(Proper 25. Yr B. Jer.31, 7-9) Mark 10, 46-52)

“What do you want me to do for you?”

The question which Jesus asks of the blind beggar, Bartimeus. Bartimeus calls him “Teacher” and asks to be allowed to see again.

Just before this incident, Jesus has asked the same question of his disciples, James and John. They had been walking behind him on the road to Jerusalem, arguing amongst themselves. Their answer was “When you sit on your throne in your glorious kingdom, we want you to let us sit with you, one at your right and one at your left.”

Jesus’ reaction to this request was not very encouraging. He asked them if they were prepared to suffer with him, and then, when they said they were, replied that it was not for him to choose who would sit with him in heaven. Then he reminded them again that he was not like an earthly king or master, and his fellow rulers would not be like earthy rulers. If they wanted to be first in the kingdom, they would have to become like slaves, the last in line, ready to give their lives to redeem others.

He was much more encouraging to Bartimeus. “Go, he said to him, “Your faith has made you well.” And immediately, Bartimeus was able to see again, and he followed Jesus ‘in the Way’.

When you read these two passages together, you discover that the narrative can be read on two levels. On the surface they are about a discussion between master and disciples, and a simple healing. But underneath, they are about the call to discipleship, and about understanding what that really means.

James and John are already disciples. They are insiders. They have already been called, and they think they know what this means. They think they can see, both physically, and spiritually. They think they are ‘on the way’.

But, in reality, they are blind to the true nature of Jesus’ Messiahship. They think it is about power, and prestige and status. They don’t really understand that the way to the kingdom is through service, humiliation, even death.
They’ve lost their way.

Bartimeus is not yet a disciple. His poverty and his disability mean he is an outsider and powerless. All he has is his faith, but that is strong. Like the woman with the haemorrhage he is prepared to do anything to make contact with Jesus.

So, he shouts – and in spite of discouragement and disapproval from the people on the inside, he keeps on shouting. And Jesus calls him; in verse 49, the verb call is used three times.

When Jesus asks him what he wants, Bartimeus answers that he wants to see again. But, ironically, because he has such faith in Jesus, although he cannot physically see, his spiritual sight is much better than that of the so-called disciples.

Jesus responds with a phrase that, again, can be understood on two levels: “Your faith has made you well” or “Your faith has brought you salvation”. Then the outsider becomes an insider; the beggar becomes a disciple; he throws away his only possession, his coat, leaps up and follows Jesus ‘in the way’ – on one level, the way to Jerusalem – but on another ‘The Way’ of the Christian life.

Every time we come into church, every time we pray, Jesus is asking us, too, “What do you want me to do for you?” What is your answer?

Are you here because you like flower arranging, or church music, or you enjoy the quiet? Are you here to escape from the outside world, to find refuge in something that doesn’t ever change much? Are you here because you can feel someone important in this small community ? None of these things is wrong. Jesus calls us first of all in order to heal us, so that we may be  free to follow in his Way.

But are you here in the hope that it will ensure you get one of the thrones beside Jesus in his kingdom (or at the very least your own cloud and a harp and a halo!)?That was James’ and John’s mistake, for which they were strongly reproved by Jesus. It is not what disciples are called for.

Or are you here to learn about being a disciple, to practise being a servant, to learn what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus ‘in the Way’? Are you here to have your spiritual in-sight restored, to be strengthened through word and sacrament, to give your life and your time and your talents for other people? Are you here to have your life turned upside down, if that is what God is demanding of you? This is what these stories of discipleship say is Jesus’ purpose when he calls us.

Our new Bishop, Alan Smith, as he began his ministry among us three years ago, gave the diocese three priorities to work on. If we were to ask him “What do you want us to do for you?”, his answer would be: “Go deeper into God; transform your communities; make new disciples”.

Going deeper into God involves placing prayer and worship at the centre of the life of our church, exploring what it means to pray, and ensuring our worship is of the highest quality and attractive to all those who experience it – insiders and outsiders. Worship is important because it transforms us, displaces our own selfish egos, exposes our lust for power and our own self-aggrandisement, and gives us the inner security that enables us to turn outwards.

