Epiphany 3| Matthew 8:1-13| Pastor James Preus| Trinity Lutheran Church| January 23, 2022
The Epiphany season is about Jesus being revealed as God in the flesh. Jesus is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, just as he is true man, born of the Virgin Mary. Jesus, being God, is all-powerful. He has the power to heal diseases, to raise the dead, turn water into wine and calm storms on the high seas. He has the power to forgive sins and grant eternal salvation. And the centurion in our Gospel lesson teaches us that Jesus’ power to save is delivered to us in his word. “Only say the word, and my servant will be healed,” he says.
The centurion knows this, because he too is a man under authority with soldiers under him. He says to one soldier, do this, and he does it, and to another come here, and he comes. So, this military captain knows that Jesus too can say a word and his word will be obeyed. This is most certainly true. When the prophets of the Old Testament spoke, they said, “Thus says the Lord!” God’s word remained God’s word, even when spoken by strange men, who dressed in strange clothing. Likewise, Jesus says to his apostles, “The one who hears you hears me…” (Luke 10:16).
In Jesus’ Word is life and salvation. He says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) But you do not need to hear these words directly from the mouth of Christ in order for them to set you free. No, these words deliver freedom, forgiveness, and salvation even when they are spoken by sinners. Otherwise, there would be no benefit in God causing his Word to be written in Holy Scripture. No, God’s Word remains powerful to save when it is spoken by anyone! And Christ promises that his word will be effective when spoken by his servants whom he has sent.
This is the message Naaman had to learn. He doubted that the Jordan River could wash off his leprosy. He preferred the rivers of Damascus. He can think what he likes about the Jordan River, but the prophet spoke a word from the Lord, “Wash, and be clean.” So, when Naaman submitted to God’s word, he was cleansed. Likewise, we know there is power to cleanse from sins in our Baptism; not because the water is special; not because the pastor who performed the Baptism is special; but because Jesus has commanded that all nations be baptized and he has promised forgiveness and salvation in Baptism (Matthew 28:20; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38). The power to save in Baptism is in Jesus’ word.
Jesus’ words deliver his salvation with power. That is why a sinful man is able to declare to you that your sins are forgiven, and they are forgiven before Christ Jesus in heaven. This is why the right hand of God is able to bend down to us here on earth and feed us Christ’s true body and blood, a peace-meal for sinners on earth to commune with heaven. The power to save is in Jesus’ word. And that power to save remains even when Jesus’ word is repeated by his lowly servants.
Because Jesus’ salvation is delivered through his word, it is received through faith. The power is in Jesus’ word, not in our works, because Christ Jesus has done all the work for us. His word declares the promise, faith receives the promise as a gift. This is why Jesus praises the centurion’s faith. “Let it be done as you have believed.” This is the same as saying, “Let it be done according to my word.” Faith clings to the word. And so, faith receives the honor of having accomplished what the word accomplishes. We declare that faith alone saves, because God’s word alone saves. God’s word saves, because his word delivers Salvation to us.
Christ Jesus has done everything to save us. He has accomplished the work. When he said, “It is finished.”, from the cross, he declared that all the work needed to accomplish our salvation is complete. All our sins are paid for. Our debt is gone before our Father in heaven. Satan has lost his teeth. The gates of heaven are open. Salvation is a free gift. It is now Jesus’ word that delivers that gift and our faith which receives it. Faith can grasp forgiveness for every sin you’ve ever committed, because that is what God’s word gives.
This also means that salvation is for all people. Faith does not depend on who your parents are or what nation you’re from. The centurion was a Gentile. He was not a descendent of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He wasn’t of the house of Israel. Yet, he had faith, even greater faith than any found in Israel. And so, he was welcome at the feast of salvation in the kingdom of heaven. This is why Jesus prophesies that many shall come from the east and the west and join Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at table in the kingdom of heaven. This faith which saves is for all nations. This word that delivers salvation will travel the whole world and save all who believe it. Jesus is the Christ promised to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Few would have imagined that the Christ would gather sheep from all nations, even across oceans and continents, and join them into one flock, his Holy Christian Church. But this is exactly what Jesus does.
