Funeral Interupted

Luke 7:1-17

We’re a couple of weeks into our series on “Encountering Jesus” as we look at those stories in the Gospels where Jesus touched the lives of people and changed their lives forever. In a few weeks I’m going to give some of you the opportunity to share your encounter with Jesus. I want to hear how he has touched your life – that moment when he became more than just a storybook character and became real in your life.

This morning, I want us to look at two stories of healing, as Jesus touched, not just the lives of these two people, but all of the lives around them:

When Jesus had finished saying all this in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” So Jesus went with them. He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 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.” Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well. (Luke 7:1-10)

Everything about this story is remarkable. It might be tempting just to lump it in with all of the other stories of healing and shake our heads in amazement and say, “he did it again!” But every element of this story begs us to notice that something special is happening. Walk with me through the story…

What’s ironic is that the least important part in the story is played by the one who receives the greatest blessing – the servant who is healed! He is the object of everybody’s concern, but we never meet him, hear from him, or learn what he thinks about all this.

Next we meet the elders of the Jews. This is where it gets interesting because knowing what you know about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, how would you expect them to feel about this Roman centurion? They should hate him – at least despise him – but certainly they would not go to bat for him. But these Jews (and not just ordinary Jews – these are leaders of the Jews) - they love this Gentile. They admire him and come to Jesus and earnestly plead for Jesus to help him. Now, we’ve seen it all!

Well, that makes us wonder about what kind of man this Centurion must be. He’s a ranking officer of the Roman army – he commands a group of a hundred men – officers and soldiers below him – other officers above him – about the equivalent of a captain. Our picture of the Romans is usually molded by those soldiers who arrested, tortured and crucified Jesus – but this man is cut from different cloth.

He is a man of courage and trustworthiness – the Roman historian Polybius writes of the qualifications of a Centurion – “they must not be so much seekers after danger as men who can command, steady in action, and reliable; they ought not to be over anxious to rush into the fight; but when hard pressed they must be ready to hold their ground and die at their posts.”

He is a decent and compassionate man – he cares about people. He cares enough about the Jews that he financed the building of their synagogue. He cares about his servants – so much that he begs Jesus to come and help his servant who is dying.

He is a humble man – twice he sends word to Jesus, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.” And then, “… I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you.” And then as he communicates his understanding of Jesus’ authority, notice where he places himself. What he does not say is, “I’m an important man with authority.” Instead, he says, “I myself am a man under authority…”

Do not underestimate him though, for this Centurion is obviously a man of power and wealth and prestige. He is wealthy enough to build a synagogue for the Jews; he is in authority over a large contingent of soldiers; and he is known and loved by people who should by all rights hate him.

The crux of his interaction with Jesus comes as he explains what he understands about authority – “But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 

Now hear what he is saying to Jesus: “You don’t have to come to my house to heal my servant, because I believe you have such authority that all you need to do is say the word and your command will be obeyed.” He had grasped that the power of Jesus was the power of God. This wasn’t a grasping at straws, this was a confident “your will will be done. Period.”

Now, listen to Jesus’ reaction: “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.’”

Only two times do any of the Gospel writers say that Jesus was amazed. Once, in Mk 6, Mark says that Jesus was amazed at the people’s lack of faith, in his hometown of Nazareth; and here in Lk 7, Jesus is amazed at the faith of the Centurion. Look up the word in your concordance and 29 times the writers tell us that the people were amazed at Jesus, but only twice is Jesus amazed – once at a lack of faith, and once at the faith of this Centurion – and hang on to your seat – the one whose faith has amazed him… is a Gentile.

He is not intending here to minimize the faith of the Jews, but to magnify the faith of this amazing Gentile. Luke does that, you know – he often reminds us that Jesus’ mission extends far beyond the borders of Judea. When we get Luke’s second volume – Acts, we will meet another devout, praying, God-fearing Centurion whose faith will be the launching point for the entrance of the Gentiles into the church – Cornelius.

This story is about seeing things the way God sees them – that is really what faith is about. Do you remember how Paul described what it takes to live confidently in this world while knowing that our real home is in heaven? It’s a phrase he used over and over in Romans to describe a life that is pleasing to God – it’s a phrase we find in 2 Cor. 5:7, when Paul writes, “we walk by faith and not by sight.” 

“By faith” – it’s a different way of looking at the world. It’s a different way of living your life. “By faith” doesn’t hang its confidence on expensive houses, luxury cars and large bank accounts. “By faith” isn’t about job security and pension plans and IRA’s. “By faith” doesn’t function on safety nets and risk assessments and escape hatches.

