Sunday, February 22, 2009

Quinquagesima

Sermon on Luke 18:31-43
For Our Savior’s Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
February 22, 2009 (Quinquagesima Sunday)

This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. Wednesday will be the beginning of the 40-day fast with which the Church has for centuries prepared herself for the celebration of the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Most likely, it is in view of the upcoming observance of our Lord’s journey to Jerusalem that the ancient Church chose to read this Gospel lesson on this particular Sunday. As we view the events which occur before and during our Lord’s sacrifice on our behalf, we may be tempted to forget, as did the disciples, that all of this is what Jesus suffers willingly, for our salvation, and begin to think that the passion and especially the death of Jesus are all a horrible mistake and that Easter is the undoing of, the triumph over, that mistake or tragedy. But that’s not the way it is. Easter and Good Friday are part of one another, because Christ went willingly to His death, out of love for us. We need to be told this before it happens, just as the disciples needed to be told that even though it may seem like the most horrible thing possible, everything is still going according to plan. Jesus is giving His life up willingly, out of love and mercy.

Of course, the disciples didn’t understand this. They were zealous for their Lord, but in the wrong ways. They were zealous that He and His movement prosper and be successful and have all the honor and glory given to it by their fellow men which they though He (and, by the way, they themselves) deserved. We can see this not only from what Luke tells us about the fact that they didn’t understand what Jesus was saying, but also by the way they reacted to the blind man. They tried to shush him. This Jesus was too important a person, as far as they were concerned, to be bothered by a blind beggar. It was unworthy of Him, so they thought, to take notice of a man whom God was so obviously punishing in this way.


And that’s the way the world thinks. That’s the way we think, according to our old sinful selves. Appearance is everything. We like others to think well of us. But we like those who are rich, powerful, or popular to think well of us more than we like the poor, lowly, and despised to do so. Success is measured by riches and popularity. The goal of all too many people, including many Christians, including also many pastors, is to be rich, powerful, and popular. This problem infects not only those who really are those things, but also those who aren’t and who are envious of the success of others. How many Christians are led astray into sinful lifestyles by the perception that those who are popular singers or entertainers are also indulging in such lifestyles and that therefore to be like them one should also imitate their sins? How many churches are led astray into worship practices and preaching styles which substitute the spiritual equivalent of soda and candy for real Law and Gospel meat and drink, or worse yet, engage in outright denials of what God’s Word says, just because they want to be like the growing church in the suburbs which does the same thing (never mind the fact that the reason it’s growing is because it is in the suburbs and not because of its practices, good or bad)? How often do we fail to reach out to those who most need the Gospel because the lifestyle which they have led (for which they are most in need of forgiveness and healing) is repugnant to us, and instead try to get only “good people” like ourselves into the Church? In all of these ways we sinful human beings are jealous of our own honor and glory, or of what we think is the honor and glory of our church, and fail to show the love and mercy which Christ has for those who have fallen and need His help.


And that, of course, is the key to understanding this Gospel lesson. The whole reason Christ came to earth, the whole reason He was born, lived, died, and rose again, was out of love and mercy for others. He wasn’t walking around on earth to receive glory from men. Even the palace of Caesar himself was a mere shadow of the supreme honor and glory He had always enjoyed as the eternal Son of the heavenly Father. He came to earth to have mercy on us all, to do what was necessary to lift us up out of our condition of blindness and spiritual poverty into the heavenly vision of joy and light around His Father’s throne.


Of course, to do that He had to share in our life, to share in our misery, and to take it upon Himself, even to the point of the death on the cross. He didn’t just make Bartimaeus’ blindness disappear. He took the sin of the world, of which blindness is only one minor side effect, upon Himself and died for it on the cross. He became blind, deaf, dumb, lame, and dead for us on Good Friday so that we can see, hear, confess, and live the life that God created us to live. And he did all of this, not out of a desire for glory or honor that is visible in this world, but solely out of His love for us who are blind, deaf, and dumb to Him because of our sin.


And the result is that we now receive our spiritual sight. Just as Bartimaeus was no longer blind but now could see the face of Christ, we now see by the eyes of faith the Savior who has come and rescued us. Because sin has been taken away, the effects of sin are taken away as well. All this still takes place by faith, of course; the natural eye is still blind to the realities of salvation. Faith sees Christ Jesus. Just as in the case of Bartimaeus, it is faith that makes us well, not because of the faith itself, but because of the One in whom our faith trusts, namely Jesus Christ.


In a sense, Bartimaeus saw better than the disciples did, even before his physical blindness was taken away. He recognized Jesus as the One who came to show love and mercy to His people and to take away sin and its effects from us. The disciples recognized only a popular and powerful preacher who shouldn’t be troubled or bothered by the lowly and the despised of this world. But Bartimaeus had it right, and the disciples had it wrong. Christ came not to be powerful or influential but to die for us and to heal us of our sin one heart at a time. The reason He does it this way is because this world is passing away. His purpose is not to try to fix this world, but to lead us out of this world into eternal life. He comes not to Barack Obama or the leaders of China or Russia or any of the other leaders of the world (at least, not in their capacity as leaders; as individual human beings he may well come to them if they're Christians), but to ordinary people, to you and me, here, today. He takes away our spiritual blindness by the touch of His body and His blood to our lips. He has mercy on us poor, miserable sinners. He, the Lord of heaven and earth comes here, to each of us individually, and brings us His healing power, when His Word is preached and His sacraments administered. Unlike the blind man, we can’t see the change in ourselves. We don’t necessarily feel any different. And things won’t necessarily be better for us in human terms as we struggle with this fallen and sinful world; in fact, since this world is in opposition to Christ, things might seem to get worse. But we have His promise that He will take us to be with Him forever, that He will raise us up just as He was raised up from the dead. We have His promise that He will continue to have mercy upon us and provide for our every need, as we live with Him in righteousness and purity forever. And since He loves us, He does keep His promises. Amen.


✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

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