Epiphany 3, Sermon 2017
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
You can’t believe every story you hear about Martin Luther, but even if it’s not true, this is a good one:
During one tempestuous time in his life, Martin Luther was lamenting the tests and trials that God was stacking upon him. His lovely wife, Katharina von Bora, at her wit’s end, finally said, “Well Martin…it’s your fault.”
And, like every husband would, Luther took that with perfect, divine grace. He responded, “What did you say?”
And Kitty replied: “You’re the one who prayed: ‘Thy will be done.’”
I like that story, because it reminds us that we don’t always know what we’re praying for when we pray the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done…”
And yet we trust, we know, that God has mercy and saves you.
Today’s gospel lesson asks an interesting question regarding God’s will.
Matthew chapter eight is Jesus’ first miracle, if you’re reading the Bible straight through. He’s just finished the sermon on the mount, and the people are amazed, because He taught with authority.
So now, it’s time for Him to demonstrate this authority.
“Behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately his leprosy was cleansed” (Mt. 8:2-3).
And then Jesus heals the centurion’s servant.
The centurion says, “Say the word, and my servant will be healed” (Mt. 8:8). And Jesus says, “‘Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.’ And the servant was healed at that very moment’ (Mt. 8:13).
The first recorded miracles in Matthew’s Gospel are amazing.
Jesus heals a leper, a man with the disease closest to zombie-ism.
His flesh decays and falls off and it spreads with every bite and scratch.
These people were treated then how we treat annoying people today. We give them exactly as much time as we must.
But never any more.
We wait for that golden opportunity to smile politely, nod our head, and leave.
We are so unlike Jesus who, in His compassion, humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death (cf. Philippians 2:8), to forgive our sins and give us life.
Jesus heals the centurion’s servant. It’s an amazing fact made more amazing, because Jesus interacts with, and intends to go into the home of, a foreigner.
So, number one: what Jesus came to say and do, He came to say and do for all. Even the leper. Even the centurion. Even the annoying people you don’t like.
And even you.
Number two: it’s significant that Jesus doesn’t have to be there to heal the centurion’s servant. The prophets—they were physically there for the miracles God worked through them, but when Jesus speaks, it is the creator of the universe speaking.
And Creation listens.
And number three: the centurion, having heard of Jesus’ authority, understands authority enough to trust the Creator’s word.
“Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me…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” (Mt. 8:8-9).
Jesus says, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness [where there is] weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 8:10-12).
We are so unlike Jesus who genuinely loves all, even the annoying. Even the foreigners. Even the lepers. And even us.
Now, these miracles are amazing, but there’s always a nagging question when Jesus heals someone: “Why not me or you or your child or friend? Why not now?”
Where is God when a young father of seven drowns while swimming with his wife and children?
Where is God when an evil messenger of satan blows himself up or walks into a school with a gun?
I remember watching a documentary on the Holocaust where the narrator asked, “Where was God?” We rightly lament those millions of murders…and, inevitably, some question God’s existence since, apparently, by what experience teaches us, He condemns so many to weeping and gnashing of teeth.
And that’s not to mention when, in our daily routines, we suffer, pray faithfully to God for help, and He answers with seeming silence.
Where is God?
At Mauthausen, an Austrian concentration camp, a prisoner inscribed the following on a wall in the barracks: “If there is a God, He will have to beg my forgiveness.”
There seems, sometimes, to be two gods—the God of the Bible. And the god that we pray to who never answers us.
That’s a problem. But there’s an answer.
First, and this may sound harsh, but consider how true it is—we are so forgetful.
Have you been sick? Did you get better?
Have you ever been lost? And obviously you made it back.
We forget all the times God answers our prayers, but we’re great at remembering the few times He said no.
Second, look at what’s really going on in today’s Gospel lesson.
“A leper came [to Jesus] and [worshiped Him], saying, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” It says worship. He didn’t just “kneel down,” the word used is for worship.
Jesus, the Son of God, is the object of faithful worship.
And how does the leper pray? He doesn’t ask to be healed. Like Mary at the wedding in Cana, he states, matter-of-factly, what is true. In this case: God can heal him.
Likewise, when the centurion asks for help, he requires no signs, no pomp and circumstance, he only wants Jesus to speak: “Say the word.”
What’s good enough for these guys in the midst of terror is what makes them faithful: Jesus is good enough for them. His presence. His Word.
Laying hold of the Body of Christ, worshipping Jesus and saying, “Amen!” is enough for them. Jesus’ words are enough for them.
Even in the midst of terror, God’s will is enough for them.
That only works, that’s only good, if God fights for you.
God’s presence is only good if He’s for you.
Worship is beneficial only if God forgives you.
And He does.
Can you imagine any of the alternatives?
God’s Word, if all it is is Basic-Instructions-Before-Leaving-Earth, you have a long list of “how-to’s” and an ever-sicker stomach when you realize how terrible you are at following and how demanding the Law is.
Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44). And, of ourselves, all the time, we say, “But Pastor, I barely get along with my own family and friends!”
But God fights against our evil. He wants us to be saved. He wants to save us! Even when we suffer, He cares. We know these things are for our good, because God, Himself, became man, but that wasn’t enough.
We know all that happens is for our ultimate good, because God, Himself, became man—and suffered and died. For the Jew. The Greek. The leper. The centurion. The annoying friend. And for you.
God’s love is such that He’s never annoyed at you.
He despises sin—and He forgives it.
But He doesn’t love and give and seek and act begrudgingly.
Jesus cast out demons, healed the sick, cured leprosy, raised the dead, and taught righteousness into people’s hearts to show us that God desires the “very good” of creation to be applied to you.
But sin requires blood.
God didn’t stop at miracles and teaching. He handed His only-begotten Son over to death, even death on a cross (cf. Philippians 2:8).
This is the love of God, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8).
God’s love covers the multitude of our sin.
Say it with me: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his [only begotten] Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).
And the next verse: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world [would] be saved through him” (Jn. 3:17).
God’s word to us today, His will for our lives, His presence here, our worship each Sunday, is all for us to receive His salvation.
So, where is God?
He’s right where He promises to be—in His Word. Proclaimed. Poured. Given and shed. And where He is—He’s there to give you everlasting life.
Jesus humbled Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross. So He could give us life.
Sin requires blood, so you’re washed in the Blood of the Lamb, and you come out clean, in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Sin requires blood, so you’re fed the Body and Blood of Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away your sin.
Where is God?
Even when it’s the most terrible nightmare that you wake up to.
God is with us, forgiving our sin and cleansing us from all unrighteousness. According to His Word.
“‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean’” (Matthew 8:2-3).
So we pray, and we believe: “Thy will be done.”
In Jesus’ name, Amen!