Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Quinquagesima (Luke 18:31-43)

“‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me recover my sight.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ: we envy the people of the New Testament, don’t we? We don’t envy their lack of indoor plumbing, their short lifespans or their lack of freedom, but still we envy them. We envy those found in the pages of the Scriptures because they had the privilege of walking this earth with Jesus. They saw Him, they heard Him, they touched Him. “If only I had seen Jesus,” we say, “my faith would be so much stronger!” What a privilege to look Jesus in the eye when He gave the Sermon on the Mount, to sit with Him in the boat, to walk the dusty roads alongside Him, or to eat the miraculous fish and loaves with the rest of the five thousand! We look back on that three-year span with longing, wishing that we would’ve been there to be part of that great story told by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We even add a beatitude to Jesus’ list: “Blessed are those who have seen!” Blessed are the seeing ones; not us, who stand two thousand years later, beset by doubts, assailed by the world, depending solely on the words that other have spoken. Seeing is believing, and we know that if we had seen, then our faith would be unshakable.

The disciples, yes, they were blessed; more than anyone else in all of history, they had a personal relationship with Jesus. They followed Him from place to place; they witnessed His miracles, they saw His great signs. They heard His preaching, the powerful declarations of divine identity, His expositions of God’s Holy Word. And before the gates of Jericho, Jesus paused to give these blessed men the plainest, clearest sermon He would ever preach: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.” The disciples nod their heads—so far, so good. Jesus is going to enter the holy city to bring all that is written about Himself to completion, to end it, to finish it, to conclude all that God said before, putting an exclamation point on the Old Testament. But how will He do this?

“He will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging Him, they will kill Him, and on the third day He will rise.” Jesus couldn’t have spoken any more clearly; His journey to Jerusalem will end in death. In graphic detail our Lord describes His humiliation at the hands of the Gentiles. The King of creation, the Son of God in human flesh, will be mocked as an imposter and executed as a common criminal. All that the prophets wrote about Him will come to a bloody end; the exclamation point of the Old Testament will be a cry of agony. This was God’s intent from the beginning; the Seed of the woman must have His foot struck so that the serpent’s head will be crushed. The completion of God’s plan of salvation is the agony of the cross. No one takes Jesus’ life from Him; He gives it up willingly, and with His dying breath, He will preach another clear sermon: “It is finished!”

We simply read these words today, two thousand years later. The disciples—blessed are they!—heard Jesus speak with their own ears; they could see the emotion on His face, they could watch each syllable escape His lips. Seeing is believing—blessed are those who have seen! “But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” The disciples heard. The disciples saw. But the disciples did not believe. And so when the sword struck the shepherd, the sheep were scattered. When they laid Him in a tomb, the disciples did not gather there, waiting for the third day to come, they hid behind locked doors. Even though Jesus could not put it any more clearly, His death and resurrection came as a surprise. It is not hard to surprise a blind man, and the disciples were blind.

The message of the cross is foolishness to man. Did the disciples want to see? No, because all that Jesus had to show them was the cross, the sight from which men turn their heads in shame. Two thousand years of history has perhaps sanitized the cross, as it hangs from rapper’s necks and stands tall on church roofs. But when Jesus shows it to us in all of its gory detail, we recoil. We would rather remain blind. For the cross shows us the high price of our sin; the cross shows us what it took for God to save us from sin, death, and the power of the devil. For sinful man, for you and me, the cross is the death of any attempt to work our way back to our God, and as the disciples understood quite clearly, a cross for Jesus meant a cross for them. The cross always puts men to death. Do you want to see? No, we would rather, like the disciples, remain blind, because all that Jesus wants to show us is the cross—His and ours. Seeing, it turns out, is not believing.

