A sermon preached on Quinquagesima Sunday, 6 March 2011 at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham. (Typos and all)
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1 Samuel 16:1–13
1 Corinthians 13:1–13
Luke 18:31–43

If you have read John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress, you may recall the trial of Mr. Faithful at Vanity Fair. The trial is a travesty of justice, because the sinful inhabitants are intent on getting rid of the godly voice that has appeared among them. The jury consists of Mr Blindman, Mr No-good, Mr Malice, Mr Love-lust, Mr Live-loose, Mr Heady, Mr High-mind, Mr Enmity, Mr Lyar, Mr Cruelty, Mr Hate-light, and Mr Implacable. To emphasise the injustice, and perhaps to get a few laughs to boot, Bunyan is unable to resist the obvious pun. The jury’s deliberation opens thus: “Mr Blind-man the Foreman, said, I see clearly that this man is an Heretick.”

How absurd: a man’s fate hanging on what the blind man sees. Bunyan, in none-too-subtle tones, describes the blindness of sin. How sinful people, blinded by their own sin, think that what they can perceive is all that there is, that the truth is that which lies before their darkened eyes, and who refuse to see anything other than the darkness which they mistake for light. As at Vanity Fair, so in the real world it’s an absurd, perhaps even offensive, notion: that the blind should instruct the seeing on what can be seen clearly.
Yet this morning, the evangelist presents just such a situation before us. As usual when Jesus went about His earthly life, He was surrounded by a crowd, so much so that as He approached Jericho, it brought about a small commotion. At the very least, the sensitive ears of the blind beggar of Jericho, could tell that something out of the ordinary was going on. But, being blind, he could needed others to fill in the details, namely that Jesus was coming to town. Up to this point, the story seems to confirm what I have just said: blindness is impotence, blindness brings about ignorance. Of all the people at the gates of Jericho that day, everyone knew what was going on, except the blind man. Had it not been for his curiosity and the kindness of the other bystanders, Jesus may well have passed by this unseeing beggar, unnoticed, never to return―since Jesus was already on His way to Jerusalem and the cross.

Apart from the word spoken to him, identifying Jesus as the cause of the strange stir, Bartimaeus―although Luke doesn’t mention it, the Gospel of Mark names the man as Bartimaeus, meaning the son of Timaeus―without the word, Bartimaeus would have remained in the ignorance of his blindness. But the moment he asks for an explanation and the word is spoken to him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by”, Bartimaeus springs into action, crying at the top of his voice, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! ”
What a beautiful illustration of the power of the Word of God to break in on the ignorance of the blind. From birth, Bartimaeus’ world had been restricted to his four functioning senses. He was able to live, and to get about, but only just; safe in the familiar terrain of Jericho but ever to leave. Incapable of working, he was reduced to begging, a miserable and often short-lived existence at the mercy of others, in extreme hardship and extreme humiliation. It’s not for nothing that Scripture speaks of life lived in sin as darkness and of unbelievers as those blinded by sin. For such a life is just like that of blind Bartimaeus: people are able to live and get about, but only just: always one illness or accident away from death, capable of navigating the familiar terrain of this earth but unable ever to leave. Incapable of doing real work, loving God and the neighbour, work that sustains one eternally, they are reduced to scraping an existence that is sufficient in happy cases for some decades, before being snuffed out. As some anonymous realist put it: life is hard and then you die.

But when the Holy Spirit stirs such darkened lives with God’s word, blessed are those who, like Bartimaeus, have neighbours and by-standers at hand to declare the cause of these stirrings: Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. And blessed are those who, like Bartimaeus leap up and cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! ” For Jesus never passes by anyone crying for mercy: there is nothing He delights in more than stopping to help such helpless beggars, showing mercy and giving impossibly rich gifts. Restoring sight to the blind, He literally gives them the life they could otherwise never have had. And how tragic it is when the blind have none to point them to Jesus, no one that will take them to that fountain of mercy, so that they are left in their dark ignorance. And how tragic it is when the blind are contented with their blindness and never cry out for mercy, allowing Jesus to pass by, ignoring the call of God’s word and turning their backs on the mercy and life He desires to give to all.

And so, it turns out that, though blind in his physical eyes, Bartimaeus wasn’t the blind man of Jericho at all. Like Mr. Blind-man of Bunyan’s creation, he was able to say―but he without a hint of sarcasm or irony―, “I see clearly where my hope lies.” Everyone else that day could see Jesus with their physical eyes, but the eyes of their souls looked right through Him. They could see His form and recognise Him―without ever seeing who He really was and what it meant that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. Even the twelve, when Jesus reminded them, not for the first time, of what was about to happen to Him, of the fate which was the whole purpose of His earthly life―Luke tells us that they “understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” They knew Him better than anyone else, they were His closest companions, yet they were blind. Jesus’ death, His sacrifice for them and for the whole world, took them completely by surprise because they failed to perceive the purpose for which He was sent by the Father.

