You the Man
Mark 8 : 22 - 38
Jesus and his disciples had just fed the 5000. They came to Bethsaida on the north eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Israeli maps and excavators currently locate the New Testament city of Bethsaida at an ancient ruin known as 'et-Tell'. This has nothing to do with the former Rangers football captain Terry Butcher known by some as 'el-Tel'l and even less to do with Terry Venables the former English football manager who was also known by that nickname in his day.
Family and friends of a blind man brought him to Jesus and simply asked him to touch the man. They believed that one touch would heal the man of his blindness. No small miracle. No small request. No small faith. There was a lot of blindness in the middle east at that time and indeed until recently as there was and is in Africa. Some of this was caused by bad hygiene. You will have seen encrusted eyes of little Somali children in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya with flies buzzing about and settling around them. It was like that in Jesus’ time. Infections resulted and were transmitted from person to person.
Notice once again the extraordinary care that Jesus had for people. The blind man’s friends only asked for a touch. Jesus took the man by the hand and led him hand in hand out of the village to a place of peace and privacy. That must have been special in itself. Already this man must have felt Jesus’ presence and blessing. No doubt Jesus spoke to him and asked him about his life and reassured him as they went along. It may also be the case that Jesus wanted the first things that this man saw to be more spacious and uncluttered rather than see a mass of people at close range accompanied by some joyful hysteria. Jesus was very considerate to people. He took especial care of and for them. He still does.
People then believed that spittle had healing properties. But today if we injure a finger, in addition to saying ‘Fiddlesticks’ or ‘upon my word’ we often put our injured finger into our mouths. We may spit on a nettle sting or a scratch to clean it. By using spittle Jesus was giving this man a context for the healing that was about to take place. He could understand Jesus doing it this way. This is the only two stage miracle of Jesus. Usually there were instant results. We can assume that this was appropriate in this case. This man may have been a nervous person who needed calmed down and who needed time to adjust to what was happening to him. This is all so authentic. Jesus not managing to heal someone first go? 'Do you see anything?', he asked. The reply might suggest that this man had had sight at some stage. “I see people; they look like trees walking'. Maybe this meant that the forms were distant and vague and unfocused. Blind people have enhanced capacities of hearing and sense and intuition. Family and friends will have described many things over the years. If indeed this man had been blind from birth, he was using his imagination and his senses to describe what he was seeing for the first time. Jesus ministered again and this time the man’s sight was fully recovered. He saw everything clearly. Jesus asked him not to go back into the village square but to go straight home. He wanted the man to enjoy his new sight for himself and not be a local celebrity.
To spiritualise this and learn something from it for ourselves, we might say that none of us learns the full truth of God in one go. Or two for that matter. Conversion for some to Jesus Christ may be instantaneous, but there is a long learning curve to follow with many sign posts on the way. Our Christian life is a journey - a pilgrimage - and the Lord looks at the direction it is taking more than the pace.
Jesus and the disciples next travelled to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. Situated 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee and at the base of Mt. Hermon, Caesarea Philippi is the location of one of the largest springs feeding the Jordan River. This abundant water supply has made the area very fertile and attractive for religious worship. Numerous temples were built at this city in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. It had also once been a cult centre for Baal worship. In Jesus’ time there was a temple built on the hillside by Philip for worship of the Roman Emperor. So - this place had a history of idolatry, temple prostitution, polytheism and emperor worship. It was a strange place for a Jewish Rabbi to be visiting. It was a Las Vegas type of place.
A lot had happened in recent months and yet Jesus asks his disciples for some feed-back on how he was being perceived by the public. 'Who do people say I am?' What do people think of me? Have I achieved anything? Does anyone at all know who I really am? Has anyone a clue what my purpose is to be? For Jesus to have any effect on the human community at all, he had to convince his closest friends about the truth of his person and role. So far, the signs had not been encouraging. Even his disciples had not been able to see past the miracles or take them beyond face value. This is a human trait. God can be close to us but we treat it in a matter of fact way. People can share in the body and blood of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion and minutes later going out the Church, be talking about football or Coronation Street.
The general public reaction to Jesus as we know was positive. 'He does everything well'. 'God has visited his people'. Within the context of Judaism, Jesus was regarded highly, as a prophet, perhaps even like Elijah reborn among them. These were significant compliments. It did not satisfy Jesus. He asked his disciples 'But what about you - Who do you say I am?' It was given to Peter to answer correctly. 'You are the Messiah'. Peter placed all of Israel’s history and expectations on Jesus’ shoulders with these words. Peter’s perception was deeper than that of the public. He realised that Jesus was more than a great prophet of Judaism. But - his understanding of what the Messiah was - was conditioned by his own Judaism.
