Mark 10: 46-52
They came to Jericho. As he 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, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” 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, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
The connection from one week to another of preaching is not always obvious. As a preacher, I have not often been one for sermon series – that is changing come Advent – but up till now I tend to take each week on its own. For the past three years of my ministry, I have also made use of the “Revised Common Lectionary.” This resource is a helpful tool to pull scripture from all sorts of places. The lectionary lets me pull from some scriptures which might not otherwise make it to the pulpit. The downside to this is that, from week to week, the selected scriptures can sometimes go in very different directions. To utilize a lectionary is to let some control be taken away from you. This opens up another door for the Spirit to draw connections we might not see until we open our ears to hear them.
Last week we looked at two disciples asking for Jesus to make them great. The week before we saw how Job called out to be heard and then received his audience with God. Today these two themes meet in our scripture. Here someone cries out to God, they ask to be saved, and they find their prayer answered. They do not seek glory as James and John did, not to be heard as Job had, yet in his answered prayer the deeper truth of both becomes clear. God listens to us, and God desires to give us the things we seek after for our own good. Today, as we look at scripture, we are not going to find a surefire formula for answered prayer, but we are going to see the love God has for us and the strength which we can depend on.
Our scripture opens with the briefest summary I’m aware of in scripture regarding Jesus’s ministry in any one place. We are told Jesus and his followers went into Jericho and the next we hear of them is Jesus and company leaving Jericho. What wonders happened in that town that were left unwritten? What teachings landed in the soft soil of the people’s hearts, but were never put to paper? Even if Jesus was just passing through, I find it hard to believe he did not have plenty to do. The no nonsense writing of Mark rushes us forward to a specific work of Christ. We are introduced to a blind man named Bartimaeus and the exceptional healing which changed his life.
Blindness, and more generally disability, was not treated consistently in the ancient world. As much as I would like to offer a single perspective that all people held in Jesus’s time, it is sadly never so simple. If we look to scripture, we do get several ideas for mindsets that were contemporary or that predate Jesus. The purity codes of the Torah treat some injuries or conditions in the same way sin is treated – excluding certain people from full participation in community (Deuteronomy 23:1, Leviticus 21:19-20) Jesus is asked several times if Sin produced the trouble that people faced spiritually and physically. (Luke: 13:1-4, John 9:2) Disability is sometimes even described as someone having “evil,” qualities in their limbs or organs. (Matthew 6:22-23.) These all suggest a fairly negative view of disability in the ancient world.
While other, more positive, or at least neutral perspectives exist in scripture and other ancient texts, there was an undeniable negative trend in perspective. Jesus stands out in his ministry because he was sure to separate out sin and suffering. Despite the insinuations of the crowds around him, Jesus did not blame anyone who was sick or disabled for the situations they found themselves in. Jesus extended a hand to those who needed help. There was never an interrogation of them about what they had done, how they became injured or disabled, only ever a desire to restore them to the community they lived within. Jesus listened to the cries of those in need and answered their prayers in the way they asked for them to be fulfilled. Jesus listened and loved with wisdom and mercy.
The story of Bartimaeus is the sort of story most ancient writers would skip. He was a person of no social importance who lived on the outskirts of a city. Yet, Mark tells his story and skips Jesus’s time in the city. Mark wants us to understand that Jesus does not prioritize the same things we do. Somehow the faith of one man, of a social outcast without any means of his own, is more significant than an entire narrative of teaching among “polite” society. Mark shows us Jesus again living the lessons he preaches, helping those who have nothing to offer him and releasing people from things keeping them from participating in the world around them. Jesus looses the chains of an unjust world from the hands of the downtrodden.
The cry of Bartimaeus to Jesus carried over the roar of the crowd. His shouts were condemned by those who stood around him. “Do not bother Jesus, he’s too busy for you!” “Stay quiet and accept what life has given you!” “Do you see the scene you are making right now?” Yet all these cruel words just inspired Bartimaeus to keep shouting. Jesus hears these cries and stops, standing still suddenly along the road. Jesus sends for people to bring Bartimaeus to him. The crowd that chided him now encourages him to approach Jesus. Bartimaeus has thrown aside his clothing, rendering himself completely vulnerable before Jesus. The man stands before him and asks that his vision could be restored, Jesus complies, and he sees once again.
The faith of Bartimaeus has given him a name to be remembered for all time. We hear about his faith every time we read this scripture and he more than most rests in our imaginations. What exactly about him captures us? More than anything, I think we admire his boldness. Bartimaeus wanted to be near God and he would not let anything get in the way. He wanted to stand in front of Jesus and know what God’s mercy felt like. I do not know if Bartimaeus expected to see that day, but I know he expected to be heard. His cry to Jesus utilizes a voice in Greek that is meant to get a person’s attention. Like calling someone by their full name, the vocative is meant to perk up someone’s ears.
There is much we can take from this story, and we only have so many minutes this morning to talk about them, so we will try and be selective in our reading for today the key takeaway that today’s verse has for us in our daily life is what it looks like when we pray. When Bartimaeus called out to Jesus, he was offering a sincere prayer to be made whole. While we typically associate cries for “mercy,” with avoiding punishment the phrase has more to it than that. To seek mercy is to ask for God to make us whole, to restore us to somewhere or transform us into something. The lesson that should be most obvious to us from reading about this event is that we do not have to fear that our prayers go unheard. When we cry out to God, God stops, stands up straight, and brings us close to hear what it is we need. We should boldly approach the throne of our salvation.
