Preached November 18, 2012
St. Matthew 9:18–26
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today is the twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity, the last of the long series of Sundays after Trinity. Next Sunday, while within the Trinity season, has always been regarded as an introduction to Advent, and is known as the Sunday Next Before Advent. Thus the Sundays after Trinity divide neatly into two parts, the first twelve dealing with Christian motivations and the second twelve with Christian character. This has all passed by in review before us, Sunday by Sunday. We have seen the internal graces and the external manifestations in the Christian life. We have seen this all come together in heavenly oriented living, so that all of that is preparation for the final action, our eventual final deliverance from sin and guilt when we receive the inheritance with the Saints in light.
As we consider the Epistle lesson, we should to think of ourselves as the Church at Colossae, a parish not personally known to St. Paul. They were evangelized by Epaphras, another evangelist, and St. Paul knows them only by reputation, so it could very well be our own parish. The Epistle lesson that you heard read a short while ago has been considerably extended since medieval times. The original lesson selection consisted of just these three verses: Colossians 1:9-11 For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness; While there is certainly much value in the extended lesson, for our purposes today we want to focus on just these three verses that contain the heart of the message, St. Paul’s prayer for the final perfection of the Saints at Colossae. Let us look at what he says to us by parts.
It does not matter that our congregation is not personally known to St. Paul, he still prays for us since the day he first heard it. The good report that he has heard has convinced him to give thanks that he sees in us the three major marks of Christian character: (1) we are showing faith in Christ Jesus, (2) we show love toward all the Saints, and (3) we also show a clear consciousness of the hope laid up for us in Heaven. We have shown the continual progress in faith that has been true for all the Churches that held to the Gospel with its new standards of truth and grace. These give everyone a new standard for life and the power to achieve it through the grace of Christ.
Beyond just giving thanks for our past progress, St. Paul prays for our future perfection. This is based on the progress of the past, but it must not stop there. The things St. Paul has heard stirs him to pray for more than just continued progress, but indeed for our perfection, even though he is fully aware that this will not be realized in this life. We notice that he uses the broadly inclusive term “all” no less than four times in this prayer, asking that we be filled with all wisdom and understanding, that our lives may be all pleasing, that we may be strengthened with all might, that we may be able to endure with all patience and longsuffering. While complete perfection is not available to us in this lifetime, it is always the goal and we move towards it in three realms:
The first realm is knowledge. We must first seek knowledge of the will of God with the intent of obedience; knowledge so throughly understood and made a part of our thinking that we always apply the mind of God to our every day actions to the limit of our ability to understand it.
Secondly, we seek holiness in order to be worthy of our Lord Jesus Christ, drawn by His love and the perfection of His examples. The holiness that we seek is pleasing to God and produces every sort of good fruit among men.
Third and finally, we long for strength in proportion to the source of that strength, Christ our Lord. This strength is needed to enable us to cheerfully endure the duties and trials of the Christian life.
It is apparent that there is no limit to the growth possible in each of these three realms, whether knowledge, holiness, or strength. It is our duty to advance as far as we can in each of these realms of our Christian life.
Just as the medieval Epistle lesson for this day has been extended, so the medieval Gospel lesson for the day has also been extended in a similar fashion. The Sarum Gospel omitted the second miracle entirely, and ended with the words, Matthew 9:22b And the woman was made whole from that hour. The point is to teach the spiritual as well as physical deliverance that the woman has received from Christ, rather than to simply record a miracle. The same thing can be said of the second miracle in our lesson for today.
In the first part of the Gospel lesson, a woman approached Jesus. This woman had an issue of blood for twelve years. We have some difficulty as modern people appreciating the full import of this situation. Not only is she physically debilitated from this on-going blood loss for such an extended duration, but she has also been ritually unclean for the entire time interval. Thus she has been socially unacceptable to most people for this extended time, and she is exhausted, friendless, sick, most likely impoverished, and desperate. These are the ravages of sin on our bodies and lives.
She did, however, have one thing going for her, Matthew 9:21 For she said within herself, If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole. She had faith! And not just an “ordinary faith” if there is such a thing, but look at what she says, If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole. She does not think it necessary for Jesus to touch her directly, or even speak to her, if only she can touch the hem of his robe, she is confident she will be cured. That is real faith!
This makes a crucial point that we need to all observe as well. Jesus was willing to heal the woman with the issue of blood, but the woman had to reach out to touch Jesus. In the same way, we must reach out to touch Jesus, an act of personal contact made in the faith that our Lord will hear and respond to us. Such an act must not be blocked by any sense of guilt or our own impurity, nor by the cares of the world blocking Jesus out. We must touch the Saviour if His salvation is to be ours, and we do this through our daily prayers and through His holy Word and Sacraments. We must be continually reaching out to him, when we feel close to Him, and when we feel very far away, when sin tempts and evil thoughts arise, and when we are secure in our daily routine of the Christian life. We never reach out in vain, but we must never fail to reach out.
The Collect for this Day is a prayer for full deliverance. As such, it asks first for the release from our present guilt, the removal the of guilt that our sins have brought upon us. We want to go forward this day with a clean conscience, having heard the words of Christ, Matthew 9:22b Daughter, be of good comfort; We want to know that our sins are forgiven.
Secondly, we pray for power to overcome the particular sins that appeal to our individual frailties, the ones that keep us bound by evil habits and personal weaknesses so that we are unable to live the faithful lives that we seek to live. Absolution from sin is impossible without the intention to be set free from the dominion of sin. There is no personal holiness that does not come from pardon and no pardon that does not lead to holiness.
We ask in this Collect that God absolve his people of their sins. To absolve is to pronounce their sins forgiven. God alone can forgive sins. A priest is given authority to absolve a person, that is, to pronounce God’s forgiveness to someone who has confessed his sins to God. When a priest gives absolution, the words spoken by the priest are always understood to be conditioned on the repentance and faith of the person receiving the absolution.
Let us offer again the Collect for the Day, a prayer for our final deliverance:
O Lord, we beseech thee, absolve thy people from their offenses; that through thy bountiful goodness we may all be delivered from the bands of those sins which by our frailty we have committed. Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our blessed Lord and Saviour. Amen.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.