Third Sunday after Epiphany January 21, 2001
456, 390, 388, 391
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Now When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented.” And Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” The centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.” And his servant was healed that same hour. Here ends our text.
In Christ Jesus, Dear Fellow-Redeemed,
In the second week of April 1991, a lot of Americans developed a sudden interest in God. With the onset of war in the Persian Gulf, half a million American servicemen and women suddenly found themselves facing combat. Millions of relatives and friends were at home, sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting for news and worrying. All this prompted an interesting religious reaction. Pictures of people praying—otherwise almost never seen on network TV—were shown constantly. Politicians who never said a word about religion before were using words like “God” and “prayer” and “divine guidance” in every other sentence they spoke. According to one CBS report, hundreds of thousands of Americans who hadn’t been to a worship service in years returned to church that week.
All this proves the old adage, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” When a crisis occurs, and matters of life or death are on the line, the conviction that there IS a higher power controlling things comes to the surface very quickly. People no longer deny that there is a God; rather, they cry out to God, and desperately seek His help. But there’s a big difference between “foxhole” faith and true, saving faith. God is not some anonymous entity who can be bargained with one moment and cast aside as soon as the crisis is past. In order for our prayers to be effective, we need to know exactly who we’re praying to, and why we may expect Him to answer our prayers.
Our text for today concerns an officer in the Roman army—a centurion—who commanded the Roman garrison in the small town of Capernaum. He had a crisis on his hands and, like the people I just described, he was turning to God. But his faith was not a “foxhole” faith. He knew he needed help. But much more importantly, he knew that the only person who could help him was Jesus Christ! Today we’ll take a closer look at this remarkable man. Our theme is:
This centurion must have been a pretty big shot in that small town. After all, the Romans were in charge of things at that time, and he was in charge of the Romans in Capernaum. He must have been looked upon as a pretty important man. Beside his rank in the Roman army, the centurion had a had quite a good standing with the Jews that he governed. In the parallel account of this episode in Luke, it even says that a few of the more important Jewish leaders in the community pleaded the soldier’s case for him. They “…begged Jesus earnestly, saying that the one for whom He would do this was worthy, ‘for he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue.’”—Luke 7:4-5. Everybody looked up to him, and respected him. Everybody recognized him as a great man. So it must have taken everyone by surprise when this great man humbled himself before Jesus!
Yes, he made himself very humble indeed. He had an urgent need that only Jesus could help him with. So this powerful man came as humbly as a beggar to lay that need before the Savior. “Now When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘I will come and heal him.’ The centurion answered and said, ‘Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof.’” Imagine! There were probably important people who would give their eye teeth for the honor of an invitation to the officer’s home. And yet, he felt unworthy to have Jesus under his roof. Why? Because he knew Who Jesus was. He recognized authority when he saw it! “‘I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, “Go,” and he goes; and to another, “Come,” and he comes; and to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it.’”
Perhaps one thing that gives soldiers their self-assurance is that they’re familiar with the chain of command. They know exactly who has authority over whom. This soldier was telling Jesus that he knew very well Who Jesus was, and he recognized in Jesus a far greater authority than himself—the authority of Almighty God! He knew that Jesus was his superior, his supreme Commander, with power over life and death, sickness and health. He knew Jesus could perform this miracle of healing with one word, as easily as he himself might order one of his soldiers to “go”, or “come back”. So the centurion humbled himself. He addressed Jesus as his superior and, in great humility, asked Him to grant his request.
How good are you at recognizing authority? One day a group of kindergarten children were gathered at the local library to watch a puppet show. The children sat spellbound as a couple of the parents worked the marionettes from above, making them dance and sing. One little boy, his eyes as big as saucers, whispered to his friend, “It’s magic!” “It’s not magic to me,” his friend replied, “my daddy’s holding the strings!”
It’s easy for us to forget who’s holding the strings in our life. Sometimes, events seem to whirl around us, leaving us bewildered—wondering what it all means. Where’s my life going? Who’s in control? Well, “it’s not magic to us”—the Bible assures us Christians that THE LORD is in control! Jesus is the supreme Authority who brings everything in your life into His plan for you. Every tiny detail is watched, controlled, and made to serve your good. Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”—Matt 10:29-31. Not only during times of crisis, but at all times, we need to recognize the authority and the controlling power of our Savior.
The centurion of Capernaum was a great man who humbled himself. In another way, though, he was also a humble man who found greatness. Oh yes, he had power. Yes, everybody liked him—even the Jews. But, when all was said and done, he was not a Jew himself. He wasn’t a descendant of Abraham. And that made all the difference to those people. Because they had one criteria for members of their religion—one test you had to pass in order to fulfill their idea of righteousness—you had to be a descendant of Abraham! As long as you were, then that was all you needed to be justified in God’s sight, they thought. John the Baptist had warned them about this false idea. He told them straight out that they were kidding themselves if they thought they were righteous before God simply because of their nationality. He said, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones!”—Matt 3:8-9. Still they stuck to their blind idea—any non-Jew was an outcast. And the centurion was a non-Jew. From their point of view, he was a very humble man indeed!
Jesus had a different test for righteousness—faith in God. And the centurion passed that test with flying colors! “When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” It was the centurion’s faith that justified him in Jesus’ sight, regardless of his birth. The faith of this humble non-Jew told him that Jesus was who He said He was—the Son of God. The Redeemer, who could save him from his sins, and save his beloved servant from an agonizing illness. In Jesus’ sight, this faith made him a very great man! Jesus broke down, once and for all, the race barrier. He told them plainly that huge numbers of non-Jews would come to God’s kingdom from all over the world, from the east and from the west. But the original “sons of the kingdom” would be cast out. God’s chosen people, the Jews, would reject their promised Messiah. They would fail the test of faith!
Jesus is sending you a message with these words. Simply put, that message is this: God has no grandchildren—only children! The faith of the Jews had broken down over the centuries to the point where they no longer served God out of a pure heart. In place of true worship of God, they substituted their own petty rules and regulations, like how many steps you could take on the Sabbath Day, and how far down your arm you should wash before you could sit down to eat. And yet, they still thought they were God’s people! They said, “Of course we’re God’s people! No one can condemn us—we’re the descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob! Why, we’re practically God’s own grandchildren!” They thought that, as long as they had the external sign of circumcision, and as long as they had good, believing forefathers like Abraham, they had it made with God. They were terribly mistaken. Paul said, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh, but on the contrary, he is a true Jew who is one inwardly; and true circumcision is of the heart.”—Rom 2:28-29. The centurion had no believing parents or grandparents. All he had was faith. He believed that Jesus was the Son of God, and his Savior from sin. And that made him more a child of God than all those hypocritical Jews put together!
So what makes you a Christian? I’ll tell you what doesn’t make you a Christian: not the fact that you come from a Christian home, not the fact that, maybe as far back as you can remember, all your relatives have been Christians, not even the fact that you’re a member of Ascension Lutheran Church—that’s not what makes you a Christian! Those are all blessings that you should be thankful for. But don’t ever forget that what really makes you a Christian, what turns God from an angry judge into your most loving and beloved friend, is faith in Jesus Christ as your personal Savior. Nothing is required from you—Jesus has already done it all. With His death on the cross, He has earned salvation for you! Paul says, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.”—Romans 5:8-9. We’re not God’s grandchildren. We can’t be, because there is no such thing! Through faith in Christ, we’re His own precious children. Because of Jesus’ merit, the glorious inheritance of the firstborn is just wrapped up and waiting for us!
A woman I was visiting once told me about a batch of bread she had made that had turned out badly. The problem was, she had somehow put in twice as much flour and half as much water as was necessary. She had the right ingredients, but in the wrong proportions! The story of the centurion’s faith teaches us to have the right ingredients in the right proportions. To be humble and great in our faith. Humble, so that we come to God in humility, recognizing Him as the “Commander in Chief” of our lives. Great, so that we trust Him firmly and unwaveringly for forgiveness, and for everything else we need in life. May God grant to each of us the humble, but firm faith of that centurion. In Jesus’ name, AMEN.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.