Sermon for Quinquagesima
Luke 18:31-43 + Isaiah 35:3-7 + 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Our Gospel today is full of blind people. Did you catch it? Did you notice how all three groups of people mentioned in the Gospel were blind in one way or another – the twelve disciples, the beggar at the city gates of Jericho, and the crowds that were accompanying Jesus on this final leg of his final journey to Jerusalem? All were blind in their own way, and yet the blindness of all three was remedied by Jesus, not necessarily with sight, but most definitely with faith. What about you? Are you seeing or are you blind? Are you like the disciples or the beggar or the crowds, or like all three? Hear the Word of God today, and if you think you’re not blind, think again. We’re all blind in this life, and Jesus remedies blindness – not with sight, but with faith.
First, take the twelve, Jesus’ chosen apostles. It’s almost Holy Week. And Jesus takes them aside and privately explains in the simplest possible language the events that would take place during that awful and blessed week. Jesus gives his disciples a play by play of the six different ways he, the Son of Man would be abused and tortured and then killed, and then gives away the ending, too, with the prophecy of his resurrection. All of this will happen, he tells them. All of this has been planned since before the world’s foundation was laid and predicted through the Old Testament prophets. All of this must happen, Jesus says, and all of this I go to gladly and willingly, for you.
What Jesus was describing was, very simply, exactly how he would redeem sinners by his blood. What he was describing was how he, the Son of Man, loved sinners with the love St. Paul described in the Epistle today, 1 Cor. 13, the selfless, sacrificial love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, the love that never, ever ends.
And Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand a thing he said. They did not grasp it. In that sense, they were blind. Why? Did Jesus fail to use the right words? Did he fail to teach them correctly? No. They didn’t understand, because it was hidden from them. The Word of God is clear as crystal, and the message of man’s sin and God’s salvation through the substitutionary love and the substitutionary suffering of Christ is presented plain as day, even in the Old Testament. But human nature is dull and incapable of understanding it without the Holy Spirit’s enlightenment.
Nevertheless, what did the disciples do? Did they go home? Did they throw up their hands and say, “Bah! We give up! We don’t understand!” No, even in the face of some very scary sayings of Jesus, they just kept following him to Jerusalem. They stayed with him. They kept listening to him and watching him, struggling all the while with their doubts and fears. And eventually, after the events of Holy Week were over and done, Jesus himself opened their minds, Luke says in chapter 24, so that they could understand what the prophets had written and what Jesus had said. Even though they didn’t understand yet at this point, they trusted Jesus enough to just keep following.
There’s a lesson for us here. This blindness of Jesus’ disciples, this failure to understand Jesus’ words and works – that’s awfully familiar to you, isn’t it? It is to me. I’ll cut the disciples some slack. They followed Jesus for three years. I’ve followed him for 38, some of you have followed him longer than that. And I’m still confused by some of the things Jesus has said in the Holy Scriptures, by some of the things Jesus has done, and still does. I don’t fully grasp his plans for his Church on earth – why things are as messed up as they are in the world and in the Church, this Christian life of bearing the blessed cross. Much of the time, I simply don’t get it. It’s hidden from me. And I still can’t fathom the depth of my sin or of Jesus’ perfect love, his total commitment to the welfare of sinners, like me and like you, that led him to the cross and still leads him to show us mercy every day of our lives. And I don’t think I’m alone in my blindness, am I?
But see! That’s nothing new. You don’t always have to understand. Sometimes things will be hidden from you. So what do you do? Give up? Stop trying? Grow indifferent toward doctrine – or toward Jesus, or toward your neighbor? No. You keep following Jesus. You keep hearing and listening, because while you may not understand everything, you know from the Holy Scriptures that Jesus is the Son of God who loved you and gave himself for you. You know that, by faith alone in him, you have forgiveness of your sins. If you’re a Christian, then you know that much, and it’s enough, until the Holy Spirit chooses, little by little, to unhide the rest.
Next, take the blind beggar. We know from Mark that his name was Bartimaeus. The fact that we know his name probably means that he continued to be a follower of Jesus for many years after this event. He was blind in that his eyes didn’t work. But already before his eyes were fixed, before he even cried out for help, the word of Christ had reached him. He had heard how kind and loving Jesus was, that he was a Savior, even the promised Messiah, the Son of David, and the Holy Spirit had given him the gift of faith.
