Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Quinquagesima + March 3, 2019
Text: Luke 18:31-43
The Lord often confounds our understanding—He chooses the least, the lowly, and here in today’s Gospel it is a blind man that sees while the disciples are dumbfounded.
But on the cusp of the holy 40 days leading to the crucifixion of our Savior, is it any wonder that God confounds our thinking and teaches us that all our thoughts and desires are dust and ashes? We do not know how deeply sin has corrupted our innermost thoughts and degraded our will so that, as it is quoted in Matthew 13, “This people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.” (Matthew 13:15)
And sometimes it makes us angry. Though we are dust, we presume to talk back to God about His ways. How dare you hold out on us! We demand that you release your secrets to us, God! Tell us what’s going to happen in the future, tell us why you let evil prosper, tell us why parents must bury their children!
This Gospel falls in a long succession of humbling and contrary teachings in Luke 18: After the story of the persistent widow, the Lord asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” Then the sinful tax collector goes down to his house justified, “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Then even infants are blessed by the Lord, because “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Lastly, someone who is successful in the world with money and power is denied the Kingdom, for “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” He kicks out every prop we would by which we would hold ourselves up. The last of them is our intellect. We are so convinced that our perception of things is correct! But, we can’t even trust our eyes or our mind when it comes to the things of God.
Jesus plainly tells His disciples what must happen to Him: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. 33 And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” From this side of the resurrection, I think we give ourselves too much credit. We know the end of the story, so a part of us looks down on the disciples here and at Emmaus who are blind and deaf to what Jesus is saying. But even though we see it with our eyes and hear it with our ears? Do we see as we ought?
It’s not that the disciples don’t get it because they’re unintelligent. They don’t understand because “This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” There were words coming out of Jesus’ mouth, but they were clueless, and this was the Lord’s doing, a kind of small-scale Babel. The words had been encrypted (Greek for hidden) so that they wouldn’t understand it.
These past weeks leading up to Lent, we’ve learned that grace is undeserved and grace is passively received. Now is the hardest lesson to receive, because, as the prophet Daniel said, “There is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries.” (Daniel 2:28) God’s ways, especially His grace, is a mystery which He must reveal on His terms. No matter how much we think we know, no matter what power we think we have over our heart (or another person’s heart), God is the gatekeeper of grace.
As he drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 And hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what this meant. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” 38 And he cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 39 And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 40 And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him. And when he came near, he asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me recover my sight.” 42 And Jesus said to him, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.”
In this story, nobody envies the blind man until after he’s received his sight. But eyesight aside, this man is actually our role model. Would that we were aware of our blindness and our desperate need to cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” asking the Lord to heal us! The man is blessed because God has given him a sense not worked on earth. In fact, that might be a good prayer for all of us to ask of God: Restore my sight, so that I might see you, see myself, and see those around me as I should.
Last week in the Epistle reading from 2 Corinthians 11 and 12, we heard St. Paul talk at length about his weakness and eventually reached the point where he boasted in his weakness “so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) I wish I could tell you this is an easy process, but we’re not in control of that, and it’s often painful. This process of sanctification, being made holy, is compared to purifying silver from impurities: “Take away the dross from the silver, and the smith has material for a vessel.” (Proverbs 25:4; also Isaiah 1:25) There’s good reason for this, because silver is extracted from ores that are mixed with other metals like copper, zinc, gold, and lead. Separating out the silver requires either extreme heat or acid baths, depending on the source.
We too need to be purified from our sinful heart. Purging the alloys of sin from our lives is lengthy process in which the Holy Spirit leads us through fiery trials, intense temptations, and painful and humbling failures. Sanctification doesn’t happen on our timetable, but the Lord’s. St. Paul pleaded with the Lord to take a thorn from His flesh, but the Lord’s reply was “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” How can it be that God’s will is actually to leave us in weakness? Take for instance a persistent sin—a destructive tongue, a hot temper, lust, greed, jealousy, or gluttony. You know from the Word of God that these things are evil, but try and pray as you might, you can’t seem to be rid of it. What could possibly be the problem? Am I not trying hard enough? Am I not praying right? What a failure of a child of God I must be!
The life story of John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace is like that. He was shaken out of his proud, libertine life through the humbling experiences in West Africa and nearly dying at sea. He was converted to God, but his life wasn’t immediately made pure. He still continued in the slave trade for another 7 years. He continued in studies for the ministry, and was eventually ordained in 1764. Not until 1788, 40 years after his initial conversion, did he publicly renounce slavery and speak out as an abolitionist.
Though it may not happen on the schedule we think, God’s will for you is your sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3)—on His schedule. If you cannot see it right now, continue in His grace. You will sin, you will be humbled—but do not despair or give in! As often as you realize your sin, seek His grace where He gives it—in your Baptism, in the Absolution, and in His Body and Blood. The disciples were kept from understanding the crucifixion before it happened, but that was part of His plan. He revealed to them when the time was right, and on Pentecost, their eyes were opened to truly see, understand, and preach what this suffering, death, and resurrection mean. He will open your eyes and give you relief from your blindness in His timing.
Though these are unpleasant in the moment, the end result can only be credited to God: a stronger faith, a heart that seeks Him alone, and a more steadfast hope while living in this temporal life.
And all these teachings put together—grace undeserved, grace passively received, grace revealed—give all the credit to God. As St. Paul writes in Ephesians 2: “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Rejoice, you saints of God, because He is accomplishing His work in you, a people who praise and acknowledge Him, and who humbly live by His every Word, and who prove the mighty works of God in the weak and lowly. Amen.