The high point of Jewish history was the reign of King David in the 10th century and the early part of his son Solomon’s reign thereafter. It had been all down hill since then. Jews lived out the great contradiction of understanding themselves as the chosen people while having suffered almost total historical annihilation over the centuries. That should not seem so strange to us. We sing all these songs about God’s sovereign Lordship over this world, about God’s Fatherly love for his creation and for the human community, about the certainty of Christian victory over sin and evil and about the reappearance of Jesus to put everything to rights. To atheists and agnostics, all this makes no sense. They see no guiding hand in the providence of the world. They acknowledge a lot of chaos. The Jews who hopes for their Messiah were not so different from us today.
After the high point in Israel’s history, ten of the tribes were carried of to Assyria and lost forever. If you think President Assad of Syria is brutal, he is like Alice in Wonderland compared with his ancestors in Biblical times. Then the Babylonians flattened Jerusalem and took the exiles away, though a remnant returned about 70 years later. Thereafter, Persians, Seleucids, Greeks and Romans in succession conquered that part of the middle east.
So Jews began to hope for and believe in a coming Messiah who would reverse their world fortunes and re-establish the Kingdom of David for ever. Orthodox Jews are still waiting for they do not accept that Jesus was their Messiah. The word Messiah meant 'Anointed One'. The one empowered to carry out God’s will. Today, Pentecostalist Christians seek spiritual anointing to be good Christians. They seek to be filled with the Holy Spirit and for them the sign and seal of this is speaking in tongues. In our Church we don’t set our sights so high. We are not so ambitious to be so close to God. We are more common sense in our Christian life and witness sometimes so much so that there is little distinction between us and non-Christians.
Jews hoped for the renovation of Jerusalem, for the expelling of all colonialists and conquerors and for the re-establishment of true worship of God. There was also an idea that Jews who had travelled and settled throughout the known world would return to Jerusalem. Palestine would become the centre of the world and the whole world would be subject to it for ever. Some people in Jesus’ time sought to make this happen by leading rebellion and insurrection against the Romans. They always came to a bad end. Whenever someone set himself up as a leader, there was excitement followed by disappointment. You can understand why when Jesus went finally into Jerusalem, he was rejected as a credible Messiah. All of this baggage was behind Peter’s confession 'You are the Messiah' - You are our Messiah - You are our long-awaited much need Messiah - You are the man - You the man.
But you can understand why Jesus so often asked people to keep quiet when he had healed them and why he slipped away into anonymity after great miracles had been seen. You can understand why his reply to Peter was 'Don’t repeat what you have just said'. 'Don’t breathe a word of this to anyone'. The text then reads 'He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again'.
Peter objected strongly to this and told Jesus in his Galilean manner it was not acceptable. That is not what happens to our Messiah. So Jesus turned on him critically, saying, 'Get behind me Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men'. Peter wanted Jesus to fit his idea of the Jewish William Wallace, the freedom fighter, King David for ever. Christianity as we know it, is the fruit of Jesus’ Messiahship as he fulfilled it. It superceeded the Jewish vision and its scope and effect has been infinitely greater. Even though today in many places in the world, Christians suffer for being Christians. We do so following Jesus.
I don’t know if any of you watched the three part TV documentary presented by Rageh Omar on the life of the Prophet Mohammad. Of course, the head of BBC TV Religion is now a Muslim. It was a sanitised version although it did deal with Mohammad’s agreement to the murder of a community of Jews and it did mention that his last of his 13 or 14 wives was only 9 years old. It made no comparison between Mohammad and Jesus. But the difference was clear.
Jesus taught his disciples that if they wanted to share in His life and purpose they would need to surrender all they knew, understood and held dear and become new people. 'Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it… if anyone is ashamed of me and my words… the Son of man will be ashamed of him'.
We are heirs of the unparalleled love and grace and kindness and providence of our Maker. Jesus’ was vindicated in resurrection. The disciples became apostles filled and empowered to preach and teach and heal and save. Our feeble and stuttering witness today is to the same great truth. 'You Jesus are the Messiah the Son of God, the Saviour of the world'. No other life compares and no other claim stands. You offer us a share in eternal life here and now and the calling and privilege of serving you. You are the One. You are the Man. You the Man.