The Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 23, 2011
“The Foundation for Faith”
St. Matthew 8:1-13
When He had come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed Him. And behold, a leper came and worshiped Him, saying, "Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean." Then Jesus put out His hand and touched him, saying, "I am willing; be cleansed." Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, "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." Now when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, saying, "Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented." And Jesus said to him, "I will come and heal him." The centurion answered and said, "Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. "For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come,' and he comes; and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it." When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, "Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. "But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Then Jesus said to the centurion, "Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you." And his servant was healed that same hour. St. Matthew 8:1-13
God can do anything he wants to do. But there are some things God cannot do. That’s because there are some things that God, by his very nature, does not and cannot want to do.
God cannot do evil. People accuse God of evil all the time. They put him on trial. They hold him responsible for all of the suffering in the world and then they judge him guilty. They say that if he really is almighty he should use his almighty power to rid the world of its terrible poverty, injustice, suffering, and cruelty. And if he won’t, why he’s not really almighty at all. In fact, he may not even exist. In this way unbelief spawns unbelief. Unbelief puts God on trial. It accuses God. It judges God. It assumes God’s prerogative.
Faith does not stand in judgment of God. Faith is born in humility. God is judge. We are not. Faith seeks God’s goodwill. Indeed, there can be no faith apart from it.
“Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” “If you are willing,” he said. He appealed to the good and gracious will of God.
This is what we learn to confess in the Small Catechism under the Third Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done.”
The good and gracious will of God is done indeed without our prayer; but we pray in this petition that it may be done among us also. How is this done? When God breaks and hinders every evil counsel and will which would not let us hallow God's name nor let His kingdom come, such as the will of the devil, the world, and our flesh; but strengthens and preserves us steadfast in His Word and faith unto our end. This is His gracious and good will.
The leper prayed, “If you are willing.” Faith trusts in God’s good and gracious will. Whatever he does he does because he is good and gracious. Whatever he does not do he does not do because he is good and gracious. “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” That’s faith. What God wants for us is what we want. That’s faith.
Faith doesn’t put God on trial. Faith doesn’t tell God what he wants to do. Faith is born in humility. Faith doesn’t give orders to God. It lives on God’s word.
There is a direct connection between faith and the word of God. If you break this connection you don’t have faith anymore but something bogus that parades itself as faith. This is why the leper appealed to Jesus as he did. He had no word from Jesus that told him what he wanted for him. He knew that Jesus was full of compassion. He knew he had the power to heal. Jesus had shown his divine power. Jesus had shown his kindness. So the man plagued by leprosy appealed to Jesus’ power and Jesus’ goodness.
“Thy will be done” is the most difficult of the seven petitions to pray. There’s a story about Katy and Martin Luther. He was complaining about life, about how everything was going the wrong way. Katy told him it was his own fault. He was surprised at such an assertion and asked her what she meant. She said, “You’re the one who prayed, ‘Thy will be done.’”
“If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Yes, and if he is not willing, this does not mean that he doesn’t love you. It doesn’t mean that he is not good to you. It doesn’t mean that he is not gracious to you. Faith lets God decide how to be good and gracious. Absent God’s word to us telling us what he intends to do for us we may not assume that our will and his will are the same.
But when God gives us his word, we can rest assured he will do it. He cannot lie. If he says he’ll do it, he’ll do it. He cannot forget what he has promised and he cannot break a promise he makes. Having his word on something makes it utterly certain.
The Roman centurion understood this. He appealed to Jesus on behalf of his servant who was suffering a painful paralysis. Jesus offered to come to where his servant was. The centurion said no. No, he wasn’t worthy that Jesus should come into his home. Just say the word. He understood Jesus’ authority. He was a man under authority with men under his authority. If he said it that’s the way it would be. His word was sufficient. Jesus word was sufficient as well. He had the power to heal. That power was the power of his word.
The word is everything. With God’s word faith has the very power of almighty God. Without God’s word faith is folly. It is superstition, delusion, and darkness. God’s word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Faith doesn’t enlighten us. God’s word enlightens us. Faith lives in the light of God’s word. Faith doesn’t make anything true. God’s word is truth. Faith clings to the word of God for dear life, knowing that Jesus’ words are spirit and life.
