Believing is seeing

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on Quinquagesima Sunday, 19 Feb 2012 (typos and all).

You can listen to the sermon on the Our Saviour website.

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Seeing is believing. So we are told, and so we feel. We find it easiest to believe that which we can see, because who could doubt what is before their own eyes. That’s why there are some areas of human knowledge that are more frequently disputed than others. No one is capable of doubting the roundness of the earth these days, since we have all seen the photos from space. On the other hand, when it comes to the theory of evolution or man-made global warming, we have to rely on the word of scientists, since the evidence is not something we can easily verify by our eyes. And so there are sceptics as well as believers. Because seeing is believing.

But in order to see properly, you need the right kind of eyes looking at the right thing. Faulty or impaired vision prevents you from seeing things as they are, and you are left in ignorance. Likewise, even with 20:20 vision you can be left in the dark if you don’t know what to look for, or if you are looking at the wrong thing. How many people have suffered needlessly when physicians have failed to diagnose correctly their illness, not from any incompetence but because they were looking for the wrong thing? How many scientific discoveries were missed or delayed because the scientists failed to recognise the facts that were staring them in the face? Or in more mundane settings, how many times have you failed to recognise a friend simply because you didn’t expect them to be there at that time? If it is true that seeing is believing, it is also true that much of the time we see what we expect to see. That’s the secret behind the art of magicians and camofleurs alike.

We have heard this morning several cases of blindness caused, not by faulty vision but by faulty expectation. The prophet Samuel was on a divine mission to anoint the next king of Israel, following the rejection of Saul. He had before him the seven sons of Jesse, all handsome and likely candidates for the job. After all, it was partly Saul’s impressive stature and handsome appearance that had commended him to the prophet and the people alike. But he failed to fulfil his mission, because he had his expert eyes trained on the wrong target: he was looking at the appearance of these young men, their standing in the family, their external virtues. But while such features were useful currency in that world just as it is in our day—people judging politicians and other leaders by their appearance and manner and ability to rouse a crowd, rather than their truly relevant qualifications—the Lord looks on the heart. Jesse offered, and Samuel would have chosen, the eldest, the handsome one; God chooses David, the youngest and smelliest one, the shepherd boy. Jesse and Samuel were blind to the true nature of things, because their vision was impaired—they couldn’t see the heart of man—and they were looking for the wrong thing anyway.

Seeing was of no use to Samuel that day. It was only the word of the Lord that made him see what is real and true.

In just the same way, right seeing is in the centre of our Gospel text today. It starts with Jesus exhorting His disciples to see and ends with a blind man receiving sight. But as in Bethlehem 1,000 years before, also in Jericho things were not as they may have appeared to the observer. It takes more than a pair of functioning eyes to see. In fact, true sight does not require eyes at all.

Today’s Gospel selection consist of two separate incidents, Jesus’ final prediction of His own suffering and death, and the healing of the blind beggar of Jericho. At first sight, these two don’t seem to have much in common. But once we look beneath the surface, it becomes evident that the opposite is the case.

Jesus begins His passion prediction with an exhortation to right sight: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.” See, look, behold: we are going to Jerusalem and the Scriptures will be fulfilled. What this meant, Jesus spelt out for them in gruelling detail:

The Son of Man will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.

But they did not see. Luke hammers the point home with the triple repetition. “They understood none of these things. The saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” They could not see, they could not grasp, they could not understand, because the thing was hidden from them. Like Jesse and Samuel, what they were looking for was so radically different from what was before them that they simply could not see it, even when Jesus drew a painfully picture of it and stuck it right under their noses. They continued to follow Jesus to Jerusalem, but had no idea of what that meant. A few weeks later, they fled in panic when they could no longer avoid the reality of what they had failed to see before: the shameful death of Jesus on a Roman cross.

