Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany - Mt 8:1-13

                                                                                                    Epiphany 3
                                                                                                    Mt 8:1-13

            Some of you know that I am the Circuit Visitor for our circuit of the Southern Illinois District of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. Our circuit encompasses as large geographical area.  It goes from Jacob in the west to Eldorado in the east, and from West Frankfort in the north all the way down to Olmsted and Golconda in the south.  It includes nine different places where congregations are located.
            Now essentially, the Circuit Visitor is the representative of the District President within the circuit.  The LCMS Handbook says that the Circuit Visitor, “shall serve under the direction of and be accountable to the district president and shall serve as his spokesman when so authorized and directed and shall assist him in doctrinal and spiritual supervision.”
            It is my job to keep in touch with the circuit pastors so that I know how they are doing and what is going on in their congregations. Whenever I learn information that is of concern, I pass this on to the District President.  When problems arise in a congregation, the Circuit Visitor will usually be the first one to deal with it. Especially during a vacancy – like the one that is about to occur at Trinity, Anna – the Circuit Visitor plays the role as the primary contact with the congregational leadership in assisting the District President.
            As the District President’s representative, the Circuit Visitor has responsibilities for the welfare and care for the congregations of the circuit.  However, in truth he has no authority. He can’t make anyone do anything.  If a congregation is mistreating her pastor, he can’t do anything to help the pastor directly.  If a pastor is not carrying out the responsibilities of his office, he can’t do anything to help the congregation directly. 
            On the other hand, people with authority can make things happen. The boss in a business can tell people to do things, and they have to do it or else they will be fired and lose their job.  The policeman can tell you to pull over and you have to do it or else you will get in serious legal trouble.  The military officer can tell subordinates do something and they have to obey the order.
            Authority is a central topic in our Gospel lesson this morning.  A centurion comes to Jesus who knows all about what it means to be under authority and to have authority over others.  Yet he recognizes in Jesus the One who has authority that goes beyond anything people have in this world.  He has faith that Jesus has authority over sickness itself.
            We learn in our text that when Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came appealing to him saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.”  At this time there were no Roman legions in Palestine. And in fact there were no Roman auxiliary forces in the area around Capernaum. 
            Instead, this was part of the land that King Herod Antipas ruled.  Now there was no doubt that he obeyed the Romans and was under their control.  But the running of the kingdom was his own business and there were no Roman forces of any kind there.  Instead Herod had his own military forces. But since Herod could be called upon by the Romans to supply these forces to assist them, they were organized along the general lines of the Roman military.
            The centurion commanded a century, which despite its name usually had a strength of about eighty men.  Centurions were the backbone of the Roman military organization. We can presume that this man was very competent and skilled.  He was also clearly a Gentile.  It made sense that Herod had Gentiles in his forces because they would have no issue with killing Jews, should Herod need this done to maintain power and control his land. 
            The fact that this Gentile centurion addressed Jesus, a Jewish villager as “Lord” is striking.  Right from the start we see the faith he has in Jesus.  Not only this, but he entreated Jesus to help his servant who was ill.
            In the translation printed in the bulletin Jesus immediately agreed as he says, “I will come and heal him.”  However, the original Greek manuscripts did not include punctuation.  And there are a number of reasons to think that Jesus actually asked a question: “Shall I myself come and heal him?”  He calls into question the fact that the centurion has asked Jesus to come and heal the servant. Much like when Jesus deals with the Canaanite woman later in this Gospel, we see that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah.  As Jesus said on that occasion: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
            Understood in this way, the centurion’s reply is an even greater statement of faith. He was not offended. Instead he said, “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.”
            The centurion recognized that in reality, Jesus had authority that completely surpassed him. He wasn’t worthy for Jesus to come to his house.  Instead, the centurion had faith that because of Jesus’ authority he only had to speak a word and his servant would be healed. After all, the centurion knew that was how real authority worked.  He knew it from being under the authority of his commanders, and of having soldiers and slaves under his authority.  People with authority make things happen when they speak. And he believed that Jesus had such authority that simply by speaking he could heal the servant. 
            When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, 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. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And Matthew tells us that the servant was healed at that very moment.
            Christ praised the centurion’s faith.  He called Jesus “Lord” and believed that Jesus had such great authority that his mere word could cause the servant to be healed. This text leads us to consider our faith in Jesus’ word.
            We have even greater reasons to recognize Jesus’ authority and trust his word.  We know that Jesus Christ died on the cross in order to redeem us from our sin – in order to give us forgiveness. But death could not hold him.  Instead, on the third day God raised him from the dead.  Now as the risen and exalted Lord, Jesus exercises all authority.  He declared to the apostles after his resurrection, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
            So do we, like the centurion in our text, trust Jesus’ word?  Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”  Do we believe Jesus when he says, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you”?  Do we doubt that he will really care for us?  Or do we think that his version of caring for us simply isn’t enough – that we need more?
            Jesus Christ is the risen and exalted Lord.  He possesses all authority and so his word makes things happen.  And the good news is that he speaks his word toward all of the ways that we sin. When Jesus spoke about Christians who sin he said, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  He told his Church to speak his word of absolution. And because it is Jesus’ word spoken by the pastor it forgives all your sins.  Whether spoken in the group setting of the Divine Service or in the private setting with your pastor, Jesus’ absolution forgives sins because of his death and resurrection. He speaks through his called servant – he says, “I forgive you all your sins” – and those sins are gone forever. They no longer separate you from God.  They no longer can be used by Satan to cause guilt and doubt.
            In a few moments Jesus will take bread and wine in the Sacrament of the Altar.  He will say, “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.”  He will say, “Drink of it all of this. This cup is the new testament in my blood which is shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.”  Jesus’ words will tell you to eat and drink his true body and blood, given and shed for you on the cross for the forgiveness of sins.  The risen and exalted Lord has the authority. His words do what they say – they make things happen.  And so when Jesus speaks these words through his called servant they cause the Lord’s body and blood to be present.  By eating and drinking in faith, we receive the blessing of forgiveness.
            There is always the danger that we will take Jesus and his word for granted.  Jesus says in our text, “I tell you, 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. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
            Our Lord spoke these words in response to the Gentile centurion’s faith.  In the Old Testament, the language of being gathered from the east and the west referred to Yahweh’s action to return the exiles of both Israel and Judah.  But now Jesus applies it to the end time salvation of all people - Jew and Gentile alike.  And he issues a warning about the Jews who are rejecting him: “the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness.” 
            By God’s grace, you are sons and daughters of the kingdom on account of Christ.  Yet this status is a gift.  It is a gift that has been given to you by Christ’s forgiving word.  If we take this word for granted; if we stop listening to it; if we stop believing it, we too will be cast out into that outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. That is true for you. That is true for me. It is true for every Christian.
            Instead, we need to take the centurion as our example.  He came to Jesus in faith.  He called upon the Lord for help, because he knew the problem he faced.  He trusted that Jesus’ word had authority to make things happen – to bring healing and restoration.
            Because of the ongoing struggle against sin in our life, we come to Jesus in faith.  We know that he is the Lord who has conquered sin and death by his cross and resurrection.  He is the risen and exalted Lord who possesses all authority.  And so his word has the authority to make things happen.  His word creates and sustains faith.  His word gives forgiveness and life.  His word will raise us from the dead on the Last Day to live with him in the new creation forever.

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