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The Third Sunday after The Epiphany
Reverend Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus
St. Matthew 8.1-13
23 January 2022
SOLI DEO GLORIA!
Two words stand out in our Gospel reading: “I will.” Those are the response of Jesus to a leper and a centurion. Both were outcasts in Jewish society—the leper, because he had a disease which required separation from the congregation and all Jewish life, and the second, because he was a hated Roman military officer. He was also Gentile, cut off from the religious life of Israel. Why should Jesus have anything positive to say to them?
Our catechumens are currently studying and learning the Our Father with its seven petitions. Both leper and centurion prayed. They prayed to Jesus as fervently as any of us do. The emphasis in Epiphany is Jesus’ miracles, a demonstration of his divinity. Last Sunday we heard the account of Jesus changing water into wine. Today it is healing of two people. But there’s something else involved today, and that is prayer. Keep that thought.
Both men exhibited remarkable faith but their faith is not the emphasis. The leper does not doubt that Jesus can help him. Jesus was famous for healing. The only issue is Jesus’ willingness to help such an outcast. The centurion has absolutely no doubt that Jesus can heal his servant. The issue for him is the same—Jesus’ willingness to help. There is believing prayer. Both know that Jesus can heal. The only question for each of them is whether Jesus is willing to do so.
Last Sunday we sang these words: [LSB 394.3]
Manifest in making whole
Palsied limbs and fainting soul;
Manifest in valiant fight,
Quelling all the devil’s might;
[And here it is!]
Manifest in gracious will,
Ever bringing good from ill;
Anthems be to Thee addressed;
God in man made manifest.
The hymn writer, Christopher Wordsworth—not even a German but a Brit!]—gets it so very right—“gracious will.” Before the centurion can ask anything of Jesus, our Lord speaks to him. “I will come and heal him.” “I will.” That’s grace! That’s God himself acting for someone. There stands Jesus’ own “I will.” I will act for you! I grant your request.
As I said, our catechumens are learning the petitions of the Our Father. Yesterday Vicar taught them the Third Petition, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Luther begins his explanation marvelously: “The good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer . . . “ God is going to carry out his will no matter what. His will is done whether we ask it or not, whether we consent or not.
These two men came to Jesus asking him to do his will. They asked Jesus to heal, and his healing flowed just as if Jesus could not help but do it. Mark’s account tells us that because of these healings so many people came that Jesus couldn’t enter a town openly because people mobbed him for healing. Can you imagine that? It would be like Jesus opening a clinic that healed everyone who contracted the Covid virus! If the testing sites are mobbed and so are the clinics and hospitals, what must it have been like for Jesus? Yet never did Jesus say “I won’t” to the multitudes who came to be healed by him. Never did he turn them away in spite of their unbelief in his true mission. Yet Jesus did not come to set up a clinic, as much as the crowds would have liked.
Immediately after cleansing—an important word which runs with forgiveness—Jesus tells this cleansed leper to tell no one that he has been cleansed. He must only go to the priest to be inspected, and having been inspected, offer the gift commanded for a proof to the priests. Then the rabbis were give him a clean bill of health.
But why should Jesus tell him to be silent? We hear that many times from Jesus. Biblical scholars have called Mark’s repeated use of Jesus’ command to keep silent about his miracles “the Messianic Secret.” We sometimes forget that Israel was an occupied country and the Jews were always looking for a political Messiah to lead them in an revolt against the Romans. Israel was always on the edge of revolution and there were many revolutionaries in those years. Revolutionary after revolutionary arose, always to be executed by the Romans who were on the lookout for any challenges to their rule. If those whom Jesus healed had begun spreading word of his popularity, Jesus might have been stopped before he began preaching, before he got to the cross for the right reason. Jesus needed to make people understand that his kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. In his trial before Pilate Jesus answered Pilate very clearly by declaring that his kingdom did not belong to this world. He was not a threat to Roman power though military might.
The centurion’s plea involves immediate healing. “Paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.”Interestingly, the term paralytic comes over directly from the Greek, παραλυτικός. How he became paralyzed is not told us but likely it resulted from an accident. But this centurion’s servant was suffering greatly. The centurion never utters the words of the leper, “If you will.” Jesus cuts him short by saying, “I will come and heal him.” And then the account is interrupted by the centurion. His words are remarkable.
