Pastor James Hopkins preached this sermon on the Third Sunday of Epiphany, 1/23/2022. The service was broadcast live on the FLC youtube channel. To follow along from home, the bulletin is available as a PDF: Epiphany3 Bulletin
The texts for the sermon were the day’s gospel and Old Testament lessons. To read the Bible texts for the Third Sunday of Epiphany, click here.
The season of Epiphany is one of revelation. Sunday to Sunday and text after text, God reveals His kingdom to us. Today we see this again and more clearly by way of contrast. Namely, the contrast between strength and power and authority and might as we expect it and embrace it in the world, with the glory of God’s kingdom and the strength that is made perfect, and even revealed, in weakness. And this must come to us contrary to our senses, expectations, and even desires, because if we are honest we do not regard weakness as anything worthy in this world. It is just the opposite.
By every worldly and diplomatic expectation, the matter of strife between Russia and Ukraine and the US and anybody else will not be determined by open displays of weakness for someone else to take advantage of. No, they will be decided by power and strength and authority and might and sanctions and so on. In the world strength is what wins, what is desired, what is glorified.
In God’s kingdom, He deigns in His mercy to work by weakness, so that we may be moved from weakness to the strength that is in God alone. We see this, of course, in our gospel text, where the weak come to Jesus to be restored and healed. First with the leper that Jesus touches, and then with the sick man whom Jesus did not touch. As a quick side note, I think you’ll notice if you read through the healings in the gospels, it is almost as if Jesus never does a healing the exactly same way twice. Whether it’s spit in the ear, or from a distance, or touching the man, or not touching the man, or telling him to dip in a pool. It’s as if he’s also guarding us from some superstition, so that we will not take something that is weak and try to make it strong by magic or some sort of trick. But God guards us from this by never healing the same way twice, or at least not more than twice, so that we would continually trust only in the Word, which appears weak, for our salvation.
It is this weakness that is brought to bear by the centurion. The centurion has all the marks of things that we love and adore in the world. The centurion is strong. He is in charge of many. He has power. He has authority. He says to one man “Go” and he goes; he says to another “Come” and he comes. He says to his servant “Do this,” and he does it. And while Jesus has not seen such faith in all of Israel, that does not mean that the centurion has everything straight. The centurion is really under an illusion. He does not have the power and authority that he had assumed. He cannot in fact say to his servant, “Do it” and have it be done. For if he had such power, he would have merely said to his servant “Be well. I will! Be well,” and his servant likewise would have had the power to be well.
But God in his mercy and providence has subjected His creation, the centurion and his servant, to weakness, so that His kingdom would be made manifest. So that the centurion would be made to know God’s mercy, even while he is unworthy to have Christ come under his roof. Unworthy because of any mishandling of his authority, because of the sin which stains him. Nevertheless, the weakness of his mortal condition and that of his servant have made everything clear. His weakness has epiphanied him as it comes into contact with God’s Word. And Jesus demonstrates that this, in fact, is faith. Faith receives God working in weakness as opposed to strength.
This is a warning to us in the church, who for so long have enjoyed positions of authority and strength in the world and in the west. We could be tricked into thinking that we ought always to have such things and that God’s own strength, His own kingdom in the world, would depend on how strong the church looks. We should recognize that it is a sort of oddity that we enjoy the privilege we do. But we should not mistake the strength that we observe for the kingdom of God. The strength of the church is not in our organ when all the stops are pulled out. It is not in this place when everything is good and beautiful and bright, and that window is shining and it looks like I’m on the Mount of Transfiguration or something. All those things look like strength and you are not to be fooled by them.
The weakness of man is nothing. God’s weakness would be the strength of man. We are to actually trust in what the world would reject, when God’s word touches it and sanctifies it. We could get a wonderful big beautiful baptistry and baptismal font. And believe me I would love that, and if you want to give to that we can work something out. But it is also a demonstration of weakness when the UFO on top of Darth Vader’s leg can be filled with water and touched with God’s Word, and by that God brings about salvation and adopts you into His kingdom. So maybe you keep the old font, I don’t know. Pastor Dutzmann didn’t care for it, if that means anything to you, and it should, and that’s two pastors in a row.
All this revelation of God’s strength being made known in weakness is not new. Jesus is living out and revealing in His person what He has said from the beginning. And it is brought so fully to bear in our Old Testament text, where we pit strength against weakness again and again. Hear the opening:
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the Lord had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor. verse 1
You should be thinking strength and authority and power and glory, and everything that we revere in this world. Naaman has it, and lives it. And all that strength is erased with weakness, with the one word “but”. But he was a leper.
This weakness has reduced Naaman the strong to nothing. To unclean. To unworthy. To desperate. To in need of mercy. And Naaman is not the only one who is brought low so that God’s Word and strength would be brought to bear. No indeed, before Naaman was strong, God made Israel weak. You will notice that all of these things are not just because of worldly powers going back and forth. No. God has in fact done this. God in His providence has worked through history to bring low His own people so that His name and His kingdom would expand. For you cannot miss, there in verse 1, that it was because by Naaman the Lord had given victory to Syria. It was by the Lord, for Whom I will make no excuses, that the little girl in the service of Naaman’s wife was orphaned and hijacked and brought to a foreign land and made into a slave.
