A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Monday, October 22, 2012

Sermon (October 28) - "Following Jesus on the Way"

     Something that stands out to me from the Gospel of Mark scripture reading this morning is in how Jesus related to people who had very different understandings of who he was.  People brought their preconceived notions of who they thought Jesus was and who they thought he should be.
     Our elections have a similar feel as voters seek to understand the candidates, their agenda, and where they want to lead our country.   People were doing something similar with Jesus.  They were looking at what he was saying and doing and trying to understand all of this in the context of their own preconceived notions of who they believed Jesus to be.
     James and John thought they knew who Jesus was.  They thought that he was going to be the new King who would set up an earthly kingdom and they wanted to be the top two people in his cabinet.  A lot of Jesus’ followers probably viewed Jesus as the political and military hero that their own Jewish people had been praying for over the past several centuries.   
     When the other disciples heard about what James and John were asking, they got really angry with them.  They were probably angry that they didn’t think to ask Jesus for those top spots first. 
     Even though Jesus has been trying to help the disciples see that his rule would be different from the earthly type of military rule they were hoping for, they still didn’t get it.  Have you ever noticed that once you get something in your head, it’s hard to readjust and think differently?           This was the problem with many of Jesus’ followers.  It’s a problem that we often have in figuring out who Jesus is.
     Phillip Yancey is a Christian author who has written many excellent books.  In his book, “Soul Survivor” he shares how he grew up in the Deep South.  He was raised in a church that claimed to be biblical, but in reality, this church was very racist and narrow minded.  Their concept of God was according to Phillip Yancey, more like an abusive parent; rigid, legalistic, angry, and wanting to punish people.
     As Phillip was growing up, he became very frustrated with this understanding of God.  He thought that if this was who God really was, then he didn’t want to have anything to do with Christianity.  Thankfully, he loved to read and he started reading books by Christian authors who offered a very different view of God and Jesus.  The more books Phillip read, the more he learned that God is very different than what he learned about in his childhood church.  Jesus wasn’t the narrow minded and legalistic person he was brought up to believe.  Jesus is a loving Savior who offers grace and mercy to all people.
     Discovering who Jesus is takes time and discipline.  It’s a life-long process.  Sometimes, we have dramatic moments where things become really clear.  Some of us can point to a time at church camp where Jesus became very real to us.   Or maybe it was another event in which we experienced a life changing conversion.
     John Wesley who started the Methodist Church is known for his heart warming experience when he went to a prayer meeting one night in London England and out of the blue he felt his heart strangely warmed.  Even though he had been serving as a Priest in the Anglican Church for several years, it wasn’t until that moment that he felt an assurance that his sins were forgiven.  He had been missing this important part of his faith, but once he had it, his life would never be the same.
     I was in college when I had an experience where I realized just how much God really loves me.  With tears in my eyes, I got on my knees and prayed.  Those were tears of joy because I realized in that moment, that I would never be alone anymore.  I knew that Jesus would be present with me through whatever situation would come my way.  I’ll never ever forget that watershed moment in my life.  It was incredible.
     But in addition to these dramatic moments is the steady day to day and moment by moment growth in discovering who Jesus is and what it means to be one of his followers.  In church language, we call this day to day spiritual growth, sanctification.  And this process of sanctification lasts all of our lives.
     Have you ever noticed how the twelve disciples, Jesus’ inner circle, would often not get what Jesus was trying to teach them?  If you look one chapter earlier from our Gospel reading, Jesus had explained to the disciples how he would be betrayed, be killed, and three days, rise again.  I love what Mark says in the very next verse.  “But they did not understand what he was saying and they were afraid to ask him.”
     Truth be told, I don’t know that any of us would have done any better than the disciples.  I don’t think that we would have understood who Jesus was any better.  As I said earlier, once something is in your head, it’s not easy to introduce a new understanding and a fresh perspective.
     The disciples were half right.  Jesus did come to establish a kingdom, but not the kind of kingdom they were all thinking.  This kingdom would not be one of force, military might, or coercion.  This kingdom would be one of nonviolence, peace, and humility.  The kind of kingdom Jesus was establishing was counter-intuitive to his disciples and to us as well.  It’s no wonder that James and John have already started politicking for positions of power.  Instead of embracing what they are hearing and seeing about Jesus, they are trying to force Jesus into their preexisting worldview.
