THE FOURTH WEEK AFTER EPIPHANY
The season of Epiphany is one of continual revelation. Week after week the Sunday readings unfold, disclosing God’s redemptive plan to rescue humanity even the whole created world from the catastrophic effects of the fall; that unhappy day when our first parents, Adam and Eve, willfully disobeyed their Creator. It’s an age-old tragedy par excellence. You see, the allure for transcendent knowledge signified in the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, tempted their desires, and, being beguiled by the Serpent, the man and woman succumb to unholy partook of that forbidden fruit and so fell from a state of innocence. Adam and Eve had enjoyed the company of God, walking with him in the Garden. They beheld clearly—face to face— in perfect union with The Lord God; uninhibited and unafraid.
Sin ended man’s ability to see the face of God, to look upon his face. To Moses God said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” (Exodus 33:20). for no unclean thing can come into the presence of Holiness and live. But God, who desired to be with his creation, graciously went to great extents to protect his fallen children from his Divine presence. Think of Adam, whom before bringing froth the woman from his flesh, God put into a deep sleep to protect him from the presence of divine activity. God graciously did the same to Abraham, putting him also into a deep slumber before ratifying his covenantal promise to the patriarch. As the sun set the Divine presence mysteriously appearing as a smoking furnace and a burning lamp passing between the two pieces of the sacrifice which God had torn asunder.
Even Moses, whom God invited into his presence on the mountain, was not permitted to see God’s face but his back only; for no man could withstand the tiniest glimpse of his glory and live. Great care was taken by God to protect his chosen people from his holy presence commanding Moses to
Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain (Ex 19:10–13).
It was the mercy of God which compelled him to protect and safeguard sinful humanity from his presence. In fact, I find it totally incomprehensible and incredible, that the creator of the universe who lovingly made all things would, in the face of rejection, disobedience, and infidelity, choose to remain present; to stay intimately concerned with the plight and poor estate of such miserable sinners. “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy” (Ps 103:8) declares the psalmist. He most certainly is plenteous in mercy.
In times past God showed great mercy to his unfaithful bride Israel, the people of the covenant with God, a covenant they broke many, many times: for infidelity was the great sin of Israel. The infidelity of her Judges and Kings illustrated their incapacity for covenant loyalty. Like Hosea’s bride the people of Israel and their leaders acted the harlot worshipping other gods under oaks and poplars and elms. They tore down altars and propped up Ashtoreth poles in the high places. They defiled the tabernacle with pagan idols and all sorts of unclean things, even sacrificed their very own children in Moloch’s fires.
When infidelity ruled the hearts of Israel her prophets cried out “Woe is me!” appealing to God’s mercy! “Woe is me!” cried Micah “we will bear thy indignation, for we have sinned against you!” (Micah 7:18). Unto Isaiah the Lord laid out his charge against Israel, “Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward” (Is 1:4). But in his wrath God declared to be merciful to his people,
For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee. In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer.
In the preaching of Micah, Isaiah and the prophets we must not overlook the unbreakable link between God’s mercy- which they often cried out for because of the people's sins- with the incisive image of love on God's part. The Lord loves Israel with the love of a special choosing, much like the love of a spouse, and for this reason He (out of his love and great mercy) pardons their sins, even forgiving their infidelities and betrayals. When the Lord God finds repentance and true conversion, He brings His people back to grace.
If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land (2 Chr 7:14).
In God’s mercy is signified a special power of love, a love that prevails over the sin and infidelity of his chosen people. In his love “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Ps 85:10). The Holy One of Israel, our Father who are in heaven, is a merciful God. As we confess in the liturgy his property is always to have mercy. This morning on the fourth Sunday in Epiphany the church in her wisdom would have us contemplate the mercy of God, which has been manifested in the appearing of His Son, through the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ: God with us; God to save us. For the epiphany of Christ is the revelation of mercy given for the world to reverse the horrible effects of the Fall. He who knew know sin has come in the fullness of our humanity for the redemption of sins.
We innately love mercy do we not? The very idea of it, even the most basic understanding and conceptualization of mercy evokes relief, refreshment, and happiness. Which are perfectly normal responses because misery isn’t some abstract concept. No, misery is real. This life is not without its sorrows with so many days filled with anguish and consternation. Hear the wisdom of Sirach,
Great travail is created for every man, and an heavy yoke is upon the sons of Adam, from the day that they go out of their mother’s womb, till the day that they return to the mother of all things… Wrath, and envy, trouble, and unquietness, fear of death, and anger, and strife, and in the time of rest upon his bed his night sleep, do change his knowledge. A little or nothing is his rest… (Sirach 40:1-6).
We suffer misery at the hands of wicked men and deceivers, from mockers, slanderers and the unjust; from all sorts of external things. The world is filled with all kinds of miseries that continually land on our doorstep. But misery also comes from within, from ideas and actions which flow from a fallen nature and its proclivity unto sin.
The misery of sin is never alone but always in the company of shame, guilt, and sorrows: misery loves company! What anguish King David must have suffered from sin. How he longed for God to merciful unto him,
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight… Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me… Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.
