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Sermon for Quinquagesima
1 Corinthians 13:1-13 + Luke 18:31-43
Today is Quinquagesima—the 50th day before Easter, exactly. Just as we look back on Easter from the day of Pentecost, the 50th day after Easter, so we now look forward 50 days. Why? Because the church year centers around Easter, because the Christian life centers around Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection as the source of our life. So today we look forward, peering over the season of Lent, which begins this Wednesday, with Easter waiting in the distance. But we might as well not even bother with Lent or Holy Week or even Easter, unless we turn to the Lord for understanding, for insight, for spiritual growth, for the grace of seeing Christ without being able to see Him.
For that grace, we naturally turn to the Word of God—the Holy Spirit’s instrument for enlightening eyes that are unable to see by our own powers.
In the Gospel, Jesus teaches His disciples very plainly about all that is to come: He took the twelve aside and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.” But they understood none of these things; this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know the things which were spoken.
Jesus predicts His suffering. He outlines all that will happen to Him—all of which we’ll hear about during Holy Week, how it all actually played out—and instead of trying to avoid it or change it, He makes it clear that He is knowingly about to walk right into it. He’s still “going up to Jerusalem.”
Why? Because mankind is doomed. Man has already destroyed himself. He is born and lives under God’s condemnation. There’s no restoring humanity. They’re no hope of the human race evolving or becoming better, of overcoming its sinfulness, of escaping death, of approaching the holy God who thundered down His Ten Commandments from Mt. Sinai.
Only the suffering and death of the Son of God can serve as the remedy. Only the suffering and death of God’s innocent Son can reconcile sinners with God. So Jesus, with mankind’s salvation as His sole purpose, prepares to offer Himself.
We note also that Jesus prophesies how it will all end, with His resurrection from the dead. It’s a foregone conclusion. He will conquer sin, death and the devil.
But even Jesus’ own disciples, the apostles, can’t see it. It was “hidden from them.” Looking back, we can see God’s purpose in hiding it from them. So that Judas could go through with his plan to betray Jesus. So that Jesus would suffer alone, without the understanding of anyone on earth. So that the disciples might learn to trust in Jesus even without understanding. And so that we could benefit from all of it.
See what comfort there is in the disciples’ lack of understanding. Those who should have understood the most understood the least. For those times when you don’t understand what God’s Word is plainly saying, when you don’t understand why the Son of God allows Himself to be so despised in the world, or how His body, the Church, must suffer on earth, when you don’t grasp that it really will be OK in the end, both for Jesus and for His dear Church, others have been there before. Pillars of the Church, even. What do you do in those times? Do what the disciples did. Just keeping following Jesus anyway. Stay close to Him. Keep listening to Him. Keep asking the Lord to open the eyes of your understanding. He will do it, maybe now, maybe later, to give you the grace of seeing Christ without being able to see Him.
Just as He literally did with the blind man in the Gospel.
Three of the four Gospels include this account near the city of Jericho as Jesus was approaching Jerusalem to suffer. The other Evangelists tell us that there were actually two blind men, one of whom was named Bartimaeus.
Bartimaeus can’t see. But he uses his working sense of hearing, which is even better than seeing when it comes to spiritual things, since “faith comes by hearing.” He hears the commotion surrounding Jesus’ growing procession toward Jerusalem and gets an explanation from someone about what was happening.
That was all it took. He cried out, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
What we find is that the blind beggar can see better than anyone around him. Bartimaeus calls out for mercy from the Son of David. “Son of David” was another name for “Messiah” or “Christ.” Whoever told him that Jesus was passing by must have also told him, “This is the Son of David!” And just like that, the blind man believed. Through that simple word, Bartimaeus was given the grace of seeing Jesus as the Christ, even without being able to see Him. And because he believed, he spoke. He reasoned, If this is the Son of David, then He has come to help. He has come to save. Well, I need help, so I’ll ask Him for it. Bartimaeus hadn’t spent three years with Jesus, like the apostles had. He heard only what the people were saying about Jesus. And then, as one who had nothing but the Word to go on, to live on, he begged. Have mercy on me, Son of David!
That’s what true faith always does and only does. It begs for mercy in any and every form: mercy, because you’re sinful and unclean; mercy, because you’re sick or dying; mercy, because you need something that no one can provide but God Himself. A true believer in Christ knows how desperate his situation is, how he has nothing spiritually, and also depends on God for everything physically. Even when you don’t know exactly what you need, the cry, “Have mercy!” is always appropriate.
In every account, the crowd warns the blind beggar to be quiet—not unlike the world around us that calls us foolish for praying to God, for believing in God at all in our “enlightened” age of “science.” But what the crowd did was, arguably, even worse. Imagine believing that Jesus is, in fact, the Son of David, the Christ, as the crowd claimed to believe, and then trying to silence the one who is calling on the Son of David for help. Is that the patience, is that the longsuffering, is that the love that St. Paul wrote about in the Epistle? Not at all. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. But the crowd was unwilling to endure even the genuine, faith-filled cries of the blind beggar, calling after Jesus for mercy.
But no one can silence his cries to the Son of David, because he believes. If he believes in Jesus, why would he ever stop crying out for mercy? Why would you? No, the beggar knew Jesus better than the crowd. He knew love better than the crowd. Love enabled him to hope all things from Jesus, and love enabled him to endure all things from the crowd. Love, which flowed from faith.
Jesus asks him what he wants. The man’s a beggar, after all. He’s been crying out for mercy, which could refer to anything. Maybe he’s only looking to Jesus for a handout, for some money, for a bite to eat. Maybe that’s what the crowd thinks, too. So Bartimaeus spells it out, “Lord, that I may receive my sight.”
And the Lord grants his request. Receive your sight; your faith has made you well. Anyone could have given the man a little money. Anyone could have given him a bite to eat. But only Jesus could cure his blindness. And once again we’re taught the simple truth: faith alone saves, because faith relies on God’s promise to be merciful through Jesus, the Son of David. Only through Jesus does God provide the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation.
Bartimaeus glorified God and followed Jesus, and it appears that he kept following Jesus. The fact that we know his name is a strong indication that he was part of that first Christian Church that grew out of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection.
And still today, Bartimaeus has helped us as we prepare to follow Jesus toward the cross and toward the resurrection. He’s reminded us how blind we are by nature to the things of God, but how powerful the Word of God is to open the eyes of faith. So take the extra time during the Lenten season to hear God’s Word every Sunday and in our midweek services, and to study it in your homes, and not only to hear it and study it, but to ponder it and take it to heart. He’s reminded us what we’re doing here, following Jesus, that the Christian life is not meant to be a triumphal procession toward earthly glory, but a constant cry for mercy in our great need, and a constant supply of mercy from Jesus. So pray earnestly during the Lenten season, and don’t let anyone deter your prayers. Finally, he’s reminded us that our following of Jesus must be characterized by faith that acts through love. As you follow Jesus to the cross and to the resurrection, both His and yours, remember to look up and see your fellow Christians in their need, and to have mercy on them with whatever help you have to give.
And even though you can’t see Christ now, may God, through His Word, grant you the grace of seeing Him for who He is over these next 50 days, to fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Amen.