May 29, 2016

When He Heard About Jesus?

Passage: 1 Kings 18:20-39, Psalm 96, Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10
Service Type:

A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave.

Lizzy MyersFive-year- old Lizzy Myers, second right, suffers from a rare genetic disease that will take away her hearing and gradually make her blind. This picture was taken on Wednesday, April 6, 2016 as she waits with her family for Pope Francis’ audience at the Vatican. Pope Francis spent several minutes with her at the end of the audience. He caressed her, hugged her, and placed his hands over her eyes blessing them.

Lizzy’s parents, Steve and Christine Meyers have made a “visual bucket list” to show her as many things as they can before she can no longer see. It was a generous gift of an airline and a hotel that made this trip to Rome possible for them. Lizzy’s father said he had been nervous ahead of Wednesday’s audience but that as the Pope approached his family, he felt an incredible sense of calm. “You know, I believe myself,” he said, “and I think that what Pope Francis has done for her, if there is any chance for a miracle, it would be there.” Christine Myers said the exchange with the Pope exceeded her expectations. “He said he would pray for me and asked me to pray for him,” she said, adding that she felt an overwhelming sense of peace.

No, the news story did not chronicle a miracle. We do know this; prayers for Lizzy have already received that great yes in the future kingdom when we, along with Lizzy, will, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “see face to face,” and will have eyesight that will never dim again. (1 Corinthians 13:12) Of course we pray for the defeat of this disease now for young Lizzy.

The news article was titled An act of faith. It is not often we see stories like this in our newspapers. It is a story that happens all the time. Everyday believers around the world are reaching out in faith to Jesus Christ in accord with their faith traditions seeking his help and strength and wisdom and healing. We do so because of the witness of scripture showing us who Jesus really is; we reach out to Jesus because we know stories like this one of a Centurion who sought out Jesus on behalf of a deathly ill slave.

We call upon our Lord because in this story we note how eager Jesus to come and help when called upon. When these Jewish friends of the Centurion approach Jesus with the Centurions’ request the text tells us that “Jesus went with them.” This story is fraught with all the misgivings arising from the fact that this Centurion represents the Roman occupation of Israel but our Lord goes. Think for moment, about all the requests of all his people, which our Lord has received this day. To be sure some things remained unrelieved even as we ask our Lord for relief. But think for a moment about what has been received. Return again to the family of Lizzy Meyers whose father received a calming of heart and whose mother’s heart was filled with peace. Calm and peace; gifts of our Lord that aid them to persevere in the care and treatment for their daughter. Reflect on how often we too have been sustained by such unseen gifts yet perceptible in our hearts. If we could truly see all that our Lord does for us in answer to our prayers our worship would be endless thanksgiving.

1. I invite you to reflect with me about reaching out to Jesus in faith. Focus with me on this Centurion in this moment Luke describes as “when he heard about Jesus.” This Roman Centurion was likely raised in the polytheism of the Roman world before his assignment to this command post at Capernaum, a town at the north end of the Sea of Galilee. For the Romans, there were gods for everything imaginable; Mars was the god of war, for example, and Minerva was the goddess of wisdom, intelligence, and learning. When he come to Israel and rubbed shoulders with the Jewish people, there was something about their monotheistic faith that attracted him. His interest is seen in that he appears to have financed the building of a synagogue at Capernaum.

This Centurion has a slave whom he valued highly who was ill and close to death. Judging by his swift action to reach out to Jesus on this slave’s behalf it is likely that he has already exhausted all that he knows to do medically and/or religiously to promote the welfare of this beloved salve. Luke tells us that this story follows what we know as our Lord’s sermon on the mount which took place very near Capernaum. Luke tells us that the crowd that had gathered “that day had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.” (Luke 6:18-19)

Clearly there is a great buzz about Jesus as he now comes to Capernaum. Note with me what is implied in this clause “when he heard about Jesus;” it is evident that someone told him about Jesus. The Hebrew Scripture story of the Aramean commander Naaman provides an apt parallel. A young captive girl had told him about the prophet Elisha in Samaria who could help him with his leprosy. (2 Kings 5:3) In the case of the Centurion at Capernaum we are not given the detail of who told this Centurion but clearly someone did.

I want to say a word here to encourage us in our witness to Jesus Christ. We do not know how our Lord will use our witness in prompting faith is someone else. We live in a world where knowledge has been secularized in the form of science and philosophy. One of the results of this secularization is that when we are ill we readily reach out for doctors and medicine less so for prayer. To reach out to our Lord in prayer is to call upon the one who is the source of every healing both the medically assisted recovery and the providential healing we refer to as miracle. This Centurion’s reaching out in faith teaches us to do the same and bears witness so others will also find sustaining and help.

