Sermon for Epiphany 3
Matthew 8:1-13 + 2 Kings 5:1-15 + Romans 12:17-21
“Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean!” “Lord, just say the word, and my servant will be healed.” We have before us today in the Gospel those two spectacular prayers of faith – the leper and the centurion.
Should I stand up here in the pulpit and tell you to “be just like them!”? Or to “have a faith just like theirs!”? – confident and submissive, humble and content to believe without having to see. I could command you to have that kind of faith, but that would be foolish. Because you don’t form your faith. You don’t make your faith more humble, more submissive, more “faith”ful. God himself does that. God molds your faith and makes it into a tested lump of gold. He does it, not by telling you what to do, but by simply telling you who Jesus is, what Jesus is like. He does it all by himself, by means of his powerful Word, the very Gospel that we are considering today. Faith does not come by doing, but by hearing. So listen again to God’s word in the Gospel. The Word establishes the pattern for us: The Word creates faith that clings to the Word.
Jesus had just finished his sermon on the mount and was coming down from the mount when that man with leprosy came running up to him and knelt on the ground at Jesus’ feet. “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” What was it that brought him to Jesus’ feet? First, it was the very obvious fact that he was unclean with the skin disease of leprosy, that he was sick, and that no one in the world could help him – except for Jesus.
What was it that made him so confident that Jesus could help him, that Jesus could do whatever Jesus wanted to do, even the healing of leprosy which was impossible for any other man? He had heard the word about Jesus. He had heard that Jesus was kind and good, that he welcomed sinners and all the downcast and the downtrodden, that he healed with the power of God, and that he preached a message about a God who both condemns sin and offers a way of forgiveness, through faith in Jesus. The leper had heard that word about Jesus, and the Word created faith.
Then faith clings to the Word. Faith brought the leper to Jesus’ feet, trusting that Jesus wouldn’t be offended or repulsed by his leprous uncleanness, knowing by faith that Jesus could do whatever Jesus wanted to do. “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” And then faith waits. It waits for a word from Jesus to reveal what his will is and how he will help. It makes no demands. It offers nothing to Jesus. It doesn’t go looking for signs of what Jesus’ will might be; it doesn’t presume to know what Jesus’ will is unless Jesus says what his will is. Faith clings to Jesus’ Word.
And rightly so. In the case of the leper, faith was not disappointed. “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” “I am willing,” Jesus said. “Be clean!” And just as Jesus’ word had already created faith in that leper, now Jesus’ word created clean skin where only diseased skin had been. His word accomplished everything, including the faith of the leper that clung to his word.
The same is true for you. Your sin is just as destructive as leprosy and you’re just as unclean by nature as the leper. How do you know you’re a sinner? You know it from the Ten Commandments, which you and I have failed to keep. And Jesus is the very same good and kind Jesus who loves sinful lepers and who promises to help them by making them clean from their sin, that is, by forgiving their sin, by taking the punishment for the whole world’s sin upon himself and pouring out his blood to make atonement for all. If that word about Jesus has reached you and has brought you to a constant posture of kneeling before Jesus, looking up to him for help every day in every need, then faith is yours and you are right where you need to be.
The Word creates faith that clings to the Word. So the question isn’t, when do you find yourself on your knees begging for Jesus’ help. The question is, when don’t you? When is the pattern broken? When do you think you can handle it on your own? When do you think you’re not so unclean after all and don’t really have such need of constant cleansing? When do you wish to go on living in your uncleanness rather than have Jesus take it away? That’s when faith disappears and you return to sin; you return to the law.
It’s true, your flesh never wishes to have you down on your knees looking up to Jesus for help. Your flesh is not satisfied, not willing to submit to what Jesus wants, because submitting to what Jesus wants is to acknowledge him as God and Lord, and a good one at that! – and your flesh rebels against that. The devil will not tolerate that.
But even as your flesh rebels against the will of Jesus, faith holds on. It may hold on feebly at times, it may hold on in tears and through great pain as the cross presses down and the world around you asks, “Where is your God?” But even under the cross, especially under the cross, the cry of faith is still, “Jesus, if you will, you can make me clean,” or as the Psalm says, “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”
In the midst of every hardship and need, faith cries out – or sometimes just whimpers, “I know he died for me! In spite of everything, I know he did. And I know he is good and kind, even when I don’t feel it, because he came and lived and died for me.” Why can faith say such a thing? How can you know that, when things are falling apart all around you and he doesn’t seem to be giving you what you think you need? Because God’s Word creates faith, and faith clings to Jesus’ word, and not to anything else.
