The text for today reveals to us the account of Jesus doing two healings. One is for a paralytic and the other for a man with leprosy. All of the miraculous healings throughout the Gospels serve to underline the purpose for which Christ came. They show that he has come to deliver us from the curse of sin, from frailty and from death. Christ cures blindness, deafness, lameness and, of course, paralysis and leprosy.
All of these show the reality of the curse of sin, but perhaps none so graphically as does leprosy. Common in the ancient world, and even remaining in some regions today, the word leprosy describes several terrible diseases of the skin. God’s original plan for mankind was for all his creation to live in perfect health and wholeness. It was our fall into sin that brought all measure of infirmity into the world. Since that time, all man has inherited the curse of sin from their parents. Along with this comes propensity to develop all sorts of diseases.
Isaiah, in the very opening of his great book of prophecy, uses leprosy to describe our human condition. We have rebelled against our master, he says. We have provoked the Holy One to anger and soour whole head is sick. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness. Our wounds have not been closed or bound up, or soothed by ointment. We are covered with wounds and bruises and putrefying sores. Yes, putrefying. In some cases of leprosy, parts of the body actually die off and begin to rot. They necrotize. It is sad but true.
Even if some of us can boast physical health at the moment, sin still lurks within us soon to thrash us to the grave. Only some develop leprosy of the skin, but all are infected with leprosy of the soul. Jesus condemns those who believe they have rights to the Kingdom based on their descendancy from Abraham. They look for salvation by the keeping of the law, as children of promise. But in truth they deny the faith of Abraham, and remain as bastards and rebels.
We too today can fall into this trap if we expect to woo and impress God by our moral qualities. If we think that it is because of our faithfulness and our Christian living that God has blessed us, we are like those cast into outer darkness. Jesus praises the great faith of the Centurion. But this is not because of some internal “faith-power” from within him, one that wells up in the heart. Similarly, when Jesus praised Peter for the great confession of faith, You are the Christ the Son of the Living God, our Lord makes it clear that this confession comes not from man, but was given from above.
Aside from what is given to us by grace, we are worthless. Apart from me, Jesus says, you are nothing. The centurion in our text was aware of his own sinfulness before a Holy God. He knew that God could not tolerate being in the presence of the damned. When he beheld the perfect righteousness of Jesus, he was shamed by his own internal filth and guilt. I am not worthy that you come under my roof, he says. That would be like a scrubbed down brain surgeon rolling around in a hog-barn before an operation. A bride on her way to the wedding should not stop to suck out a septic tank.
Nonetheless Jesus effectively says to the Centurion, as well as the leper, I am willing. I don’t mind infecting myself. I could, in perfect justice, remain on high in heaven while mankind melts away. But he chooses not to. He could easily bring each and every one of us to a swift death. Instead he chooses to come and bring us life. He is willing to take on human life, that the Son of Man may serve us and give his life as a ransom for many.
The Lord and giver of life first took on life himself. He began this as a baby in a feeding bin. It was necessary that he be like us in every way. His world, like ours, was one of stink and maggots, of flies and decay. All men live in bodies suffering under the leprosy of sin. But his love for man is so great that he took on the same corruptible flesh. He did in no way endeavor to distance himself from the repulsiveness of life in this dying world.
In order to be like us, it was fully necessary for him to take on our frail human nature. For only as a man could he suffer and die truly in our place. It was him instead of us. Though he himself had no sin, he was still exposed to the full curse of sin. He gladly undertook all the sickness and leprosy connected with fallen man.
Thus it is no surprise that Jesus ignores the ceremonial law and social taboos, which strictly forbid touching lepers. Lepers must legally be shunned. But all the same, Jesus gives a gesture of pure tender compassion, reaching out and laying his hand on the decomposing flesh of the poor leper. It was probably gangrenous and as foul smelling as a corpse, but this was a lamb for whom Christ would die. He would cradle him in his arms like a mother with a precious infant. Like a hen gathers her chicks, our Lord laments over Jerusalem, so have I longed to wrap my wings around you, but you were unwilling.
This he says to the same ones who would soon torture and crucify him. So let us take comfort that none of us can rebelled against our Lord more than his grace abounds. All filth and unholiness in man rises as vomitous stink before the throne of the most high. Still he chooses to lower himself into the sewer and take our nature into himself. Touching a leper should disgust a Holy God more than anybody, yet his love is too great.
In love he made himself unclean. He allowed the guilt of all the world’s sin to be gouged onto his forehead. He submitted himself to have his back torn to shreds by shrapnel laden leather cords. Why? So that by his stripes we are healed. He let all punishment be laid upon him that we may be at peace. He was smitten by the Father…saying My God My God, why have you forsaken me?…that he might carry away our sorrows. He took our iniquity onto himself, that his righteousness may be given to us in exchange
In the body of this man Christ Jesus is the hope of the world. His words of law convict fallen man that this world and its pleasures are passing away. All of creation groans in travail as it is being choked by the cancer of sin. Yet into this creation comes God from on high to make all things new. That is his great gospel message. His resurrection from the dead publicly proclaims him to be the first fruit of a new creation, a world where there is no more crying, pain, or death.
This same Jesus was there when time began. With a word, he called all the universe into existence.For he spake, says the psalmist, and it came to be. He commanded and it stood firm. Now the Son of God is back in the world, recreating his perfect realm and fashioning a new eternal Kingdom, one ransomed soul at a time. Let there be light, he said on the first day. Be cleansed, he says to the leper in our Gospel reading.
In both cases, the words spoken by the Lord of Life bear in themselves the power to perform what they say. If the Son of Man declares you to be clean, you are. If he sets you free, you are free indeed. Each miraculous healing in scripture is a testimony to the fact that Jesus Christ has power over the forces of nature and the hordes of the evil one.
By his perfect life, horrible death, and glorious resurrection, he proclaims victory over sin, death, and the devil. He gives this victory, this new immortal nature, to each of us. United with Christ, we no longer “stink” to God. We are holy children in his sight whose prayers, purified by the Holy Spirit, rise before him as sweet incense.
In the same way, Jesus cleanses the leper… with a word. “Thy strong word,” says a modern Lutheran hymnist, “bespeaks us righteous”. Remember the second person healed in our text today was the servant of the centurion. He was paralyzed and helpless. He wasn’t even there. He did nothing to merit Jesus’ healing. So likewise, recall how powerless and weak is a quivering infant held over the Baptismal font. Through the conduit of a Pastor’s vocal cords, Jesus speaks the words, which make us clean and righteous.
“You are washed,” he says, “covered by my blood.” This is now my child to live beside me forever. “Only speak the word,” cries the Centurion, “and my servant will be healed.” What amazing insight this man has been given! He obviously knew that same Jesus Christ in whose presence we are served today. Jesus is here speaking words of life and deliverance through the pages of Holy Scripture.
All you lepers are cleansed in Baptism. He has forgiven your sins and taken your cursed guilt away from you as far as East is from West. To God, you are innocent, absolved.
+ Amen +