Story behind the sermon (from Steve Mathewson)
Every so often, a particular sermon stirs a congregation—and their pastor!—in stronger ways than usual. It happened with this sermon. I suspect that the theme of the passage had a lot to do with this. This text and its theme drove me to my knees more so than other passages I have recently preached. A compelling text, then, bathed in more prayer than usual resulted in a more pronounced movement of the Spirit in people's hearts. I know that the Spirit was stirring people by the stories which several people shared with me minutes after I finished preaching. The response confirmed what I suspected as I prepared and delivered the sermon. People hunger to know what faith is, what it is not, and how it can be sustained in difficult circumstances.
As I studied the text and prepared the sermon, I felt two main challenges. The first was determining the length of the passage. This is a perennial challenge for anyone preaching the gospels. I preached this as part of a series on the Gospel of Luke—a series titled "Jesus and God's Plan for a Broken World." When I came to Luke 7, I thought about limiting my text to verses 1-10. This is actually the story of amazing faith. But I am always on the alert for ways that the gospel writers develop themes or ideas by the way they place stories side by side. Our preaching of the gospels suffers, I believe, when we do not see the larger portrait which the evangelists are painting!
The more I read and reflected on the text, the more the connection between Luke 7:1-10 and 7:11-17 became visible. The first story reveals the kind of faith that impresses or amazes Jesus. But why should we be so impressed with Jesus that we have this kind of faith? The second story answers this question, and it is a critical question! As I discussed the text with a couple of other staff members during the week prior to preaching it, one of them pointed out how we struggle with whether or not Jesus can be trusted. We do not verbalize this, but there is a nagging doubt about his compassion or his power. This can diminish our faith. While the first story does show Jesus' power through the healing of the centurion's son, it is the second story which really highlights Jesus' compassion and his power. This led me to preach the stories together, thus emphasizing the kind of faith that amazes Jesus and why Jesus is so amazing as to warrant such faith.
A second challenge I had was defining faith. Of course, faith is trust or dependence in Christ. But how presumptuous can faith be? In the first story, the centurion is convinced that Jesus can and will heal his ill servant. Does that mean when a young lady is battling breast cancer, amazing faith is the conviction that Jesus will heal her completely and give her ten or twenty or fifty more years of life? This is where I had to think in terms of biblical theology and factor in Jesus prayers that "Your will be done" (Matthew 6:10, 26:42), as well as God's refusal to remove Paul's thorn in the flesh in order to teach Paul that "my grace is sufficient for you" (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). I also perused discussions on faith by leading theologians and pastors through the ages. By combining definitions of John Wesley and John Calvin, I was able to define amazing faith as "a firm and certain conviction of God's goodness whatever the short-term outcome."
Though I preached this text as part of a series, it would make a great "stand alone" message for preachers who need to address questions or challenge listeners about the kind of faith that amazes Jesus!
Today we are going to talk about faith—amazing faith. Have you ever witnessed amazing faith? I'm not talking about blind faith. I've seen blind faith throughout my life. Our youngest son, Luke, was assumed to be a junior life guard at the pool when he was in first grade, simply because of his incredible height! They were going to put him in charge of kids at the pool, and he didn't even know how to swim! That's an example of blind faith—thinking that since Luke was tall enough, he must be a junior lifeguard.
I also remember when our daughter Anna was just ten years old. Our older daughter, Erin, was unavailable to babysit for some friends of ours, so our friends said, "Well, we know Anna. We've watched her. We're confident in her. Can Anna babysit instead?" This family had a two-year-old and a one-month-old baby, and Priscilla and I were a nervous wreck about it. But Anna did fine. I realized as I reflected on it that our friends weren't exercising blind faith; they knew our daughter. But that was amazing faith.
Well, today we're going to look at amazing faith—specifically, faith that Jesus calls amazing. There are only two places in the Gospels where we read that Jesus was amazed or astonished at something, and they both had to do with faith. In Mark 6:6, the story about Jesus coming to his hometown, we read that he was astonished; he was amazed at the lack of faith of the people in his hometown. But there is a second account where Jesus is amazed at the presence of faith. We're going to look at a story where Jesus is amazed at the presence of faith. We'll turn there in just a moment.
I want to remind you why faith is so important. In our lives we face various kinds of trials and difficulties, and we need to know whom we can trust in those difficult times. In whom are we going to put our faith? Faith is only as good as its object. We're going to look at a story this morning in which Jesus is amazed at someone's faith in him. And then there's a second story that we're going to look at that will help us see why we should be so impressed and amazed with Jesus that we would exercise that kind of faith in him.
