This Sunday's Sermon
Message for Sunday, October 10th
WHAT DO YA’ WANT?
What is it that you can’t get enough of? It’s the question that a youth pastor once put to a bunch of teenagers. Take that question home with you and think hard on it: because, as the youth pastor continued, "the thing you can’t get enough of” is the thing of ultimate value in your life – it’s your god (with a small "g”). And do know that some gods (with a small "g”) exact of their servants a pretty burdensome price; even as the One God (with a capital "G”) we’ve gathered to worship this morning offers the lightness of joy, hope, peace, and loving Grace without end! Let’s examine the contrast of choices made way-back-when by a pair of brothers and a blind man.
The brothers, James and John, were in Jesus’ close inner circle; and yet – as in our morning Bible reading – we see them as Jesus of Nazareth found them. They’re just as flawed as any other human being. They want the Good Master to do them a favor: to cut them a bargain in exchange for their loyalty. They want from Jesus a little payback. Did you notice in their question a sense of entitlement? The two brothers didn’t even have the courtesy of asking for their reward. "Arrange it,” they said, "so that we’ll be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory – one of us at your right, the other at your left” (verse 37, THE MESSAGE). Give us, in other words, some glory of our own: give us a heap of power, prestige, and prosperity – of fame, fortune, dominance, and supremacy! That’s the stuff of ultimate value to James and to John, even as it’s been the thing of devotion to so many a’ human being since time immemorial. The sons of Zebedee want the same gods (with a little "g”) that a sinful world has always demanded. And where has taken this broken ol’ world of ours, but into war, conflict, oppression, dictatorship, injustice, strife, and murderous poverty (amongst other things).
Speaking of demands! What nerve have James and John to demand anything – let alone that – from Jesus of Nazareth! Then again, they’d made the calculation that the Messiah King’s work on earth was precisely about the getting of power, prestige, and prosperity, fame, fortune, dominance, and supremacy! What the Good Teacher had said shortly beforehand had obviously gone in one ear and out the other. Indeed, Jesus had said pretty much the same thing several times earlier – said (and I quote from Mark 10:33-34), "Listen! We’re going up to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man will be betrayed to the leading priests and the teachers of religious law. They will sentence him to die and hand him over to the Romans. They will mock him, spit on him, flog him with a whip, and kill him…”
How could they have missed that? How could anyone miss that? And yet… Christendom has missed it for about 2,000! It’s been evident when the church (with a small "c”) has been found battling over turf and treasure instead of sharing God’s Grace; missed it when it’s been more concerned over the next political election cycle than over Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount; missed it whenever the Christ is turned into something more like the Good Therapist than the Good Shepherd; missed it when believing that God’s character is identified with prestige and prosperity, fame and fortune, dominance and supremacy instead of Christ-like compassion and humility lived out in Holy service, suffering, and self-sacrifice on behalf of others! EVERYONE misses it who fails to discern that God’s Glory is revealed to the upmost in the bloodied, humiliating Cross of Jesus Christ.
It’s notable, I think, that Jesus didn’t scold James and John; that he didn’t read them the riot act or threaten them with hell-fire for choosing gods (with a little "g”) that are NOT the One True God (with a capital "G”). On the contrary! Jesus patiently teaches them and his other followers (including us) regarding God’s TRUE character and God’s ultimate purpose for God’s Creation. Even better, Jesus MODELS the character and purpose of the One True God (with a capital "G”). Jesus told them outright the very thing at which he’d already hinted. Listen to it again, this time as rendered in THE MESSAGE… Jesus got them together to settle things down. "You've observed how godless rulers throw their weight around," he said, "and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It's not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served – and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage."
My son and I made an annual trek to Heinz Field, in Pittsburgh, for a number of years prior to the Covid pandemic. Thanks to a kind, generous soul we’d come to know at church, we were gifted with tickets for admission to watch Christopher’s beloved Pittsburgh Steeler take to the gridiron. Sitting on the sidelines during that game, in the year 2015, was a third-string quarterback who had achieved 15 minutes of fame one week earlier. Young Landry Jones had offered up a commanding performance that led the Steelers to a come-from-behind victory over the Cleveland Browns. Perhaps you’re thinking what I was thinking: Landry WHO? Landry Jones told his story a few months earlier in a short on-line video piece, titled I AM SECOND.
