Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Readings: 2 Kings 5:1–15a | Romans 12:16–21 | Matthew 8:1–13

Text: Matthew 8:1-13

“Our Father, who art in heaven” – The Small Catechism tells us, “With these words, God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father, and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence, we may ask Him as dear children as their dear father.” 

Well, that’s fine for children, but when the rubber hits the road, you need more.  It’s too simple, isn’t it?  Actually no, it isn’t.  Faith believes God’s Word.  “Abram believed the Lord, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Gen. 15:6)  “So it depends on faith, in order that the promise may be guaranteed” (Rom. 4:16).  Faith trusts in God and asks Him.  Faith believes what the Lord says, when He promises, “Call on Me in the day of trouble.  I will deliver you, and you will glorify Me.” (Ps. 50:15)  Our God tells us He is eager to hear and answer the prayers of His children!

But I don’t want to bother God with my problems.  Surely, He has more important things than my needs to tend to.  We equate God with the pastor’s busy schedule, and we downplay our need or downplay God’s willingness to help.  But God is not a man that He can only be in one place at a time.  He isn’t overwhelmed by how big or how many challenges we bring to Him.  “He who keeps you will not slumber” and “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Psalm 121:3 and Num. 23:19)

We ask because of Who God is, and because of Who His Son is.  Putting this in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, we’ve heard of His birth as the promised son of Abraham, the adoration of the Magi, His Baptism and identity as God’s beloved Son, His temptation and the beginning of His ministry.  But this is the first thing that happens after His great Sermon on the Mount.  He is met immediately with the needs of the poor in spirit, with those who mourn seeking comfort.   Hasn’t He just taught us, ? “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Matt. 7:7-8) for you are coming before the Father in heaven who has opened His heart wide by sending His Son.

These two encounters are presented to us as examples to emulate.  The first comes to Jesus and expresses his faith in a statement: “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”  Perhaps he was inspired by Naaman, who was the only leper who was miraculously cleansed of his leprosy.  Leprosy was not just any other disease, but one which excluded a person from the Temple worship.  So, by being cleansed, this leper is also restored to worship the God who shows mercy to the unclean.

The second example of the Centurion comes to Jesus with an exhortation, or as the ESV says, an “appeal”: “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” But when Jesus offers to come to his servant, this man responds, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word.”  Perhaps, he too, has heard of Naaman, how it was by a powerful word that this Gentile received healing.  Nonetheless, he confesses faith in Jesus as commander-in-chief of all creation, of life and death.  That makes us the subordinates.  Yet, unlike human authorities who may err or be prone to tyrrany, our Master is perfect and His way is perfect.  “If you will…say only the word [and it will be]” As some of us heard at the funeral sang this week, “What pleases God, that pleases me.” (LSB 716, refrain)

We too are children of God, and as children, we should follow their examples.  When we come before God in the Divine Service, when we are at home in our devotions—whether alone or with our family—we long for the Lord to hear what we ask and answer our pleading.  This leper and centurion came with urgent, heartfelt needs.  They were driven to prayer by their circumstance.  This isn’t a bad thing.  Things got desperate for them, which drove them to the Lord as the only One who could help!

But there are those times when we don’t feel that longing.  We doubt God’s promise to hear every prayer.  We doubt that He is able to help, like our request is too big, or not statistically likely.  In these times, we allow our flesh and the world around us to silence our prayers.  What about those many times we’ve told ourselves we’re too busy to pray?  Or found that we’ve given in to worry and our own remedies instead of asking God for His help?

Jesus’ words to St. Peter in Gethsemane are true: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:38).  These are times for us to repent of lame excuses and our inattention to prayer.  He commands us to pray, and promises to hear us, and we should be ashamed by the example of this leper and this Gentile.

Enter the Devil with His accusation, and it only gets worse.  He wants us to buy into the failings, the distresses you and your family face.  His desire is for you, to sift you like wheat [Luke 22:31-32], so that you are swayed from asking for the Lord’s help, and falling back to your plan B, since obviously God won’t come through for you.  Any “reasonable” person knows that.

Satan is a liar and a murderer.  He wants to cut you off from God your Father, and Jesus, your Great High Priest.  The truth is that God has given Him as the Mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). 

