Ordinarily I eschew a storytelling approach in preaching. I have heard it used in incredibly effective ways by incredibly effective storytellers. But because I do not count myself an effective storyteller (and because I feel strongly that too many preachers today waste too much time retelling the Gospel story and don’t ever actually get around to preaching the Gospel) I don’t tend to use a storytelling style.
This old sermon is an exception to that rule. I find the story of Bartimaeus unusually rich and compelling. In an effort to develop its personal, theological, and political depths, I chose to open this sermon with an extended retelling of the story. As becomes clear in the end (I hope!), the extremely close focus with which the sermon begins ultimately makes possible a homiletical engagement with a much wider context.
A Sermon Preached on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 28, 2012
By the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, The Parish of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut
Text: Mark 10:46-52
May I speak in the Name of Almighty God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Bartimaeus rose early that day. As the morning’s warmth found him wrapped in his cloak, huddled in whatever corner or alleyway served as his bed, Bartimaeus rose, and hurried through the well-known streets of Jericho. Though the bright light of daybreak meant little to his blind eyes, he had to rise early. Alone in the world, Bartimaeus had to claim his spot—had to stake out his place to beg—right beside the busy road that leads up from Jericho to Jerusalem. All the people passing between those two cities would see his cloak spread by the roadside, ready to receive their alms. It was a spot worth getting up early for. And on this day, there was even more reason to get to his spot early.
Bartimaeus couldn’t read a calendar, but he knew the times and the seasons. He could tell, as the traffic passing his special spot steadily increased, that the Feast of the Passover was coming. Bartimaeus knew that the pious pilgrims heading past his spot on their way up to the Temple would be extra generous. Each day, that crowd grew larger. Each day, the faithful thronged the road on their way to Jerusalem, joyfully preparing to remember and give thanks for God’s deliverance.
For soon, at Passover, they would remember the way that God brought their ancestors up out of the land of Egypt, freeing them from the house of bondage. They would remember the way that God delivered the children of Israel on the shores of the Red Sea, saving them from the chariots of pharaoh and setting their feet on dry ground. They would remember the way that God led them into the Promised Land, casting out the nations, and knocking down the very walls of the ancient city of Jericho before the face of Joshua and his army. All of these mighty acts of deliverance they would remember at the festival in Jerusalem.
They would remember. They would give thanks. And they would ask God to do it again.
For the children of Israel were once more a captive, conquered people, oppressed this time not as slaves in distant Egypt, but by the Roman Empire in their own homeland. And so at Passover, as they celebrated God’s deliverance in days gone by, they would pray and plead to see deliverance for their nation in their own time as well.
Blind Bartimaeus would not join them on their pilgrimage. And yet sitting by the roadside, all alone amidst the crowds of pilgrims, he too hoped for deliverance. Sitting by the roadside, unseeing and unseen, he too longed to glimpse the power and faithfulness of God in his own life. Sitting at his spot by the roadside, unable to join the rituals of remembrance, still Bartimaeus prayed for redemption.
And this Passover, this year, some of the talk he heard by the roadside raised in him a faint glimmer of hope. As the pious passed him by on their way to Jerusalem, Bartimaeus heard mention of a new prophet who had arisen in Galilee. Jesus of Nazareth, they called him. Bartimaeus heard talk about lepers healed, and demons cast out. One man told excitedly about the time he’d gone out into the wilderness with Jesus as part of a huge crowd. Even though there wasn’t any food around, somehow they were all fed with bread and fish—and there were leftovers! Most amazing of all, Bartimaeus even heard someone whisper a rumor that Jesus had raised a little girl from the dead.
The voices in the crowd were filled with hope. Folks thought that all the amazing things that Jesus had done were signs that he was God’s Messiah: that he had come to deliver their people once again, just like at the first Passover long ago. Sitting by himself, Bartimaeus didn’t think much about the politics. But he couldn’t help but wonder what Jesus might do for a poor, blind, beggar.
And then—just as the first Passover pilgrims of the day came past his spot; just as Bartimaeus sat thinking about what he’d heard, and about the old stories of God’s faithfulness, and his own deep longing for deliverance from blindness—Jesus came.
Bartimaeus could hear the excitement running through the crowd. Here was Jesus, the rumored Messiah, making his way up to Jerusalem for the Passover! And here sat Bartimaeus, his beggar’s cloak before him, hoping, yearning, praying for deliverance!
Before he even knew what was happening, before he even knew what he was doing, Bartimaeus lifted up his voice, and he cried out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”
The people around him were shocked and offended. “Be silent,” they said. “How dare you interrupt the Teacher. Can’t you see what’s going on? Can’t you see that now, at this Passover, in this time, in this place, we will see God’s deliverance again?” The wise and discerning in the crowd knew that it was no coincidence that Jesus was going up to Jerusalem at Passover. They were certain that redemption for Israel was at hand. And they weren’t about to let a blind beggar interrupt the progress of God’s great plan.
But above their orders, in spite of their offense, Bartimaeus cried out louder still. “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped, and stood still, and said “Call him here.”
The hoped-for Messiah stopped in his journey up to Jerusalem, where he would do something unhoped-for, and unimaginable. The savior of God’s people silenced the eager crowd so that he could talk to the broken, outcast beggar. The Lord of all time halted the great drama of history in its very tracks so that he could speak with someone of no significance or importance whatsoever.
And in that moment on the dusty road outside of Jericho, the grace of God shines out suddenly and brilliantly like a ray of light striking a prism. In the instant when Jesus responds to Bartimaeus’s cry, we see the power and purposes of God revealed to be vast as the cosmos and as intimate as each individual broken heart.
For the truth is that the crowds of people who expected something great that Passover were right. Jesus was indeed going up to Jerusalem to deliver God’s people once again—to free God’s chosen from the power of slavery and oppression. And yet the mighty tyrant he came to confront was not the distant Roman emperor but the painfully present power of Sin—the oppressive, ubiquitous authority of Death. Jesus went up to Jerusalem not simply to commemorate the freedom that God had won for the children of Israel long ago, but to win a new freedom for all people, of all times, in all nations. That’s the cosmic power of the grace of God.
But blind Bartimaeus who looked to Jesus for deliverance was right, too. The Good News of what God has done, is doing, and will do in Christ is not just for all people: it is for every person. That’s what Bartimaeus, the beggar, saw. That’s what Bartimaeus points us to today. The message of the Gospel, the promise of redemption and deliverance, the Good News for all the world, all the cosmos: it is also Good News for each of us.
For wherever we sit begging; wherever we spread our ragged cloak to ask alms from an indifferent world; wherever we wait alone and abused and ignored, Jesus stops for us. He calls us to himself. He reaches out his nail-printed hands to touch our blind eyes. He bids us go from our old life, our old ways, our old spot. He heals us, makes us whole, calls us to follow.
Don’t let the grandeur of this Gospel pass you by. Don’t let the voices of the crowd, or the voices in your head, quiet you. Cry out to Jesus! Ask him to take away your blindness. Ask him to open your eyes, that you may glimpse his face. Ask him to let you see again, that you may follow him on the way to Jerusalem.