Luke 7: 1-10
O God, put away from us all hurtful things and give us those things which are profitable for us that we may proclaim, the Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God. Amen.
The OT reading and the Gospel are two very powerful stories. I went back and forth about which one I should preach on. The 1st Kings passage is unbelievably dramatic. I mean how can you top Elijah versus 450 prophets of Baal in the God-defining duel of the burning sacrifices?!
I just love Elijah, how he taunts the prophets of Baal who have limped around their altar all morning, crying aloud to their God and cutting themselves until blood gushed over them, in order to entreat their god to accept their offering by sending down fire upon their altar. In contrast, Elijah very simplistically puts 12 stones on top of each other, one for each tribe of Israel, and lays on the wood and sacrifice.
But it’s what he does next that I particularly love—he says bring 4 jars filled with water and then pour them over the sacrifice—a gutsy and provocative move to be sure. But wait, he ratchets up the challenge and says, do it again, and then again, until the water has not only completely soaked the altar and everything on it but is also running down into the trench around the altar. Can’t you just see him standing there like some martial arts master with arm outstretched saying to Baal’s prophets, “Bring it!” He doesn’t plead and cry out for hours on end for God to hear him. He merely says a prayer and asks God to show himself to his people and call their hearts back to him. Then, “boom!” fire descends and consumes the offering, the altar, and every drop of water until there is nothing left but dust. There is nothing to be said except what the people cry out as they fall on their faces, “the Lord indeed is God, the Lord indeed is God.”
Now people often refer to the God of the OT and the God of the NT, like they’re two different entities, but as our children affirmed for me last week in our time together, there is only one God. Yes, the God in the OT can seem vengeful and violent sometimes, especially in comparison to Jesus the divine revelation of a compassionate and unconditionally loving God. In the face of such disparity, I would invite you to consider that it is not God that changed, but rather our perceptions and ideas about God that changed, and dare I say, may even have matured.
That being said, and “the Lord indeed being God” affirmed, let’s take a look at how that plays out hundreds of years later in a Roman occupied territory called Palestine. Now Jesus is on his road trip throughout this land to proclaim that God is, and that the Kingdom is near. As he enters the town of Capernaum, no doubt surrounded not only by his disciples but also the people of the region who have come out to see him, there appears a contingent of Jewish elders who have come before him on behalf of a Roman centurion who needs a favor that only Jesus can do. He needs him to heal his highly valued servant who is close to death.
Ok let’s stop there. This Centurion is one of the oppressors of the Israelites. He is the enemy and part of the regime that the Jews are praying to be freed from. And yet, here is a group of Jewish elders who have come to plead his case before Jesus. Apparently he’s not the usual enemy type. This man, although an officer of the occupation, loves the Jewish people and even built them a synagogue. He has obviously earned the respect and possibly the love of the people he helps to oppress and they have come to Jesus to attest that he is worthy of this favor of healing.
Now what the Centurion doesn’t understand is that Jesus is the emissary and Son of God sent to proclaim God’s love and redemption to all people, but he does understand that Jesus is someone who has authority and is to be treated with honor and respect. As such he, unlike the Jewish elders, doesn’t think he’s worthy to come to Jesus himself. And in fact as Jesus approaches his home he sends more friends to say that he isn’t worthy to even have Jesus come under his roof. He believes that since Jesus is this person of authority that all he needs to do is say the word of healing and his servant will be made well.
Now understand that this man is not a Jew. He doesn’t come from the tradition that says God spoke Creation into being. He doesn’t know about the saying in Isaiah that God’s word will not return to him empty but will accomplish that which God purposes for it.1 No, he is a soldier who knows and trusts the paradigm of authority.
Neither does Luke say that he is a convert or that he thinks that Jesus is the Messiah. He just believes that Jesus is the one who can do the thing he so desperately wants. Note he also believes that Jesus would be willing to help him. So not only is this the most unlikely of men to come to ask Jesus for help but he is also the most unexpected and surprising model for faith. In fact Jesus is amazed at his faith and says that his own people have not exhibited this degree of believing.
Remember that Luke wrote this Gospel 30 or 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and it was intended to be an orderly account of that which was trustworthy and true regarding faith in Jesus Christ. It was meant to be an encouragement to his early Christian hearers and to help them make sense of their life of faith in the world. It is no less for us two thousand years later. So what can we glean about this Lord that is indeed God?
Well if Jesus ministered to one not only not of his tribe but in fact an enemy, then perhaps it would be good to remember that Jesus’ sphere of influence goes far beyond our church walls. He doesn’t just care about those who call him Son of God and worship him. He cares about the “Centurions” in our lives and world—the ones who don’t believe the way we do; that aren’t like us; that may even be in terms of labels, our enemy. I think it’s no coincidence that the passage immediately before today’s Gospel reading is the passage in which Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies and do good to those that hate them. Maybe when he says this, it’s not really in order “to heap burning coals upon their heads”2 as it says in Romans, but rather because those we deem our enemies may be capable of more faith than we have and are fully capable of being used by our God for good in the world.
Jesus follows up the love your enemy teaching with this question, “Why do you call me Lord when you won’t obey me?” Again, I don’t think this is an accident. We can call ourselves Christians but it’s fully possible that those who don’t, might be behaving more like Christians than we are if we aren’t in fact doing what he said.
Jesus said to love our enemies because our God is kind to the unthankful and to those who are wicked; therefore we must be compassionate just as our Father is compassionate (Lk 6:35b-36). There is no room to condemn those who do not believe or practice faith the way we do. God came to love and redeem all people, and God can and will use anyone to accomplish Her good purposes in the world.
May I invite you to pray for the “Centurions” in your life. Pray that God would use them for good. Give thanks for them and have faith that God cares about them and can include them in the divine plan for this world. There is nothing to fear, since we’ve prayed for God to remove all hurtful things from us and give us that which is profitable for us. And as we walk in faith waiting for God to accomplish this, may we be open to the unexpected and surprising, as we proclaim the Lord indeed is God.