Prayer is as simple as that and yet we cannot pretend we understand every aspect of prayer. Not unlike our look at Job, the mystery of God’s relief of our suffering is sometimes just as obscure as God’s presence in the midst of our suffering. We offer prayers here every week, some of them we see answered in immediate and obvious ways, and others – if they are answered – are not answered quickly or in any noticeable way. When we pray for disease to be healed, sometimes it is and sometimes it is not. When we pray to avoid disaster, sometimes disaster still finds its way into our life. When we pray, even just for peace, sometimes we find that we cannot escape the dread that seeps in behind our eyes.
A cynical mind could easily see something fickle about this. Why does one prayer seem to be answered, sometimes in astounding, fire from heaven kind of ways? While another seems to go unheeded? If we knew that answer, I think that we would be in possession of some of the most precious information we ever could. To know the secrets of how God pours grace on the earth would be to know how miracles fall from Heaven to earth. I’d give a lot to know that.
Yet, like so many things, we do not know how God answers our prayers, only that God does hear us. Sometimes we will try and explain prayer as being stopped by demons or blocked by sin, but to do so almost always shrinks God into someone who can only answer prayers that are worded just so or are spoken by just the right kind of person. That presentation of God is not consistent with scripture, it certainly does not look like Jesus does in this passage we read today. When it comes to the kind of work that God accomplishes through our prayer we should not idly speculate on mechanics. Instead, we need to look at what is plain to us about prayer and what God accomplishes through our prayers, even when we might feel they have not been heard.
Firstly, we cannot deny that prayer brings us closer to God. When we take time to intentionally reach out to our creator, we find our creator reaching back toward us. Every time we pray, whether we say something silently in our heart or aloud, whether we are in private or in the presence of other people of God, we are present with God. The same fire at the center of creation that put light behind the stars is the warm presence we feel within our hearts as the Spirit settles within us. The one who set the foundations of the earth is the one who holds us in a single strong hand. To pray is to be close to God and to be close to God is to be where we are meant to be.
Prayer also brings us closer to one another. When we pray for one another, the space between us dissolves. Whenever we gather together on Sunday, we are all fairly close together here in this sanctuary, but we are not the only people gathered this morning. All those worshipping at home, watching on Facebook, are here with us as we worship and pray. All the people we mail the service to every week join us in prayer, whether they wait till Sunday to read and pray alongside us or open their letter as soon as they get it and pray ahead of us. Prayer brings us together, it makes our love for one another stronger, it makes us be intentional in caring about each other.
This is not just spiritual or sentimental in nature, but an observed neurological reality. When we make a habit of praying and when we pray for any length of time, our brain begins to reshape itself. In his book, What God does to Your Brain, Dr. Andrew Newberg explains that habitual pray can temporarily limit the use of our parietal lobes. This is, for reference, the part of your brain closest to your ears. Among its many functions, it helps us to differentiate ourselves from our environment. When it turns off, we become less aware of ourselves as individuals. The reality of our identity as, “the body of Christ,” is most obvious to us when we are praying. We are not just our individual selves, we are part of something much bigger.
These considerations would be acceptable to anyone. I could tell you prayer makes me feel closer to God and an atheist could agree I probably feel that way. I can show you the science of how the brain reroutes itself during prayer and even the most seasoned skeptic would at least be interested in reading that research. What makes prayer so important to us, what makes it more than just a thing we do to feel good, is the fact that it does produce results. If it did not, we would not keep doing it. People are healed by prayer, strength is given to us by prayer, God does work wonders on this earth because prayers are offered up. The story of Bartimaeus, if it ended just with everyone feeling a little bit closer together, would still be significant, but it would not be the kind of story that we tell again and again.
I can tell you myself of miracles that I have seen happen through tireless prayer. A woman I know felt that God has promised her a child, and after dozens of tests showed her that her baby was going to be stillborn, she still held onto that hope. She had her baby, and that daughter should be graduating college right about now. I know that a minister of mine growing up fought Parkinson’s for years, and through prayer he went into remission – something that is not physically possible for Parkinson’s – for five years. Even recently, when Grace’s bottle of Adderall she takes for ADHD was accidentally thrown away, I prayed that she would find it before she needed it most. The next few weeks were a struggle, but when she had her yearly DCOM interview, she found a single capsule of Adderall in her pill box that helped her go into the meeting fully able to show her brilliance.
I cannot answer why prayer does not always seem to get the result we want. I pray often for my wife’s fibromyalgia symptoms to lessen, or her migraines to be relieved, and oftentimes that does not happen. Yet, whenever a prayer does seem to be answered, I know that I can glory in what God has done. That God answers any prayer shows that God loves us and listens to us, that knowledge should tell us that even when our prayer is not answered in an obvious way, God is still beside us listening and acting to help us. Christ, dying on the cross, the most gruesome death imaginable, cried out to God, and in that moment, Christ felt well and truly alone. Yet I believe Christ, both as a member of the Trinity and as a human being, never let out a cry that God did not hear. Even in the darkest moment of his life, even when all seemed lost, God was still listening, and God still cared deeply for God’s son.
As children of God, as people saved by the work of Jesus Christ. We all must cry out to God. A few weeks ago, we spoke about letting God know about our pain, now I ask us to let God know our needs! We must have faith that God will hear us, and hope at all times to see our prayers answered. The worst that can happen is that we grow closer to God and one another. If that is the worst outcome of taking a step out and shouting my prayers to God, then I only stand to gain through offering up my prayer. So let us all, whenever we can and whenever we need it, join Bartimaeus in crying out, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!”. – Amen.