SERMON FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY, 1-26-2020
LUTHER MEMORIAL CHAPEL
Pastor Michael Larson
Dear friends of God, as we contemplate today’s readings, I want you to hold two comforting thoughts in your hearts. First that God is merciful. This morning our Lord comes down from the mountain to meet the anguishing hearts of two men, the miseries of this life, and the stern realities faced by a sin-corrupted humanity. And He has mercy.
Recall what you heard the Third Sunday of Advent. Jesus said: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them.”
Second thought is this. That the Word of Christ has absolute authority. The Word of Christ does what it says. So in our Gospel this morning, when that leper kneels before the Lord, he prays a beauty of a prayer, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”
Jesus stretched out His hand, touched him, and spoke some powerful words, “I will, be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
Another astounding example of faith soon follows. Jesus enters Capernaum, and a centurion catches Jesus. “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” Jesus shows mercy. He won’t turn this gentile believer away and so agrees to come and heal that paralyzed servant.
But the centurion stops him! “Lord, go no further! I know how this works. I’m a man under authority too, with soldiers under me. I say to one ‘go,’ and he goes, and to another, come and he comes, and do this and he does it. Lord, I’m not worthy to have you come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed.”
It’s not often that Jesus marvels at faith shown to Him, but He sure does here. “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith…go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the centurion’s servant was healed that very moment.
What’s so great about that centurion’s faith? Well, it’s astounding really. The Lord is ready to march off to the centurion’s house. But the centurion calls Him off! He is humble. He considers himself unworthy to receive a house visit from the Lord, and he also considers it unnecessary. “Just say the Word, Jesus – speak – and I know that my servant will be healed.” All the centurion wanted was the Word of God from the lips of Jesus. A word that comes with power and authority. That centurion, what faith! He believed that Jesus’ word had the authority to overthrow the power of death. He trusted that at the word of Jesus sickness, death, and hell would flee, up and leave, in a single moment.
It’s quite a contrast, isn’t it, from the other soldier we heard about this morning in our first reading. In the Gospel today we’ve got the centurion. In the Old Testament, we’ve got Naaman. Both military men. Both men of power. Both used to uttering commands and seeing things happen.
But look how different the two men are. Naaman’s got leprosy. So off to Israel he goes, looking for help with his whole entourage, publicizing and flaunting his wealth. Doesn’t mean a thing of course. Not to Elisha! But he’s not going to turn him away. So he sends Naaman off with the word of the Lord, an incredible promise: “Just go dip in the Jordan seven times and your flesh will be restored and you’ll be clean.”
But Naaman, he goes off in a huff. The word of the prophet wasn’t enough for him. He was going to secure his healing on his own terms. And only after some persistent persuading of his servants does he lower himself in the Jordan seven times at the word of Elisha.
I’ve always struggled with this. Did Naaman go in those healing waters with a firm and immovable faith? Did he lower himself in the Jordan only after desperation or maybe to humor his own servant? Hard to say, exactly! What we do know is that in those waters Naaman met the living God! God’s Word does what it says! He came up out of those waters a leper no more, his flesh restored like that of a little child. Naaman became a believer that day and he confessed his faith. A man of power dragged into the kingdom fighting to the end, but finally overcome by grace.
This morning our Lord highly commends the faith of the centurion. And sure, there are times, occasionally, where we believe just like him, strong, confident, and unwavering. But we likely see in ourselves more of Naaman. Because we’re proud and arrogant, thinking so highly of ourselves. And thinking so little about the words and promises of God.
Our Gospel this morning is a real call to repentance for all of us. We’ve thought too little of the power and strength of God’s Word. Our prayer life, our habits, our thoughts and daydreams, the way we order our days and checkbooks all bear witness to this. Repent. Be on guard against all forms of complacency, and work righteousness – a disease and vice which clings to us all.
Christ says this morning, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” He’s speaking of the centurion, a pagan, an outsider, but now brought into the kingdom of God by faith. To feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, his brothers.
This is what epiphany is about – the extension of God’s Kingdom to the ends of the earth. In one of the oldest prophecies of Christ we hear this promise to Abraham, “In Him [in Christ] shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.”
Today’s epiphany of divine mercy toward the leper and the centurion reveals God’s love for all sinners. It’s a love that brought Jesus to the cross. A love that devoured death – and opened the grave.
And this love is always unmerited, undeserved, and comes to us through humble means that we would not expect. This is what Naaman had to learn. It’s what we have to learn.
So how little we think of our baptisms! How little we think of God’s Word being joined to bread and wine – and reclining at the heavenly feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. How little we think of that word of absolution spoken from the pastor as from God Himself.
But what marvels God can do! And He does them all in His church! Jesus’ words, spoken today, still possess power and authority. To heal you, restore you, and raise you up on the Last Day. And the word that He speaks will not return to Him void but accomplishes everything He purposes. It’s a word that is active and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword. It is spirit and life, and the power of God to save all who believe it.
May God grant us all the confident faith of the centurion who prayed thus: “Lord, only say the Word,” believing that it is enough to bring us to heaven and recline at the heavenly banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the whole family of God. In the name of Jesus. Amen.