How do we know that? Because he did exactly what a believer does. To have faith is to know that you have a great need, to know that Jesus is the one who can help, and to want to be helped by him. That’s faith. And so the one who has faith calls out to Jesus for help and clings to him and won’t let him go, even in the face of opposition and adversity. That’s what Bartimaeus did. He kept calling out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The crowds tried to stop him but he wouldn’t let them deter him. His faith triumphed over their rebukes. This was his chance! Jesus was passing by! “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” So Jesus called for him to be brought over and asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” “Lord, I want to see!” And at once Jesus fixed his eyes and said, “See! Your faith has saved you.”
As we’ve seen so often in the Gospels, faith is praised as a glorious thing, not because it’s such a worthy attribute, but because it seeks mercy where God wants to give mercy. It seeks mercy where God has promised to have mercy – in Christ Jesus. Faith clings to Christ. Over and over the Scriptures teach us that faith alone saves, because faith despairs of oneself, despairs of everything and everyone else and lays hold of Christ, with his help, with his mercy, with his perfect righteousness and his atoning sacrifice for sin. And faith always, always finds a Savior in Jesus.
There’s a lesson for us here, too. Faith is not a meritorious thing, that is, it doesn’t earn anything from God. But neither is faith an idle thing. If you have a great need, and you believe that Jesus is merciful, that Jesus is a good Savior, then you go to him for help. You call out to him in prayer, Kyrie, Eleison! Lord, have mercy! The world will try to silence you so that you despair of his help. But faith won’t be silenced. So whatever mercy you need from him – whether it’s the need for forgiveness which we all have every single day, or the need for daily bread, for protection, for deliverance from some danger, for patience or courage or love or wisdom, you pray to him in faith, “Lord, I want to see!” And you trust that he’ll help you in the best possible way. Why? Because he shows you in today’s Gospel that he will, and that he wants you to seek his help in faith, just like blind Bartimaeus did.
Finally, take the crowds that were following Jesus to Jerusalem. They were leading a battle march to Jerusalem, a triumphal parade in which Jesus was the guest of honor, but they – they were his loyal followers. They would share with him in whatever glory he would have in Jerusalem. They had no idea he was going there to die. In that way, they were blind.
But they were also blind in another way. They’re so caught up in their own glory-seeking, their own self-aggrandizing that, when they hear this blind beggar calling out after Jesus for mercy, trying to slow him down – trying to slow them down on their triumphal march!, they get angry with him. They try to shut him up and silence him.
Why would they do that? They do that because they are blind to mercy. They don’t see the blind beggar as their neighbor who desperately needs Jesus’ mercy right here, right now. They don’t see that Jesus has come for the sole purpose of having mercy on blind beggars, on people whose sin has made them poor and destitute, on people who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. They don’t see their own need for Jesus’ mercy, and so they begrudge the beggar of Jesus’ mercy, too. It’s like they want to get ahead of Jesus and leave him and his mercy behind.
But Jesus opens their eyes, too. He forces them to stop their grand procession. He calls the blind man over and shows him mercy. Then what? Then Bartimaeus followed Jesus, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God. And so they all followed Jesus together to Jerusalem.
We can learn something from the blindness of the crowd, too. Jesus did not come to this earth to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus did not call his Church into existence so that his Church should walk in glorious procession on this earth, but so that his Church might be characterized by acts of mercy and love. The Church is to be a place of mercy all the time – a place for receiving mercy from Jesus in Word and Sacrament, and then giving out Jesus’ mercy to those who need it. If we lose focus on Jesus mercy for us and for all sinners, if we fall into a Christian life that wants to leave mercy in the dust as we get on to “bigger and better” things, then we become blind like the crowds in their glorious procession. So stop your glorious procession and watch Jesus heal the blind beggar. Stop and see how good and merciful he is to all. Repent of your blindness to mercy and trust in Jesus to have mercy on you, too. Then praise God with a joyful heart, that he has given you in Jesus such a merciful Savior.
Praise him also by following him to Jerusalem. That’s what we do during the season of Lent that begins this Wednesday. We follow Jesus. Take the extra time this season to hear and to watch and to learn and to pray. And see Jesus’ mercy in action every step of the way. Whatever blindness plagues you, just keep following Jesus, and he will remedy your blindness, not with sight, but with faith. And what a great blessing that will be! Because we are not saved by sight of Jesus Christ, but by faith in Jesus Christ. Faith is far better than sight. Amen.