Epiphany 3, 2022 – Sermon

Audio recording of this sermon

Date:  January 22, 2023
Scriptures:  Romans 12:16-21 and Matthew 8:1-13
Prepared by Henry Friesen

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts together, be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

​A couple of years ago now we all became aware of Zoom or a similar computer App that would allow us to have a conversation or a meeting with people right from our own home. The camera on the computer allowed the other person to see us and see the room we were sitting in. It was quite a new idea but of course with Covid restrictions in place, it caught on very quickly. I remember then that one day in the on-line news there was an example of such a conversation:  a man was sitting at his computer, talking to his boss or perhaps colleague about business matters related to his company’s plans and policies. It was obviously important work and necessary but suddenly in the background, a young child entered the room and said something like “Daddy I need help!” In that moment everything changed: for a while the man and even us who were watching this little video clip were interested in this new phenomena of communicating virtually and working from home and the next moment we were part of a small human drama in the life of a father and his child. Both aspects of that scenario were important but very different. It was important for the man to participate in his work but equally important to be a Dad to his child.

​Today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew makes a similar transition: Chapters 5, 6 and 7 are one long teaching session by Jesus. Called the Sermon on the Mount, these chapters are extensive in the topics and concerns they address; they are crucial to understanding what Jesus was all about.  And if you lean toward theological reflection, this is a gold mine. Books have been written about these chapters and this teaching and no doubt many PhD dissertations have delved into one or more aspects of these chapters. But if you are a person who lives much more in the practical, it is not so interesting for you even if you agreee that understanding this teaching is very important.

​Our Gospel reading comes AFTER these 3 chapters of commands and teachings. They are an abrupt change just like the entry of a small child was to the Zoom meeting his father was having.

​Let’s give a little more context then before we look at the two stories we find in Matthew chapter 8. You might recall that already in Epiphany we have entered into two stories that mark this seasonthis revealing of Jesus Christ to the world.  Two weeks ago we heard the story of the Magi who identified Jesus as a unique king born to Mary and Joseph; this was news to almost everyone in Jerusalem it would seem: the Messiah was revealed to the wider world. Then last week Nathaniel preached on the wedding in Cana where Jesus turned the water into wine; this was a further revelation of Jesus as the Messiah – John’s gospel calls it a sign. 

​Today we make a jump straight into the ministry of Jesus through which Jesus shows Himself to the people of his day through the actions he makes and the encounters he has with various needy and hungry individuals. 

​Our Gospel lesson includes two straightforward stories in which Jesus brings healing. I say straightforward because they are simple and direct: in each story there is a need for healing and description of Jesus providing that healing. In the first story, found in Matthew 8:1-4 Jesus heals or cleanses a leper and in the second, verses 5-13, He heals a Centurion’s servant.

​As we look more carefully at the first story we note these, further details: Jesus comes down from the mountain or hill from which he gave his teaching with crowds following him. They are still absorbing all the teaching Jesus has given but now they move into the practical world of food, drink and ordinary people who have needs. Jesus moves with this crowd when suddenly he is confronted by a leper who kneels before him and says this:  “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean”. There is no preamble, not introduction to this event. There is just a clear and direct statement – in fact there is no direct request – the leper does not beg or even ask. He doesn’t say “could you make me clean?” or even “would you make me clean?” No, he makes a simple and what he considers to be a factual statement: “If you choose, you can make me clean.”

What is behind this simple statement? Obviously the leper knows that Jesus can bring him healing.  We are not told how he came to know this but it is safe to assume that he has heard about Jesus, has heard of others being helped or healed by Him and that He is able to recognize Jesus when he sees him. There is an obvious awareness then on the part of the leper which has caused him to have full confidence in what Jesus is able to do.

​Of course there is something else that the leper knows: he knows he has leprosy and that this leprosy has made him to be someone who is “unclean” to others who live near him. To be given the title of unclean is to be forced into isolation, to beg or rely on close friends or family and to be barred from worship in the temple or synagogue. It is to be isolated. So he is “unclean” not in the sense of dirty but in the sense of not healthy and not someone who can socialize freely or participate in community worship.  He is someone that healthy people avoid.

​There are no real drama in this story, no long story about all that this leper has suffered or been denied. “You, Jesus, can choose to make me clean” – that is all the leper says and that is all the information we are given about him.  The answer Jesus gives follow the exact format of the leper’s statement: “I so choose, be made clean.” Precise and to the point.  The result is immediate healing or cleansing. There it is. 

​The second story in our Gospel lesson comes in verses 5-13. It is another story of healing but a little more complicated. In this case a centurion, that is a Roman soldier who is in charge of 100 other Roman soldiers and so one with more authority and stature than an ordinary soldier. He is very much unlike the leper as he has status and power in the community. But he also comes to Jesus with a need for healing, not for himself like the leper, but for his servant. Again the way the story is told, there is no direct request for healing, no pleading on the part of the Centurion, he simply says this to Jesus:  “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralysed and in terrible distress.” 

