The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On July 1 we looked at one of the strangest miracles of Jesus – that time when he apparently had to “try again” to heal a man’s sightlessness. Our gospel lesson was from Mark 8:11-21, and we also heard from Hebrews 5:11-14.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the media player below:
In 2012, an Australian college student woke up in the hospital following a horrific accident. The first person he saw was a nurse of Asian descent, and so he said to her in Mandarin Chinese, “I’m really sore – what happened?” He then asked for a piece of paper, and wrote, also in Mandarin, “I love my mom. I love my dad. I will get better.” The interesting thing about this is that Ben McMahon wasn’t fluent in Mandarin. His parents couldn’t understand him. And he could no longer speak English. In an instant, he was transformed. After a few days, he remembered how to speak English, but his Mandarin has never left him and now the young man serves as a tour guide in Shanghai, and has also hosted a Chinese television program.
The BBC reported the story of a woman who had been unable to conceive a child. A rash of tests indicated a sizable tumor that was apparently preventing conception. She scheduled surgery, but when she arrived at the hospital she was found to be pregnant, and so the surgery was delayed. Nine months later she gave birth to a healthy child, and the tumor had disappeared. Nine years later, she remains cancer-free.
A man came to me following a worship service I’d led. He was deeply troubled by something that had happened. He came to that service because he wanted to be polite to a friend, but in actuality he considered himself to be non-religious. But as the service went on, he experienced a physical sensation. “When they were reading the Bible – from the book of John,” he said, “I felt something happening in me. I can’t really say what it was, other than to say that I knew this was true. I need you to tell me what that means, Dave.”
Have you heard stories like this? Some amazingly miraculous cure or life change that happens seemingly instantaneously?
And now, you might be tempted to say, “Um, Pastor Dave, we’ve been studying the Gospel of Mark with you since December. We have sat here as you’ve told us about a Jesus who has driven out demons, restored speech, and healed people from deafness, paralysis, uncontrollable bleeding, and something called a ‘withered hand’. He even brought back a little girl from the dead. So, yes, Dave, we haveheard stories of sudden cures and healings.”
Yeah, but today’s reading is different – and I love it for the ways in which it is different. The Gospel passage for today presents us with a gradual healing – the only such healing in the Gospel of Mark. All the other times when Jesus encountered a situation that was not quite right, he essentially snapped his fingers and the blessing was bestowed. Sometimes, those who were afflicted were not even present – he just said the word, and they were made well.
But not today. In Mark 8, we read of a blindness that was for some reason, unique. Jesus apparently had to “try again” with this one. Did that strike you as strange? Why do you think that the man couldn’t see after the first time Jesus touched him?
There are a few interesting theories out there. One that particularly struck me was perhaps the simplest one – the man couldn’t see at first because, well, he had saliva in his eye. Once Jesus wiped the spit away, things cleared up for him. However, if we spend much time thinking about that, the problem we encounter is that the man said he could see – but he didn’t see exactly right. He saw people, but they looked like trees to him.
Another source suggested that this man was afflicted with a particular type of blindness that was especially difficult – and so Jesus had to try again. Again, this can’t really be the case – just a few chapters ago, Jesus called a child back from the dead.
So what is going on here? Why a two-stage healing?
Do you remember back in April when I talked to you about one of the unique features of Mark’s writing? There are lots of places where our narrator starts in on one story (like the death of Jairus’ daughter), and then interrupts himself with something else (like the healing of the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years), and then returns to the original story (and the resurrection of this little girl)? Mark often uses one incident to comment on the things that happen just prior or subsequent to the one at hand.
I’d like to suggest that we are smack dab in the middle of another Marcan sandwich. Last week, we read the story of Jesus’ conversation with the fellas in the boat, and we noted how he asked at least eight questions, including “Don’t you see what’s happening here?” and “Do you have eyes, but can’t see?” He seems to be suggesting that his disciples ought to have had a deeper level of understanding and awareness about what was going on, but for some reason, they weren’t quite there yet.
That reading is followed with the account you heard today, of the man who couldn’t see at all, and then could see a little better, and finally, had 20/20 vision.
The very next passage – which we will notread today – relates how the apostle Peter is able to name an amazing truth about who Jesus is and what Jesus is about – but he does so imperfectly, and he winds up being sent back to the drawing board by Jesus.
I think that the reason that Mark tells us about the time that Jesus chose to heal a man in stages is because it is a physical, tangible illustration of the fact that in our own spiritual lives, not every awareness is instantaneous, not every revelation is sudden, and not every healing is completed at once. There are some things about Jesus that it apparently takes time and experience for his followers (including us) to “get”, and there are aspects of our thought and discipleship that require some growth and maturity.
That thought, which is a suggestion here in the Gospel, is turned into a command in other parts of the New Testament. The pastor who wrote to her or his congregation in the book of Hebrews, for instance, talks about the fact that those folk have been slow to mature and grow in their faith. In another epistle, Pastor Paul writes to his church in Corinth and says, “When I was a child, I thought like a child, I talked like a child, I reasoned like a child; but when I became an adult, I put childish ways behind me…” Again, the implication is clear: the presumption is that the Christian life involves a journey, a way of growing and maturing and transforming that changes us in all kinds of ways.
