Sunday 27 November 2011

All I want for Christmas is... Compassion (Matthew 20:29-34)

The theme of our Christmas series can be summed up in one word: Expectation. What are we looking forward to? What are we hoping for?

For many, Christmas is a time of great expectation: the holidays, the presents, the shopping. For others it can equally be a time of great disappointment: the loneliness, the cold weather, the credit card bills.

The bible tells us that Jesus came to fulfil all of  God’s promises - every single expectation of God’s goodness, his salvation, even his judgement - laid out in the Old Testament. But he does so in such a way that surprises our greatest expectations and soothes our deepest disappointments. In the coming weeks we will be looking at our expectations of joy and happiness, of faith in God, of truth and of love.

But for today we are dealing with the expectation of God’s mercy. Twice we encounter these words, “Have mercy on us” in verses 30 and 31. It is a cry for help and it is met with a response of compassion. Verse 34: “Jesus had compassion on them.”

Out of all the expectations I mentioned earlier - happiness, faith, truth and love - this one is perhaps the hardest: the expectation of mercy. Especially in a Chinese culture like ours. Not that our culture says that we shouldn’t be merciful or charitable, that’s not what I mean. Rather, some of us feel embarrassed to admit that we need help. We are pai seh. Even when times are desperate we act as if everything is OK. When things go wrong we cover it up and maybe even, get angry.

That describes the crowd we see in verse 29.

The crowd

As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him.
Matthew 20:29

Jesus is at the most popular stage of his career. As a preacher and teacher of God’s word. As a miracle worker healing the sick and raising the dead. At this point in his ministry, Jesus was well-known and well-liked. And here we see that a large crowd follows Jesus as he and his friends leave the city of Jericho. Their destination was Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, and it is no coincidence that this was near the time of the Passover, the biggest festival of the entire Jewish calendar. Everyone was expecting Jesus to do something big. If ever there was a time and a place for Jesus to make his stamp in the history, it was here and it was now.

“Hey, it’s Jesus!” they would have said to one another as they say him walking by. “Let’s follow him to Jerusalem and see what he does next.” As the crowd grew around Jesus so did their expectations of Jesus.

What they did not expect were the two blind men of verse 30.

The cry

Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”
Matthew 20:30-31

This week alone there will be two carol services at Great St Mary’s, two huge Christian parties organised by CICCU and the Christian Graduate Society, not to mention a special Christmas event for language students next Sunday evening with an International choir. God willing, these events will attract hundreds, if not, thousands of students around the city to hear the true message of Christmas - that Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners.

But imagine that as you were walking up to Great St Mary’s tomorrow night - full of anticipation of an evening of carols, a powerful presentation of the gospel, the warm mince pies and mulled wine served at the end - and as you’re walking there joined by the hundreds of other undergraduates headed toward the same destination, you pass by the local Sainsburys where a homeless man stops you and says, “Big issue, sir?” How would you react? I doubt any of you would have reacted the way this crowd did in verse 30.


“The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet”, verse 30 tells us. It is important to understand why. Maybe it was because the beggars were causing a scene. Maybe they were embarrassed. Yet there is something troubling still in their behaviour. You see, the crowd sincerely thought that they were doing Jesus a favour. In their minds, Jesus was someone too important to deal with the riffraff. “Can’t you see we’re on a really important mission of evangelism with Jesus? Stop being a nuisance and be quiet!” If they carried around one of those WWJD (“What would Jesus do?”) bracelets you sometimes see Christians wearing today, well, they thought Jesus would have told these two to sit in the corner and be quiet.

And yet the two blind men didn’t shut up. “They shouted all the louder,” verse 31 tells us. More importantly, do you notice what these two blind men were shouting? They addressed Jesus as “Lord”, and as the “Son of David”. That is they weren’t asking Jesus for money, “Spare any change, mate?” Rather they were addressing Jesus as who he really was - as Lord and as the Son of David.

