The Third Sunday after Epiphany| Rev. Rolf Preus| January 22, 2017| 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. Matthew 8:1-13
One morning in the spring of 1972, near the end of my freshman year in college, I climbed into a station wagon full of college kids attending the University of Missouri in Columbia who were on their way to Jefferson City to attend hearings of the state legislature about amending the Constitution of Missouri to recognize the legal citizenship of unborn children. I was excited about its prospects, and when a group of Lutheran students invited me along I was happy to join them. I assumed that all of us were hoping that the constitutional amendment would pass. We hadn’t got out of Columbia when it became clear that of the eight students in the car, I was the only one opposed to abortion on demand.
I got an education that morning nearly forty five years ago. How could anyone who called himself a Christian favor the legalization of baby killing? Didn’t they understand that God made these little ones? Didn’t they understand that abortion was the killing of a human being made in the image of God and redeemed by the blood of Christ?
Then, just a few months later, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Roe versus Wade that the Constitution of the United States guaranteed a woman’s right to abortion. The highest court in our country, in a seven to two decision, usurped the authority of all fifty states, making abortion on demand the law in all fifty states. Sixty million dead babies later, Americans remain divided on whether or not abortion should be legal. Many people who think that a woman should have the legal right to have her unborn baby killed call themselves Lutheran and attend churches that call themselves Lutheran.
The conscience of America became seared, as with a branding iron. The civil law is a teacher, either of sin or of righteousness. As long as the Roe versus Wade decision of the Supreme Court stands, America is teaching that evil is good. A country need not have a state religion to be united in acknowledging basic standards of right and wrong. That unity is gone. For millions of Americans, there is no sense of outrage against the brutal slaughter of the innocents. In fact, the opposite is the case. Politicians gain votes by promising to keep abortion legal.
The life of a human being is valuable. God says so. A nation that insists on keeping the killing of unborn human beings legal does not value the lives of human beings. To love your country does not require you to adopt her sins as your own. The debasing of the value of human life is not only a crime against humanity. It is a sin against God. God values all human life.
He values the lives of black people, brown people, yellow people, red people, and white people. All of them have the same value. It is a value determined by God himself. When God became a man and manifested his glory, he assumed the nature of all men, women, and children of all ages and colors.
God values the life of the leper who begs Jesus for healing. The man says to Jesus, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” If Jesus is willing he can heal the leper of his leprosy. A Roman Centurion begs him for healing for his paralyzed servant. He appeals to the power of Jesus’ word. “Just say the word,” he says. He understands the authority of a man’s word. He tells his subordinates to do something and they do it. He sees in the man Jesus his Lord and God. All he has to do is to speak and it will be done.
Faith seeks God in Christ. Faith appeals to the will and the word of God. His will is what he wants to do. His word is how he does it. He says it. Whatever he says is so because he says it.
What does God say about miraculous healing? The Bible records many instances of Jesus and his apostles miraculously healing the sick – even raising the dead. What about today? Jesus healed lepers and paralytics in the first century. Who is to say that he can’t do it today? He can. Jesus has the power to heal anyone he wants to heal.
There is reason to believe he wants to. The leper said, “If you are willing.” Jesus said, “I am willing. Be cleansed.” Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. If his love for that man suffering from leprosy included his desire, his willingness, to heal the man of his disease, surely his love for us is no less. Jesus loves us. Of course, he is willing to heal our diseases. He bore our sins and sicknesses in his own body.
But where is the word from Jesus that tells us when or how he will heal us? Where is the word from God that promises God will not permit us to suffer physical pain, loss, and disease? I know of no such word. Without it, I cannot tell God what he must do for me. When it comes to his will, what he wants, I can say he is full of mercy. But when it comes to his word, what he promises, I must admit that at times he has said that suffering may be what the doctor ordered.
St. Paul suffered from what he called a thorn in the flesh. He begged Jesus to remove it from him. St. Paul writes:
Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:8-10
We cannot know the will of God without the word of God. We cannot know what he wants unless he tells us. And he isn’t in the habit of talking to us through the air, zapping us with supernatural revelations as we are going about our daily business. God speaks to us through the means he has appointed: the written word, the preached word, and the sacramental word. That’s where we look to see what he wants for us. If he doesn’t tell us what we want to know in what is written down in the Bible, then he doesn’t tell us. It’s not faith to trust in what God doesn’t say. It’s presumption. Faith holds Jesus to his very words.
Jesus commends the faith of the Centurion who did just that. He said,
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.
The sons of the kingdom are those who are outwardly attached to the church but don’t believe the word God speaks to them. Faith is what makes one a genuine member of Christ’s church. It’s not the self-congratulatory faith of the religious insiders who rest secure in their virtuous living, confident that they belong because they want to belong. It’s the faith of such Christians as the Roman centurion who trusted in the power of Jesus’ word.
We need to distinguish between faith and love. They go together, but they are not the same. Love sees the helplessness of the little babies who have no legal right to be born and resolves to fight for their lives. Love sees people who are physically sick and unable to enjoy what we take for granted, and does what it can to help and comfort them. Love looks out for the neighbor and the unborn child is our neighbor. The sick and the helpless are our neighbors. Love is directed toward the neighbor in need.
Faith isn’t directed to the neighbor. It’s directed to God. Love mourns the crimes of a nation that defends the careers of abortionists who make their living killing babies. Faith is born in the heart of the sinner who mourns his own sins. We Christians who mourn the moral callousness of countrymen, who speak of human rights in terms of the right to kill defenseless children, must remember that we are sinners who are lost and condemned unless justified by God. We need more than a more just nation. We need the justice – the righteousness – that Christ alone can provide. It is his obedience and his suffering that we trust.
As I was watching T.V while drinking my morning coffee yesterday morning, two news stories were being featured. The one was a so called women’s march promoting the pro-homosexual, pro-abortion agenda. The other was a prayer service in Washington, featuring representatives of all sorts of different religions gathering together as one. It is the latter that poses a greater threat to our Christian faith than the former. Godlessness is easy to spot. When they are promoting sodomy and baby-killing, you know they are enemies of the faith. It’s when they teach that everybody who supports traditional morality is bound together by a common spiritual bond that they attack the faith most effectively.
The Christian faith isn’t based on a common moral decency. It is based on the grace of God revealed in Christ, the Savior. Faith doesn’t live on the morality of the believer. It lives on the word of God. Faith trusts what Jesus says when he says, “Take eat, this is my body, given for you. Take drink, this is the New Testament in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Faith doesn’t trust in the authority of a righteous government to uphold the standards of God’s law. Faith trusts in the authority of the righteous man who reckons his righteousness to us. He tells us we are forgiven of our sins and at peace with God. Faith trusts in Jesus’ word. He wants to forgive us. He says we are forgiven. He has the power to do what he says. Amen.