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This story of the healing of blind Bartimaeus immediately follows the story we looked at last week, where Jesus was asked a request by James and John - and refused to grant it. The fact that Mark puts these two stories next to each other when writing his Gospel is no coincidence, of course, because he wants us to draw a parallel between the disciples request and that of Bartimaeus. He wants us to draw a parallel between the response of Jesus to James and John and the response of Jesus to the blind man. The parallels are clear:
In last week’s story, just 9 verses before today’s story, James and John said to Jesus, “There is something we want you to do for us” - and here, in verse 51, Jesus says to the blind man: “What do you want me to do for you?” Almost exactly the same words…
But look at the difference in the requests: in verse 37, James and John say, “When you sit on your throne in your glorious kingdom, we want you to let us sit with you”. But in verse 51, Bartimaeus simply says: “Teacher, I want to see again”.
In response to James and John, Jesus declines their request with the words, “You don’t know what you are asking for”. But in response to the blind man’s humble request, Jesus says, “Go. Your faith has made you well”.
There is a marked difference in this story in comparison to the one that comes before that has to do with how we should come to Jesus and what we should expect to receive from him.
This morning, we are beginning a series of sermons that will take us to the end of December: a series called ‘Living Faith’, in which we will look at the key attitudes and behaviours that underpin our discipleship and our Christian life. And the first key attitude that we are looking at this morning is ‘Receiving’, because living with God always begins with receiving healing and new life from him, which, of course, is what this story of the healing of Bartimaeus is all about.
When this story starts, Jesus is heading towards Jerusalem for the final time. It is the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ life and he is heading towards crucifixion – and he knows that. And the healing of Bartimaeus is the final miracle that he performs: a miracle of restoring someone’s sight so that he can follow Jesus.
Jesus and his disciples were passing through Jericho, which was 15 miles from Jerusalem. And the streets were packed with people, which is not surprising because everyone was getting ready to make the journey to Jerusalem for the Passover. It was a Jewish law that every male living within a 15-mile radius of Jerusalem had to attend the Passover, so they would have been on the streets starting the journey. And in addition to them, many of the priests of the Temple lived in Jericho - about 22,000 of them who were on a rota to lead worship - and they too would have been heading off to Jerusalem.
So Jericho was jam-packed with people. And here, in the midst of all the hustle and bustle, sits blind Bartimaeus begging for money at the side of the road. I suppose that, just as with beggars on our streets today and the Big Issue sellers, most of the people were just passing him by, thinking of him as an inconvenience, getting in the way of their busy day. But Bartimaeus is listening to the conversations of the passers-by and hears that Jesus is there and he is desperate to escape from his world of darkness and he shouts out, ‘Jesus, Son of David! Take pity on me!’ The crowds are annoyed by him, annoyed that he should presume to engage with city life, perhaps in the same way that people today treat the homeless and beggars on our streets as somehow less than human and without any rights or dignity and the crowd tell him to be quiet: to get on with his begging in the anonymity of his marginalised position in society.
But Bartimaeus has a greater sense of self-worth than that and he keeps calling out and in verse 49, we read that Jesus stops and says, ‘Call him’. And so his encounter with Jesus begins and the healing is received.
So what do we have to learn from how Bartimaeus approached Jesus? What can we learn about how we should approach God if we want to receive healing and new life from him? There are 4 things to note from the passage:
1. We must be persistent with God
The Lottery Ticket – it’s an interesting metaphor for the society in which we live, I think. I haven’t got anything against the Lottery. I’m not the type of Vicar who thinks it is wrong at all. In fact, I buy the occasional Lottery Ticket just like most people. But I think that what is interesting about the Lottery Ticket is that is symbolises how many people approach difficulties in life…
I might take a look at this month’s bank statement and realise I have no money left and I then start to daydream about how great life would be if I won £12 million. So I go out and buy a Lottery Ticket and I don’t win, and I think to myself, “Oh well, that’s that, then…” and I get back on with my life with no money. The good life is a Lottery – I might win, I might not win - and if I don’t win, I will passively sit with what I have…
The spiritual life isn’t like that. There is a persistence at the heart of receiving from God. The truth is that Christian discipleship is hard work and demands a life of discipline. And part of that discipline is to come to God in prayer in a consistent and persistent way.
Too often, we treat prayer like a Lottery Ticket. We want to receive something from God, so we will pray about it maybe once or twice and then, when we don’t receive it, we think, “Oh well, that’s that, then…”
Bartimaeus knew that persistence was at the heart of receiving from Jesus. In verse 47, he calls out to Jesus but the crowds tell him to be quiet. But in verse 48, we are told, “But he shouted even more loudly, ‘Son of David, take pity on me!’”
Encountering Jesus was no Lottery for Bartimaeus: he was persistent until it happened. And the Bible is full of characters who were persistent in their pursuit of God: Abraham, Moses, Elijah, the prophets, John the Baptist, the parable of the persistent widow, Bartimaeus – and many more…
If we want to receive from God, we must develop persistence: not because he is unwilling to give to us and needs to be worn down but because, as we develop persistence, so we develop strong, spiritual character and we grow into spiritual maturity.
So firstly, we must be persistent with God.
