Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from god the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord,
Estafanos suggested a while ago that on one Sunday when he was taking time off I preach about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which takes place this year. I dug through my papers and found an old sermon that I adapted for today. It’s based on Mark 10:46-52. which I’ll read now, and other gospel texts..
So we’ll continue in Jericho, It was a city about 15 miles northeast of Jerusalem, prosperous and fertile because two springs watered the soil. It was known for its palm trees and sycamores, its balsam and cypress and flowering plants that yielded precious oils. Aside from being a garden spot, it was also on the trade route from Damascus in Syria to Arabia so it was an important commercial and military center. A member of the royal family built a handsome palace there, so it was a worldly city, like most others.
Because it was so close to Jerusalem, some of the 20,000 priests who served at the temple made their home in Jericho. When Jesus arrived there, he was on his way to Jerusalem for the Passover, where this year he would be tried and crucified. The Israelites had a rule that every male over 12 years old who lived near Jerusalem must attend the yearly celebration of the Passover, but this law wasn’t practical to enforce, so many stayed at home. It was the custom for these folks to line the roads and honor the ones who were making the trip to the capital city. There were as well, this time, people who wanted a glimpse of the famous rabbi around whom, a lot of controversy was swirling. The tax collector Zacchaeus climbed a sycamore tree to see the Lord. Luke tells us he was among the crowds of bystanders in Jericho. He’s a new believer the Lord had dinner with.
Mark writes about another man in the crowd, a blind beggar named Bartimaeus, who was determined to ask the Lord for healing. Now, nearly everyone who tries to make his or her way in the world discovers that the world usually isn’t interested in our weaknesses. If we look for employment or wish to have a few friends or get the good things of life for ourselves, we reach out for them with strength and vitality. We don’t parade our shortcomings or our urgent needs. We speak up about what we’ve done and what we hope to contribute, because we know what we need to do to please the world. Some folks will even tell us that God himself has a preference for strong and well-adjusted people. Bartimaeus knew better, however. His great need gave him a powerful insight – that the Lord would help him ig he could only get to him, and so he summoned up all his strength and shouted as loud as he could – some translations actually say that he yelled – for God to have mercy on him. It was his best chance for healing from the hands of the Lord, and so he cried out with a very specific request, “Rabbi, I want to see!!”
Jesus healed him, of course. Perhaps each one of us can tell about a time when the Lord has healed us, whether from a physical or spiritual infirmity. Perhaps he has rescued you from calamity or taken you out of a bad situation or slowly healed you from the pain of loss, a gradual coming back to life through which you gained immense and valuable wisdom. Perhaps you’re hoping now for God to heal you or deliver you from a difficulty. The case of Bartimaeus should give us hope. When our own resources are limited and when the world around us, going its merry way, refuses to help us or simply can’t , we have a refuge, a strong hope in the Lord. The trick is, though, as we learn from Bartimaues, not to bring him a half-hearted, off-handed, tentative desire, so with his help we gather together all the stirrings of our hearts into one firm purpose and then set our requests before the King of Heaven as if our entire well-being depended on our request, and then see what happens. James wrote in his letter that we are to ask in faith especially for wisdom, with no doubting, “for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways, will receive anything from the Lord. “Lord, help me,” we cry with the concentration of a needy ;person, “Make me strong, give me wisdom, comfort sick folks I’m concerned about, give me faith and hope and the ability to love.” We pray and wait on the Lord, who will show that he hears us.
We aren’t yet done with Bartimeaus, to whom the Lord granted sight and presumably the ability to earn his living, to take part in society’s activities, and to obtain a share of the good things he’d lacked. Oce he was healed, the Lord invited him to go his way, but instead of returning to the gardens and markets and balsam groves of Jericho, instead of taking up with well-to-do travellers who passed through the city, Bartimaeus decided to follow the Lord in hopes of receiving even greater blessings. If we’re going to disobey God, this is the way to do it: when he appears to let us go – which is likely a test of our staying power – to say instead, “”No, Lord, I prefer to follow you.”
