Such Faith as This
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Today’s sermon marks the fifth in our series on the miracles of Jesus. So far we’ve heard about how Jesus turned the water into wine, raised a widow’s son from the dead, healed a man who was paralyzed and fed a multitude with only five loaves and two fish. The story today is another one of those miracles that’s prompted by the faith of a third party. It’s unique in that the third party – the one who exercised the faith – was a Gentile. Let’s take it from the top: “After he (Jesus) had finished speaking in the hearing of the people, he entered into Capernaum.”
If you read the gospels carefully, you’ll find that, chapter after chapter, Jesus is busy preaching the gospel, healing the sick and teaching the people about the kingdom of God. As the curtain opens on the story today we find him on his way home to Capernaum after several days on the road. We can imagine he was looking forward to a well-deserved rest. Little did he know it, but there was already a crisis brewing to which he would be asked to lend a hand.
What’s the old adage, “There’s no rest for the weary?” This is the picture we get of the life of Jesus. No soon than he’d finish a lesson, he’d be asked to perform a miracle. No sooner than he’d settle a dispute, a new crisis would arise. Yet, not once did Jesus turn anyone away because he was too busy or too tired or too preoccupied with more important things to do. He was always able to muster the strength to go the extra mile. Why? Because he cared. Matthew says it best: “…when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion for them, because they were…like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:35-36)
What this says to me is that, just as Jesus went out of his way to minister to the needs of others, so will he be there for us, if we’re willing. All we have to do is ask.
As Jesus entered the city limits of Capernaum, a group of elders from the synagogue were waiting for him. They told him that the local centurion had sent word for him that his servant was near death and wanted him to come at once.
Now, in a city like Capernaum, Roman centurions were the law. They commanded a company of a hundred soldiers, hence the name, “centurion.” Centurions were to be respected, even feared. They had a lot of authority and they could exert whatever force was necessary to keep the peace.
This particular centurion stands out in several ways: He obviously held the Jewish people in high esteem. The elders told Jesus, “…he loves our nation, and he built our synagogue for us.”
All the more remarkable was that he loved his slave. In Jesus’ day, slaves were non-entities.
As one commentator put it, they were regarded as implements or tools to be discarded and replaced whenever they wore out; least of all, something to be concerned about. The fact that the centurion worried about the health and well-being of his slave sets him apart from the others.
Several years ago, a minister in Dallas was being considered as the new President of a seminary in the Midwest. The search committee came to his church for an interview. They were favorably impressed. Afterward, they asked to speak to the custodian of his church. He was surprised and said, “Sure, but why?” The moderator of the committee said, “We’ve checked your references, and they’re glowing, of course. That’s what we’d expect from your colleagues and superiors. What we’re interested to know is what your employees say about you.”
What do you think? If your admission into heaven depended on the word of the cashier who checks your groceries or the young man or woman who waits on your table at the restaurant, would you get in? In the Parable of the Great Judgment, Jesus said, “Most certainly I tell you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40) It’s the way we treat those on the lower rungs of the ladder that best determines our relationship with Jesus Christ.
The elders told him about the centurion’s servant and so, Jesus went with them, but before they got to the centurion’s home, some of the centurion’s friends stopped them and gave Jesus this message:
“Lord, don’t trouble yourself,” the centurion said, “for I am not worthy for you to come under my roof. Therefore I didn’t even think myself worthy to come to you; but say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man placed under authority, having under myself soldiers. I tell this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
As far as the centurion was concerned all that was necessary was for Jesus to speak, to give the nod, and the deed would be done. “Just say the word.” That’s the way it worked in the military. Why should it be any different for the Son of God?
Little did he know it, but the centurion had put his finger on the essence of God’s power. Remember the story of creation? In the Book of Genesis we read,
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty. Darkness was on the surface of the deep. God’s Spirit was hovering over the surface of the waters. God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (1:1-3)
Six times God spoke, and by the Word of God the creation came into being: The sun and the moon and the stars in the heavens; the day and the night and the seasons of the year; the land and the sea and the sky above; the plants and the trees and the fruit of the earth; the birds and the fish and all the animals of the field; men and women and the breath of life. God created them all, and he did so by the power of His Word.