“Make me to hear joy and gladness…” Like his father Adam, David had no means within himself to end his torment. Though absolutely capable of creating misery, he could not escape it. You see, misery when pushed beyond its limits will cry out for mercy; for the mercy of God which alone can wash away the filth of sin (Create in me a clean heart, O God!). Only that which God mercifully cleans can be brought back into the love and goodness of God: able to once again stand face to face with the Lord of Mercy.
In Matthew’s account of the Leper and Centurion found in today’s Gospel, he provides a two-fold picture of misery and God’s restorative mercy; in one we see a picture of salvation, in the other, we are given an example of the one who receives mercy. First, the leper is a picture of our salvation, where the sickness of leprosy represents a person riddled with sin, his external state a metaphor for the sickness of fallen hearts: the external state pointing to an inward reality. For we too were diseased, suffering corruption brought about by sinful lusts and inordinate passions. Such is the state of every natural person as heirs of the fall. It’s a hard truth I know. We want to think the best about ourselves; we are eternal optimists. But let us also be realists. Man is born sinful, a transgressor, a disobedient child. Is this not our confession? That we too were once dead in trespasses and sins? Hear the Apostle Paul,
in times past ye walked according the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience, among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath (Eph 2:1-3).
In a very real sense, men are lepers who have not felt the healing touch of Jesus Christ. In the same sad and sorry estate as this poor leper, who longs to be released from his misery “Lord if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.” And here we perceive in him not a question of Jesus’ ability but rather his willingness to heal. “If you will…” to which our Lord lovingly answers: “I will, be cleansed.” He “came down from the mountain” records St. Mathew, with full intent to enter into the suffering and misery of this poor diseased leper. “I will.” In that gesture and tin hose words of Christ is the whole history of salvation, in two simple words the merciful will of God to heal us is embodied there; his great desire to heal, to cleanse us from the evil of sin which disfigures and dehumanizes us.
With a touch Jesus restores in body and soul all that was lost or broken in the man, removing every impurity, making him clean: sinful flesh made clean by Divine flesh. For the incarnation was necessary to redeem fallen humanity, to redeem man in the totality of his body, soul and spirit, Christ had to assume all the elements of human nature, otherwise man would not have been saved. In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus “What has not been assumed has not been healed.” To the Leper, Christ Jesus became that which shows the love of God to be stronger than any evil, even of the most contagious and horrible disease. On the cross, the perfect One without spot or blemish took upon himself our infirmities, became the ‘leper’ so that we might be purified.
The loving mercy of Christ is a reconciling mercy. It restores sinners back to the Father, brings us into the light with no need to hide in shame as our first parents did. Having received the compassionate touch of Christ we, with the Leper, are free to gaze into the eyes of Mercy, beholding the face of our salvation without fear of destruction, no longer in the shadows. The True Light of heaven has been manifested to the world, and he has called us into that glorious light. For God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). Let these words like a joyous song resound in your hearts: salvation has come through the manifestation of God’s Mercy.
And who is the one who receives mercy? Let us consider for a moment the Centurion who sought out Jesus in Capernaum, beseeching him and saying “Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented.” The Centurion is a man tormented by the misery of another and because he longs for his servant to obtain mercy he seeks out the Lord. Who is the one who receives mercy? First, it is the merciful. The merciful master whose “slave was dear unto him” received mercy. As our Lord himself says “blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Mt 5:7). So, mercy is shown to the merciful.
Next, mercy is shown to the humble who confess their need. “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.” This man, one of authority and in the opinion of the Jewish religious leaders believed him to be worthy of Jesus’ help (we see this recorded in Luke’s account). And yet, the great Centurion is even greater in humility, “I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof!” Having laid aside pride and self-importance he beseeches the Lord to have mercy, to have compassion and heal his dying servant. Humility is met with mercy, for, humility is the hallmark of true Mercy. The interlocking aspect of mercy and humility is pictured in our Lord’s stooping to wash the feet of his disciples. Of his humiliation the 17th century English cleric Jeremy Taylor writes, “Thus God lays everything aside, that he may serve his servants; heaven stoops to earth, and one abyss calls upon another; and the miseries of man, which were next to infinite, are excelled by a mercy equal to the immensity of God.”
Finally, mercy responds to faith. Like the leper, the Centurion also believed that Jesus could make things right, “But only speak the word, and my servant shall be healed.” What wonderful faith! It was so astounding that Jesus ‘wondered’ or ‘marveled’ at it. Faith in Christ anticipates mercy. We must believe God to be merciful and we must believe he will hear our cry and respond to our misery, that he is not only capable, but trust that he is willing to do so. Friends, if we have few Epiphanies of mercy, then we may have few Epiphanies of faith. For saving faith is not of our own but is a gift from God, a faith that trusts with every fiber of its being in the faithfulness and character of God. He is merciful. He will have mercy upon all who truly turn unto him with a penitent and lowly heart, trusting in his righteousness for the forgiveness of sins.
God is merciful because he is love. And this we know because mercy didn’t stay in the heavens but came down to earth; it was revealed and fully disclosed in the God-Man Jesus Christ. The Lord knows our every infirmity, has keenly diagnosed our sickness of heart. The great physician is near and he is merciful unto all who call upon him. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulations.” Beloved let us prepare our hearts to approach Christ at his table, to come face to face with mercy. And let us with faith “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16). Amen.