"20/20: Refocusing Our Vision"
A sermon based on Mark 8:22-26
We have quite a story this morning – Jesus heals a blind man, and it doesn’t quite work on the first try – it takes a "second touch" for Jesus to get it right. I’m gratified that even Jesus didn’t always get it right on the first try. And I’m comforted to know that he’ll give us a second chance, always!
Now, I don’t think the two-stage healing was necessarily because Jesus didn’t know what he was doing. I suspect there is a life lesson for us in the whole thing.
By now, by the eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has a long track record of healing people: Simon Peter’s mother-in-law’s fever; people with unclean spirits, like the man who interrupted Jesus’ during the synagogue service in Capernaum, and the man who lived among the tombs of Gerash, on the far side of the Sea of Galilee, who had a "legion" of demons in him; there were crowds of sick people whom Jesus healed; some lepers who were cleansed… and that paralyzed man who had been lowered through his roof, who took up his mat and walked!
So, by now, people expect Jesus to heal whoever is brought to him. (Right?)
And if you thought so, you’d be right! He will be healed.
But how many of us imagined that Jesus would spit in a blind person’s eyes!?
Isn’t that a bit rude? It seems disrespectful, if not downright mean! (Jesus, I’ll have you know: we don’t do things like that around here!) Well… maybe the lesson for us is that we need to be a bit more open to unorthodox behavior, a little less queasy about what’s "proper", ready to step "outside the box" if that’s what’s needed to help somebody heal. (!) Maybe the church itself (if we are the Body of Christ) needs to hack up some phlegm on occasion, to motivate us to get things cleaned up… things to which we’ve been blind… ideas and habits that have festered in darkness and we don’t see it. (!)
You’ll notice my sermon title is about us… Refocusing our vision. You see, this story is not really about the blind guy at all. I believe there is a message for us -- Alpena’s First Church, oldest church, richest church -- as we look toward the future.
I’m told that optimal vision is 20/20. No need for glasses. With 20/20 vision, a person can see clearly at a distance, and see clearly up-close. Frankly, at age 64, I’m at the stage of needing reading glasses; so my vision is no longer optimal. Many of you know about "bi-focal" glasses – one lens down low for seeing "up close", and another set of lenses above that for seeing "at a distance".
I’m going to use those bi-focal glasses as a metaphor this morning, and in some of my up-coming sermons this summer, as we look into our future as a congregation.
In fact, even the notion of 20/20 vision – optimal sight – is a metaphor for me, inasmuch as the year 2020 is only two years ahead of us. Things that we can do now, this year and next, is the "up-close lens"; where we will be as a church -- as a community, as people -- in the year 2020, is the "distant lens". 2020 is only two years off, so it’s "do-able" for most of us.
This approach to today’s text -- that it’s really trying to say something about us and our vision, not just the blind man’s -- came to my mind when I read a sentence four verses earlier than the story we read this morning. Jesus says to his disciples (while they were in the boat headed toward Bethsaida): "Having eyes, do you not see; and having ears, do you not hear?" (verse 18) So, if Jesus’ disciples were missing the point -- and they were right there with him (literally, in the same boat!) -- and they’d been listening to him and watching him for eight chapters now! – it’s possible that my eyes and your eyes are not seeing the whole picture, even though we’ve been together for 5 years.
Here’s what happened as Mark tells it (I quote):
And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to Jesus a blind
man, and begged him to touch him. And Jesus took the blind man by the
hand, and led him out of the village. And when he had spit on his eyes, and
laid his hands upon him, he asked him: "Do you see anything?" And the
man looked up, and said: "I see men, but they look like trees walking." Then
again Jesus laid his hands upon his eyes; and he looked intently and was
restored, and saw everything clearly. And Jesus sent him away to his home,
saying: "Do not even enter the village."
