Just Say the Word (and It Shall Be So)
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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is amazing how often people accept the reality of things on face value. Take paper money, for example. It looks like paper, wrinkles like paper, and even burns like paper. But everyone accepts that a $20 bill is worth $20 because the U.S. Treasury says that it is. Our money still says, “In God we trust,” but let’s face it, if we don’t trust the U.S. Treasury it has very little or no value or purchasing power. The Treasury could print up trillions of bills that are exactly the same in every way, but if there is no confidence in the currency it could take a wheelbarrow full to buy a loaf of bread. Just recall the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic in 1923, when the defeated Germans paid back foreign debt with printed money rather than gold or other hard currency.
We trust that if we take that $20 bill to the bank, the bank will honor the face value of the bill. It we bring that $20 bill to the store, they will give us $20 worth of goods in return. The bill has value because an authority says so. Now we can try to use reason to explain the workings of the Treasury department and economic theory to explain how that bill has value; and it may even make some sense, but at the end of the day, it takes trust to make the system work.
Faith works in a similar way. Our faith has a reasonable object, one that can be described in historical terms. We know that Jesus was born, lived, was crucified, and His body was missing from His tomb. All this is based on eyewitness accounts and external evidence that would be accepted by any fair-minded scholar or court of law. This all makes sense in a purely reasonable way. However, Jesus also claimed to be God, and demonstrated this through miracles and finally rising from the dead. These claims—while reasonable in the sense that only God could do miracles and rise from the dead—are not fully understandable, but require trust in the final authority, God Himself.
Unfortunately, our culture often pits faith against reason. It embraces rationalism, the idea that human reason is the best guide to all knowledge. This approach, however, falsely puts humans at the center of authority rather than God. But human reason after the fall was affected by sin, and as a result, is incapable of following God by itself. While God employs human reason to reveal Himself to us, faith is necessary to grasp the fullness of His revelation through Scripture.
In our text we see this idea of miracles and faith and power and authority intersecting. Jesus has just ministered to a great multitude on the mountainside. Many came to hear Him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by unclean spirits were cured. All the crowd sought to touch Him, for power came out from Him and healed them all. Such marvelous miracles, such amazing acts of authority they were privileged to see. Yet even more memorable and lasting were the words Jesus spoke that day. You and I know them as the “Sermon on the Mount.” The blessings. The woes. The impossible Law that convicts and condemns each one of us. The Gospel promise in parable form that those who come to Jesus and hear His words and do them are building on a foundation that cannot be shaken no matter how strong or terrible the storms of life may be.
Now Jesus returns to the city of Capernaum. On the previous occasion, Jesus had gone to the synagogue on the Sabbath. Luke tells us that the people “were astonished at His teaching, for His Word possessed authority” (4:32). And when He cured a man possessed by a demon with a simple rebuke, “they were all amazed and said to one another, ‘What is this Word? For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits, and they come out’” (4:36). Very likely that synagogue is the same one that had been built by the centurion of our Gospel.
The word centurion means “captain of a company of one hundred soldiers.” Since Herod Antipas was the ruler of the province of Galilee, this particular Roman centurion may have even been in Herod’s service in some official capacity.
Whether or not this is the case, he is a man of great honor and status, a man highly valued by the Jews in his community, a man who says “Go” and they go, “Come” and they come, “Do this,” and they do. This man’s word gets things done. His word is a powerful word. But though He has power over many and much, he and his word are powerless over sickness and death. His highly valued servant is now sick at the point of death, and he can do nothing to save him. So he seeks One who is greater than himself, One whose Word is mightier, more authoritative. The centurion sends a delegation of Jewish elders. “And when they came to Jesus they pleaded with Him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is one who built us our synagogue.’”
But my friends, no matter how well-intentioned their plea—whether they did so purely out of personal affection or with a sense of obligation (you have to keep the big givers in the Church happy, don’t you?), they were missing the main point. One must not attempt to seek the Lord’s favor based upon one’s own merits, worthiness, or value to society. But if we’re honest, they are not alone in this, are they? How often have you and I done the same? It is part of our fallen nature to focus on our worthiness, to grasp reasons for health and healing when in truth there is only reason for illness and affliction. Though created perfectly, it is a fallen world in which we live, sick unto death—and the servant’s illness is just one manifestation of this ugly truth. The wages of sin is death.
It is a symptom of our fallen condition that we so often believe there is life in our strength. The stronger we are, the healthier we are; and the healthier we are, the longer we’ll live. And perhaps one day, we’ll be strong enough, healthy enough, powerful enough, or wealthy enough to live forever. How else do you explain all the trouble, expense, and pain spent on cosmetic surgeries, miracle diets, and wonder drugs? It is truly a sick world that seeks after life in that which is destined to die. Such sickness is unto death, even death of the immortal soul.
The Jewish elders of Capernaum have fallen for this trap. They have focused on what they see rather than what God’s Word teaches. Where the Word of God is not heard and believed, then anything and everything will be believed. Where the Word of God is not taught, the “wisdom” of man prevails. Where the Word of God is not confessed, there will be no good confession either of sin, or of the Christ. Where the Word of God is not highly valued, humanity will value the wrong things, calling good things evil and evil things good. Without any transcendent absolutes, sin is embraced as righteousness; for all righteousness is relative to the individual. Everyone decides what is right in his or her own eyes.
This was the case with the world then and it is so with our post-modern world. For wherever truth is relative then power is the only authority. Right and wrong are irrelevant. All that matters is who’s in control, who gets the last word. And the person who gets the last word is the one who can get things done, or at least promises to get things done. You see, power must always be pragmatic or it scares everyone away. Power justifies itself by its works, if it works.
We see this play out politically in our government as the last word is no longer our constitution but the prevailing majority (the ones who promise to get the job done). We see this in our personal lives as we attempt to wield our strength, our education, our finances, our position and status, our intellect and cunning in hopes of our own advancements. You see, in a post-modern, post-Word of God world, power becomes the means to progress, to getting what I want, to receiving what I deserve. In a fallen world, “Might makes right.”
The Jews in our text are no different. They see the centurion using his power and status to bless them and therefore decide that he is worthy of Jesus’ time and attention. So, to put it quite crassly: In their view, it’s not the love of God and neighbor that ought to move Jesus to help this centurion and his servant, but rather the value of the centurion himself. He deserves this from Jesus.
Thus Jesus becomes just another one of the centurion’s minions doing his bidding because he deserves it. “He is worthy to have you do this for him,” they say. But the centurion feels no such worthiness. As Jesus comes near, he sends friends to say, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy to have You come under my roof.” The centurion does not trust in his own worthiness, but rather relies fully on the mercy of the Lord. Faith comes empty-handed, as a trembling, trusting beggar, not a self-assured trader ready to bargain and barter.
The centurion goes on to declare his great confidence in the Word of Jesus and respect for His divine power. As a man under authority, part of a chain of command, the centurion knows what it is to give and take orders. He needs only to speak a word, and the soldiers under him obey. He believes Jesus has even greater authority, even over creation. It is not necessary for Jesus to come into his house or touch his sick servant. “Say the Word and let my servant be healed.”
Now it is Jesus’ turn to be amazed! “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Here was a miracle even greater than the servant’s healing: the Holy Spirit had worked faith in the centurion by the authoritative Word of God.
So, note this well, my friends: Jesus is not moved by “the powers that be.” He is the only power that is; and He is moved by love and mercy. The Father loves the world and sends the Son. The Son loves the Father and so also loves what the Father loves. Thus, the Son loves the world and gladly goes even though the world is sick with sin, idolatry, and unbelief. Thus, Jesus heeds the centurion’s request—not because he deserves it, but because Jesus loves him and Jesus loves the servant.
You see, the way of our Lord is not the way of power, which seeks to move the world from top down. Not so, with our Lord. He blesses from below. He approaches in humility. Though He is commander of all the heavenly host, the Lord does not advance toward us on a mighty steed with sword in hand and army trailing behind. He rides upon a colt, the foal of a donkey. He brings only the sword of His Word that hearts be taken captive in gentleness and mercy. He builds His Church, one repentant sinner at a time through His authoritative Word.
The way of Jesus is in weakness not strength, surrender rather than compulsion, death of self rather than injury to others. His is the way of the cross, and the way of the cross is the way for the centurion and his servant, for you and me, and for the world. He suffers. He endures, He bleeds and He dies. God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.
This way—the way of the cross—brings health and life to all who believe and are baptized. Through Jesus’ death, God gives life. God gives what is good in the midst of that which the world calls evil. That which the world calls good, God covers over in blood, holy blood, Jesus’ blood. Jesus suffers the wages of sin for unworthy sinners so that sinners are redeemed from their own “strengths and merits” and given the gift of eternal life and Christ’s strengths and merits. Sin and sickness are overcome by His suffering and death.
This life and these gifts Jesus gives not because it is deserved but because you are highly valued in His sight. As His highly valued and dearly loved children, He gives these things through His Word. Jesus’ Word is a creative Word, an authoritative Word, a Word that works the ways of God and does what it says. When Jesus says “Arise!”—the lame leap up. When Jesus says, “Be opened,” the deaf hear. “Be loosed,” the mute speak. “I am willing,” and the lepers are clean. “Come out!” and the demons run away. When Jesus says “Talitha cum—little girl, get up,” or “Lazarus, come forth!” the dead wake up.” And so, the centurion looks for a Word from Jesus. Faith is always looking for a Word from Jesus.
“Say the Word,” the centurion said to Jesus, “and it shall be so.” And so it is even today. The Word of Jesus works the works of God and the Word does what it says it will do. The Word cleanses, heals, renews, gives life, and forgives. The Word gives faith. Great faith. Amazing faith. Saving faith.
Jesus shares that authoritative, creative Word with His Church through the Office of the Holy Ministry: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
And so through the pastor, Jesus says the Word that bestows new life: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and you become an adopted child of God, an heir of His kingdom.
And so the pastor says the Word that brings you Jesus: “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you….“Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for the forgiveness of sins.”
And so the pastor says the Word that forgives: “Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.