     But it’s not like everybody is totally clueless of who Jesus is.  Just after James and John are pulling a power play over the rest of the disciples, we run into a man by the name of Bartimaeus.  He’s a blind beggar.  During the time of Jesus, someone like Bartimaeus would have been invisible in society.  There was just no place for blind beggars. And we might be annoyed at all of the political survey calls we’ve been getting at all hours of the days, but at least somebody wants to hear our opinion.  Nobody cared about this blind beggar.  He was invisible. 
     And yet, Bartimaeus interrupts the scene and offers a political statement by crying out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  This blind beggar has heard enough about Jesus to know that he just might be the one who will change the country and restore Israel to prominence.  You don’t use the title “Son of David” unless you’re talking about a political platform that will lead to the end of Roman occupation over the Jewish people.  Bartimaeus didn’t have a vote, but by the way he called out to him, Jesus was his candidate.
     But Jesus didn’t react the same way to Bartimaeus as he did to James and John.  After calling Jesus’ name a second time, Jesus calls for Bartimaeus to come to him.  And when Jesus asks Bartimaeus what he wants him to do, Bartimaeus asks to be able to see again.  And Jesus heals him.
     Now, as incredible as this story about a man regaining his sight is, I think there’s an even greater meaning to this story.  Notice, that when Bartimaeus calls out Jesus the second time, he doesn’t use the political title of “Son of David” which he did the first time.  This time, Bartimaeus refers to Jesus as Teacher.  And after Jesus heals him, Mark is careful to point out that he followed Jesus on the way.
     This isn’t just a story about someone getting healed.  This is a story about someone becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ.  This is a story that is in sharp contrast to James, John, and the other disciples who still didn’t understand who Jesus was and what it means to follow him.  But this blind beggar, Bartimaeus gets it.  He calls Jesus a teacher because he knows he has more to learn and he’s willing to follow him.
     I like to think of myself as a disciple, a follower of Jesus.  I like to think of myself as somebody who is willing to allow Jesus to teach me his ways.  I want to be more like Bartimaeus who saw that he had so much more to learn by following Jesus.
     Several years ago, I had moved to Toledo to serve a church in the city.  My District Superintendent had all of the new pastors in the city gather on a Saturday morning to walk through the more dangerous and impoverished parts of the city.  He wanted us to get to know the people and the area of where many of our churches were located.
     As we walked on the sidewalks of broken glass and litter with boarded up houses on both sides of the street, our District Superintendent abruptly stopped.  A man in that neighborhood was holding a shovel high in the air to use as a weapon on another man over an argument they were having.  It was a pretty tense situation.  Our group just stood there as we watched the situation enfold.
     To our surprise, our District Superintendent very slowly and gently approached the two men who were having the argument and he calmly asked the man to slowly put the shovel down.  He said, “You don’t want to do this.  I’m here to help.  Let’s put the shovel down and talk this through.” 
     We didn’t know how this man would react but eventually he put the shovel down.  Our District Superintendent told them that we were people from different churches and that we were there to help.
     As I think about that incident, I still ask myself, “If you would have been leading the group that day, what would you have done?”  I don’t know the answer to that question but I do know someone who was willing to follow Jesus on the way in that moment.
     I think of another disciple named Glen who doesn’t have a church home but visited the prayer room at our Crossroads facility last spring.  Glen, an older man who is developmentally disabled, joined me and some other church members in a time of prayer that evening.  After a half hour of sharing joys and concerns and praying, we were about to conclude our time together when Glen asked us if we were going to sing.
     He suggested, “Jesus Loves Me” which we sang with great joy.  We also sang “Amazing Grace.”  Our new friend made our prayer time special that night!  As we were leaving the prayer room, we were wiping tears from our eyes because we had experienced God’s presence in such a beautiful way thanks to one of Jesus’ disciples who encouraged our worship gathering that night to follow Jesus on the way.
     You can probably think of some Bartimaeus’s in your life who have shown you what it means to follow Jesus.  Too often, I’m more like James and John and I try to fit Jesus into my worldview and understanding of who he should be.
     This week, may we be more like Bartimaeus.  Let’s see Jesus as our teacher and let’s be willing to follow him on the way.

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