Open the eyes of our mind

This sermon was preached on Sunday, 2nd December 2018, at St Dunstan’s Church, Poole

Brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand, therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Ephesians 6:10-17

At that time, when Jesus drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging; and hearing a multitude going by, he inquired what this meant. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” And he cried, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent; but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped, and commanded him to be brought to him; and when he came near, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me receive my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.

Luke 18:35-42

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, one God, Amen.

How easy it is, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, to hear the words of the Gospel so often we ignore the Word himself.  We have heard this morning of a great miracle yet we often pass over such accounts without much thought and attention.  We are presented today with a familiar scene, Christ heals, this time a blind man in Jericho.[1]  It is easy to say, “someone was healed, but so what?!” and thereby bringing scandal and dissent within the Church.  We would do well, then, to contemplate what is revealed to us in this mystery.

It is a long way up from Jericho to Jerusalem, from below sea level to the summit of Mount Sion, yet it is this path which Christ and the disciples must take.  The Lord, in today’s Gospel, is coming to the end of his ministry: there is only Zacchaeus the Tax-collector to encounter in Jericho itself and one final parable before the triumphal entry into the holy city.  He must now ascend towards Jerusalem, ascend to the Cross that he will ascend from the tomb and ascend with our human nature to the right hand of the Father.  In order that he may ascend, he first came down, down to Earth in the incarnation and down to Jericho.  He has come down to us and what does he find here?  Decay, sin, fratricide – brother killing brother – and death.  Jericho is an oasis in the midst of a desert yet the desert is encroaching on the city’s border and brings with it the cares of the world, it is not a respectable place but one of wickedness: yet the Lord comes.

The Lord descends to Jericho and he descends into each one of our hearts.  Despite the evil within myself he comes to me and offers himself completely and freely.  Do I sit by the roadside of my heart listening out for his passing?  Do you?

The Lord passes by elsewhere in Scripture: the Prophet Elijah experiences it.

Then [the Lord] replied, “Go out tomorrow and stand on the mountain before the Lord; and behold, the Lord will pass by, and before the Lord, a great and powerful wind will be rending the mountains and shattering the rocks; but the Lord will not be in the wind.  After the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord will not be in the earthquake.  After the earthquake, there will be fire, but the Lord will not be in the fire.  After the fire, there will be a sound of a gentle breeze, and the Lord will be there.”  So when Elijah heard this, he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave.  Suddenly a Voice came to him and said “Elijah, what are you doing here?”[2]

(You can read the context to this event in the nineteenth chapter of the Third Book of Kingdoms.)  Some English translations render “a sound of a gentle breeze” – where the Lord is to be found – as “a still small voice.”  And we can see here parallels between the Prophet Elijah and the blind man.  Elijah was blind in this encounter, “he wrapped his face in his mantle,” since we know that no man shall see the face of God and live.[3]  Elijah knew that God would be surrounded by a crowd – wind, earthquake and fire – yet knew he had to wait for the “sound of a gentle breeze” for the Lord to be present; for the blind man he too knew he must wait.

How long had the blind man, from elsewhere in the Gospel we know his name to be Bartimaeus,[4] been sat there?  Scripture does not tell us.  How many other crowds had passed by, my brothers and sisters, who were unable to help him?  How often did he enquire who was going by?  Perhaps some gave him money, or food, but they could not bring him out of his poverty because they themselves were also trapped in the poverty of this fallen world.  How often do we, too, fall into this trap?  Have you ever tried to help someone yet been disappointed and crestfallen because he is unable to use that help?  Was that disappointment because he could not be helped or because your help offered could not make him better?  Perhaps there were people in Jericho who gave Bartimaeus money every day – yet he was still blind.

Elijah, then, acts on the word given to him and rises up to meet the Lord at the entrance of the cave; Bartimaeus learns from the crowd the good news and raises his voice, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  The former risks exposure to wind, earthquake and fire, the latter to the contempt and ridicule of the crowd: both for the sake of a meeting, an encounter, with the Lord.

Do you, too, risk these things for the sake of meeting Christ?  Do I?  We are, perhaps, fortunate to live in a time and location where we are not required to risk physical attack in order to be with Christ yet much of our society, like the crowd around Christ, looks down patronisingly and in incredulity upon those who follow the Christian faith.

