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.

Be Ye Merciful

Text: Luke 6:36-42

“Judge not, lest ye be judged yourself.” That seems to be a popular sentiment nowadays. True, it always has been, and always will be. Usually what’s meant by it is that, in our enlightened postmodern society, no one has any right to say anything about anything that anyone else is doing. Doubly so, if what you have to say is critical of someone else’s behavior. It doesn’t matter if your criticism is meant to help them or to, say, direct them towards the proper conduct of a Christian. It all breaks down to this: you can’t judge me. Is that what our text is about today? Perhaps.

Well, we’ll get it right out of the way – When Jesus says, “Judge not, and you will not be judged,” He’s not excluding any and all judging. Example. The author to the Hebrews says, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” We as Christians, as brothers and sisters, are to exhort each other in love towards good conduct and away from sinful behavior. St. James says it like this, “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”

Jesus Himself also does not completely exclude judging from His ministry, for He regularly distinguished between His own teaching and the false teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. But, even then, Jesus says, “If anyone hears My words and does not keep them, I do not judge him…the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.” The Word, Jesus says, is what judges. It’s not that we as individuals pass our own judgments on others to condemn them, but we let God’s Word bear witness. That is also how were are to judge false teachers and the false doctrine they spew, by measuring it against God’s Word.

But, to bring us back, when Jesus says in our text, “judge not,” He’s illustrating His previous sentence, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” That is the key verse in our text, from which it all flows. Jesus is teaching us today about the Christian life. The Christian life is not one of judgment and hypocritical condemnation. Rather, the Christian life that we have been called into through Baptism is a life of mercy and forgiveness flowing from the love that we first received from God.

I.

Our text begins with Jesus’ words, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” We’re getting towards the end of St. Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, called the “Sermon on the Plain.” The exhortation to be merciful really sums up the whole of Jesus’ teaching there. He taught the people to feed the hungry, to visit the sick, to comfort the mourning, to love your enemies and do good to those who hate you, for so God sends rain on both the just and unjust. So, the Christian life is one of mercy. And this mercy is rooted in the mercy that we have first received from God.

We already talked about one way to go off the rails on this passage, but it’s also easy to fall off on the other side, too. This certainly was the case in Luther’s time, where it was commonly taught that in order to receive forgiveness from God, you must first forgive others. But, we aren’t so different. We are often tempted to focus on the “be” rather than the “is.” Before we even have the opportunity to be merciful and show mercy to others, our Heavenly Father is merciful and has shown mercy to us. Our Father in heaven is full of grace and love. This is extolled throughout the Scriptures. In James it says, “Of His own will He brought us forth by the Word of Truth.” (1:18). St. Peter says, “According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope.” St. Paul says, “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy.” Jesus says, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.”

All of this is to say that God, in His mercy, overlooks the multitude of our transgressions, and He hurls our iniquity into the depths of the sea. Not because of us – not because of our works, our mercy, or our love – but because of His love for us in Christ Jesus. His love caused Him to send forth His only-begotten Son to suffer and die for us – we, who by our sinful nature despise Him. But, the sinful nature was crucified with Christ and clothed in His righteousness in Holy Baptism. In Baptism we die to sin and rise to new life with Christ. So now, when God looks at us, He sees not our sinfulness but the righteousness of His own Son that has been given to us. This is our reality. We no longer live, but Christ lives in us. What does that look like?

II.

Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.” As we’ve already discussed, it’s not consistent with the whole Biblical witness to make this text say that God forgives because we forgive. Rather, even as God forgives us our many sins, so we too forgive others. It says in the Large Catechism, “He has promised that we shall be sure that everything is forgiven and pardoned, in the way that we also forgive our neighbor. Just as we daily sin much against God, and yet He forgives everything through grace, so we, too, must ever forgive our neighbor.”

Because our heavenly Father is merciful toward us, mercy is also the character of our attitude toward others. When Jesus says to judge not, He’s not excluding all judging, but the hypocritical judging that all sinners like to do by nature, which is why Jesus says right after it, “condemn not.” This is the type of judging that we do when we measure others against ourselves and declare that we are really not so bad, or at least not as bad as that person over there. That is precisely what it means to see the speck in your brother’s eye, but not notice the beam in your own.

It says in the Psalms, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity.” Beloved, if God does not count our sins against us, if He in fact covers it up, and we appreciate so much, thusly also we should do to others. Let’s be real: God does not blab our sins to everybody else. He knows we’re sinners and He forgives. So should we. In fact, the sin that we see in others, should first be an opportunity to confess our own sins. Then, and only then, having learned to repent and be forgiven of our own sins, are we able to show mercy to our neighbor by forgiving them also and encouraging each other toward good works.

III.

But, even as we are called to live in mercy as our Father is merciful, and even as we are Baptized Christians, we still find ourselves playing the hypocrite. The word literally means a pretender or an actor. And so, we often are: faking our love for us, feigning forgiveness, and pretending like we are less a sinner than those around us. For these things we should rightly be ashamed. Therefore, we confess our sins and He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Hear, then, these words “He is merciful.” Our Father in heaven is love, mercy, and grace. He is also the perfect standard of justice and righteousness, and for that reason He demands punishment of sin. But, He has had mercy on us by sending His Son to take on flesh, suffer and die for our transgressions, and rise from the dead for our justification.

As forgiven saints of God, the Spirit of Christ is in our hearts to lead us in lives of love and mercy. The model of the Christian life is one of forgiveness and mercy. We forgive those who sin against us, we have mercy on those in need, we encourage one another toward good works, and we love – because He first loved us.