The Gospel for today from Luke Chapter 18 is about a blind man named Bartimaeus who keeps crying out for help as soon as he hears that the man known among the Jews of Palestine as Jesus of Nazareth is nearby. I sometimes think that I and perhaps others here today—whatever our ages—children, teenagers, adults—also behave that way. As soon as we think that Christ is near us, we begin to cry out to Him, “Have mercy on me”—help me with some particular problem. Often, our families or friends tell us, just what the crowd tells Bartimaeus, “Shut up!” or to be more polite, as the Gospel of Luke phrases it: “Those who led the way were sternly telling him to be quiet.” In other words, “Stop bothering Jesus of Nazareth and us. Shut up.”
Now Bartimaeus—like us as well—was not quiet. He kept crying out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” So what is the response of Christ to Bartimaeus? Christ asks a question: “What do you want Me to do for you?” Christ asks each of us that same question today: “What do you want Me to do for you?” Now, initially the answer appears obvious. Bartimaeus wants to be able to see. We want help with a particular weakness, a particular problem or a particular person who is causing us a lot of difficulty. That person or situation might be in our present or our past. However, we may not know what we want from God. In the film, “Gravity,” Dr. Ryan Stone, played by the actress Sandra Bullock, appears at one point to say quietly, “have mercy on me” because she is in so much trouble as the space station blows up and she floats away into outer space, that God’s mercy is the only way to sustain her life. Yet often we do know what we seek; and Christ’s question—What do you want Me to do for you?—empowers us to frame our problem clearly and to understand how Christ can help us.
Last week my wife Sylvia and I went to the local library to find out more about her family. There is a very good website, http://www.findmypast.co.uk, free at our local library. (An international alternative is http://www.ancestrylibrary.com ). The only problem was that I tried to look up findmypest.co.uk . Now many of us may well feel that there are pests in our past with whom we are still trying to come to terms. In the case of Sylvia’s family, by consulting the 1881, 1891 and 1901 censuses we found out a lot. According to the 1881 census, Sylvia’s grandfather and grandmother, on her father’s side, separated within a year of their marriage; and ten years later they were still married but separated. Yet during that time, they had three children, including Sylvia’s father. We can have no idea about what was going on during those first eleven years of their marriage—or later when Sylvia’s grandfather went off on his own to South Africa to the Boer War, to sell guns to the Boers—the enemy of Britain. Sylvia summed up the situation of her family in her usual incisive style: “What a crummy family!”
Sandra Bullock no doubt felt the same way about her colleagues in Houston who had lost the ability to communicate with her because of debris in space. However, Sylvia and I were both encouraged in the midst of debris from the family past, because the new knowledge enabled us to pray more clearly about how to live in the present moment—we were empowered to learn how to prevent earlier family problems intervening into our present lives. Sandra Bullock was in the same situation— facing the present moment, with the help of God, avoiding the debris around her. And as any of you who have seen the film, “Gravity” will know, she was certainly in big trouble, never having been in space before, and very much needing the mercy of God.
Now we don’t know anything about the family of Bartimaeus, except that he was the son of Timaeus. According to the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 10, Verse 41, he was a person of boldness, who took decisive action when confronted with an opportunity. In that Gospel of Mark, as soon as Bartimaeus was told to “take courage [and] stand up!” because Christ was calling him, he threw aside his cloak, his most treasured possession, and came to Christ. When Bartimaeus was asked by Christ, “What do you want Me to do for you?” the blind man replied, “Rabboni—that is “My teacher”—I want to regain my sight.” And Christ replied, “Go, your faith has made you well.”
Perhaps all of us today are in the situation of Bartimaeus: We wish to regain our ability to see Christ and then “begin following Him on the road.” We wish to walk out of this church today with a renewed faith and to follow Christ on His road. Yet we cannot know where the road is headed—we cannot know our future; but we can know there will be many opportunities to serve others and to serve Christ; and like Bartimaeus we can seize those opportunities to serve. All of us—like Sylvia and me, and Sandra Bullock in the film “Gravity” and Bartimaeus—we can each be made well by faith in Christ.
How? How can we be made well by faith in Christ, when the journey on the road ahead looks so uncertain? The Epistle for today, from the second chapter of the book of Ephesians, verses 4 to 10, sets out how we can each be made alive in Christ. The story that St. Paul tells is about the road that Christ walks with Bartimaeus and with us—a road made from God’s grace, and our faith and good works—a road that leads to where Christ wishes to bring us. St. Paul wrote: “. . . God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together in Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised up with Him , and made us sit with Him in heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
St. Paul has brought together three key ideas: first, that Christ is merciful and gives us grace; second, that we can have faith in Christ and do good works that God has prepared for us; and third, that because of our faith, we are made alive in Christ. The third century theologian, Origen of Alexandria said of this passage: “What Paul is saying then is: If you believe that Christ is risen from the dead, believe also that you too have risen with Him. If you believe that He sits at the Father’s right hand in heaven, believe that your place too is amid not earthly but heavenly things.” That is worth remembering for the years to come on the uncertain road ahead. [REPEAT: “If you believe that Christ is risen from the dead . . . .]
To a disturbing extent, if we confine our sight only to earthly things, we are spiritually blind. If we look only at earthly things, we are not seeking to come alive with Christ as teenagers, children and adults, determined like Bartimaeus to follow Him. Being alive with Christ does not mean ignoring earthly pursuits, but to be alive with Christ does mean we live on earth as a preparation for living in heaven. Bartimaeus was not stupid. He knew the Scriptures—the Old Testament at that time—extremely well. He knew the Psalms and the books of the prophets Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, Zechariah and Malachi. Therefore, because of his expectation of the Messiah, gained from his Scriptural knowledge and his prayers, Bartimaeus recognised that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Messiah—the Christ—whom he and the people of Israel were awaiting. In fact, remarkably, according to the Gospel of St. Mark, Bartimaeus was the first person to proclaim publicly that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ. St. Peter had proclaimed privately to Christ Himself and the disciples that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, but it was Bartimaeus who told the people of Israel that the Christ, “the Son of David,” lived among them now. The Gospel of St. Luke tells us, that immediately when Bartimaeus found that Christ had restored his eyesight, he “began following [Christ] and glorifying God; and when all the people saw it, they gave praise to God.”
Today we are more familiar with the Greek word Christos (literally “Christ” in English) than with the Hebrew word Mashaiah (literally “Messiah” in English). However, both words mean “the anointed one” the person of the Messiah, Christ. This is the person announced in the book of Isaiah, Chapter 61, and in the Gospel of St. Luke, Chapter 4. This is the person who has come—and I quote—“to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” We are often hesitant to accept that at certain times in our own lives we face the experience of being broken hearted, of being captives to life styles and ideas that are not of Christ, and of being locked up in the prison of the past of our very own crummy families.
Whatever debris we are facing—in the past or in the present—we can pray. We can proclaim our wish to be united to Christ by going to communion now and next week and next week and in the weeks to come. We can walk out of this church having been inspired by our new understanding of Bartimaeus—not so much a blind beggar, but a leader in proclaiming Christ and in glorying God. May we be transformed just as Bartimaeus was transformed. May we each become focused on Christ, instead of our problems—even if those problems rightly remain important to us. Let us all follow Christ together as individual Christians and as a church congregation on the road of life where ever Christ chooses to lead us.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Deacon Emmanuel Kahn