Epiphany Mercy

Text: Matthew 8:1-13

In one of our Bible studies this last week, some of us had the opportunity to talk about why we follow the Church year. As in, what are some of the benefits of using a set rotation of themes throughout the year, where we learn about events in the life of Christ and the church through corresponding readings? One of the major benefits is that the Church year ebbs and flows, just like life. We aren’t happy at all times, but neither are we always sad. Just like in life, where at certain times we become focused on certain things, so, during the Church Year, we focus on different things at different times. The different seasons of the year center on different doctrinal topics.

The season we are in now is Epiphany. In this season, we celebrate the manifestation of our Lord’s glory, the revealing of Jesus Christ as the Savior of the Nations, now come. We’ve encountered this idea twice already. First, in the Baptism of our Lord, where the Father proclaimed Him from heaven. We also had the Wedding at Cana, where the water was made wine – Jesus’ first miracle. This theme is expressed very well in today’s Introit. The antiphon (the part that repeats) goes, “The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all the peoples see his glory. For you, O Lord, are most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods.”[1] This week we continue the idea of the Lord revealing His glory in the sight of all people and we’ll add a new aspect: the compassion and mercy of our Lord.

In our text today, we heard about two miracles. Both tell us something about our Epiphany Lord. In the first part of the text, we heard about the leper who came to Jesus to be cleansed. Jesus stretched forth His hand and did something you absolutely would not do – He touched him. Immediately the leper was cleansed. In the second part, a Roman centurion came to Jesus on behalf of his own servant, who was near death. Jesus spoke and, at that very hour, the servant was healed. Through these miracles, we confess today that that our Lord is merciful and compassionate, and is willing to cure both sin and death.

I.

We pick up in the eighth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he writes, “When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’”[2] Our text follows nearly immediately after Jesus had finished delivering the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ ministry had already begun earlier, with His Baptism in chapter 3. Chapter 4 saw Him overcoming the devil in the wilderness, calling of the first disciples, and some initial healings. When Jesus saw the crowds beginning to follow Him, He went up on the mountain and taught.

Now, coming down from the mountain, a man who had been following from a distance came up and threw Himself down at Jesus’ feet. “Lord, if You will, You can make me clean.” What does the man mean? Well, leprosy was a very serious disease. It was debilitating and, eventually, a fatal condition. Moreover, one suffering from leprosy – which included several skin conditions – was ceremonially unclean. He could not visit the temple, nor could he live among his family. Anyone who encountered such a person, would also become unclean and must undergo an arduous ritual of cleansing, even if they themselves weren’t leprous.

St. Luke tells us that the man’s condition is quite advanced, perhaps he is very near death. The man came to Jesus, kneeling at His feet, asking for cleansing, but he conditions his petition with the words, “If You will.” The man may be desperate, but this is a prayer made in faith. “If it be according to Your will, Lord, You can heal me. But if not, I die in peace.” “Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.”[3] Not willing that this man should suffer, Jesus showed the utmost compassion: He touched him. But, instead of becoming unclean, Jesus’ touch cleansed the man of his leprosy.

Later, when Jesus entered Capernaum, a Roman centurion came Him. He begged Him and said, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.”[4] This centurion demonstrated great faith, something Jesus would later marvel at, by not even asking Jesus to something. He just told Jesus the situation, knowing that the Lord would know what to do. When Jesus offered to come and heal the servant, the centurion replied that that was not necessary. Just as he himself was a man of authority, Jesus can also simply command the illness to leave and it will. After marveling, St. Matthew writes, “Jesus said, ‘Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.’”[5] Jesus again revealed His glory by having mercy on the centurion’s servant. Jesus spoke, and he was healed.

II.

In our text we see our Lord’s glory continuing to be revealed. By His mercy and compassion, Jesus manifests the glory of God for all to see. As if cleansing a leper wasn’t enough, Jesus healed by touching the man. Jesus went absolutely beyond the pale to show His compassion for those previously unclean. The centurion who came to Jesus – he wasn’t a Jew. He was not descended from Abraham. He was a Gentile. Jesus would’ve been excused from dealing with the man. Instead, He offered to go into the man’s home (which would’ve made Jesus unclean). When the man responded that Jesus could heal just by speaking, Jesus said of this Gentile believer, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.”[6]

In these miracles, Jesus manifests His glory by having compassion and showing mercy. He has compassion on the unclean, making clean again. His has mercy on one previously outside the chosen people. Leprosy, by the way, also stands as a good illustration for the harmful effects of sin. Leprosy is a disease that affects the nerves. It causes loss of sensation, which worsens as it spreads. Eventually parts of you get damaged, die, and fall off. All of this contributes to one being unclean. In the Biblical sense, unclean means you cannot expect to encounter God and live; you should expect the opposite. Sin does nearly the same thing.

Sin, like leprosy, takes ahold of us and spreads. Lie begets lie. Temptation that is entertained bears terrible fruit. Before too long, the temptation to skip church becomes a habit. The anger we harbor in our hearts consumes us. The lust that burns within us chokes out the ability to love as God designed. Before God, by our own powers, we deserve to be cast out like lepers for our sins. We can only rightly say, “Lord, I am not worthy to have You come under my roof.”[7] But Jesus does.

Jesus is mercy. Jesus is compassion. Rather than cast us away for the unclean leprosy of sin that eats within us, Jesus came to cure it. He touched our whole human nature by becoming human Himself. Being fully God, He also become fully man. He bore our entire human nature. Though He had no sin of His own, He took all the world’s sinfulness upon Himself. He touched our human nature, bore our sin, and suffered for our sake on the cross, so that through these things the leprosy of sin would find its cure. Though we are not worthy for Jesus to come under our roofs, He does. By Baptism, Jesus Christ Himself, with His Holy Spirit, dwells within our hearts. In the Lord’s Supper, we receive the very body and blood of Christ, broken and shed on the cross, to purify us from the inside-out.

Had the leper not been cleansed, he probably would’ve died very soon, and the servant most likely. The same is true for us. We know what the penalty for sin is: death. Just like leprosy spreads, hastening the pathway to bodily death, so sin spreads hastening the pathway to eternal torment. But, Jesus is mercy and compassion. By becoming flesh, Jesus has purified the human nature. By His Sacraments, He works throughout our entire lives to purify us from iniquity. Then, when our frail bodies will cease, He will raise us, too. He who has command over disease and illness, also has command over death.

As we move through our Lord’s Epiphany to His journey toward the cross, we continue see His work of revealing His glory to the world. This week we saw Him healing both an unclean leper and a Gentile centurion’s servant. He stretched forth His hand to touch the unclean and His Word to the Gentile. May He continue to stretch forth His compassionate hand to us through the Sacraments and give to us His Word of mercy, so that we may be cleansed from all sin and rescued from eternal death. To God be all glory.


 

[1] Introit for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Lutheran Service Book: Altar Book, pg. 857.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Mt. 8:1–2.

[3] Matt. 8:3.

[4] Matt. 8:6.

[5] Matt. 8:13.

[6] Matt. 8:10.

[7] Matt. 8:8.

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