I want to emphasize this because in some circles of Christianity today there is a school of thought that goes something like this: “I didn’t used to be a Christian, and then I prayed a certain prayer and I found that I accepted certain beliefs as true, and now I am a Christian.” Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with praying, and I’m all for beliefs… but any view of Christianity that can be boiled down to yes/no, in/out, on/off is, at best, incomplete. If we are not growing in our capacity to love, to live like Jesus, to see things as Jesus might see them, well, then, I think our discipleship is incomplete.
Did you pray the prayer? Did you “accept Jesus”? Great! Then you can see some trees walking around, perhaps. But I think that it is possible that many of us are in need of, and waiting for, the “second touch”.
Here’s what I mean by that: in the Gospel, we see that there is an amazing change after the man’s first encounter with Jesus. Here is a person who was locked in a prison of darkness, and now all of a sudden, there is light. There is motion. There are colors. In terms of sight, things are better now than they have been for ages – and perhaps forever. Sure, it’s not perfect, but, WOW! What changes have already occurred.
It’s easy for me to imagine a scenario where the man backs away as Jesus comes to him a second time. He could have refused – he could have said, “Hey, back off, Jesus. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m really thankful for all that’s happened, but what if you screw something up? I mean, what if it gets worse? Can’t you let me enjoy the movement and the light and the color for a bit?”
But of course there is not a whiff of that in the text at hand. Last week, when Jesus asked his disciples, “Don’t you get it? Can’t you see?” They pretty much replied, “Um, not, not really…” and they stuck around him because they thought that the odds of them getting it right were higher if they stayed in the boat. Similarly, today, Jesus says to this man, “Can you see anything?” And he says, “Well, sort of… It’s a little off, though…” and he allows Jesus to approach him again and bring full and complete healing with the power of the second touch.
This morning, you and I got out of bed and entered into a reality that is, at best, fractured. There are not many places we can go to escape the caustic language that is being used in the public sphere. Confrontation is the order of the day. Fear is endemic – it is all around us. And when we see all of that, it is tempting to want to dig in our heels. To believe that it is up to us to defend the last sentence we heard before falling asleep last night. We are compelled to defend our ideas. To believe that it’s up to us to stand firm and unchanging…
I haven’t seen many of these, but I’ve been privileged to see a few: this is a steinbok, a dwarf antelope native to Africa. Steinbok have a very interesting defensive posture: when they sense danger and become afraid, they freeze. They hope that if they are motionless, the predators will just walk by and leave them alone. In fact, their name comes from the Afrikaans words that mean “stone” and “buck”. A statue of a deer.
While freezing in place and refusing to move may be an effective strategy for a dwarf antelope on an African savannah, it’s not a useful discipleship tip for Christ followers in the 21stcentury. May we have the grace to refuse to stand still and instead anticipate ways that we can grow in our understandings of what it means to be those who belong to and stick with Jesus.
I think that a part of that means connecting with our friends and allowing our friends to speak truth into our lives. Sometimes we fall so in love with the things that we think that we forget to be open to the fact that Jesus might be doing something new in the world and that I might have an incomplete revelation as to what that is. And so when we are struck with a massive cultural change and we want to defend our “ideas”, we lose sight of the people – and so we lose sight of the truth.
This whole episode takes place because a group of people thought it was important to bring their friend to meet Jesus. He’s passing through Bethsaida and “some people” brought a man to Jesus. If it hadn’t been for those friends, the man’s vision impairment would have been unchanged. And at the end of the story, Jesus circles back to the importance of choosing friends wisely: he tells the man not to waste his time going into the village, but instead to get home and spend time with those who are most important to him.
As we seek to grow in our ability to follow and stay with Jesus, may we have the courage to bring our friends to the places where they are likely to encounter him. May we also have the wisdom to understand that there are some things that we ourselves need to be taught; there are some ways in which we ourselves need to grow; there are some postures in which we ourselves need to become less rigid as we seek to follow the Lord.
I like to think that once upon a time, years after this happened, the man who’d been healed that day was sitting around reading through Mark’s gospel. And maybe he read all about the people who had been healed instantaneously, or even from afar. If that happened, do you suppose that he slammed down the scroll and exclaimed, “Oh, for crying out loud! Some of those folks were healed like that, and I had to have him come at me twice? What’s wrong with me?”
Of course not. I think it’s far more likely that he stopped to give thanks to God for the gifts of vision and sight, and to remember that the important thing is that because his friends were willing to walk with him toward Jesus, nothing was ever the same again. I don’t know if your walk with Jesus has been free and easy, or more like a wrestling match. But I do know that you’re not where you used to be, and you’re not where you’re going to be. Let us hope for the power of the second touch as we celebrate and cultivate what is important, right, and true in our world. Thanks be to God. Amen.