A Sermon by Mark D. Roberts

"Where Do We Start?"

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts          February 19, 2006

Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church

Copyright © 2006 by Mark D. Roberts

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     We're now several weeks into our preaching series on Finding God When Life is Hard. So far I've laid out some biblical basics. We've seen that Scripture acknowledges the hardness of life and gives us freedom to do the same. We've learned that the hardness of life is a result of the brokenness of creation that comes as a result of human sin. And we've recognized how hard it is when God allows us to suffer, yet how wonderful it is that He enters into our pain and ultimately sets us free from it.

     With this sermon I want to begin to speak practically of how we can find God when life is hard, or, as I've suggested before, how we can be found by God when life is hard. Today's title, you may have noticed, is "Where Do We Start?" This is our question: When we're in a hard place in life, when we're struggling with pain or fear or whatever, where do we start to find God? What should be our first step?

     An answer to this question comes from the Gospel of Mark, in a passage that describes Jesus's interaction with a blind man named Bartimaeus. So listen to God's Word from Mark 10, verses 46-52.

Scripture Reading: Mark 10:46-52

     They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Trapped in the Library

     When I arrived as a freshman at Harvard in 1975, the University was in the finishing stages of building Pusey Library, a mammoth structure that was, for the most part, completely underground. For months my college roommates and I would peer through the darkened windows of Pusey, wondering what it was like inside. Then, one Sunday on the way back from lunch, we noticed that the building seemed to be open. There hadn't been an official grand opening or anything like that yet. But, for the first time, students were allowed inside Pusey Library.

     My roommates and I thought it would be fun to explore, so we showed our student ID's to the guard at the door and entered the formerly forbidden corridors of Pusey. The building was mostly deserted. For more than an hour we prowled the halls, going up and down empty elevators, peering into rooms full of empty stacks, checking out the comfy chairs, and so forth.

     As we neared the end of our self-guided tour, we took an elevator to a room on the top floor, which was underground, though it had windows that opened into light wells on the outside of the building. The room was filled with hundreds of boxes. Upon examination, we found that they contained what appeared to be some sort of archival material, old letters and the like. Since there was little of interest in that room, we pressed the elevator button so we could leave. But the elevator door wouldn't open. Trying the door to hall, we found it to be locked with a keyed bolt lock. The phones weren't working yet either. No elevator. No exit. No phones. We were trapped in a virtually empty building, with no obvious means of escape, except, I suppose for breaking a window, which didn't seem like a good idea.

     It dawned on us that we were in a mess of trouble. If somebody didn't find us, we'd be stuck in this room overnight, without water, food, or even a bathroom. Not a happy thought! So we figured the only way we'd be saved would be if we could get somebody's attention by banging on the subterranean windows and yelling. We did this for quite a while, to no avail. But, finally, a man walking by heard our pleadings, waved enthusiastically, and then disappeared. Maybe, just maybe, we were in luck.

The Desperation of Bartimaeus

     When I read the story of Bartimaeus, I'm reminded of my brief ordeal in Pusey Library. Why? Because it was a time in my life when I desperately cried out for help. My roommates and I needed someone to save us. It's not too much of a stretch to say that we needed some passerby to have mercy on us, at least long enough to let somebody in authority know of our predicament. For many tense minutes in Pusey, I felt a tiny bit like Bartimaeus, the blind beggar.

     Of course, if nobody had stopped to pity my roommates and me, the worse we'd have experienced was one uncomfortable night in the university archives. For Bartimaeus the stakes were much higher. He was blind, with no hope of a cure. Thus he was forced into a dishonorable life of begging. His blindness had alienated him from his neighbors, who regarded him as a bother and an embarrassment. That's the reason, I suppose, they tried to shut up Bartimaeus when Jesus was passing by. They didn't want to foist their civic shame upon a visiting holy man.

     No doubt Bartimaeus had heard about Jesus. He had learned that Jesus might be the Messiah, the Son of David who had come to deliver Israel from Roman domination. Moreover, and this is what caused hope to pulse through his veins, Bartimaeus had heard stories of Jesus healing people. Not only might Jesus be the One to save Israel from the Romans, but also He might be the One to save Bartimaeus from blindness. Jesus was his hope, his last hope, his only hope.

     So when he heard that Jesus was nearby, Bartimaeus began to call out, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Even when the people standing around tried to shut him up, Bartimaeus kept on, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" The more the folks nearby tried to silence this blind nuisance, the louder he cried, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" After all, what did he have to lose?

A Cry for Mercy

     Bartimaeus cried out for mercy. We often think of mercy as not getting something negative that we deserve. If a Highway Patrol officer pulls you over for speeding, and you were going 20 miles an hour over the speed limit, then you're in need of mercy. You hoping not to get the ticket you deserve. Mercy is thus different from justice. Justice means getting what you deserve; mercy is getting better.

