Third Sunday after the Epiphany—27 January 2019

Our text is today’s Old Testament Lesson (2 Kings 5:1–15a) and Gospel (Matthew 8:1–13):

 

2 Kings 5:1–15a

1 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the LORD had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper.  2 Now the Syrians on one of their raids had carried off a little girl from the land of Israel, and she worked in the service of Naaman’s wife.  3 She said to her mistress, “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”  4 So Naaman went in and told his lord, “Thus and so spoke the girl from the land of Israel.”  5 And the king of Syria said, “Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.”

So he went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothes.  6 And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”  7 And when the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me.” 

8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent to the king, saying, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.”  9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house.  10 And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.”  11 But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, “Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper.  12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage.  13 But his servants came near and said to him, “My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”  14 So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.  15 Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company, and he came and stood before him. (ESV)

Matthew 8:1–13

  1 When [Jesus] came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him.  2 And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”  3 And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.  4 And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”

5 When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him,  6 “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.”  7 And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.”  8 But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.  9 For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”  10 When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. 11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  13 And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment. (ESV)

Naaman, the Syrian army commander, thinks his big problem is his leprosy.  But his really BIG problem is that he both over-estimates and under-estimates.  He over-estimates his own worthiness.  “How dare this backwater prophet tell me to wash in his river when the ones back home are so much better!”  In his heart, Naaman the leper thinks he can do better, that he deserves better than what Elisha is offering.  And then, Naaman under-estimates the power of God’s Word—the promise, the word of healing, that says:  Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.  Yes, Naaman’s BIG problem is that he thinks too much of himself and too little of God’s Word. 

You and I have the same problem as Naaman—and I am not talking about leprosy.  I am talking about our sinful tendency to both over-estimate how well we are doing and also to under-estimate our great need for God’s Word and Sacraments.  We say to ourselves: “I’m doing all right, so it is not really that crucial that I spend time each day in prayer and in meditating on God’s Word.  In fact, I had such a great week that I can afford to skip the hearing of God’s Word and the receiving of the Lord’s Holy Absolution and Supper this Sunday.”  When we think too much of ourselves, we end up thinking too little of God’s Word and Sacraments. 

Naaman thought so much of himself that at first he despised the Word of the Lord.  He is a warning to us all that in the Kingdom of God, if you think you are doing ok, you really are not.  That is why St. Paul gives this admonition to all who are in Christ: by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment (Romans 12:3).  And so do not think too much of yourself, of your spiritual progress and maturity.  Instead, realize and confess just how weak you are in the faith and how grievously you have sinned against God and against your loved ones and your colleagues and against those in authority and those in need of your help.  Now, your heart might tell you that you are doing all right, but remember the words of the prophet Jeremiah: the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?  (17:9).  In terms of faith toward God and love toward your neighbour, you are not quite as far along as you might like to think, and neither am I!

Now, we all would like to be known for our great faith, but great faith always goes hand-in-hand with confessing one’s unworthiness before God.  True spiritual maturity occurs only when, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we confess how poor and weak we really are in faith and love and that we are unworthy sinners in desperate need of our Lord’s forgiveness. 

In the Gospels, Jesus commends only two people for their great faith.  Can you guess who they were?  Of course, it was not the scribes and Pharisees—they thought too much of themselves and too little of God’s Word.  And it was not even the disciples, for time and again—for example, while they were crossing the Sea of Galilee during a storm—the disciples had to be reprimanded by the Lord with these stern words: O you of little faith!  (Matthew 8:26; 14:31).  Have you made your guesses?  Well, the first person commended by our Lord for having great faith was the Canaanite woman.  She thought it perfectly natural to be counted among the dogs, who had no right to eat the bread of the children.  And yet she was to hear from Jesus that she had great faith  (Matthew 15:21-28).  And the second person to be commended for his great faith was the centurion in today’s Gospel.  We read here that Jesus marveled at this man’s faith.  Imagine!—having such a great faith that the Lord of heaven and earth marvels and says Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. 

Now, what does Jesus mean by a great faith?  Well, for starters, those with a great faith confess their own lack of greatness, for the centurion believed that he was a most unworthy sinner.  Like the Canaanite woman, the centurion does not think of himself in terms of greatness.  Rather, he makes such a humble confession: Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.  The centurion, then, has a deep awareness of just how poor and weak he is in his faith toward God and in his love toward his neighbour.

