Sermon: Sunday, 4th July, 2021
Scripture: Luke 7:1-10
Speaker: John Johnstone
I don’t know if you have been amazed by anything recently. Perhaps you’ve been amazed watching a nature programme and seeing dolphins working as one as they fish for their lunch. Or you’ve been amazed by a new scientific discovery. Or you’ve visited somewhere on holiday without high expectations, and you’ve been amazed just how lovely the place was, the accommodation and the scenery. Sometimes people amaze us too, in good ways and bad. We can be amazed by a great act of kindness, or how resilient people can be in adversity, but also by the cruel acts of people.
We only read of Jesus being amazed twice in the Bible. The first time, he is amazed at the unbelief of his own people in Nazareth, where he grew up. Jesus performed miracles there, taught in the synagogue, not to mention nearly three decades growing up as the perfect example of humanity. In spite of all the evidence, Mark chapter 6 says the people ‘took offence at Jesus’ and that Jesus was ‘amazed at their lack of faith’. (Mark 6:6) They were given every opportunity and evidence to believe in him.
Here, in Luke 7, we meet a centurion soldier. Having such power and wealth, we might expect him to be proud and self-reliant, but the opposite is the case. Even though he has no background in the things of God, Jesus is amazed, not at his kindness, but at his faith: When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, ‘I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.’ (Mark 7:9)
Faith is so central to Christianity that without it we cannot enter Heaven, and will perish. Faith is the one thing which God wants from us. He wants our faith – our belief in Jesus:
• For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
• Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because ‘the righteous will live by faith.’ (Galatians 3:11)
• They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved — you and your household.’ (Acts 16:31)
Well, if the one thing God requires from us is faith in Jesus, and if this centurion has faith so great it amazes Jesus, then what better use of our time than to learn from his wonderful example.
We’ve read the story. Jesus enters Capernaum, some 80 miles north-east of Jerusalem. There he meets some Jewish elders, who plead with him to come and heal a centurion’s servant. Jesus does heal the servant in a magnificent way, without being physically present with the servant, and without even uttering a single word. This is a wonderful healing miracle.
1. The wrong way to come to Jesus
Let’s spend a few moments thinking about the Jewish elders. They come to the right person – Jesus. However, they come in the wrong way, and that is really tragic. What do they say to Jesus? What is their thinking, their reasoning? ‘This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.’ (Mark 7:5)
They are so near to Jesus and yet so far. They are basically saying to Jesus, ‘You ought to come and help this servant Jesus, because the centurion is a good person, a good man. He has been generous with his money, helping us to build a place of worship! He loves the nation of Israel. Jesus, look what this centurion has done! He is kind; he cares for his servant. He is virtuous. If anyone deserves your help, Jesus, it’s this man.’ This thinking is wrong-headed. You cannot come to Jesus thinking he owes you help because you’ve been so kind, and hard-working and generous. They wrongly assume that God’s favour can be earned. It cannot.
Their thinking is totally wrong. It’s dangerous. The centurion contradicts them completely in verse 6, saying the exact opposite: ‘I don’t deserve to have you come under my roof’.
Here’s the sad part: most people have the same kind of wonky thinking as these Jewish elders, thinking that they deserve to get into Heaven because the good they do outweighs the bad. They think that if God works with a massive set of scales, then their good will get them through. But God isn’t weighing up our good against the bad; rather, he just wants our trust to be in his Son Jesus. That’s all. If you want to enter Heaven, it’s not about how you think you can get there. But about accepting God’s way to get there – which is all that really matters.
Let me be clear, no one can earn God’s forgiveness by trying to be a good person: no one who relies on the law is justified before God. All religions of the world get this wrong. They say you might get to Heaven through your own merits. For example, Islam says keep the 5 pillars and you might get there. Or Hinduism, which says if you do good in this life, you will come back as something better in the next. Or at many Scottish funerals, where people wrongly assume their loved ones are now in Heaven because they gave to charity, respected the church, paid their taxes and aren’t as bad as some.
Perhaps you come to God in this wrong way. You might think: ‘God I deserve your help, after all, I come to church a lot, and do my best’. Wrong. God does not owe us anything. In fact, the truth is we have all let him down badly. We don’t love him as we ought to. And we don’t thank him for what he has done as we ought to. That’s the reality. That’s the truth. Thinking you deserve things from God is the totally wrong way to come to him. In short, we will never be good enough to commend ourselves to God.
2. The right way to come to Jesus
As I said, the centurion doesn’t agree with his friends, the Jewish elders. He’s uncomfortable with what they have said and sets the record straight. He says: ‘I don’t deserve’. This is the way to come to Jesus; with humility and with a true estimation of ourselves.
