Preaching Notes for the Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost (October 25, 2015)
Job 42:1-6, 10-17
The book of Job might as well end with, “And Job and his family lived happily ever after. The end.” It practically does.
I’m glad that Job realized his place and his limitations. I’m glad that he never lost his faith in God. I’m glad he despised himself and repented in dust and ashes. Don’t get me wrong. But, I really need something more here than “And God restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave job twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10). This ending really doesn’t satisfy me.
Because for so many people, the ending is not “and they lived happily ever after. The end.” For many, there is only more suffering, and more sorrow, and more pain until finally death comes as a sharp relief from what life had been for them.
Not only that, the epilogue (verses 7-17) of Job seems to ultimately support the theological position of Job’s friends: Job has been faithful to God under the worst possible circumstances, and he is lavishly rewarded for his faithfulness.
I just can’t make sense of the epilogue. I don’t believe it. Maybe I just don’t believe the happy ending is from God, but rather a reflection of a stubborn refusal to let go of a particular theology. Job wasn’t afraid to deal with his confusion, feelings of abandonment, and the persistent theology represented by Job’s friends. It is not good news to me to finish this book by returning to the Deuteronomic theology of divine retribution. I can’t land there.
I don’t think Job can land there either. After all, even though his life is restored and his fortunes returned double-fold, how can he ever be the same? He will for the rest of his days on earth live with the memory of the life and the family members that he lost. Having a new family and a new place to live cannot possibly erase the sorrow that will be with him all the remaining hours and minutes of his life. It is not happily ever after because it cannot be. Anyone who has ever suffered a loss knows this.
The good news is that God is faithful and merciful even when we express our doubts, our confusion, and our rage at the injustices and evil in this world. How will we respond? Will we refuse to hear the cries of the refugees who are seeking a new place to call home, be they traveling from Syria to Germany or Mexico to the United States? Will we be able not only to welcome them as they are now, but also recognize and mourn with them for the years of loss and sorrow that they carry into their hope of a new life? How can we offer restoration without denying the reality of suffering? What would we say to Job? How would we be good friends to him?
Last week, I wrote about the priestly role of offering sacrifices on behalf of the church and its relationship to Holy Communion. This week, I’d like to talk about the role of the priest in leading the whole church in the work of intercessory prayer.
The author of Hebrews writes that the problem with the earthly priesthood is that a priest is only able to intercede on behalf of the people for as long as he lives (or continues in office), but Christ’s intercession on our behalf is eternal. There is no time in which we are in relationship with God apart from Christ. Because of him we are enabled to go to God ourselves, at any time, without need of any human intercessor.
But does that mean that there is now no need for intercessory prayers by the gathered people, the body of Christ? Are we relieved of that role because we have a personal relationship with God through Jesus? The way congregations tend to practice intercessory prayer might lead one to think that is indeed the case.
In most of the worship services I attend, rather than engaging in true congregational intercessory prayer, individuals and the pastor share the joys and concerns of the community (and perhaps the wider world), which is followed by a pastoral prayer in which the specific joys and concerns that have just been lifted are mentioned. I am not criticizing this practice, but I would like to take an opportunity to challenge our worshiping congregations to consider a different model of intercessory prayer: one based on the intercessory role of Christ.
Mark Stamm argues in his recently released book, Devoting Ourselves to the Prayers: A Baptismal Theology for the Church’s Intercessory Work (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2014), that we are called to intercede in prayer on behalf of others by virtue of our baptism in the body of Christ. If we are the body of Christ in the world and Christ holds permanent priesthood and “is able for all time to save those who approach God through him since he always lives to make intercessions for them” (Hebrews 7:23 NRSV), then the church itself, the baptized members of the body of Christ, is called to participate in those intercessions. In the words of Stamm, “We join Christ in his priestly intercession for the world and that responsibility belongs to every Christian, and to the church as a whole.” (Stamm’s book is excellent, and I commend it in its entirety to your reading. Unfortunately, space does not allow me here to do more than provide a very limited introduction to his work.)
As baptized members of the body of Christ, we are called to participate in God’s mission in the world. This mission is not primarily about emotions. We are to pray whether we feel like it or not. Neither is the mission only about us and the people we know. God’s love extends to all of God’s creation; thus our intercessions must extend to all. Especially, says Jesus, our participation in God’s mission must extend to our enemies (See Matthew 5:44).
- How can you teach your congregation to intercede on behalf of others in worship and at home?
- How can you begin to move from taking on the priestly role yourself and offering intercessions on behalf of the people toward more robust congregational intercessory prayer?
There are all kinds of blindness. We could interpret this story literally -- a physically blind man sought out Jesus, believed that Jesus could make him physically able to see again; and Jesus healed him. But as I reflect on this story, I think about other kinds of blindness besides the physical kind -- blindness that most of us can relate to.