That even the Gentiles are saved through faith is a great surprise for those Jews, who thought they were special, because they were descendants of Abraham. Yet, what this means, is that even those descendants of Israel, who do not have faith will not be saved. That is why Jesus says, “while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” No one is saved simply because he is a physical descendent of Israel. Faith alone saves.
Yet, if not even the sons of the kingdom, as Jesus calls them, are saved without faith, how much less those outside Israel. This message of Jesus is not meant to cause animosity against the Jews, but to sternly warn both Jews and Gentiles that if they reject Christ’s word, they cannot be saved. Saving faith comes by hearing and hearing through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). Those who reject Jesus’ word, refuse to hear it, refuse to believe it, ignore it and refuse to let it change them, will be condemned.
No one preaches more about hell in the Bible than Jesus. In this text he calls it the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. The outer darkness means that the damned will be forever separated from Christ, who is the light of the world. Having rejected his word, they will never be allowed to hear his Gospel again. His message of salvation will forever be silenced to them. Weeping means that there will be constant sorrow and suffering. Those in hell will not partake of the good cheer of the feast of salvation enjoyed by those who believed. Gnashing of teeth means that those in hell will suffer from great hatred and futile frustration over their lost salvation. Gnashing teeth never accomplishes anything. It is done by those who have not hope and no solution. They and damned to eternal regret and resentment.
So, we pray that we would not resist God’s grace or depend on our own virtue, that we would not be so foolish as to think God’s word is unimportant or that we can continue in the faith without hearing it. Faith alone saves us from eternal hell, from the outer darkness severed from Christ, where there is no comfort and only constant frustration and agony. Faith in Christ is able to hold forgiveness for every sin you’ve ever committed, to grant you certainty of salvation. Yet, if you reject the faith, reject the forgiveness of sins, reject Jesus’ work given to you by his word, then there is nothing that can save you.
Jesus has the power to save you, to forgive your sins and give you a seat in the kingdom of heaven. That’s obvious. Jesus is God. Of course, he can forgive you. Of course, he can save you. Yet, that’s not enough for your faith for Jesus to be able to save you. Your faith must know that he is willing to save you. The leper at the beginning of our Gospel lesson was so blessed to hear Jesus say, “I will; be clean.” Jesus told him that he wants to make him clean. What a comforting message. “I can and I will help you. I want to make you whole and I will.”
Faith needs this affirmation. Knowing that Jesus can do something will never be enough if he doesn’t want to do something. Jesus’ word not only carries the power to forgive and save, but it declares to you Jesus’ willingness to forgive and save.
In John 3, Jesus says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” In Matthew 11, Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” In John 20, Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” In 1 Timothy 2, Jesus’ apostle Paul declares, “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Again, he said in chapter 1, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…”. Again, St. Paul seeks to persuade us, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6)
The leper was blessed to hear Jesus say, “I will; be clean.” Jesus says the same to you! Why would he die for you, if he did not desire to save you from your sins? Why would he command that the Gospel be preached to every creature, if he did not desire to save all? Jesus wants you to believe that he is willing to forgive you. That is why he has commanded that it be preached to you.
In your Baptism, you have your declaration from Jesus, “I will; be clean.” In the Absolution, you have Jesus’ declaration, “I will.” The proclamation of the Gospel, which Jesus commanded to be preached to every nation, is not complete without the clear message that Jesus wills to save you. He desires to forgive you. He wants you to be with him at the feast of salvation.
All this is revealed to us in Christ’s word. His word delivers to us the power of salvation and the power to hold on to that salvation in faith. If you hold Christ’s word in faith, then nothing can separate you from Christ. Then you are a true son and daughter of the Lord with a rightful seat at his table in the kingdom of heaven. So, we pray that his word would never depart from us, but would ever hold fast to it, gladly hear and learn it, and find the greatest comfort by it. Amen.