FAITH ASTONISHING TO GOD
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There are three things that make us afraid when we hear today’s Gospel lesson.
First, like the leper, we suffer all sorts of illness and troubles and we wonder if Jesus is willing to help us. Secondly we agonize when our loved ones suffer, but like the centurion we feel unworthy to ask Jesus to help us. Thirdly we’re afraid of the “outer darkness” Jesus speaks about, where devoid of all happiness, un-repentant sinners will eternally cry and gnash their teeth.
It’s no wonder we doubt the Lord’s willingness to help us. Sin makes us unsure. We ask ourselves: why would God whom we’ve offended in so many ways be willing to help us when we’re in trouble? Sin also makes us blind to His abilities so that we have no clear vision of His love or of His will for us, which in spite of our dire circumstances is always for our good.
It’s no wonder that feel unworthy, though. On the one hand the world’s catechism tells us that we are entitled to God’s aid and that He has a duty to help us, but on the other hand we know in our hearts it isn’t true, because our conscience teaches us a different and stronger lesson. In the words of Scripture: There is none that is good, no not one.
This is the reason that people don’t like to come to church. It’s not the liturgy or the music, but the fact that we don’t gather on the first day of the week to congratulate ourselves on a job well done; nor, to the surprise of many, to learn how to do a better job next week, but we come so that our most basic disease might be diagnosed by the Law, and be cured by Jesus, who’s as truly present among us today in the Means of Grace. However, this too is a source of irritation. The Lord’s Presence in the humble means of water, word, bread and wine is at least as offensive to our pride as is the fact of our sin. In this respect we are like Naaman who snubbed the ordinary means of grace God provided for him, and who assumed that if God is to be involved there must be pizzazz, divine panache! After all, we deserve the best don’t we?
Thirdly, this Gospel lesson makes us afraid because we’re like the centurion’s paralyzed servant regarding the things of God. The Old Adam within renders us in-capable of fulfilling the Law and there are penalties for our failure. Our violations exclude us from the Heavenly Table and consign us in the “outer darkness” we all hope to avoid.
Yet while there are three things that make us afraid today, there are also three things that give us courage.
First the mercy of Jesus is bigger than our sin. It’s bigger, better and extends as “far as the curse is found.” In Psalm 30, David states that God’s anger: is but for a moment but His favor for a lifetime! That weeping might stay for the night, but that joy comes with the morning! So whatever our current circumstances, Jesus is here, to answer our prayers, give us hope, and to seat us at the Banquet Table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and with all the redeemed of history.
The mercy of man is limited, but Jesus will never avoid us because of our unclean condition. Lepers in Israel had a most difficult life. They weren’t cared for in hospice programs or given meds to kill the pain, but rather were ejected from society, forbidden to get near other people, and left to fend for themselves in their weakened condition. Society can make us crabby, and people can wear our patience thin, but to be ostracized from society is death by a thousand cuts.
For 14 centuries Jewish culture dictated: never touch a leper, and never let a leper touch you. That was the rule. But Jesus broke with convention. He let the leprous man kneel at His feet, accepted his prayers and then He did the unthinkable! He stretched out His hand and touched him! In that touch the Lord transferred His holiness to the leper and absorbed the leper’s disease – a disease which He would later take Him to the cross where illness and death would be conquered at the cost of this holy and wonderful life.
In Christian theology we talk about the free forgiveness of our sins, but if we look more closely at the matter we find that forgiveness is not free at all. A price was paid, not by the leper, the centurion or by us but by Jesus. He was forsaken as a spiritual leper on the cross. He wept and gnashed His teeth in the “outer darkness” of death, but in so doing cleansed us, and freed us from the paralysis of our sin.
Secondly we can be glad because Jesus is not only willing to help us but He’s also able. Epiphany reveals the Christmas Child’s power and love. It makes us bold like the leper to pray for our own needs, and strong like the centurion to pray for the needs of those we love. No matter how hopeless our condition might seem Jesus can heal all diseases and fix all problems. His power and love are limitless and His mercy endures forever. Pray to Him. Trust in Him. He will never fail to help.
Lastly, we exult because there’s a place set for us at the eternal banquet with the leper, the centurion and with all of God people. The greatest novelists of history combined could not conceive of the bright future God has in store for those who love Him, but this much-awaited day isn’t merely a future reality but a present one and may God help us to understand this more and more, that Jesus is here with us, not only in our thoughts, but as real and sure as He was with the leper and the centurion 2000 years ago in Galilee. He’s the One speaking when the Gospel is preached. He’s the One forgiving when the absolution is spoken. He’s the One who resides on the altar doing what He’s always done: healing our leprosy, canceling out our doubts and answering our pleas for help. This is why God’s people have been building cathedrals and worshiping with reverence for 20 centuries, because Jesus is on the altar. The devil, the world and the flesh make us doubt His presence. They lead us to question His willingness to help us and the power of His promise, but the third Sunday after Epiphany makes us bold to believe it all! It installs the kind of faith in us that the leper and the centurion had, and enables us to believe with such unwavering focus that even Jesus Himself stands amazed and gives us all we desire of Him. Amen.