Today Our Lord teaches us about the importance of faith and prayer and the connection between the two. The two always go together. Just like Frank Sinatra taught us with “Love and Marriage”—you can’t have one without the other. Both the leper and the centurion present us with the image of faith and prayer. Both believe. Both confes that God alone can answer prayer. Through them we see that it’s faith that motivates us to pray, to reache out to the One it knows can and does answer all prayers. And it’s faith that accepts the answer, regardless of what it is. So, we see that it is very important to pray for the one thing we truly need, that is, faith to accept the answer God gives us when we pray. And when we pray for the thing that we need the most, the thing that guarantees our entrance into heaven because it receives all that Christ has done for us, God always answers that with a yes.
As we meet the leper, we see a man who has prayer as his only hope for help. Remember what the Law says about lepers. They are outcasts. They cannot touch anyone; no one can touch them. Coming within so many feet of a leper makes you unclean, even if you don’t touch them. So, they are completely cut off from the community. They may have spouses and children, but they are essentially dead because they cannot be with their families. They cannot go to the Temple. The only thing they can do is pray that God will relieve them of their disease. And as Jesus comes down from giving His Sermon on the Mount, the faithful leper approaches the Son of God with a perfect prayer: “Lord, if You will, You can make me clean.” Jesus, if it’s Your will, if You know it’s best for me, I know You will do it. The leper doesn’t beg. He doesn’t give ultimatums. He confesses: Jesus can do it, and if it’s right, He will. Jesus knows that this prayer comes from faith, and He knows that answering it with a yes is good for the man, so He does it.
We know how easy it is to pray with the leper and with Jesus, “Not my will, but Yours be done.” The words roll of our tongue without thinking about it as we pray the Lord’s Prayer and tell God, “Thy will be done.” But do we mean it? If we were to answer truthfully, the answer would be no. We know that part of us, our faith, believes it. But our flesh wars against it. Our flesh doesn’t want to accept God’s will over our own. How many of us, if we were the leper would pray: “Lord, if You will, You can make me clean. However, if You don’t want to, I will gladly bear the burden of this leprosy for the rest of my life.” The sinful nature inside every single one of us can never pray that prayer. It doesn’t believe it. My sinful nature wants what I want, when I want it. God is only useful when He acts like a vending machine, when He delivers exactly what product I’ve requested, and only that product.
Whatever God provides us, be it health and happiness, comfort and good things; or sorrow and trial, illness and want, we should gladly and willingly endure until the end of our lives. And how many of us just cringed a little bit at that? I’ll be honest. I wrote it, and I didn’t want to. I don’t want to be confronted with this Word of Law, what God expects of me and what I am unable to fulfill, that I should gladly and willingly endure any number of trials. But it’s what our faith prays for—the Holy Spirit-given strength to bear our crosses. As difficult as it is to pray that prayer, to tell God that we’re willing to endure the hardship if that’s His will and what’s best for us, we come to learn over time and through any number of crosses. We are increasingly able to pray that prayer because we see that God has never let us down. Each of us have been in situations in our lives where we thought we wouldn’t make it, where, even with God’s grace, our survival was uncertain. But, here you are. Your Lord carried the cross with you, and you endured. You emerged from the trial with a clearer understanding that your Lord will never leave you nor forsake you. He is and will be with you always. So, as hard as it is to say and mean, “not my will, but Yours be done,” the Holy Spirit strengthens our faith so we can say it with the leper and mean it.
And the centurion shows us exactly how that strengthening happens. It happens through the Word: “Lord, I am not worthy to have You come under my roof, but only say the Word, and my servant will be healed.” By the Word, the centurion was given great faith. It trusted all of God’s promises that He would take care of His creation, that He would forgive sins, and, most importantly, that He would send One who would save the world from its sins and usher in the new heaven and new earth where sin and leprosy and paralysis are no more. The centurion knew two things: first, that the Word of God is powerful, that it is living and active; and secondly, that he was unworthy to receive any help from Jesus, especially to have Him come to his house. He knew that Jesus could heal his servant with only a Word, so, just like the leper, he prayed for Jesus to act according to His good and gracious will. And Jesus, recognizing the greatness of the centurion’s faith acts and praises him for believing and being willing to accept the answer, whatever it was.
By His Word, Jesus does great things for you as well. By His Word spoken to you, He forgives you all your sins, especially all the times when you said “Thy will be done” and didn’t mean it, or those times when you felt that God let you down by not doing things your way. By His Word combined with water, He Baptizes you, making yours all that He did on the cross and in the tomb. By His Word combined with bread and wine, He comes under your roof, giving you the Body and Blood He sacrificed on the cross to heal your soul and give you forgiveness of your sins and strength to bear your crosses. By His Word read and preached to you He gives you His Holy Spirit who works good things in you, especially the ability to say and mean, “Thy will be done.” Through His Word, regardless of how it comes to you, your saving faith is created and strengthened.
And that faith is what is able to pray perfect prayers, and to accept the answer, whatever it is. It’s that faith that unites God’s true children of all times and places. It’s not a right for those of Hebrew descent, but a gift for all those from east and west, north and south who will come and sit at the feast of salvation. That faith is what carries you through every cross you bear on this side of eternity, and what guarantees your seat at the feast. The Holy Spirit will keep you in the faith, He will inspire your prayers, and He will be with you until you He brings you home.
The peace of God which passeth all understanding keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.