Quinquagesima—14 February 2021

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

The Reading from Holy Scripture: Luke 18:31–43  (ESV) 

31 Taking the twelve, [Jesus] said to them, “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.”  34 But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said. 

35 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.”  43 And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.

In your average house, an unfinished basement is where you store stuff you do not need on a daily basis. Sometimes, that is how we treat our Christian faith. On the main floor of our lives, we put the things we think really matter, such as our health, comfort, and prosperity. And then, between Sundays, we store in the basement the truth and reality of all that we confess in the creed.  

We often fail to understand and to grasp that what we confess in the creed is a truth and reality that is deeper and longer-lasting than our temporary existence in this temporary world. Yes, the truth and reality of what we confess in the creed permeates and sustains all aspects of our existence as it is now rooted in our baptism. And so today’s Gospel is calling us once again to fix our gaze on Jesus Christ, God’s Son, crucified and risen to save sinners.

What matters most in our lives is our salvation in Christ, a divine gift which we need every second and which we should never squirrel away in the basement. At the heart of our salvation in Christ is the question “Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?”.

That’s a question that even the twelve disciples wondered about. That Jesus had to suffer and die seemed incomprehensible to them and it was a real stumbling-block. Before Easter, the disciples understood nothing of what Jesus was saying about being mocked, shamefully treated, spat upon, flogged, and killed. Perhaps they were thinking: “Jesus performs so many miracles, He raises the dead, He gives sight to the blind. Who would want to harm such a person, a man who overcomes death and cures all kinds of illness with a single word?”. It was only at Easter that the disciples finally grasped what Jesus had been saying to them. The first thing Jesus had to clarify to the crushed disciples after His resurrection was precisely this matter: O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory? (Luke 24:25-26).

“Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?”. Living this side of Easter, you and I know why, for Scripture clearly teaches that Jesus had to die in order to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad (John 11:52). 

The first humans, Adam and Eve, committed the first sin by which ever since the whole human race has been scattered in unbelief. The human family which God had created had become lost to the Father. All had sinned and had lost the image and likeness of God. And no human creature could ever win back the image, the likeness that had been lost through sin.

The nature of God contains both holiness and love. This holy love is as a burning fire on all that is unclean. God’s love reaches out its arms to its children and seeks to embrace them. But God’s love is so holy that we unclean sinners would perish in its presence; thus, we must join Isaiah in saying: Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips…Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? (Isaiah 6:5; 33:14).

God cannot change His nature so as to divide His love from His holiness. He would then no longer be God. His love will always be a holy love before which nothing unclean can stand. None of us could survive an encounter with the consuming fire of God’s holy love, for God cannot overlook our sin. Neither can God tolerate a speck of uncleanness in His kingdom where He is to be all in all. But God can redeem sinners. That is precisely what God has done in Jesus, God’s Son, our Saviour. God’s righteousness remains intact. But in the suffering and death of Jesus, all of sin’s guilt and penalty have been paid for and our sins have been removed, taken away, with the result that God’s holy love can now surround and embrace us sinners without our being consumed, destroyed in God’s presence. For Jesus has gathered into one the scattered children of God so that all who trust in Christ for salvation are atoned, at one with God.

The word “atonement” means “a making at one”, and points to a process of bringing those who are estranged into a unity. Once we were unclean sinners scattered far from God, raging against Him in our unbelief; now, we have been gathered together as holy children at one with our Holy Father. Such an atonement none of us could ever achieve for ourselves. What price could you ever pay to be restored to a peaceful unity with God? You have nothing but your guilt, your death, and your just condemnation before God. It was because of your utter helplessness that God the Father sent His Son to be the atonement for your sins. That is the ultimate evidence of God’s love for sinners, for you.

Listen to how our Lord Jesus describes His mission to atone for our sins: the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). Do you grasp what Jesus has done for you? He has paid the ransom price of His own life so that we may stand in the presence of God’s holy love without being consumed because of our uncleanness. Here is how St. Peter puts it: Christ… sufferedonce for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18). That He might bring us to God—that is the beating heart of all that Jesus did for us in His suffering and dying in our place. Jesus must be lifted up on the cross in order to draw all people to Himself (see John 12:32). He suffers death for our sins. The Holy One suffers for us unclean sinners in order that He might lead us to God. Upon Him our chastisement was laid. In Him we are made whole again; by His stripes we are healed (see Isaiah 53).

In today’s Gospel, the disciples do not grasp what Jesus is saying to them. But come Easter, the disciples will finally understand that Jesus both foreknew His coming passion and that He willingly went forth to meet it when He could easily have avoided it. No one compelled Jesus. He suffered of His own free will, in the full knowledge that His passion would be salutary for the whole world. He suffered death, in His flesh. Overcoming the corruption of death, He rose again; and by His resurrection from the dead, He poured His own life into our bodies; for in Him the whole nature of man is turned back toward immortality (adapted from Cyril of Alexandria, On the Gospel, Oremus, pp. 345-346). Yes, Jesus has restored to us what we had lost: the image and likeness of God!

And now, baptized into Christ, we fix our gaze on Jesus. As we struggle with our troubles and temptations, we cry out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”. Now, the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature rebuke us harshly, telling us to be silent. Is it not the case that often after we have committed many sins and as we struggle in prayer against the sinful vices and desires to which we have yielded, that the images of our sins rise up against us, seeking to darken the spirit and to silence the voice of our supplication? But by God’s grace we cry out all the more, “Jesus, have mercy on me!”. For we know that Jesus suffered, died, and rose again to gather us safely as God’s dear children in the presence of God’s holy love. This is the truth, the reality, that is greater than our temporary lives in this temporary world. Yes, greater than our earthly wishes, needs, and struggles is the glorious truth that our Saviour Jesus has brought us back to God to live at one with Him in His holy love. Amen.