Now don’t misunderstand me – “by faith” isn’t a carefree thrill-seeking, risk-taking lifestyle that ignores common sense and refuses to plan for the future. “By faith” doesn’t mean you don’t invest for retirement, or make plans for the future, or buy green bananas. Jesus is not endorsing short-sightedness or irresponsibility.

“By faith” is, in fact, having such depth of vision that you see beyond all the worldly appearances of security and planning and confidence to see where real security comes from. Paul contrasts “by faith” with “by sight” – and “by sight” eliminates God from the way you live. “By sight” says I’m only going to trust what I can do, or accomplish, or accumulate. It has no room for God, because I can’t see God, and what I can’t see I won’t trust.

“By faith” though, says even if I can’t see God, I will trust what he says. What he says may not make any sense to me, but I will obey him regardless. If Jesus says follow him, I’m not going to ask how long, how much, through what? I’m committed to follow him regardless of the cost or consequences.

And let me confess something – I’m a “by sight” kind of guy. I like to know what my next step is going to be – I would like to be the one who mapped it out and built the path on which I’ll take it. So, there are times when “by faith” scares me to death, or at least wears me out waiting on God to say “step.”

And I suspect the Centurion in Luke 7 was that kind of man – military people usually seem to have that kind of personality. But what he saw in Jesus changed all that. He was so confident that what he saw in Jesus was the real thing that he said, “Just say the word and he will be healed” knowing without a doubt that it would be done.

And Jesus says, “I wish my church had that kind of faith.”

When we step into the next story in vs. 11, Luke places it there with a purpose. In the previous story, Jesus had compassion on a man who was powerful and wealthy, but in this story Jesus’ heart goes out to a woman who is weak and helpless. In the previous story, Jesus responded to the Centurion’s faith, in this story, he responds to the widow’s need. “Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.” Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country” (Luke 7:11-17).

Nain is just a few miles from Capernaum – it is more than likely that the “large crowd” that followed him was also there when he healed the Centurion’s servant. Can you imagine how all this was snowballing?

They have walked together – this large entourage – following Jesus – excitement, expectation – some are true believers, some are along for the show. But every one of them is convinced that Jesus is no ordinary man.

As they come to the city gates of Nain, they encounter a funeral procession – Jesus’ crowd is going in, the funeral crowd is going out. A celebration going one way, death and mourning going the other. It’s especially sad, because at the front of the funeral is the mother – she is a widow and this is her only son (in case you’re interested – the word is monogenes – the word used to describe God sending his only begotten son.) I imagine this mother is weeping inconsolably – and everybody is weeping with her and for her, because a widowed, childless woman in the ancient world had no one to support her. Imagine the saddest funeral you’ve ever been to (a baby dies of SIDS, a young mother dies of cancer, a husband is killed in a car wreck) – this one is worse. She has already lost her husband, now she has lost her son – her only son – who took care of her. She would now be destitute – she would soon become a beggar – and soon after that she would most certainly starve to death. That will put the brakes on any celebration.

Back up a second and watch this through the eyes of Jesus’ followers. They have seen him do miracles and heal sick people and cast out demons. But this young man is dead. Jesus may be good, but he’s not that good. Is he?

Jesus is in the lead of his group, the widowed bereaved mother is in the lead of her group. Jesus approaches her, and watch what happens: “When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, ‘Don’t cry.’ Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, ‘Young man, I say to you, get up!’ The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.”

And I hope tears are rolling down your cheeks, because I guarantee there wasn’t a dry eye in Nain. What they have just witnessed is beyond amazing. Luke writes, “They were filled with awe and praised God.”  They said, “A great prophet has appeared among us - God has come to help his people.” 

Not even death can stop him. God is truly among us.

A Brazilian missionary worked among a tribe of Indians in a remote rain forest deep in the Amazon. A contagious disease began to spread through the tribe – their only hope was to seek medical attention in a clinic in another part of the jungle. But to get there, they must cross the river – none of them had ever done that – they believed that evil spirits lived in the water and that no one could enter the water and live. No matter how much the missionary argued and explained and begged, no one would dare cross the river. One day they stood on the bank as he tried again to persuade them to cross the river, when suddenly he turned and dove into the water and swam the breadth of the river and came out on the other side, fists clenched in the air in victory! And the tribe dove in to join him.

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