Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany
Text: Matthew 8:1–13
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.
How do you listen to a sermon? That’s not a question we tend to ask very much. Most people who come to church don’t seem to ask themselves, “How will I listen to the sermon?” A few may ask, “How am I going to stay awake through the sermon?” but that is not quite what I’m talking about. How do we prepare ourselves for listening to the proclamation of the Word of God? A related question is, “How do I respond to a sermon?” I don’t mean will I compliment the preacher on the way out of church or not, but what do you do with the words that you hear in the sermon.
I bring up these questions because I think this is exactly what Matthew is getting at in the way he arranges his account of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. You might say, “There is no sermon in our Gospel lesson today.” And you would be right. There are two short conversations between Jesus and men who come to Him for help. And that is my point, because although there is not a sermon in our text this morning these conversations take place right after a pretty important sermon, probably the most famous sermon of all of history—The Sermon on the Mount.
Matthew has just spent three chapters, and not particularly short chapters, recounting Jesus’ words to the crowds from the top of a mountain or hill. Jesus’ preaching is expository, taking the Old Testament, “You have heard that it was said to those of Old…” and applying it to His hearers, “…but I say unto you.” It is practical: “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” It is exemplary; it gives us behaviors to imitate: “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door.” It proclaims the Law: “whoever looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” It warns of God’s judgment: “If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespass.”
It also points to God’s grace: “Look at the of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” It inspires hope: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” It announces blessing: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
I think Matthew, guided by the Holy Spirit, knew that we would struggle with how to receive so much from Jesus. And good sermons today still explain, encourage, warn, rebuke, teach, and give God’s promises. But it is easy for us to get hung up on one part, and so it still serves us well to consider the question, “How do I receive the sermon?”
The New Testament is full of accounts of the crowds coming to listen to Jesus, John the Baptist, and the apostles. Many are intrigued, but most eventually walk away from what they hear. Our Gospel lesson today shows us the response of two individuals who took to heart the message they heard from Jesus. Their responses to the Sermon on the Mount are models for all the faithful. We learn two things from the leper and the centurion. First, we learn that the faithful recognize who Jesus is in His preaching. Second, we see their trust in Jesus to provide.
Jesus very rarely stands up and says, “I am the Son of God, I am the Messiah.” Yet He reveals Himself as such in His teaching and miracles. But though He does many miracles, He refuses to do them as proof to those who do not believe His Word. Even today, when God grants miracles to His people He does not do so in a way that compels the world to believe. There are all sorts of examples of God providing healing that baffles doctors, or opens the right doors at the right time that people are protected, but these instances are not the basis of our faith. We can call them miracles, but we do not need to catalogue them as proof, for it is the Word of Christ and not His miracles that is the means by which the Holy Spirit draws people unto Christ the Crucified and Risen One. It is as Abraham tells the rich man, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
The faithful receive their faith from listening to Jesus. That is the first step in listening to a sermon. For in listening to a sermon you are listening to Jesus. I don’t mean that as a boast, but as a reminder of Jesus' promises found in His words to the seventy-two: “The one who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16). Or you can consider Jesus' words in the great commission. His promise “Lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age” is tied to the apostolic task of baptizing and teaching. It is not my intellect, eloquence, or personal righteousness that give me confidence that preaching is God’s Word, but Jesus’ promise to work through the ones He sends. Likewise, you should not have confidence in my preaching because it is I who say it, but because you recognize the voice of your Good Shepherd in it. If you don’t recognize the voice of your Shepherd, then stop listening to me and go where you do hear Him. On the other hand, if you long to hear a Word from your Savior, turn to the preaching of His Word, because that is where He is found.
The leper recognizes this. As Christ comes down the mountain, the leper falls at the feet of the One in whom he has come to believe: “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean!” The leper has not gotten tied up in whether he has followed all the rules. He doesn’t ask, Jesus to heal him in proportion to how well he has kept the law, how regular he has been in worship, how forgiving he has been to others, or any other measurement. He simply recognizes that Jesus is Lord and confesses his faith created at Jesus' word.
Then a Roman centurion comes to plead on behalf of a servant, twice calling Jesus, “Lord.” Where did he get such faith that surpasses that even of Israel if not from Jesus’ preaching? The preaching of Jesus leads to faith in Jesus. It happens in no other way. Even today there are people being brought out of the darkness of Islam into the light of Christianity. People are having visions of Jesus and are being miraculously led into churches. But they are not being brought to faith by the miracles themselves, but they are being led to the places where the Word of Christ is proclaimed. The Word is making them Christians.
Think about that as you reflect on each sermon you hear. This is how you are made a Christian and kept in the faith. It is in hearing what Christ has done for you and what He says to you that your faith is sustained through the trials and tribulations of life. It may be that a sermon hits exactly where you need it that week, or it may be that a sermon heard today comes back to you in ten or twenty years. Or maybe each sermon is forgotten, but their cumulative effect on you is the confidence that God will never leave you nor forsake you as you lie on your death bed and look for the resurrection. God’s Word creates faith and does not return to Him void. That is promised through the scripture, but it is seen in the response of the leper and the centurion.
The second thing we learn from the two men is that the faithful are led by God’s Word to expect good things from Jesus. A leper has virtually no standing in society. He has no right to approach Jesus. In fact he is supposed to stand at a distance and warn Jesus not to come near, to shout, “Unclean, unclean” so as not to contaminate anyone else. But God’s Word, the message of Christ, has given him confidence to draw near and ask for healing. He is confident in Jesus' abliilty. He knows that if Jesus wants to heal him He can, but that fact that he comes to Jesus shows that he anticipates Jesus’ willingness.
Likewise, the centurion is so confident in Jesus that he doesn’t even let Jesus come with him, but asks Jesus to speak the Word where He is. The centurion doubts neither that Jesus is able to grant healing to his servant, nor that He will do so honestly. Think about it, the centurion has no outward proof that Jesus’ miracle has been accomplished. The Jews hated the Romans who were foreign occupiers of their nation. Yet this centurion trusts that this Jewish Rabbi has not deceived him when He says, “Go, let it be done for you as you have believed.”
And so it is for you. Faith is born of Jesus’ Word and faith clings to Jesus’ Word. Let that thought guide your meditation this Epiphany season, especially when you begin to yearn for a miracle to strengthen your faith. His Word is sufficient, but His Word is powerful. It is up to the task.
What you hear Jesus do for others know that He does for you. Indeed the cleansing of the Leper and the healing of the Centurion’s servant are but small signs of what Jesus has come to do for all. His entire life, death, and resurrection is meant to make you clean, to heal you of everything that has ever afflicted you. The fulness of this gift will be made manifest on the last day, but that does not mean that Jesus does not reach out His hand and touch you today as well. His body and blood given on Calvary to atone for your sin and make you worthy of paradise are given and poured out for you here today. But why should we believe such a miracle? Why should we believe that Jesus, who has ascended into heaven is near enough to bring His gifts to us today?
Look no further than the centurion who trusted that distance makes no difference to the power of Jesus’ word. “I am unworthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” Jesus has spoken His Word to you today also. You may not see Him anymore than the centurion’s servant. But Jesus' word spoken to you today absolving you of your sin is just as efficacious as the word He spoke concerning the centurion’s servant.
So how do you listen to a sermon? I pray it is as you would listen to Christ Himself. For though I am unworthy to be His instrument, that is His promise. So “Go, let it be done for you as you believe.”
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria