SCRIPTURE – Mark 8:22-26 –
22 They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. 23 He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”
24 He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”
25 Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26 Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.”
The Cross-Eyed Miracle
Nov. 23, 2014
We conclude our sermon series on miracles today. We’ve seen Jesus do a lot of amazing things these past few weeks. He’s provided two miraculous catches of fish, healed a man’s withered hand, cast out demons, and even raised a girl from the dead, all for the purpose of helping us get a glimpse of what God’s kingdom is like. For just a moment, he’s shown us a world with no pain, no death, where everyone has enough to eat. In other words, he’s helped us see that there’s more to see than just this world around us. So it’s only appropriate that the last miracle we look at is healing a blind man. It’s a peculiar story, only found in Mark’s gospel. The other three gospel writers may have left it out because, on first reading, it sounds like Jesus botches the healing. But, as usual, there’s more at play here than meets the eye.
This story comes at an important time in Mark’s text. For a while now Jesus has been dealing with two groups of people who have caused him constant consternation: the Pharisees and the disciples. The Pharisees have been a thorn in his side because they have steadfastly and stubbornly opposed Jesus’ teachings, unwilling to see things from his kingdom-of-God point of view. They are blinded to who he really is.
On the other hand, the disciples have been eagerly following Jesus, but have also failed to recognize the true identity of the man in front of them. Despite Jesus’ patience, they can’t seem to grasp that he is revealing to them a greater truth than what they have experienced. In the first part of chapter 8, Jesus feeds 4000 people with baskets of food left over. After the feeding, he sternly warns the disciples about the Pharisees, but as usual they completely miss the point. And Jesus says, “Do you still not understand who I am? Do you have eyes but fail to see?”
With both groups, Jesus is dealing with a case of spiritual blindness, people who have eyes, but fail to see. So with that setup, we get this story of the healing of the blind man. The blind man is brought to Jesus, but instead of Jesus healing him, he takes him outside the village. The village of Bethsaida had been the site of several of Jesus’ miracles, but in Matthew 11 Jesus curses the town because they had seen all these signs of who he really is and they still didn’t get it. They were probably looking for Jesus to wow them by pulling another rabbit out of his hat, but he wasn’t in the entertainment business. So he leads the man out of town, away from the distractions and clutter.
I took a youth group on a weekend team-building retreat once, and one of our activities was to partner up and lead each other through the woods with one of us blind-folded. I earnestly prayed to God not to let me get paired with Craig, the group’s biggest show-off and troublemaker. He was about as sharp as a bowling ball, so I wasn’t ready to put my life in his hands. Of course, I was partnered with Craig. He led me down paths, over fallen trees, under drooping branches. When he said to step over a log, I had to trust we weren’t on the edge of a cliff. And he never misled me. Likewise, Jesus leads this man away from a place of disease to a place of healing. But it’s really, really hard to trust Jesus to do these things because we aren’t aware of our own blindness. Sometimes we live with blinders on, not seeing what Jesus can do for us and where he can lead us.
They arrive outside the village and Jesus performs the healing by spitting in the man’s eyes. That may seem a little rude to us, but the general understanding in Jesus’ time was that there was healing power in saliva. Think about it: when you burn your finger, what’s the first thing you do? You put it in your mouth. Which makes me glad that we don’t believe there’s healing power in earwax, because we’d look pretty silly. So Jesus spits in this man’s eyes and puts his hand on him and asks, “Do you see anything?” And the man responds that he sees people, but they look like trees walking around. Jesus then touches him a second time, and the man’s sight is fully restored.
I wore glasses or contact lenses from seventh grade until 2001, when I was lucky enough to have Lasik eye surgery. I got a discount because my aunt worked for the doctor, but I don’t like to tell people that, because it sounds a bit sketchy. Discount muffler service? Yes. Discount eye surgery? Not so good. And it came with a free set of knives! My vision before the surgery was horrible. After the surgery, as I laid in the recovery room, I opened my eyes and could already tell a difference. The trees I saw walking around had facial features. By the next day, there was a noticeable improvement. Within weeks I had 20/20 vision.
