I have taken the trip from Mesa to Flagstaff many times. As you drive up the mountain, you experience so many climate changes. You start in the desert with little that is green and yet you are surrounded by the majestic saguaro cactus, silent sentinels keeping watch over the landscape. You end up in Flagstaff with its massive ponderosa pines giving shade to all who visit. Of course there are many other changes as well. Flagstaff has a small population relative to the huge numbers of people found in the valley. Flagstaff has an outdoor feel to it. Sometimes, Phoenix feels like a concrete jungle to me but Flagstaff has never had that sense for me.
I was reminded of the changes as you travel from Flagstaff and Mesa because of the setting of today’s gospel, Jericho. I haven’t been in Israel for many years but I remember the bus ride from Jericho up to Jerusalem. It is only twenty miles. But Jericho is 825 feet below sea level and Jerusalem is 2500 feet above sea level. Jerusalem receives about 20 inches of rain per year and has a Mediterranean climate while Jericho is an oasis in the desert. Jericho is a small city while Jerusalem is a large metropolis. Jerusalem was the center of the Jewish faith in the time of Jesus while Jericho was a small outpost.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus arrived in Jericho from Galilee. He was on his way up to Jerusalem. It was a pilgrimage that had been taken by religious people for centuries. There are several Psalms of ascent which are prayers offered during this journey. This was his last reported event before his arrival in Jerusalem, just before the joyous events we celebrate on Palm Sunday and the sadness of Good Friday. The journey Jesus took has some parallels to our situation. There are times when we take such trips, perhaps a pilgrimage of a different kind. Our lifelong journey, our pilgrimage, is filled with blessed moments and challenges. We wish that our journeys will result in a mountaintop experience, a time when we see God in a special way. We hope to finish our journey with a welcome into heaven by Jesus. The story of Bartimaeus can give us some suggestions about how we reach out to God during our travels. It can give us encouragement about how God helps us on our way.
Bartimaeus was blind and sitting by the roadside begging for money or food. There are three specific things that draw our attention. One of the first things to note is how he cried out for help. He must have heard about Jesus, especially about those who had been healed. Bartimaeus called out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” For many, referring to Jesus as Son of David meant that he recognized Jesus as the Messiah. It would have been a startling confession of faith.
Did you notice that the crowd walking with Jesus tried to drown out Bartimaeus? They didn’t want to be bothered. Their sights were set on Jerusalem and they didn’t want anything to get in the way. Several disciples accompanied Jesus on this journey. They continued to misunderstand his mission. Did they let their own interests get in the way of helping this poor man? Did they believe that going to Jerusalem was more important than helping others? Of course, we know that Jesus came specifically to help the downtrodden. Bartimaeus was just the kind of person Jesus came to help, despite the efforts by the crowd to drown him out.
I was struck by what Jesus said when they finally met. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked. Jesus wanted Bartimaeus to ask the question, to say explicitly what his need was. Bartimaeus didn’t say he needed food or money which was what he usually asked for. Rather he said that he needed to have his sight restored.
Bartimaeus was the one person who clearly understood who Jesus was. Despite his blindness, he could see that Jesus was the Messiah and Jesus was the one who could heal him. The disciples of Jesus, the close followers, were the ones who were blind. They tried to keep Jesus from what he was called to do. In the passage just before this, James and John asked for special treatment, they wanted to be honored when Jesus was made king. They didn’t understand that Jesus was going to die on the cross and that they too would be killed for their beliefs. It was another example of their blindness. Only Bartimaeus knew who Jesus was and when he was healed this former blind man followed Jesus to Jerusalem.
What might we take away from this lesson? The three takeaways are to cry out to God for help in faith, to be unfettered by anyone or anything that stands in our way of asking God to help us and to trust that God will care for us.
I think this lesson tells us that we should ask God for exactly what we need. That is a little tricky. Sometimes we know what we want but that may not be what we need. It is always okay to ask God for what we want but it is usually better to let God decide what we need. I am sure that Jesus knew what Bartimaeus needed before he spoke. But he wanted to hear the words from Bartimaeus anyway. Because in asking, Bartimaeus declared that Jesus was God. We too show our worship of God when we ask for God’s mercy and when we ask God to help us in our need.
There is another subtle message. The recognition of God may come from someone that we don’t know or expect. If Bartimaeus was the one who could see and know who Jesus was, then how might we be blind to the work of God in our lives? How might we learn from someone else about the wonder of God’s love?
The saving power of Jesus was found in his healing and in his sacrifice. The saving power of God was known by the Jewish people long before Jesus came to earth. The reading from Jeremiah speaks a similar story to the one we heard in the gospel. The people cry out to God begging that they will be saved, that God will return them to their chosen city of Jerusalem. It is as if they shouted out to God with joy because they knew that when they asked God for help, God would be there for them.
Psalm 126 fits perfectly with the reading from Jeremiah. It is a plea that God will bring back the Jewish people from their exile. The psalmist refers to the time when God gave the land of Israel to these people and asks that they once again receive that gift. It is the same cry for God’s mercy that we heard from Bartimaeus. The people are confident that God will hear them once again.
I cannot help but think of the horrific events in Pittsburgh yesterday. Eleven people were killed in a synagogue. Once again, the Jewish people have been attacked by someone who was opposed to their religious beliefs. The cry of the Jewish people in Jeremiah and Psalms that God will take care of God’s people could be spoken of this latest tragedy. We weep with the people in that synagogue. We decry acts of violence done for any religious purpose and we decry violence of any kind against unsuspecting and law abiding people. We join the Jewish people in their cry that God will save us from these terrible tragedies. We pray that God will stop all acts of violence against people who are worshipping in any church or synagogue. We ask God to help us find ways to defend ourselves against such violent acts. We pray that God will take away our fear.
The story of the blind man in the gospel fits our current day situation well. Let us always have faith in Jesus Christ. In faith we have the courage and conviction to call out and ask Jesus for healing. We do so with confidence and hope. We are ready when Jesus turns to us and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” We want God to keep us safe and we want God to heal us from every sickness. We pray that God will heal those people who have lost their way and believe that somehow violence is the answer to their concerns. And we live with that joyful knowledge that Jesus hears us and when Jesus decides that what we ask for is the best thing to do, we know that Jesus will act to provide that healing. That is why we come to church with joy. It is a joy that comes from knowing of God’s love and mercy for us. Amen.
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