Incredibly, your Father in heaven cares about you more than you do.  He cares more about your needs than you do.  Not only did the Son of God come into our world to take on our flesh, suffer, and die for our redemption, but He came to be our mediator between God and men, He ascended to the right hand of God. He is our High Priest offering petitions on our behalf to the Father. And as if this weren’t enough, He sent the Holy Spirit, the comforter, to each of us, descending upon us in Holy Baptism, remaining in us, strengthening our faith through Word and the mysteries of Christ, so that the Holy Spirit may “fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” (Rom. 15:13).

Filled with the Holy Spirit, He prays for us in our stead. Listen to how St. Paul expresses it, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (Rom. 8:26). This is how the Scripture is fulfilled that says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). It is by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in all who believe that Jesus is Lord. So even in those times when you might feel that your faith is weak and your prayers falter, wherever there is faith, the Spirit is interceding for you.

In whatever circumstance you find yourself, whether mourning or rejoicing, your heavenly Father knows, cares, and is with you. You are a child of God through the sacrifice of Christ Jesus. He invites you to be bold in your prayer and confident in your faith. And the invitation comes with power to strengthen you for the task. The accounts of the Leper and the Centurion serve as an encouragement to you, showing you what your Father wants. He wants you to ask. He stands ready to hear and to give you the things that are good for this world and for the world to come. This manifestation of Jesus in miracles gives you hope that He cares about you in this world. He cares about your every need. For Jesus is the right hand of majesty that the Father has stretched out to help and defend you in all circumstances.

This is the invitation which your Father in heaven extends to you.  May His Holy Spirit daily keep you in this faith and kindle in you a trust and yearning for His help every moment of your passing life.  This is your God who cares for you day and night, and who is your keeper unto eternal life, which is yours in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Third Sunday after the Epiphany (Matthew 8:1-13)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Third Sunday after the Epiphany + January 27, 2019

Text: Matthew 8:1-13

            Throughout the Epiphany season, our Lord reveals who He is and what He’s come for.  So far, we’ve heard the proclamation of who He is—as a child, at the Jordan, and at the wedding at Cana.  Yet we’ve seen very little of how His arrival is received.

            Today we see how the Lord is to be received in two glorious miracles.  First, a leper approaches Jesus, kneeling before Him and says, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”  From this brief encounter, we learn how we also ought to approach the Lord with our requests in prayer.  The leper, recognizing that Jesus is the Almighty Lord, approaches with confidence that Jesus will hear his request and has all power to grant it.  But this man also submits himself to God’s will in humility—if you will, you can make me clean.”  He leaves the answer in the Lord’s hands.  He acknowledges that God’s will is always good, even if that meant staying in his painful and grotesque condition.

The Lord immediately answers the man’s prayer: “I will; be clean.”  And with a Word from the One through Whom all creation was formed, the leper is restored.  His flesh, like Naaman the Syrian, is “like the flesh of a little child.”[1]  All of this was in answer to a simple, trusting prayer to the Lord.

            In the second miracle, we learn even more about what this trust is, which is the root of effective prayer.  The faith of the Gentile centurion is such a shining example, that Jesus actually marvels at hearing it.  This faith, which Jesus praises so highly, isn’t something reserved for a select few figures in the pages of the Bible.  It is a faith which He desires to give each of us: it is the faith which receives God’s abundant blessing and in the end, eternal life.

            This Spirit-work faith has three parts to it—knowledge, affirmation, and trust.  These two men had come to know that Jesus was in the area, and the had probably heard reports about what He had done.  This is simply knowledge about Jesus.  Today, people would have a historical faith, acknowledging that Jesus was a historic figure, an important figure.

The next part of faith is affirmation.  These men knew that Jesus had a reputation for healings.  Affirming that knowledge of Jesus’ reputation, they went to find out more.  This is often where people are when they come to church for the first time.  They’ve heard some vague and spotty reports about Christianity, they’ve known Christians to be kind people.  So, acting on that, they give up a Sunday morning, maybe miss the first part of the Pro Bowl.  They’re willing to affirm that Christians don’t have a disease and aren’t going to try to make them drink the Kool Aid.

But that brings us to the last part of faith: Trust.  This is where the leper and the centurion put it on the line: “If you will, you can make me clean.”  “I am not worthy…but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.”  In the case of the leper, he staked his life and future in the community on what Jesus was able to do.  For the Centurion, his servant’s life hung in the balance.

