March 14, 2021
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
JESUS 101: SLOW DISCIPLES
The fourth in a series of seven.
There was a florist who got a couple of her orders mixed up. Easy to do. She delivered a lot of flowers. There was one order for the grand opening of a business that had moved into a new and bigger store. The owner ordered a huge and very expensive floral display. The flowers arrived on time. They were stunningly beautiful. The only problem was the ribbon in front. It said, “REST IN PEACE.”
The business owner was not happy. He called the florist to complain. The florist apologized profusely. She promised to make it right. She said, “This is really embarrassing for me. You have no idea how embarrassing this is.”
The business owner said, “I cannot imagine how it can possibly more embarrassing for you than it is for me. Here I am opening my new store, all these people are here, and all they can talk about is the ribbon on your flowers that says, “REST IN PEACE!”
The florist again apologized. Then she explained. “The reason this is so embarrassing for me is because if you got the flowers that say “REST IN PEACE,” it means there is a funeral going on right now with flowers that say, “GOOD LUCK IN YOUR NEW LOCATION!”
Have you ever had the feeling that you can’t get anything right? No matter how hard you try. You are always messing up. You are always getting it wrong. You never seem to learn.
I get that feeling quite often, and if you do too, you need to know you are in good company. One thing you can’t miss as you read Mark’s gospel is that the disciples of Jesus come off as a bunch of bumbling fools. They can’t get anything right. They get frightened when there is nothing to fear. They get confused when there is no reason to be confused. They don’t understand. They keep making mistakes. They never seem to learn. Jesus is about as patient as can be, but they try even his patience.
It’s interesting that the disciples are described in more detail even than Jesus. We learn all these things about their quirks and shortcomings. None of it is very flattering.
And it’s even more interesting that these details are there at all. Remember, Mark is writing down Peter’s recollections. Peter, you would think, would want to tell the story in such a way that he would look good. But the way he’s described he’s the biggest buffoon of them all. Which means it must be true. If Peter and the other disciples come off looking real good, that could easily be explained away. It would be a natural thing to do a little “air brushing” to make their portrait look better than it really was. But the simple fact that the raw story is told, warts and all, is evidence that this really happened just the way the story is told.
One more thing. We can laugh at the disciples. They give us plenty of reason to laugh. And of course, laughing at other people is always great fun. The problem is that when we laugh at them, we are really laughing at ourselves. Because we are every bit as bumbling and inept and foolish. The story of the disciples is our story. We are supposed to see ourselves in them. They don’t look very good, and neither do we.
So we get to the end of today’s scripture and we find Jesus speaking. He is speaking to his disciples back then, and he is also speaking to his disciples today – you and me – as he says, “Do you not yet understand?” (8:21)
As we continue working our way through Mark’s gospel in this Jesus 101 series, we’re going to cover more territory than just the scripture read for today. We are starting there, but then we are going to keep going, all the way the end of chapter 10. We’ll skip over the Caesarea Philippi section at the end of chapter 8. We’ll save that for next week. There’s a theme that seems to run through this whole section. It is captured in the verse, “You have eyes – can’t you see?” (8:18). That’s our problem. We fail to see what is right before our eyes.
Chapter 8 begins with the Feeding of the 4,000. In chapter 6, we had the Feeding of the 5,000. All four gospels have at least one story of the feeding of a multitude. What I find interesting is that we are given the location of this second feeding miracle and it just happens to be the same general area where Jesus performed the exorcism we looked at last week. Remember Legion and those poor pigs? And remember how the man Jesus had set free wanted to travel with Jesus as a disciple, but Jesus said no? Jesus had a specific mission assignment in mind for this man. He was to stay right where he lived and spread the Good News about Jesus to the people living there.
Now Jesus goes back there, and here is a crowd of 4,000 waiting for him. Sounds like this man, formerly known as Legion, has done a pretty job of carrying out his mission assignment! There is no better testimony. He could say, “Look at me. You remember who I used to be. Look at me now. This is what Jesus can do.”
After the feeding of the 4,000, Jesus gets into the boat with his disciples. They are crossing the Sea of Galilee, back to their home territory. And the disciples are freaking out because they only brought one loaf of bread for all of them to share. That’s not enough. They might get hungry. Jesus has just fed 4,000 and it doesn’t occur to him that that means they probably don’t need to worry about their next meal. They had front row seats on the most amazing miracle of multiplication. They were there. They saw it. But they didn’t see it. Not really. And Jesus says, “You have eyes – can’t you see . . . Do you not yet understand?”
These disciples are so dense! What’s wrong with them? But it’s really, what’s wrong with us? Because we are just as dense. And here is the good news. Jesus does not give up on us even when we can’t see or when we fail to understand.
They reach Bethsaida. The people there are ready for Jesus. They bring him a blind man. It’s interesting. Jesus has just had a conversation with his disciples about how they have perfectly good eyesight but still they can’t see. Now he meets this man whose eyesight is gone. There’s a reason he can’t see. And Jesus restores his vision. If only it were that easy to get his disciples to see!
Example after example is given of their poor vision. They are having this argument about which one of them is greatest. Their idea of greatness has to do with power and influence and prestige. Jesus points to a child and tells them that this is what greatness really looks like. He says, “Whoever wants to be first must place himself last of all and servant of all” (9:35).
Then the topic switches to riches. How do you measure wealth? The disciples see it one way but Jesus sees it differently. The rich aren’t those who have a lot of money and hold on to it tightly. The rich are those who are willing to give it away (10:17-27). We talked about this story in the first sermon in the series. The rich young ruler would not follow Jesus because he could not part with his riches.
