Sermon for the third Sunday after Epiphany - Matthew 8:1-13
Three men, not like anything or anyone we believe them to be. Unclean. Outsider. Less-than. As these three are brought together in our readings we end up getting a better idea of the fourth man. The Jesus-man. The God-man. The one who comes for the least, the lost, the outside, the unclean, the sinner. The one who comes to save the enemy, to love the aggressor, to be broken under the weight of those who are supposed to hate him, or even stay away from him, and he finds them, grabs them, and brings them to his Father.
Three men – Naaman, a leper, and a centurion. All unclean in a way. Naaman was a sworn enemy of Israel. A valiant warrior, commander of the armies of Aram, a nation that would eventually take part in the destruction of Israel. It takes him going on a raid, raping and pillaging, bringing back a slave girl whose parents he probably killed, to hear of a cure for this disease he had, and eventually find grace from the God of those he fought against. Hearing “Wash and be clean” and “Go in peace, forgiven of your sin” all in the same day.
A leper who was to be kept outside of any part of society. He should have stayed away from the crowd that followed Jesus, but he didn’t. Faith welled up in him to know that this Jesus was unlike any other Rabbi or prophet he had seen before. This Jesus was Lord. Lord is more than teacher or nice guy. Lord is kyrios, the Greek equivalent of Caesar. “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” “I am. So be clean.” A Lord of mercy. A Lord who cleanses the most filthy. Who saves the most diseased. Who brings grace to those who have received none.
The centurion. A no-named soldier. Only known as “a centurion.” Commander of 100 soldiers. Like the captain of a company, but not the captain of the Jewish army. Captain of the occupying force. The empire that had enslaved and over-powered the Jewish people. Taken Palestine from the Greeks. He comes to this Jesus too. “Heal my servant. Just say the word.” “Go. It is done for you just as you believed.” Faith becoming the equalizer of the three. Faith, or trust that Christ is who he says he is, and can do what he speaks.
Three men. Different and yet the same. Three men, like you but not. These were outsiders yes. But even more so. Enemies. Dirty. Filthy. Rotten. See it like this, Naaman’s job was to kill you. To kill the people of God. To steal from them. Overpower them. Eventually rule them. This was more than just an outsider – an enemy. A threat.
The centurion was the same. He was there to keep order in Capernaum. He and his soldiers did their fair share of crucifixions and floggings. This same type of man would hold the whip that ripped open the back of Christ. This same type of man would drive the nails in his hands. But this same type of man watched as Jesus died on the cross for your sin and said – Surely this man was the Son of God.
The leper would never have had a place at your table. Not even in your town. He would have found a home outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana or Molokai, Hawaii where there were colonies for men like him. In ancient times they would have to stay a certain distance from every settlement, walking the roads shouting “Unclean! Unclean!” They would not be welcome in the synagogue. In the Temple. In the worship services. All three in fact. Neither Naaman, nor the leper, nor the centurion would be welcome. “Stand outside. You may look at the walls but not much closer. You may be part of God’s salvation, maybe, but never part of us.”
Christ destroys that. Of all who came in faith to Christ, the centurion, the enemy, the one who may have killed or imprisoned relatives of some of the crowd gathered there, is the one to have been given the gift of faith. Who understood in a militaristic fashion that the One whom this crowd followed, this Jesus whom each of you call Savior and Lord, this One has an authority unlike any other. He knows how to command, and things get done. So just as the centurion tells his soldiers to storm the castle, so Jesus can command salvation. What faith is that? Faith that truly believes that when Jesus speaks it happens. That when he says to you, “I forgive you”, it’s true. When he says to you, “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly”, he speaks to the dead that they may be raised. Buried with him in our baptism, in the death of Christ and raised to new life. Faith and life, health and salvation lying in Christ. Where might such faith come from except from God alone? No more enemy. Now child of the Father.
The leper had similar faith. Faith that was missing from the religious. From the strong. From the powerful. What a fitting picture of the church, and of the people of God. The Jewish leadership and even many of the disciples of Jesus would turn on him because they could not imagine the grace of God extending to this cursed man. The leper being the place where all of us come in faith. Knowing that our religiosity or own personality will not do when it comes to Jesus, or God. We have to be brought to that place where we see ourselves as the leper, as the unclean, as the outsider, to then bow to Christ knowing that he as Lord is the only one who can forgive us our sins, cleanse us from all unrighteousness, bring us into the kingdom, and grow a faith to believe that all of this is necessary and true.
Now, the danger is to take these three men and look around our community and try to pick the person we can apply this to. Who is the outsider for us? Who do we need to welcome? Who do we need to include? Well, good luck with that. As I said before, these are not just outsiders or gentiles. One is contagious and could kill you by his disease, the other two are enemies of the state. If you were of a certain mind, they are the ones whom I smile at but despise under my breath. The ones whom I cannot say one nice thing about. My arch-nemesis. Your arch-nemesis. Who is that to you? Who is it, that you know in your life, that fits that bill? A neighbor? A bully? A classmate? A family member? A current unnamed politician? Who is it that you wish to deny the grace of God, so God has to surprise you and grant them mercy and grace without your approval? That is the scope here of the Gospel. The good news being that Jesus doesn’t work according to your will but his. He doesn’t wait for me as pastor to decide who deserves the forgiveness of sin and the granting of life and salvation. He does it without me.
An even greater danger we have is to make our position in the kingdom based upon anything but Jesus.
“Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with so great a faith.”
Christ has looked and not found the fruit of the kingdom expected among those whom the kingdom is supposed to belong. The religious folks or those part of the chosen. Who have a status based on who their parents were, or how much they give in the offering plate. Christ found no such faith there but found faith granted to the one we least expect.
He continues – “I tell you that many will come from east and west to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Many will come from East and West. Many will come from places outside of your kingdom to a banquet in God’s kingdom. The greatest fear for me is that I am one who makes my faith and my life based on anything but Jesus. On anything but a God whose grace is wide enough to take in the those I despise, or despise me. Because once I find myself comfortably there then complacency creeps in. If I see in myself, though, the enemy, the outsider, the leper, the unclean, then I can never leave the Kingdom or be cast out because the only home I can find for myself is at the feet of this Jesus who makes clean the leper, who heals the servant of my enemy, and welcomes my enemy to the table.
You and I are the lepers. We are the unclean. We are the Naaman’s of the kingdom. Once the Spirit does its work in us to convince us of this. To convict our hearts, then how beautiful do you think the grace of God becomes? Suddenly the divides begin to fall. Past sins become forgiven. Shame subsides. And Christ becomes more and more in you. May it be for you as you have believed. Thanks be to God. Amen.