The Gentile Centurion
The first story we're going to look at is in Luke 7:1-10. We have the Centurion. He is a military officer. He is Greco-Roman—not Jewish—and his title tells us that he has an important position. He might be a little bit like a sergeant, or maybe even a higher level than that in today's military. The word "Centurion" gives us a clue that he was in charge of 100 people. So he was someone who was under authority—there were those who were higher than him—but there were a lot of people under his authority. We read that his servant, one that he valued, was sick and about to die. He's heard of Jesus, so he sends some elders of the Jews to him to ask him to heal the servant. As you listen to this account, you know the outcome: Jesus is amazed by his faith, and by the time the men get back to his house, they find out that the servant has been healed.
What is so amazing about this Centurion's faith? What is it that causes Jesus to be astonished? It takes a lot for Jesus to be amazed when he looks at other people, right? I would suggest to you that the first thing that amazed Jesus was the Centurion's humility. We don't want to confuse humility and faith here, but there is a humility that has to precede faith, and this Centurion definitely had it. Perhaps the Centurion sent Jewish elders to Jesus because he didn't feel like he, a Greek Roman military officer, should approach a Jewish leader or teacher like Jesus and thought it might be more appropriate to send the elders of the Jews, given what he had done for them in building a synagogue. Regardless, he sends them to Jesus, and their approach is very interesting. They say to Jesus, "This man deserves to have you do this. This man is worthy." When I read that it struck me that that is the approach of an awful lot of people today, and maybe sometimes it's our own approach when we come to God. We think in terms of what God might owe us. And for a Centurion who grew up in Greco-Roman culture that was just part of his heritage. He understood that there was a definite honor system—if you do something good for me, I'll do something good for you. These elders of the Jews are taking that same approach.
By the way, the more I read some of the Jewish literature outside the Bible that was written in the time of Jesus, the more I realize that even in Jewish culture there was a strong sense of that give and take—God is gracious and has chosen the nation of Israel, but we still have to do certain things in order for God to do good to us. We know from Scripture that genuine faith will result in obedience, but we have to be careful not to cross a line and think that we have to start being really good in order for God to respond to us.
What's interesting is that after this Centurion sends messengers to Jesus, and he hears that Jesus is not far from the house, he doesn't even feel worthy for Jesus to come to his house! He sends another envoy and says, "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." The word for worthy is the same word that was used in verse 4, but the Centurion uses the word in the opposite way that his Jewish friends were using the word. He says, "I do not deserve this; I am not worthy to come to you." I'm quite certain that his posture was part of why Jesus was amazed. Here is someone who was a military officer, who was a person in authority, who could have looked at what he had done and said, "Look! I built the synagogue for this community." But instead of relying on what he has done, he recognizes that he's not worthy.
Remember that when we go through the Scripture and we study faith, we find that genuine faith is always preceded by humility. If we don't recognize that we are undeserving, what we're really expressing is not so much faith but a demand that God give us what we think we deserve. Of course, we don't deserve what we think we deserve. So Jesus, I believe, is amazed at this man's humility.
Secondly, I think Jesus was amazed because this man was a Gentile. At the very end of this account he tells the crowd, "I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel." We know previously that when he went to his hometown, he was astonished at the lack of faith of the people there. The other gospel writers fill the gaps, and John tells us that those who should have known him were the ones who did not accept him. But here is a Gentile who, I suppose, was not brought up steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures. His Bible was probably Homer and Plato. That's where ancient Greco-Roman people got their world view. So here is a guy from that culture and he has this amazing faith in Jesus! While the religious leaders were skeptical, doubtful, and unhappy because Jesus wasn't following their traditions, here is a Gentile who is accepting of Jesus—who legitimately trusts Jesus.
The main thing that impresses Jesus is found in the middle of this section in verse 8, where the Centurion's messengers speak for him saying, "For I myself am a man under authority with soldiers under me. I tell this one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to that one, 'Come,' and he comes. I say to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it." I am convinced that Jesus was amazed at the level of conviction that was part of this man's faith.
This story reminds me of another story back in the Old Testament, in 2 Kings 5. It was about another Gentile officer, Naaman, who was the captain of the Syrian army. Already in Luke's gospel, Jesus has used that story as an example. He talked about those with leprosy in the time of Elisha, the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed, only Naaman, the Syrian. So we've already been introduced to him in Luke's gospel, and I can't help but think about that story as I read this. Naaman came from Syria, he had leprosy, and he was looking for someone who could heal him. He had a Jewish slave girl, who said, "Well, there's a prophet back in my country who can do something for you." So Naaman went to Elisha, and Elisha told him, "Yes, we can heal you, but you must go wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River." The Jordan River, if it was swollen in the springtime and muddy, would be high and look like chocolate milk. Who would want dip seven times into that murky mess? But that's what Elisha told Naaman to do. Naaman was really reluctant. He was ready to go home and forget about it. It took some people who were part of his group to convince him to go through with the prophet's orders.
In contrast to that, here's this Centurion who seems to have no hesitation, no doubt, whatsoever. It's even more amazing because the guy sends this message to Jesus and says, "You don't even have to come here. I know how this works. I'm a military officer, and I give orders and I take orders, and I'm confident that if you give the order my servant will be healed." And Jesus basically says, "That is amazing faith." I'm really struck that the Centurion had never even seen Jesus. Maybe that's an encouragement for some of us, because after all, we've never seen Jesus in the flesh. But we can have confidence, too. We understand what the writer of Hebrews says in chapter 11, that faith is believing what we hope for, that it's being certain of what we do not see. And that's what this Centurion is doing. He has not seen Jesus. He's heard the reports. He's never touched him, yet he's confident in him. Jesus is amazed and astonished at this faith. He is amazed by the faith of an outsider—a faith rooted in humility and filled with conviction and absolute certainty that Jesus is going to come through for him.
The Widow of Nain
Why should we have the kind of faith in Jesus that would amaze him? To have faith in Jesus, we need to be amazed with him first, and I think this next story will help us understand why we have every reason to be impressed with Jesus, why we have every reason to be people who are so taken with him that we are willing to trust him, to come with humility to him and say, "I have nothing to offer, and I don't deserve this, but I have absolute confidence in you."
Let's look at verses 11-13; "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." So he walks into a funeral procession. Death is always tragic, but in this case it's even more so because the dead person is the only son of his mother, and his mother was a widow. A large crowd from the town was with her. In the ancient Jewish culture, if you were a childless widow, you had no future. There was absolutely no hope for you. You would not even have access to the family inheritance. You needed an heir. This is a woman who was without hope. She is widowed, and she had only one son; her hopes for security are gone. But look at verse 13: "When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her, and he said, 'Don't cry.'" What a moving description of Jesus. His heart went out to her. Some of your Bibles say, "He had compassion on her," and that's exactly what's going on here.
In our culture we use the idiom "his heart went out to her." That's a way of saying compassion. In the first century, people would have said, "my intestines—my guts—go out to you." The intestine was the seat of deep, deep emotion. And Jesus tells the widow not to cry. That's really interesting if you think back to the sermon on the plain when Jesus has already said, "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh." Jesus promised that great reversal, and his statement here is loaded with significance. He's not only saying, "Don't cry. Stop your mourning over this situation," but he's about to do something that is going to reverse her situation.
Before we look at what Jesus did, I hope that you take heart in the fact that you have a Savior who is compassionate for you. You need to remember that whatever dark valleys you're going through right now you have a Savior whose heart goes out to you. He is compassionate toward you. We really shouldn't be surprised by this, because Jesus is the one sent by God. We know the rest of the story, and we know some of the details that Luke hasn't quite shared yet and the disciples don't quite understand: Jesus is God in the flesh. We know that, and we know from previous Scripture, even from the Old Testament (Exodus 34:5-7, for example), that God's lead character qualities are compassion and mercy and forgiveness.
So why should we be amazed and impressed with Jesus? Well, first of all because he is compassionate. And the way his heart went out to this woman in distress is the way that his heart goes out to you and to me when we're in distress. Of course, it's one thing to have compassion; it's something else to have the power to do something about it. Look at the next scene, verse 14: "Then Jesus went up and touched the coffin." The coffin would have been more like a plank on which this young man was laid. It's interesting that Jesus touched the plank, because according to the laws, even the laws of the Old Testament, that made him ceremonially unclean. But Jesus had the audacity to do that, because he has the power to reverse the situation. So he touches the coffin. Those carrying it stood still and 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." Wow. That is amazing power.
Again, I can't help but think back to Elijah and Elisha, and I can't help but think we're supposed to be thinking about those stories as we read these. Elijah and Elisha were great prophets, and by the end of this story we'll have Jesus identified as a great prophet, though he's much more than that. But the prophets in Old Testament time who were able to raise people from the dead were talking about Elijah and his successor, Elisha. There are a couple stories, one of them with Elijah in 1 Kings 17, the other with Elisha in 2 Kings 4, in which the prophets raise a dead person, a dead son. And in both of those cases, they go in and actually lay themselves out over the bodies of these deceased children, and they plead with God. I think it's interesting that Jesus simply utters a word, simply speaks the command, and in doing that he's doing what God does. He's more than just a prophet who was just pleading for God to do something. Jesus has the very power of God. He is God. He speaks and the young man lives. And what an understatement: "And Jesus gave him back to his mother." Can you imagine that? It's a wonderful outcome. They were all filled with awe and praised God. "A great prophet has appeared among us," they said.
Look at this next line in the text: "God has come to help his people." They are exactly right about that, aren't they? They are spot on. God has come to help his people. "This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country." So why should you and I in times of distress be people who exercise absolute faith and confidence and trust in Jesus? Because Jesus is compassionate, and he is powerful.
When you and I are hurting, Jesus feels for us. His heart goes out to us. And he has the power to intervene in our lives and in our distress. But as soon as I say that, you know as well as I do that there are times when we pray, and God doesn't seem to come through. Two times in the last month I have prayed for people associated with our church family, and I have prayed for God to heal them—to reverse their medical situations. And both people have died.
Our response of faith
What are we to make of that? Why do people still die when we pray for them? Are we to read these stories and say, "Well, this is great but it really sounds too good to be true"? Whatever Jesus was doing then, it doesn't seem like he does that today. How are we to understand this? We don't have time to go through the rest of Scripture and do an exhaustive study on faith, but as I was reading this week, reading some of the great leaders and preachers of days gone by, I thought it was interesting that both John Wesley and John Calvin had very similar definitions of faith, at least as they began those definitions. John Wesley and John Calvin would be poles apart on certain theological issues, but I think it's really interesting that in a sermon in 1806 called "On Faith," John Wesley defined faith. In the beginning of his definition, he says, "Faith is a conviction of God and the things of God." Now, hold on to that definition for just a moment. Two hundred years earlier, John Calvin wrote in his Institutes, "Faith is a firm and certain knowledge of God's benevolence towards us." As I listen to those definitions, or at least the way they began, I'm struck that neither one was presuming that in a particular situation there would be a particular outcome. Rather, both of them say that faith is a conviction, it is a trust, and it is a firm and certain knowledge of God and of the things of God—that what the Bible says about God is true.
I would suggest to you today that amazing faith is even greater than what we see in this passage. I'm going to take some language out of both definitions and say that amazing faith is a firm and certain conviction of God's goodness towards us, whatever the short-term outcome may be. Yes, sometimes pray for people and they die. Does that mean that we didn't have amazing faith? Does it mean that Jesus really isn't as powerful today as he was when he walked here on earth? No. Jesus is just as powerful. You see, amazing faith is a firm and certain conviction of God's goodness towards us. And what we know as we continue tracking this story in Luke's gospel is that when Jesus came he began to set in motion this promised restoration. God's not done with that.
So does God heal all of our diseases? Well, my answer is this: already, but not yet. In Jesus, God has begun that process, but there's much more to come, isn't there? And I'm convinced that the most mature expression of faith is not simply to say, God, I know you're going to heal my loved one right now so that they will not die. A mature faith is saying, God, in this trial that I'm going through, I'm confident that whatever the short-term outcome, you are a God who is compassionate and powerful, and I am trusting in your goodness to me, even if it takes the rest of human history for that to play out—even if things are not fully resolved until Jesus returns again and establishes his kingdom in full. Even if it's not resolved until then, Lord, I am confident of your goodness. That's faith.
I've talked to you a little bit before about my dad. My dad died shortly before his 63rd birthday. He was pastoring a small church in central Illinois and several months after his death, I concluded that God sent him to that church not only to teach his people how to live but also how to die. I'm so grateful for his example. He died well. He suffered from cancer, and the last few weeks of his life were so painful, but I'll never forget the last conversation that I had with him. He had just gotten news from his doctor that there was nothing else to be done, and I'll never forget him saying, "You know, I'm a bit stunned." He talked about the sting of death and said, "Never forget that in whatever happens to me, God is good." I reflected on that later and I thought, My dad's faith was amazing! I mean, shouldn't he have said, "I'm confident that God is going to heal me and I'm going to live another ten years"? I don't think so. You see, faith is a firm and certain conviction of God's goodness, whatever the short-term outcome, knowing that God is good to us in Christ and that this God who is already at work in bringing healing and salvation from death will one day complete the process.
Friends, that's amazing faith. In the tragedies that you face this week, in the difficulties that you're going through as you watch your family struggle, will you trust him? Will you exercise amazing faith?
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________
Steve Mathewson is senior pastor of CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, lllinois. He is also director of the doctor of ministry program at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.