     My roommates and I did receive mercy from the man who had seen us trapped in the library. He told the library guard, and before long library officials and Harvard University police officers showed up to set us free, or so we thought. But they were at first suspicious, treating us more like suspects of crime than victims of a faulty elevator. Yet we didn't need mercy from them. We simply needed justice because we had done nothing wrong. Eventually they let us go, but not before taking our ID numbers and issuing several threats about what would happen to us if we had damaged any of the archival materials.

     The biblical understanding of mercy includes the notion of not getting negative consequences we deserve (so Psalm 51). But mercy is broader than this. In the Old Testament, mercy is often connected with God's covenant faithfulness to Israel. Moreover, one of the Hebrew words often translated as mercy is literally the plural of the Hebrew term for "womb." Mercy is the intense compassion that a mother has for her own children.

     There's nothing quite like the love of a mother for her own child. No doubt you've seen this to be true, and I hope it's something you experienced when you were young. My children know instinctively how special a mother's care can be. When they're not feeling well and Linda isn't home, for example, I can tend to their every need, exercising every bit of tenderness I can muster. Still, their persistent question is, "When will mom get home?" No matter how hard I try, I still can't quite imitate the womb-like mercy of a mom.

     Asking for mercy implies dependence, like that of a child upon its mother. It's a one-down, one-up relationship. The person crying out for mercy is one-down, needy and vulnerable. The one from whom mercy is requested is one-up, resourceful and strong. Thus in Psalm 69 David cries out to the Lord in desperation:

[R]escue me
     from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from my enemies
     and from the deep waters.
Do not let the flood sweep over me,
     or the deep swallow me up,
     or the Pit close its mouth over me.
Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good;
     according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.
                              (vv. 14-16)

     In a similar fashion Bartimaeus cries out from his place of desperation, asking Jesus to notice him, to take pity on him, to help him, in a word, to have mercy on him: "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Bartimaeus has no moral or legal claim upon Jesus. Jesus isn't obligated to care about Bartimaeus. Thus the beggar doesn't ask for justice. He doesn't seek what he deserves. He seeks mercy, nothing less. "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"

Where Do We Start?

     When it comes to finding God when life is hard, I'd suggest that we start by joining Bartimaeus, and crying out: "Have mercy on me!" Here is where we begin when we're seeking God when life is hard. We are like Bartimaeus: hurting, needy, hopeful, but desperate. In calling out to God for mercy, we are, clearly, one-down in the relationship, or one-hundred-down, more likely. We are sinking into the mire, with the flood waters threatening to swallow us up. We've exhausted our own resources. And we have nothing left but to cry out to God, "Have mercy on me!"

     We might at first be inclined to pray for justice: "God, I'm not such a bad person. I don't deserve what's happening to me. Give me what I'm due." But the more we reflect on the brokenness of our world and our own participation in this brokenness, the more we take seriously the holiness and righteousness of God, combined with our unholiness and unrighteousness, the more we realize that we don't need justice, but mercy. We need to receive better than we deserve. Moreover, we need God to care for us in the way a mother tenderly loves her own child. In the biblical language, we need mercy.

     Yet most of us don't like to be one-down in relationship with anybody, not even with God. So we can have a hard time crying out for mercy because it feels so needy, so dependent, so childlike. It feels contrary to the grown up people we try to be. It strips away the masks of self-sufficiency we like to wear. But until we can accept our own childlike position before God, until we can see ourselves like Bartimaeus, we won't be ready to find God when life is hard.

     This, by the way, is similar to the starting point of the 12-Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous and so many other recovery groups. What is the first of the 12 Steps? "We admitted we were powerless over our addiction - that our lives had become unmanageable." Healing starts with an admission that we are powerless, that we can't solve our problem ourselves, and that it is ruining our lives. What is the second of the 12 Steps? "We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." Only God, according to the founders of AA, can help us. And so we turn to God, admitting our own powerlessness, acknowledging that God's power alone can save us.

     If you're struggling with alcoholism or other addictions, I would encourage you to find a 12-Step program today. But no matter what is making your life difficult -- be it addiction or cancer, be it family conflict or financial adversity, be it the death of a loved one or the unrelenting heaviness of depression - whatever is making your life hard today, I'd urge you to join Bartimaeus by crying out to God: "Have mercy on me!"

     Yes, this means you're one-down before God. Yes, it means you can't help yourself. Yes, it means you are needy. Yes, it means only God can help you. Yes, this isn't something we like to admit. Yes, this isn't good news. But it's the truth. And it's where we must start if we're going to find God when life is hard.

The Good News

     I just said that our neediness isn't good news. That's obvious. But accepting this bad news prepares us to receive the good news. Our cry for mercy opens our hearts to receive mercy, because God is merciful. And this is very, very good news.

     We see God's mercy throughout the Old Testament. Psalm 145 celebrates:

The LORD is gracious and merciful [rachum],
     slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The LORD is good to all,
     and his compassion [rachamai] is over all that he has
          made (vv. 8-9)

Through Isaiah the Lord says,

Can a woman forget her nursing child,
     or show no compassion [merachem] for the child of her womb.
Even these may forget,
     yet I will not forget you (49:15).