What about life? What makes life worth living? You’ve got to enjoy your life. Squeeze as much living as you can into every moment. That’s the way the disciples saw it and that’s the way we tend to see it. But Jesus said, “If you want to save your life, you need to lose your life. Give it away. Lose your life for me and for the gospel you will find your life” (8:35).
Jesus tells his disciples that this is what will happen to him. He will lose his life. He will be put to death. He will literally give his life away. But he will rise from the dead. And it says, “They did not understand what this teaching meant, but were afraid to ask him” (9:32). Do you not yet understand? That’s the question Jesus asks his disciples. Clearly they don’t. They just don’t get it. But here’s the thing – neither do we. Remember, these dense, dumb, dunderhead disciples are really us.
There is one brief moment in this section when the eyes of the disciples are opened. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain. We’re pretty sure it’s Mt. Tabor. Here is what it looks like today. (See featured image) It reminds me a little bit of Black Butte near where I grew up. It would have been a good climb to get to the top. And once they were there some strange things started happening.
As they looked on, a change came over [Jesus], and his clothes became very shining and white; nobody in the world could clean them as white. Then the three disciples saw Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus (9:2-4).
Remember our theme for the day, how these hapless disciples can never get anything right? Poor Peter. He says the dumbest thing. And we know it has to be true. We lie when we brag. We don’t lie when we tell something embarrassing on ourselves. And this is embarrassing. Peter looks at Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He is stunned. He is speechless. But since silence is uncomfortable, he thinks he has to say something even though he doesn’t have anything to say. So he says, “Teacher, it is a good thing we are here. We will make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (9:5). It would have been better if he had said nothing at all.
Then a cloud rolls in and a voice is heard from that cloud: “This is my own dear Son – listen to him!” (9:7).
We call this strange episode “the Transfiguration.” That word refers to the change in Jesus’ appearance. The Greek word for Transfiguration is Metamorphosis. I remember that word from my days in a 4-H rock club. Metamorphic rocks are rocks that have been changed. There is heat and there is pressure deep beneath the earth’s surface that can change one kind of rock into another. So for example, limestone under intense heat and pressure becomes marble.
Jesus was changed on that mountaintop. Peter, James, and John saw that change. They heard that voice. And the point of the story is that they were changed. When we see who Jesus really is, we cannot help but be changed. So from this point on the disciples finally have their act together. They have seen the light. They understand. They are never the same again. Well, not quite.
That’s what should have happened. Here’s what really happens. They fall back into their old ways. Their old habits. They are like us. They are not easily changed. And so these same three, Peter, James, and John cannot even stay awake with Jesus as he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is arrested and they all run away. Peter is the worst. Three times he is asked if he is a disciple of Jesus. Three times he denies that he even knows who Jesus is. But he does know. He saw who Jesus is. He heard who Jesus is. It was on the Mount of Transfiguration. Had he forgotten? Or was he just a coward? It was not until after the resurrection that a deep and lasting change finally came to these disciples. It took a while. Jesus had to wait. And here is the good news. Jesus does wait. Jesus will wait. Jesus does not give up on us even though we are so dense, so stubborn, so slow to see and to understand.
This section ends with another blind man healed. Blind Bartimaeus. They are in Jericho. There is a large crowd. Lots of noise. Lots of confusion. Poor Bartimaeus doesn’t stand a chance. He is begging by the side of the road. As loud as he can say it he says, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” (10:47). But it’s like he isn’t even there. Nobody sees him. Nobody notices him. His loud voice irritates the disciples who are close enough to hear. They tell him to be quiet. He shouts all the louder. “Jesus!! Son of David!! Have mercy on me!!” Loud enough for Jesus to hear, and stop, and take time for this man.
He threw off his cloak, jumped up and came to Jesus. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. “Teacher,” the blind man answered, “I want to see again.” “Go,” Jesus told him, “your faith has made you well” (10:50-52).
It has come to be known as the Bartimaeus prayer. It is very important in Catholic tradition. “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.”
That’s the prayer the disciples needed to pray after they abandoned him. “Lord have mercy.” Have mercy on us for letting you down. For being such cowards. For being so blind. For not seeing what is right in front of our eyes. For not seeing and stopping and helping blind Bartimaeus and others like him who are right in front of us. The good news is that when we pray this prayer, “Lord have mercy,” he will. He will forgive us, and more than that. He will open our eyes, as he opened the eyes of blind Bartimaeus so that we too can see.
Quite a few year ago I was helping our daughter, Heather get ready for school. First, waking her up. That was always a challenge. Then helping her get dressed. She was old enough to do most of this herself, but it always took such a long time. This particular day, her clothes were almost on. Her breakfast was ready. I went to get her and discovered that she had changed her mind about what she wanted to wear and had started getting dressed all over again.
I was not happy. She was not happy. It was not the best way to start our day. We were finally dashing out the door without a moment to spare and that’s when Heather said, “I love life!” Now, if you or I had said that in similar circumstances, we would not have meant it. Like when something bad happens and we say, “Great!” We don’t mean “Great!” We mean just the opposite. But when Heather said, “I love life!” she meant exactly what she said. I know because I asked. She called my attention to the sun that was shining and the birds that were singing. I had noticed neither. But she had. And now I did.
Sometimes we don’t see what is right in front of our eyes. Like the sun shining. Like the birds singing. Like my little life-loving girl. Like Jesus. Jesus who gives sight to the blind and who doesn’t give up on us even when we fail to see.
Lord have mercy. Lord Jesus, you are so patient with us. We must try your patience. You must wonder if we are ever going to get it right. Sometimes we wonder that, too. But thank you for your wonderful mercy. Your mercy accepts us as we are and also prods us to do better. We can do better. By your grace, with your mercy, in your name, Amen.