EPIPHANY III – Adorate Deum
Introit: (Ps. 97) O worship God, all ye angels of his: Sion heard, and rejoiced; and the daughters of Judah were glad. Ps. The Lord is King, the earth may be glad thereof: yea, the multitude of the isles may be glad thereof. Glory be … O worship God …
Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, mercifully look upon our infirmities: and in all our dangers and necessities stretch forth thy right hand to help and defend us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: Thus saith the Lord the maker of the earth, the Lord that formed it, to establish it; the Lord is his name: Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and shew thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not. For thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the houses of this city, and concerning the houses of the kings of Judah, which are thrown down by the mounts, and by the sword; they come to fight with the Chaldeans, but it is to fill them with the dead bodies of men, whom I have slain in mine anger and in my fury, and for all whose wickedness I have hid my face from this city. Behold, I will bring it health and cure, and I will cure them, and will reveal unto them the abundance of peace and truth. And I will cause the captivity of Judah and the captivity of Israel to return, and will build them, as at the first. And I will cleanse them from all their iniquity, whereby they have sinned against me; and I will pardon all their iniquities, whereby they have sinned, and whereby they have transgressed against me. And it shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and an honour before all the nations of the earth, which shall hear all the good that I do unto them: and they shall fear and tremble for all the goodness and for all the prosperity that I procure unto it: saith the Lord Almighty. (Jeremiah 33.2-9)
Gradual: (Ps. 102) The heathen shall fear thy Name, O Lord, and all the kings of the earth thy majesty. V. When the Lord shall build up Sion: he shall appear in his glory.
Epistle: Brethren: Be not wise in your own conceits. Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12.16-21)
Alleluia. The Lord is King, the earth may be glad thereof: yea, the multitude of the isles may be glad thereof. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: When Jesus was come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him. And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus saith unto him, See thou tell no man; but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them. And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, and saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him. The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour. (St Matthew 8.1-13)
“Am I a God at hand, saith the Lord, and not a God afar off?” (Jer 23.23)
The Epiphany season is about manifestation—the showing forth of the divine glory in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” The thrust of Epiphanytide is our beholding of His glory, and the effects of that beholding in our lives, so that “we all, with open face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even by the Spirit of the Lord” (II Cor 3.18). The appointed lessons provide a continuing meditation on that theme: beholding His glory, and being changed thereby. Each Gospel reading shows some facet of the divine glory in Christ, while the Epistle shows a corresponding manifestation in our lives as Christians—a cumulative picture of manifestation and transformation. The glory of God has been manifest in Christ, and is ours to behold and to believe so that, beholding this glory by faith, we may be “changed into the same image.” And it is by beholding, by the steady focussing of intellect and will, by worship and adoration, that we are transformed and transfigured. This must be the basis of our spiritual life. Day after day, week after week, our Lord reveals who He is and what He has come to do. In this week’s Gospel, His glory is manifest in two healing miracles, signs of the power and grace of God to cleanse us of the leprosy of pride and vengeance, to heal us of the palsy of wrath and anger—all those infirmities of which the Collect speaks. The Epistle spells out the implications: “Be not wise in your own conceits,” “avenge not yourselves,” “Be not overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.”
First, a leper approaches Jesus, kneeling before Him and says, “Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.” From this brief encounter, we learn how we also ought to approach the Lord with our requests in prayer. The leper, recognising that Jesus is the Almighty Lord, approaches with confidence that He not only will hear his request, but has the power to grant it. But this man also submits himself in humility to God’s will—“if you will, you can make me clean.” He leaves the answer in the Lord’s hands, acknowledging that God’s will is always good, even if that means remaining in his painful and grotesque condition. The Lord immediately answers the man’s prayer: “I will; be thou clean.” And with a Word from the One through Whom all creation was formed, the leper is restored. His flesh, like Naaman the Syrian, is “like the flesh of a little child”(II Kings 5.14). All of this came in answer to a simple, trusting prayer. The leper’s faith is bold enough to come to Jesus with a great request: “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean,” yet humble enough to leave the rest to Him. This man, a Jew (because he was sent to the priest), would have known that only God had the power to grant this request.
But, “Am I a God at hand, and not a God afar off?” The manifestation of Christ as the power and mercy of God is for all people—not only for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles. In the second miracle, we learn even more about faith, which is the root of effective prayer. The Gentile centurion threw himself on Jesus’ word—“speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”This centurion has no doubt that Jesus can help his paralyzed servant. Just as he has a hundred soldiers under him who immediately obey his commands, he acknowledges that Jesus has heaven and earth, sickness and health, life and death, at His command. This is what it means for one to “live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” and this is what sustains our life of faith. The Word of God is true, it is living and powerful. And that Word is Christ.