​Maybe there was more conversation than what Matthew has recorded but on the face of it, Jesus is simply confronted by a statement about a servant who is very sick. So either there was a request which is not recorded or Jesus simply understood what was behind the statement and like he did with the leper He responds directly: “I will come and cure him”. Jesus does not ask questions, he does not try to get further details but responds simply and clearly letting the Centurion know that he will both go to the servant and that He will cure him.

​As we look a little more carefully at what follows in these two stories we see that Jesus does add comments which are instructive. In the case of the leper, Jesus commands him to do the ceremonial correct thing and that is to take a gift to the temple and show himself to the priest, who has the authority to declare him cleansed and free to re-enter society. The healed man is given the proper instruction to do this. His healing then is not divorced from his regular life, it puts him back into that life. The physical healing comes first but by going to the priest, the leper regains acceptance in the community, he regains his freedom to worship and can safely be reunited with his family and friends. Jesus does not leave the leper in a lurch by simply healing him but instructs him to follow the path of full restoration.

​In the case of the Centurion we expect the story to move differently than it does. When Jesus says I will come and cure the servant, we expect He will go to where that servant is lives and to pray for him or over him and heal him. But we are stopped short in the story by the objection of the Centurion. Yes he has told Jesus that his servant is at home and deathly ill but when he realizes Jesus actually plans to come he says “Whoa, wait a minute, as I think about this I realize that I am not worthy to have You come to my house, You only need to speak the word Jesus and my servant will be healed. I operate that way with my servants, I simply tell them to do something and they do it… I don’t have to actually go and stand over them to see that they do what I have asked.”

​Now it is Jesus who is taken aback – He turns to the crowd and says “I have not found this kind of faith before, it is incredible. Then turning to the Centurion he honors his request and says “let it be done for you according to your faith.” And Matthew then adds this short concluding statement: “the servant was healed in that hour.”

​And that is the end of the second story from our Gospel reading this morning. What are we to make of these two short stories? What might we learn from them, this is the question I asked myself this week. 

​As I thought about the stories, it seemed that for one, they provide such a sharp contrast between the rather complex teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount that come just before these stories in Matthew. Both the teaching and the healing stories are important, equally important: there are times we need to grapple with the teaching of Jesus, try to understand what He is saying and asking of us; Godly principles and ethical teaching are very important.

But we cannot and we must not just stay with the teachings and commandments of Jesus; we need to understand the practical ways that Jesus interacted with people and addressed their concerns. We need a demonstration of what it looks like to encounter Jesus directly. These stories reveal what Jesus was like, they are part of the epiphany of our Lord. We need in turn to recognize that what we believe needs to translate into how we live and care for people. Talking about spiritual truths must be accompanied by acts of compassion.

​The second thing that I think we do well to consider is the two statements made by the ones who want healing. Neither the leper nor the Centurion beg or plead for healing: both make statements that reveal or imply their conviction that Jesus is fully able to heal – they have no doubt about it

​I am not saying this should always be our approach but it is one approach to consider. What is our conviction when we seek healing or a special touch of God on our lives? Are we convinced He can do this or is interested in doing this? We are not told how the two individuals came to this understanding of Jesus but we can imagine it to be a pretty simple observation of Jesus as a person, as a teacher and as a man of compassion. The kind of conviction that these two men demonstrate is clear and obvious – what they had heard and seen of Jesus had convinced them of his power to heal. This something worth thinking about as I find that I can easily spend a lot of time trying to figure out if Jesus actually does listen or does heal – this kind of second guessing or continuous self-reflection can keep me from a simple acknowledgment of Jesus as saviour and healer.

​A third thing that I noticed as I read and studied these two stories was the way Jesus handled the two who came to him. Jesus does not make them feel foolish or guilty or unworthy. He takes them at their word, he responds directly and clearly: “I do choose to make you clean” He says to the leper and “I will come and cure your servant” he says to the Centurion. Again this is something to think about – when I pray to God do I spend a lot of time second guessing what he might say or want to do in my life? Those who have studied theology as part of their life’s work, like I have, can easily and quickly get lost in all the theological tangents that are there in the commentaries and biblical books that we read. Sometimes of course that yields wonderful insights but sometimes it distracts from the straightforward understanding that Jesus is who He is revealed to be in the stories we find in the Gospels.

​This morning’s complementary lesson comes from a section in Romans where Paul talks about practical Christianity, something that is much different from what he talked about in the first 8 chapters of his letter to the Christians in Rome. Those early chapters are rich in theological ideas and explanations which are of course very important. But, but we cannot just stay focused on these ideas: we must live our lives in the ordinary world of human behaviour and interastions and needs. Being a person of faith comes down to some basic tasks: “live in harmony… don’t be haughty or proud…associate with the lowly… feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, even if they are your enemies…”

These are the marks of faithful followers, these are the actions of those who have understood that Jesus reveals Himself so that we might live well and do good. Just as the actions of Jesus in these stories of healing, reveal his heart so too our actions reveal what is in our hearts. May God give us the grace to believe in Him and to live out our convictions. Amen.