Rev. Robert Downs
May 29, 2016
I think it is true of most of us that we like to make a good impression on the people we meet. It is important to us that others think well of us. This morning’s story from the Gospel According to Luke tells us about an officer in the Roman army who made a significant impression on the Lord Jesus. He actually amazed the Son of God. When I read those words, “Jesus was amazed at him,” I began to wonder just what it would take for our Savior to be amazed by you and me. It’s an intriguing thought, and one which is worthy of some serious reflection on our part. For the thing which impresses the Lord most is the man’s great faith in Him and in His power and authority as the Son of God. What would it take to make our faith great enough to impress the Lord? Let’s see if this story holds an answer to that question.
The place to begin is with what Luke tells us about this man of great faith. Luke may have left him unnamed because having become a follower of Jesus would have put his life and career at risk. He is identified only as a centurion, an officer in the army of Rome. That means he is a Gentile and not a Jew. It also means he has under his authority at least one hundred soldiers. He has been posted to the city of Capernaum, located in northern Israel by the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum was a significant city on a busy trade route. It was the home of Peter and Andrew, James and John, and also Matthew who held the position of tax gatherer for the Roman occupation. More significant still, Capernaum was the town where Jesus made His home when He left the village of Nazareth. He had taught and preached in the synagogue there.
That synagogue was important because we learn from Luke that the centurion had provided funds so that it might be built. Interestingly enough, if you visit Capernaum today you will see the ruins of a synagogue built on that same site years later. The significant thing is the fact that this Roman army officer cares enough about the Jewish religion to provide a place to worship. It is likely that he had come to be known by the Jews as a “God-fearer.” He embraced the idea that there was only one God whose commandments called for a high moral way of life. He was not ready to mark himself as a member of the covenant community of Israel, but he recognized the truth on which that community was built and loved its people. The faith of the centurion is a seeking faith, one which longs to know and follow the truth.
Not only did this unnamed centurion love the people of Israel, he had a deep concern for those who served him. The Gospel writers tell us that the centurion had a slave who was gravely ill, and it is out of that sense of concern that his master turns to Jesus, most likely as a last resort. It seems probable that this slave is a household servant, either a Gentile who had
been purchased by the centurion, or a poor Jew who had to indenture himself to a Gentile master, even though Jews were to have nothing to do with non-Jews. What impresses me most about all this is the fact that the centurion would care about someone who was such an insignificant part of his life. If the servant died, it would be no great loss, someone could be found to replace him. But the centurion cared, and acted on his concern. His was a compassionate faith.
One of the most striking things about the faith of the centurion is his humility. As both Matthew and Luke make clear in the telling of the story this Roman officer does not consider himself worthy of coming into the Lord’s presence. Luke tells us that he sent elders from the synagogue to convey his request to Jesus, and that when the Lord approached his home he sent friends to say that the centurion would not presume to expect him to enter his house. In Matthew’s account he makes it sound as if the centurion himself had initially come to Jesus, though he may be assuming that the elders were his representatives and speaking on his behalf. In any case, the point is that the centurion is a humble man who is painfully aware that he has no right to expect the Son of God to be in his debt at all.
And yet in spite of the centurion’s humility there is coupled with it a certain boldness, a willingness on his part to risk refusal and rejection at the hands of the one Person he feels can meet his need and bring healing to his servant. Even though he knows that he is not worthy of the Lord’s favor, the centurion’s concern for his suffering slave and his sense that Jesus may be open to use his power to bring health and wholeness to someone in need, compels him to seek out the Son of God and make that need known to Him. There is not only a sense of meekness in the centurion’s faith, there is, coupled with it, a sense of boldness, a conviction that beyond his own unworthiness is a compassion and mercy which awaits his request, and which moves him to look to the Son of God for aid.
It is safe to say that he not only has a seeking faith, a compassionate faith, a humble faith and a bold faith, he also has an informed faith. He obviously has some knowledge about who Jesus is and about the power He wields as the Son of God. Luke has already told us that when the Lord left the village of Nazareth He made His home in Capernaum, and that He taught in the synagogue there, and had healed a man during a Sabbath service in that very building. Jesus’ fame as a healer and teacher had spread through the area. It is even possible that, sitting in the gallery reserved for non-Jews, the centurion had heard the Lord preach and teach in that synagogue. He knew enough about the Son of God, to realize that here was someone who had amazing miraculous powers, someone who could heal his suffering slave.
But more than that, drawing on his own experience as a centurion, as a man who had himself been given authority and power to act, this Gentile man of faith, is able to understand something his Jewish contemporaries have missed completely. He can see, however dimly, what Jesus will someday make abundantly clear to His followers when He says to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.” God the Father has given to God the Son the power and authority to bring in and establish the Kingdom of God on earth. He has but to say the word and His Father’s will is done. Sin and sickness and death must surrender to the power and authority for good which are unleashed when God the Son speaks a Word of rebuke to them, which becomes a Word of hope and healing to the world.