“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.”
Take out that yellow card from the pew rack in front of you. Look to the section “Before receiving the Sacrament.” There you will find those words of this nameless centurion. It is a fitting prayer for you before you receive the Sacrament for the forgiveness of your sins. You are really saying, “Lord, if you will . . “ It’s been changed to reflect the reality of what is happening. You pray that you are unworthy to have Christ come to you in his body and blood, but you pray that he will. And he will! He desires with all his heart to come to you to heal you of the sickness that leads to eternal death, the sickness of sin. The response is that of faith: “I will take the Bread of Heaven and call upon the Name of the Lord.” That’s what this centurion did. He called on the Name of the Lord to heal his servant. You call on the Name of the Lord to heal your soul and bring you to everlasting life.
But let’s pivot back to prayer. In our intercessions every Sunday we remember those who have asked to be included in the Prayer of the Church. In nearly all cases these are those who are physically ill or disabled. We call to Jesus to heal them, but it is always “If you will.” Sometimes it is God’s will to heal us of our earthy infirmities and sometimes it is not. How often we have prayed that petition “Thy will be done” without realizing that our will does not coincide with God’s perfect will!
Recently Vicar and I discussed a sermon preached by Dr. Robert Preus who was the President of the Ft. Wayne Seminary, and well before that, my dear professor at the St. Louis Seminary and a member of the congregation I served in St. Louis. That sermon was never preached in Kramer Chapel due to some very difficult circumstances but it was published in magazines and journals. It was about prayer and the making of a good pastor—and incidentally, Dr. Preus was probably one of the best “pray-ers” I’ve every known, not because of eloquence or length of words, but because of simplicity and directness. In this sermon he said,
“I prayed that professors Eggold, Aho, Hamann, and Kraus, those great theologians, would live and have productive ministries at the seminaries, and they died. Is this the way God makes me a great theologian.?”
He then laid out three principles about how God answers prayer. I’ll summarize.
Principle Number 1: God always answers prayer. Always!
Principle Number 2: God seldom answers prayer immediately.
Then Dr. Preus cites the example of our leper by asking, “But how often do things like that ever happen?”
He goes to the 7th Petition of the Our Father and says of that prayer that we may be delivered from evil:
“How many millions, billions, trillions of times has that petition ascended to the throne of grace, and God’s people are meant to wait? Thus they learn not only about prayer, but also about God’s faithfulness and grace about theology.”
Principle Number 3: God seldom answers our prayers the way we want Him to.
He mentions some things from his own life where God went far beyond anything he could have imagined. Then he comes to the final question:
“Have all the prayers of these Christians been answered? Yes, or they will be, even if it has to be eschatologically [that is, on the Last Day].God is giving us what we should have been asking for all along—and really were when we were praying our Lord’s Prayer—namely, forgiveness, salvation, fortitude, patience, and love, along with the intricate composite of all the blessings and sufferings which make us better theologians.”
You see, it all takes faith, the faith of these two men in our reading, especially the faith of the centurion, about whose faith Jesus says he had not encountered such a remarkable faith in Israel among God’s people. For this soldier only the word of the commanding officer mattered. If Jesus said it, it would be done. Period. He gives his own example.
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.”
“I will.” These words of Jesus are pure Gospel, pure gold. He may not always answer our prayers as we wish, but he always answers them according to his good and perfect will, which is never wrong. He merely asks us to believe what he has said. And in this Blessed Sacrament you have the whole will of God for you—your forgiveness, life, and salvation. And that is not conditional as is your earthly healing. Your Lord never says “I won’t” when it comes to your soul’s healing. Trust his Word! Believe it even when earthly circumstances go against you!
To you and to our catechumens, all of this is summed up in the Our Father. It is the one perfect prayer you can pray because it agrees with our Lord’s perfect will. Jesus will never turn you away when you pray in his perfect will. You will always hear Jesus say, “I will!”
In the Name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit.