I Can See Clearly Now
I Can See Clearly Now
March 18, 2018
With many people getting ready to be gone for a couple of vital Sundays in telling the story of the Gospel of Mark, I’d like to give you some thoughts to carry with you…
Abstractly, you might think that the whole point writing the Gospel would be to make it to the resurrection and to have people get it. It is a race to the empty tomb, right? “Say what you will about the preaching and the teaching and all the places these men visited, the real story is that he died and then he lived again.”
Here is why that just can’t be true with the Gospel of Mark (spoiler alert!): when the women arrive at the empty tomb in the Gospel of Mark, they do not meet the risen Jesus. There is a guy there who is dressed in white who tells them that Jesus has risen from the dead and that if they want to see him, they will have to go to Galilee. The women are amazed to hear all this but mostly, they are terrified. This is super stark ending, so much so that somebody, later, decided they could add a better ending and glued it onto the end of the Gospel of Mark.
Now, you are welcome to sit with your toes in the sand on Spring Break on Easter morning and think about me struggling in this pulpit to bring that text to life! Here’s the thing that I’m convinced of, though: we all already know everything that we need to know to understand why Mark tells the story this way if we are paying attention to the story that he is telling all along. That ending is coherent and is evidence of Mark’s genius at pulling his audience in.
This morning, I don’t want to focus on the ending but on what we should be getting along the way. Most scholars divide the Gospel of Mark into two parts. The first part of the Gospel is all about one question: “Who is this man—this Jesus of Nazareth?” People see him but only partially: if you saw him heal, he was a healer; if you heard him preach, he was a preacher; if you saw him stop a storm, well…you weren’t sure what to make of that. On the negative side, if you were in power, you saw him as a threat. If you were rich, you saw him as an enemy, as an ally of the poor. Really, the only ones who see him for who he is are John the Baptist, who is now dead, and the demons—the pure incarnation of evil and darkness— who clearly see that Christ is the embodiment of God’s light and God’s love. People expect Jesus to fit within the framework of their lives so they take a piece of who Jesus is and try to fit that in. Jesus seems far more interested in transforming the world and our lives completely.
In the second half of the Gospel of Mark, the march is on to Jerusalem, to the confrontation with the authorities. The question is, “What in the world is going to happen to Jesus?” If you pay attention, you hear Jesus’ predictions about his arrest and suffering and death, his talk about taking up your cross, and his growing conflicts with those in power. A proper conclusion would certainly be, “This is not going to end well!” Generally, in this world, things don’t end will when those in power—the government, the religious authorities, and the rich—are challenged. “Let’s transform things!” isn’t really the battle cry of people who have anything to lose, much less people who could lose a lot. People don’t really understand who Jesus is…even Peter, when he says Jesus is the Messiah. Peter still only see the partial truth—he sees a Messiah but he can’t accept that Jesus will suffer. Armed with a lack of understanding—with an unclear vision—things are going to get messy.
All of this is what makes our pivotal text so important. The truth that Mark tells us all along is that Jesus does the faithful thing and then things get really hard. Faith doesn’t make life easier. It makes things infinitely more complicated. Sure, there is the unspeakable meaning of being a part of God’s work in this world but there is also the inevitable suffering that comes with caring in an often mean, sometimes just self-centered world. You are going to suffer. You will be misunderstood. The point, though is to not give up, to not get knocked down and stay down, to not allow the lesser forces of this life to win, even though they can certainly land a blow.
For those who expect the life of Christian faith to be easy, look with fresh eyes at the life of Jesus and ask yourself, “What do I see?” You see Jesus leaving his family and village behind, being baptized, having this unbelievable affirmation from God: “You are my son, the Beloved!” Then, immediately, he is forced—by the Spirit—into the wilderness where he starves and faces his own demons and temptations. When he emerges from the wilderness, he has this amazing experience, preaching, teaching and healing until word passes and a flood of human needs and suffering and pain overwhelm him. He goes home and he is rejected. He asks who people think he is and people get it all wrong. He feeds the 5000, feeds 4000 more and then sits and listens to the disciples whining in a boat because they don’t have enough bread: “Boys, haven’t I shown you that we’re going to have enough to eat?”
