Each year from Christmas to Easter we focus on one of the four gospels, the four theological biographies of Jesus. This year while I have been gone, you’ve been journeying together through the gospel of Mark. You know that I love to give you some context each week, and I realize some of this may be things you’ve heard from our other wonderful preachers, but allow me to say it anyway. The gospels are interesting books. There’s nothing quite like them in the rest of literature from the ancient world. They aren’t strictly historical biographies. But they also aren’t just a bunch of theology. The gospels are like theology wrapped in a historical candy shell. The authors didn’t intend for us to read the gospels and ask, “Did that really happen?” They intended for us to read the gospels and ask, “How does that help me follow Jesus?” The goal of the gospels is not simply to catalogue the life of Jesus. The goal of the gospels is to proclaim God’s good news in a way that encourages people to be disciples. That means that I’m not going to spend any time debating about miracles. If you want to do that, you can find plenty of people on the internet who will be happy to oblige you. Instead, when we read miracle stories, like we’re going to do this morning, we’re going to ask what the story of that miracle tells us about following Jesus. Because the gospel of Mark especially is about the disciples, those who follow Jesus, as much as it is about Jesus himself. Mark is the shortest gospel, and we think it was the first one written. 90% of what’s in Mark shows up in Luke and Matthew. In this gospel, Jesus is direct to the point of sounding annoyed with his disciples. Which is understandable because the disciples seem to get dumber as the story goes along. The text we are going to hear this morning is a perfect example of how the disciples miss the point, and how Jesus keeps giving them another chance.
“So let us listen now in the reading of scripture for the word and the wisdom of God.” – Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Readings: Mark 10: 32-52 (New International Version)
Narrator: They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying,
Jesus: ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’
Narrator: James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him,
Disciple: ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’
Jesus: ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’
Disciple: ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’
Jesus: ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’
Disciple: ‘We are able.’
Jesus: ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’
Narrator: When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them,
Jesus: ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
Narrator: They came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say,
Bartimaeus: ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’
Narrator: Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly,
Bartimaeus: ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’
Narrator: Jesus stood still and said,
Jesus: Call him here.’
Narrator: And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him,
Jesus: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’
Bartimaeus: ‘My teacher, let me see again.’
Jesus: ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’
Narrator: Immediately Bartimaeus regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way.
This the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
The word gospel means good news. But the idea that we must be like Jesus is not the good news, since we are most definitely going to fail at that. This season of Lent is traditionally a season of repentance. A whole season devoted to facing ourselves and being honest about the ways that we fall short. Now that can go one of two ways. One way is to face our shortcomings and feel ashamed. Some presentations of the “good news” start with trying to convince us how terrible we are. As if most of us need any help with that. We are bombarded constantly with images and messages that make us feel like we don’t measure up to some standard of perfection. In fact some of us have had a lifetime of internalizing the message that we aren’t good enough. Sometimes that message came from the church, and so now we are very sensitive to religious language about sin or falling short or repentance. If that’s the message you’ve heard, let me say for the record that I think it’s wrong. At best, it’s only half the message, and even that half is presented in a warped way.
The other option we have is to face our shortcomings and feel freedom and solidarity. Despite the cultural messages all around us, the truth is that no one is worth more than anyone else. I screw up. Every day. All the time. I’m so not like Jesus and neither are you. We are the same. Acknowledging our failures frees us from the exhausting experience of trying to hide them, of trying to act like we are perfect. The good news is not that we must be perfect like Jesus. The good news is that despite our failures, Jesus loves us and offers the forgiveness we long to feel and invites us to join him in his work in the world. During Lent we acknowledge our shortcomings so that they don’t have control over us anymore. When we remember who we are and whose we are, our failures are put in perspective against God’s love.
If we don’t do this, if we don’t acknowledge our failure and repent, we are going to spend all our energy trying to pretend like our failures aren’t a big deal so that we don’t have to feel bad about them. We’re going to spend our energy trying to cover them up with other things and we’re not going to have any energy left to be the kind of disciples that Jesus invites us to be.
That’s what happens in today’s story. It starts out with Jesus warning his followers about what’s coming. This is the third time in the book of Mark that Jesus has given a warning like this. He says, “We’re headed to Jerusalem, it’s gonna get bad, I’m going to die, and then rise again.” There’s a pattern to this in Mark’s gospel: Jesus predicts his death, then the disciples miss the point, then he teaches them a lesson about discipleship.
