Epiphany 3 – January 25th, 2009 – Matthew 8:1-13
In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +
In our Old Testament lesson, we see Elisha the prophet go and heal Naaman, a Syrian military official, of leprosy. It’s a wonderful story – Elisha’s stories are some of the most entertaining in all the Old Testament. The King of Israel is distressed because Syria’s king wants Namaan healed – Elisha walks up – not a problem. I’m the prophet, I’ll take care of it. And Namaan gets healed, although at first he is dubious of Elisha’s cure. 7 times in the Jordan – eh, that’s too simple, do something spectacular. But no, Elisha is the Prophet, and as such Elisha knows how God works – God sends His Word forth, occasionally attaching it to something physical like water, and wonderful things happen. And the end result is that this leprous foreigner is healed. It is a wonderful lesson. It teaches us about the power of God’s Word. It reminds us of God’s love, even to the gentile, the non Jew. A beautiful story.
A story that, although it is remembered, in reality its point is forgotten by the time of our Gospel lesson. That was almost 800 years before Christ when Elisha did his healing, and the lessons of that healing were by-in-large forgotten. But the lesson needs to be taught in order for Christ Jesus to teach us who He is, what kind of God He is, and so our Lord will heal again. Matthew 8 takes place right after the sermon on the Mount, right after Jesus has done much teaching. And now He is going to act, and in our lesson, we see two things back to back – Jesus heals a Leper, and then Jesus heals a Centurion’s servant.
Sadly, to many people in Jesus’ day both of these acts would have been shocking. First, consider Jesus’ healing of the leper. When He came down from the mountain, great crowds followed Him. And behold a leper came to Him and knelt before Him, saying, “Lord, if You will, You can make me clean.” The audacity of this miserable, dirty leper. There are crowds present – plenty of healthy people – he should be off in the desert. He should be standing at a distance crying aloud, like the 10 lepers do. If you are a leper, you don’t approach other people. This is bad behavior – and Jesus should punish it, should smack it down. Send the leper away, lest He infect all of us with his pestilence!
But Jesus doesn’t. Any “good” Jew of the day would have recoiled in horror from the leper. But Jesus doesn’t – in fact, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched Him, saying, “I will; be clean.” He touched him! Jesus actually touched a leper! You don’t do that! That makes you ritually unclean and unfit for society. Who knows how long it had been since this person had felt any human contact, and Jesus just goes right on up and touches him. Astonishing. And this brash leper gets healed. All of this would be pretty close to scandalous.
And what came next was even worse. When He entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to Him, appealing to Him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” And He said to him, “I will come and heal him.” Think how shocking this would be. This Centurion was a foreigner – and not only a foreigner, but a Roman officer. He was one of the people occupying Israel, he was a foreign invader. What business would Jesus have dealing with him? If anything, the people were probably hoping that Jesus would lead the glorious revolt which would kill this Centurion and every other dirty Roman in the country. And instead – Jesus talks civilly with him, and Jesus even agrees to help him. The shock of this – and on top of that uppity leper. Jesus is doing some wild things.
So, what does our Lord reveal to us about Himself in doing this? He shows us that God doesn’t care about your earthly status. He doesn’t care if you are rich or poor, if you are healthy and hale or weak and lowly. He doesn’t care if you are Jew or Gentile, American or foreigner. He doesn’t play favorites. He doesn’t even care whether you’ve been a Lutheran all your life or who your grandparents were – He loves all His creation, all the ones who are His. It doesn’t matter if you are the wealthiest of the wealthy or the dirtiest of the scum – You are one whom God desires. And in fact, the key thing, the key point isn’t your heritage or standing, isn’t whether or not people fawn over you. There is one thing that this leper and this centurion had in common – and that is faith.
