Sunday, January 25, 2009

Epiphany 3

Sermon on Matthew 8:1-13
For Our Savior’s Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
January 25, 2009 (The Third Sunday after the Epiphany)

“Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us.” These words, known as the Kyrie when they occur in the Divine Service, are a summary of our entire relationship with God. He is the Giver, we are the receivers. He is perfect and holy, we are sinful and unclean. He is all-powerful, all-knowing, and eternal. We are limited and finite and mortal. The only relationship that can exist between us and the almighty God is one that is characterized by mercy on God’s part. Martin Luther, in the last words he wrote before he died, put it this way: “We are all beggars, this is true.” We are all beggars when it comes to our relationship to our God. We cannot do anything for Him or give anything to Him in exchange for what we get from Him. After all, everything we are and everything we have is His already, so there is nothing we could use to bargain with Him. Not our time, talents and treasures, not our good works, nothing earns us any consideration at all before God. Everything we receive from Him is solely the result of His mercy, His charity, His compassion, His love.

In today’s text, we see two examples’ of Christ’s mercy toward those who are afflicted with bodily diseases. The first case, the man with leprosy, reminds us of what the stain of sin has done to all of us as human beings. Leprosy is contagious, incurable, disgusting to look at, and spreads and grows until it ultimately results in death. When you put all of these things together, leprosy isolates those who suffer with it from their fellow human beings. Especially in Jesus’ day lepers were cut off from normal human society, so that they were not able to experience even the normal human compassion that is ordinarily such a comfort to those who are sick and dying. When you think about it, sin is the same way. It disfigures a person on the inside, it is contagious, and there is nothing that any human being can do to remove a person. It results in death. And worst of all, it causes divisions between persons, so that a person who suffers under the guilt of his sins often suffers alone, cut off by the very offensiveness of his behavior and by his own sense of guilt from those he would ordinarily seek out for comfort.

Sin even causes us to doubt that God is merciful towards us, just as the severity and disgusting nature of leprosy caused the leper in today’s text to doubt whether or not Jesus really wanted to heal him. But instead of berating the man for his lack of faith in God’s mercy, Jesus simply and clearly proclaims His mercy to the man once again. “I am willing, be cleansed.” And that is how God deals with our sin, as well. That is how He deals with our lack of faith. Instead of further tearing us down and making us more miserable when we are already tormented and broken by the guilt of our sins, instead of berating us for our lack of faith when we are already feeling guilty and worthless, Jesus simply and clearly proclaims His mercy to us. “I forgive you all your sins.” Our sins have been paid for by Christ on the cross; he bore that guilt and that shame for us. His mercy is unaffected by the severity of our sin, but rather His forgiveness is far more powerful than even our worst and most shameful misdeeds. His mercy will not fail.

In the second part of our text, we see a different picture of how sin has affected us. Where leprosy shows us how guilt of sins we have already committed makes us sickly and disgusting to ourselves, and makes us fear that others see us with the same disgust, paralysis shows us the opposite problem. The fear of doing something wrong often makes us afraid of doing something right. The knowledge that we are sinners, that we have within us the potential for some pretty horrific and hurtful words and actions toward our fellow men, can make us afraid of doing or saying anything at all. And this itself is sin, because by going to such great lengths to avoid doing anything bad, we fail to do that which is good, and so we end up committing the very sins we are afraid of, only in reverse. In the words of the catechism, we may not “hurt or harm our neighbor in his body,” but if we’re paralyzed by the fear of that sin we also don’t “help and support him in every physical need,” either, and so we indirectly hurt him. We may not “take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way,” but if we are paralyzed we also don’t “help him to improve and protect his possessions and income,” and so we are still indirectly stealing. We may not “tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation,” but if we are paralyzed we also don’t “defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way,” either, and so whatever lies are being told about our neighbor are still able to hurt him and destroy his reputation. Paralyzing fear of sin, paradoxically, leads us to commit the very sin that we are afraid of committing.

Even in the midst of this paralysis caused by guilt and fear Jesus comes to us. After all, if all our sins are forgiven we don’t have to be afraid of what we might do in the future. While it is true that we shouldn’t use the Gospel as an excuse to continue doing things we know are sinful, on the other hand the Gospel frees us from the fear of falling into sin accidentally when we are trying to do the right thing. One of my seminary professors, Dr. David Scaer, put it this way in his commentary on the book of James: “Christian freedom means a certain recklessness in doing good. Without the fear of the Law’s accusation in his life, the Christian becomes uninhibited in accomplishing what God wants done in His Law.” The paralysis is broken and we are healed. Absolution applies not only to specific sins in the past, but also to the present and the future. We can move again because Christ removes the fear of sin which holds us down.

The interesting thing about the paralyzed man in our text is that the man who was healed never even saw Jesus come to him. Jesus’ ordinary physical presence on this earth remained distant from the servant. But Jesus did come to that man to heal his paralysis. He may not have entered the house physically through the door, but He did enter the house to heal that man, when he spoke His healing Word. We can’t see Jesus come to us and heal us today either. We see His minister, we hear His Word, we see water, we see bread, we see wine. But we can’t see Jesus in the way His disciples saw Him nearly two thousand years ago. Instead, we must rely on faith in order to apprehend His mercy. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” according to the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews. We can’t see the forgiveness of sin; even in our own lives it all too often seems like nothing has changed and we are still the same old, rotten, miserable sinners that we always were. But we have His Word of promise that our sins are forgiven. We have His Word which tells us that we really are eating His body and drinking His blood in the Holy Supper, and that through this we are nourished and strengthened and healed of the guilt and fear caused by our sins. All of that is faith. We can’t see it, but we believe it.

Even faith itself is a gift which only comes by God’s mercy. The man whose faith was praised by Jesus here was a Roman centurion, not a member of the chosen people. In fact, He was an officer in an army that was, to the Jewish mind, desecrating the Holy Land by occupying it and governing it from afar. There was no reason why such a man should have had such a great faith toward God. Nothing about who he was or his position in life suggested that. Instead, his faith was a gift from God. Faith is only possible if we have been re-created on the inside, if our old sinful nature has been put to death and a new man come forth and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. This is not something we can do to ourselves. We can try to become better people, but putting ourselves to death and bringing forth in ourselves a whole new, resurrected, completely perfect person? No, we can’t do that. Only God can do that, and it is a mark of His mercy and love toward us that He does so. He grants faith through His Word and Sacraments, when, where, and as He chooses. It is only by His mercy that we will be among those who come from the east and the west and sit at the feast of salvation with Abraham and Isaac. But His mercy is all that we need. Amen.

✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

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