How To Impress Jesus

Centurions servant

HOW TO IMPRESS JESUS

MATTHEW 8:5-13

 

                You would think it would be hard to impress Jesus.  I mean, if he were here I would show him my mad nunchuck skills and Jesus would be like, “That’s nice, Will, but I defeated Satan.” Perhaps Lew could show Jesus his mad piloting skills and Jesus would be like, “You know, you fly so well because I am your co-pilot?” Perhaps Jerry or Barb could offer Jesus some of their homemade wine and Jesus would reply, “Did you hear about me at the wedding at Cana?”

I mean, how are you supposed to impress the sinless Son of God, The Word Made Flesh, Lord of Lord and King of Kings, The Good Shepherd, the Lion of Judah, and the Lamb who was slain for the Sins of the World? Well the Scriptures tell us that there is one man in all of the New Testament who did.  That is the Centurion in today’s passage. In fact, Scripture tells us that Jesus was amazed by the Centurion. The word here for amazed is usually reserved in the Scriptures for how people react to Jesus, because, well, Jesus is pretty amazing. But here, Jesus says he is amazed by the centurion’s faith.  What so amazed Jesus about the Centurion’s faith? It’s pretty simple:

He recognized Jesus’ Authority.

So today I want us to understand three things:

  1. What it is about the Centurion that helped him recognize Jesus’ authority,
  2. What is special about the type of faith that the Centurion is showing, and
  3. What that means for us today.

First, what is it about the Centurion that helps him recognize Jesus’ authority? Jesus just finished the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew tells us that all who heard it were amazed because He was not like the scribes, He did not refer to ancient texts, but He taught as one who in His own right could reinterpret the scriptures. If they had recognized Him as the Son of God, they would not have been surprised. But Jesus’ own people, the Jewish people, do not recognize who He truly is. And yet this Centurion, this Gentile, this foreign occupier, does recognize Jesus’ authority. And he gives us a reason why. It is because he is a man who knows a thing or two about authority. In the Roman military, a Centurion might be the equivalent of what we would today call a Captain. He was a mid-level official in charge of about 100 men. As he tells Jesus, he knows what it means to take orders and to give orders.

I think it is important that the Centurion is not at the top of the food chain like the Emperor or at the bottom of the food chain like a common Roman soldier. This shows us that he knows both the power and dangers of authority. Authority is basically the right to rule. Authority and power often go together, but the two are not the same thing. I can own a gun and that gives me a certain level of power. But that doesn’t give me the right to go out on the streets with that gun and arrest people. Only a police officer with the authority entrusted to him or her by the state can arrest someone. In the spiritual realm, the Bible tells us that the Devil does have power. But he is a usurper. He lacks the authority to use that power. We all know that absolute power or absolute authority can corrupt. When you are at the top of the food chain and don’t have to listen to anyone, the authority can go to your head. We don’t see power used in the service of the greater good. We don’t see power used in the service of love. So we become cynics resigned to fate.  It’s hard to imagine a man like the Centurion. A just man who knew how to give orders and take orders.  A man who knew how to use power but was also humble.

Similarly, Jesus knew what it was like to have power but also to be a servant. As the book of Philippians tells us, He had equality with God, yet He did not count that equality as something to be grasped, but he emptied himself, taking on our form, and limiting Himself. ( Philippians 2:6). Jesus could do anything He wanted with His power. But He sought to be obedient to His heavenly Father. He didn’t even use His power to save Himself from crucifixion. Jesus had more power than any Emperor ever would. And He had the right to use it. But He used it only to serve. His is a power wrapped in love. To quote the theologian and pastor John Wimber, “ Jesus always used power in a loving way and never as an end in itself. God’s power always demonstrated his love.” (Wimber, 149).

Second, what is special about the type of faith the Centurion is showing? Does the Centurion confess that Jesus is the Son of God, second person of the Trinity, Lord of Lord, Kings of Kings, fully God and fully man? Does the Centurion have a well-rounded theology? No. The Centurion simply believes that Jesus can heal his beloved servant. The faith that the Centurion has is that Jesus can do a miracle. Not only that, but that Jesus can do a miracle when his servant isn’t even near Jesus. There hasn’t been an example of Jesus healing someone from a distance up to this point in the Gospel. Certainly, all the rumors that the Centurion has heard would suggest that Jesus had to be in the room to heal someone. But the Centurion takes it a step further. And the Centurion received what he believed in.

Finally, what does this mean for us practically? Well, recently I attended Presbytery in Rossville, Indiana. The Presbytery interviewed a candidate for ordination who was a Chaplain. The Candidate took issue with the doctrine of Providence. In laymen’s terms, this means that God is in control of everything. Our tradition has always focused on the power of God. This doctrine seemed to contradict the Candidate’s everyday experience as a Chaplain, that being that bad stuff seemingly happened to good people for no reason. His solution was to say that God was not in control of everything, that God was not powerful in that way. But rather that God was with people in their suffering.  This is a common explanation for many since the idea of a good and all powerful God is hard to reconcile with evil and suffering.

Max Lucado, in his devotional on the book of Philippians, notes that denying God’s power is a common explanation for many people, but not a biblical one. He points to the work of Rabbi Kushner in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, as an example of a theologian who reaches a disturbing conclusion about God. Kushner points out that Job, the most famous sufferer in the Bible, was forced to choose between “a good God who is not totally powerful or a powerful God who is not totally good” (Lucado, 16). In the words of Lucado, “The rabbi speaks for many. God is strong. Or God is good. But God is not both. Else how do you explain birth defects, coast crashing hurricanes, AIDS, or the genocide of the Tutsi in the 1990s? If God cares, he isn’t strong; if he is strong he doesn’t care. He can’t be both” (Lucado, 16).

But Lucado points out, and our Scripture shows us today, that this is not the case. For here we see that Jesus both cares and has the power to do something about His compassion. The Bible does tell us to rejoice in all circumstances. The Bible tells us we shall suffer and we shall endure. But rejoicing in suffering is portrayed as a normal part of the Christian life. We may be blessed when we are persecuted, we may be rewarded for our trials, but Jesus is not amazed by this. He is amazed, this Scripture tells us, when we see a hopeless situation, and in spite of that situation, we still believe God can do something about it. May we have an illness, may we be struggling in our marriage or relationship, may we be struggling as a parent, may we be struggling with employment, may we be faced with great personal and social injustice, may we struggle as a small church – whatever the circumstance, our God is able to do exceedingly more than we could ask, hope, or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).

Our Scripture today tells us that the Centurion’s servant was healed according to the Centurion’s faith. It was a very practical faith. It was the faith that Jesus had the authority of God and could do anything. This is sometimes called the gift of faith in the Scriptures. It is not something we can conjure up on a whim. Faith is always a gift from God. But it is something we can hope for. It is something that we can pray for. We can begin by asking God for very practical things. Things we need to get by in our everyday life. And believe that God will provide those things.  And then we ask God for greater things.

This is a dangerous kind of faith. A hard kind of faith. It is dangerous because we all know the experience of Job. We all know the experience and burden of unanswered prayer. We all know the experience of asking and not receiving. If God is able to heal a paralyzed person and doesn’t, or if God heals one person and not another, it raises in our minds all sorts of questions of fairness. Might it be better for God not to heal at all rather than to pick and choose? The Centurion’s servant was healed but perhaps were there others in Capernaum who could not get to Jesus and were not? Rabbi Kushner’s answer is that Job came to realize that God is not all powerful, thus solving the problem of suffering. But having read through the book of Job, I think I might sum up God’s response to Job as, “It’s above your paygrade.”  We can say some suffering is a result of our sin, or the Fall, the laws of physics, or being at the wrong place at the wrong time, but ultimately it is a mystery that is above our paygrade.

What this Scripture tells us is not above our paygrade: our God’s intentions towards us and His power to fulfill those intentions. His intentions are good. His power is unlimited. And for some reason, believing plays a role in making things happen. This is hard because we really don’t want to believe, because we are afraid we might be disappointed, or we might pray for someone and look stupid when our prayers are not answered. We want to save face and we want to save ourselves from heartache. Because there is the pain of physical and emotional suffering and then there is the pain of hope. The hope that things could change. And sometimes the pain of hope hurts more than the suffering at hand and we rather give in then bear it. And sometimes we have done all we can do. We have prayed all we can pray. And there is no shame in relinquishing a hope to God. But there is a difference between giving in to what we have discerned to be God’s Will for a particular situation and resigning ourselves to a notion of fate that God can’t do anything so we might as well not hope.

Why do bad things happen to good people? That’s above my paygrade. But you don’t have to pay me a dollar to tell you how to impress Jesus, for the answer is right before your eyes. Do you want to impress Jesus? Ask for a miracle.

 

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