Christ our Lord shows us the importance of faith in a Christian’s life with these two healings. Even with so many differences – because this leper and this centurion are about as different as you can be in the ancient world – the key thing in common in their faith. We talk a lot about the faith of the Centurion – But the Centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have You come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” Scripture tells us that when Jesus hears this He marveled, marveled at the Centurion’s faith. And what do we see about this Centurion’s faith? First, he acknowledges who Christ is. Always calls Him “Lord” – the Centurion acknowledges that Jesus is Lord – that’s the heart of faith. He knows who Christ is. Second, this Centurion knows Himself. I am not worthy – I don’t deserve your time. How is that for humility? He admits his lack, his lowness. Faith confesses sinfulness, confesses that we are unworthy. And Third, this Centurion knows the power of the Word. The Word does what it says – and that is what faith is – believing that what God says, what God promises in His Word will happen. This Centurion believed that when Jesus says that His servant is healed that the servant is in fact well and truly healed, simply because God says so. That is faith.
But the leper also demonstrates faith. He knows his lack, and in faith this leper too approaches Jesus, and note what the leper says. “Lord, if You will, You can make me clean.” That is one of the finest prayers in all of Scripture. It’s a simple statement of fact. God, I know what You can do, and should You want to, You will do it. It’s utter and complete trust. God, I know You can heal me, and if You want me healed, You will. If for some reason You do not want me healed – Thy will be done, and I still give praise to You name. It’s a fantastic demonstration of faith. Both these men, the leper and Centurion, cry out to Christ in faith, they know and receive His blessing.
So, what does this mean for us? What do we learn from this? Do we learn that if we just ask God in the right way He’ll do whatever we want – if we just pray hard enough our every desire will come true? No – because the Leper knows that he’ll be healed not because he wants to be healed, but because God wills it. Does it mean that if we are humble enough, or ask with the right humility that God will do what we want? No – because the Centurion reminds us that we are the ones who are under God’s authority, we listen to Him and do what He says – Christ is not our servant who does what we want – it’s the other way around. No, this text is not a blueprint for making your future, your tomorrow better in this life. No, dear friends in Christ, this Gospel this morning describes your life in Christ right now.
Consider who you are. You are a sinner – and let’s face it, if any of us were suddenly transported back to Christ’s day and were wondering around Jerusalem, we would have been horribly looked down upon. In fact, many of us are probably looked down upon by people even now. How many of us in this room are considered by others to be embarrassments or disappointments? There’s not a one of us in here who isn’t – and if you think you aren’t considered an embarrassment or disappointment to someone, you’re fooling yourself. No, we are not here because of how wonderful we are – rather, we have been given the gift of faith and we are called here – miserable sinners that we are – and we are brought here and we are cleansed by Christ’s Word of forgiveness. We here today receive forgiveness and healing, just as that Leper did, just as the Centurion’s servant did – and though ours is a healing of the Spirit, it is no less wondrous.
And that is what has to happen here, that is what this place, if it is to remain, must always be about – the applying of Christ’s forgiveness won by His death upon the Cross to sinful people through the Word of God. That’s the way it has always been in the Church and that’s the way it will stay until Christ returns. Paul in Romans says, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the Gospel to you also who are in Rome.” Paul is a preacher of the Church – He is obligated to preach. The same thing happens today. I as a called and ordained servant of the Word. . . I’ve been called by God here to preach the Gospel – I’ve been ordained, that is I have been placed under orders to preach. . . I am a servant, and as the Centurion points out, the Master tells the servant to do this, and it has to be done. Same as it was 50 years ago with Pastor Hannusch and same as it will be 50 years from now with Pastor whoever. The point is that God’s Almighty Word of forgiveness is proclaimed here, that the power of God for salvation is given to believers here. That’s what defines us, that’s what makes this place Zion Lutheran Church, and that’s why God has allowed us to continue to exist – to be a place where His Word is proclaimed, where we are called to have our sins forgiven and to grow in faith.
Dear friends in Christ, fellow recipients of God’s love and mercy and those who dwell and live in His forgiveness – remember Who your Lord is. He is God Almighty who loves you, who takes on Human Flesh to suffer upon the Cross in your place, who rises from the dead to ensure that you can take your place next to Him in all eternity in Heaven. He is the One who gives this all you to freely, which you receive through the gift of faith. I urge you to remain in His Word, delight in His forgiveness, and rejoice in His good and gracious will towards you all of your days. In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World – Amen.