3rd Sunday after Epiphany + Matthew 8:1-13
In the Name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Throughout the Epiphany season Christ reveals His power over creation. Last week He changed water into wine. Next week He will calm a storm. Today two men approach Christ, a leper and a centurion. By all these miracles for the leper and centurion Christ demonstrates His almighty power which He possess because He is the only-begotten Son of God. But He demonstrates far more than almighty power. He reveals His mercy toward the infirmed and afflicted who put their trust in Him. Without mercy and compassion His almighty power would be no good to us. He also reveals to us the kind of faith He seeks to cultivate in the heart of every believing soul.
Jesus comes down the mountain. He had just finished preaching the Sermon on the Mount. Even though great multitudes follow Him, a leper comes to Him and worships him. His prayer is simple. “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” He brings his affliction to Jesus in faith. He knows that Christ has the power to cure his decaying flesh so he throws himself on Christ’s mercy. “If you are willing,” is simply another way of praying as Christ teaches His disciples to pray, “Thy will be done.” It is Thy will, you can cleanse my rotting flesh. He can pray this way because He knows that Christ’s will is good and gracious, no matter what it is. His faith is rewarded and he receives as he believes. Jesus put out His hand and touched Him, saying, “I am willing; be cleansed.” Christ touches the filthy, rotting flesh and speaks the word. Instead of the leper infecting Jesus with leprosy, Jesus infects the leper’s flesh with life. “Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.” Christ commands him to go and offer the sacrifices Moses commanded. The sacrifice would be proof of his healing and serve as a testimony to the priests that Christ had done this.
The leper’s condition is really our own. God often uses outward, physical things to teach us about spiritual realities. Leprosy is a physical thing that shows us our spiritual condition. All humanity is covered with spiritual leprosy. Leprosy is a picture of original sin. Our flesh is sinful, decaying, dying, and rotting. It desires the opposite of what God desires for us. It wants to sin. It wants to instant self-gratification. The flesh is curved in upon itself so that it only seeks its own good, its own pleasure, and its own comfort. As physical leprosy makes each of us unclean, so original sin, the sin with which we are born, makes us unclean. No one is exempt from it. Job says, “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one!” (Job 14:4). Being born unclean, we are unable to be in God’s presence, for He takes no pleasure in wickedness and sin.
But we have the leper in today’s Gospel. “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” It is Christ’s will that you be cleansed from the leprosy of your sin, so He brings you to Holy Baptism, “the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). There Christ washes you clean with water that is not plain water. Baptism is water combined with God’s Word of promise. In that water combined with Word Christ cleanses you from the guilt of your sin. He doesn’t remove the leprosy. He removes its guilt and condemnation. He cleanses you of that guilt and makes an everlasting covenant with you. He promises to forgive all your sins as often as you return to Him in faith. Christ has cleansed you in Holy Baptism, washed you, and forgiven your sins. That is His good and gracious will, which is why He commanded His Apostles to baptize all nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, so that whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved and be a child of God and heir of everlasting life.
Then comes the centurion. He comes on behalf of his servant, who is “lying at home, paralyzed, dreadfully tormented.” Jesus responds to this report and says, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion stops him. Jesus has already answered his request but the centurion won’t allow Jesus to come to his home. He is a gentile. And although he believes in the true God, and believes Christ, his heart is humble. “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed.” He believes Jesus has authority to heal and he understands how authority works. “I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come,' and he comes; and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it.” Just as I command my servants and they obey my word, so you, O Lord, have authority over all things, so that all you need to do is speak a word to heal my servant’s body and soul. Jesus marvels at this gentile’s faith. He even calls it “great” because it trusts Christ’s mercy and power, but also His Word. The Centurion doesn’t need signs and wonders. He doesn’t even need Jesus to come to house and touch his servant. All He wants from Jesus is a Word. His faith receives that word, believes it, and is consoled by it.
If leprosy is a picture of original sin that infects us all, then this servant’s paralysis is something different. It’s a picture of the effects our sins have upon us. Paralysis is terrible. But this man is plagued by an evil, guilty conscience as well. That’s why the centurion adds that his servant is “dreadfully tormented.” The servant’s conscience attacks him. It reminds him of his many sins. Perhaps it even has convinced him that his paralysis is God’s condemnation for his sins. When the sinner is dreadfully tormented he imagines that God is his enemy and that everything in life accuses Him before God’s throne of judgement. And as Christ healed this man with a Word, so He heals all who come to Him who are dreadfully tormented and He does it with a Word. That word is the gospel by which He pronounces you forgiven. In Matthew 9:2 He tells another paralytic, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.” The only thing that can heal the paralysis of a conscience that continually accuses us of our sins is the promise of the Gospel, that “the Son of Man did not come to destroy men's lives but to save them” (Luke 9:56), and that He comes “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). So He absolves you here in this place, through His called and ordained servant. He absolves you by feeding you with His true body and blood in His Sacrament, for the only way to calm the voice of the tormenting conscience is to listen instead to the voice of the savior which tells you, “Your sins are forgiven and you are set free.”
What Christ does for the leper and for the centurion’s servant He does for all who believe the Gospel. He also wants to cultivate in you the faith that we see in these two men. As the leper prays, “If you are willing,” so Christ teaches you to pray in all your dangers and necessities, “Thy will be done,” because you know that Christ is a good and gracious God to all who believe. No matter what He sends He sends you, no matter what cross He lays on you, faith believes that even if it seems evil and hurtful at the time, God intends it for your good. In your sufferings, God is conforming you more and more into the image of His Son. There can be nothing evil in that. As the Centurion prays in humility and wants only a Word from Christ, so Christ wants to cultivate this faith in you that clings solely to the words and promises He gives you in the his written Word. He strengthens you daily so that as you hear His promises you believe them and say, “If He has said it, He will most certainly do it.” Why? Because He is almighty. But He is also good and gracious, compassionate and merciful to all who trust in Him. May God grant us such faith. Amen.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.