When God speaks, miracles happen, and that’s the essence of the miracle today.
Remember the story about the night Jesus and his disciples were in the boat out on the Sea of Galilee? A storm came up, and the boat was about to sink. All the while, Jesus was asleep down below. The disciples cried out, “Save us, Lord! We are dying!” And Jesus got up and called to the wind and to the waves, and as quickly as it had come up, the storm ceased. The disciples looked at each other and said, “What kind of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Matthew 8:23-27)
“Just say the word,” the centurion said, “and my servant will be healed.”
When Jesus heard the centurion’s message, he was amazed and said, “Most certainly I tell you, I haven’t found so great a faith, not even in Israel.” And when the friends returned to the centurion’s home, they found the slave had been healed.
Now, all this sounds well and good, but pretend for just a moment that you’re one of the elders who came out to meet Jesus on the road into Capernaum. Imagine yourself as one of them, the faithful, who attends synagogue every Sabbath, who keeps the law and observes all the holy days. How would you feel, having summoned Jesus to come to the aid of this Roman centurion, and hearing Jesus say, “I haven’t found so great a faith, not even in Israel.” Wouldn’t that be a slap in the face?
What did the centurion have that the elders didn’t? He certainly wasn’t Jewish. In a word, he had blind faith. With nothing whatsoever to substantiate his belief, he was confident that Jesus could heal his slave. And according to the Letter to the Hebrews, this is the essence of faith: “…is assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
And this is the problem I’d for us to grapple with: Too often we hedge our bets. We pray to God and look to God to order and provide, yet we never quite let go of the reins. One way or the other, we want to be in control, just in case God doesn’t come through. We take a leap of faith, but we keep one foot on the ground.
Years ago we were living in Sherman, Texas. It was the summer of 1982, one of the hottest, driest summers on record. The temperature soared into the hundreds day after day. It hadn’t rained in what seemed like forever. We were all getting pretty edgy.
The merchants at the Sher-Den Mall decided to seize the moment. They hired a rainmaker in Oklahoma to come down and do a rain-dance. They publicized it in the newspaper and on TV: “Come to Sher-Den Mall this Saturday morning at 11:00 o’clock and see Mr. Woogie Watchetaker perform an authentic Indian rain dance.”
We went, of course, and took the kids. So did a lot of other people. When got there the parking lot was full. There was a carnival atmosphere in the air. I don’t think anyone seriously believed an old Cherokee Indian could make it rain.
Sure enough, at 11:00 o’clock Woogie Watchetaker made his way through the crowd. He was dressed to the nines, I guess you could say. He had more feathers and beads and the finest pair of moccasins you could imagine. When he got to the center of the crowd he stopped, and the folks backed away to give him room.
He mumbled some sort of incantation, then started to dance. He sang as he hopped from one foot to the other, twisting and turning as he moved about in a circle. Every once in a while he’d look up the heavens and gesture, but, for the most part, he kept his head bowed to the ground.
His feet never stopped moving.
I don’t know how long the dance lasted – maybe ten to fifteen minutes. I’m pretty sure the merchants got their money’s worth. When it was over, old Woogie was panting and sweating like a stuck hog. We gave him a polite round of applause and went home. As far as we were concerned it was back to business as usual.
And yet, that night we heard it thunder. And then it started to rain. Was it because of Woogie’s rain dance? Or was it because a front had moved into the area? It’s a moot point. All that really mattered to me was how an old Cherokee Indian had had the gumption to dance in front of a crowd of strangers and call on the Almighty to make it rain. And to think, he wasn’t even a Christian as far as I know, much less a Presbyterian!
“I haven’t found so great a faith, not even in Israel,” Jesus said.
Well, that was a long time ago. Yet, I still think it’s true: If you and I were half as willing to trust in the power of God’s grace and love and share that faith openly with others, we could transform the world into the very kingdom of God on earth. Let us pray:
“O for a faith that will not shrink, though pressed by every foe, that will not tremble on the brink of any earthly woe. That will not murmur nor complain beneath the chastening rod, but in the hour of grief or pain, will lean upon its God. Lord, give me such a faith as this, and then, whate’re may come I’ll taste, e’en now, the hallowed bliss of an eternal home.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2005 Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.