All of which brings me to the Lord Himself, the Word made flesh, and some of the things this story tells us about the Son of God. Something I had never given much thought to is the fact that Jesus is impressionable. You and I can make an impression on Him, just as the centurion did. And the thing which impresses Him the most is the quality of our faith. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that without faith it is impossible to please God. That’s because faith and trust stand at the very heart of our relationship with God, and it is out of that faith and trust that our lives are shaped and formed. When the Son of God looks at you and me He fixes His gaze on our hearts and He is impressed by the extent to which we trust in Him, and by the degree to which that faith impacts all that we say and do.
What Jesus is not impressed with is where we’re coming from when we come to Him. The centurion is a Roman soldier. He’s not Jewish, he’s a Gentile. In fact, to the people of Jesus’ day, he would be regarded as the enemy. He represents an oppressive, subjugating, occupying force. But none of that matters to Jesus. It really doesn’t matter who we are or what we’ve done or where we’ve been in this life. When we turn to the Son of God the only thing He sees is someone who is looking to Him for the help which only He can give. The Risen Christ is no respecter of persons. It has been said that the ground is level at the foot of the cross. The Son of God laid down His life for the sins of the whole world. No one is beyond the reach of His love. His arms are outstretched and He welcomes us all.
More than that, as Luke makes clear in his telling of this story, the Son of God is quite willing to come to us wherever we may happen to be. When the Lord hears the request made by the elders from the synagogue He sets out for the home of the centurion. That may not sound too shocking to us, but to the Jews who are with Him, the Lord’s decision to go to the home of a Gentile – even a God-fearing and generous Gentile – would be inexcusable. It would render Him unclean in their eyes. But we know that Jesus seems to delight in befriending the people His contemporaries regard as being unacceptable, not just Gentiles, but lepers and tax collectors and prostitutes and a whole host of others. Indeed, our Lord is quite willing to come, and enter our lives wherever we are when we recognize our need and seek His help.
In Matthew’s telling of this story Jesus speaks directly to the centurion and says, “Go, it will done just as you believed it would.” I think that’s significant because when we come in faith to the Son of God He always speaks a word to our hearts. That Word is always to be found in the Scriptures, inspired by His Holy Spirit. When we are feeling guilty and seek God’s forgiveness, there is always an assurance of pardon: “In Jesus Christ we are forgiven”. When we feel alone or afraid, there is always the promise: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” When we bring our requests to God in prayer, we may not hear what the centurion heard, but there is always that Word of hope: “In all things God is at work for the good of those who love Him.” Jesus always has something to say to those who come in faith.
It is important to note that the Son of God rewards those who come to Him in faith. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes that “anyone who comes to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.” Jesus says to the centurion, “Go, it will be done just as you believed it would.” But it would be a mistake to think that our faith can earn God’s favor. Too many seekers have been hurt by good intentioned people who said, “If you just have enough faith you’ll get what you’re praying for.” It doesn’t work that way! Believing is always essential in prayer. But it is believing that God will give what is best, not that we will get what we want. And yet, whether we get what we ask for or not, Jesus will bless us in a special way, just because we trusted Him enough to ask.
And finally, there is this to note: the Lord commends the centurion before the Jews who are with Him with these words, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” The commendation of the Son of God is something all of us as His followers should be striving for, both in this life and in the life to come. There can be no greater affirmation of our life than to hear our Savior say to us at the end of our days, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.” John’s Gospel reminds us that the work we’ve been given to do in this life is to believe in the One who has been sent to be our Savior. And it is out of that faith, and the gratitude and love which flow from it, that our lives bear witness to the power and love of God, who has called and claimed us as sons and daughters.
In conclusion there is only one other thing to be said about how you and I might amaze the Son of God. That’s because there is only one other place in the Gospels where we hear that Jesus was astonished by those around Him. On that occasion He had been preaching in His old home town of Nazareth, and the people there took offense at Him, so much so, that He could only lay His hands on a few sick people to heal them. And Mark writes, “He was amazed at their lack of faith.” The centurion had a great faith and his servant was healed. The people of Nazareth had no faith at all and many needs went unmet. The bottom line when it comes to impressing the Son of God is always the quality of our faith. For it is our trust and reliance on His power to save and keep us which marks us as His own.
So what does it take to nurture a faith which will amaze the Lord? We need to be learning more and more everyday what an awesome God we have in Jesus Christ. We need to recognize and experience His power and authority as we submit to His Lordship and live as His subjects. And we need to be learning more and more and every day, how unworthy we are of His mercy and grace, and that love which longs to meet our deepest needs. But all the while we dare not forget that His love trumps our unworthiness, and that He longs for us to look to Him to be to us and for us everything we need. And as we come again and again with boldness and confidence before the throne of grace, as those who are loved by the One to whom all authority has been given, our faith will grow greater, and the Lord will be amazed. Amen.