Then we have the example of the centurion, who came to Jesus – or actually, according to Luke’s Gospel, sent some friends to Jesus, to ask for healing for his servant. We see a man who loved his servant and cared for him. We see a man who had heard the word about Jesus – that he was kind to everyone, even well-known sinners, even Gentiles. He had heard the word that Jesus was powerful and taught and healed with authority. That simple word created faith in the centurion.
And it was a faith that, in turn, went looking for a word from Jesus to heal his servant. Just a word, nothing more. “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. But I have heard that you have authority, and I know authority. Just say the word and my servant will be healed.” The centurion’s faith had nothing to do with what he could touch or taste or see. Faith clings to the word of Jesus.
You remember how Jesus reacted to the centurion’s request? He marveled at it. He was amazed by it. He hadn’t found that kind of faith even in Israel. In Israel, Jesus would speak and the people would argue. In Israel, Jesus would invite and few would come. He would speak of forgiveness and life and most in Israel doubted. But in the most unlikely place, in a commander of the Roman army, Jesus found a man who was simply convinced that, no matter how impossible the request, if Jesus said the word, then nothing in heaven or on earth could stand in the way.
And Jesus once again proved that faith in his Word is well-placed. He granted the centurion’s request. “Let it be done for you as you have believed.”
What amazed Jesus about the faith of the centurion also amazes me about the faith of so many of you. You look, and what you see is weakness in yourself, and sin, and physical hardships, and family hardships, and one affliction after another. You see opposition to the Christian faith, you see Christians falling away from the Church and not acting like Christians. You look, and what you see is a Christian nature in yourself that wants to do good, but that’s always opposed by your sinful self, a sinful self that screams at you, “You’re not good enough for God,” or even, “God is not good enough for you!”
But the word of Jesus overcomes your doubts and fears and weaknesses. The word of Jesus shows you a loving Father behind the cross. It shows you the full atonement Jesus made for sin on the cross, and it speaks of the glory that is to be revealed in us, who now appear so weak and frail. You have no earthly reason to believe it, and yet you do. The word has created faith.
And then faith seeks a word from Jesus and clings to his word. Just his word, nothing else, which is why you’re Lutherans. You don’t go looking for a foundation for your faith within yourself, or out there in nature or in the stars. You don’t turn to your feelings to see if you’re really close to God today or not. You don’t rely at all on what you can see, and you don’t wait for Jesus to come over to your house to help you. You simply go to Jesus for a word. The Word creates faith that clings to the Word.
So again, the question is, when do you see this pattern broken? The Word has brought you to baptism and faith. But if you turn away now from the Word of Jesus, if you have no desire to grow in it, to live in it, to pass it on to your children; if you have no desire for the Sacrament of Jesus’ body and blood, for the gifts that he showers on you here in the Divine Service – then you will shipwreck your faith, and you will have no one to blame but yourself.
What’s the answer, if you find your faith flailing like this? The answer is to acknowledge it and repent of it. The answer is right here in the Church, in the ministry of the Word, where Jesus has placed his Word on earth. It’s right here in our worship, in our divine service, where Jesus speaks through this ministry of the Word and says the word, “Listen to me! I forgive you. Here is grace and peace and mercy and life. Take, eat, drink, the body given for you, the blood of the New Testament shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Where faith has been created by the word, there faith will always continue to cling to Jesus’ word and Sacraments. Where there is no faith, there people find “better” things to do on Sunday morning.
“Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean!” “Lord, just say the word, and my servant will be healed.” I don’t need to stand here and order you to be like the leper or be like the centurion. I just want you to know the word of Jesus, that word that draws you to him and to his family of believers, that word that makes you willing to submit to his will and ready to latch onto his Word. And I trust that he will help you through his Word, and that his Word will transform you into the people God intends for you to be, people who are being renewed each day in the image of Jesus Christ, our Lord. In Jesus’ name. Amen.