Sunday’s sermon: The Upside-Down Kingdom: Where the Blind Can See

light in darkness

Texts used – 2 Kings 5:1-14; Mark 10:46-52

  • When we encounter something different … something out-of-the-ordinary … something that breaks with our routine, we take notice of it, don’t we?
    • Driving your usual, familiar route from pt. A to pt. B → road construction
      • Bright orange cones/barrels
      • Flashing signs
      • Sometimes even people in neon vests on the side of the road directing traffic
      • It could be a road that you’ve driven multiple times a day for decades – a road with which you are so familiar that you don’t even see the road or the scenery anymore – and suddenly you’re paying attention in a new way because someone has drawn attention to the different (the construction).
    • Christmas decorations on houses → houses you’ve driven or walked past a thousand times before and never really noticed but the twinkling lights or the “Merry Christmas” projected on the garage door or the giant, 12’-tall, inflatable Santa penguin popping out of the chimney catches your attention because it’s different.
    • The most obnoxious e.g. – those sale displays at Target that are shaped like giant, red shopping baskets that they’ve placed in the middle of the aisle → different from the norm (not in a good way, I would say), so you take notice of whatever sale item happens to be on that display.
    • Over the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about the upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God the way Jesus presents it in Mark 10.
      • 1st week: upside-down nature of power (Jesus: Kingdom of God belong to the children → most powerless in society)
      • 2nd week: upside-down nature of economics (Jesus: you must give it all away because the Kingdom of God is given, not earned)
      • Last week: upside-down nature of pride (Jesus: to be great, you must become a servant)
      • This week: upside-down nature of seeing → Who can truly see? Where does that sight come from? How do we choose to see or not see? Who do we choose to see or not see?
  • Start with our gospel story this morning
    • Gospel context
      • Comes directly after our passage from last week – Jesus telling the squabbling disciples that they must become servants in order to be considered great in the Kingdom
      • Come directly before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday – last sentence of today’s reading: At once he was able to see, and he began to follow Jesus on the way.[1] → followed Jesus straight into Jerusalem
    • And in today’s story, we encounter Bartimaeus, the blind man. → a couple of interesting, out-of-the-ordinary things about Bartimaeus and his story
      • 1st: Bartimaeus has a name → In all the other healings throughout Mark’s gospel and the other gospel’s as well, we read countless stories of Jesus healing people … and never to we learn the names of those people.
        • Come close with Jairus’ daughter[2] – learn her father’s name, but not her name → So just that fact that Bartimaeus even has a name catches our attention.
      • Also important: the way that Jesus heals him – text: Throwing his coat to the side, [Bartimaeus] jumped up and came to Jesus. Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said, “Teacher, I want to see.” Jesus said, “Go, your faith has healed you.” At once he was able to see, and he began to follow Jesus on the way.[3] → With almost all the other healings throughout the gospels, there is physical contact involved.
        • Jairus’ daughter → Jesus took her by the hand
        • Hemorrhagic woman → touched the hem of Jesus’ cloak[4]
        • Unnamed blind man a few chs. back in Mk[5] → Jesus spit on his eyes to heal him
        • Similar story from Jn[6] → Jesus spits on the ground, makes mud, places the mud on the blind man’s eyes to heal him
        • But here in today’s story, Jesus’ miraculous healing is all verbal. He asks Bartimaeus what he wants Jesus to do. Bartimaeus replies, “Teacher, I want to see.” And Jesus simply says, “Go, your faith has healed you.” There is no direct, physical contact, at least not that Mark tells us about. There is no furtive, stolen brush of Jesus’ garments. There’s no spit. No mud. Just Jesus saying, “Your faith has healed you.” And immediately, Bartimaeus is once again able to see.
          • Reminiscent of God speaking light into existence in the very first moments of the world: When God began to create the heavens and the earth – the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters – God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared.[7]
    • Scholar: This is a story that therefore reminds us of the ways that God is still in the business of eliminating blindness and bringing light to all creation.[8] → highlights theme of blindness woven through Mk’s gospel
      • Various encounters (including what I think we can affectionately calling Jesus’ “spit healing”) in which Jesus heals people’s physical blindness
      • But even more to the point, throughout the gospel of Mark, Jesus is battling against and attempting to heal people’s spiritual blindness, especially that of his disciples. Time and time again, Jesus says and does things meant to reveal the true nature of who he is and why he’s come. He is the Son of God, come to bring salvation and wholeness to a broken, fearful, unseeing world. And time and time again, the crowds and the Pharisees and even the disciples fail to see.
  • OT story this morning is an interesting e.g. of nearly choosing not to see
    • Story of Naaman, general for the king of Aram, and Elisha, the prophet
    • Context
      • Kingdom of Aram = shared a sizeable border with Israel to the northeast → located in present-day Syria, skirting the Sea of Galilee
    • Story
      • Naaman = great and powerful man in Aram BUT he’s also got an unnamed skin disease (often assumed to be leprosy, though Scripture doesn’t actually name it)
      • Within Naaman’s household is a servant girl from Israel who tells Naaman and his wife about the prophet Elisha → Naaman tells king of Aram → king of Aram gives Naaman permission to go find this prophet who can heal his “skin disease”