Well, I'm tempted to unpack some of the significance of Jesus' actions – that unexpected (in-your-face) "spitting," for example, which was forbidden by the Jews in healing, because it was considered in the ancient world as an element of "magic." It was "witchery"! But that is what Jesus did… anyway!
However, as tempted as I am to un-pack actions such as the spitting, in the context of Jewish beliefs, and the miracle itself of healing… that’s not my focus this morning.
I was struck (first) that we don’t know this man’s name -- like we do blind Bartimaeus, whom we will meet in a couple weeks (in Mark 10:46-52) -- whom Jesus also healed of his blindness, and who followed Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. We know Bartimaeus’s name, that he was the son of Timeaus, and that he lived in Jericho.
But we don’t know this man’s name, only his condition. Maybe the people of his village only knew him as "that blind man".
You know, it’s hard to get unstuck from a condition when everybody knows "that one thing" about you! Some disability, some shortcoming, some indiscretion from your youth, or almost anything that sets you apart from the rest – a different race, a different religion, a different sexual orientation or economic status, an ex-con, your weight, your choice of clothes. Different!
But the villagers knew it was important that the man get his vision. Proverbs 29:18 says: "Where there is no vision, the people perish." When people can’t see right, they can’t move right, can’t work right. They may not be physically blind, like this man, but they may be spiritually blind, emotionally blind, mentally ignorant & not know it – that’s blind in a really bad way!
I appreciate that the villagers brought this blind man to Jesus and asked for him to touch him. We should be like that.
I’m sure the people expected Jesus to do as they asked. Touch him, and heal him. It’s what Jesus had done many times before. ("C’mon Jesus, we’ve done our part, now you do yours. We brought him to you for healing, so, now, heal!") Apparently they had to ask more than once! Mark says that they "begged him" to touch the man. So, what’s the delay about? Doesn’t Jesus care? Isn’t he able to do this miracle in their village that he’s done in others?
Let me ask you: Have you ever had a crisis that you took to God, and then when God didn’t do anything – at least didn’t do what you expected – did you get upset?
He’s not asking for anything, but the folks around him sure are. They begged Jesus to touch the man; but he did something else. Jesus took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the village. Now, if Jesus could heal the man somewhere else, could he not have healed him right then and right there, where everybody could see it? Where everybody was expecting it? (!) But Jesus didn’t heal him, and he didn’t even explain himself!
I mean, when you’re upset with someone because they didn’t do what you expected them to do – didn’t do it the way you wanted it, or when you wanted it – wouldn’t you at least expect an explanation as to why it didn’t happen? They’ve put Jesus on the spot! Wouldn’t this be a great time for a sermon, Jesus, about why God does not always answer our prayers when we want it, the way we want it. But no, Jesus says nothing. He just took the blind man by the hand, and led him out – out of the village, out of the familiar… into the unfamiliar.
Blind people tend to function well in familiar surroundings. So many steps from the bed to the bathroom, so many stairs to the front door. Twenty steps to the kitchen, and another five to the left to the coffee pot… then six steps to the right to the sink. It can be disconcerting to be in a new setting, where they may lose their way.
But Jesus took him out of the familiar in order to get him the kind of healing he needed. Most folks, and certainly most churches I’ve known, don’t much like getting out of the familiar and into the unknown… even if Jesus has taken you (or me) by the hand and led you out, into a place where you are uncertain.
And we’re that way, even though our eyes are working fine!
It seems to me that Jesus wasn’t particularly concerned about the man’s blindness, because he let the guy bring the problem with him! I can image the blind man thinking: "Uh… Jesus, do you realize that I can’t see? I don’t want to go for a walk. I’m not comfortable here. I don’t know where we’re going."
Am I striking a chord here? Jesus has taken the man away from his support system in the village, and taken him out of his habitual routine, out of his element, into a new environment. If you’re getting nervous, I can see why. Maybe God has plans for you, and for me, and for First Church Alpena that takes us out of our familiar routines (where we know all the steps by heart), but which has been enabling us to stay stuck! … An environment that we felt was "supportive" because it was so very familiar, but may actually have been creating a co-dependent dysfunction!
