The Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 22, 2012
“The Will and Word of God in Christ”
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
Lepers suffered a skin disease. The suffering was more than physical. They were ostracized. Lepers were required to stand away from other people and cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” when people came near them to keep others from being infected by their disease. They were segregated from others. Sometimes they lived together in caves. Theirs was a lonely life.
A man suffering from paralysis was helpless to take care of himself. There were no wheelchairs, no handicap access, no physical therapy. It was a miserable life.
The one man was a leper. The other had a servant who was paralyzed. They both came to Jesus for his help. They were seeking help from God. They needed help from God and they went to Jesus to get it.
If you want help from God go to Jesus. Jesus is the revelation of the Father, the image of the invisible God, the Word made flesh. If you want to see God, look at Jesus. If you want to gain access to God, go through Jesus. If you want the favor and help that God alone can provide, seek it from Jesus. Jesus is the eternal Son of God and he is our brother. He is true God and true man at the same time.
These two men both appealed to Jesus. They made the appeal of faith. The first man, the leper, appealed to Jesus’ will. The second man, the military officer, appealed to Jesus’ word. The leper said, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.” The centurion said, “But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed.” It all depends on Jesus. It all depends on God’s will. It all depends on God’s word.
Faith depends on God. I just attended an excellent theological conference down in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. The topic was justification, which is the central teaching of the Christian faith. Justification is when God forgives a sinner and declares him to be righteous in his sight, not on account of his good deeds or good intentions or on the basis of anything at all in him, but solely out of God’s goodwill and favor for Christ’s sake. Justification is when God reckons to us Christ’s obedience as righteousness, so that we, through faith in Christ, receive the verdict of justification from God. God himself tells us that we are righteous and since he says so it is so and we can rest confident in his declaration.
One of the lectures was about the teaching and influence of a fellow by the name of Friedrich Schleiermacher. Schleiermacher lived a couple of hundred years ago and became probably the most influential theologian of the modern age. His notion of faith, which he claimed all religions held in common, was a feeling of absolute dependence on God. He downplayed doctrine and emphasized feeling. For him, the doctrinal content of the Christian religion was not important. What was important was our own personal consciousness of God and our feeling of absolute dependence on him. Christianity is stripped of its doctrinal framework – that is to say, its substance – and replaced with the pious feelings of the individual Christian who decides for himself what he will believe and how he will live.
St. Matthew’s account of the leper and the centurion who came to Jesus for help show us that modern Protestantism’s notion of faith is not biblical or Christian. Faith requires Jesus. Faith requires Jesus being willing. Faith requires Jesus speaking.
When we come to know God in Jesus we come to know what we need from God. Look at Jesus. Think of God as you look at Jesus. What do you need from God? You need what he wants to give you. “If you are willing,” the man said. Not, “If I want it.” Jesus is not our warm fuzzy. Jesus is not a reflection back to us of what we want. Jesus is the revelation to us of what God wants. “If you are willing” means that it all depends on God’s will and if we want to know God’s will we look to Jesus.
Some times we don’t know. Jesus was willing to heal the leper. He said so. Then he healed him. We pray for healing. The child gets sicker. The loved one dies. Stroke, cancer, or something even worse comes our way and we run to God through Christ and seek out his will to heal, to restore, to put everything back to what it was before the trouble struck. “If you are willing,” we pray. We want God’s will to conform to ours but even as we pray we must ask God to conform our will to his.
Sometimes God’s will is hidden from us and so we must live in darkness. But faith sees in the dark. Faith sees in the dark because it sees by the light of God’s word. That’s what the centurion understood and that’s why Jesus praised his faith as being greater than any faith he had seen in Israel. Faith relies on the word of God not only for its truthfulness but for its power.
Faith is not, as Friedrich Schleiermacher asserted, a feeling of absolute dependence on God. Faith is not a feeling at all. Nowhere does the Bible call faith a feeling. In the Bible faith is described as eating and drinking, looking, knowing, hearing, and of course believing, but not as feeling. That’s because faith doesn’t go by what it feels inside. It goes by what God says. What God says determines what faith is and believes. Without the word of God there is no faith. There is only delusion and blindness. Faith lives contrary to what it feels. It lives on what God says.
Sometimes the will of God that he hides from us brings us pain and leaves us in pain and we feel it and feeling it we are brought low and to the point of despair. The leper saw Jesus in the flesh. He witnessed Christ’s epiphany as he revealed his glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. What do we witness? We witness unanswered prayers. We witness failure and loss. We witness a rotten economy and financial struggles. We witness sickness and death. We ask, what is God’s will? We know it is good and gracious because that’s what we are taught. That’s what we confess. That’s what we believe. But that’s not what we feel.
We need the words of Jesus. That’s what brings us together on Sundays. That’s what drives us to our Bibles to read them. That’s what corrects our confusion and dispels our doubts. The words that our faith needs are the very words that Jesus graciously gives us.
The centurion had an amazingly down to earth understanding of God’s authority. He knew authority as that power to require others to do one’s bidding. He said to Jesus:
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."
What he says goes. That’s how it is with God. What he says goes. Faith clings to what he promises. He said, “Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.” God promises it. Faith believes it. Faith has what it believes.
When we learn to confess the meaning of the Creed we learn to conclude each article with the words, “This is most certainly true.” Why? Because God said it. Healing the leper and healing the paralytic display to the whole world the mercy that Jesus feels in his heart toward our suffering. But they are more than a display of his feeling. Just as the true faith is more than a feeling of absolute dependence on God, but a living on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God, just so the gospel that faith receives is more than a display of God’s mercy toward those who suffer, it is God giving to them relief from their suffering.
We can sympathize with the one who suffers a loss but we cannot replace it or relieve it. God can and he does. Healing the leper and the paralytic demonstrated his authority to forgive sins and to raise us from the dead. So we confess in the Creed, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” So God promises. So we believe. So we receive.
We want to know God’s will for our lives. We can know. It is that we believe his promises and obey his commandments. It’s that simple. God does not want us to disregard his commandments. He wants us to worship him alone, to call on his name reverently and faithfully, to listen attentively to his word, to honor those he places in authority over us, to help our neighbor in all bodily needs, to live chastely and purely, to protect our neighbor’s property and reputation, and to be satisfied with what we have. That’s God’s will for us.
And God wants us to believe him when he says that for Christ’s sake our many sins against these commandments are forgiven and removed from us as far as the East is from the West. He wants us to believe that our sins are washed away by Christ’s blood, buried in Joseph’s tomb, forgiven and forgotten by God in heaven. He wants us to believe the words, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” as words coming from heaven and imparting to us salvation. He wants us to believe the words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” It is God’s will to give us these promises and his word guarantees them. So God says and so we believe and this faith is God’s greatest gift to us. Amen