Sermon preached by Mr John Stubbs 26 October 2003 at St.Mark's and Putnoe Heights
I am sure that you will have noticed that at the present moment whistleblowing forms some of the major items of news in our papers and on the television. We have Mr. Burrell busy letting us into comers of Princess' Diana's life and the problems which are revealed by the letters he produces from his treasure store. And then we have the kindly athletics coach who sent along that syringe with its small amount of designer steroid which has proceeded to rock the face of athletics as well as some other sports as well.
Have you ever thought of St. Mark as a whistleblower? I guess not and to
be honest it is only as I have been thinking about today's gospel that the
idea came to me. How do I justify my comment? Well you will recall - I often
used that phrase at work with the section's chief executive officer who
usually maintained that I was going to remind him of something obscure. Well
I am not, for I am sure you will recall- those of you who were here last
week - that the gospel for the day was that conversation between James and
John and Jesus in which they sought the best places in the kingdom when
Jesus became king. Not a pretty picture of them, or of the other disciples
in their reactions to that request.
And of course there are other instances earlier in the gospel where the
disciples are shown in a less than flattering light. St. Mark is anything
but one of their admirers up to this point in the story. But it's worse than
that. I don't think I would have liked to be on the wrong side of mark. For
not only does mark tell stories which show the twelve in a bad light, he
also arranges other stories in his narrative which serve to emphasise the
fallibility of those disciples. I guess that had they read the gospel in
real time - i.e. Just after the events happened, mark would have been off
their Christmas card list.
In fairness to mark of course he was not actually carrying out a vendetta against the disciples. He was trying to make very clear to his readers just exactly what was the nature and mission of this man Jesus and what was it that the gospel he proclaimed and brought about by his living, dying and rising meant for them. And his gospel is a tightly woven fabric which sets out to do just that, and he arranges his materials with great skill to ensure he gets his message across.
So with all that in mind let us reflect together on today's gospel
reading. And let me begin with a question. How many names of other people
who were on the receiving end of Jesus grace and cured in some way can you
recall, and also name the places where the miracles happened? The instances
are rare in this gospel. And it suggests therefore that not only the miracle
itself important but that Bartimaeus was known, that he followed Jesus not
only on the road into Jerusalem but also as a disciple subsequently. In
other words what Bartimaeus did was an important element in the picture
which mark is building up of the call of the Christian and the life to which
Jesus challenges those who would like Bartimaeus follow him.
All that is reinforced by what is Mark's attitude to miracles. He devotes a great deal of space to them. They were, for him demonstrations of the power of god's kingdom but also reveal the identity of Jesus himself. He has unique authority which is that of the son of god.Jericho, where the miracles took place, is only a short distance from Jerusalem, so Jesus is getting very close to his goal. It is almost in sight, and this event could perhaps be seen as the end of an overture before the major play begins. Before we move in the next chapter, into the triumphal entry into Jerusalem - the beginning of Holy week.
We know nothing much about Bartimaeus, though we can deduce quite a lot. Some of it won't tell us much - that he is the son of
Timaeus. About whom we know as little as we know of Bartimaeus. It is likely that although his sight is afflicted he probably was not totally blind, or he would have found it difficult to jump up and get to Jesus. But the shape of the narrative suggests to me that he was seated in probably his normal place of begging beside the road, when the crowd came past - after all crowds mean money.' You can see him asking – ‘who is it?’ and when he is told it is Jesus of Nazareth he responds at once,for he has recognized what opportunity is now his. Lesson one perhaps for us to be always on the alert - a theme which is echoed elsewhere in the gospels in stories such as that of the wise and foolish virgins.
So he begins to shout and what he shouts is significant. Only Peter at Caeserea Philippi and those unfortunates possessed by unclean spirits call Jesus by any kind of messianic title. for by Jesus' : time it was commonly taught by the rabbis that the messiah would spring from the royal line of David. Jesus was at pains to point out that the messianic kingdom was not one founded on conquest. It is not merely a sort of empire such as David himself might have created, but he does not tell Bartimaeus off; he does not say "you should not have said that." He seems simply to have accepted it.
And then we get the crowds response, we don’t’ know why, just as we don't know why the disciples tried to stop the little ones being brought to Jesus, revealed earlier in the gospels were they embarassed by his call because they did not dare accept the notion of the messiah? Or did they simply regard the whole affair as a nuisance? Just as I want some of the odd discordant noises which punctuate the last night of the proms to stop, go away, get lost. I am sure you know the sort of feeling. But Jesus hears and says "call Bartimaeus" and if we put these two happenings together as Mark has, we can see that Mark suggests that whenever we recognise who Jesus is and call to him, he will respond and draw us to him.
Mark puts in a delightful piece of inconsequential description doesn't he? Bartimaeus tosses off his cloak and jumps up and goes to Jesus. As Pooh Bah in "the Mikado" might have said "merely a piece of verisimilitude designed to brighten up an otherwise dull narrative" except it isn't. Beggars in New Testament times used their cloaks as the receptacle for money! Just as you find beggars today with their coats spread out or the open music case. And you can see Bartimaeus carefully gathering his money up, putting it away in his scrip and going to Jesus. Well, no you can't! Blow the money, the cloak is in the way, get it aside and get on. It does not matter what happens to it or the money, they are unimportant. And in the careful tightness of construction which is Mark's hallmark, think back to another man not long before - a rich young ruler- who couldn't bring himself to give up his wealth. The lesson is clear, if you want something from Jesus, then nothing must stand it its way. And that is also what everybody else in the gospels does if they are called by Jesus.
So Bartimaeus comes to Jesus and addresses him as "rabbi", "teacher." Morna Hooker in her commentary on the gospel suggests the word used means ‘my rabbi’ and is a more reverential form than "rabbi." And so he asks "my sight" - not power, status, riches, sitting at god's right hand - remember the disciples- but just the simple gift which will enable him to live his life more effectively.
And so Jesus responds to his expression of faith. One translation says his faith "saved" him, rather more than just physical healing. And it is significant for Mark and for us that Bartimaeus no longer sat by the roadside but followed Jesus on the road - to Jerusalem.
We sang just now "take my life and let it be’ and this gospel story gives us some clues about what we might do - and what might happen. Let me remind you what they were. We must always me on the alert to meet Jesus whom we will find on the highway as well as in the church. And if we recognise Jesus and call to him we must be ready to hear this call and be drawn to him and nothing should stand in our way. While we may only want Jesus to help us to live our lives more effectively, we must be ready to follow him if need be to Jerusalem that symbol of death, resurrection and new life. Where Bartimaeus went, Mark challenges us to follow. Will you?