This is what Bartimaeus did with a heart full of gratitude and a desire to serve. But how shocked he must have been when he got to Jerusalem, savoring the sights of God’s varied and wonderful world for the first time, only to discover that his benefactor was scorned, abused, brought to trial on false charges, and then crucified like a common criminal. What a surprise to find that following the Lord brought him up against the worst of life. The worst passed quickly, however, and if he continued to watch with the eyes of faith, he would have rejoiced at the news of the resurrection , and he would have understood the meaning of Christ’s priestly sacrifice – that his death meant that all sins, including his own, were forgiven and that no sacrifice would ever again be required except the sacrifice of repentance and thanksgiving and faith. It’s pleasant to think of Bartimaeus as one of the unknown disciples who spread the gospel of salvation throughout Israel after the first Christian Pentecost. We won’t know the real outcome till we get to heaven, but we do know that Jesus gave Bartimaeus the chance to lead a full life of discipleship, the same chance he gives to us.
Now we’ll switch our focus to the Reformation. Without going into technical details, we can say that the Reformation was and is this – a movement to sweep dust away from the Christian faith so that frail, erring mortals like ourselves may follow the Lord with confidence and hope. We don’t depend on a bureaucracy of priests or elaborate church traditions. We meet the Lord directly. He enters into a personal relationship with each one of us, just as he did with Bartimaeus. Under God’s guidance, the reformers wished to restore for the church the vitality and openness before God that the believers of the first century enjoyed. We Lutheran Christians are the heirs of this heritage. Nothing but our own indifference can keep us from full lives in Christ, and he works even to overcome this disability, for his voice calls to us above the din of big city living in the 21st century.
Now, in order to understand God’s call to us, we ought to review briefly the guidelines that the reformers gave to the church. First, Scripture alone. God is everywhere, but we don’t look for him from signs in the sky or the workings of coincidence or the learning of self-appointed wise people or the requirements of our minds. He speaks to us through the Bible, which not only gives us information about life with God but puts this new life into our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Bible is our companion if we want to walk with God.
The second principle is grace alone. We receive life with God as a gift. It’s not something we earn through goo deeds. It’s the result of God’s gracious disposition toward us. He took on our flesh and passed through life just as we do. That’s whyn he deals gently with our ignorance and our straying. He holds out pardon and mercy to all and salvation to those who trust him and love him. We can’t possibly earn these blessings; we receive them by grace.
So we come to the third Reformation principle – faith. We perceive the actions of grace with the eyes of faith. Bartimaeus is an example. Faith told him that a man walking through the crowd was also God with the power to heal him. He understood the work of Christ through faith. The faith that saves isn’t simply knowledge of history or the Bible but the confident trust and assurance that God in Christ is for us. Faith takes hold of God’s grace; it grasps his promises; it receives the blessing of forgiveness through Christ’s blood, together with the hope of happiness in eternity.
The three Reformation insights – Scripture, grace, and faith – prompt us to believe confidently in Jesus’ call to us. They help us understand what God does for us and what he expects in return. The wicked world loves to stand between us and God; the devil delights in weakening us so that we go back on ourselves and muffle our cries to the Lord, whether pleas for mercy of shouts of thanksgiving. But the Lord’s call comes to us with power through his Word, so we receive his grace no less than Bartimaeus did, and we can hope for a faith that’s every bit as sturdy and stable as his. In fact, since we know the outcome of Christ’s trip to Jerusalem, his death and resurrection, his ascension into heaven and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, we can claim a deeper and better informed faith than Bartimaeus had when he cried out tom the Lord. We ask God, then, to open our hearts to receive the blessings that he intends for us.
The heritage of the Reformation is a vital, unshakable confidence. We Lutherans are known among Christians for our sturdy faith. It’s true that many minds nowadays are filled with doubts and questions; many folks claim to be satisfied with a watered-down version of Christianity; some boast that they can maintain life with God even though they don’t read the Bible or come near the church. God has better things than this in mind for the people of St. John’s. His will is to heal us through his Word, to lift us up by his grace, and to have us follow him in faith. He has wonderful things in store for us, and if we stick with him, as we presume Bartimaeus did, we’ll be like the faithful people the prophet Jeremiah wrote about, sturdy believers who sing with joy and make their praises heard, though as Lutheran Christians, we’ll no doubt find ways to make this holy rumpus quietly, while drawing attention to the Lord and not ourselves. In Jesus’ name we give thanks. AMEN.