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Pastor Glenn McDonald: The Second Touch

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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at the miracles of Jesus – his spectacular displays of supernatural power that are reported in the Gospels.   

One of the signature stories from my family of origin concerns a road trip that my mom, dad, and younger brother Bruce took to New England.

They were barreling down the interstate.  It was hot.  The windows in the station wagon were all down.  The air conditioning was perfectly functional, but Dad refused to turn it on.  That would cost money.  The wind was rushing through the car at such a velocity that the passengers could barely hear each other speak. 

Bruce, looking for a way to pass the time, picked up a handful of grapes.  He began to throw the grapes up into that stiff breeze, hoping to catch one in his mouth.  As he leaned his head back, his glasses blew right off his face – right out onto the interstate.  He immediately began yelling for Dad to stop.

My father, who had quickly calculated the cost of replacing those glasses, pulled the car off the road and began shouting at Bruce, “Go back and look for them!”  Without hesitation, Bruce obeyed – blindly obeyed, as it turned out, since without glasses or contacts my brother is legally blind.  It was obviously not the best idea for him to be feeling his way along the edge of the interstate, but that seemed to be a far safer option than lingering anywhere near Dad.   

My father quickly jumped out and joined the search.  Mom helpfully got behind the wheel of the station wagon and backed it up – right into a road sign, which crinkled the rear gate.  After a few desperate minutes of scanning the asphalt, Dad finally located the missing specs. 

If Buce had lived during Bible times, long before the invention of eyeglasses, he might still be wandering along the road between Jerusalem and Jericho looking for lost objects. 

Blind people were almost entirely dependent on the kindness of others.  Such kindness jumps off the page in Mark 8:22-25:

They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him.  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?”  He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”  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.

Blindness was a terrible burden in the ancient world. 

Twenty centuries ago, there was no known way of halting deteriorating eyesight, and the glare of the Middle Eastern sun made things even worse.  For most of us, impairment of sight is just a temporary inconvenience.  But for men and women approaching middle age during the time of Jesus, there were few options apart from receiving ever-increasing assistance from friends and family.

This man from Bethsaida is blessed to have such friends.  They bring him to Jesus.  “Please help this man,” they plead.  It was understood that the touch of a man endowed with God’s power could bring about healing.

Two things immediately take place that happen nowhere else in the Gospels. 

The first is that Jesus escorts this man outside the village to a private place.  He is not going to use this healing as a public demonstration or a theatrical prop.  He’s communicating, “I have time for you.  I want to be in your presence, one-on-one.”

In the ministry of Jesus, healing takes place in a variety of ways.  There is no final pattern or standardized set of steps. 

Within a private room, Jesus quietly speaks a command to a young girl who has died, and she awakens.  In a cemetery he shouts out loud, and Lazarus comes back to life.  He heals a servant who is miles away simply by declaring it to be so.  But he goes out of his way to make physical contact with a desperate leper.  He takes his fingers and puts them into the ears of a deaf man, and his hearing is restored.

In this account Jesus does something that today might rise to the level of criminal behavior: He spits into the eyes of the blind man.  Spitting on another human being (especially if you know you have certain communicable diseases) is punishable by prison in 11 states.  Here in my home state of Indiana, the maximum sentence is 20 years behind bars.

In the ancient world, however, a healer’s saliva was welcomed.  It made a certain kind of sense.  Most of us instinctively put a burned or cut finger into our mouth in the hopes that saliva might soothe it.  Ancient people believed that anything associated with a healer could impart restorative power.

Which brings us to the second unique feature of this story.  This healing takes place in stages.

Jesus touches once, then twice.  Many people have experienced such gradual healing.  It can take a long time to receive healing of the memories, the binding up of old wounds, and sufficient grace to work through addictions.  Jesus may need to touch us again and again. 

At certain points in the healing process we may feel just like the blind man in this story:  “I can see…sort of.  But things definitely aren’t quite right just yet.”  We need to be reminded that God is the physician.  We are his patients.  It’s up to the doctor of our souls to determine the means of our recovery, not to mention the timetable.  

It’s also clear that Jesus’ gift of healing is for the whole person, and not just for the body. Sometimes our prayers for one kind of healing actually bring about an entirely different sort of restoration. 

Back in college I sustained an injury to my right foot, in part because of the carelessness of another student.  For three decades the pain got worse, and I especially seemed to feel it after standing for several hours on Sunday mornings preaching.  The net effect is that I felt an increasing level of anger toward that other student, whom I hadn’t seen for years – ironically, while sermonizing about God’s gifts of forgiveness and grace.

During a special time of prayer, I asked others to ask God to heal my foot.  In a sense, I was asking those friends to bring me to Jesus the way the blind man’s friends escorted him. 

Healing came.  But it was not what I expected. 

 God healed my attitude toward that student, which in the end has been a truly important gift.  Interestingly, it wasn’t long after that event that someone introduced me to a different style of shoe that has significantly relieved my pain.

But some of us yearn for much, much more.  We don’t want God to substitute another kind of healing for the restoration we actively seek.  We want deliverance from this cancer, from this paralysis, or from this depression.  Why doesn’t God give us exactly what we seek?

That question is at the heart of Jesus’ anguished prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he dies.

And over the course of the next two weeks, we’ll keep it ever before us as we approach, once again, Holy Week and Good Friday.


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