Perhaps you’ve heard stories about how people bought cars years ago. Perhaps you bought a car once this way. You found the car you liked, the dealer threw you the keys, you “test-drove” the car for a few days, then you came back either to buy the car or try another one. The dealer knew you wouldn’t drive the car 95 miles an hour on the Dan Ryan. You knew you’d get the best deal possible to buy the car. Both parties went home happy. The business principle then was your word. Only say the word and you could make a deal.
A person’s word goes far today, yet it doesn’t go as far. Politicians say a lot of words, but how many of them they can back up with action is a different story. We often write checks with our mouth that we know we’ll never cash. Or we, sinners that we are, play the hypocrite, put on the mask, and pretend to say one thing when we actually mean the other thing.
For Jesus Christ and for two men we meet in today’s Gospel, only say the word is all that’s needed. In the centurion’s case, Jesus is amazed that the centurion understands how words have authority, for the centurion is a man under authority. What’s even more amazing about both men is they aren’t Jews, but they believe Jesus’ Word has the authority to do what He says it will do. This is contrary to what our Lord’s own people say and believe about Him. The word they would rather say is “There’s no room for Gentiles to recline at table”.
Epiphany is a season that has a theme of the mission of God running through it. The eastern sages from afar are led to Jesus by a guiding star. The word they studied led them to worship the Christ Child. The word in a dream led them to go home another way in order to escape Herod’s rage.
Today we see the mission of God extend to two people who actually believe the Word spoken by Jesus will do what He says. Both are unwelcome visitors among Jews. One is a leper, unclean and separated from society. The other is a centurion, a Roman citizen, and a Gentile. He should be the absolute last person to believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Yet both men call Him Lord. That should be our first clue that something is different about both these men.
Jesus does say one chapter earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. The obvious way to do the will of the heavenly Father is to be circumcised or to be clean of all leprosy. Convert to the Jewish faith and then maybe, just maybe, if you’ve done the will of the heavenly Father just so, you will enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus takes that notion and stands it on its ear by allowing a leper to approach Him, kneel before Him (the word is actually fall down and worship Him) and say Lord, if You will, You can make me clean. The leper takes what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount about prayer and puts it to use. Jesus taught the crowds to pray Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Another way of putting it is Let Thy will be done. The Lord will let His will happen. It’s a matter of when.
When is now for the leper. I will; be clean. The leper receives immediate cleansing. Then the leper gets another word. See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them. Why should he remain quiet? Why does Jesus seem to point the leper back to the Law of Moses after setting him free from leprosy? Jesus sends the leper to the priest for a proof to them. The leper gets to preach Who healed him to the priest, the one responsible for showing and teaching people Messiah from the Law and the prophets. The leper, as it were, is a missionary; proclaiming the power of the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ.
Then comes the centurion. Jesus is ready to go with him but the man won’t have it. Only say the word. The centurion knows the power of the word. When he says something, it is done. It is done because the centurion is a man under authority. You don’t get to take on authority, authority takes on you. The centurion holds an office. In that office there is authority given to him to say and do certain things in order to maintain authority and carry out his office.
It’s no wonder the centurion amazes Jesus. You would think Jesus’ own people, many of whom did not know Him when He came to them, would see that He has authority through His preaching and now through miracles like healing. Many of them believed. Many more doubted. Still more wanted Jesus out of the way. Their places are filled by those who will come from eat and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.
That’s scandalous. Jesus utters the names of three patriarchs, even the father of all patriarchs himself, and in the same breath says many not from that bloodline will be welcomed at table to eat with them. You can tell a lot about a person in the time of Christ by whom they invited for meals. Table fellowship shows an intimacy that is almost as close as family. No wonder restaurants like Olive Garden use a slogan like, “When you’re here, you’re family.” They get table fellowship.
Jesus draws the family circle much wider with these healings. His words echo the prophet Isaiah, who says behold, these shall come from afar, and behold, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene…. So they shall fear the name of the Lord from the west, and his glory from the rising of the sun; for he will come like a rushing stream, which the wind of the Lord drives. Sadly, though, the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. That light is for them as much as it is for God’s chosen people.
All we have in the Christian Church to bring people from darkness into light is the Word. As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation of the Church, we note that Martin Luther and his comrades knew this well. The pulpit and the printing press were the two most powerful weapons in their struggle. The Holy Spirit went with the Word spoken and the Word printed in Bibles and other pieces of literature. The Good News of forgiveness in Jesus Christ for all was proclaimed far and wide.
As it was for Luther and his ilk, so it is for us today. All we have is the Word proclaimed from this pulpit, the Word joined with water in the font, and the Word under bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. There Jesus is at work, bringing the lost to recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The patriarchs, you, and me, too, all cling to the Word spoken to us about the Savior, His cleansing blood shed for your sins, and the reign of heaven He brings with Him. Only say the word and watch lepers cleansed, a centurion’s servant healed, and Gentiles come to the brightness of His light.
Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous ones, and give thanks to His holy Name!