For example, I often wondered if my sons were blind when I asked them where something that I knew had been in their possession had gone. I can’t begin to count the number of times when I’ve said to one of them, “Hey, where it the screwdriver that you had yesterday?” Without fail, the answer was always, “I don’t have it.” So I would say, “Yes you do! Remember, you used it yesterday to put the new headlamp in your car.” And he would answer, “I don’t know where it is.”
“Look in your room.”
After ostensibly looking around, he would say, “Mom! It’s not in here.” And I’d say, “Yes it is, it has to be.”
A few more seconds would pass. “Mom, I swear, it is NOT IN HERE! Just come and look! You’ll see for yourself that it’s not here.”
And so I would stomp up to his room, and there was the missing item right in the middle of the floor, plain as day. I have to restrain myself from saying, “What’s the matter with you? Are you blind or something?”
That’s one kind of blindness.
We’ve all heard the saying, “love is blind,” which means is that a person who is in love can’t see the person he or she is falling in love with objectively. People in love often can’t see the potential problems in the relationship and the possible character flaws in the object of their affection that seem so perfectly obvious to everyone else.
We also speak of blindness in terms of those inevitable times in life when we lose our way. We’ve all had periods when it seemed as if darkness were all around and we were just stumbling along, trying to stay on our feet, searching desperately for a way out, searching for a way to regain our faith. Even people of enormous, historic faith have experienced those times.
Consider, for example, the disciples, who denied knowing Jesus; then, later, after he was crucified, hid in the darkness and shelter of the Upper Room to avoid a similar fate. Augustine, one of fathers of the Christian faith, went through periods when he found himself searching desperately to hang on to his faith. St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Roman Catholic mystic, wrote a poem and later a commentary about periods of spiritual darkness called “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Even our own John Wesley found himself frightened and miserable and faithless in the midst of a powerful storm during a journey from America back to his home in England. Losing our way, even temporarily, is a kind of blindness.
In the forty-second chapter of Isaiah, God said, “I will lead the blind by a road they do not know, by paths they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground” (Isaiah 42:16 NRSV). In that passage, God isn’t talking about that small fraction of people who do not have the physical ability to see; rather, God is talking about all of God’s people and something other than physical blindness.
And certainly in the passage in the Old Testament where God calls Isaiah to be a prophet in the sixth chapter: “Make the minds of this people dull. Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind, so they can’t see with their eyes or hear with their ears, or understand with their minds, and turn, and be healed” (Isaiah 6:10 CEB). Clearly God is not speaking of physical handicaps or physical healing.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, after telling the parable of the sower and being asked by the disciples why he speaks in parables, Jesus says that he speaks in parables so that those who are “blind” will not see what he means. Clearly, Jesus is talking about spiritual blindness.
But what of this story in the tenth chapter of Mark? Is this a story about physical blindness, or is there more to it? The Scripture tells us that as Jesus and his disciples, and the crowd of people were leaving the town of Jericho, they came upon a blind beggar by the name of Bartimaeus sitting by the roadside. It appears that the story is about a physical condition. Later in the story, it seems fairly clear that the act of healing that took place is of a physical nature. That is, the Scripture plainly says that Bartimaeus, who had been blind, regained his ability to see.
But the question remains, in spite of this evidence, whether or not Jesus’s healing of this blind man was simply a miracle story about a physical healing of a physical ailment, or whether it was some other kind of blindness that the gospel writer Mark had in mind. My sense is that even though a physical healing took place, the physical healing in this story is not as important as the healing of spiritual blindness. The issue for us is not whether Jesus could miraculously cure people’s bodies so much as whether Christ can miraculously heal our souls.
What is spiritual blindness?
I think we can find some clues by looking to the story leading up to the healing of Bartimaeus and, in fact, to the entire sequence of stories from Mark’s gospel that the lectionary has followed the past few weeks.
The first story in this sequence was about Peter. When Jesus asked him, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter said he believed Jesus to be the Messiah. Right after that, Jesus explained what was going to happen when they got to Jerusalem. He would be arrested, tried, found guilty, and executed, but then he would rise again after three days. But the disciples didn’t get it. Or if they did, they didn’t believe him. In fact, they never seemed to fully grasp the reality of the situation. That’s when they began arguing about which one among them was the greatest.
Instead of understanding that following Jesus would mean suffering, they continued to hold on to the idea that there was going to be some kind of personal glory and power as a result of their affiliation with him. Then we read the passages about whoever is not against us is for us, and the story of what the rich man needed to do to enter into the kingdom of heaven.
And so it continued with Jesus teaching that being the Messiah meant not power and glory, but rather, suffering and death and Resurrection. This continued until that famous scene just prior to their entry into Jericho when James and John came to Jesus and asked him if he would grant them to sit, one at his right hand and one at his left, in his glory.
And Jesus said to them (I’m paraphrasing here), “You really are clueless, aren’t you? You don’t even know what you are asking. Do you really think that you are able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38).