        • Originally sends Naaman directly to the king of Israel at the time – text: So Naaman left. He took along ten kikkars of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. He brought the letter to the Israel’s king. It read, “Along with this letter I’m sending you my servant Naaman so you can cure him of his skin disease.”[9] → mistake in that, according to Naaman’s servant girl, it’s not the king of Israel who can heal Naaman but “the prophet who lives in Samaria”
        • King of Israel’s response reads a little bit like an old-fashioned melodrama – text: When the king of Israel read the letter, he ripped his clothes. He said, “What? Am I God to hand out death and life? But this king writes me, asking me to cure someone of his skin disease! You must realize that he wants to start a fight with me.”[10]
          • First instance of blindness: blindness brought on by anxiety/fear → The king of Israel is so afraid that his country is going to be attacked by the king of Aram that he sees this simple, genuine plea for help as a conspiracy to start a war. His fear and anxiety as a ruler is blinding him to his neighbor’s need.
      • Fortunately, Elisha to the rescue!: When Elisha the man of God heard that Israel’s king had ripped his clothes, he sent word to the king: “Why did you rip your clothes? Let the man come to me. Then he’ll know that there’s a prophet in Israel.”[11] → Can you hear the exasperation in Elisha’s voice? Just a little bit? Can you hear him biting back finishing off his first question with, “You silly king”? Elisha is attempting to calm the king’s worries and fears and help him to put his faith back in God: “Let me heal this man. Then he’ll know that there’s a prophet in Israel. Let God work. Let God open not only Naaman’s eyes but maybe your own eyes as well, Your Majesty.”
    • Finally, Naaman’s encounter with Elisha provides us another e.g. of how we choose not to see – text: Naaman arrived with his horses and chariots. He stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent out a messenger who said, “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored and become clean.” But Naaman went away in anger. He said, “I thought for sure that he’d come out, stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the bad spot, and cure the skin disease. Aren’t the rivers in Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all Israel’s waters? Couldn’t I wash in them and get clean?” So he turned away and proceeded to leave in anger.[12] → Naaman lets himself be blinded by pride. He lets himself be blinded by preconceived notions and baseless expectations. He lets himself be blinded by his own delusions of grandeur – his own self-importance. “Washing in the river is silly! It’s stupid! Why would I do that? The water back home is better than these Israelite rivers anyway. This isn’t going to work. I’m going home.”
      • Today: plenty of ways that we are blinded or ways that we choose to be blind
        • Blinded by all those things we’ve already talked about turning upside-down: power, money, pride
        • Blinded by expectations – the ones we place on ourselves and the ones that are placed upon us by those who know us and by society
        • Blinded by toxic things like fear, hatred, prejudice, ignorance, misinformation, and rhetoric
      • In so many ways, we either fail to see or choose not to see glimpses of God in the world around us. In so many ways, we either fail to see or choose not to see glimpses of God in the people around us, especially if those people are different. → had a terrible, violent, painful example of this just yesterday in yet another mass shooting, this time at a synagogue in Pittsburgh[13]
        • 11 dead
        • 6 wounded (including 4 police officers)
        • Peaceful morning in a sacred space of worship shattered
        • All because one man was blinded by his own hate and distorted ideas. Sadly … sickeningly … frustratingly … maddeningly, this is the world that we live in, friends. This is the world that God calls us to turn upside-down with our actions, with our priorities, with the way we live and share God’s love and grace and forgiveness, not just in here (where it’s easy) but out there where it’s hard … really, really
  • You see, the whole idea of this upside-down kingdom is that it’s different. It’s outside the norm. It’s strange. And because of that, it caught people’s attention just like the orange traffic cones and those stupid, red sale displays at Target. And because of that difference, it’s still catching people’s attention. That’s the whole point! If we follow this Jesus … if we live into this idea of the Kingdom of God … if we deliberately try to act and think and love and forgive and welcome upside-down from the values and expectations and golden idols of this culture and instead uphold what God values and expects and treasures, then we will be drawing attention, not to ourselves or for ourselves, but to and for God.
    • Witness of action
    • Testimony lived out in what we do and say → how we treat others
    • Basically: where the rubber meets the road → talking the talk and walking the walk
    • Scholar: What is the deep, impenetrable haze that fogs our eyes and blocks our vision? How are we facing a kind of blindness today?[14] And to that I would add: What are we doing to bring light to that darkness? What are we doing to work for God’s Kingdom here and now? What are we doing to turn things upside-down? Amen.

[1] Mk 10:52b.

[2] Mk 5:21-43.

[3] Mk 10:50-52.

[4] Mk 5:25-34.

[5] Mk 8:22-26.

[6] Jn 9:1-12.

[7] Gen 1:1-3.

[8] Magrey R. DeVega. “Fall Series 2: The Upside-Down Kingdom of God – Proper 24: Where the Least Are Greatest” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 156.

[9] 2 Kgs 5:5b-6.

[10] 2 Kgs 5:7.

[11] 2 Kgs 5:8.

[12] 2 Kgs 5:9-12.

[13] Campbell Robertson, Christopher Mele, and Sabrina Tavernise. “11 Killed in Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre; Suspect Charged with 29 Counts” from The New York Times website, Posted Oct. 27, 2018, accessed Oct. 28, 2018.

[14] DeVega, 156.

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