Love triumphant - Mark 15:21-41
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
During the early days of the American Civil war, a Union soldier was arrested and charged with desertion. Unable to prove his innocence, he was tried, convicted and sentenced to die a deserter’s death by firing squad. However, he appealed, and his appeal found its way to the desk of President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was so moved by the soldier’s plight that he showed him mercy by signing a Presidential pardon. The soldier then returned to service and fought for the entirety of that dreadful war in which over 600,000 soldiers died, more than all American soldiers added together who have died in every war since. Well, this soldier was killed too in the very last battle fought. And found within his breast pocket was the signed letter of the President. You see, that soldier kept close to his heart his leader’s words of pardon.
Now this morning we come to an episode in Mark’s Gospel of someone else who was to receive words of pardon- mercy- from his leader. That someone was Bartimaeus and the leader was Jesus. So do turn worth me to Mark chapter 10.
The first thing we are to note is Jesus- a man with a mission, v46, ‘They then came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd were leaving the city….’ Since the end of chapter 8, when Peter confessed Jesus to be the Christ, there has been this concentrated, almost frenetic activity of Jesus as he makes it clear that he has to fulfil his God-given mission of going to Jerusalem where he will be beaten and flogged, then handed over to be crucified only in order to rise from the dead. This is repeated over and over, and it is stressed again just before this incident in verse 45, ‘For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many’. It is the sacrifice of the cross he is talking about. And that is where Jesus is heading now under full steam. He is focused with laser beam concentration and his disciples are trying to keep apace with him as he strides along the road with Jerusalem by now a mere 15 miles away. It is Passover time and so not surprisingly there is a large crowd of pilgrims who have attached themselves to Jesus’ entourage. Many of them would have heard Jesus speak, some maybe having seen him heal and, who knows, they may see him perform something even more spectacular once he arrives in the Holy City. But then Jesus is literally stopped in his tracks. He comes to a dead halt-that is the force of verse 49. You can almost imagine the crowd bumping into Jesus and piling up as he does so. Now what could be so important to cause Jesus to lose focus and slowdown in his drive to Jerusalem and come to a grinding standstill? We are told v 47 that it was the cry of a blind man.
And so we come to Bartimaeus- a beggar in need of mercy, v46-47, ‘Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”’
Now it’s interesting that Bartimaeus is actually named, the probable reason for this is that he was still alive at the time Mark wrote his Gospel and so was a member of the church. He was a living witness to these events. But having said that, the focus of the story is not his name but his need, three times we are told he was blind, verses 46, 49, and 52. And as a consequence he was a beggar- his state-blindness gave rise to his status-beggar. Now you can be quite sure that there were plenty of other beggars lining the road that day. For you see, Jericho was renowned for a special balsam bush from which a medicine was made to alleviate certain ophthalmic disorders. As a result the city became a refuge centre for many who were blind, gravitating to the area in the hope that they might find a cure. So there would have been dozens of folk like Bartimaeus. And as a result of their disability they were reduced to begging, sitting by the roadside with a cloak spread open at their feet to collect any alms which happened to be thrown in their direction. And of course this was the major season for getting alms because pilgrims going up to Jerusalem would all come by this way and one of the acts of mercy expected of any devout Jew on his way to the Temple would be to give money to the poor.
So why of all the blind beggars shouting out that day in need does Jesus only stop for this one? Why is he so special? Well, he is special because although he is blind he can actually see. He can’t see with his physical eyes of course, they are shot to ruin, but unlike anyone else amongst the huge crowd making its way down the road, Bartimaeus can see who Jesus is, v47, ‘When he heard that it was Jesus the Nazarene, he began to shout (literally scream), Jesus Son of David, have mercy on me.’ This is the first time in the entire Gospel of Mark that there is an Israelite, who does not belong to the inner circle, who acknowledges Jesus as the Messiah, Israel’s true King- ‘Son of David’. That’s what Jesus heard amongst the hubbub and the cries for money- a man who actually knows who he is and what he came for- to offer mercy.
