Epiphany 3 – January 21st and 22nd, 2017 – Matthew 8:1-13
In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +
In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +
So, who do you fear, and who do you hate? Yes, yes, I know, we aren't suppose to fear or hate anyone, labeling people is bad, prejudice is bad, yaddy yaddy ya. So, who do you fear, and who do you hate? Who are the people that you can think about and get a bit worried, a bit nervous? Who are the people you look at and have nothing but disdain for them, don't want to end up like them at all? We all have them – and don't try blowing smoke up my alb about how you don't; I deal with sin for a living. We shouldn't, but we do. Well, if you were a Jew living in Jesus' day, there'd be a fairly standard list. Samaritans, Romans, Tax Collectors, other Roman sympathizers, and Lepers (oh, they'd give you the willies). Well, we get to check off two off of that list in today's Gospel lesson. As we go through this text, I want you to appreciate just the utter disdain and fear and the crowd following Jesus would have felt at this leper and this Centurion – have that in the back of your mind as we look at Christ Jesus and see what sort of God He reveals Himself to be.
“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.'” Now, this is immediately following the sermon on the Mount – this is a big crowd following Jesus... and then, someone elbows his way through. A Leper. Now, understand what the crowd would see. A Leper was to be banished, sent away from society, away from people, because leprosy was contagious. One leper could infect dozens, hundred, an entire town if he stayed in their midst. And what just happened – a leper came pushing through the crowd up to Jesus. Is he trying to kill us all? This is not a nice polite Leper – this one isn't like the ten lepers who cry out to Jesus from a distance. Do you get what the crowd would see? It would be like someone with Hepatitis with bleeding, open sores running around and flinging blood everywhere – it would be like the toddler coughing gunk right into you face (not that I know anything about that). There'd be horror and revulsion and fear.
That's not what Jesus sees though. Jesus hears this fellow, and this leper's words are great. He doesn't ask Jesus to heal him, he doesn't beg. The leper simply says, “If You will, You can make me clean.” If You want to Jesus, You are totally able to heal me. You don't have to, You don't owe it to me, I'm not even going to beg – I'm just going to put the ball in Your. If you want to heal me, Jesus, You'll heal me. If you want to send me away and use me as an object lesson, an object of disgust and disdain, a warning to others – so be it. But You are the Messiah, and if You will it, if You want to, You can heal me. Do you hear the great confession of faith there? And then Jesus does the unthinkable. And Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” Jesus touches the guy! If you feared leprosy the way they did in the first century, your skin would be crawling up your back right now – but Jesus touches Him, and says, Yes, I do will this, I do want you to be clean. And Jesus speaks the word, and the guy is clean. How's that for a healing – Jesus just going boldly touching the worst, the most fearful, and then it's gone, then it's clean, then it's healed. It is astonishing.
Of course, then Jesus tells the guy not to go brag about what Jesus has done – Jesus likes to preach and teach about spiritual things, and if everyone and their brother wants healing He won't be able to do that. Just be quiet, go show yourself to the priests, offer up the lawful sacrifice and then get back to your life. I have willed that you be healed – not so that I get a new flattery crowd, but I have healed you for your benefit so that you can go back to your own life, to your own family and friends and enjoy them. God gave these gifts to you; you're healed now – go enjoy God's gifts again.
So – fair enough – preached the Sermon on the Mount, healed a leper, that's a full day's work for anybody, so Jesus heads on back to Capernaum where He was staying, and we hear this. “When He entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to Him, appealing to Him, 'Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.'” So, what would the crowd see? Ugh, a Centurion. A commander of a troop of 80 Roman soldiers. The major Roman thug and enforcer for Capernaum. This is Roman villain number 1 for the town. Moreover, his “servant” is ill. The word there is the word for a child slave. Probably bought off of the auction block – poor thing, it'd be better to be dead than to be a “servant” to a Roman dog. Fear, revulsion, oppression. These are all the things that would come swirling up in the crowd.
