Sermon 5th Sunday of Epiphany, NL3, 5 February 2017
The Gospel lesson for the 5th Sunday of Epiphany is from the Gospel of Luke the 7th chapter. Glory to you O Lord.
NRS Luke 7:1 After Jesus1 had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum.
2 A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death.
3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave.
4 When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy of having you do this for him,
5 for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us."
6 And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof;
7 therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.
8 For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this,' and the slave does it."
9 When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."
10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
11 Soon afterwards1 he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him.
12 As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town.
13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, "Do not weep."
14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, "Young man, I say to you, rise!"
15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus1 gave him to his mother.
16 Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has risen among us!" and "God has looked favorably on his people!"
17 This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
The Gospel of our Lord. Praise to you O Christ.
Pray: Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
We've all recognized the "Do as I say, not as I do" leader haven't we? And there's the old maxim, "RHIP, Rank Has Its Privileges." Sometimes we don't want to talk about this because it requires us to look in the mirror and perhaps not like what we find. Better is someone who not only "Talks the talk but walks the walk." This one tends to adhere to the rare saying, "RHIR, Rank Has Its Responsibility." This is the kind of leadership that Jesus lives.
The Gospel of Luke is intricately written. The narrative weaves from story into story, into story to meet Luke’s objective of having the "certainty concerning the things we have been taught." (Luke 1:4 ESV) about Jesus. Today's Gospel reading is a good example. We take up our Bibles to the last half of Luke chapter 6. After Jesus prays all night then selects 12 of his disciples to be apostles he preaches what is known as the Sermon on the Plain. In this sermon we hear, "Love your enemies and do good." "Do good to those who hate you." "Bless those who curse you." "Pray for those who abuse you." "Give to anyone who begs of you." "Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful." and the Golden Rule, "As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them."
As those words begin to sink in to his disciples, Jesus is confronted by the request of a Roman Centurion. Now when we and the first Christians who heard Luke's Gospel hear the word centurion we remember there was a centurion present when Christ was crucified. He oversaw Jesus' beating and the mockery of him. There is no love lost between the Jewish citizenry and Roman centurions. Would it be a strange twist of fate if this centurion was the same one who put Jesus on the cross? We will never know.
But this centurion seems different. He first sent Jewish elders to make a request and plead his case to Jesus. The elders said that he is worthy to have Jesus come and heal the centurion's slave. “Look at all of the things he has done for us! He's friendly, he built our synagogue.” But worthy? Is anyone worthy of Jesus' attention? Regardless, Jesus went with them. As he approached the centurion's house another delegation arrived, this time friends of the centurion. They brought an unusual message. "I am not worthy." The centurion knew about worthiness. He has looked into the mirror and knows what he sees. "Don't come into my house. I know what that will mean to you. You will be unclean because you have stepped into the house of a gentile. You don't need to do that. Merely say the word and permit my servant to be healed. Give your permission and my servant will be healed."
Jesus was astounded by this message from the centurion. Apparently of all of the healing that he has done no one had expressed this kind of faith, this understanding of the relationship between man and God. No one is worthy, yet all may ask. Only the word is needed. The word of God created all of creation. The word of God can heal, even at a distance, even out of sight of the one healed. The request is made not even knowing whether it would be heard or acted upon.
In his action of healing, Jesus walked the walk after he talked the talk in his Sermon on the Plain. To the first Christians who heard this Gospel they heard that the power and authority of Jesus is present even when Jesus is no longer physically present. Who else do we know that has faith in Jesus based only upon the witness of others? Who has never seen him and yet learn to have faith in him? You and I perhaps?
The second part of our reading today is meant to compare and contrast with the healing of the centurion's slave.
A powerful Roman centurion made a request for healing of his slave.
A powerless widow wrapped in grief at the death of her only son made no request.
A delegation came to Jesus from the centurion.
Jesus interrupted the funeral crowd.
Jesus did not speak to the slave and the slave was healed.
Jesus spoke to the dead son and he returned to life and began to speak.
Jesus was amazed at the faith of the centurion.
The crowd was amazed being in the presence of God.
Jesus had compassion for the slave and for the widow.
In both cases the authority of Jesus is confirmed. It is part of his Epiphany, his revelation to the world. This first part of Luke's Gospel is all about finding out who this Jesus is. He is revealed by his talk and confirmed by his walk.
The story of Jesus healing the widow's son is then woven into the second half of chapter 7 where John the Baptist sends a delegation to Jesus asking, "Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?" Part of Jesus’ answer is that they should note what they have seen and heard. They recall the writing of the prophet Isaiah saying that when God comes the blind will receive their sight, the lame will walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the poor will have good news preached to them. John's disciples have seen and heard that Jesus has done all of this. And if that were not enough for them to know that this is the One they are looking for, the dead are raised.
As Luke's gospel progresses we and his first reader's begin to know more and more who this Jesus is. He fulfills those things expected when the Lord comes. "Jesus is Lord" is what these healings proclaim.
About faith and healing there seem to be four options, only two of which are covered in this text.
With the centurion and his slave there is faith and there is the gift of healing. This is what we often expect. It is as it should be. We ask in all faith and Jesus responds. It's fair.
With the widow and the raising to life of her son there is no mention of faith and yet there is healing out of the deep compassion of Jesus. This is the surprising case. Jesus acts without our intervention or at our request, he just acts. The dire situation of an individual is enough to move Jesus to action.
There is the case of no faith and no healing which is what happened when Jesus went home to Nazareth that we read about a few weeks ago. Few believed and few were healed. This case is also reasonable. Why should Jesus heal when there is no faith? When he doesn't heal in this case - it seems fair.
The difficult case is when there is faith, there is asking and yet there is no healing. This case we know well and perhaps we ask the question why? Why would Jesus heal in one case and not heal in the other when people of faith call on him? This is the question and the contention of Job. "Lord I believe, I have faith and you don't answer." The difficult thing for us is that the LORD moves in the way that meets his will and desire. This is a control and authority beyond us. We don't know how to deal with this kind of freedom. It is something we cannot control and influence. It isn't like gravity that always works, and we can take advantage of that consistency and bend it to our will. We cannot do that with God. God gets to decide. We don't. He makes the rules and he can change the rules. He retains all initiative for himself. He cannot be manipulated by any of our claims of faith, good works, or worthiness. From us there is righteous fear in the presence of ultimate goodness and power as we realize our weakness and unworthiness.
However, in the gap between our weakness and God's power, our unworthiness and God's goodness is where we find grace, another thing that is beyond our control. God heals and does not heal both believers and non-believers every day out of his grace, compassion, and wisdom beyond our limitations to know or understand. Often we give more credit for healing to our judicious use of exercise, diet, rest, motrin, drinking plenty of fluids, taking two aspirin and seeing the doc in the morning than we do to the grace from our Great Physician. If only we would see God's hand in more things that happen in life. We too would stand in awe like the crowds surrounding the formerly dead son and his mother. We too would cry "God has visited his people!"
These stories of Jesus' compassionate healing and raising to life emphasize that Jesus continues healing and raising today because that is what he has already done in the past. We rely on the unchangeable nature of a compassionate and wise God who should receive our thanks and praise in all circumstances, even beyond what we can see and know.
Jesus holds the highest rank and yet he rejects his privilege and grasps a responsibility. He talks the talk then walks the walk. We could have no better example and friend. Blessed be our Lord and Savior. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.