Faith comes not from sight; otherwise, it is not faith at all. Faith instead leads to sight. Jesus stood before a blind man and asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” An odd question, to be sure. What else would a blind man want? He certainly didn’t need a vacation or a lottery ticket. He needed sight! But did he really want to see? Our sinful nature finds that it is much more comfortable to bury our heads in the sand and remain blind. We can’t deal with the consequences of sight—a cross for Jesus and a cross for us. Jesus asks the blind man if he really wants to follow the Son of Man who goes to Jerusalem to die. How about you: do you want to see? Do you want to see the cross that puts you to death, that calls you to a life of cross-bearing, suffering before glory? Or would you rather remain comfortably blind, living in your sin, going through the motions, believing in the Jesus who is a great pal and a help for your life, but never bloody, never dead? Whether you hear the words from the lips of Jesus or read them on a page, the natural man wants to remain blind; your sinful nature wants nothing to do with the cross.

The disciples see and do not believe; they take offense at the cross. But this blind man who cannot see believes; he cries out to Jesus despite the opposition of the crowd. They simply call this wandering rabbi “Jesus of Nazareth.” They see, but they do not believe; the blind man believes, even though he cannot see, and he names Jesus the Messiah: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Have mercy. The blind man sees Jesus for who He truly is; the Messiah come to save. Kyrie Eleeson. Lord, have mercy. The crowd tells him to be quiet, that Jesus has better thing to do than heal beggars, but this blind man knows His Savior, and he grabs hold of him in faith, begging for mercy.

The blind man knows that Jesus has come to save beggars; that it is only beggars, only those who have nothing to give and everything to receive, who will find mercy. The others around him try to quiet him, they tell him not to badger Jesus like this; but this blind man knows his Lord. He isn’t going to wait until he’s worthy before he asks, but he asks in the midst of his affliction, he clings to the promises of almighty God in faith, and with tenacity he hangs on. What matters is not his sin or his station in life, but God’s promises. The Messiah has come, and He brings mercy, mercy for beggars, mercy for the blind. This man refuses to be tempted by the crowd; he stops his ears and deals with God directly, and his God hears him. “He said, ‘Lord, let me recover my sight.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.’” Believing is seeing. Jesus speaks a plain and clear sermon once again. This man sees because he believes. Faith, created by the working of the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of the Word, leads to sight, seeing Jesus for who He truly is: God in the flesh come to bring mercy.

You see, Jesus came to open blind eyes. “And immediately he recovered his sight and followed Him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.” The people saw the great reversal in action; they saw a beggar turned into a believer, a sinner into a saint, a blind man restored to sight, and they believed, they praise God. The blind man sees, spiritually and physically, and his response is the same: He gives glory to God, God in the flesh who has had mercy upon him. And he follows Him; he follows this Jesus on the way to the cross. Faith characterizes the journey to the cross; faith that the One who will be crucified will also rise. Believing is seeing.

On the first Sunday after Easter, Jesus will speak His own beatitude: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We think that those who walked with Jesus, who saw Him with their own eyes, who touched even the hem of His garments, are the blessed ones. But Jesus consistently and emphatically declares that it is not the generation that saw him the flesh who was blessed; so many saw and yet did not believe. Instead, it is you and me, who did not see but yet believe by the Holy Spirit, who are blessed. Seeing is not believing; believing is seeing. On Easter afternoon, despite the words of Jesus, despite the testimony of the women, the disciples were still blind. But the risen Jesus, disguised from their physical eyes, gave them spiritual sight by opening up the Scriptures and explaining why the cross was necessary for the salvation of the world. And in the breaking of the bread, they saw Him, for only a moment, and He was gone. 

At Emmaus the pattern is set: believing is seeing; eyes are opened by Word and Sacrament. The same Jesus who opened the eyes of the blind man, who gave the disciples spiritual sight, has opened your blinded eyes in your baptism; His cross is seen no longer an offense, but the instrument of your salvation, and even though you bear your cross, by faith you cry out with the blind man, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” You cling to His promises in the midst of affliction, as you carry the cross, trusting that He will have mercy, for believing is seeing. And there will be a Day when faith is no longer needed, for all that will remain is sight: “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Believing is seeing, until that Day of eternal sight. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

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