Here we see that a great faith is never a great faith in one’s self.  But there is more.  A great faith also believes great things about Christ.  In the face of seeming rejection, the Canaanite woman continued to pray: Lord, help me!  She knew to whom she should turn.  And the centurion also knew to whom he should turn in his great need.  The Canaanite woman and the centurion remind me of John Newton, the writer of the hymn “Amazing Grace”. Newton was fond of saying “I am a great sinner, but Jesus is a greater Saviour!”  That is what a great faith knows.  It knows its own weakness, and then it puts its trust in the great power of the Saviour, Jesus.  Such great faith says: Lord, I am not worthy…but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.  

A great faith always does two things: it confesses its own weakness and unworthiness and then it trusts wholeheartedly in Christ and in His power to save and to heal.  That is your calling in Christ—to confess your unworthiness and to boldly trust in Christ.  Until the day you die, with a contrite heart you must cry out, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!”  But with a heart filled with faith you must also continually say, “Lord, only say the word, and my sins will be forgiven!”.  

The centurion has such great faith in Jesus that he believes that Jesus needs only to say a word and his servant will be healed.  More than anything else, a great faith is faith in the word of Christ.  A great faith takes a firm grip on the Word of Christ and holds on tight to it even in the midst of suffering.  In ourselves, we experience great failures and doubts and we feel nothing but weakness.  But with great faith, we confess that [on the cross Jesus] gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever  (Galatians 1:4).   Do you see?  A great faith is never a great faith in one’s self but always a wholehearted trust in the crucified Christ and His Holy Word.

Left to ourselves, we are all like Naaman the leper.  We think too much of ourselves and too little of God’s Word.  But God does not leave us to ourselves; He did not even leave Naaman to himself.  Rather, the Lord cured Naaman of his unbelief.  God worked through Naaman’s servants to stir him to faith in the Lord’s Word, so that he finally went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan.  And then God performed a miracle through ordinary water:  Naaman’s flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.  And what God did for Naaman, He does for you and me.  In Holy Baptism, He has washed us clean of our sins.  And now, through His Holy Word and Absolution and His Holy Supper, the Lord washes away all the times we have thought too much of ourselves and too little of His Word.  And what is more, He gives us a faith like the centurion’s—a great faith.

Martin Luther observed that the greatest miracle in today’s Gospel was not the healing of the leper nor the healing of the centurion’s servant, but rather the great faith of the centurion.  That explains why the centurion speaks to Jesus the way he does.  He orders Jesus to speak a word.  He orders Jesus as if Jesus would actually do what the centurion asks Him to; as if Jesus is such a Lord who would serve even a centurion who is not a child of Israel; as if Jesus is such a Lord Whose Words do and deliver what they say.

And Jesus is that much the Lord for him.  He serves the centurion.  He speaks a word and the servant is healed.  He did just as the centurion told Him to do, and Jesus’ Words did and delivered what they said.

And Jesus is that much the Lord for you as well.  He serves you.  He served you on Good Friday by taking your place on the cross, thus winning your salvation. And now He serves you by forgiving you in Holy Absolution and His Holy Supper. Yes, through His Word, Jesus heals you from what ails you most—your sins. 

And now, by God’s grace, you do not think too much of yourself and you do not think too little of God’s Word. For God has worked in you the same great faith as the centurion’s.  And so, with a humble heart, you say to your Saviour Jesus: ”Jesus, you died on the cross to win my salvation.  Now, Lord, just speak the word, and my sins are forgiven!”  

Could it be that easy?  Could it be that when you pray for the crucified and risen Christ to heal you with His forgiveness, that He actually does what you tell Him to do?  Could it be that all the sins that trouble you are forgiven by the simple words: “As a called and ordained servant of the Word, I announce the grace of God to you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins”?  Could it be that God is that much the Lord for you?

Yes, He is.  That is what faith says.  Faith says Lord, I am not worthy…but only say the word and [Your] servant will be healed.  In fact, according to an ancient Christian practice, these words of the centurion have been adapted into a beautiful prayer for receiving the Lord’s Supper: Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under the roof of my mouth, but only say the word, and Your servant will be healed.  Do you see? Faith is expecting only good from the Lord’s hand, only forgiveness, and only eternal life.

And to all who have been given such faith, the Lord Jesus says let it be done for you as you have believed.  And such faith God has given to you—the faith to believe that Jesus is that much the Lord for you, to believe that the love of Jesus is greater than your sins.  And with such a faith, you tell your Saviour Jesus to speak a word of healing, and He does!  He speaks and He feeds forgiveness to those who are unworthy of His service—even you and me.  Praise be to God!  Amen.