Sermon for Quinquagesima
Luke 18:31-43 + 1 Samuel 16:1-13 + 1 Corinthians 13
We have two stories before us today in the Gospel for Quinquagesima. Blindness ties the two together. We see both spiritual and physical blindness, and the miraculous cure for both: God’s miracle of faith in Christ Jesus.
Today’s Gospel brings us within just a few days of Palm Sunday and Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. And now, as they make their final approach to Jerusalem Jesus pulls his Twelve Apostles aside and plainly tells them – for a third time! – exactly what was about to occur: “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.”
Jesus sees it all so clearly, his path marked out for him, not only by his divine knowledge, but by the light of Holy Scripture, by the words of all the prophets, marking out his path like runway lights. This is what the Christ would find in Jerusalem: Betrayal. Mockery. Insults. Spitting. A most torturous flogging. Death. And after all that, also resurrection from the dead. All of that must happen to the Son of Man in Jerusalem, and so to Jerusalem the Son of Man must go. Of course he must! He must give his life as a ransom for many.
And right there, in that willing journey of Jesus to Jerusalem you see personified what the Apostle Paul described in 1 Corinthians 13 – the definition of “love,” summed up in this one phrase: Love is not self-seeking. Nothing – nothing Jesus would endure during Holy Week was for his own benefit. None of it was convenient for him or easy for him or pleasant to him. It was all endured for the sake of his Father’s will and for the salvation of his brothers – that is, mankind.
Now, aren’t you amazed at how Jesus’ chosen Twelve Apostles reacted when Jesus told them of his loving plan to willingly endure sufferings and death and then to rise again in victory? The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about. In spite of the fact that the Holy Scriptures of the prophets shone like the sun and foretold the path of the Christ, in spite of the fact that Jesus spells out to these friends of his in plain and simple words the details of what he will willingly suffer for them, instead of words of thanks and praise, they give him blank stares of confusion. They were, as Jesus would later rebuke them, slow to believe all that the prophets had written about the Christ. They – even they – still struggled with spiritual blindness.
That’s how far gone human nature is. Even clear, simple, plain words go right over the head of fallen human reason. When it comes to spiritual matters, human reason is powerless to understand.
The problem is that man, by nature, cannot see, cannot grasp that the sufferings, death and resurrection of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, accomplish everything. The concept that every aspect of man’s salvation was accomplished for us by another – that concept is not just unknown to us by nature. It’s repulsive to us by nature. Natural man cannot see that the Scriptures, that world history, that life itself revolves around Jesus, because by nature, man thinks that all things revolve around himself, or at least, they should, which is also why man, by nature, cannot see how a man like Jesus could willingly offer up himself with such pure, selfless love. Our natural self is blind to real love.
Man’s problem, the disciples’ problem, is our problem, too. We are not, by nature, what Jesus is. We are not the definition of “love.” We are, by nature, thoroughly self-seeking. That is the summary of sin. When I proclaim to you from God’s Word that you are a sinner, that is the same thing as saying that you are selfish and self-seeking, and no one likes to hear that, do they? But search your heart and see it there, how sin drives you to anger and bitterness, because you didn’t like this or that, because you were wronged, and you didn’t like being wronged. See how sin leads you away from forgiving the one who has offended you, because he or she doesn’t deserve to be forgiven – like you think you do, because he or she said things that hurt you and you are unwilling to be hurt for someone else’s wickedness. You are unwilling to be injured so that someone less deserving may prosper, because that would be love – like the love of Christ, and love is the opposite of what you are by nature.
Nonetheless, it is the very love of Jesus – his sufferings, death and resurrection – that produces the miraculous cure for spiritual blindness. The blinding light of the love of Christ who was willing to forgive those who offended him, who was willing to be hurt for someone else’s wickedness, who was willing to be injured so that people less deserving may prosper – that blinding light shines into sin-darkened hearts and works the miracle of faith, when and where it pleases God.
But for now, today’s Gospel leaves the disciples in the dark, still blind to the Savior’s words. In sharp contrast to their spiritual blindness we meet the blind beggar who was blind physically, but had better spiritual eyesight than the seeing apostles.
As Jesus came up to the town of Jericho, the blind beggar heard the commotion and asked about it. “It’s Jesus of Nazareth passing by!” they told him. And somehow, somewhere, that blind man had heard the report about Jesus and his love and compassion for the needy who cried out to him in their need. He had heard enough to convince him that this same Jesus was the promised Son of David, the Messiah. And so he calls out to him over the noise of the procession, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The ones leading the procession – some of Jesus’ followers who are excited to be traveling with him – try to shush the blind beggar. “Shhh! Don’t bother us, you blind beggar! Can’t you see we’re trying to have a glorious procession here?” Well, no, he couldn’t see that, actually, nor did he care. What he could “see,” however, was that he was needy and the Son of David was near, and he had faith that the Son of David would have mercy, so he called out all the louder, “Son of David, have mercy!”
Jesus stops the glorious procession. Unlike the spiritually blind, self-seeking disciples who were leading it, Jesus was not seeking glory for himself, except the glory of suffering and dying for sinners. He orders the people to lead the blind beggar to him and he asks, “What is it you want me to do for you?” “Lord, I want to see!” “Receive your sight,” Jesus told him. “Your faith has healed you – literally, saved you.” Just that simple. The Spirit-worked miracle of faith in that blind man led him to call out to Christ for mercy, and mercy he received, as well as his sight.
It wouldn’t be long now before Holy Week would be come and gone, and after the sufferings, death and resurrection of Christ, he opened the blind eyes of his disciples, too, and they finally grasped what he had been telling them all along. And once they grasped it, it changed everything for them, and the miracle of faith produced in them, as it must produce in all who believe, the very love of Christ, the very love Paul described in 1 Corinthians 13, that patient, kind, selfless love that looks so much like the love of Christ.
Our Gospel today drives home the point that faith alone in Christ saves, that faith is absolutely essential for our salvation, but that even faith is beyond the grasp of human reason. Therefore, even faith is not man’s work. It is God’s gift to man. It’s a miracle. To trust in the mercy of Christ, promised to you in the Gospel and sealed with the Sacraments – that is the miracle of faith.
This morning we witnessed this miracle of faith in the baptism of Liam Heath. Here is an infant boy, less than one week old, born alive and healthy on the outside – thank God! – but just as blind, corrupt, and dead in sin spiritually as everyone else is by birth. And so his parents brought him to the waters of Holy Baptism for cleansing, life and light.
Stop! Wait!, some would object. Baptism does him no good! He’s too little to understand what’s going on! Pray tell, how did being “big” help the Twelve Apostles in the Gospel today? No, faith is not helped by human reason, but hindered. The Spirit alone grants faith and spiritual understanding in ways that go beyond human understanding. The Spirit, through water and the Word, gives new birth and new life.
Ah, but little Liam didn’t cry out for mercy like the blind man did. But notice, Jesus doesn’t say to the no-longer-blind man, “Your cries for mercy have saved you!” He says, “Your faith has saved you.” Ah, but little Liam is too little to have faith! Who are you, O man, to talk back to God who speaks of the little ones – even infants – who believe in Jesus? Who are you, O man, to turn faith into a human decision when God calls it a gift, a rebirth brought about by his Holy Spirit?
How horrible it was for those disciples in glorious procession with Jesus to try to hinder the blind beggar from reaching Jesus! How horrible it is when Christians imagine themselves to have made the great decision for Christ and to be following him in glorious procession, and then try to hinder their blind, needy children from reaching Jesus in the waters of Holy Baptism where he promises to heal their blindness!
But you, parents, you brought your son this morning to the very One who made his way to Jerusalem to suffer, die and rise again, and now the merits won by the sufferings, death and resurrection of Christ have been poured over your son and applied to his account, as they have been applied to all who are baptized. You led the blind to the One who can make him see and we all prayed for the mercy of the Son of David on your son. Now we trust the promise of Jesus that the eyes of his heart have indeed been enlightened and will continue to be enlightened by the power of God’s Spirit working through Word and Sacrament for the rest of his life.
It’s perfect that we get to witness a baptism as we begin in earnest our countdown to Easter in the 40-day Lenten fast that begins this Wednesday, a time set aside to help us prepare our hearts to contemplate again the events that lie at the heart of our faith – the sufferings, death and resurrection of Jesus. You’ve heard it all before, but so had Jesus’ Twelve apostles, and they’ve shown us today how difficult the struggle is between the new, reborn nature in us and the sinful, blind nature in us. The only cure for blindness is the love of Christ. The love of Christ – that is, his very sufferings, death and resurrection as that which made atonement for the sins of men – the love of Christ is not one of those things we believe in. It’s THE thing we believe in. This is the object of faith, and that which produces and maintains the miracle of faith. Amen.