The prophet and the blind man both receive a question which is stark and direct, “What are you doing here?”  “What do you want me to do for you?”  And the Lord listens to both.  For Elijah I have left it for you to read what happens but for Bartimaeus his reply too is direct, “Lord, let me receive my sight.”  He has confessed Christ as both God, calling him “Lord,” and man, the “Son of David:” in his blindness he confesses Christ as the crowds could not even with their eyes open.  And in calling Jesus of Nazareth the God-man he makes the request which Elijah, and Moses before him,[5] could not make until the Incarnation, he requests to see God face-to-face.  For it is in the Incarnation where God has made a decisive intervention in human history so significant our calendars still reflect it, “Anno domini,” “in the year of the Lord.”  And today is the first Sunday, as we prepare to celebrate the Incarnation at Christmas, when we sing the Kontakion of the Preparation.

Today the Virgin cometh to the cave to give birth to * God the Word ineffably, * Who was before all the ages. * Dance for joy, O earth, on hearing * the gladsome tidings; * with the Angels and the shepherds now glorify Him * Who is willing to be gazed on * as a young Child Who * before the ages is God.[6]

“Who is willing to be gazed on,” to be manifest, and it is this which the blind man is able to recognise in the one to whom he requests.

We too are blind, my brothers and sisters, because, as the world would say, we have not seen the risen Christ.  Blind: except that in the Church we are given spiritual eyes.  Christ himself recognises our blindness when he says to the Apostle, “Thomas, because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”[7]  But we can recognise Christ passing by through the witness of the saints and by their witness we can come before Christ and receive our spiritual sight.  Each age has produced its saints: the apostles, the martyrs, the great hierarchs, the fathers, the confessors, the ascetics, down to our time and today we celebrate a saint of our time, Saint Porphyrios, who fell asleep in the Lord on this day just twenty-seven years ago.  He speaks of this blindness, this sitting in darkness, thus:

The people that sat in darkness saw great light; and light dawned on those that sat in the land and shadow of death.[8]

This light is the uncreated light of Christ.  If we acquire this light we will know the truth.  And God is truth.  God knows everything.  For him all things are known and luminous.  The world is the work of God.  God illuminates this world with his uncreated light.  God himself is light.  He is light because he knows himself.  We do not know ourselves, and that is why we are in darkness.  When we allow the light to flood over us, we have communion with God. … He offers the ‘great light’ to each of us.  If only we would receive it![9]

And it was to this that Bartimaeus was drawn.  He was drawn to the great light, to Christ, because only in his light could the light of his eyes be restored.  And by a word the Word of God restores him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.”  Whereas the blind man receives his physical sight, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, a greater gift is offered to us, to restore us to spiritual sight: that by the witness of the saints we may come to see the risen Christ.

May this be within our hearts.  May we pay attention carefully to the gifts given to us – in the Gospels, in the divine mysteries and in Communion – so that, through them, we may have the eyes of our hearts, our spiritual eyes, opened to the love of God.  May Christ, having descended even into our hearts, let us journey with him and ascend towards the Father united with him by the power of the Holy Spirit.  May the saints continue to offer witness to his great love for us.

Master, Lover of mankind, make the pure light of thy divine knowledge shine in our hearts and open the eyes of our mind to understand the message of thy Gospel.  Instil in us the fear of thy blessed commandments, so that, having trampled down all carnal desires, we may seek a spiritual way of life, thinking and doing all things that are pleasing to thee.  For thou art the illumination of our souls and bodies, Christ God, and to thee we give glory, together with thy Father who is without beginning, and thine All-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever, and unto the ages of ages.  Amen.[10]

[1] See also Matt. 20:29-34, Mark 10:46-52.  Matthew records two blind men whereas Mark and Luke record one.

[2] 3 Kg. 19:11-13.

[3] See Exod. 33:20.

[4] Mark 10:46.

[5] Exod. 33:18.

[6] Kontakion of the Preparation of Christ’s Nativity, 3rd tone ‘Today the virgin.’  This is first sung from 26th November.

[7] John 20:29.

[8] Matt. 4:16, Is. 9:1.

[9] Elder (Saint) Porphyrios, ‘Wounded by Love,’ p. 140.

[10] Divine Liturgy, ‘Prayer of the Gospel.’