When the other disciples heard that Jesus had said this to James and John, they became jealous and angry and began to bicker again among themselves over who was the most important. Jesus, in exasperation, told them that whoever wished to become great among them must be the servant of all the others, and whoever wished to be first must be slave to them all, because he had come not to be served, but to serve and to give up his life for others. It was immediately after all these things happened that they came into Jericho where they ran into blind Bartimaeus.
So what did Bartimaeus do that was so profound? What was it that caught Jesus’ attention in the midst of the crowd?
Bartimaeus refused to allow his voice to be silenced. In spite of the disciples trying to keep him away from Jesus, he continued to scream and yell until Jesus stopped the entire entourage to give his full attention to this man.
But why was Bartimaeus’ refusal to be silenced evidence of his faith? What was his faith? And why did it make him well? That’s what I want to know.
I want to know so that I, too, can be healed of my blindness. Don’t you? Don’t you want to be able to see and to have your faith make you well? Because surely our eyes are temporarily blinded, just as the eyes of those earliest disciples were temporarily blinded. Surely we, too, are blind and need to be healed.
Three things about Bartimaeus stand out:
- He needed healing. He wasn’t looking for some kind of worldly recognition or glory or power. He just wanted to see.
- He believed in his heart and soul that Jesus had the power of God to heal him.
- He was doggedly persistent in his pursuit of Jesus. He refused to give up, no matter how much the crowd tried to silence him.
So that was his faith: he recognized his own blindness; he believed that through Jesus, God could heal him; and he refused to give up. His faith made him well. His faith healed his blindness, so that he was able to get up and follow Jesus on his way.
There are many Christians who say that having faith means never doubting. For these people, having faith means believing with unwavering and constant sincerity that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God. It means that if we pray in faith and earnestness, then Jesus will respond to our prayers and physically heal our loved ones just as he healed Bartimaeus. For these Christians, faith is about never having a moment’s doubt or a lapse into spiritual blindness. Faith means never admitting to being lost or confused or afraid.
But for me, faith means something else. It means following the lead of the disciples who didn’t get it, and the great people of faith down through history who have not gotten it, and trusting that faith has less to do with magic than it does with confessing our own blindness in this life, our own inadequacy. Faith means putting our whole trust that through Christ, God can heal us, and not ever giving up on that, no matter how hard it gets sometimes.
I have to confess that I am blind. I cannot see. My eyes may be open, and I may be an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, and I may have gone to seminary and gotten a master’s degree in divinity, and a Ph.D. in liturgical studies. I may know what the Bible says, and I may be able to recite the Apostle’s Creed by heart and pray the Lord’s Prayer. I may pray with sincerity and hope every single day, and I may know the words to the hymns, and I may confess Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, but even so, I must admit that I am in need of healing.
I must confess that I do not know all the answers. Like the disciples, I just don’t get it sometimes. When I see all those refugees streaming out of Syria, enduring endless suffering by no fault of their own, and when I try to get my mind around how God can be good and have a plan and be in control of this world, and yet there is evil lurking all around us, I’m confused. When I consider the brokenness of the denomination I serve, the anger that arises in people who view things differently from their sisters and brothers, or when I see someone of great faith who is grieving and suffering, I know for certain that no matter how much I think I have learned, and no matter how much I know from my own experience, I am blind.
I am intellectually blind. I am theologically blind. And lots of days, I am spiritually blind. I am in need of healing. But I do believe that the power of God in Jesus Christ can heal me. I don’t know how. I don’t know why. I don’t know when. But I know that it happens. There are moments in which I am healed. There are times when I do have momentary clarity and feel the presence of God deeply and fully. I know that I find myself healed again and again in this life, and so I pursue knowledge of Jesus doggedly. I pursue Jesus because I believe that through him, God can heal my blindness. I pursue Jesus because I want to know everything I can know about him. I want to read about Jesus in the Bible and learn about what others who have believed in him have experienced. I want to know Jesus myself.
I’m not going to be afraid to admit to my own blindness. I am not going to be afraid to cry out, loudly, for all the world to hear, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Lord Jesus, have mercy on all of us if we are wrong to ask these kinds of questions! Have mercy on us if we keep pursuing the story, and pushing the envelope, and keep calling out for knowledge and attention from Jesus even when the voices of the crowds have admonished us to keep quiet! Have mercy on us if we have broken ranks and embarrassed those in power and challenged those who believe that they know who Jesus was and is! Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us.
Then Jesus will ask us, “What do you want me to do for you?” And our answer will be, “My Lord, let me see again.” I pray his response will be the same that he gave to Bartimaeus. I pray that he will say to each one who begs for mercy, “Go; your faith has made you well.” I pray that in knowing that kind of experience, we will experience a moment of clarity, a tiny glimpse of divinity, a momentary healing that will enable us to keep going forward to follow him wherever his path may lead us, to great heights of joy and wonder and insight and into deepest valleys of rejection, suffering, and death, until finally, at the end of our lives, we find ourselves completely healed, our sight fully restored, and our eyes wide open to the glory that is surely to come.