Sermon for Epiphany 3
Jeremiah 33:6-9 + Romans 12:16-21 + Matthew 8:1-13
Every week in the Gospel the Holy Spirit shines the spotlight of God’s Word on Jesus and shows us what kind of a Messiah He is. Today, in Matthew’s Gospel, He highlights the very heart of Christianity and reveals Jesus to us as the One who saves by faith.
We have two outstanding examples of faith set before us today: the leper and the centurion. There is so much for us to learn in each of these two accounts. For today, we’re going to focus on the leper.
Jesus had come down from the mountain—the mountain where He preached the famous “Sermon on the Mount.” Multitudes of people gathered around Him to hear, but the leper wasn’t among them. He couldn’t be. His disease forced him to stay far away from the healthy people. The Law kept him away from everything and everyone because of his uncleanness. The Law kept him away from God’s Temple, and therefore, from God’s presence. But the leper heard the word about Jesus from someone, and God’s Spirit works just as powerfully in the word about Jesus as He does in the words Jesus spoke from His own mouth (which is a comforting truth for us who also were not there to hear Jesus preach on the mountain). The leper had heard about Jesus’ power to heal and about Jesus’ kindness and mercy. And the leper believed that Jesus would help him.
So, in faith, he did the unthinkable. He, a leper, went right up to Jesus, a healthy Man, the holy God—against the prohibitions of the law that required lepers to stay back, because he trusted that Jesus had come to help, that God had come to earth to save sinners who could not go up to heaven to seek God. The leper trusted that Jesus had come, not to destroy unclean sinners, but to cleanse them and change them from unclean outcasts to clean citizens of God’s kingdom. He came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.” He doesn’t say, “I don’t know if you are who they say you are.” He doesn’t say, “I don’t know if you can help me or not.” He confesses his faith. “You can make me clean.” But he adds this humble condition: “if You are willing.” He doesn’t demand anything from Jesus or tell Him what to do. He humbly leaves himself in Jesus’ hands to do with what He will.
But how is this “worship”? It says the leper came and worshiped Him. How? By seeking cleansing from Him. The Bible calls that “worship.” In the other religions of the world, man worships God by doing things for Him. If man does the right things for God, then he expects God will be persuaded to help man. In Christianity, man worships God by doing nothing for Him, because we can’t do anything for Him or earn His favor by our works. In Christianity, man worships God by not giving Him anything, because we have nothing of worth to give. In Christianity, man worships God by desiring to receive mercy from Him, by trusting in Him as our good and gracious Savior who helps the helpless and cleanses those who are diseased with sin, as the great Physician who came to heal, not the healthy, but the sick.
And we are by nature sick before God, with a leprosy that is not only skin deep, but that eats away at our heart. The Law commands us to be righteous, to serve God and give Him what He deserves—our selfless obedience to His commandments. The Law says, serve God! Obey God! Give to God! Keep the commandments! And many people are foolish enough to think that they can.
But no one can. We’re helpless and hopeless before God because of our sin. But then comes this word about Jesus, this Gospel that proclaims God’s desire to save, not the healthy, but the sick, this Gospel that proclaims God’s grace and favor to sinners, not on the basis of our obedience, but on the basis of faith in Christ who was obedient for us—faith that looks to Him to make us clean, if He is willing.
Now, there’s the questions, isn’t it? Is He willing to make us clean? Today’s Gospel reveals the answer to that very question. “I am willing,” Jesus says. “Be cleansed.” And the leper was, immediately. And so are all who trust in Jesus for cleansing. Forgiven. Justified. Received into God’s favor.
“If You are willing” is a very fitting condition to add to our prayers, because in some matters, we don’t know if God is willing or not. Is God willing to forgive penitent sinners who look to Jesus for mercy? Always! Is God willing to heal immediately our physical diseases while we wait for Jesus to return? Not always. Is He willing to preserve us from cancer? From car crashes and from sudden death? Not always. But Christ has died, and Christ has risen from the dead. And His promise to us who believe in Him is cleansing from sin now, cleansing from all physical maladies, even death itself, when He comes again in glory. Jesus’ willingness to cleanse us from our sin now is the evidence that “the will of God is always best,” as we sang in the hymn today, so that even when tragedy strikes, even when the will of God is for cancer or car crashes to result in death for a Christian, we can know for certain that it fits perfectly into God’s good and gracious plan to work all things together for good to those who love Him. Cleansing from spiritual death now. Cleansing from physical death when He comes.
The leper was graciously cleansed by Jesus, both spiritually and physically, in order to teach us about Jesus’ willingness to cleanse us from our sin, in order to teach us to believe in Him as the leper did, because it’s by faith in Him that He hands out His good gifts to us, even righteousness and eternal life. And where especially does He hand it out? Here in His Sacrament. Be sure to read the back of the service folder today. It mentions all these things—how the worship of the Gospel is to desire to receive good things from God, and how the Sacrament of the Altar is God’s special tool for handing out His gifts to each one who comes to receive them from Him.
Notice, then, in our Gospel what Jesus told the leper to do after he was cleansed. See that you tell no one; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them. See what the Holy Spirit is revealing in this Gospel! Moses and the Law, Moses and the Ten Commandments are not man’s path to salvation. On the contrary, the Law of Moses proclaims us to be lepers in order to point us to the Messiah, to Jesus, for healing and salvation. Only then—only when we’ve been forgiven of our sins by Jesus can we now go back and understand Moses rightly. Only now that we’ve been cleansed from sin before God by His free grace can we go back and use the commandments and obey them. And God turns that obedience into a testimony to those around us: Lepers can’t keep the Law. Salvation is by faith in Jesus, not by works of obedience to the Law. But we who believe in Jesus are the ones who have been cleansed of leprosy. And so we who believe in Jesus are the ones who now keep the commandments, not in order to be saved by our obedience, but because we have already been saved by faith in Christ.
So the Law is no longer our enemy. It daily does its work of condemning our sin, but the Gospel daily does its work of pointing us to Christ in repentance and faith. Now the Law speaks what is right and wrong, and the Christian says Amen! That’s exactly what I want to do according to the New Man, the cleansed man that God has created in me. Cleansed by faith alone, now I want nothing more than to worship God in the way He wants to be worshiped—not by giving Him things, but by receiving His gifts of mercy in Word and Sacrament. He, in turn, strengthens my faith through these very means, and strengthens me to walk according to His commandments, in faith toward God and in love toward my neighbor. That pretty well sums up the whole Christian life.
There’s much more to be said about our Gospel, but let that be enough for today. In the account of the leper, the light of Epiphany shines brightly on faith and on Christ, the good and merciful Savior to whom you can go in every need, because He is willing to cleanse you and help you, both here in this valley of sorrow, and there in the eternal home He has prepared for all who have loved His appearing. Amen.