In other words, the compassion of God is like the womb-mercy of a nursing mother, only better.

     The New Testament fills out this image of a merciful God. In 2 Corinthians God is referred to as "the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation" (1:3). According to Ephesians, God is "rich in mercy" (2:4). 1 Peter explains, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1:3). Because of what God has done in Christ, Hebrews offers this invitation: "Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (4:16).

     Thus Jesus, in his encounter with Bartimaeus, does more than to show mercy by healing him. Jesus also reveals the merciful heart of God. When we cry out for mercy, God hears us, and He will respond, much as Jesus did to Bartimaeus. Now I've already acknowledged in this preaching series that God's response often doesn't come according to our timetable. And, I might add, God's mercy sometimes doesn't feel like mercy, at least not at the moment. But we can stake our lives on the fact that God is indeed rich in mercy. His compassion for us exceeds even that of a mother for her tiny baby. This is the truth, and it's great news.

The Mercy of God's Timing

     I believe that there's even mercy in God's timing, though I've admitted that I find God's slowness to be hard to understand. Yet, when I think of my own life, I recognize times when God did not at first answer my prayers because they weren't yet cries for mercy.

     I've told the following story before, but it deserves another round, I think, especially since I opened this sermon with a story from my freshman year of college. It's only fitting to close with another story from that same year.

     I went to Harvard with confidence in my ability to defend my Christian faith in the face of what I expected to be an onslaught of criticism. I had read lots of books on apologetics. I had mastered arguments that showed why it was reasonable to be a Christian. I could respond to the major objections to faith. So, when friends at church told me they were worried about what would happen to my faith at school, I reassured them that I was more than ready.

     And I was, in many ways. During the first weeks of school, my roommates - yes, the ones with whom I was trapped in Pusey - tried to argue me out of my faith. But I won the arguments. I think even they'd admit it. My faith was safely protected behind my fortress of logical proofs. The problem was that, in spite of my victories in debate, I began to feel my faith slip away. God seemed very distant, very silent. My attempts to argue myself back into faith were increasingly unpersuasive. My prayers for help went unanswered. For weeks I cried out to God: "Help me to believe in You! Make Yourself known to me!" But during these weeks I fell further and further into the pit of doubt and despair. I remember distinctly walking through Harvard Yard, only 25 yards from Pusey Library, ironically enough, and thinking to myself, "If God doesn't exist, or if I can't believe in Him anymore, then I don't know if life is worth living."

     What I came to realize during these weeks of doubt was that faith wasn't something I could fully control. All the arguments in the world couldn't make me believe if God didn't help me. My mask of self-suffciency as a believer was stripped away, and beneath it was a frightened, needy, helpless agnostic.

     One Friday evening I was working in the dishroom of Dunster House, one of the upperclass dorms. This was a good place to pray, because it was loud in there and because I was pretty much alone while I worked. I remember crying out to God with many tears, "Why can't I believe in You? Why can't I believe in You anymore?" In a moment of desperation I prayed, "If You don't make Yourself known to me, if You don't help me to believe, then I'll never be able to do it again." I felt as if I had fallen into the pit of unbelief, never to see the light of faith again.

     That night I couldn't sleep because my sense of helplessness before God kept me awake. I couldn't very well pray in my suite in my dorm, Straus Hall, because I would bother my roommates. So I walked over to the common room where I could be alone. As I sat in the darkness, I confessed to God my inability to believe in Him. I admitted that I didn't deserve His help. Though I can't remember if I used the word "mercy," I was surely repeating the prayer of Bartimaeus, "Have mercy on me! Have mercy on me!"

     As I wept before the Lord, all of a sudden I sensed what I can only call His presence. It's nothing that I did or talked myself into, I can assure You. I felt a deep stillness in my soul. I sensed my doubts melting away in warmth of God's love. Soon my desperation turned into the most serene peace I had ever known. And then my peace became joy, joy beyond any happiness I had ever felt. I have no idea how long I remained in the Straus common room, praising and thanking God for His goodness to me.

     That night I had a Bartimaeus experience, as I received mercy. And, like Bartimaeus, having receiving mercy beyond my wildest dreams, I began to follow Jesus in a whole new way. I stand before you today as your pastor, to a large extent because of God's mercy poured out upon me that night more than thirty years ago.

     As I think back on that whole experience, I can now understand why God let me sink so deeply into doubt. He was graciously, mercifully stripping away my self-reliance, my belief that I could be a Christian on the basis of my own intellect. God was lovingly helping me to realize the truth of my neediness. He was tenderly revealing my helplessness, so I would finally turn to Him for mercy. Though I couldn't see it when I was in the midst of my struggle, I now can see clearly the mercy of God's timing in my life. He wanted me to get to the place of Bartimaeus, so I would finally be open to His mercy.

     Where should we start to find God when life is hard? We start like Bartimaeus, aware of our neediness, calling out to God for mercy. And God, who is rich in mercy, will hear us. In His time and His way, He will tenderly, compassionately, and lovingly make us whole. This is the good news! Believe it!


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