It was Jesus’ lot throughout His earthly pilgrimage to be surrounded by such blindness. Even the crowds who followed Him and had great faith in Him, failed really to see Him. In Jericho, everyone beheld Jesus, everyone recognised Jesus—but no one really saw Him. At this final staging post on His pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the cross, His arrival caused enough of a stir to draw the attention of the blind beggar by the wayside. But while the beggar was deprived of natural vision, he was the only one to truly to see Jesus. While others looked right through Him, knowing Him only to be Jesus the Nazorean, Jesus the prophet from Galilee, our blind man saw into the heart of Jesus. Being blind, he was not distracted by the appearance of Jesus—another pilgrim, albeit a rather famous one, on his way to Jerusalem—and grasped on to the real truth of the matter. He not only believed without seeing—he believed against sight.
Not for him Jesus of Nazareth, the Galilean prophet. Not for him just another pilgrim. Not for him even a physician and miracle-worker. “Son of David, have mercy on me! ” Son of David—the fulfilment of God’s promises from of old, the one foretold by the prophets. He may have been visually impaired, but the eyes of his faith saw what was hidden from the disciples. Passing by him in Jericho that day was the embodiment of the fulfilment of all of God’s promises, and he was not going to let the opportunity, or the unbelieving blindness of the others, get in the way.

And so we hear that his faith made him well. Not because his faith was somehow capable of the miraculous, or because it was of such excellent quality, quantity or strength. No, his faith made him well, because it was rightly directed. He believed without seeing. He knew his Saviour by name before asking for demonstration or proof. And because his faith took hold of the right object, Jesus, it was neither blind nor in vain. At the end, his eyes were restored, but by then he had already come to see what mattered. His faith was turned to sight. So that, unlike the disciples and the crowds, he joyfully followed Jesus to Jerusalem, glorifying God as he went.
And through this beggar, we learn that beyond the trivial mundanities of our passing lives, it is not true that seeing is believing. Rather, the opposite is true: believing is seeing. Our faith directs our eyes to what we hold to be true. Jesse’s faith was in the appearance of man, and so he left God’s appointed with the sheep. The disciples’ faith was in a conqueror Messiah, and so they failed to hear Jesus clear promise of what He was about to do for the world’s salvation. Only the blind beggar had faith in the merciful Son of David—and he got to see what he had believed.

Scripture exhorts you to fix your eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of your faith. But it is the eyes of faith that must be trained on Jesus. Our earthly eyes, like the earthly eyes of the disciples, see only another man, ultimately a man of sorrows of little account. Perhaps a wise man, perhaps a wonder-worker, perhaps not. But if we look carefully enough, we will only see weakness and suffering. But the eyes of faith—that is, eyes that have been trained by the Word of God, to see the world as God sees the world—sees in this weakness and suffering great power and glory. In the cross of Jesus, earthly eyes see rejection, shame, humiliation, the end of all hopes. But the eyes of faith see Christ’s perfect obedience, the glorious grace of God, and the hope of all the world. In following Jesus, earthly eyes see chasing after the wind, a short-cut to disgrace and disappointment, a lost cause. But the eyes of faith see the glorious road that now leads the way of the cross but which is destined to the empty tomb and eternal mansions in the presence of God.

And, I dare say, in the Church itself, in the congregations God has gathered in this world, earthly eyes see friends and enemies, nice people and nasty people, people worthy of loving and people worthy of loathing, transformed people and people much in need of transformation, successes and a great many failures, unity and a great deal of division. But the eyes of faith see the body of Christ; the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church; and above all brothers and sisters whom Christ deemed worthy of His death for them and who are, therefore, worthy also of my love—love against all seeing and feeling, love informed by faith.

When the Holy Spirit comes to us and, through the Gospel, opens our eyes blinded from birth. By His working, Jesus speaks to us and we, too, recover our sight, ceasing to beg disconsolately for the scraps and pennies that this life may throw in our direction and gladly follow Him—all the way to Jerusalem and the cross. Dying with Him, we can be sure to be raised with Him; despising the world’s scorn, we gladly suffer with Him, because He has already suffered for us the one thing we could never bear: the wrath of God. Even though we only see in a mirror dimly, what we see puts all other sights to shame: for we see the glory of God, given to us in the humble things despised by the world, the love of God in Jesus Christ: the love that bore all things, believed all things, hoped all things, endured all things, for you—the love that will never end, the love that will be finally and fully revealed to us on that day when faith and hope are replaced by sight and fulfilment when Jesus comes again to gather us into His wedding hall to be His beloved bride in everlasting joy.

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