”I’d like you to close your eyes, if you feel able”. The world is a very different place without sight. So much that we take for granted depends on our eyes. When you came in, you may have looked for the people you know, or to see where you could sit down. You may have read the words of the service from your service book, or sung from your hymn book. Could you find your way home from here without relying on your eyes? Now imagine that you aren’t in St George’s, and you aren’t in the 21st century. You’re in Palestine, 2,000 years ago. There is no Braille, there are no guide dogs. Living an independent life is almost impossible if you’re blind. You can’t get a job, you rely on charity to get by. What’s more, most people will think you’ve been cursed by God. But you have to rely on their good will if you’re going to survive. Maybe there are some people who will help you, but you don’t like to impose yourself. After all, it’s not as if you’d lost your arms or your legs. You can still walk by yourself if you use a stick to make sure you don’t fall over anything. You can dress yourself – though you know people sometimes laugh at the clothes you put on, and it sometimes takes you a while to realise you’ve worn a hole in something. You can feed yourself, though you have to trust the traders at the market not to rip you off once they realise you can’t see the food you’re buying. There’s more than once you’ve come home to find out that none of the sack of vegetables tastes like the one they gave you to try. You try not to make a fuss or cause too much trouble. You sit by the side of the road in a dignified way with a sign a friend made for you, to see if people will take pity on you. It isn’t much of a life.
Sometimes, as you’re sitting there, you hear things travellers are talking about on the road.
That’s how you started to hear about him. Jesus. They said he had healed the sick and restored sight to the blind. They said the prophecies about God returning to his people were being fulfilled. They said he might be the Messiah, the son of David, the promised King. It was almost too much to believe. Then you started to hear more, he was coming this way, going to Jerusalem. Surely he would come through Jericho.
It starts as a muttering, a commotion somewhere down the road. Someone is coming. People are excited, running past, kicking up dust. Everyone’s too busy to tell you what’s going on, but you hear people talking about Jesus. Could it be him, come to Jericho with his disiples? You start to hear more people, it’s getting busy by the roadside, people are crowding round, trying to get a look at whoever’s coming up the road. You’re getting dirt kicked in your face, so you pull yourself to your feet and stand there leaning on your stick, trying to hear what’s going on over the din of the people crowding round you. You think you hear a man speaking in a Galilean accent. Didn’t someone say Jesus was from Nazareth in Galilee? Where is he? Is he there? Was it his voice you heard? He could walk within a few feet of you in this crowd and you’d never know. You lean closer, straining to hear more. Someone brushes past you, pushing you back, you’re leaning out across the path. ‘Out of the way, you blind fool!’ You feel hot, embarrassed. But this is your only chance. If he can heal you… Maybe he’s already out of earshot. It’s so hard to tell. You draw a deep breath: “Son of David! Have mercy on me!” you yell, at the top of your voice. You feel people recoiling next to you, surprised to hear you shout out. Are they all looking at you? Is anyone looking at you? Did he hear? Are you even facing the right way? “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy!” you yell again. “Shut up!” someone yells at you. You feel the spit on your face. Was it all a mistake? Was he there at all?
Everything is different when you can’t see. Everything becomes an act of faith, an act of trust. Open your eyes. We’re in the 21st Century, we can see, but we, like Bartimaeus the blind man, are putting our faith in someone we can’t see. Where is Jesus? It’s a question we might ask ourselves. We can’t see him either, and like Bartimaeus we might feel we’re stumbling around, maybe shouting the wrong way, going on hints and rumours and risking looking stupid.
This is a story about the miracle of seeing Jesus and what that does to you. But the real miracle doesn’t happen when Jesus restores Bartimaeus’ sight. The real miracle happens before, when Bartimaeus sees Jesus with the eyes of faith. He hears rumours of what Jesus could do and he believes them. He starts to hope. He has faith in Jesus. He is willing to risk looking stupid, risk getting it wrong. The real miracle happens in the confusion and doubt and darkness, when Bartimaeus finds the faith to call out to someone he can’t see is there.
We will probably not see Jesus with our eyes in our earthly lives. But we, like Bartimaeus, can see him with the eyes of faith. And like him, we try to do it in the middle of the confusion and doubt and darkness of our lives, in the times when we find ourselves saying ‘Where is Jesus?’ and wondering if he is there at all. Maybe it’s at work where we struggle to make any connection between what we do from Monday to Friday and the God we come to worship here on Sunday. Maybe it’s at home where we find being Christian is hardest to do with those we share our lives with. Maybe it’s in the church where we try to understand together what God is calling all of us to do and be in this parish. In all of these places and many more, whenever we make the effort to try and see Jesus, we soon find we’re deep in doubt and confusion. Maybe we catch some hints and rumours about where he is and what he’s doing, we think we catch a glimpse, but then he’s gone. He has the knack of being absent from the places we most readily expect him, whether that’s speaking in ex cathedra statements from the pulpit in the Vicar’s sermon, or helpfully supporting our point of view in family arguments. Instead, he turns up where we aren’t looking, in the face of those we’re arguing with, or in the insights of our non-Christian work colleagues.
Like Bartimaeus, then, we must rely on the eyes of faith to see Jesus. But, also like Bartimaeus, we must do more than simply watch for Jesus with the eyes of faith. Watching Jesus is not a spectator sport. We look for him because we seek to follow where he leads. This, ultimately, is what Bartimaeus did, he followed Jesus. He didn’t seek Jesus out as the magical curer of his blindness, he sought him out as the Son of David, the Messiah, and once he had been healed, he followed him. Jesus doesn’t reveal himself to us so that we can sit there wisely aware of his presence. He reveals himself so that we can follow where he leads. This is risky, probably as risky for us as it was for Bartimaeus. Because Jesus may take us places we do not want to go, prompt us to do things we and those around us will think are foolish, just as he did with Bartimaeus.
I don’t know what that will mean for you. Maybe it means taking the risk of letting colleagues at work know more about what your faith means to you. Maybe it means allowing the vicar to hold up his mirror to the congregation and refusing to give easy answers about the future of the church. Maybe it means trying to relate to those we live with in a different way that leaves us far more vulnerable. It may mean something completely different. But whatever following Jesus means to you, in the situation you are in, it will probably feel risky. It will probably feel a lot like it did to Bartimaeus to stand up and shout out ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’.
I started by trying to get you to imagine you were blind, to try and understand what Bartimaeus felt like. But maybe that wasn’t really necessary. Because the story of Bartimaeus isn’t really a story about somebody who was blind and then was given their sight. It’s about someone who had to find the courage to act on what they could see by faith but not by sight. That’s a struggle I hope we’re all familiar with. The fact is, that Bartimaeus could already see the most important things, he could already see who Jesus was, which those around him often couldn’t. So it makes sense that Jesus would say to him ‘what do you want me to do for you?’ After all, this blind man had shown he had better eyesight than the whole crowd of sighted people. It must have felt to Bartimaeus that what he was doing was very risky, but in fact he couldn’t have done better if he’d had perfect sight. Finding the courage to act on our faith can feel very risky, but like Bartimaeus, we may find that in following Jesus our faith is a far more accurate guide than our eyesight.