Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sermon: Epiphany 3 - 2011

23 January 2011 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 8:1-13

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

“When Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who followed Him, ‘Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

Jesus marveled!

Dear friends, think about how extraordinary something must be to make Jesus marvel, to strike God with awe, to cause the master of the universe to pause for a moment in wonder. And the thing that makes Jesus marvel is a remark made by a soldier, a Gentile soldier, a man who is asking for the Lord’s help. But there are thousands of people seeking out Jesus, pleading for help, asking for a healing or an exorcism or some sign or wonder from God. And many such petitions come from Gentiles. But what makes the centurion so marvelous is his faith.

He doesn’t come before Jesus dazzling Him with his knowledge of the Bible. From Luke’s Gospel, we know that this soldier is sympathetic to the Jews, but as a captain in the Roman Army, he does not worship in the temple or synagogue. He doesn’t come before Jesus citing rabbis and ancient religious commentaries – for he has not come to the Lord to discuss theology. Nor does he try to convince Jesus of his own knowledge, righteousness, or worthiness. Indeed, as a Roman soldier, an officer in the service of a cruel and pagan regime, one would be hard-pressed to entertain such a claim from such a man.

And yet this centurion comes to Jesus, seeking His help in an almost matter-of-fact way – and Jesus marvels and declares that he has more faith than any of the thousands of the children of Israel that Jesus has encountered.

The Holy Spirit uses this incident to teach us what faith truly is.

Faith is nothing more than believing a promise. And when the one making the promise is Jesus, and when the promise itself is restoration, health, and life – that is the kind of faith that results in sins forgiven, death repealed, Satan defeated, communion with God restored, and eternal life offered as a free and full gift.

Indeed, how often we have heard our Lord exclaim to those who received His merciful gifts of healing and of the forgiveness of sins with this declaration: “Your faith has made you well.” For the promise comes from the mouth of God, faith receives the promise, and the promise becomes a reality.

The centurion has faith because he believes in that which He cannot see: the promise of Jesus. A military officer routinely puts faith in his subordinates. He tells men what to do and depends on them to do it. If they don’t, lives will be lost. And soldiers obey their officers because they know there will be severe consequences if they don’t. In the military, following orders is simply a way of life.

This is what it means to be a “man under authority.” The captain takes orders from the colonel and gives orders to the sergeants. Or as the Roman centurion says it so simply: “I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.’

The centurion knows that he doesn’t have to keep asking. He doesn’t have to visit each private soldier with each minor task. Nor does he have to check later to see if the tasks are fulfilled. For that is what it means to wield authority. It is the confidence, the faith, that one’s words will be obeyed and the work will get done.

The centurion understands that Jesus too has authority – over diseases and demons – and even over death itself. And just as the centurion has faith that his men will fear his wrath, respect his authority, and obey his word, he likewise has faith that disease and sickness will flee the Lord’s wrath, respect the Lord’s authority, and obey the Lord’s Word.

Dear brothers and sisters, this is what our Lord marvels at. The centurion needs no proof, no sign, nor even the touch of a hand or a personal visit. He doesn’t ask for a token or a piece of paper. He simply takes Jesus at His Word, at His promise. He simply believes. And he even declines Jesus’s offer to come and heal the servant in person, for the centurion knows and confesses his own uncleanness, but also confesses his belief in the one who overcomes uncleanness: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word and my servant will be healed.”

“I am not worthy. Only say the Word.” That, dear friends, is the very definition of faith.

Faith is that kind of belief in the Word of Jesus, and is so sure of the Word’s promise that it needs no external confirmation. Jesus said it. I believe it. The Word does what it says it will do. I am forgiven. I am healed. I have eternal life. All according to the Word and the promise. “I am not worthy… only say the Word.”

“And to the centurion,” and to all of us who cling to the Word and promise of our merciful and mighty Savior, Jesus says: “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And we are healed the very hour that we make such a confession of faith.

For centuries, Christians have prayed a version of the centurion’s prayer upon drinking the blood of Christ, upon receiving the free gift of the Lord’s salvation promised in the Word and attached to the wine of His most holy and precious blood, “shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” a prayer of such faith that the Lord not only carries out the promise to forgive, heal, and make whole, but also causes Him to marvel:

“Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but only say the word and Your servant will be healed.” Amen.

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

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