As human beings, we tend to reason from our own needs and wants and experiences back to God. It seems quite reasonable to us that God should see things as we see them, so we naturally assume that what we want, God must want. But in so doing, we fashion God in our own image. We do not see as God sees, and our will is not necessarily God’s will, so we must subordinate our reason to God. Reason can be a servant of faith, but this is so only when our reason is placed firmly under the authority of God’s Word. Indeed, even our ability to reason is itself a gift from God. To know God’s Word is to know how God thinks and what God wants. This requires us to make our reason the servant of the Word, and not the other way around. God’s Word is the master, and our reason is the servant. Faith knows this; thus faith prays, “Thy will be done.” The faithful use of our reason places it beneath God’s Word so that what we think is judged by what God says. The faithless use of reason places our will above God’s Word in order to force it to fit into our way of thinking. But if we really want to know God, we must listen to what He says, and take it to heart. This is not something we readily accept as fallen human beings.
The leper exercised reason rightly when he said to Jesus, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” He looked at Jesus, and saw his God. So this man who was suffering from the pain, loneliness, and isolation of that dreaded disease gave a simple confession of the true faith: “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” God is almighty. As Gabriel said to Mary, “With God nothing shall be impossible.” For faith, the question is never: “Can God do it?” The question is: “Does God, in His wisdom, want to do it?” It doesn’t matter what you think, what you feel, what you want, or what you think you deserve. Everything depends on what God wills. The healing of this leper is a lesson in grace. The man is healed because God reaches out to him in Jesus Christ, because God “stretched out His right hand to help him.” It is not a matter of his earning or deserving it, but simply the mercy of Christ, to which he appeals. And he is healed by the will of God—by His free and saving love, grace, and mercy in Christ Jesus.
The Roman centurion exercised reason rightly when he said to Jesus, “Speak the word only and my servant shall be healed.” How can we know what God wants? God’s will is bound to His Word and God’s Word is bound to His will. This is what the centurion understood. He was not a Jew. He was an outsider who had no rights of membership, and no claim on God’s mercy. Like the leper, he was unclean. Yet he begged Jesus to heal his servant. Whether or not he realised that Jesus was the Lord God in the flesh, this the man knew: that the word which Jesus spoke had authority and power. The centurion was an officer with soldiers under his authority, and he exercised his authority by speaking: he told his men what to do, and they did it. A soldier knows the power of the spoken word. Thus he reasoned that it would be the same for Jesus; he believed that Jesus’ word carried the power and authority to get the job done. “But speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.” That, my friends, is faith. And Our Lord commends this faith. “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” What He is saying, is that the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not simply, or even necessarily, their biological descendants, but rather those who hold to the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “Am I a God at hand, and not a God afar off?”This Roman officer would not have been recognised as a member of God’s people outwardly, yet he had true faith. Those who rely solely on their religious pedigree trust in sinking sand. They might have belonged to the family outwardly, but inwardly they were estranged from God. They had no real faith, but trusted in themselves instead. Jesus describes this as “outer darkness.” Into such thick darkness no light of God’s grace can ever enter. They weep and find no comfort. Considering themselves “wise,” they seek to exact vengeance, rendering evil for evil, imprisoned in a downward spiral of pride and self-righteousness. Their frustration is unending because the Light of God cannot penetrate their unbelief.
Our unregenerate human tendency is to render evil for evil, “fighting fire with fire.” If someone hits you, hit them back harder. When we are in that mindset, seized with the lust for revenge, we have been overcome by evil, and its fruits are manifest, including bitterness, anger, self-pity, and malice. But fighting fire with fire only makes things hotter and more dangerous. In contrast to this, St Paul, in the Epistle lesson, teaches us that, to the very best of our ability, we are to be at peace with everyone, even those who will not be at peace with us. Now, firefighters would no doubt be quick to point out that we do, in fact, fight large-scale fires with fire; but then, this is done in a very controlled and strategic way, by experts in the field who know all the intricacies and variables, and who can see the larger picture. And this is St Paul’s point: God alone is the firefighting expert, and we are not. So when we try to avenge ourselves, we are presuming to be God, and only end up making matters much worse. We are called, rather, to overcome evil with good, to bless those who curse us, to love and feed and care for our enemies. In so doing, St Paul says, we “heap coals of fire upon [their] head.” In other words, this is God’s way of fighting fire with fire. As our Gospel manifests the merciful character of God in Jesus Christ, so St Paul calls us to show mercy to all, even to our enemies. But the high standards of conduct described by St Paul are only possible once we have heard and received this grace and learned love and mercy and forgiveness from God. Like the leper and the centurion in today’s Gospel, you and I are unclean. We are crippled. We cannot do the good we want, and we cannot rid ourselves of the bad habits we hate. We are paralyzed. But the touch of Jesus can cleanse us, and His word can free us. Forgiveness and new life, health and salvation, can be ours by grace through faith. It is only when we have received God’s mercy that we can share it; only when we have been forgiven by Him, that we can forgive others; only once we have experienced His self-giving love, that we can begin to love others aright. We can only begin to overcome evil with good, once we know that Christ’s goodness has overcome our evil.
