Sermon 25 October 2013
We have heard, very movingly, something of the Korean understanding of “han” and heard the plaintive music of the song Ariran that has been embedded in the hearts of Korean people over centuries. Suffering has been part of the human experience from the very beginning. Genesis tells us of Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden, thereafter to toil and struggle, to suffer. The story of Job which we have been following for the last four weeks is a poetic wrestling with the question of “Why? Why do good people, innocent people suffer?” These questions hover over the landscape of our lives. They are unavoidable. Yet we so often resist, and build up protective walls to try and keep out this thing that seems an offence to what we believe our lives should be.
Today, even though Job’s story is given a happy, indeed richly blessed ending, we are still left with the unanswered question “Why?”
Is suffering a contradiction of how we understand God’s purpose? We may well take hold of Jesus’ ministry of healing; of his standing with the oppressed, his feeding of the hungry, his stilling the raging storm and his casting out of tormenting demons. We take hold of these things and can say “This is what I believe in”. People at the time flocked to Jesus because they witnessed these things. And today we heard of blind Bartimaeus who had sat at the roadside, waiting, for what we can only speculate, other than to be given a few coins or crumbs. He knew something about Jesus because he called out “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me”. It is the only place in Mark’s gospel where Jesus is given this title, son of David, that places him in the line of descent from which the Messiah was to come. He calls out, and Jesus calls him. Bartimaeus leaps up, throwing aside his cloak – a great symbol of him leaving behind all that he had – and comes. This story is full of symbolism. Jesus’ question to him “What do you want me to do for you?” is not as strange or obvious as it seems. Nor is Bartimaeus’ answer “I want to see”.
We need to ask ourselves what it is that he wanted to see. Jesus knew, because after he was healed, Bartimaeus joins Jesus and his disciples on the road, just as they are coming into Jerusalem. He didn’t rush off home to pick up a more carefree life. He saw, and he chose. He walked the road of discipleship that would carry him into more suffering. We can speculate that he stayed the course and remained an apostle because why else should he be named and so, known? Nearly everyone else Jesus met and healed remained anonymous. Bartimaeus wanted to see. This story is there for a purpose. Earlier on, in Mark 7, Jesus heals a blind man who doesn’t see clearly straight away. It requires a second touch. Mark wants us to think about what it means to see. Last week we heard how James and John didn’t see, didn’t understand.
We don’t avoid suffering by closing our eyes. We can’t escape the pain of the world or our own pain by pretending it doesn’t exist. But what we actually focus on makes all the difference. Bartimaeus focussed on Jesus and who he understood Jesus to be and then he walked along with him and the others. When we focus on ourselves we accentuate our pain and get caught up in our own cries at injustice. The beautiful Korean song is a song about suffering and injustice. It carries the cry of individuals and lifts it into a shared heartbeat, and so helps to change the focus.
You may well know the story of John Newton who wrote the words of Amazing Grace. He had had brutal experiences as a very young man. He was enslaved. After he was rescued he had a conversion experience. However he also became the captain of a slave ship which carried hundreds of African forcibly from their homeland, in terrible conditions, to a life of suffering as slaves. Many of them died before they ever got to America. He was unable to see what he was doing. It was too hard. He studied theology and was ordained to the priesthood, but then he had another profound conversion experience, admitted to his role in the slave trade and became an abolitionist. He also lost his sight. But he was able to write those words, that he had been blind, but now he could see. He could see suffering and acknowledged his shocking role in it. And he found the amazing grace of God’s forgiveness.
Jesus asked Bartimaeus what he wanted him to do. Bartimaeus chose to see and to follow the one who walked to Jerusalem. The one who carried the loneliness of suffering, the pain of the crown of thorns and the agony of the cross.
Why do we have the extraordinary message of a suffering God? Because it is hope for us as we struggle to understand the “why?” of our own suffering and the suffering of the world. It does not give us an answer and we don’t escape it, but we participate in it in good company. We are not alone. And so we find our way to the meaning of healing. God has the last word. It is about amazing grace and love.