That's not what Jesus sees though. This Centurion has come up, and once again, there's no request – just a statement. Here's the situation, Jesus – I'm not going to tell You how You should handle it, I'll just put the ball in Your court. So Jesus says, “I will come and heal him.” What does Jesus see – someone who needs healing. So He's going to do some healing – but then the Centurion jumps back in. 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.” Oh, this Centurion! There is a reason why Jesus marvels at him! First of all – there is humility there, he is not worthy to have Jesus enter his house. But more than that – there is concern for Jesus. Good, pious Jews don't enter a gentile's house – remember, on Good Friday Pilate has to come out to talk to the Chief Priests because they wouldn't defile themselves by entering Pilate's house. No, Jesus – don't come into my house, You'll just tick off all these folks in the crowd. And then the great part – besides, You don't need to come. I know how authority, I know how power works. I speak to my servants, and they hop to it. Well, You are the Lord – simply speak the Word, and there will be healing. The Centurion gets it! And Jesus gushes, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such a faith!” And then with joy, Jesus demonstrates His authority. You speak to your servants and they act, do they Centurion? Well, listen then to Me, and I will use My authority! And to the Centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” Oh, folks, this is beautiful. Jesus tells the Centurion to head back, and then he says, “let it be.” Now, can you think of other times when God says “Let it be” or as we often put it in English, “Let there be”? It's creation – in fact, the word “let it be done” in Greek is Genetheto – Genesis-ized. This is Christ Jesus, the Word of God by whom all things were made speaking a Word of creation, and there is healing. This is awesome.
So, what do we make of this text? It's frustrating for me as a Pastor, because so often people will simply turn this into a social justice text – see all the people you hate and oppress – you shouldn't hate and oppress them. Stop that. But then, all too often the preacher will give you a new villain that you really ought to fight. Liberals and Conservatives both do it, just with different new villains to focus on – defend the poor from the 1 percent, defend the workers from the illegal immigrants, defend the women from the patriarchy, defend your family from liberal social policy – blah blah blah. This text becomes a political bait and switch – don't hate this person – hate the people I want you to hate. Not the point.
Consider whom Jesus deals with here. A Leper and a Centurion. The feared and the hated. The disgusting and the reviled. The scum of the land and the oppressor of the nation. And yet, immediately, without hesitation, without worrying what people might think – Jesus shows love to them. Now, of course, this is to be instructional to us – yes, you are to show love to your neighbor, even if you don't like them. Even if you fear them. Even if they are nasty and mean and tools of oppression. Love your neighbor. But it's more than just what you should do. This text is an epiphany text, it reveals to us who Jesus Christ is. You want to know what sort of God this Jesus of Nazareth is? The people that you hate, that you despise, that you fear, even though you know you shouldn't – those very same people Jesus loves and cares for. Those are the people for whom Jesus dies and rises to win forgiveness and salvation. Those are the people to whom Christ would have His Gospel preached.
This is an awesome and wondrous thing – it is heavy, it is a lot to contemplate. But this isn't just a Gospel text about prejudice and how you need to fight against that. Yeah, you hate and fear other people – that happens. But my friends, there is a wonder in this text, because there are times, there will be days when the person that you hate is you yourself. There will be days when the person you fear is you yourself. There will be days when the guilt will come, and you will see yourself with disgust and disdain and you will be utterly sick of yourself. There will be days when you hate what has happened in your life, what you've become, what you've lost. And Satan will cackle was those walls come crashing in around you, and you will see yourself and you will see nothing but shame. But that's not what Jesus sees, though. What sort of God do you have? A God who knows that He can make you clean, and He wills it to be so, and He in fact, he has taken water and His Word and said, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Even on your worst day, that Word of Christ says – I will, be clean, you are baptized. What sort of God do you have? He will come and heal you – when faced with sin and death, He will come to you with His own Body and Blood and say take, eat, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sin. What sort of God do you have? One that will tell you “Go, for you will live. Even if you die, so what? I am risen, and so you too will rise, and all this dross that messes with you will be gone. Go – let it be.”
This is our God, Christ Jesus our Lord, Christ the Crucified who takes away the sins of the world, even the sins of the bad people... even our sins. And you belong to Him, and you are forgiven by Him, and even when the world looks at you with disdain – even when you yourself look at yourself with disdain – His steadfast love and mercy for you endures forever. His light will always shine upon you, even unto life everlasting. In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the world +