This trust is the thing which only the Holy Spirit can work in men’s hearts.  None of us come to God with a true fear, love, or trust.  The Spirit works faith when and where it pleases God in those who hear the Gospel.[2]  And that remains a mystery to us, humanly speaking.  The same Word is preached from the pulpit, taught in confirmation class, and it touches the hearts of some, but others it just rolls off like water on a duck’s back.

But still the Word is true, and the Word is powerful.  It’s the Word of God to which faith clings.  We’ve already seen how the centurion didn’t shrink away because of his sinfulness, but neither did he look to the good he’d done as reason for Jesus to answer his request.  The centurion threw himself on Jesus’ Word—“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.”  This is what it means for man to “live by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”[3]  This is what faith lives on.

In the centurion’s confession, he is saying that he believes that Jesus is the one who can help his paralyzed servant.  Perhaps more people today would believe this if there weren’t such advanced medicine, which makes extravagant promises about itself.  The centurion sees that Jesus is the Almighty Lord, “who kills and makes alive, who wounds and who heals.”[4]  And just as he has a hundred soldiers under him who immediately obey his commands, he sees that Jesus has heaven and earth, life and death, at His command.

Likewise, the leper’s faith is bold enough to come to Jesus with a great request: “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”  This man, a Jew (because he was sent to the priest), would have known that only God had the power to grant this request—Miriam was turned leprous by the Lord, Naaman’s servant Gehazi was also turned leprous, but believing Naaman was cleansed.[5]  Yet, he would have believed, even if it hadn’t been His will to cleanse Him.

That’s another part of this faithful trust that’s beyond our human power.  If faith were just a matter of willpower, it would stand to reason that at a certain point, affliction and attack would break someone’s faith.  After all, it so often breaks marriages and other trust relationships between people.  This was Satan’s argument about Job: “Does Job fear God for no reason? 10 Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” (Job 1:9-11)

So, the Lord allowed Job’s faith to be tested.  In spite of circumstance, in spite of sinful weakness, Job’s faith held firm: “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” and as he sits in dust and his flesh covered in scabs, he says, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!” (Job 13:15, 19:25-27) That’s no human willpower, no naïve platitudes, that is the power of God which binds almighty God to His people.

This is why we should never say that what a person endures is harmful to their faith, whether long-standing illness, danger, or personal strife.  The power to destroy faith doesn’t lie in something external to us—The Good Shepherd knows His own and no one can snatch them out of His hand. (John 10:14, 28-29)  What endangers our faith is our own unbelief, blaspheming and sending away the very Holy Spirit by Whom a person is sealed for salvation.  Faith is weakened when we drift from His Word and the gathering of the saints in worship.  Faith is undermined when we make our trials and troubles greater than the Almighty God who has redeemed us.  Faith is destroyed when we deny the Almighty God who has made Himself known and comes to us in fact through His Word and Sacraments.

But how do you know you have faith?  When, in spite of all that is happening, or has happened to you, you don’t look to yourself or man for help.  When you are at the end of your rope, you look to God and say, “Lord, If you are willing, you can change this…only say the Word and it will be.”  Maybe you’re there, or you’ve been there in the past.  Maybe you’re not there yet.  God grant each of you such a genuine faith which gives up on yourself and completely trusts Him.

In a joyous outcome, the man of faith receives what he asked for, “’Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.’  Those who have this genuine and saving faith are blessed.  The Psalmist David sings, “Blessed is the man who makes the Lord his trust, who does not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after a lie!”[6]  Blessed is the one who has this faith, not because everything in his life will be immediately fixed—all illnesses healed, all debts paid, all broken relationships mended.  The blessing of this faith is union with an almighty and gracious God in heaven.  When suffering comes, it means knowing for certain that God is not out to get you.  Rather, “God is treating you as sons” and “He has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”[7]  And one with this faith is blessed because, though he deserves temporal death and eternal punishment, he also believes that God has made peace with him through the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

[1] 2 Kings 5:14

[2] Augsburg Confession, Article V “On the Office of the Ministry”

[3] Deuteronomy 8:3

[4] Deuteronomy 32:39

[5] Numbers 12:1-10; 2 Kings 5:13-27

[6] Psalm 40:4

[7] Hebrews 12:7 ; Galatians 4:6