So here’s the irony- the blind man can see Jesus’s identity- for him he is ‘Son of David’, whilst the crowds are blind to his identity- for them is just ‘Jesus the Nazarene’, and as everyone knows, nothing good ever comes from Nazareth. And so they try and bully the man into silence, v48, ‘Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”. Why did they turn on him to tell him to shut up? Maybe they were embarrassed, how does he know Jesus is the Messiah- he can’t see beyond the end of his nose let alone Jesus ahead of the crowd. Perhaps they thought Jesus wouldn’t be interested in the likes of him- it was probably assumed that he wanted money, like most beggars-that was what they were begging for. Also, other beggars were ignored by Jesus. Anyhow, Jesus had more important things to do, he had a schedule to keep, a destination to make- getting to the Passover on time. But the more they told him to shut up, the louder he spoke up.
Now here’s the thing: nothing has changed all that much; there are still those who are blind to Jesus’ identity and bullying those who are not. Of course sometimes this can be up close and personal with those work colleagues or family members who pour on the ridicule, ‘You don’t believe that load of rubbish do you? You are just a ‘God botherer’. That can hurt and can cause us to be reluctant to speak up for Jesus. But sometimes it can be a bit more sophisticated coming from the intelligentsia of the church. So Anglican Bishop John Spong wrote a book, ‘Born of a Woman’ in which he argued that Mary was raped and that the story of the virgin birth was a ham-fisted attempt at a cover-up. Theologian Barbara Thiering also wrote a book,’ Jesus the Man’ in which she claims Jesus didn’t die on a cross, he was just poisoned, revived and went on to marry and have three children. The Roman Catholic writer, John Crossan in his, ‘The Historical Jesus’, argues that Jesus did not rise from the dead, rather that he was laid in a shallow grave and was dug up and devoured by dogs. Very bright people- but very blind people, turning a blind eye to the historical evidence simply by dismissing it as unhistorical and so no evidence at all, and all with the aim of disabusing Christians of the belief that Jesus was who he claimed to be –the Divine Son, descended from David who came to bring mercy.
But such bludgeoning by people didn’t deter Bartimaeus and it shouldn’t deter us either. If you are here this morning and maybe just dipping in your toes into the Christian faith, keep going ahead, read the Gospels, pick up book which will help you understand them and see where the evidence leads you. All these things are necessary for a well-grounded faith. But, for all the evidence, there has to be that divine revelation, as with this man. We don’t know how much he knew of Jesus, he probably heard the stories about him as they circulated around Galilee and into Judea, but so had a lot of people. But somehow he made the connection when others didn’t and he acted upon it personally, he cried out to Jesus, ‘have mercy on me.’
Then look what happened, v 49, ‘Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” 50 Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.’ His response is immediate, casting aside his cloak, the symbol of his condition as a beggar and straight away goes to Jesus. And then Jesus asks what many must have thought was a redundant question: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ Isn’t the answer obvious? The man is blind! But in asking the question, Jesus is being quite shrewd. He is delving to see if the man recognises his true need and Jesus’ ability to supply it.
You see, the man could have said, ‘Give me some money.’ And for a while that would have done him some good. But it would not have been lasting. And it has to be said that even today that is how some people treat Jesus. In time of crisis that is when people go to church (a good place to go). But if it is simply to ask Jesus for a quick fix with the intention that once that is done they won’t be bothered with him again- he will not respond to that. What we need is far more serious and what Jesus offers is far more wonderful. Remember what the man had been crying out for? - ‘mercy’. He knew it wasn’t a matter of desert- Jesus owing him a favour, complaining that it wasn’t fair that he was a beggar and other people weren’t. He knew Jesus was a King and Kings could offer mercy to their subjects.
