Sermon for Epiphany 3

Here it is. I recorded it, but left the recorder on the pulpit of the parish that is in a different state than mine. So, you’ll have to read, not listen.

Jesus came down from the mountains – the previous three chapters are the sermon on the mount. Jesus instructs the people. Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will take care of itself, ending with build your house upon the rock, not upon the sand.

And then, as he comes down from the mountain, immediately a leper appears before him. This is one who is poor in spirit – and every other way as well. He knows that today has enough trouble – he is dying. There may be no tomorrow. He no longer seeks the things of this world – he is excluded from them. Fatal illnesses have a way of focusing the mind of eternal things. His only desire – that Jesus would heal him. Give him back his life, which was being stolen from him by this dread disease.

The man kneels before Jesus – the word for kneels is the same word we had back on Epiphany when the wise men came before Jesus and worshiped him. Worship, kneel, falling down before Jesus – it’s all the same word. Worship inherently involves the body. We sing, speak, we stand we kneel, we fold hands, we take eat and take drink. Worship is more than just a state of mind – oh yes, the true worship of God is to believe him and so receive his gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation which he gives through Jesus death and resurrection. But even there, where is forgiveness of sins worked in us for the first time? The baptismal font as the water is poured and the word of God spoken over the little child, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The very word church means a gathering of people. And we call each individual church a congregation. A group that comes together. That takes physical movement so that we can come and hear and receive the gifts of God in this place. It involves the body. The outward things are not any part of true worship, and yet, you can’t have worship without them. Those outward things speak to the condition of our heart. And they prepare us to receive the gift of God in his word, in his sacrament. Luther calls outward preparation a fine outward training. To receive the gifts given here, we must come to this place. Even getting up on a Sunday morning, getting dressed, and driving to the church is a part of that outward training. It isn’t true worship and we don’t earn anything by it. But it is necessary if we are to receive the gifts of God this day.

So, the man worshiped Jesus – he knelt before him. And what does he ask? Not much – just that he be cleansed. If you will, you can make me clean. If your will is to build a house, you make plans, you shop – for contractors or materials. It takes time, it takes tremendous effort. We desire – or will – for something to happen, and then we must work and labor to make it happen. If your doctor wills that you be healthy, he prescribes medications – they were developed over years, with thousands of man hours and millions of dollars invested in them so that a sick person can be made well. Not so for God. If you will it – all it takes is for you to desire that it happen. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. As we pray in one of the collects for the sick, “If it be your will, restore them to health or give them grace to accept this affliction.” If you will, you can make me clean. And when we pray for God’s will to be done, it means that all our prayers are answered with yes. Consider Jesus desperate plea in the garden: If it be your will, take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will… Jesus placed his request according to the gracious will of God. And his heavenly Father answered according to that gracious will. Yes, I give you according to my gracious will, strength to endure the coming trial, so that forgiveness of sins might be earned for all the world. As we confess in the Small Catechism, “God’s will is done when He breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, which do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His kingdom come; and when He strengthens and keeps us firm in His Word and faith until we die. This is His good and gracious will.” And so as regards Jesus work, the will of the Father is that Jesus would complete that work – yes, even unto death on a cross, so that we would be given salvation through the Word, when we receive the gift by faith.

And this leper receives Jesus by faith. He believes that Jesus can heal him. Jesus has power over matters of sickness and health, life and death. Which means Jesus has power over matters of sin and forgiveness. That is what power over sickness really is. Power over sin. Today we have very elaborate medical processes that can work against sickness, and delay death. But it is always a losing game. We are all on the path toward death, not because we haven’t discovered the magic pill that gives youth and health forever, but because we live in a world of sin, and the wages of sin is death. The leper had been given a death sentence. So have we all, it is just usually not as direct and imminent, though sometimes it may be. It is a judgment against sin – not specific sin. But against specific sinners. Against the sins which you commit – the violations of God’s Holy and eternal law. You are worthy of the judgment of death. And so, the body breaks down, strength fails. And we all must face the grave. Jesus came to undo that – to undo the judgment you have earned by your sin against him. And we see that work of redemption beginning in the healings of Jesus. Those are the miracles that really hit home, because we know how fragile this life can be. Oh, if God would only heal us of this disease or that ailment like he used to. Of course, only a few were healed by Jesus and only in and around Israel and only for a short time. It was the beginning – the foretaste of the feast to come. It was not Jesus casting a healing across all times and places. It was Jesus announcing that death was being undone. That is the healing of all times and places – the death and resurrection of Jesus that heals us and gives us eternal life in his name.

In the sermon on the mount Jesus says blessed are the poor in spirit – that is those who do not rely on their own wealth of spirit, but recognize their poverty of spirit and come to God humbly, seeking his blessing. The leper – if you will it, I can be clean. The man is in poverty of spirit. He can do nothing on his own. He must rely on the charity of another. In today’s lesson there is a second miracle as well – the centurion. We find out in Luke that the centurion had built a synagogue for the people – he was wealthy and generous. And yet, his wealth gets him nothing, and he doesn’t claim he deserves anything. He knows he is poor of spirit. He comes as a beggar before Jesus, asking mercy, not even for himself,  but for his servant who is paralyzed and suffering.

And, with both men, Jesus heals. He heals the leper by the power of his will. He heals the centurions servant by that same power. And the power goes out from Jesus into that house he has never entered, into a place he had never been. The word and will of Jesus have power to accomplish what he says they can. So – as was mentioned – when Jesus promises to bless through the water and word, the little ones are brought into the kingdom of God through that. When he says, This is my body, it really is his body. It isn’t just a symbol or representation. It is as he has said. We see it here – even when Jesus is not present, he is present where and when he wills. And so he has ascended to the right hand of the Father. But when the word is spoken as he has given us that word, “This is my body” then it is his body. How can it be? How can Jesus heal a man he has never seen? His will and word. So we teach children, the sacraments are effective before Jesus said so.

There’s nothing more annoying as a child than hearing your parent say, “Why? Because I said so” And yet what can be more comforting than the say-so our Lord Jesus connected to that water, to the bread and the wine. Because that” said so” isn’t about us just completing the command for its own sake. It is us, doing as he has commanded, because he has attached also the word of promise to those elements. “He took them up in his arms and blessed them…” “Baptism now saves you” Shed for your for the forgiveness of your sins. Let us not doubt that word of promise. But receive with thanksgiving the implanted word, which is able to save our souls.

Jesus shows in these miracles that he desires – it is his will – to save sinners. That is why he heals – so that we would know he is graciously disposed toward us. That he does not desire the death of the sinner, but that he would turn from his evil and live.

And if we aren’t clear on how much God loves us, how much he desires that we should be saved from our sin by his birth, life, and ministry, we see it even more clearly through his death and resurrection. Jesus gave himself into death for you, so that your sins would be forgiven. So that you could have life in place of death. So that you could have true healing in him.

And as we consider the worship of the leper and the faith of the centurion, and are renewed in our faith and strengthened by God’s Word, there is a word from the centurion that has been recorded to strengthen us. He speaks of having authority, and knowing what authority means, so Jesus does not need to come to his house to heal. He can do it from a distance. That is important for us also to remember, for Jesus has ascended, and is no longer locally present – he now comes to us through the word preached, through the sacraments administered in his holy church. And as we approach font and altar God to receive those gifts, we know that he has power to do as he has promised – to give forgiveness even in this place, and we know that he has placed men here with authority to speak his word, on his behalf – as it is said, “in the stead and by the command of Jesus I forgive you your sins.” To wash with the washing of renewal and regeneration of the holy spirit at the font. To offer the body and blood for you to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of your sins. Not because pastors are anything or their word is anything, but because the word God – that living and active word – is something. And pastors speak under the authority of the one who sent them.

And that centurion says something else – it has come into the church over the centuries as a godly prayer and reminder. He says, “Lord I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but speak only the word and my servant shall be healed.” And Jesus praises his confession. And so the church has taken that confession and prayer of the centurion and turned it into a confession and prayer before receiving the sacrament of the altar. There is a long tradition – right before receiving the sacrament – of speaking silently those words, “Lord, I not worthy that you should come under my roof, but speak only the word, and MY SOUL shall be healed.” Jesus has promised to heal us. We have that promise. And so, as a reminder of that promise many in the church take the centurion’s words and use them as a reminder of the blessings and benefits of receiving Jesus body and blood.

There are other prayers in the hymnal – actually inside the front cover – that you can use in preparation for worship, and in thanksgiving for gifts given in the Divine Service. Any of them are a fine outward training – they help to direct our hearts to one who gives all good things, so that we would hear and believe the word of promise. And in the sacrament of the altar is that promise – shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. And in the prayer of the centurion, we are reminded of the love of God, who came down to give us life and salvation, who wills to save you from your sins, who desires that you would hear and receive that gift of salvation as Jesus has promised. If you find it helpful, add it to your own list of prayers that you pray. It’s short and can be prayed quietly while waiting to come forward, or while standing at the altar while the pastor is preparing to distribute our Lord’s body and blood. You need not pray it, perhaps you have other ways to prepare your hearts to receive the gift. But if you wish, it is there for you. And if you use it so that your heart would be directed to the word and promise of Jesus, then it can also be a blessing. For that is how we receive the sacrament worthily and to our eternal benefit – by receiving it in true faith – repenting of sin, and looking to Jesus death as the place where forgiveness for your sins was earned. And as he has promised, when your sins are forgiven, you are also given life and salvation.

Jesus says many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham – he’s talking about the feast of his Supper. The foretaste of the feast to come. Which Jesus gives in this life – as preview of the life to some, so that you would have life, and have it to the full.

May God grant it for Jesus sake. Amen.

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