2. Our response to God must be immediate
“Steve, the grass needs cutting”.
“Yeah, OK Jo, I’ll do it”.
24 hours passes.
“Steve, are you going to cut the grass?”
“Yes Jo – I said I will do it…”
Another couple of days goes by.
“Steve, when are you going to cut the grass?”
“Alright, I said I’ll do it and I will. I’ll do it by the end of the week…”
It’s a pretty regular type of conversation in our house - and it’s not a particularly healthy one, to be honest! There are some things in life that I just have no sense of urgency about and, quite rightly, it really winds Jo up.
I wonder if that lack of urgency is sometimes evident in our relationship with God? We know what God wants for us – but we put it on the back burner. We know that we should be praying more – so we will start tomorrow…maybe. Our spiritual lives too often reflect a lack of urgency.
But Bartimaeus was different. As soon as Jesus called, Bartimaeus went to him. We read in verse 49 and 50, “[The crowd said] ‘Get up, he is calling you’. He threw off his cloak, jumped up, and came to Jesus.” Bartimaeus’ response was immediate – Jesus called and he jumped up and went to him.
If we want to receive from God, we need to develop that same sense of immediacy - to jump up and run to him when he calls.
And he is calling, isn’t he?
So firstly, we must have persistence if we want to receive from God. Secondly, there must be a sense of immediacy in our response to him.
3. We need to know exactly what we want from God
If I asked you over coffee today, “What has God done for you this week?”, would you be able to give a reply? If I asked you, “Which of your prayers has God answered this week?”, would you be able to list them? That would be an awkward situation for some of us, I’m sure - and I think at the root of it is that we all tend to pray abstract prayers rather than really tangible, measureable prayers.
We might be tempted to pray on a Monday, “Lord, help me to have a really good week”. But what does that mean? How do we measure that? When it gets to Friday, some things will have gone well and some things won’t, sometimes, we will have been happy, other times we will have been a bit miserable. What does ‘a good week’ look like? So it is impossible to know whether or not God has answered that prayer.
But more tangible prayers are more meaningful. “Lord God, I have an important meeting on Monday. I am nervous about it – please give me the confidence and the words to say”. “Lord God, I want to get into Bible reading more this week. Help me find 20 minutes each day to read, so that this week, I can get through the whole of Pau’s letter to Galatians”. Tangible prayers, more specific prayers, are a great encouragement to us, because we more easily recognise God’s acting in our lives.
And Bartimaeus knew that. In verse 51, Jesus said, “What do you want me to do for you?” and he replied, “Teacher, I want to see again”. Now that is a tangible request: he was going to leave Jesus’ presence either still blind or seeing again. And he knew that Jesus had answered his request when he was healed. As a result, we read in verse 52, “He followed Jesus on the road”.
If we want to receive from God, we must be persistent, we must respond with immediacy, we must be specific in our requests.
4. We don’t need to wait until we are sorted in our faith to receive from God
I had an interesting e-mail exchange with our new Archdeacon this week. I e-mailed him about something and finished off by saying, “It would be nice to see you sometime in the future to fill you in on what’s happening at St. Andrew’s”. He wrote back and said, “Great – how about I come to you for lunch sometime in the next couple of weeks?” I wrote back, “Oh, there’s no hurry – I know you are really busy with other things and other people…” He wrote back, “No, really…I’d like to see you”. I wrote, “OK, but I know you are really busy – how about I come to you.” He wrote, “No honestly – I really do have the time to come to you and see you…” And so this went on for a few more e-mails before we finally fixed a place and a time.
I was thinking about it later that night and realised that I just felt too unimportant and perhaps unworthy to take up the time and energy of such a busy and important person and that he would view me as an inconvenience in his life.
And sometimes, I feel like that about God too, I think…he is far too busy to be worrying about my issues and, to be frank, I am not prayerful enough, or holy enough to even ask anything of God. When I pray, I sometimes imagine God must roll his eyes and think, “Oh here we go – Steve’s back. It’s been a while since I heard from him. What does he want now?” And I don’t think I’m the only person in church today who thinks like that!
But the truth is that God doesn’t wait until we are sorted in our faith before responding to our prayers. We don’t need to reach a certain level of holiness or dedication or service before he is willing to give us some of his precious time. God responds to you and me with the same eagerness and intimacy as he will respond to the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury - and even the new Archdeacon of Hampstead!
Blind Bartimaeus knew that too. He called out to Jesus, “Son of David…” That was an old Jewish title reserved for the one who would lead Israel to national greatness. So it was partially true of Jesus – but not the whole truth, or even close to it. It was an inadequate idea of Jesus - but that didn’t matter. Because Bartimaeus had faith - and that was enough for Jesus to act on.
None of us fully understand all the truth about God. We all have a weak understanding and we all have so much to learn. All of us are beginners in the faith. But, that doesn’t matter to Jesus: he does not ask for knowledge and learning. He asks only that we are persistent, that we respond to him when we hear him call and that we ask his involvement in our lives in a direct and tangible way. If we join Bartimaeus in approaching Christ like that then, like him, we will receive healing and peace and grace and our lives will be transformed
Jesus said to Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” He asks us the same question this morning.
What do you want Jesus to do for you today?