Sunday, January 22, 2006

Sermon: Epiphany 3

22 January 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 8:1-13 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

By virtue of our Gospel reading, we are today witnesses of two miracles of Jesus. Both involve physical healings. Both are illustrations of faith and humility.

In the first, a leper comes to Jesus. He addresses him as “Lord,” an Old Testament code-word for Almighty God. He comes to Jesus, to God, and he says: “If it is indeed your will that I may be healed, I know that it will come to pass.” Notice that he doesn’t come before God in anger, in rage, in a demanding tone of voice. Perhaps he has already gone through the normal psychological stages of a person with a serious disease, and has at last come to a peaceful acceptance of his condition. Perhaps not. The evangelist doesn’t give us this detail. But what we do see is this: the diseased man comes humbly, and he instinctively prays the petition from the Lord’s prayer: “Thy will be done.” He prays the same prayer of our Lord in Gethsemane: “Not my will but yours be done.” He knows the difference between the Creator and the creature.

And it is our Lord’s will to restore his fallen creature to wholeness, to recreate his damaged flesh anew, to roll back the effects of sin upon the skin of this humble, faithful man.

This fortunate man is certainly a Jew, for Jesus links his healing to the law of Moses – as he tells him to fulfill the law by going to the priest for a public declaration of cleanness. Notice that the priest doesn’t heal the man, Jesus does. And yet the priest is acting under holy orders by God-given authority to speak God’s declaration of cleanliness, not only to the man who has been cleansed by Jesus, but also as a proclamation of the good news to everyone who will listen.

Following this miracle, the healing of the leprous Jew and his public vindication by a priestly declaration and proclamation, another miracle happens. This time, it is a gentile, a captain in the army.

The captain, called a centurion (because he commands a company of a hundred men), asks for Jesus’ help. He has a servant who is paralyzed. Whether this was due to a degenerative disease, or caused by a sudden accident, we don’t know. But whatever the cause, he is suffering something ultimately caused by man’s fall into sin, the degeneration of God’s good creation into chaos, disorder, disease, and death.

Notice the centurion’s humility. Knowing that Jesus would have to break Jewish custom (and law) to enter his home (being a Gentile), the centurion suggests that Jesus perform the healing long-distance. “I know you can do it from here, Jesus. You are a soldier, like me. You command the forces of nature, and you can give an order and have it carried out by subordinates just like I can in army matters.” The centurion’s faith is so strong, he is willing to walk away from Jesus and trust him to carry out a miracle on his behalf in his absence.

Both the centurion and the leper pray to Jesus in humility. Hence St. Paul’s exhortation in our epistle lesson: “Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion.” Indeed, both of our supplicants associate with the humble, as Jesus himself is humble. In their humility, they trust in Jesus. Jesus immediately sees their faith.

And regarding the centurion, Jesus announces that he has not seen such faith as in the case of this Gentile in all of Israel. He uses the centurion’s example of faith and trust in Jesus as a “sermon illustration” of how God will invite people of every nationality, humble Gentiles from east and west, into his heavenly kingdom with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, while the “sons of the kingdom,” the too-often arrogant fleshly descendants of those patriarchs, will find the kingdom taken from them. Too often, their faith is only in themselves.

But by contrast, the centurion, praying to Jesus in a spirit of trust and humility, also understands something very subtle and powerful about Jesus. Our centurion “gets it,” that Jesus is a “man under authority” – divine authority. By submitting to the Father, Jesus in a sense has a “superior.” And so, Jesus acts under the authority of God the Father. And Jesus is also an officer in command of others – all others in fact, the forces of nature, hosts of angels, the workings of the human body, and all of space and time – not to mention his army of pastors under his holy orders. Jesus acts by the Father’s power and commands all of creation to do his will. Jesus works through means.

It’s no coincidence that for centuries people have prayed a slight modification of the centurion’s prayer when taking Holy Communion. As the host is elevated before our eyes, we pause, and like the faithful centurion, we pray to Jesus: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul will be healed.” And if you think about it, this simple prayer sums up the entire Bible! It confesses our unworthiness, our sin. It proclaims the incarnation, the coming of Jesus under our roof of space and time, of flesh and blood, of bread and wine. It declares the mighty and powerful Word of God, the limitless force that created the universe. And finally, it trumpets the Gospel, the fact that God, in his mercy, heals his humble, sin-sick, leprous, and mortal servants. Again, even as we grope for words as we partake of the divine mysteries of God, the Lord himself, through his very word, even through the words of a Roman soldier, tells us what to say. As God tells us through the psalmist, the Lord himself opens our lips, and we are empowered to declare his praise.

The kingdom of God is ours by the Word of God, through the healing work and ministry of Jesus. We cling to the kingdom by faith, in humility, and the kingdom ours remaineth – not by virtue of being able to trace our family tree to Abraham, but rather by being adopted sons of Abraham by baptism.

In fact, it isn’t by accident or coincidence that we see a type, a foreshadowing of this baptism in our Old Testament lesson, as Naaman is told to go to the waters of the Jordan River to wash away the effects of sin, manifested as leprosy. Of course, this isn’t just any water (a fact Naaman misses by complaining that there’s other water besides the Jordan’s waters), it is water combined with God’s Word and promise! Once again, it is no accident or coincidence that God’s preacher Elisha, through a messenger, directs Naaman to the same river where Jesus would centuries later himself be baptized.

And notice how else Naaman drops the ball: he doesn’t understand why he is directed to wash in water, and bristles at the suggestion. “Can’t the prophet just wave his hand over me and cure me? Can’t God work without means? Isn’t it inconvenient that I must go to where God promises to be present sacramentally under the water?”

In spite of his gripes, Naaman goes to the holy waters of the Jordan. He encounters God sacramentally, where God promises to be found, and Naaman is healed.

Again, we see God working through preachers, messengers under divine orders who point the sick, the diseased, and the dying to the waters of life, to the means through which God works his miracle of restoration. The Lord does it through his means, using his ministers, on his own timetable. The Spirit blows where he wills, and what else can we creatures do but bow down before him humbly and pray: “Thy will be done.”

Dear friends, our Lord continues in his ministry of rolling back the corruption of this world and of our flesh. He continues to work through water sanctified by Jesus, water combined with the Word of God. He continues to speak his word through New Testament prophets who point to the means of his grace and proclaim his word to the world to Jews and Gentiles, to Naamans and centurions, to those who believe and those who do not believe. He continues to work through New Testament priests, men likewise under orders, who declare us clean – not by their own power to cleanse, but rather by their God-given authority to apply the Word of God to those of us who have been washed of our leprous sins by water and the blood of the Lamb.

And so, just as the faithful and humble centurion prays, let us continually pray to Jesus: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul will be healed.” Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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