Ash Thursday 2017

Thursday after Ash Wednesday
March 2, 2017 A+D
Matthew 8: 1-13

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Military authority is always impressive. Whatever the centurion said to his men, happened. They were attentive to what he said because their lives depended on it. On the battlefield, prompt and unquestioning obedience is the best way to success and gives a man his best chances of staying alive. For that reason also, if the soldiers disobeyed the centurion, even off the battlefield, they could be executed.

So when he said, “Go,” they went. When he said, “Kill,” they killed. When he said, “Enslave the boys, rape the women, and take all their stuff for the glory of Rome,” they did. The centurion was a man of authority and strength and also of wits. He knew how to win battles, how to lead men, and how to strike fear into his enemies.

Roman soldiers were mostly very religious and also very superstitious. They wanted every advantage in war and they had many gods, not just one. Their chief god, their father god, was named “Jupiter,” a roman knock-off of Zeus.  He was the god of the sky. He threw lightning bolts if he was angry and he didn’t care who he hurt. The Romans believed that in order to approach him, to ask him for favor, to be spared his capricious wrath, a man had to bring him something, a gift or a bribe.

But that day in Capernaum the Centurion’s strength, his authority, and his wits were all gone. His servant was paralyzed and dying. The centurion had no authority over death. Jupiter did not answer his cries. And he had not knowledge or strategy that could save his beloved friend.1

So the Centurion was left with empty hands and he came to the God of Israel in the flesh as a beggar.  Other Roman soldiers would not be impressed by this display. They would despise it. The Centurion should not humble himself or be so overcome with compassion for a servant.

They would have surely advised him to fill his hands and start giving to his god like crazy or to denounce the servant and move on.

But Jesus is impressed. In fact, it is said that Jesus marveled. Usually in the Bible, people are marveling at Jesus, but here it is the Lord Himself who marvels at the Centurion’s humility and faith.  He marvels because this Roman soldier is not turning to Jupiter with full hands or trying to bribe Him in any way, but He comes to Jesus, to the eyes a men a man more humble and less powerful than him. He has nothing to give Jesus. He has only a plea and request.  “My servant lieth at home dying. Don’t come. I am not worthy. Just say the word and he will be healed.”

If Jesus marveled, so should we. Here is a man of strength coming in weakness, a man of wealth coming in poverty, a gentile coming in faith. He does not attempt to bride Jupitor or to bring his pagan ways to Jesus but he simply trusts in the mercy of the True God, the One with real authority and power, Jesus Christ. He brings this plea without a bargain or a gift because he believes that Jesus Christ, God in the Flesh, is not like Jupiter but is merciful and will simply want to heal his servant because of His compassion.

It is no marvel, really, that Jesus found no such faith in all of Israel. But rather than cast stones at them, we ought to ask ourselves instead, would He find such faith among us?

Repent. The only thing we are worthy of is to be left out of God’s Kingdom and to be thrown  into the outer darkness of hell. We have no right to complain about our lack of luxuries or health or happiness.

But while you repent, do not despair, for the One comes down the mountain today is not unpredictable Jupiter, throwing lightning bolts, nor is it Moses throwing stone tablets. It’s not even a justly angry Jesus, fed up with His own people’s unbelief and complaints and laziness in the fight against sin.

It’s Jesus, God in the flesh, God come to save us, coming down the mountain to show us that the True God is a God of mercy and compassion. He comes down to make the unworthy, worthy.

To make the unacceptable, acceptable to God. He goes to a leper whom the law labeled “untouchable” and touches and heals Him. He speaks to that centurion, whom the law labeled an outsider, who had blood on his hands, and makes him an insider, even praises him. He comes down from the mountain not with Ten Words of death, but to do ten miracles (Matthew 8 & 9) of healing: casting out demons, casting out disease, dealing with the power of sin, throwing death around like it’s nothing, so that you might not be thrown into the outer darkness.

But first, your sin and death must be cast on Him, and He must be cast out of Jerusalem and die on a garbage heap outside of the city. He must be forsaken as “unworthy” for our sake, for the Centurion’s sake, for the servant’s sake.

We are not worth saving. We are not worthy of God coming under our roof and making this place a “Capernaum,” which means “House of Consolation.” Yet He does. He comes into our mouths and heals our souls, consoling us in our sorrows and assuring us of our future in Him. He doesn’t simply wave the sin and death aside, but instead He takes into Himself, suffering the punishment for us that should have been put on us. He bears it all in his Body to the cross and there He proves stronger than the devil and kills our sins, shuts the devil’s mouth, and ends Hell’s claims upon us. He has triumphed over sin, death, and Hell in the resurrection and has all authority in heaven and on earth.

He says “go” to your sins and guilt and off they go. He says, “Come, ye blessed of My Father and receive the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” And so we come to His Word, to the Sacrament, and eventually out of the graves and in the Kingdom.

In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.

With thanks to Rev. Ralph Tausz of Apostles’ Lutheran Church in Melrose Park, IL and sermon from Epiphany 3, January 23, 2011.

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