Preached January 29, 2012
St. Matthew 8:1–18
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
With the continuation of the Epiphany season, we are exposed to yet more of the revelation of our Lord, Jesus Christ. This Sunday, our emphasis is particularly on His Mercy, the mercy of Christ for suffering humankind. All sick and suffering people tend to think that their cause is deserving of compassion and pity, but is that true even if the illness is brought on directly by sin? Let us consider the Gospel lesson for the day.
Matthew 8:2 And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. Now in the understanding of the Jews of Jesus’ time and before, leprosy was God’s particular punishment for sin. It marked the sick man as a sinner before the community, and as we know, the lepers were cast out of the community to live rough in the countryside. They were required to cry out to warn everyone of their approach, so they were indeed, total outcasts from Jewish society. Nevertheless, we have a situation in which a leper approaches Jesus, worshipping Him, and and asking to be healed. Others might approach saying something like, “If you are able, …”, but the leper says only, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. Do you see the difference? The leper knows instinctively that Jesus is able to cure him. The only question in the mind of the leper is, “Will He do it for me?” He was aware of his extreme uncleanness, his condemnation pronounced long before by the Jewish priests in God’s name. Now he wonders if he has any hope at all in the Messiah, the Holy One of Israel whom he has recognized in Jesus.
The heart of Jesus was moved with compassion, and He did not shrink from touching the leper. He spoke words of encouragement, and reached out to him, Matthew 8:3 And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Christ is not put off by the corruption and vileness of those who repent of their faults and approach Him in humility. If we think about it, this is the only way that any of us come to Him in actual fact, even though we may not have physical leprosy. And now, as then, His touch has the power to heal from sin and death.
But notice, that this is not the end of the story. The healed leper must still go and show himself to the priest and offer the required gift according the Law, Matthew 8:4 And Jesus saith unto him, See thou tell no man; but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them.
There is still a duty to be performed according to the Law, and Jesus Christ has not come to abolish the Law in any way at all. The object of mercy is the relief of suffering, not to relieve us from doing what the Law rightly requires of us. Mercy shown to us should motivate our eager obedience to the Law, rather than any desire to avoid it. Jesus Christ came to save us from our sins, not to save us in our sin.
Continuing with the Gospel lesson, there appears to be some time gap, because it next speaks of Jesus entering Capernaum. The continuing Gospel story is related in somewhat more detail in the Gospel according to St. Luke which I want to read to you at this point, since you have already heard St. Matthew’s account.
Luke 7:1-10 1 Now when he had ended all his sayings in the audience of the people, he entered into Capernaum. 2 And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear unto him, was sick, and ready to die. 3 And when he heard of Jesus, he sent unto him the elders of the Jews, beseeching him that he would come and heal his servant. 4 And when they came to Jesus, they besought him instantly, saying, That he was worthy for whom he should do this: 5 For he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue. 6 Then Jesus went with them. And when he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying unto him, Lord, trouble not thyself: for I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof: 7 Wherefore neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee: but say in a word, and my servant shall be healed. 8 For I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. 9 When Jesus heard these things, he marvelled at him, and turned him about, and said unto the people that followed him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. 10 And they that were sent, returning to the house, found the servant whole that had been sick.
Let us first note that the centurion was a good master, and when his servant fell sick, he resolved to care for him in his own home, rather than casting him out to be cared for by his relatives who were likely ill prepared to receive him. The centurion is on very good terms with the local Jews, enough so that when he needs help for his servant, he calls upon them to go and intercede for his servant with Jesus. They do this willingly, saying that the centurion loves the Jewish nation and has built them a synagogue, and the Jews argue that the centurion is worthy of Jesus’ help. At first the centurion felt himself unworthy to approach Jesus, and then he realizes that his request that Jesus come to him is extremely bold. Truly blessed are the poor in spirit!
So he sends a second delegation to Jesus to say that there is no need for Jesus to come to him, if Jesus will only say the words, the centurion is confident that his servant will be healed. The centurion explains how he is a man under authority and has men under him; he is saying that he understands hierarchy. It is not necessary for the King to come to every fighting man to put an order into effect. If the King merely speaks the words, they are thereby in effect for all lower orders and the centurion understands that.
Then a remarkable thing happens: When Jesus heard these things, he marvelled at him, and turned him about, and said unto the people that followed him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel — Jesus marvelled!! Think what it would take to draw forth this sort of response from our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ! For One who knows all, from the foundations of the universe up, to marvel, this is a truly profound event. Look at what the event is — profound faith, but profound faith that is not in Israel, but rather in a Gentile centurion. The faith of the foreigner has put all of Israel to shame, Israel, God’s Chosen People have been completely outdone by this Roman soldier!
When we return to the Gospel text specified for today, we have these two final verses to consider: Matthew 8:11-12 11 And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. We recall that Jesus was very emphatic throughout His public ministry that He had been sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Here, He rather clearly indicates that at some future time, the Gentile nations will join the Jews as they approach the heavenly banquet. He says that some of those who thought they were securely anchored in the Kingdom will find themselves cast out, indicating those who have not truly accepted Him. To simply be a part of the house of Israel will not assure eternal salvation; it is necessary to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. That is what He is saying here; I do not profess to know exactly how He is going to work this all out, but that is in His hands. He says that those who do not believe will meet a fearsome end, and that we may believe with absolute certainty.
Our Epistle lesson for today is Romans 13:1–7. This is the famous passage about everyone should be willingly subject to the government, and to do otherwise is contrary to the will of God. What I have just said is not actually what the passage says, but rather the way it is often understood. I want to point out the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ in this passage, and thus, I imagine, change your probable understanding of the passage. The key passage is, Romans 13:2-4 2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Verse 2 is the verse usually cited to say, “See, we have no choice but to do exactly what the government tells us to do.” But if we read on, we see that rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. In particular, governmental power is not unlimited, but is to be used for good only, and not for evil. Of course there comes the rub; who defines what is good and what is evil? When these become political issues, we are on very slippery ground. As long as we are talking about truly moral issues, we may say with confidence that the government power is limited to acting for good, and the government need not be obeyed when it tries to act for evil. But be very careful; this is a dangerous area, and as verse four reminds us, the government does indeed bear the sword. Even so, it is the mercy of Christ that limits the power of the government while giving us government for our good. We cannot live our lives without good government, and we cannot live our lives well with bad government. Let us pray for our government!
The mercy of Christ, working in our lives, is but yet another manifestation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, born of a Virgin and sent to the world some 2000 years ago. For those who are paying attention, He is still active and visible in our lives today, extending His mercy to us, just as He did to the leper and the servant of the centurion. Let us pray that He will continue until He takes us home to His eternal Kingdom!
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.