Theological Geography

Sermon for Sunday, December 5, 2021 || Advent 2C || Luke 3:1-6

When I was in high school, I was a huge geography nerd. Geography was one of my specialties on my high school’s quiz bowl team. I knew every capital of every country in the world, all the major rivers and seas and mountains – you name it. One time in a competition, I had to fill out a map of the countries and capitals of Central and South America in less than two minutes. Let me stress…I cannot do that anymore. But I still find geography fascinating, and today’s Gospel lesson has a geographical bend to it. John the Baptist quotes the Prophet Isaiah, who proclaims that God will raise up valleys and lower mountains and make roads straight and even.

In today’s Gospel reading, and, indeed, in the whole season that spans Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, geography takes on a very theological dimension. That’s what we’re going to talk about this morning: theological geography. I hope you’re as excited as I am.

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On the Road

(Sermon for Sunday, October 28, 2012 || Proper 25B || Mark 10:46-52)

He can’t see them, but he knows they are coming. As he sits by the roadside, he tastes the dust cloud stirred up by their approach. He feels small tremors in the ground caused by their steady, tramping steps. He hears the snorts and bellows of animals, the jingle of bells, the laughter of people. He smells fresh bread and wet animal hair. He can’t see them, but he knows they are coming.

They begin to pass him by, a large crowd: cajoling, telling jokes and fish stories, brushing his knees with rough, hand-spun garments. They begin to pass him by, Bartimaeus, the blind beggar. They begin to pass him by, and he is as invisible to them as they are to him. They are walking on the road to Jerusalem; he is sitting by that road—just sitting, waiting for a coin or a cup of water. But soon some people mention Jesus as they pass him, and in a few moments, Jesus transforms Bartimaeus from this passive sitter by the road into an active follower on the road.

Bartimaeus probably sits in the very same spot by the road every day. Other beggars probably know that is Bartimaeus’s spot. He probably sits down by the road early in the morning and spreads his cloak over his crossed legs, making a basket to catch whatever travelers’ spare from their purses. I’m sure Bartimaeus can hear the coins jangling from their hips. By the sounds different amounts of money make, I bet he can tell how much people will toss onto his cloak. Too few coins in the purse—or too many—and he will get nothing. Bartimaeus sits by the road, waiting for that dull thud of coin on cloak. Day by day, from dew-laden morning to scalding midday to shadow-stretched evening, he sits by the road, waiting.

You might notice that I keep saying that Bartimaeus sits by the road. At first glance, Mark telling us this innocuous detail sounds like the blocking for the scene; if Mark were directing this encounter for the stage, he would plop Bartimaeus down next to, but not on, the road. Now, Mark is usually in a hurry to tell his story, but in detailing the blind beggar’s location, he slows down and sets up a profound encounter with Jesus. Before we get to that encounter, let’s go back to the seemingly insignificant detail of Bartimaeus sitting by the road. I’ll tell you about the road part now, and I promise I’ll get to the sitting part in a bit.

In Mark’s Gospel, road turns out to be a very significant word, indeed. At the beginning of his Gospel, Mark quotes the prophet Isaiah: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord…’” Now, you might be confused here because, unless you were translating that passage into Greek on the fly, you didn’t hear me say the word road. Let me try the same passage again: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your road; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the road of the Lord…’” Not as poetic, perhaps, but the point is in the original language way and road are the same word. So Bartimaeus is sitting next to the way, which we might think of as the way of the Lord. I suspect that some of you are now thinking: come on, Adam, you got all that from Mark telling us Bartimaeus is sitting by the road? Isn’t that a bit of a stretch? If you’re thinking that, just bear with me for another couple of minutes.

Okay, so Bartimaeus is sitting by the road. He is just sitting—no movement, no motion, just monotony. All too often, we are sitting by the road, too. We sit by the road when we let opportunities to serve our neighbors go by. We sit by the road when we choose not to forgive others and when we reject the forgiveness of others. We sit by the road when we rely only on ourselves and not on God to move our lives. The road is the way of Jesus Christ. When we sit by that road, we know the road is there, but we choose not to journey down the road in the company of our savior. We just sit—no movement, no motion, just monotony.

But Bartimaeus’s monotony is about to end. As he sits by the road, he hears that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. He shouts out and Jesus halts the moving crowd. Jesus stands still and calls the blind beggar forward. While Jesus takes no physical actions at all in this story, his mere presence catalyzes Bartimaeus into action. First he shouts out from his sitting position by the road. He shouts out again because he hears that Jesus is near. When Jesus calls to him, he throws off his cloak. He literally tosses his cloak aside, probably scattering coins in all directions. Then he springs up, he jumps to his feet and comes to Jesus. Each of these actions portrays an exuberance that cannot be controlled, an excitement that cannot be contained. The very presence of Jesus, even a Jesus who just stands motionless, causes Bartimaeus to leave his motionless sitting position by the road.

Imagine how odd the scene would be if Bartimaeus were politely to ask if he could talk with Jesus rather than shouting at the top of his lungs while people tried to silence him. Imagine how odd the scene would be if Bartimaeus were carefully to fold his cloak and set the garment aside before calmly standing up. No, these staid actions won’t do. The exhilaration Bartimaeus feels at being in Jesus’ presence translates into such evocative actions as throwing off his cloak and springing to his feet.

When Bartimaeus, in all his enthusiasm, comes to Jesus, Jesus asks him what he wants. I hear Bartimaeus say his next line with breathless excitement: “My teacher, let me see again.” And with a word, Jesus immediately renews his sight. When Bartimaeus regains his sight, does he go back and sit down cross-legged by the road with his cloak over his legs? Does he go back to a life of no movement, no motion, just monotony? No. Mark tells us that Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the road. Bartimaeus is now following the way of the Lord. The very presence of Jesus transforms Bartimaeus from a passive sitter by the road to an active follower on the road.

We follow that road when we take the opportunities to serve our neighbors, and when we forgive others, and when we accept forgiveness from others, and when we rely on God and not only ourselves to move our lives. This road is the way of Jesus Christ. When we follow the way we participate in God’s movement, in God’s motion, in God’s majesty. We know the way we are to follow by the presence of Jesus on the road. Like Bartimaeus, the presence of Jesus causes us to shout out and refuse to be silenced. The presence of Jesus causes us to throw off our cloaks and spring to our feet. The presence of Jesus causes us to be healed and follow Christ on the way.

When the power, when the passion, when the presence of the living God, of Jesus Christ, of the Holy Spirit erupt in and around us, we cannot stay sitting by the road for long. This eruption of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ flows into and out of us; God heals each of us and gives us the strength to spring up and follow on the way.