Sunday, June 02, 2013

The Centurion and What Amazes Jesus

[This was written to be shared with the people and guests of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio during Sunday worship today.]

Luke 7:1-10
Jesus did things that amazed a lot of people during His time on earth: turning water into wine, raising dead people to life, casting out demons, dying a death on the cross He didn’t deserve to pay the price for our sins, rising from the dead to give eternal life to all who repent for sin and surrender to Him. To this day, Jesus amazes: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch--undeserving, imperfect, sinful old bag of wind--like me.” That’s amazing!

But have you ever thought about what it would take to amaze Jesus?

Jesus is God in the flesh. He’s the author of amazing. The Bible says that in Jesus, “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible...all things have been created through Him and for Him...[and] in Him all things hold together.” So, what would it take to amaze Jesus?

Interestingly, the Gospels, the Bible’s authoritative accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, tell us that Jesus was amazed two times during His earthly ministry.

The first time is recorded by two of the gospel writers, Matthew and Mark. Let’s take a look at Mark’s version of things, found in Mark 6:5-6. After beginning His public ministry--teaching and preaching, calling people to repent and believe the good news that He has come to bring God’s kingdom into our fallen world, and performing miracles, Jesus goes home to Nazareth. But Jesus’ fellow Nazarenes refused to trust in Him. “Hey,” they told each other, “we know this kid. He’s Mary’s boy. We know His brothers and sisters.”

Familiarity, you know, breeds contempt. The people of Nazareth thought they knew Jesus. But they clearly hadn’t gotten to know Jesus.

If they’d known Jesus, they would have known about His uniqueness. He had never been in trouble. He had never hurt anyone. He had never misused God’s Name, never gotten involved in sexual shenanigans, never had any shady business dealings. Jesus was sinless and had they reflected on that, they would have understood why their fellow Nazarene was out in the world  pronouncing and demonstrating the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

When Jesus returned to Nazareth though, He didn’t find faith, but contempt. Look, please at what verses 5 and 6 tell us: “Now He could do no mighty work there, except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them. And He marveled [Jesus was amazed!] because of their unbelief...”

I wonder if today, Jesus were to walk into this sanctuary, whether He would have cause to be amazed by our unbelief? Over our lifetimes, we’ve gotten to know Jesus. But is our knowledge of Jesus something that fires and inspires our faith in Him, our trust in Him, our dependence on Him, our love for Him, our acts of sacrifice and service in His Name? Or has it bred something like contempt?

I know that speaking for myself, I sometimes pray, giving my concerns to God, and then, as I rise from my knees, take them right back onto my own shoulders. Don’t I trust Jesus? Don’t I believe it when I pray, “Thy will be done”? Would Jesus marvel at my unbelief? This is why I turn to Christ again and again each day: Moved by His loving grace, anxious to let Him crucify the old Mark and give life to the Mark who will live with Him in eternity, I repent and grasp hold of Christ’s grace any time I can!

There is also unbelief, a functional atheism, among some Christians today who comfortably sit in their pews on Sunday mornings and go through the motions of faith, but never repent for sin, never trust Christ with their lives, never ask that His will be done except in rote prayer, never appreciate what Christ has done to bring them forgiveness and everlasting life, and who, when they run into the inevitable pain and difficulties that are part of life in this fallen, sinful, imperfect world, complain that God isn’t dancing to their tunes, making things easy for them, or approving their favorite sins of choice. That, I’m sure, amazes Jesus.

Our Gospel lesson for this morning records the other time in His earthly ministry that Jesus was amazed. Please turn to it, Luke 7:1-10.

Jesus has just concluded what scholars call His Sermon on the Plain. He goes to Capernaum, a city that sets at the northeast tip of the Sea of Galilee.

Verse 2 says: “And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him, was sick and ready to die.” A centurion, of course, was an officer of the Roman army, who commanded a maximum of 100 soldiers--a century of soldiers. The Romans occupied Judea and Galilee and were resented. But already in this verse, we’re alerted to there being something different about this centurion. He is a what was called a God-fearer, a Gentile who believes in the God of the Jews.

His servant, the verse tells us, was “dear” to him. The word translated as dear is a compound word: entimos. It means honored, respected, distinguished and related to a word for precious, valuable, worthy of honor. This centurion esteems the servant and cares about what happens to him.