Someone has said that if you keep doing the same thing the same way all the time, you’ll keep getting the same result! It may be a bad situation, but it’s the one you know. It may not be working, but this is how we do it here. It may not be bringing a blessing, but it’s familiar. Not everybody is ready to risk a change, even if where we are is frustrating, even if it’s painful. "I’m used to it." Oh, that’s just the way she is, you know. Nobody pays her any mind. Nobody takes him seriously.
The blind man who had no name in the village probably felt that they were "supportive" because they were so familiar, but it may actually have been creating a co-dependent dysfunction!
Now, I am not a psychologist, I’m just a Bible preacher who loves God and follows Jesus as best I can. But I’m willing to bet that if you want something to change BAD ENOUGH, you will be willing to leave the security of "the way we’ve always done it"…
… if you want something bad enough, you’ll be willing to take Jesus’ hand, and be led out of your comfort zone, to do something new (something else) that is unfamiliar. Maybe a different kind of music, or a different seating arrangement (no familiar pews).
First Church, I love you; and I believe we can flourish and grow here in Alpena. We have a Gospel of grace, and a deep love of neighbor, and an activist style of social justice that has long been making a difference for the common good of Alpena. But I believe the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ is ready and willing to open a whole new realm of possibility for us, if we are willing to step outside of our habitual comfort zone. (Don’t you agree?)
Or, said differently, we may be declining and becoming blind because we like being surrounded by people who do not challenge us to take any risk, to stretch our boundaries and ask God to help us work on our issues. -- Oh, yes, we have issues. All of us have issues that need to be addressed, places where we are blind, and don’t know it, and can’t see it. But, oh, when someone bumps up against it, you better watch out!
The blind man could have resisted going with Jesus out of his familiar environment, out of his comfort zone. He could have said: "You didn’t touch me like you could have, like you should have. My friends here in the village (and I) are disappointed in you (and in your God) for not giving us what I needed, what we expected from you. So, be gone. My blindness isn’t that bad."
But, apparently, the blind man did want to be healed. He was willing to go with Jesus, without explanation. He was willing to forsake his familiar environment to risk going on a trip with Jesus because he really wanted to be healed from his blindness!
And then, when he is away from everything he knew, the blind man experienced Jesus’ very unorthodox method: spit!
Now, I suppose Jesus could have simply touched him, or even more simply said a word, and he would have been healed. Jesus could have wiggled his nose and blinked his eyes like on "Bewitched". I mean, he could’ve just "thought" him whole again.
But he heard "haweck" and then felt "spit"! Right in his eye! Wow. (I’d never get away with that. (!) Just think of the fear of infection! We don’t even use a common cup for communion.) It seems gross to us! … But that’s because we can see. We have the luxury of being easily offended by Jesus’ methods because we live comfortable lives (for the most part) like the other villagers.
But if you had AIDS and I said I could heal you, but I’ll need to spit on you to do it… it would depend on how badly you wanted it! Do you want it bad enough to come out of your comfort zone, and try some unorthodox approaches, or will it be just too inconvenient? Too expensive. Too big a challenge.
You have to want something bad enough to go beyond what’s expected, to go out of what’s familiar -- out of what’s even polite! -- and say: "God, whatever it takes, so I can see, so I can be set free… if you need to spit in my eye to do it right, well, put it right here! I’m willing to go on this trip with Jesus. I’m ready to go, whatever the cost, because the need is urgent. It’s life or death."
Honestly, I think we have gotten used to living in places where we are not being healed, and we definitely need God’s healing touch. If it doesn’t take the first time, God is patient. There is always a second chance!
Jesus doesn’t mind working with people who are blind, but he’s not going to leave us there. The power of God is available to us. So, let’s walk! Take Jesus’ hand, and step out in faith.