The crowd outside Jericho recognised Him and were excited enough to create a small scene. And yet when Bartimaeus began to cry out for mercy, they showed themselves to be blind to who Jesus is by trying to silence Him. As if Jesus would be annoyed by the temerity of the beggar of Jericho, as if it was somehow an indignity that someone as important as Jesus should be disturbed or interrupted by someone as insignificant and miserable as a blind beggar. Even today, it’s not uncommon in many parts of the world that when something important happens in a city―a state visit, or some sporting event or an international summit―the potholes are filled, an extra lick of paint is splashed along the main streets … and the beggars are bussed out of town so as not to embarrass the hosts or to hassle the guests.

You see, it’s a timeless truth that beggars make us uncomfortable, especially the ones in genuine need. They are insistent, out of necessity, and get in our way. Their disabilities and hardships―the mangled limbs, the clouded eyes, the crying babies―intrude into our comfort zone, unwelcome reminders of the injustice of their suffering compared to our good fortune, producing guilt, resentment and, eventually, the necessary hardness that puts up the hand and says, “Sorry. I won’t help you.” And isn’t it true, that the more insistent the beggar, the harder it is to remain sympathetic?  The longer he goes on, the less likely he is to get a sympathetic hearing, until we stop our ears―or give something, not out of love to help the needy in his need, but out of frustration, just to shut him up. “Love is patient and kind; it is not … rude. Love is not irritable or resentful … it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Who loves like this?

Well, clearly the people of Jericho didn’t seem to think that Jesus did. They assumed that Jesus was like them, and like us, finding beggars an embarrassment, a nuisance. They were blind to His love, to its nature and its depth. In the crowd that day, only the blind Bartimaeus saw clearly, saw that Jesus of Nazareth is neither embarrassed nor hassled by Bartimaeus. Jesus does not get riled by the insistence of those who beg of Him, but the very contrary is true. Jesus longs for us to beg, he desires our begging. To Him, it’s not a nuisance but a joy and a delight. Notice how impudent and insistent Bartimaeus was: the more they tried to shut him up, the more he cried. And notice Jesus’ reaction: unlike about everybody else, He wasn’t repelled by Bartimaeus’ begging, but drawn to it. Bartimaeus threw himself at the mercy of Jesus―and Jesus never turns away such beggars. That day, his eyes were opened. He found healing for his physical eyes because he had already been given the eyes of faith that recognised in Jesus his only hope. And so he not only received sight and a radical improvement in his quality of life, but through faith he received an eternal gift of sight and life. That’s why we know his name: Mark referred to him by name, because when Mark wrote his Gospel, Bartimaeus’ name was still recognised among the Christians for whom the Gospel was originally written.

And so, on that day in Jericho, Bartimaeus alone gave Jesus the royal welcome that was due to Him. In the ancient world, it was customary when the king visited a town for the populace to line the streets, and they would cry out, “Lord, have mercy”, in the hope that the king would hear their petitions for justice, a water supply, new roads, or whatever their immediate needs were. When the King of Kings entered Jericho, many were impressed, but only Bartimaeus gave Him His royal title, Son of David, and the royal welcome, “Lord, have mercy.”

And that cry still rings throughout the Christian church. In every Divine Service, we too cry out, “Lord, have mercy!  Christ, have mercy!  Lord, have mercy! ” It isn’t a cry for forgiveness―after all, the Kyrie comes almost immediately after we have been absolved of our sins. Rather, in the Kyrie, we come to Almighty God, as Bartimaeus once came to Jesus, with our petitions, for ourselves, for our loved ones, for the Church, and the world, entrusting our needs to the mercy of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The longer form of the Kyrie we sang this morning with its petitions, make this particularly clear. Likewise, this is why the petitions of the Prayer of the Church always conclude with an appeal to God’s mercy: ‘Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer’; ‘for this and that, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy’.

And like Bartimaeus, we are invited to beg openly, boldly and insistently―because Jesus does not pass by beggars in need, beggars who recognise their dire need and their only hope in Him. He sees all our needs, He delights in our asking for His help, and He delights in satisfying our needs―even though that sometimes means that He doesn’t give us what we ask when we would like it.

May God give us His grace that we will never tire of begging for His mercy, that at the last we may inherit the one thing that is needful, eternal life through the merits of His Son, our King and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jesus with ChildrenThis morning, the teacher of the Sunday school at my congregation reported the following conversation she had with one of the children, a 6-year-old boy:

Teacher: Why do we read so many different stories about Jesus in Sunday school?
Boy: So that we get to know Jesus.
T: What do you mean?
B: Not just know about Jesus, but to get to know Him.

Couldn’t put it better myself!

How often do people — both Christians and non-Christians — criticise the notion that being a Christian is about holding certain facts about Jesus in your head, rather than, say, living a certain kind of life? And often they do it with considerable justification, when theologians, individual Christians, and whole churches reduce the Christian faith to the facts of the faith. To knowing about Jesus.

The key to being a child of God is not knowing about Jesus, but knowing Him. What in some circles is called a “personal relationship with Jesus”.

However, this relationship with Jesus is not distinct from facts about a person. No sensible person would go about human relationships that way. Can you imagine it? “I don’t know the slightest thing about my fiancée. For me that’s not important. What matters to me is to know her.” What sort of odds would a marriage based on that sort of foundation get from a bookie, I wonder.