Christian faith involves knowing who Jesus really is and knowing who we really are. Verse 3 tells us that the centurion has ‘heard of Jesus’. He hasn’t yet met him personally, but in all likelihood has heard of some of his miracles and some of his teaching. Jesus had already healed a paralytic and calmed a storm with a word. And now the centurion faces a crisis; his highly valued servant is dying and he can do nothing about it. Yes, he has influence and money and is highly regarded, but these things are useless in the face of death. The centurion has nothing to offer in this situation, and he knows it. He needs help, and believes Jesus can help. And he takes this problem to Jesus.
Notice that he calls Jesus ‘Lord’ (verse 6). This is astonishing, as to many, Jesus is just a Jewish Galilean peasant. And to many, the centurion was the one who warranted respect. The centurion knows the reality is the opposite. I love this man’s faith so much. Today, so many people think about faith as blindly believing something even though we have no evidence.
R Dawkins: “Faith is blind trust in the absence of evidence.”
But that’s not what faith is at all. Faith means believing the facts and evidence about Jesus to be true. Jesus really did heal people and perform miracles. The centurion believes Jesus has authority over sickness, based on factual reports. He calls Jesus Lord. And most importantly of all, he entrusts himself and his problem to Jesus. He asks for help. In that sense, his faith has found the only correct resting place, in the person of Jesus Christ.
We get a further window into the centurion’s thinking about Jesus. He has a deep understanding of the power and authority which Jesus has. His logic is this: in the same way that he has authority over 100 men, because of his status as a Roman centurion, Jesus has authority over sickness, because of his status as the Lord, the Son of God. He knows Jesus doesn’t even have to meet the sick servant: (verse7) ‘But say the word, and my servant will be healed.’
Do you have this kind of faith in Jesus? Today, we know more about Jesus than this man would have. We know he is the Creator of all things, who died, and rose from the dead on the third day. We know he is the eternal Son of God. We have more reasons to trust Jesus!
But do you come to the Lord in prayer with your great needs, knowing that you don’t deserve anything from him, but because he is loving and merciful you ask him for help? This is true faith: believing Jesus alone is able to help you with your deepest needs, and then actually coming to him in prayer and asking for his help. You are no longer relying on yourself but on him. Jesus was amazed at the centurion’s confidence in him.
3. How do you come to Jesus?
We see in the Jewish elders how not to come to Jesus, and that’s coming self-righteously, as if he owes us something. We see the right way to come to Jesus in the centurion, and that’s coming with a sense of our unworthiness. Actually, this is a significant them in Luke’s gospel.
John the Baptist gets the importance of humility. ‘I baptise you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’ (Luke 3:16)
Peter gets it. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8)
The lost son gets it. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ (Luke 15:21)
The centurion gets it.
And Jesus states it.: So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ (Luke 17:10)
Do you get it? Do you realise God doesn’t owe you anything? Do you realise the truth that actually your bad deeds outweigh the good, and you can do nothing about them – only Jesus can.
Before the 17th century, people thought that if you could see through a glass of water then it was clean and you could drink it. But then a Dutchman called Leeuwenhoek looked at some clear water with his new microscope lens. He said: ‘I now saw very plainly that these were little eels, or worms, lying all huddled up together and wriggling… the whole water seemed to be alive with these multifarious animalcules.’
Before you are a Christian, you look at your life like a glass of water which seems pretty clean and drinkable. But when we see what’s really there with the microscope of the Bible, which helps us to see what is really there, we see the truth about ourselves, and know that all we can do is cast ourselves on Jesus. What does God owe you? I hope we can all say ‘nothing’.
But’s let’s end wanting to emulate the centurion’s faith. He had a huge need he could do nothing about. Surely, we all have many of those. As Christians, when dealing with our problems, whether in raising children, marriage, work, battling sin, loneliness or whatever it might be, are you really going to try and do these things in your own strength? Or, like the centurion, will you come humbly, acknowledging your poverty and need before God, pleading for his mercy, and having confidence in Jesus’ ability to help you? Can we come to Jesus and say ‘I believe in your power to help me with my addiction, my relationships, my sense of dissatisfaction, my disillusionment’.
And if you aren’t a Christian yet let me assure you, only Jesus can give you hope, forgiveness, eternal life and peace. But he wants your faith. Stop trusting in your own resources. Move away from any thoughts of entitlement with God. Throw yourself on his love and mercy, asking for help, knowing that if he has the power to make the universe, then he has the power to forgive you and transform your life. Jesus Christ is totally trustworthy. Will you entrust yourself to him. You can do so right now by talking to him in prayer. Why delay?