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Only Say The Word (St. Matthew 8.1-13)

The Third Sunday after Epiphany


“Only Say the Word”
Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus  

St. Matthew 8.1-13

22 January 2023



A number of things stand out in our three readings today. We see the image of Holy Baptism in the Old Testament reading. There is cleansing from leprosy, a metaphor for sin. In the Epistle Paul extols the power of God’s Word to bring salvation to all who believe it, and in the Holy gospel there are two examples of how the Word of Jesus brings about healing for a leper and a paralyzed person. We have more than enough to keep us busy, but the common thread that runs through all three readings is the powerful Word of God which heals and restores. We witness also exemplary faith.

When God speaks it happens. The Genesis account begins with just that.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. [Gen. 1.3]

And that phrase “And God said, ‘Let there be . . .’” is repeated throughout the Creation account. God speaks—it happens. The Word of God has power inherent in it because it comes from the Almighty God. By his Word everything that exists came into being. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says just that:

By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. [Heb. 11.3]

When Paul writes that the Gospelis the power of God for salvation to all who believe, the word he uses is δύναμις, the word from which we get our word dynamo, dynamite, dynamic.

Luther said of the success of the Reformation: “The Word does it. While Philipp [Melanchthon] and I drank our Wittenberg beer, the Gospel runs its course.” The Word of God did it.

Not only does God’s Word have the power to create, it also has the power to heal and to save us for eternity. Naaman did not share the same faith as the leper and the centurion. He thought very little of the prophet’s command to go wash in the Jordan River for healing. For one thing, the Jordan is very muddy. Clearer, cleaner water cold be found in Syria. He thought it was the water until his servants begged him to believe the word.

My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; [2 Ki 5:13]

And he finally did what Elisha told him to do and was healed. The word did it.

In our Gospel reading we see the faith that the word of God created. The leper had certainly heard of Jesus’s healing miracles and so, when the leper had the chance to meet Jesus, he did. He wasn’t supposed to go near Jesus but his need compels him. There he stood, at a distance, and said,

“Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”

He left it up to Jesus. He did not doubt that Jesus could heal him; he asked Jesus to heal him if it was his will. He had faith in the word of Jesus. He had faith that Jesus can do it. He didn’t demand; he didn’t plead worthiness. He believed that Jesus could do it.

The centurion, however, astounds us. He’s not even a Jew, like the leper. What is more, he’s a soldier and apt to be more skeptical than others. He doesn’t base his prayer on his own merits but on the power of Jesus’ word. He presents his situation to Jesus, and surprisingly, Jesus responds,

“I will come and heal him.”

But the centurion replies in these words which are printed on the yellow card in the pew for your use before your receive the healing medicine of Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament. Please take that card out of the holder in the pew in front of you. Read with me.

“O Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof; but speak only your Word, and my soul will be healed. I will take the Bread of Heaven and call upon the name of the Lord.”

“Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof . . .” He meant what he said! The Jews said that he was a worthy man because he had helped build their synagogue. He loved the Jewish nation. Yet, none of that was on his lips. Only his poverty of soul. And then he stuns us with what he says next.

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.”

He knew military discipline. Order were carried out because he spoke them. Men’s lives depended on his commands. He believes that Jesus is true God and that he commands even the forces of nature. Jesus can heal his servant even if he never comes to his house and lays his hands on the servant. “But only say the word,” and it will happen because Jesus commands it. He believes that Jesus’ word cannot be contradicted, cannot be undone.

The Scriptures do not often record what Jesus thought but here it does because it is so stunning:

When Jesus heard this, he marveled . . .θαυμάζω to be extraordinarily impressed or astonished by something. So records the Greek lexicon. Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). In A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 444). University of Chicago Press.

And then Jesus said to the crowd following him,

“Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.

Never had he found a faith which trusted his Word in all of Israel. None of the Jewish leaders would say such a thing, but from the lips of a Gentile, a Roman solider, come words of extraordinary faith. And our Lord replied,

“Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.”

Jesus calls us to faith, to trust his word even against all our reason. Faith is confidence in the promises of God. Faith clings to the Word when all else seems to say the opposite. You and I have wanted a faith like this, a faith that is rock solid, a faith that never falls into doubt. Yet, the sad truth is that we often have little faith, like the disciples of whom Jesus accused them of having little faith in spite of witnessing his miracles. Even they did not trust like this centurion. And God the Holy Spirit hears our weak prayers and takes them to the throne of grace where our Lord answers them, weak as they are.

Jesus wills that we be clean like Naaman and this leper. Our faith is more like his, timidly asking that maybe, just maybe, Jesus will hear our prayers and possibly grant them. And here Jesus says, “I will; be clean.”

And so it happens in every Divine Service. We come for cleansing in the Absolution and in the Sacrament of the Altar. Here Christ always grants our prayer. Always! He forgives! Over and over and over again. He does not tire of our prayers for forgiveness and cleansing.

And it is here that the centurion’s prayer becomes ours.

“Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul will be healed.”

And Jesus says, “I will. Receive my true body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. “ And we leave the Lord’s Table healed and refreshed. This centurion’s prayer is a good prayer, a powerful prayer, an exemplary prayer. It ought to be on your lips every time you approach the communion rail. And then the words of the Apostle Paul, also printed on that yellow card should be prayed,

It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. [Gal. 2.20]

“Only Say the Word.” Those are the words of faith, the faith of the leper and this centurion. They are your words and the words of every Christian.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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