The centurion hears that Jesus is in town and he asks the local Jewish elders, the officials of the synagogue, to go ask Jesus to heal his servant.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the centurion does this instead of approaching Jesus himself. Gentiles were considered “outsiders” by the Jews, damned with no chance of knowing God. That may be one reason for the centurion not going to Jesus with His request.

But I think there’s a deeper reason for it: He is aware of his own faults, deficiencies, unworthiness, and sin. The believer in Jesus Christ should feel no hesitation at all about approaching the God we know in Christ in prayer. That’s why Hebrews 4:16, in light of the fact that Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross makes those who believe in Him worthy of coming to God in prayer, says: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

But if we ever approach God in prayer with the notion that what we ask for are things we deserve, we approach God with the wrong heart and the wrong attitude.

The great 20th-century Lutheran theologian and author Ole Hallesby, in his book Why I Am a Christian writes: “...there is no other way of becoming personally assured of Christ and of the Christian faith than...the way of the sinner, the way which leads through complete despair of self.”

Until we know how desperately we need Christ and His blessings and how desperately unworthy we are of them, we will never ask Him for anything rightly!

The centurion sees two things clearly: his own unworthiness and Christ’s mercy and grace. And so, aware of his own deficiencies, he asks friends to bring his request--not for himself, but for his servant--before the Lord Jesus, Who has no deficiencies. He believes that, in Christ, God can give grace, undeserved favor.

His Jewish friends don’t have that kind of faith. They think that a human being can be worthy of God’s favor. They think that to get God’s blessings and favor, you make deals with God. That’s why in verse 5, they try to build a case for the centurion. They talk about the centurion’s works. “He loves our nation,” they tell Jesus, “He built our synagogue.”

They don’t get it. Neither do we if we think that we can earn God’s favor.

We know that the ratio of births to deaths in this world remains 1 to 1. Not everyone who is ill for whom we pray will be healed. But we do know that everyone--Jew, Gentile, sick, healthy--who calls on the Name of Jesus Christ, repenting for sin and trusting in Him for forgiveness and new life, will be saved from sin, death, and the devil.

And that won’t happen because of their virtues. It will only happen because of the love, mercy, and grace of the Savior on Whom they call, we call. We are saved by God’s grace in Christ and our faith in the grace-giver, not by our non-existent goodness or good deeds.

As Jesus approaches the centurion’s house, the centurion sends a few more friends to Jesus with a new message. Verse 6: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. Therefore I did not even think myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed.” He explains that as a soldier, he understands authority. He understands that if the Lord of all creation commands the disease that afflicts his servant to be gone, it will be gone.

Verse 9 tells us: “When Jesus heard these things, He marveled at him [Jesus was amazed by the centurion!], and turned and said to the crowd that followed Him, ‘I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” When the centurion’s friends returned to his house, they found that the servant had been made well.

Folks: If you turn from sin and trust in Christ, you can know you belong to Him no matter!

If you seek it, Jesus Christ will prevent Satan from reminding you of the sin for which you long ago repented and you can know that Satan will be constrained.

If you need help to resist temptation, Christ can give you that power.

If you need the strength to bear hard circumstances, Christ can give you the strength you need.

Jesus Christ, Who died and rose and sent His Holy Spirit to those who believe in Him, can give you a trust that no matter what happens to you in this world, you belong to Christ for eternity. Nothing can snatch you from Christ’s hands!

The centurion knew the extent, the height, the eternal depths, and the power of Jesus‘ authority.

If there is one thing we need in Christ’s Church today, one thing that we who call ourselves Christians need more than anything, it’s a renewed understanding of Jesus‘ authority, a renewed commitment to living under Jesus‘ authority and grace alone! 

We need to learn again what the witnesses of His resurrection told us: Jesus Christ is Lord of everything!

Faith informed by an understanding that only Christ has authority over life, death, and sin gives us peace and hope and joy even in the midst of life’s difficulties.

And that’s the faith that amazed Jesus when He saw it in the centurion!

May our prayer be, “Lord, build faith that rejoices in Christ’s grace AND respects Christ’s authority within me. Help me to trust in Jesus Christ and His Word alone!”

May Christ give us a faith in Him and Him alone that amazes Him, a faith that no longer seeks to assert our authority or power or selfish ends, but seeks only to honor and glorify the One Who died and rose to give us life with God! Amen

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