The message of the two healing miracles is that all healing, of our minds and hearts, of our souls and bodies, our salvation (“salvation” and “healing” are the same word in Latin and Greek), is only possible by grace through faith. As Ephesians 2.8 says: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” The leper knows that healing is not a matter of his earning or deserving it, but depends simply on the will of Christ, to which he appeals. His healing is a gift of grace, while the healing of the centurion’s servant is a lesson in faith. The servant is healed, and Christ’s grace is given, according to the measure of the centurion’s faith—“As thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee.” But notice which comes first: God’s prevenient grace reaches out to us in Christ. God stretches out His right hand to save and defend us. And this salvation is for all: Jew and Gentile, friend—a Jewish countryman—and foe—a Roman centurion. It saves us from the disease, the leprosy and palsy, of sin which defiles and cripples us. The mercy of God in Christ reaches out to us, offering cleansing, forgiveness, and restoration. That is the Good News—the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And having received God’s grace ourselves, we must not neglect to seek it for others.
“Am I a God at hand, and not a God afar off?” The faith of the Gentile centurion is such a shining example that Jesus marvels at it. Yet this faith, which Our Lord praises so highly, is not just something reserved to a select few figures in the pages of Holy Scripture. It is a faith which He desires of each of us, but it is something which only the Holy Spirit can work in our hearts. If faith were simply a matter of willpower, it would stand to reason that at a certain point, affliction and attack would break one’s faith. This was Satan’s argument against Job: “Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face” (Job 1.9-11). So, the Lord allowed Job’s faith to be tested. Yet in spite of it all, in spite of human weakness, Job’s faith held firm: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him;” and as he sits in the dust, his flesh covered in boils and scabs, he can say, “I know that my Redeemer [“Vindicator”] liveth, and that he shall stand at the last day upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh shall I see God, whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart fainteth within me!” (Job 13.15; 19.25-27). That is the power of divine faith, which binds almighty God to His people—to those afar off and those who are near.
Those who have this genuine and saving faith are blessed, as King David sings: “Blessed is the man that hath set his hope in the Lord: and turned not unto the proud, and to such as go about with lies” (Ps. 40.5). Faith is undermined when we make our trials and troubles greater than the Almighty God who has redeemed us. But when, in all our circumstances, we look not to ourselves or to any earthly powers, but to God, and say, “Lord, If you are willing, you can change this … only say the Word and it will be,” blessed are they who have this faith, not because everything in their life will be immediately fixed—all illnesses healed, all debts paid, all broken relationships mended—but because the blessing of this faith is union with an almighty and gracious God.
In our readings today, the leper knows that he is unclean, the centurion expresses faith in Jesus, and St Paul exhorts us to follow Christ in our own lives. These are the three parts of our Christian conversion: repent, believe, and follow. Conversion is a life-long process, as we seek daily to grow in repentance for sin, in faith in Christ, and in our walk with Him. The Light of the world, Jesus Christ, shines in our darkness. He is the “logos,” the Word. He speaks, and it is done. He is the One who offered His obedience to God. He is the One who suffered for all sin on the cross. He is the One who speaks the Word that absolves us and removes from us our sins as far as the east is from the west. So we cling to what the Word says—not just about forgiveness but about everything. When He speaks, we take it to heart, we believe it, hold fast to it, and seek to conform our thoughts, words, and deeds to His wise and gracious will.
“And it shall be to Me a name of joy, a praise and an honour before all the nations of the earth, which shall hear all the good that I do unto them.”
Collect: Almighty and everliving God, who hast given to them that believe exceeding great and precious promises: Grant us so perfectly and without all doubt to believe in thy Son Jesus Christ, that our faith in thy sight may never be reproved; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.