In our story, this man doesn’t see clearly right away, either, but I don’t think that has anything to do with Jesus’ power to heal or the man’s ability to see. Instead, what’s going on here is directly related to the blindness of the disciples and the Pharisees and the Bethsaida crowds. Jesus had become known, against his will, for his signs and wonders. The crowds loved him for it, the Pharisees hated him for it, and the disciples were confused by it. Jesus was known as a miracle worker.
But there’s way more to Jesus than that. With his first touch, he helped the man see. With his second touch, he helped the man understand what he saw. The Pharisees, the disciples, the crowds, they all saw Jesus. But they didn’t know him; they didn’t understand him. “Do you have eyes but fail to see?” What we choose to look at becomes our focus. They were so focused on Jesus’ ability to heal that they were blinded to the meaning of Jesus’ healings; they failed to see the glimpse of God’s kingdom that Jesus was showing them.
Developing that kind of vision takes time, just as it took time for my eyes to completely heal from the surgery. But often our prayers reflect a desire for Jesus to act now. John Calvin called it instantaneous grace: heal me now, forgive me now, give me stronger faith now. Calvin says on rare occasions the grace of Christ is poured out all at once, but most of the time it flows to us drop by drop. We think God should act on our timetable, but then it wouldn’t be grace, it would be God acting as our spiritual vending machine. Receiving Christ’s grace gradually, drop by drop, may actually be the best way, because when we experience God’s grace one drop at a time, one moment at a time, we savor it more and don’t come to think we deserve it.
The key is opening our eyes to see the drops of grace all around us. We’re human, so naturally we don’t get it the first time. We need a second touch, or a third, or a fourth. Or a thousandth. We need constant spiritual eye surgery, we need Christ’s repeated touches to help us see with our hearts the work of God in our lives. That’s how my faith has developed. I didn’t have instant faith. Instead, my faith has grown, drop by drop, as I’ve seen God’s presence in my life. Each day, I pray to wake up with a little more clarity, with my ability to see God at work a little closer to 20/20 than it was yesterday.
I remember early in my ministry I was driving back from a regional meeting with several older, more experienced pastors. I was intimidated by their wisdom and their poise and starting to doubt whether this whole ministry thing was really for me. God had shown me my call to serve, but I was focused on all the reasons I wasn’t good enough. I was choosing to look at all the reasons I thought I shouldn’t be a minister.
As I was driving, I passed an exit signed I’d never noticed before. It said, “Paw Paw, 1 mile.” I guess there’s a town in Illinois called Paw Paw. That’s also what I called my grandfather who had passed away a little over a year ago. Paw Paw was always my biggest supporter and was so proud of me for becoming a minister. When I got to the exit, the sign said, “Paw Paw” and had an arrow pointing up the ramp. Only, to me, it looked like it was pointing up to somewhere else. Ok, God, I get it. I get it. Drop, drop, drop. And there was God’s grace. Just when I needed it, there was another touch from Christ, helping me to see a little more clearly the kingdom of God around me.
We are the constant recipients of God’s miraculous grace, if we have the eyes to see it. When someone says, “I’m praying for you,” that’s grace. When a child says, “I love you,” that’s grace. When someone takes a moment to smile at you, even if you don’t deserve a smile at that particular moment, that’s grace. If we only look for the signs and wonders, if we only look for what Jesus can do for us, if we only look for God when we’re in trouble, we will probably be disappointed. We may think we can see just fine, but if that’s all we are looking for, we are really blind to how God is at work in our lives. A great way to end each day is to take a moment and reflect on this question: Where did I experience God’s grace today? If you can’t answer that, maybe you’re looking for the wrong things.
Helen Keller said, “It’s a terrible thing not to be able to see. But it’s even more terrible to be able to see but to not have vision.” What we choose look at becomes our focus. So I wonder, as we approach Advent this year, where will our focus be? Will the image of baby Jesus be blurry, crowded out by all the other distractions of the season? Will we set our eyes on the things we buy, the things we get? Or will we look at the baby lying in the manger and what his birth means for us this year? What we look at becomes our focus. Each time God touches our lives, we can see a little better his kingdom all around us. How many times will God touch us? As many as it takes. But the real question is: Will we have the eyes to see it, to take in and savor the drops of grace all around us? Where is our focus? We have eyes; may God grant us the ability to see.