True, God-centred worship allows us to go out into our communities and transform them in the name of Christ.The faith of the Christians of the Victorian age prompted them to transform their communities in the physical sense. They built schools and hospitals, they struggled for social and political reform. They left a real legacy. What are we going to leave as our legacy? How far is our congregation a blessing to the community we live in? Each church needs to connect prayerfully with the communities in which they are set, and become increasingly open to welcome others to share the journey into God. Just because other people in our communities have different cultures or different religious beliefs, it doesn’t mean we can’t work with them to build up social cohesion and transform our communities into better places for everyone to live in.

Bartimeus was made whole because Jesus called him. Each one of us is here because someone, a parent, or a friend, or a teacher, or a neighbour, called us to come and explore the faith with them; and we have stayed because others have called us to discuss with them when our faith has been challenged. Those people made us ‘new disciples’. How equipped are we to present the faith to other thoughtful educated adults like us? How confident are we to share our faith with our children, and our teenagers, who are constantly challenged to deny their faith in the world outside? How ready are we perhaps to be converted again ourselves (as James and John needed to be converted again) before we are ready to go out and evangelise others?

And if, though God’s grace working through us, we were to become more successful in calling new disciples, how ready will we be to meet their needs? How ready are we to ask those who come though our doors “What do you want us to do for you?”. Will we actually be as disapproving and discouraging as the bystanders were to Bartimeus?

Bishop Alan spoke at some length about the importance of welcoming people properly when they come to church, and gave us some pointers about how to do that. He told us not to assume that everyone wants the same thing of us – or wants what we want. He urged us to be sensitive to the body language of newcomers. Some will come in quietly, and want to leave with just a smile and a handshake, and an expression of interest, especially if they have been bereaved or are going through a personal crisis. Others will want to talk – and be listened to, not talked at! Others come ready to get involved – but we need to train ourselves to distinguish the different needs of different people. He also warned us that new disciples will change our church – and if we don’t want that, we shouldn’t go recruiting them!

In our Old Testament reading we heard the prophet Jeremiah speaking words of encouragement from the Lord, proclaiming God’s promise that a time was near when the sad and the sick in body and in mind, the young and the old would return. Could we make that passage part of our inspiration for our efforts to renew and revive this church?

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked his disciples – and they gave him the wrong answer. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked blind Bartimeus – and he was made whole again.

This week, as you say your prayers each day, can you hear Jesus saying to you “What do you want me to do for you?” – and will you give him an answer?

And will you also say to God “What do you want me to do for you?”

And will you be prepared to do what God asks?

Seeing the Light

January 23, 2011

Isaiah 9, 1-4; Matthew 4, 12-23.

It’s a common saying that people have ‘seen the light’.

 

Our readings today are linked by a prophecy from Isaiah that people who are in darkness have ‘seen a great light’. The people he is talking about live in ‘the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali’, the area north and west of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus began his ministry.

 

For Isaiah, light is an image of triumph and conquest. He prophesies that someone will be sent by God to overcome the oppressor, (at this time the Assyrian Empire) lift burdens and hardship from the people, and bring them joy.

 

It is clear that Isaiah is expecting God’s agent to be a human king. The passage we heard continues in verse 6 to talk of the child to be born, the son to be given who, will be called Wonderful Counsellor, the Prince of Peace. He is also called Mighty God and Eternal Father, because he will act as God’s agent in bringing light.

 

Light in the Old Testament is often used as a sign of God’s presence with people: in the burning bush, and the pillar of fire that led the people of Israel through the wilderness, as well as in the psalms and the prophets.

 

The same imagery continues in the New Testament – in the descriptions of the Transfiguration in the Synoptic Gospels and in the account of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus; and Matthew frequently associates Jesus with prophecies about the light of God shining on both his own people, and the Gentiles.

 

So, when Jesus leaves Judea and returns to Galilee, Matthew sees this as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy that the people there will be taken from a dark existence into one filled with light; taken from oppression to liberty, from sadness to joy, from sickness to health. Jesus announces that the rule of God is coming in, and that from that time on, God’s people are under God’s rule.

 

He calls on those who hear him to ‘repent’. ‘Repent’ has become a religious word, and we tend to hear it in a specific way, meaning being sorry for our sins, but originally it was a word with a much richer meaning. Metanoia means a change of mind, involving going outside and beyond one’s present limited mindset. In

modern terms, it means thinking outside the box, thinking big, seeing the light. It involves adopting a new way of seeing the world, and a new way of loving. Of course that might involve being sorry for past sins, but only because our new viewpoint reveals to us how much those sins separate us from God and get in the way of the divine plan.

 

Jesus also calls specific individuals (Andrew and Peter, James and John) to ‘follow me’. Again, following someone can be understood in a fairly weak sense: “tag along and see what happens”; or in a strong sense. When Jesus calls people to follow him, it is in the strong sense, meaning be with me, learn from me, respond to what I teach you, do what I do, be totally committed to me and my vision for the world. It involves a complete change of mind, priorities, relationships and community, to one which puts the Kingdom of God first.

 

The last sentence of the reading shows the Kingdom of God being realised in Jesus’ ministry: light breaking into people’s minds through his teaching, light coming to society through his proclamation of the Good News, darkness being removed from people’s bodies through the curing of disease and sickness.

 

The gospels show the response of the first disciples to Jesus’ call as immediate and unconditional; although they also show that ‘seeing the light’ did not happen immediately, but was a continuing struggle for them. We also see from the gospels that the call to ‘repent’ was a difficult one for the Galileans to respond to, as it has been for people ever since.

 

We would think, wouldn’t we, that people would prefer to ‘walk in the light’ rather than to continue in the darkness. After, all, darkness can be dangerous and frightening. But light can also be uncomfortable! Just think about why we do spring cleaning: because when the sunlight shines into your house, it shows up all the dust and cobwebs in neglected corners that were less noticeable in the gloomy days of winter. Choosing to walk in the full radiance of God’s light is similar: it opens us up to scrutiny, and reveals all our shortcomings, so that it often feels more comfortable to continue to hide ourselves in the dark.

 

So, what might the readings say to us today?

 

Light continues to be an important symbol for us. We no longer need candles to light our homes, but they have become things that are frequently used to express joy, love and remembrance. We use them in our churches, our houses and in public shrines. But what this passage is talking about is not gentle candlelight – it is penetrating searchlight or all-illuminating floodlights.

 

Isaiah talks about the people who walked in darkness seeing a great light. We might ask ourselves, where is the darkness in our world, and how can we help to move people – including ourselves – out of that darkness and into the light?

 

When we look on the large scale at the whole world, there are obviously lots of areas of darkness, just as there were when Isaiah wrote: nations at war, countries affected by natural disasters and the changing climate, groups who are persecuted because of their race, or gender, or sexuality or nationality. Perhaps we cannot do a great deal to move those people into the light, except through contributing to public debate and exercising our democratic privileges with care. We can do more, perhaps, to dispel the areas of darkness in our nation and even more in our community. Transforming communities – bringing the light of Christ to shine in them – is one of the three priorities of the Diocesan initiative launched last week.

 

But what of our church? And what of ourselves? The readings challenge us to examine those places closer to home, and to bring them into the light. Ignorance of the true nature and the true demands of God were often spoken of as ‘darkness’ in the gospels. How ready are we to open our cherished beliefs, traditions and practices to the searching light of God? How prepared are we to spend time and effort studying our faith and the Bible, rather than simply accepting what has been passed down to us, or what we learned in our childhood? Going deeper into God – and allowing God to penetrate deeper into us, is another of the priorities of ‘Living God’s Love’.

 

Jesus calls on us, as he called on those first century Galileans, to repent, to allow our minds, our world view, our relationships to be completely changed, and to put ourselves under the rule of God. Are we ready to undergo that transformation, disturbing as it will undoubtably be?

 

And finally, how do we respond today to Jesus’ call to “Follow me”? Those first disciples are shown as immediately abandoning everything to be with Jesus. Some of us might look at what they did and say to ourselves “Well, that was fine for them. But what about their wives and children and families? How did they manage? Didn’t God care about them?”

The third strand of “Living God’s Love’ is making new disciples. Perhaps we need to start with making new disciples of ourselves. As Christians, we have pledged ourselves to follow Jesus. But we have to work out for ourselves, as people with jobs and  mortgages to sustain, and families to care for, how exactly we can do that. And each of us may come up with a different response, that is right for us at this particular time in our lives.

 

What is important is that, through hearing the Good News proclaimed by Jesus, we commit ourselves to seeing the light, repenting, and following him, and acknowledge that serving the Kingdom of God must become our first priority.

Living God’s Love Prayer:

Living God, draw us deeper into your love;

Jesus our Lord, send us to care and serve;

Holy Spirit, make us heralds of good news.

Stir us, strengthen us, teach and inspire us

to live your love with generosity and joy, imagination and courage;

for the sake of your world and in the name of Jesus, Amen.