In this scenario Jesus says he’s going to suffer and die but all James and John want to talk about is the rising again. They want positions of power when Jesus is glorified, but they skip right over the suffering and death part. Which is what we are also tempted to do. Let’s just skip the repentance of Lent and go straight to Easter. Let’s skip the stuff about death and just talk about resurrection. Let’s avoid the word sin and just talk about how God accepts everyone. That’s much more comfortable.
The problem is that’s not reality, and Jesus knows it. Resurrection can’t happen without death happening first. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something. Being a disciple is not easy. Choosing to truly follow Jesus will make our life way better but also way harder. We will find abundant life, but only as we give our life away in service to others.
The gospel of Mark portrays the disciples as people I totally understand. Because I also come to Jesus saying, “I want you to do whatever I ask.” I’m interested in what I can get from you, not what you need from me. Give me the glory. Give me the power and influence. I’m going to use my connection to you to help me feel superior to other people.
But that’s not what true disciples do. Note that Jesus doesn’t shame them for their request. He tells them how to get it. He says, “OK, you want power and influence in my kingdom? The way you get that is by serving others.” See the Kingdom of God is upside down. It works differently from the way our culture works. In the Kingdom of God if you want to go up, you have to go down. You have to be the slave of all—not simply the slave of the people you like, but the slave of the people you don’t like. The people who are voting for that candidate who makes you crazy. The people who have made choices and done things in their lives that you think you would never do in a million years. The person who has hurt someone you love. Those are the people we are called to serve. Probably why Jesus says to James and John, “You guys don’t know what you’re asking for.” If you ask for power and prestige, you’re going to get the opportunity to serve someone. Because even Jesus didn’t come to be served but to serve.
Now the James and John encounter is only half the story. We also heard the story of the blind man being healed. The thing that connects these two stories is that Jesus asks exactly the same question: “What do you want me to do for you?” But blind Bartimeaus has different request from James and John. He wants to see. He doesn’t ask for power and prestige. He asks to be able to restored to the community, he asks for the ability to be useful in the world. Imagine how the encounter with James and John would have been different if they had said, “What we really want is for you to heal us of the thing that is holding us back from being useful in the Kingdom.” We want to be healed of our traumatic past. We want to be healed of our prejudice. We want to be healed of our selfish attitude. We want to be healed of our superiority. We want to forgive.
Notice that Jesus grants blind Bartimaeus’s request. Bartimaeus asked for the right thing and he got it. And what’s even more interesting is that the story doesn’t say anything about what Jesus does in that moment of healing. Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus says, “Teacher I want to have my sight restored.” And Jesus says, “Go. Your faith has healed you.” No abracadabra. No prayer. Jesus doesn’t even touch the guy. The author goes out of his way to downplay Jesus’ role in this healing. Bartimaeus’s faith has made him well. Let’s unpack that a little bit.
The word faith doesn’t mean believing in invisible magic. That word in Greek means trust based on a relationship, the way you have faith in someone because you know them. And the word for healing is the exact same word that in other places is translated as salvation. What Jesus says to Bartimaeus is, “Your trust has saved you.” His assurance of who Jesus is and what Jesus was willing to do made it possible for it to be done in Bartimaeus’s life.
Salvation is not only about our souls. Throughout the Bible this word refers to physical healing and to rescue. Salvation is not only about souls. It’s about what’s happening in the world around us. Bartimaeus doesn’t just get what he wants from Jesus and then go on about his life. The final sentence in the story says that Bartimaeus followed Jesus.
Jesus invites us to follow him and be his disciples. To be a disciple is to be healed by our trust in Jesus. And it is only with a basis of trust in Jesus that we will be truly willing and able to serve others. If we are serving in order to gain status, or to build up some kind of heavenly credit, or to earn God’s favor, we will not be able to sustain that service. Eventually we will resent the people we are serving and we will burn out and quit. Our service must have its roots in a relationship of trust with Jesus, one where we so love and admire him that we long to be like him in the world, even though we know it’s going to cost us.
The invitation of Lent is to uncover the thing that is keeping us from truly serving and to let that thing be healed by our trust in Jesus. That’s why we give something up. We don’t give up something bad; we give up something good. We purposely make ourselves uncomfortable because interesting things are revealed when we feel weak. Not allowing ourselves to have something we want will help us uncover our selfishness, our resentments, our fears. As we see ourselves more clearly we are able to repent, to turn away from the darkness and turn towards the light. We trust Jesus enough to step out in risky and radical service, like maybe praying with women in jail, and we experience healing and salvation. Amen.