Monday, June 21, 2010

Sermon: Mark 8: 22-30 A Question of Identity

I wonder did you notice the surprise in our Bible reading earlier on. Was there something in it that made you stop and think - what’s going on? I’ve probably read these verses loads of times before, but never preached from them, and I have to admit, I’ve been puzzled all week.

You see, most, if not all of us, have heard at least something about Jesus. We know that he taught, but more than that, he did all kinds of miracles. He fed at least 5000 people out of a packed lunch. He cleansed lepers, and healed the lame. He calmed storms, and walked on water. All marvellous, wonderful things.

Yet here, it seems as if something goes wrong. Do you see it in verse 24? Jesus is healing a blind man, but it doesn’t work first time. Normally Jesus touches the eyes of the blind and they can instantly see. Bang, just like that. So what’s happening here? Was he having an off day? Did he get out of the wrong side of the bed? Was he distracted at the crucial moment?

While at first sight, the two sections of our reading appear to be distinct, completely separate, nothing in common, it does look as if Mark has purposely put these two stories together, to make an important point. In the first story, we see a pattern, Jesus bringing the man from being blind, to having partial vision, to seeing clearly. As we’ll soon discover, the same pattern can be seen in the second story too.

Let’s look at verse 22. This blind man is brought to Jesus. He has an obvious affliction - he can’t see. But the people of Bethsaida know that Jesus can do something about it. He can open his eyes (he has done it in other places for other blind people...). So Jesus spits on his eyes, touches them, and then asks that question - ‘do you see anything?’

Something has happened - there has been some progression of sight. He can now see in a shadowy kind of way - ‘I see men, but they look like trees, walking’ (24). He’s better than he was, but he still can’t see perfectly. So Jesus lays his hands on him again, and the man can see perfectly.

Let’s be clear - it is Jesus who causes the man to see. Jesus opens blind eyes. It’s also what he’s doing in the second story (27-30). But there it’s not physical eyes, but spiritual eyes that are being opened.

Bethsaida was in the northern part of Israel, but now he has gone on with his disciples further, away from the crowds, away from the pressure, taking some time with them alone. Although we’re beginning a new series today, we are in chapter 8 - the disciples have been with Jesus for the previous 8 chapters, and seen the things that he has done.

And Jesus is asking them what they’re making of what they have seen. It’s the question of identity - what do they think of who Jesus is, based on what they’ve seen him do? First, there’s the easier question - ‘Who do people say that I am?’ What have you heard the crowd say about me? What’s the word on the street? What are people thinking about me?

The answers are varied - some think John the Baptist (who was a prophet who had recently died - he was the one who prepared the way for Jesus by calling Israel to turn from their sins). Others think he could be Elijah - an Old Testament prophet, come back from the dead. Others just think that Jesus is a prophet - a messenger from God (of whom there had been many in Israel’s history).

It’s the spiritual equivalent of men like trees - they have partial vision, but aren’t seeing clearly yet. Yes, prophets come from God, but it’s not quite who Jesus is. But then Jesus asks the second question. It’s a slightly different question, more personal. ‘But who do you say that I am?’

This time it’s Peter who answers, and he gets it spot on - he’s seeing Jesus clearly. ‘You are the Christ.’ (29) Often we hear ‘Jesus Christ’ and think that Christ is his surname - actually, it means ‘anointed’ - it’s a title, the sign of his kingship, the Son of God, God’s anointed king. Peter is seeing Jesus clearly, and gets it right. Jesus is the Christ.

Yet even at this moment of clear vision, it turns out that the disciples still aren’t seeing Jesus clearly. Look at the last verse of our reading. ‘And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.’ Doesn’t this seem a bit odd? Jesus is identified as the Christ, but don’t let on to anyone. Can you remember the hype when Barack Obama won the Democrat Primaries to be the US Presidential Candidate? The world’s media went crazy with excitement that America and the world could have a ‘saviour’. No one was keeping that news quiet. So why does Jesus want his identity (at this stage in his ministry) kept quiet?

In the very next verses, Jesus spells out just what he’s going to do as the Christ - suffer, be rejected, killed (and rise again). Peter just can’t accept it. You see, the disciples expected the triumphant soldier king who would lead an uprising and defeat the Roman army. They can’t see the Christ as the God-given substitute and sacrifice for our sins.

In that sense, they still only have partial vision. They still can’t see Jesus clearly. In fact, in terms of Mark’s Gospel, the first person to truly see Jesus clearly with perfect vision as to who he is, turns out to be the Roman soldier supervising his crucifixion: ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’ (15:39)

Our application this morning flows straight from the passage, from the points we’ve been looking at already. How is your vision? Not so much your physical eyesight, but your spiritual eyesight? Are you seeing Jesus for who he truly is?

You may be spiritually blind - you come along but don’t really get what’s happening; don’t really see Jesus at all. You’re in the right place. Jesus is in the business of opening blind eyes. Or perhaps a friend of yours is spiritually blind - you can bring them to Jesus for him to open their eyes.

Or perhaps you have partial vision. You know about Jesus, have heard about him over many years, but you still aren’t seeing him clearly. You’ll accept that he is a good man, a prophet perhaps. You’re facing the right direction - stick with Jesus. Pray that he will open your eyes, as you continue to come to church, explore, ask questions, read your Bible. We can take heart that the disciples lived and travelled around with Jesus, watched all that he did, and yet still didn’t grasp it straight away. But they did, eventually - after the resurrection.

Our prayer is that you will come to have perfect vision, to see Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God who came from heaven to rescue you, dying in your place for your sins, who offers you pardon and life and hope. Yet even when we come to faith, we still need to have a regular eye test - to check on our vision. Are you seeing Jesus clearly? ‘Who do you say that I am?’

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 13th June 2010.

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