“Son of David” was a name we find in the bible given to God’s chosen King. For hundreds of years, God promised that one day he would send a king - a King of Kings; and ultimate King - to establish the kingdom of Israel; to establish the kingdom of God. And what these two beggars were saying was that Jesus is that king. Or to use another bible word, Jesus is the Christ.

Furthermore, by pleading for mercy, the blind men were not so much asking for pity, but were in effect addressing Jesus as a judge. “Lord, have mercy”. It is what you say before a judge in a courtroom as a convicted criminal. And one more thing, they called Jesus, “Lord”, a name that is repeatedly used in the Old Testament to refer to God. Now some of you might say, “That’s a bit much! They didn’t know that Jesus was God.” And I agree with you. The two blind men were speaking better than they knew. But Matthew records their words for us here in the bible, twice, to make us think of who Jesus really was. Who did the crowd expect Jesus to be? How did his closest friends see Jesus?

Remarkably, these two blind man saw clearly what a whole crowd of followers (including Jesus’ own disciples in verse 29) could not see. He was the Christ. He was the Judge. While everyone else was admiring Jesus for his teaching and his amazing miracles, these beggars were humbling themselves before the Son of God. “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”

And while everyone else was eager to just walk on by and ignore the ramblings of these two nobodies, Jesus stops, he calls them over and Jesus actually asks them how he could be of service to them.

The compassion

Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. “Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.”
Matthew 20:32-33

I wonder if you have any friends who are blind. I do. I say that to be mindful of what I say next about these verses. The blind men ask to be healed and Jesus miraculously restores their sight. Not partially. Not over the next few months. Instantly and completely - hence the last sentence in verse 34 which reads, “Immediately, they received their sight and followed him.”

I believe this really happened. As I mentioned earlier, I am mindful of how this sounds to friends who have lost their sight, friends who have never been able to see in their entire lives, even of friends who have had serious health problems in the recent past. I remember and occasion many years ago of a sister who walked out of the room when a pastor referred to a miraculous healing from God. She was very angry with the speaker. “How could he say that? This just creates a false expectation in God,” she said. The truth is many Christians suffer from illnesses that are not healed instantly. Many live with their illness to their dying day.

The dilemma we face today is not simply “Can God heal me?” but “Will God heal me?” Meaning: the real question we need to ask this passage is not “Could Jesus heal these two men?” But “Why?” Why did Jesus heal these two blind men? Why does Matthew record this incident for us to read in the bible?

In verse 33, the English NIV has the two blind men saying, “Lord, we want our sight.” But the ESV is perhaps more helpful when reads, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” Throughout his three-year ministry, Jesus healed many, many sick people according to the gospel writers (see for instance Matthew 4:23-25 where large crowds come to him from Syria, Galilee, Decapolis, Jerusalem and Judea), and yet what is surprising is how selective the gospel writers are about which event of healing gets recorded in the gospels. In fact, so specific is their selection of this healing of hte blind men that it in all three of the synoptic gospels - here in Matthew 20, in Mark 10 and in Luke 18. The question is why? What is so special about this healing?

The reason is: the bible pointing to something bigger than physical healing. It is pointing us to faith and it teaches us that faith involves two things: it involves (1) seeing ourselves clearly and (2) seeing Jesus clearly. That is the significance of the request in verse 33, “Lord, open our eyes.” They are saying two things. Firstly, they are admitting their helpless condition. They are blind. “Our eyes are closed. We cannot see.” But secondly, they are recognising that only Jesus is able to open their eyes. Three times, they address Jesus as “Lord”. “Lord, let our eyes be opened.”

These two men saw themselves clearly and they saw Jesus clearly. Unlike the crowd. Unlike the rich man (Matthew 19:16-22) who was confident of being accepted because he had a good education from Cambridge and came to church every Sunday to play the keyboard for youth group. Unlike the disciples who were shooing away little kids because they weren’t important enough to hang around Jesus (Matthew 19:13). In effect, the crowd saw Jesus the way we see Santa Claus: someone who brings us nice toys for Christmas if we are good enough and behave when Grandma visits over the holidays.

That was not how the blind men saw themselves or Jesus. These blind men knew they didn’t deserve anything and they couldn’t do anything to help themselves. But they saw Jesus as someone powerful enough and merciful enough to help them out of their helpless estate. When Jesus said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” They didn’t say, “I need a new car. I need a new job. I need a holiday.” They said, “I’m blind. Help me.”

And the reason why this story is in the bible three times is to drive home the point - that’s what we are. Helpless. Pitiful. Blind. I wonder, how do you see yourself today? “Well, I’m doing all right. A few problems in the office, but nothing really serious, you know?” Or do you say, “I’m a wreck. I’m here because God’s the only one who can help me and I really need his grace and mercy”? How do you see yourself today?

Or what would it take for us to see ourselves this way? You know, I have yet to meet a rich, healthy, Cambridge graduate at the peak of his career, just back from a business trip to Asia flying first-class on BA, turning up in the church one day in his brand new Aston Martin just to me and say, “I’m hopeless! I am a sinner!” But go through a serious illness. Suffer through a tragedy. Lose a loved one. Sometimes, all it takes is just a tiny toothache and we cry out to God shaking our fists at him saying, “Why is this happening to me?”

What would it take for you to see your need for God today? CS Lewis writes:

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

I wonder if God is speaking to some of you here today who are going through a really difficult time in your life, saying, “These two blind men - this is your condition. The blindness. The helplessness. You need to see that you can’t work your way out of this mess.”

And I wonder if God is saying to you, “This is my Son, Jesus. Call out to him. See him as he truly is. Lord. Christ. The merciful Judge. The compassionate Saviour.”

A compassionate saviour

Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.
Matthew 20:34

Christmas is the time we remember the birth of Jesus Christ. God became a human being. And the bible tells us that Jesus was fully God and fully man. And by that it doesn’t just mean that he had arms, legs, hair and armpits like us. The reason why Jesus had to become a man was this: and here’s what the book of Hebrews says -

For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those are being tempted.
Hebrews 2:17-18

“Because he himself suffered,” that’s why he can help us. He became like us (“in every way” that bible tells us) in order to identify with our suffering and temptation, in order that he might be merciful and faithful to us as our high priest. Jesus is a God who has suffered. Isn’t that amazing? That’s what Christmas is saying. Jesus took on our humanity. He took on our suffering.

And that’s why it is such a silly thing to want to hide our suffering and pain from Jesus. Or to think that he will not understand. Because he does.

But notice as well that Hebrews as that Jesus made “atonement for the sins of the people”. What does that mean? It is helping to explain about what really happened on the cross. Jesus was paying the price of our sin by taking the punishment for our sins. That price was rejection from God.

You see, these two blind men - how did Jesus help them that day? “Well, he healed them, that’s obvious enough.” What was their condition before? “They were blind, duh!” Yes, yes. But weren’t they also rejected? The crowds saw them as trash. They talked to them like trash.

What happened when Jesus touched their eyes? Verse 34: “Immediately they received their sight and followed him”. They followed Jesus. To Jerusalem. To the passover. To the cross. They were able to see the whole thing. Previously, they were rejected by the crowd. Now, they are accepted by Jesus.

That’s what Jesus does for us at the cross. It changes us. By making us whole - giving us sight, faith, life. But it also changes us so that we now follow him. The cross enables us to see ourselves clearly and to see Jesus clearly. Jesus opened the eyes of these two blind men, so that they could follow him all the way to the cross.

What about you? Do you see? If you don’t, why not be honest about it. Ask God to open your eyes so that you can see clearly who you are and who Jesus is.

If you do see clearly, then follow him. Follow Jesus to the cross.

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord
Open the eyes of my heart
I want to see You
I want to see You

To see You high and lifted up
Shining in the light of Your glory
Pour out Your power and love
As we sing holy, holy, holy
(“Open the eyes of my heart”, Michael W. Smith)

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