Wednesday, June 5, 2013
God has come to His people. . .
Sadly, too many sermons based on the Gospel for today will end up being calls to be more inclusive, to be more welcoming to the stranger, and in favor of diversity... If you look at the scene in the Gospel lesson for today you get a much bigger picture. The focus here is not on the centurion alone but on the God who comes for him. There is sickness that becomes death, concern that becomes grief, and despair that becomes surprise. It is a very common scenario marked only by the contrast of the Roman and the Jews who come to Jesus on his behalf. Who would have thought that a Roman soldier accustomed to wielding power would come as a powerless one to plead the case of a beloved servant before Jesus? When God visits His people, it is the surprise of grace – the God who comes where we least expect Him and who comes not to receive our accolades and honor but to serve us with His gifts in love.
Jesus has come precisely for moments like this. When everything around us says "NO", in comes Jesus with the surprising YES of God's grace. When every barrier shouts “NO”, God comes to break them down on the equal plane of repentance, faith, and redemption. How many of us have found ourselves praying exactly as did these folks? In the midst of despair, powerless to change things, we turn to God to intervene. Though we should not weep or despair, we cannot help it. Our losses stand before us as barriers unless and until God traverses those walls. But God has visited His people for precisely these moments. It is the surprise of grace that we find, just as a Roman centurion found long ago.
A great prophet had arisen in Israel. After hundreds of years of silence without anyone to speak "thus saith the Lord," Jesus has come to speak to His people. Even a Roman soldier is not immune to the whispered hopes and dreams of a people longing for redemption. From just such people have come the sounds of countless voices raised in petition and prayer in the midst of sickness and death. Where is God when we need Him? Can we trust Him to hear us? Will He show mercy to us? Like the friends of the Roman soldier, we have pleaded our case before the Lord, trying to convince God that this one is worthy or that, or that we are. Yet behind all our claims to be worth God’s investment, sin, guilt, and death are hidden.
Before God, what separates the faithful from the speculator are two things. This Roman centurion demonstrates them both. First of all he pushes aside all talk of worthiness. He says in true humility and confession: "Lord, do not trouble Yourself. I am not worthy to have you come under my roof." While the friends were trying to impress Jesus about the soldier's good character and how he merited special treatment, the centurion was casting all of this aside. He knows he is a sinner, plain and simple. He knows He is unworthy of God’s gracious intervention.
But as important as this first thing is, the second is just as important. He knows he is a sinner who deserves nothing from God and yet He also knows that God can and has promised to act. "Just say the word, and it will be so." In contrast to the Jews who were after Jesus to prove Himself to them, Jesus marvels at this faith which trusts implicitly in the power and authority of God's Word to do what He has promised. He demonstrates faith in God’s promise to act through His Word and the authority of that Word by reflecting upon his own soldierly experience. He commands and someone comes or goes or does this or that. This is surprising faith.
If there are two things missing from the Church and our own individual Christian faith today it is first of all the humility of repentance and confession. God has to do nothing at all. We cannot win or merit anything special from God. We come before God not by right but by the privilege of grace. Second, what is missing is the kind of implicit faith that believes God keeps His Word. In our worship and in our prayers, what would be different if we came to the Lord as did this Roman soldier did, "Lord, I am not worthy but only say the word and I shall be made whole." And yet, those are exactly the words we pray today in the liturgy, prompted by the ancient form and ancient words of the Divine Service.
God has visited His people – not because we have earned or proven our cause before Him. No, God has visited His people as the merciful God who acts in grace just as He has promised. He comes to us in the very midst of our weakness and need. He comes not as enemy but as friend to the sinner seeking forgiveness, the wounded seeking healing, the broken seeking to be made whole, the dying seeking eternal life. He comes as One who grieves with us our mortal weakness, our sin, our pain, and our loss. He has come to claim this burden as His own and to act for us as Savior and Redeemer.
He has come to the dying to answer death's power the power of life, life today lived as the new people God has made us to be in baptism... and life everlasting which bestows upon us the unlimited future Christ rose from the dead to impart. He has come as the God who rejoices at our repentance, who forgives our sins, who leads the lost, and who carries those who cannot walk. He has come to save His people.
What is the Kingdom of God about? The Jews who plead the case of the soldier and many of us today think it is about manipulating God to do what we want or get what we want. About proving our worthiness or merits to justify God acceding to our request. In other words, get your life together so that God will have to give you what you ask. Instead, it is about loneliness that finds fellowship in Christ... about weeping that gives way to tears of joy in Christ... divisions that find healing in Christ... death which gives way to life in Christ. God has not come to crown the holy or reward the righteous. No, He has come to befriend the lonely, to restore the lost, to suffer for the suffering, to bear the pain of the wounded, to weep with the grieving, and to lead us all to our heavenly home.
What He seeks from us is not that we fix ourselves, prove ourselves, or justify ourselves... but that we come as did that Roman soldier, acknowledging and repenting of our sin and unworthiness... yet confident of His grace and trusting His Word. And for all who come, Jesus stands with open arms to welcome us all to the kingdom of His Father, for now, for tomorrow, and for all eternity. God has come... not an agent or emissary but God to save His people. Not for the few or the special or the worthy but for the sinner in need of forgiveness and the dying in hope of eternal life... Pray brothers and sisters that Jesus finds such faith in us. Amen!