly visit someone who has some sort of disability. We might go, but we don’t want to go. Perhaps it threatens us to be around people who are suffering. Because their circumstances are a reminder of how vulnerable all of us are. We know that if it could happen to them, it could happen to us, or to one of our loved ones. So, we prefer to keep the sick, the troubled, the unfortunate, and the disabled out of sight, thus out of mind.
I admire companies like Target and Whole Foods who make it their mission to hire disabled persons. Fortunately, there are many advocates today for the disabled and others who have been marginalized by society who are urging them to come out, to come forward, to speak up, and to seek equity and equality.
This blind beggar does just that. Despite the crowd who “sternly orders him to be quiet,” the man keeps yelling at Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
And the good news is that Jesus hears his voice. Jesus stops. And Jesus calls him to come over.
Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Not surprisingly, blind Bartimaeus says, “My teacher, let me see again.”
And Jesus does just that. He says, “Go, your faith has made you well.”
Then Mark says something that he does not say when recounting any other healing story. Out of all the folks that were healed in Mark’s gospel, Bartimaeus is the only one who chooses to follow Jesus “on the way.” Out of all the people who were healed by Jesus, Bartimaeus is the only one who becomes a disciple and follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem; on the way to the cross; down the road of sacrifice and self-denial and suffering; down the road of grace, mercy, justice and eternal life.
Thus, what we have here in this text is not just another miraculous healing story, but a wonderful story of discipleship. And guess what? It’s not just a story about one blind beggar. It is a story about you and me.
For I believe we have a tendency to come to Jesus asking him to heal us, solve our problems, fix what’s wrong with us. We come to Jesus saying: love me, feed me, and make me happy. Give me some sense of fulfillment. We come to church hoping that we might get something out of Jesus, that he might give us a semblance of peace and joy. We come to Jesus seeking help, security and spiritual bliss.
But how many of us come to Jesus because we are truly willing to follow Jesus as a disciple, especially to those places that we know Jesus is heading?
After restoring Bartimaeus’ sight, Jesus tells him that he can go on his way. And who would blame Bartimaeus if he turned around right then to go on his way? Think of all the places he might want to go! Think of all the sights that he might want to see with his new eyes!
Bartimaeus could have gone home with his new found faith in and love for Jesus. He could have been content knowing that Jesus heard his cries, restored his sight, and gave him salvation.
But no, Bartimaeus doesn’t go his way.
Bartimaeus goes Jesus’ way.
Bartimaeus chooses to follow Jesus. Where? Toward Jerusalem. Toward suffering. Toward rejection. Toward a mission of love, mercy and justice. Toward the cross.
The irony here is that Bartimaeus is introduced to us in this story as a blind man. However, if we are honest, I believe we would have to admit that, in many ways, Bartimaeus may see Jesus better than we do.
Bartimaeus teaches us that this thing we call Christianity, this thing we call church, is about following Jesus. Jesus is not looking for people who merely want to be healed, made stronger, see more clearly and fed by him. Jesus is not looking for people who simply want to agree with him, believe in him, or admire him. Jesus is not looking for people who only want to read about him or study him or even worship him. Jesus is looking for people who truly desire to follow him.
In C.S. Lewis’ classic novel, The Screwtape Letters, the devil advises an apprentice demon that the main way to keep people from the Christian faith is to prevent the potential convert from doing anything.
The devil says that the main thing “is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it…. Let him do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imagination and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will. As one of the humans has said, active habits are strengthened by repetition, but passive ones are weakened. The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able to ever act, and in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.”
To the dismay of the devil, Bartimaeus put his faith into action and followed Jesus, even toward Jerusalem.
In just a few moments this church is going to have what we call an invitation. Some churches call it an altar call. It is a practice that was started in many protestant churches during the turn of the 20th century. Those who wish to dedicate or rededicate their lives to Christ or become a member of the church are invited to come down to the front as a public sign of their commitment.
Sometimes, this practice has been emotionally manipulative. Preachers have used guilt and other forms of pressure to get people to walk the aisles. Sometimes the act has had little substance or consequence. Because of this, the invitation or the altar call has been dropped in many churches and is very rare in most denominations.
Well, I’m not ready to drop it, because I believe, despite its misuse, the invitation keeps reminding us that it is not enough for us to come together on Sunday morning to get something out of Jesus: a sense of well-being, as sense of peace, a feel-good feeling of spiritual bliss. It reminds us that the point of it all, the point of Christianity is to follow Jesus, to give our lives to Jesus, to stumble after him along the way, even to Jerusalem.
Some of us are doing just that. We are here today because we have been encountered by Jesus and we are trying our very best to follow him along the way. And that’s good. Some of us are going to be going to West Virginia this week to do some of the things that Jesus commanded us, namely to provide shelter for some of our poorest neighbors. Others are making the commitment to go to South Carolina next month to do what we can to help victims of the recent record flooding. Jameson Cowan is following by literally picking up his cross to defend the cause of freedom through service in the United States Marine Corps. And many more of us have committed to serve on various ministry teams through the church.
But some of us have yet to commit. We have yet to follow. The question then is: will those of us who have not quite yet been on the way with Jesus, will we, like blind Bartimaeus, summon the courage, stand up and not be ashamed, be willing to give and to sacrifice and follow him on the way?
On the way down the selfless, self-giving road of discipleship;
On the way to hear and answer the cries of the disabled and the marginalized;
On the way to defend liberty on the behalf of the oppressed;
On the way to speak words of healing to the sick;
On the way to offer grace to sinners;
On the way to put our arms around the troubled and offer hope to the despairing;
On the way to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned;
On the way to Jerusalem, where resistance, and even a cross awaits.