Jesus has to suffer through loneliness and hunger and temptation. Sometimes, we will, too. Jesus has to get through being swamped with the needs of the neediest people. Sometimes, we will, too. (This week, the same woman called me twelve times to get train fair…after I had already promised her that I would give her train fair on the first call. Yes…Yes…Yes.) Jesus has to deal with being misunderstood. Sometimes, we will, too. Jesus has to deal with being disappointed by the very people whom he thought he could trust the most. Sometimes, we will, too. Mark tells us very clearly that Jesus suffered and that we should expect to suffer, too. He said this first to his earliest audience who had pretty much done nothing but suffer for their faith. “This isn’t some aberration.” he seems to say. “This is what it means to follow Christ.”
We already know this before we read Mark. If you want a happy, carefree life that includes as little suffering as possible then don’t ever make a friend, don’t fall in love, don’t have children. If you want a happy, carefree life that includes as little suffering as possible, don’t look around you at the needs of others, don’t look at what’s wrong in our society, don’t pay attention to the overlooked and the oppressed. As soon as you open your heart to the the people and the world around you, your happy, carefree life is over. That friend, that spouse, those children will bring you unimaginable joy but they will also break your heart. Seeing what’s wrong with society may inspire you but actually changing what’s wrong may break you. As soon as you look at the needs of others beyond your own tribe, your head will spin. However, the deal is that we can’t follow Christ without hearts and minds and arms that are wide open to needs other than our own.
If you are going to follow Christ then you have to be ready to do what it takes—whatever it takes—to be a part of God’s work in this lifetime. At the beginning of our text, we are told that “some people” bring a blind man to Jesus and beg Jesus to touch him. I don’t want to fill in the blanks here but let’s call those people—“friends!” This should make us remember the friends who tore the roof off of the house to get their friend to Jesus. It should also remind us of the lengths to which we have gone to get a friend help or perhaps even the lengths someone else went to in order to help us. Have you ever found yourself not blind, perhaps, but in a very dark place? Have your friends ever shown up and said, “We have to get you out of here?” Have you ever been the one who dared to enter your friend’s darkness? I bet you have…
Imagine that man’s disorientation. He’s been in the dark for so long. It’s impossible to hope or dream for the return of the light. He is willing, though, to be led. He is in a familiar place with familiar people: “O.k….whatever.” In such moments, we think, “Fine, I’ll humor them and go along…”
Then, things get truly dicey. We all know that our friends can only carry us so far. Sooner or later, we find ourselves alone in the dark with our own stuff (or perhaps, unbeknownst to us, with our God.) Jesus takes the blind man by the hand. Think about that. Do you remember when Peter tries to walk on the water and does for a few seconds until he sinks. Jesus grabs his hand. In both cases, the net experience is Jesus saying, “I’ve got you!” How comforting would that be…if we weren’t still in the dark or sinking? Consider this…the blind man lets himself be led away from everything that is familiar, everything that is known. Then, realize, that is what Jesus does sometimes to us. Change is hard. Healing can be terrifying. Things get worse before they get better.
Then, in this super physical way, Jesus rolls up his sleeves and gets into the dirt with this man. Healing is a messy business. Jesus makes a first attempt to heal him and then does something he never does, he asks if the healing worked: “Can you see anything?” (Isn’t it just supposed to work right away and isn’t Jesus supposed to know if it worked?) There it is…the agonizing truth we don’t want to hear—that things take time, that we have to hang in there and wait. The healing only works part way: “I see men but they look like trees walking.” In that moment, that man is everyone else in the Gospel and he is us: I used to see nothing. Now, I see something but it makes no sense.” Then, Jesus demonstrates what we all need to see: he doesn’t give up; he doesn’t abandon the man, he keeps trying—until the man sees everything clearly.
Seeing everything clearly—that’s Mark’s goal as Jesus moves toward Jerusalem. We have already partially seen what has been fully true all along: that God is at work through Jesus’ teaching and preaching and healing; that Jesus is willing to suffer on behalf of others, the kind of people whom others would not even give the time of day; that this suffering can be redemptive and that every time Jesus suffers, he rises again. What I think Marks wants us to see is that if we can see clearly who Jesus is and what he does we won’t need more than a glimpse of the empty tomb to know that Christ has risen indeed.