He tells of having embraced the same gods (with a small "g”) embraced by James and John – the gods of power, prestige, and prosperity, of fame and fortune, success and supremacy. Those were his heart’s desires – the things of ultimate value – and goodness knows he seemed well positioned to get them. He’d led his high school football team to multiple state championships and was selected high school player of the year in New Mexico. Everyone wanted him on their team, he says, and fully expected him to be a stand-out in the NFL. By the standards this ol’ world values, Landry Jones had "made it.” He had, in his own words, "all the friends, all the girls, and everyone loved me.” There was, he says, nothing he needed – including God (with a capital "G”). The praise of the crowds ringing in his ears is what drove and captivated him: it became like a drug to which he was addicted – and those are his words, not mine. "I had the world at my fingertips,” is how he described it.
Then he ended up a freshman at the University of Oklahoma where he expected to be starting quarterback and resident football idol – just like he was back in high school. Yet Oklahoma already had a good quarterback – a GREAT quarterback, as a matter of fact – in Heisman Trophy winner, Sam Bradford. Poor young Landry wasn’t the go-to guy any more. His importance shifted from leading man to 2nd string. "My identity was stripped away from me,” he says in the video: "Everything I’d put my faith, my hopes and dreams in was stripped from me.” He started to believe the lies that without football he was worthless and even unlovable to the people who’d expected so much more of him. Thus he became sad, lonely, and depressed. His attitude tanked. No one wanted to hang out with him, as he’d become so embittered and negative on most things. "I was drowning,” is how he describes it. That’s when he started "feeding myself trash,” to use his own words. He took to heavy drinking, seeking conquests over young women. He felt sick – literally sick in his stomach. He didn’t even know if he wanted to keep living. That’s because devotion to the gods of this fallen world (gods with a little "g,” that is), will – as I said – exact a burdensome price.
It was precisely then, when young Mr. Jones, was beaten down and busted up, that Jesus of Nazareth got ahold of him and – to quote Landry – "drastically changed my life.” Gone was the sadness, the loneliness, and depression. "It was one of the greatest moments of my life,” he says: "So much love poured into me, saying that he didn’t care what I’d done; that all he wanted was me. – That instead of Landry Jones the athlete, I was Landry Jones, child of God.” He acknowledges what every Christian must already know: that in the end, nothing matters but the Most High God and Savior to whom we belong – that nothing matters but how we use the gifts that God’s given us. He concludes the video presentation by scorning any boast of being #1 – telling it the way its gotta’ be for every believer. "I’m Landry Jones,” he says, "and I am second.”
It’s written, in 2nd Corinthians 4:6-7… For God, who said, "Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ. We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves (New Living Translation).
The fruits of our power and of our self-glory don’t ultimately last, nor do they usually satisfy over the long haul. They’re too unpredictable and temporary – even as our lives on this earth are unpredictable and temporary. God’s Glory in Christ crucified is, on the other hand, wholly reliable and everlasting. "I am with you always,” says Master Jesus – even as his loving forgiveness, transforming Grace, unconditional love, and irrepressible joy are with us always… which brings us, at last, to the story of blind Bartimaeus.
There’s a great deal that we don’t know about ol’ Bart. Was he born blind? Or was injured, losing his sight later in life? Why knows? What we DO know, however, is that he was a man who’d gotten his desires down right; that the thing of ultimate value in his life was God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. And HOW can we know that? Well! There’s a reason why the crowd tried to gag him when he started shouting "Jesus, Son of David.” It was a dangerous thing to target Jesus with THAT particular title. To call him "Son of David” is equivalent to calling Jesus the "King of Israel,” and goodness knows but the Roman powers-that-be were always and absolutely ready, willing, and able to ruthlessly enforce their conviction that Caesar was king of Israel and, for that matter, king over ALL of western civilization. But ol’ Bartimaeus couldn’t get enough of God’s Rule in his heart and didn’t care what anyone else thought of it.
Though blind in his eyes of flesh, he could nevertheless see more clearly than most others with the eyes of faith that the LORD God had given him. And for that, he was given his heart’s desire! He could see – finally – the wonderful world of God’s Creation. So… what do YOU want? May the Great God of the Universe turn our hearts toward wanting what Bartimaeus had been given! By way of his trust in Jesus of Nazareth, ol’ Bart was made whole and hopeful, joyous and content. Bearing that in mind, let’s reflect this week on the Word that is written – in Hebrews 11:1, as paraphrased in THE MESSAGE… "The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith [in Christ], is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living.”