On Being Well.
Times are difficult. The fabric of society is breaking down and the community is being destroyed. The symbolic world that supported life is collapsing. Serious questions are emerging from this turmoil. Are the nation’s political, cultural, religious and even military structures collapsing? How do we deal with the collapse of everything that we hold dear?
I am not describing the US in the year 2018. I am talking about the background of our Jeremiah reading! The Exilic period was a time of immense political and social disruption. It was of course also a time of theological turmoil. The collapse of Judah and the destruction of the Temple were national disasters. How could God allow this? Had God turned away from the covenant made with Abraham and at Sinai? Was God powerless compared to more powerful Babylonian deities who had won the war? How could the community survive the disaster that had befallen them? Was there even a future for them?
The prophet in Chapter 31 provides a hopeful answer: “Sing with gladness! Save O LORD your people, the remnant of Israel. I am going to bring them back! Among them the blind and the lame, those who ae vulnerable, with child and in labor. I will let them walk by brooks of water, they shall not stumble. I have become a father to Israel.”
These words are beautiful and uplifting! They give hope and they restore trust. For those who found themselves in a dead end, these words promise an open door. And we all know that people need hope to live joyful and meaningful lives. While Israel was in Babylon, they lost hope! They felt abandoned and all their symbols collapsed.
One may argue that the prophet’s words are just words, perhaps even empty promises. However, these words are filled with meaning. They are in fact more than words! They are in fact restoring their age-old symbols: Sing aloud and raise shouts reminded the Jews in Babylon of worshipping in their temple, these words became symbols of worshipping God. Walking by brooks of water are symbols of God’s shepherd like care of Israel. The words about the blind and the lame are typical words, yes symbols of God’s future of restoration and healing. God being the Father to Israel and Ephraim as firstborn are symbols of God’s covenant with Abraham!
So these prophetic words are life-giving words because of God’s promises to a vulnerable people. It was an affirmation that God is behind these symbols! God guarantees their future. We read God’s word every Sunday and we study the Bible. The same God still gives us hope, comfort and direction. When we hear these words the living God still speaks to us as a loving God?
Fast forward to Mark’s Gospel. Mark is picking up symbols of God’s restoration and healing of the blind. Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, in spite of his blindness, sees Jesus and unlike the Pharisees, Sadducees and the scribes, he actually recognizes Jesus as the Son of David. He begs for mercy. Jesus, the Son of David, the promised One is now introducing the Messianic era. Many people told the beggar to be quiet. I suspect we see here an age old effort of people wanting to silence those on the margins of society. The message perhaps is: Yes the beggars and the poor exist, we cannot do anything about that – but we will make sure that their voices are not heard.
“Call him here”, Jesus says. The man jumps up and even throwing of his cloak- perhaps a symbol of letting go even the little he placing trust and hope on Jesus. His only wish is to see again. Jesus says: “your faith has made you well!” Mark in fact is saying that this man regained more than his eyesight – his faith enabled him to see that Jesus is the Messiah, the One Sent by God to make all of humankind well again. “Made well” is in fact Mark’s way of saying that God in Christ is restoring sinful and broken human beings!
There in the words “you faith has made you well” is perhaps even a hidden reference to the creation that was good before it went bad.
Mark is then in fact saying that Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah, became flesh, died and was resurrected to restore humankind’s wellness! The reasons why human kind needs her wellness to be restored is clear. But let me remind you why we need redemption, why we, as humankind, need to be made well again:
God created this world and it was good but then the Bible uses symbols to explain that somehow, something went terribly wrong. And the Bible calls it sin.
As I explained to the Confirmands last Wednesday, sin in the Bible is much worse than a few bad things that I do or a few good things that I don’t do. Sin in the Bible in fact is a powerful force that enslaves us and we cannot get rid of it by ourselves. Sin, this powerful force, in essence is a relationship destroyer.
First and foremost, it destroys our (and with our, I mean humankind in a collective sense) our relationship with God. We don’t recognize God as the Holy One. We refuse to bow before God and we refuse to do what God requires of us! We find replacements for God!
Sin destroys our relationship with our fellow human being, our neighbor. Instead of a brother or sister, my neighbor becomes a competitor competing for scarce recourses. Often it is worse than this: my neighbor becomes my enemy! And when he or she is a different race or from a different religion, then he or she is a threat to me.
Sin destroys my relationship with myself. It results in me being forever discontent, restless and looking for more.
Sin destroys my relationship with the creation. Instead of taking care of the beautiful gift of creation that God has given to us, humankind does to it what we do best: we destroy and use God’s creation for our own greedy and selfish purposes.
Sin destroys my relationship to culture. Culture is what we do as human beings and how we do it. Americans do things differently than Germans, French do things differently than Kenyans. These differences should be celebrated because together they form a beautiful tapestry of how we as human beings do things. But because of sin, we don’t celebrate differences, we view differences with suspicion. And then we conclude that my culture is superior to your culture. We look down on other cultures because we think that we do things better than the way they do them over there.
And lastly sin also destroys structures. Now I am not thinking of buildings here. Structures are the way we organize socially and economically. History points out that structures like Nationalist Socialism and Communism were awful and caused tremendous harm. But I believe that we have to be aware of the impact of sin on all social and economic structures. Capitalism is an economic structure that lifted more people out of poverty than any other structure before. And yet we have to be honest enough to admit that when human beings are involved in any structure, it will not be perfect.
Today we celebrate the Reformation that started 501 years ago with the work of a stubborn monk, Martin Luther. There were many forces at work leading up to the reformation but primarily the Reformation started with the rediscovery of the basic message of the Gospel that Jesus is the Messiah and that we as human beings are in essence unable to save ourselves. The Reformation rediscovered that sin and its powers are too great and too powerful for human beings to resist and to earn our salvation.]. The Reformation led to huge changes: political, social and economic structures were reformed, old symbols were destroyed and new ones created. The Reformation changed the world and brought with it a lot of good. However, it would be dishonest to think or say that it brought about only good things. That view would contradict the theological view that sin destroys our relationship with God, with creation, with our neighbor, with ourselves, with our culture and human structures.
So even as we are here today celebrating the Reformation, we have to celebrate it with gratitude but also with caution. We have to be careful not to idealize every aspect of it. But we also have to remember that the Reformation is a process that is not completed because we constantly need to be reminded that we need redemption, we need to be made well! We are still called to love God more deeply, seek God’s will more humbly, love and serve our neighbor as Jesus has shown us to do. But we also have to revisit our relationship with the creation, with our culture and with our structures. Are these relationships well or do they need more of the light of the Gospel, the love of God and the grace of Jesus? I suspect that we still have a way to go before this world will be completely well.
At the same time we are reminded that the blind beggar did not heal himself, he did not make himself well. Jesus healed him and made him well. Therefore we know that our only comfort in this world and the next is, in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism is that I am not my own,1
but belong— body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.
Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life9 and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Our faith has made us well!