Now you should be thinking weakness. Weakness of a little girl, who is still under God’s providence and care, who knows who her Lord is and what He is like. Who, with only the words of the prophets, the Word of God, in her ears and in her heart, knows the character of her Savior. She knows that God is merciful. For while we who cling to strength and glory as the world defines it, would heap stones on our enemies, and missiles, and whatever else we’ve got, probably comments on FB; we who would launch every evil wicked thing at those who oppress us, would hate them; this little girl who knows the character of her God, has no second thought, but with her first thought says,
Would that my Lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy. verse 3
The little orphaned enslaved girl, torn from her homeland by this person, knows that God loves her. And loves Naaman, so that he actually deigns and desires to heal him. To make him well, and to make him whole. And this wisdom, this glory, this beauty and this truth, which is known by little children, takes Naaman a little bit of time.
As one of my profs said, “Children believe. And some adults believe, too.” And we see that process and that growth for Naaman as well. Who, while weak, still wants to appear strong. He still wants to be bold and blustery. So when he goes to the prophet Elisha, he does not go in humility. He goes with things that appear strong and worthy of God. He comes with talents of silver, and 6000 shekels, and 10 changes of clothes, and chariots, and attendants, and all the rest. And while he is at the very door of Elisha’s house, Elisha who is a faithful prophet and in this case also a pastor, will not allow Naaman to be deceived.
He will not allow Naaman to think that he could earn or buy this thing from God. He won’t even go out to him. He will only send him a word to go dip in the Jordan. After years of hearing about the Jordan in the church, we imagine it as big and beautiful and impressive and so hallowed. It is nothing to Naaman. It means nothing to him. It is the dirty little creek bed that runs along the side of I-93 and has old masks and garbage bags floating in it. That’s what the Jordan river is to Naaman. Are not the rivers of Syria so much better? More powerful and majestic, like the rivers in Idaho or somewhere. Are they not more worthy? Wouldn’t he go in them and be clean, if that’s all it took?
And so God despises the wisdom and the power and the strength that Naaman brings to bear. When he finally submits begrudgingly, again demonstrating for us that God’s Word and will and grace and love toward us are not dependent upon our deserving or even our understanding, he is made clean. And miracle upon miracles, this is the thing to notice, Naaman is not merely made clean, but his flesh is restored like the flesh of a little child. He is more than cleansed. He is more than restored. Naaman comes out of the Jordan river not powerful; no, he comes out with the flesh of a little child.
He is reborn.
He is renewed.
He is remade.
He is made in the image of God and he is also made to be like that little girl whom he has enslaved, because he comes out of the water knowing who God is, and knowing His character, and trusting in Him. He is made, in fact, into a child. This is the weakness in which Naaman is now invited to live. It is the weakness that you are now invited to live in.
As God makes nothing of the wisdom and the strength and the power of the world, you are to live in and return to that which he has already given and bestowed upon you. That which the world has no regard for. Water that came out of a faucet. It came out of the Charles, and out of the Quabbin reservoir, and maybe there are better reservoirs than that. It doesn’t matter, because God has hallowed it with His Word. He has staked His own name and reputation and promise to the water, by which he cleanses and sanctifies you and makes you as a little child.
You receive by faith the grace that was won for you by Christ. The grace and the mercy and the weakness which is made known perfectly on the cross. That is where this is all headed, of course. The cross of Christ is where God will demonstrate weakness and fully manifest his kingdom. Of course, there crucified he does not look strong or powerful or like a conqueror. And that is the life, and the death, and yes, also the resurrection, that we are invited to live in as Christians who have been baptized into his name and family.
This is yours. It belongs to you. New flesh. New heart. Christ’s body and blood, hidden under weak bread and weak wine. I think a woman once said that it’s easier to believe that it’s Christ’s body than to believe that it was ever bread (something that we have enough bakers to do something about). But the Christian is invited to live in this world attendant upon everything that God gives.
A kingdom that is revealed in weakness. And as citizens, as servants in that kingdom, you also are invited to live in ways that appear weak to the world. To embrace things like humility. To live peaceably with one another, even if you have the power to control somebody and make them do what you desire. No, we are actually told to live in humility and peace, which again to the world are just watchwords of weakness.
So Christ has ordered it, that we who have been made and remade into his image would live lives that actually demonstrate his cross. For there is only one cross and one Christ and every Christian is eventually pressed into it. This will be painful. It will not feel like the life that you desire. Not everything will be Sunday morning. Not everything will be glory and power as you desired or expected it. But it has been ordered by Christ. It is how He has revealed His kingdom, and so we trust that it is good, and that in it He is glorified, now and forever. Amen.