No, the aim is to get to know Jesus. But we only get to know Him by finding out about Him. As we read and hear about Jesus speaking and acting, we get to know Him as He is. The dogmaticians have referred to these two facets of the faith fides qua and fides quae, the “faith which” is believed, and the “faith by which” one believes. The former informs and creates the latter, the latter receives what the former states.

As Martin Luther might have put it: Thank God that even a six-year-old child knows what the proper relationship between propositional truth and personal faith is!

John the BaptistThe Gospel reading for this Sunday, Luke 7:2–20, includes John the Baptist’s famous sending of his disciples to ask Jesus whether He “is the one” or whether they should wait for someone else. From time immemorial, scholars and other theologians have debated over the question of whether this is an indication that John the Baptist was himself beset by doubt about Jesus’ identity.

There are, broadly, two views:

(1) John had no doubts about who Jesus was. He was simply performing his last teaching duty to his disciples by sending them to Jesus and having them ask Jesus effectively to confirm that He is indeed the Messiah. Thus, John ensured that these disciples severed their exclusive attachment to himself and re-attached themselves to Jesus instead. In other words, their mission from John was an acted out version of his words in John 3:30: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

(2) John did indeed doubt Jesus. Despite having borne witness to Him and pointed others to Him, while in prison John began to wonder whether in fact Jesus wasn’t the real deal after all. Perhaps he shared the narrow and mistaken expectations of Jesus’ disciples and rightly recognised that Jesus didn’t fit that pattern.

The attraction of the first view is obvious. John the Baptist was, according to Jesus Himself, the greatest of the prophets of the Old Covenant. To have a record of His final words being those of doubt seriously tarnishes the reputation of the great prophet, which fits ill with the whole story of John’s life to that point, especially in Luke’s Gospel, where Luke so clearly points out the parallels between the annunciation and birth of the two cousins, John and Jesus.

However, there are difficulties with this view. First, the plain sense of the text gives the impression that John was asking the question, not merely asking the disciples to investigate for themselves. Moreover, we have the disciples returning to John to report Jesus’ reply—something they wouldn’t have had to do unless they thought that John was asking them to inform him of the answer. Thirdly, John up to this point has been preparing for Christ. Surely he would have pointed them to Christ himself, and sent the disciples merely to see for themselves what he had told them already—in which case they wouldn’t have had any need to report back to John. This is further underlined by the fact that Luke tends to minimise John’s role of pointing to Jesus, rather than preparing for him. John isn’t even explicitly mentioned at Jesus’ baptism.

On these grounds, the second option seems more likely: that John himself began to waver while in prison and had to be reassured by Jesus via the testimony of his (John’s) disciples.

However, I like to follow the advice I received as an undergraduate from one of my teachers: “Whenever possible, avoid the either-or in favour of the both-and.” In the case of Luke 7, this principle applies, at least homiletically.

Option 1: John remains steadfast in faith

John is in prison, aware that the time of his ministry is over. Jesus must increase, he must decrease. However, many of his disciples remain loyal to him and, unlike Andrew and Peter, have not begun to follow Jesus. Therefore, John completes his God-given ministry by sending them to Jesus with the question: Are you the Christ. He knows the answer, and he knows that once they get to Jesus, they too will find the answer. As they do. John’s job was to point people to Christ, and he did so even from his incarceration. And as Pastor Larry Peters preaches so well, in this he is an example for us to emulate, and an encouragement to remain steadfastly Christ-focused in all our life—thinking, doing, witnessing.

Option 2: John wavers

The great prophet—the greatest of all the prophets according to Jesus—had completed his task of preparing Israel for the coming of the Messiah. Yet when Jesus did come, and John rightly identified him as that Messiah, his faith wavered. Like the disciples of Jesus, like the crowds, like the Pharisees and the scribes, John too expected a different sort of Messiah from the one Jesus turned out to be. John, too, succumbed to the temptation to be a theologian of glory. And so he sent the disciples to ask Jesus for reassurance. And, ironically, this fact can be a reassurance for us, too: like Moses, like Jeremiah, like the dim-witted disciples of Jesus—and like us—John too wavered in his faith. But if that’s all, it’s still cold comfort in the end. “You aren’t the only one” may be some consolation to someone struggling, but in the end the problem remains unsolved. However, John is a man of the Word to the end. Instead of speculating, or examining his own faith in the silence of his dungeon, he goes to the object of his faith: he sends his disciples to Jesus to find reassurance, to have his faith strengthened. And it is this, rather than the strength of his faith, that makes John the true example for us to emulate: when he was in doubt, when his faith wavered, he went to Jesus to be strengthened.

So which is it? In the end, it doesn’t really matter. For this is not really a story about John, but a story for us. Whether it is for the strengthening of one’s weak faith, or for leading others to faith, there is only one option, only one method: go to Jesus. As Horatio Bonar put it in his beautiful hymn on discipleship:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto me and rest;
lay down, thou weary one, lay down
thy head upon my breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was,
so weary, worn, and sad;
I found in him a resting place,
and he has made me glad.

(Lutheran Service Book 699:1)

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