The centurion trusted in the words that Jesus spoke. There were many people in the church of that day who were regarded as very faithful, but who rejected the gospel. They trusted in their own works to save them. They were sons of the kingdom. They had the right worship. They belonged to the right group. They had the right religious pedigree. Everybody knew it. They followed the right forms, prayed the right prayers, and offered the right offerings. Why, they were people of faith! They were highly regarded for their faith.
And Jesus said of them, “But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” He was not impressed with their false faith. Instead, he praised the faith of the Roman centurion who wasn’t even a member of the established church. What was it about the man’s faith that Jesus found commendable? He confessed his unworthiness and trusted in the word of Jesus. Just speak a word, the man asked. Just say it. That will settle it.
Without the word of God there is no faith. With the word of God faith is grounded and sure. This is so simple and yet so widely ignored by Christians to their own harm. How often we hear from Christians that they know what God wants them to do because they have prayed about it. But you don’t know what God wants for you; you don’t know what God wants to do for you through prayer. You know what God wants for you; you know what God wants to do for you from his word. If he says it in his word you know it is so and you can rely upon it. If he doesn’t say it you don’t know and all you can do is rely on the fact that he is good and gracious.
Prayer is when we talk to God. God’s word is when God talks to us. It is the height of arrogance to presume that we know what God wants for us because we have had our say with him – as if God follows our orders!
Better to know that you’re ignorant than to rely on your own feelings as if they are the voice of God. The leper knew that Jesus was willing to heal him because Jesus told him so. The centurion knew that Jesus was willing to heal his servant because Jesus told him so. Jesus was standing there talking to them.
But Jesus is not standing here talking to us. He talks to us in the Holy Scriptures. He talks to us through his ministers who preach his gospel purely and administer his sacraments rightly. Listen to Jesus where Jesus has promised to speak and your faith will be on solid ground.
When Jesus sent out his apostles he commanded that they preach the gospel and administer the sacraments and he promised to be with them always to the very end of the world. This is why we recognize Jesus in the gospel and sacraments. It’s on account of his command and promise.
Jesus didn’t promise you a cure of your disease. He didn’t promise you wealth or success at your job. He didn’t promise you loyal friends and a booming economy. You can pray and pray and pray until the cows come home and you won’t put into God’s word a single promise that isn’t already there. Faith isn’t ganging up on God by insisting that he do for us what he hasn’t promised to do for us. No, faith is humbling ourselves before God, admitting our unworthiness that he come to us, and trusting in the words he says.
And he says them. So hold on to them. Ask for them and take them in. Beg him for mercy,
Lord, have mercy upon us
Christ, have mercy upon us
Lord, have mercy upon us.
We come before God in prayer, humbly confessing that we are poor, miserable sinners, deserving of punishment. We come before God in prayer and we listen to Jesus tell us through his minister, “I forgive you all your sins.” We listen to Jesus tell us, “This is my body, given for you. This is the New Testament in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Listen to him. Don’t do all the talking. Listen to what he has to say and take it to heart.
How can his will for you be anything less than good and gracious? We know what God wants us to do. Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” We know what God wants to do for us. He wants to deliver us from every evil of body and soul. He wants to forgive us all our sins for Christ’ s sake. His good and gracious will is revealed on the cross where Jesus died. He who laid our sin and guilt on his dear Son who suffered for us wants to give us all things that will benefit us in this life. He wants to give us eternal life.
So we pray. We ask God for help in every need. We ask him to do what he is willing to do and we trust in his good and gracious will for us. We rely on his word and set aside any confidence in anything else. Having Christ and his word, our faith receives from God forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, and finds its true source and strength.
I know my faith is founded on Jesus Christ, my God and Lord;
And this my faith confessing, unmoved I stand upon His Word.
Man’s reason cannot fathom the truth of God profound;
Who trusts her subtle wisdom relies on shifting ground.
God’s Word is all sufficient, it makes divinely sure,
And trusting in its wisdom, my faith shall rest secure. Amen