The following sermon was preached by Dr Harold Ristau for the divine service in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel in observance of St Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, 21 September 2018.
Jesus came for the sick in sin (Matthew 9:9-13)
You don’t hear as much about Christians hosting “revival meetings” anymore these days. But the idea still prevails: attempts to make sinners appear less sinful by doing whatever it takes to get them to behave more spiritual. In some churches, God is treated like some sort of divine battery with new energy that you can tap into with just the right formula of lively music, spontaneous prayers and aroused emotions. In other churches, it is more subtle. You have the saints up there and the sinners down here. By your good works and act of worship you can help close that gap. Our sinful nature is pretty good at coming up with all sorts of creative ways of increasing “spiritual health”. Yet all of them neglect the true medicine for the soul, and that prescribed by our Great physician: Jesus the Christ.
There is a good way and bad way of praying for a “revival”. Every day we ought to pray that God revive us, to call upon His holy name and rejoice in Him; to refresh us with his Word; to give us new life as we walk the pathway that our baptism sets before us. But there is a “bad” way too: Church history is filled with human efforts to rid the church of its sickness of sin, even uprooting certain undesirable people and groups with often man-made distinctions between the holy and unholy. Still today we find many churches splitting into smaller and smaller communities every time they discover a faction of spiritually “sick” people that were not holy enough (healthy enough) to belong; those who no longer passed the medical exam for membership. Sometimes these churches completely die out, since they get to the point where there is no one left, no one healthy enough to belong!
Revival meetings presume that God’s Spirit cannot possibly work among sinners, or be present in unclean or even ordinary places. And so revivals were invented by man as a way of cleansing God’s people so His Holy Spirit would come. But not cleansing them by Word and Sacrament, but pleading with God for hours in prayer, often begging God to rid their church of hypocrites and “tax collectors”. Yet after an exhausting night of “revival”, the stench of illness still remains.
All these desperate attempts of Christians represent a denial of who we are (who God says we are): sinners, with a spiritual medical condition, terminal illness that is far more serious than a flu bug, or even the worst stages of cancer. Forgiven sinners, yes, but nevertheless, still sinners. Yet though we are sick with the disease of sin until the day we die, we have a great physician who gives us ongoing medical treatment with the Gospel of forgiveness. Although baptism happens once, it is a daily affair. We remain sick, but Jesus remains our doctor. Afterall, the church is a hospital: a hospital for sick sinners, of whom you and I (even when we think we are spiritually fit – especially when we think we are spiritually fit), you and I are the sickest.
Yet Jesus forgives our foolish endeavors to pretend we are anything but ill and unclean. As His patients file up to the altar for his medical treatment, they encounter a doctor who patiently treats them with his balm of healing time and time again, never canceling an appointment or lacking in compassion, or shoving them into a waiting room because he has more important people to look after; certainly never making a mistake, in both diagnosis and prescription. He is a doctor fully committed to your care.
And into this hospital, you come to Him empty handed, nothing to offer, really, but our illness. For what could you possibly bring to repay him? God says, “keep all your efforts, and cling to me.” Jesus says “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”; to give mercy through His sacrifice, on the cross. You come with a health card from heaven, received in your baptismal birth along with your heavenly citizenship in the Kingdom of God that gives you full access to the doctor of your soul.
St. Matthew was the kind of disciple and apostle who knew that very well. That we have nothing to offer God, no gifts to bring; at least nothing of value to the one who already possesses everything. And yet that God still, with no self-motive, comes to save us, goes through the hassle of it all, to call sinner and dine with them: performing a life-changing operation on their spirits: through confession and the forgiveness of sins. This surgical application of Law and Gospel acts as a two-edged scalpel which pierces our hearts, cutting away the guilt of our sins while sterilizing us—once again—in the waters of Holy Baptism; daily: a gracious balm for our ongoing health and healing.
Now as the recorder of the Lord’s words, Matthew stands closer to Jesus than us and, together with all the apostles, the words Matthew recorded are the foundation on which the holy church stands. Jesus and His words go together. Every time the Gospels are read, our great physician, mercifully, graciously, competently and lovingly visits us at our bedsides.
And yet the Gospel of St. Matthew is not only the proclamation of how the promised Messiah has finally come in Jesus of Nazareth, but also the confession of a certain tax collector who was by definition, and profession, a public sinner. He had no sense of his own personal holiness, or goodness— we find no discussion of his own personal achievements in life in his Gospel –, but, rather, he wanted to be remembered as an outcast among the saints of God. Matthew writes about himself as a tax collector. For the tax-collector is the story of every one of us Christians.
Now we may not work for the government or steal from the poor. Perhaps we are rather generous and honest. But are we so honest to admit that we have thought about skimming a bit off the top, or envying those that have done it and gotten away with it? Are we so generous that we have never stolen from God every time we wish one of his other patients wasn’t someone we had to associate with? Surely, there are always people in our lives that we wish weren’t there. We may not wish them ill, but wish we didn’t have to deal with them (those tax collectors, hypocrites, sinners); not necessarily because their illness is contagious, but that we are, to varying degrees, repulsed by them (not that we would ever say that out loud, nor even acknowledge that we were capable of thinking it). God sends them to us, to receiving healing words from Jesus, and by pushing them aside, we steal away those medicinal words intended for them, as their spiritual illness advances towards death; not usually by what we have done and said (sins of commission), but by what we have left undone and left unsaid (sins of omission, those really sting!). Or let’s bring it closer to home this morning: Church. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it’s probably coming: The sick thought, and demented wish, that even pastors sometimes pray: “God why can’t she go to someone else’s church? Why does he have to keep coming here!” God brings people to his clinic in which they too are patients, in order to receive His gracious gifts and life-giving medicine (to which they have become as “entitled” to it as we), and we rob from him every time we wish some of them weren’t here, or that they were replaced by others, healthier, or “cleaner” people beside and around us.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a clean healthy church? I suppose so, but then there would be no one here.
Yes Matthew knew where he belonged. Yet Matthew not only included himself as one sick and unclean sinner among many others, he also counted himself on the patient list of the great Physician. Jesus, who became ill on the cross, so His church could enjoy true health, offered St. Matthew, and offers to us all—since each of you is on his patient list–, a divine blood transfusion, which circulate the very life of God through our disease invested veins. The stench of our sin is now overcome by the sweet swelling aroma of Christ’s presence, in, with and around us; sweeter smelling than incense is the sacrifice of this Son of man, who has soaked up our guilt, like a sponge, in his death, and rinsed our souls of every germ and impurity in his resurrection. Our sick spirits are truly “revived” with his healing grace. No wonder, St Ignatius referred to the Holy Eucharist as “medicine of immortality”.
Sometimes we hear people say: “God helps those who help themselves.” Matthew didn’t think so. He knew that everything depended on Christ the physician; that all are sick, that no one is righteous. And just as doctors spend all their time with the sick, Jesus, our physician, only reclines with sinners. For He who said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” stretches forth his healing hand of forgiveness and revives you with His medicinal feast.
So fellow patients, tax collectors and sinners, recline this morning with St. Matthew and all the martyrs of the church, and the whole company of heaven, as you receive the medicine of immortality from Jesus your great physician. Amen.