2. Additionally, note the necessity of that witness. In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans he cites a text from the prophet Joel (2:32) that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” and then talked of the necessity of hearing. “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Romans 10:13-16)

Think for moment about a time when you were blindsided by something in life—a betrayal, a financial loss, maybe a diagnosis of incurable illness—and it causd you to stagger in your faith. In the midst of that someone came alongside you to say a word that helped you to hold on even as you were assured that our Lord’s grip on us is always stronger than our strongest grip on him. The person who delivered that good news, are they not “beautiful” for you? This euphemism Paul uses is an abridgement of the prophet Isaiah (52:7) “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” The image in Isaiah is of the messenger coming over the hill to deliver the good news of peace. I want to give you another image; sometimes when we are blindsided we are knocked down and when laying on the ground perhaps feet are the first things you see of a messenger. To say the word of hope that points to Jesus is always to point in the direction of the one who can really help.

The reason that hearing for faith is underlined by the Apostle Paul—and in the rest of the scriptures, for that matter—is because the scripture reveals that the fundamental characteristic of God is that he speaks. “Long ago God spoke,” writes the author of Hebrews, “to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” (Hebrews 1:1-2) Jesus Christ is the living word of God as John’s gospel make clear; “and the Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14) The distinguishing characteristic of the human that distinguishes us from all of the other of God’s’ creatures is that we are the recipients of God’s address.

Come again with me to this Centurion; when he heard about Jesus. Notice how he responded to this word that he heard. He immediately engages his Jewish friends to make an approach to Jesus on his behalf. He expresses a sense of unworthiness consistent with what we see in older testament prophets whose sinfulness is exposed in the light of God’s presence. When God approached Isaiah he responded that he was a man of unclean lips. Somehow this Centurion knows that this is not a barrier for Jesus to do his healing work. Our Lord welcome us even as we become aware of the repulsiveness of our sin. Jesus was amazed, we are told, and commented that “not even in Israel have I found such faith.” It would have to be something to amaze Jesus. When we hear about Jesus how do we respond? Are we taking action to call upon him? This Centurion has much to teach us about faith.

Consider a further note on hearing. When Paul speaks about the importance of hearing he does not mean to say that the hearing impaired are unable to hear the gospel. The Spirit who transcended language barriers at Pentecost is able to overcome such barriers as well even as we do what we can to aid in such overcoming. Still, this does not diminish the importance of hearing. In connecting this story of the Centurion hearing about Jesus with the story of Jesus’ delivering this great sermon Luke tells us, “After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum.” Note, “in the hearing of the people.”

Jesus was one who came preaching good news. His primary work was preaching—not healing though healing seemed to get all the publicity. Luke is the gospel writer who also gives us this saying of Jesus spoken during his instructions as he sent out his disciples to preach: “Whoever listens to you listens to me.” Note that Jesus do not say that to listen to the preacher of the good news was “as if” they were listening to Jesus. He said “Whoever listens to you listens to me.”

At the beginning of this sermon I shared with you the story of the family who made a trip to Rome to seek Papal blessing for their ill daughter. I made the point they are acting in faith consistent with the traditions of their church. In the Protestant church the emphasis in on the word preached for all the reasons I have shared with you about the God who speaks. So we have come together in faith today consistent with those traditions and understanding to hear the word read and preached. We come in faith to do so because of our Lord’s promise that we are listening to him. Yes I know it is my voice and that you have to do some filtering of my sermon but the mystery is that will hear a word from him as we listen. (Preaching is both oral an aural.)

It is interesting to note that Jesus set up his headquarters for his itinerant preaching ministry in Capernaum. I am sure that the high regard this Centurion had for Jesus helped with his choice of location for the head office, so to speak.

3. We have been reflecting on the Centurion who has heard about Jesus and reached out to him in faith. He calls upon Jesus seeking our Lord’s healing touch for his highly regarded slave. Let take another moment or two to consider our witness to Jesus in another area of life.

In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks 2015 book, Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, he offers an insightful overview of the secularization of the Western world. He noted that traditional codes of ethics have been “replaced by the unfettered sanctity of the individual, autonomy, rights, and choice.”

He stated that “By the late Twentieth century most secularists had come to the conclusion that religion, if not refuted, has at least been rendered redundant. We no longer need the Bible to explain the universe. Instead we have science. We do not need sacred ritual to control human destiny. In its place we have technology. When we are ill, we do not need prayer. We have doctors, medicine, and surgery. If we are depressed there is an alternative to religious consolation; antidepressant drugs. … People are uncertain about the existence of God, but are reasonably sure that if we don’t bother him, he won’t bother us.”

Sacks continued, “Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state have enabled us to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence. … But they do not and cannot answer the three questions every reflective individual will ask at some time in his or her life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? … The result is that the twenty-first century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, Schocken Books, 2015, pp. 12-13)

It is my experience that one of the haunting questions in our era is meaning. I am hesitant to say that Jesus gives life meaning because the gospel witnesses that we have a deeper problem of which this lack of a sense of meaning is a symptom. We humans have turned away from the relationship that grounds our existence. I do want to say at full volume that in Christ Jesus we will find the one who speaks and calls from us our true selves.

When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave.