Old Testament: 2 Kings 5:1–15a
Epistle Reading: Romans 12:16–21
Holy Gospel: Matthew 8:1–13
This morning our Lord marvels at the great faith of two individuals. First, a leper with rotting skin, who throws himself at the feet of Jesus. He asks for healing with a firm faith. And immediately the Lord cleansed him and made him well. Second, we see the faith of a centurion, a gentile soldier of high rank, who confesses with stunning confidence that Christ’s Word has absolute authority. Jesus responds: “With no one is Israel have I found such great faith.” He marvels at the faith of that centurion like none other.
Well, wouldn’t you like to hear that from Jesus’ own lips about your own faith?! Wouldn’t it be nice if he could marvel at your faith? Fat chance, right? For how great is your faith? Exactly how strong and unshakable is it? This morning I’d like to get right to the point and suggest to you that our personal conceptions and ideas about what a great faith is are just about always wrong.
What does Jesus mean by a great faith? Is it some deep strength or willpower in and of oneself? Not at all! A great faith, you see, believes nothing great about itself. That leper, in and of himself, was rotting sores, uncleanness, and decay. So he just got on his knees and cried out, “Kyrios – Kyrios,” that is, “Lord, if you are willing, you can cleanse me…and I know you have the authority to do so.” And Jesus did. He turned heads and raised eyebrows by doing something nobody but he would ever do. He reached out and touched a ritually unclean man, and in so doing transmitted purity, holiness, and restoration. That centurion, that commander of armies, humbled himself too, and said, “Kyrios, Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under the roof of my house…but just say the word, Lord, and my servant with be healed.” The leper and centurion certainly didn’t think of themselves in terms of greatness.
And neither did that poor Canaanite woman, who thought it perfectly natural to be counted among the dogs. “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Which is to say, “Yes, Lord, I am a sinner, not entitled to a single scrap of mercy, but I know that you’ve come to save sinners, such as I am. You are the Christ, the Son of God, who brings mercy and forgiveness, and in you, and you alone, I have hope and life and salvation. “O woman, great is your faith, be it done for you as you desire.” Her daughter was healed instantly.
Faith believes in the word of Gospel. It even believes contrary to what we experience in our lives. Faith cries out to God for help, confidently believing that his promise is sure. That strong faith clings to the word of forgiveness and grace – and will not let go.
A great faith is therefore not a great faith in itself. Rather, it is a faith that believes great things about Christ – and the Word of the Gospel that frees. Faith ultimately believes in the absolute authority of the Words of Jesus – efficacious words from his lips – Words which give sight to the blind, WORDS which forgive sin, Words that raise the dead. This why He praised the faith of the centurion, who believed that these words do what they say!
So now remember another soldier, whom you heard about this morning in our Old Testament lesson. Naaman was also a soldier, a commander of the army of Syria. A strong and powerful man. He also had leprosy. He too had a great faith. But he had faith in all the wrong things. Great faith in himself. Faith in his treasures. Faith that he could earn and buy the help he needed. Naaman had a typical works-righteous faith. But faith in himself did him no good. And apart from the Lord’s cleansing and efficacious word, he would remain a diseased man – separated from God by a puffed-up pride and an unrepentant heart.
But the Word of the Lord does not return empty. It accomplishes that which the Lord desires. So from the Word of the Lord from the prophet, and through Naaman’s messenger and his own servants, he ultimately was called to faith. So he had to let go of his own pride – let go of everything that he had always depended upon – let go of himself and receive the gift contained in the waters of the Jordan. For only in the Word of God in and with the water could Naaman be cleansed of his leprosy. The Word of God did everything – gave the water its power to cleanse – and brought Naaman to repentance and faith in order to receive that gift. Naaman’s greatness all had to become nothing. And God had to become everything.
There is still one more thing that makes faith a great faith. That centurion in today’s Gospel says something beyond beautiful: “Only say the word” He said. “Say only one word, Jesus…and that will do it!” This is none other than faith in the Word of Christ – trust in the Words of absolution – trust in His Word of life over death – which faith clings to, takes hold, and will not let go.
Faith by itself has nothing but mistakes and failures. In fact, it is prone to doubt that there is any faith at all. But it is sure that the saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. A great faith, therefore, can reside in a person who feels nothing but weakness in himself. That great faith can cry out: “Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief!” – knowing that even a little faith is enough, that faith the size of a mustard seed is still enough to move mountains.
If you’ve been tempted to throw in the towel with being a Christian. If you think you have failed, by no means should you look to your own feelings or wait for some momentous spiritual victory or success. It won’t come! Nor should you dig around in your heart hoping for the discovery of a strong and victorious faith. You certainly won’t find much to boast of in there. Just leprous sins, decay, and an unbelieving heart.
Instead, look outside of yourself, look to the heart of Jesus, and boast of the love of God. See Him baptized in the Jordan for you, in order to fulfill all righteousness. See him on the cross with lacerated flesh – looking like a leper – despised and forsaken – yet bearing the sins and uncleanness of the whole word. See Him embracing the whole world in love on the cross, forgiving his executioners, and claiming victory: “It is finished. It is fulfilled.” See Him dying for you that you would live.
Then behold Him, fresh and risen from the grave. Showing you and promising you a Great Day when all things will be made completely clean and the flesh of all believers will be restored to purity in the resurrection of all flesh. He says to you now this morning, as he will say also on the Last Day: “The Day has come, and I am willing, be cleansed.” That’s why he drew so near to you in your baptism – that He joined you to Himself as one – in His death and resurrection. He Himself, in baptism, has given you the faith to believe. You confessed – and He cleansed you and made you clean. He said, Let it be done for you as you believe. And he sent a pastor to put his hands on you, and put His words upon his lips. “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Those words, dear Christian, are powerful words – words with authority that move mountains, raise the dead, and open the doors of heaven. Those words are just as valid and certain even in heaven as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.
The Gospel of Christ is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes. Therefore, a great faith believes nothing great about itself. Instead, a great faith believes everything great about God. Therefore, humble yourself under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.
Say with the centurion, “I am not worthy that you should come under the roof of my house.” But He does you one much better and places bread and wine under the roof of your mouth, which forgives you, revives you, and strengthens your faith unto life everlasting. In the name of Jesus. Amen.