Let me tell you that this story would have taken the breath out of Mark’s first readers, and for this reason: in the world of the Greco-Roman religions of the 1st century, the idea of mercy was pretty well non- existent. You earned merit through your religion; you didn’t receive mercy. But where you did find the notion of mercy operating, although the word used was ‘clemency’- was not in the world of religion, but in the world of politics. It was Julius Caesar no less who asked for power so that he could show clemency. On the Roman coins which the disciples would have used, ‘clemency’ was an attribute claimed by the Roman Emperors, it was solely the prerogative of Kings. But the one thing which was frowned upon was that such clemency should be the result of pity. It was always seen as a cold, emotionless decree which served to underscore the power of the King rather than the plight of the needy.
Well you don’t get that with this King- now with Jesus, compassion is a trait of his which has been repeatedly shown in Mark and here it is again.
The man says to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, I want to see.’ He knew his greatest need was not his poverty, but the source of his poverty- his blindness. Our greatest need is not more stuff, better education, a new political order, a person to love- you can have all of these things and still be poor spiritually speaking. What we need is ‘sight’, to see what we really are when all the trappings of our culture and upbringing are stripped away- that we are beggars in need of mercy and to see that Jesus is the one who alone can offer it. But not only are we beggars, having to ask for forgiveness, we are traitors who need clemency. That is the portrait of each one of us the Bible paints and a rather unfaltering picture it is too- but a true one nonetheless. We have all committed the crime of treason against God as our rightful ruler by usurping his place in the way we judge other people and run our lives- do not tell me it is not so. And like it or not we are reduced to state of spiritual poverty which Jesus offers to alleviate.
And alleviate he does, straight away with no strings attached, v52, ‘“Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road or the way.’ The word translated ‘healed’ is ‘saved’. ‘Your faith’, says Jesus ‘has saved you’. This is more than physical healing that has gone on, it is a complete restoration of the soul. The blind man knew something special about Jesus- he was God’s King; he knew that he could offer mercy and so he acted upon it- he came to him- that is faith. It is not the warm fuzzies or some vague notion about believing there is a ‘god’- it is coming to a personal trusting in Jesus and a ceasing of trusting in ourselves. Let me ask: is that what you have done? And isn’t it something that although Jesus says to the man ‘go’, instead the man decides to ‘follow’- he follows Jesus along ‘the way’, that is, the way to Jerusalem and the way of the cross.
Which brings us to Jericho a place full of meaning. Now at the very least most of us will be aware of the significance of the place of Jericho in the Bible because of the song- ‘Joshua fought the battle of Jericho’. Well, the name ‘Joshua’ is the same as the name ‘Jesus’- ‘Yahweh saves’. It was at Jericho that Joshua fought a decisive victory which enabled God’s people to enter into the blessings of the Promised Land. It was, if you like the gateway to the place where there was the fruit of God’s rescue. Well, here we have a new Joshua who is about to enable God’s people to enter into the ‘promised land’ of eternal life. What we have in the story of the healing of blind Bartimaeus is what some scholars have called a ‘forward link’ to the cross. You see, all that Jesus was to achieve and all that is required for us to benefit from his achievements of the cross are prefigured in this story. There is God’s King, the Son of David who is able to offer mercy-clemency because on the cross he bears the sin of rebels by dying in their place. But that mercy is not automatic and unconditional, there were plenty of other beggars and a whole load of other people that day who didn’t ask for mercy because they didn’t think they needed it nor that Jesus could offer it. But in Bartimaeus we have a model believer, this is how you enter this kingdom, crying out to Jesus as a beggar, acknowledging him as your rightful ruler and the provider of mercy- and then to follow him, to a cross if needs be. In short, this is how you become a Christian and remain a Christian.
I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon the story of the Union soldier who carried his pardon close to his heart right up to the point of his death. It was that letter of mercy that gave him courage to go on serving his leader through the most trying of times. It was a similar mercy that freed up Bartimaeus to follow Jesus. And it is that same sense of wonderment of being a recipient of God’s mercy won at such great cost by our Saviour on Calvary’s Hill, that will keep us going to the end. John Newton, former slave trader, blasphemer, and writer of one of the most famous hymns of all time, ‘Amazing Grace’, knew this too and so had written on his gravestone these words at the ripe old age of 82: ‘My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Saviour.’ I am sure dear Bartimaeus would have agreed.
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