The Third Sunday After the Epiphany, 2019
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
The Old Testament and Gospel lessons give us an interesting comparison.
Naaman, the leper, expected the man of God to put on a show, 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” (2 Kings 5:11).
He was disappointed that only a messenger of the man of God arrived, telling him to wash in a dirty river. He said, “‘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” (2 Kings 5:12).
Naaman’s servants prevailed upon him to hear and believe the words of the messenger of the man of God who did actually say, “Wash and be clean” (cf. 2 Kings 5:10, 13).
So “So [Naaman] 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” (2 Kings 5:14).
Then, Naaman said, “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel” (2 Kings 5:15).
This is interesting because we often share in Naaman’s frustrations.
He wanted the miraculous show and had to humble himself to wash in a dirty river.
We, sometimes, want the miraculous show, the so-called “spirit-filled” still, small voice.
We’re disappointed with what is common and average. We want that special feeling or at least the look of worldly success, a reason to boast.
But—for Naaman and for us all—God wants none of that for you.
He gives you the opposite, in fact, on purpose, to test your faith.
You want God Himself? He sends a servant.
You want visible miracles, hand waving, and the Almighty God working wonders? He gives you water, bread, wine, the sign of the cross, and the spoken words of Jesus Christ.
You want the rivers of Damascus.
He gives you the River Jordan, or Girard and Virden tap water.
God works not according to smoke and mirrors, not in our feelings, not even in our memories of golden days and years and the worldly look of success.
God works according to His Word proclaimed, in water and bread and wine included in and combined with His Word. That’s how God works…
…Until the leper in today’s Gospel lesson.
In Matthew chapter eight, “Behold, a leper came to [Jesus] 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. 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’” (Matthew 8:2-4).
Right after saying that God doesn’t do the whole “special show” thing, Jesus seems to do exactly that, a special miraculous show for this leper.
Jesus “stretched out his hand and touched him” (Matthew 8:3). He indicated the will of God to cleanse the leper by saying, “I will…” (Matthew 8:3). And He spoke cleansed flesh into existence by saying, “…Be clean” (Matthew 8:3).
He put on a show.
A small one, but—in comparison to Naaman—a show.
Here’s the difference, and we know this by inference:
Naaman wanted the show. He didn’t get one.
The leper before Jesus knew Him to be a merciful God. He doesn’t say “Lord, if you will…” (Matthew 8:2) because he doubts that Jesus wants to cleanse him or is able to.
He says, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean” (Matthew 8:2), because faith asks God for everything—even the desires of our heart—and—simultaneously, as in the prayer that Jesus teaches—faith appends “Thy will be done” (Matthew 6:10) to whatever we ask, trusting and knowing that God wants and does only what’s best for us, even if it doesn’t feel like it, even if it’s not what we most want for ourselves.
God is merciful. And Jesus, in verse four, says to the now ex-leper, “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” (Matthew 8:4).
Jesus says this so that the man knows that he is loved by God. There is no ulterior motive
to the miracle. God loves him. Desires him to be clean. Tell no one so that you know that God did this out of love—and not a desire for fame or prestige.
And that may be an odd thought for us.
God can endure a lack of prestige and fame. In fact, God endures slander.
Jesus endures slander.
The Church endures slander.
Pastors endure slander.
Christians endure slander.
And we still have church on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and any other days the people of God gather in His name.
We have the words of eternal life.
If you don’t like that—if you disagree—if the gospel scandalizes you because I say you have sin to confess and you, like so many others, say, “Whatever…”, if you don’t like that—I’ll be here next week saying the same thing—and it should and will be that way in every church because that’s what the words of Christ declare.
And only now do we get to the most marvelous example of them all—the centurion.
“When [Jesus] had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, ‘Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly’” (Matthew 8:5-6).
And—contrary to Naaman—what does Jesus do?
He offers immediately to go and do as the man requests, saying, “I will come and heal him” (Matthew 8:7).
“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. 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’” (Matthew 8:8-9).
The centurion could’ve seen the show, the pomp. He could’ve been part of the prestige, the talk of the town, but he cares only for his servant, saying, “I’m not worthy to have you come under my roof. Speak but a word, and my servant will be healed” (cf. Matthew 8:8).
And Jesus marvels at the centurion’s faith.
“He marveled and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly…with no one in Israel have I found such faith. …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 will be] weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (Matthew 8:11-12).
“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” (Matthew 8:13).
It’s important, of course, that Jesus finds no equal in all Israel to this Gentile centurion’s faith.
That’s good news. Salvation is to all.
But it’s important, also, to note again that Jesus marvels at the centurion’s faith.
Only twice in the New Testament does Jesus marvel.
He marvels here, in Matthew chapter eight, at the faith of centurion (and in the parallel account recorded in Luke chapter seven).
Jesus marvels at faith.
And—He marvels at unbelief.
In Mark chapter six, when Jesus is teaching at the synagogue in Nazareth, they take offense at Him, “And he marveled because of their unbelief” (Mark 6:6).
He who has ears to hear, let him hear:
Jesus marvels at faith to show us what’s acceptable to Him.
If He had before Him all the kings and presidents of the world, the celebrities and mansions and gold of the world—if Jesus had all that before Him—and alongside was the newly-baptized, scarred but content face of a Down Syndrome baby who survived the attempted abortion—it is the baptized child of God that is acceptable to Him—and not the wanted wealth of the world.
Jesus marvels at faith—big or small—that trusts in Him for salvation, showing us what is acceptable to Him.
But Jesus also marvels at unbelief.
Not because it’s acceptable, but because it makes no sense to reject the gospel.
You have a loving God, who recognizes unregenerate man’s condition as eternally terminal, and sends His Son into our flesh to bear our sin and be our savior.
Jesus, the Son of God, has come to seek and save us all.
So “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:16-17).
…In the Word of God that accomplishes exactly what God sends it out to do.
The forgiveness of sins.
The resurrection of the body.
And the life everlasting.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!