Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. As we have gone through the short three week pre-Lenten season, we have encountered Gospel texts which have conveyed to us some of the most important biblical truths which exist. Two weeks ago on Septuagesima Sunday, we heard the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, which conveyed to us the truth of salvation by grace alone. We don’t do anything to earn it. Salvation is a free gift of God. It is by grace alone. Last week on Sexagesima Sunday, we heard the Parable of the Sower, which conveyed the power of God’s Word. We are taught the truth of Jesus and we are preserved and defended in this life against the assaults of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh by Scripture alone. This week on Quinquagesima Sunday, we hear Jesus’ final passion prediction and the healing of the blind beggar at Jericho. As we will see, this text from Luke 18 conveys to us the truth that salvation is by faith alone. No amount of knowledge, love, or works will earn us salvation. It is by faith alone. Now, I suspect that you’ve heard these three statements together before: Grace alone. Scripture alone. Faith alone. They are the three famous Reformation “Solas.” In case you’re not a Latin scholar, “Sola” is Latin for “alone.” You might be thinking, well that’s convenient that Pastor picked readings which correspond so nicely to such a good Lutheran, Reformation theme. As much as I might like to take the credit for this, I can’t. In fact, neither can Luther or any of the Reformers. What I mean is this series of lectionary readings which we follow pre-dates the Reformation…by quite a bit, actually. This season of Pre-Lent is one of the oldest parts of the Church Year, and these three appointed Gospel Readings date back at least to the 5th century A.D. We have records from that time of Saint Basil the Great preaching on these Pre-Lent Gospel Readings. My point is this: the Reformers didn’t make this stuff up. They found it in Scripture. Perhaps even these Pre-Lenten Sundays were part of the inspiration behind the three nicely-articulated Reformation “Solas.” But either way, these three Reformation “Solas” fit perfectly into this time in the Church calendar as we prepare our hearts and minds for the long season of Lent which begins in three days on Ash Wednesday. These three “Solas” point us to the cross. God’s grace comes to us because of Jesus’ victory on the cross. The Scriptures point us to Christ’s death on the cross for our forgiveness. Our faith is rooted in Christ’s victory on the cross over sin, death, and the devil. As we prepare to begin the season of Lent in a few short days, all three of these pre-Lenten Gospel texts prepare us to look to the cross. Our Gospel text for today is no different.
2. As we come to our text for today, we notice that there are two distinct sections to the text. While the sections are closely related, we will take them one at a time. In the first section, we hear Jesus foretell his death and resurrection for the third and final time. But something is different about this passion prediction compared to the others. In his first passion prediction, Jesus said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things…” (Luke 9:22). It’s a general statement about what must happen eventually. In his second passion prediction, Jesus said, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men…” (Luke 9:44). That general statement about what must happen eventually is suddenly getting more specific. In his third passion prediction, Jesus says in verse 31 of our text, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished…” (Luke 18:31). That general statement which had become more specific is all of the sudden coming to pass right now. “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem…” The time is now for these things to come about. “But they understood none of these things” (Luke 18:34a). The disciples didn’t even understand it a little bit. They understood none of it. Sure, they understood the words that came out of Jesus’ mouth. They realized that “his face was set toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:53b). The cross was in view, but the disciples had no idea what that meant.
3. We must be careful not to fall into the same trap as the disciples. As we prepare to journey through the season of Lent, culminating in Holy Week, the cross is ever in view. We will gather in three days time on Ash Wednesday and will have an ash cross placed on our foreheads as those well-known words are spoken: “Remember that you are dust; and to dust you shall return.” The cross comes plainly into view on Ash Wednesday as we are reminded of our mortality. We are reminded that because of our sins, we will one day die. The cross is a reminder of our mortality and the death that we deserve because of sin. But the cross is so much than an instrument of death. The Preface for Holy Week reminds us of this as it speaks of Jesus, “who accomplished the salvation of mankind by the tree of the cross that, where death arose, there life also might rise again and that the serpent who overcame by the tree of the garden might likewise by the tree of the cross be overcome.” The cross is Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the devil, but this can only be understood by faith alone.
4. In the second section of our text, we see a man whose faith is shown in sharp contrast to the faith which is missing from the disciples in the previous section. On their way to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples were coming near to Jericho. There was a blind beggar there. In Mark’s Gospel, we are told that this man’s name is Bartimaeus. He heard a great crowd passing by, and so he asked those around him what was going on. Pay attention to the details of the text. The people around him say to him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by” (Luke 18:37). Notice what the blind man says immediately: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And after those around him rebuked him, he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Luke 18:38 & 39). Think about this for a second. He is told that “Jesus of Nazareth” is passing by. Yet he refers to Jesus as “Son of David.” Where did he come to know that Jesus was the Son of David? Well, clearly Jesus’ reputation preceded him. This blind beggar must have heard about Jesus from others who had seen and heard of Jesus themselves. That’s a simple question to answer. The more important question to find an answer to is why did he continue so earnestly to plead for Jesus’ attention and mercy even when those around him were discouraging him? It might be tempting to let our pessimistic side take over and simply dismiss this man’s behavior as desperate. But Jesus give a different answer to this question in his statement to the man in verse 42: “Recover your sight; your faith has saved you” (Luke 18:42). It is this man’s faith which enables him to see Jesus for who he really is—the only source of salvation.
5. Looking to the cross can only be done by faith alone. The trouble is, we are limited creatures who are only capable of looking at the world through our narrow worldview. We so often only focus on ourselves and the present. We can’t see the bigger picture on our own. And so, Jesus sends us his Spirit to open our eyes of faith to see him for who he truly is—our savior who has won redemption for us on the cross. It is only through faith received from the Holy Spirit that we are given eyes to see Jesus and his cross as the source of life. In Luther’s Small Catechism, he articulates this well when he writes: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” It is the Holy Spirit alone who grants us faith. It is the Holy Spirit alone who sustains our faith. But this doesn’t happen by magic. The Holy Spirit works through ordinary means. Through Word and Sacrament the Spirit works to both call us to faith and sustain us in that faith. Over the next fifty days leading up to Easter, you will have increased opportunities to gather with your brothers and sisters in Christ in this place to hear God’s Word and receive his Sacrament. Every Sunday and Wednesday between now and Holy Week we will gather. The Word will be preached. The Sacrament will be administered. And the Holy Spirit will be at work to increase and sustain the faith of those who gather. I encourage you to make it a priority to be here for as many of those Divine Services as possible. The world out there is a dangerous place. And the greatest danger we experience isn’t the threat of war. The greatest danger isn’t the threat of the loss of our freedoms. It’s not COVID-19 or any other physical disease or ailment. The greatest dangers in the world out there are the spiritual forces of evil which are all around us waging war over our souls. The Lenten season which we are about to enter is a time to focus on this spiritual battle even more intently. It’s a time to renew and increase our commitment to spiritual disciplines and our commitment to gathering as a community of believers around the Word and Sacraments so that we can be strengthened to look by faith alone the cross as our source of life. May God make it so for Jesus’ sake.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.