We live in a time of profound disillusionment and despair. For instance, can we just mention North Korea, schools and shopping centers under attack, suicide bombers in the Mideast, refugees flooding in Europe. Every newspaper screams the political chaos in our beloved country.
Our air, water, and soil are being damaged even as we worship. Species of animals are being wiped out. Our resolve to control such damage is in question. Our schools are under attack for not teaching children values and standards which parents do not display or enforce at home.
Mainline churches are no longer respected as God’s voice or God’s arm in the world, and our individual support systems are often unreliable. Old moorings give way. We are often fearful. We are bombarded by advertising, soap operas and so-called situation comedies of grown people acting like adolescents, suggesting that we should satisfy our own selfish desires because there are no restraints on personal conduct. Where is faith?
Against all this universal despair, we read the story of the centurion and ask whether in these unsettled times we have the faith we need. The centurion was an honorable man of compassion and concern, and faith. He was also shrewd. He enlisted Jewish friends to intercede. Jesus was on his way when another delegation thought that a word of healing from a distance would be enough.
Jesus marveled at such faith. We can be envious of that kind of faith. If we could just have that quality of faith, then we could call on God for one thing or another in this sea of trouble and then things would move around to our benefit. The only thing wrong with that view is –that is the wrong way to look at faith. Should we ask whether we have faith to make the personal decisions required for living in 2016?
There are people who believe that if we have enough faith, then we are OK with God. And if we have too little, then we’d better do whatever is required for more faith. Yes, life would be so easy if faith could be bought and sold like a commodity. Then we could shop around for more faith on days when we have a problem, instead of sinking into the quicksand of despair.
But there’s something wrong if we ought to measure our faith every few days or at every crisis to see if we have enough. Maybe if I read (red) the Bible more often, or paid better attention when I’m in church, or focused on my faith more, or prayed more — all these spiritual activities are to be commended. But if we do them deliberately expecting an increase in our faith, then we are trying to purchase faith like a head of cabbage or a loaf of bread.
We cannot make spiritual transactions with God. Won’t work. Whatever he has that we would like to have, cannot be bought or sold or bargained. We do not negotiate with God. “If I give you Bible reading and church attendance and regular prayers, will you then give me healing, or confidence or security? God, do you hear?”
Serious mistakes are made in this matter of faith like the man whose house was caught in a flood. He expected his faith to see him through. Maybe he read his Bible, prayed every day, and was in church on Sunday. So when a rescue boat came by, he said no, the water was only a foot deep in his house and he had faith the Lord would take care of him. Water rose higher and he went to the second floor. Another boat came by but he refused it. Finally, he took refuge on the roof.
A helicopter spotted him and dropped a rope ladder. He said the Lord would take care of him. Shortly after, he drowned. When he opened his eyes in heaven, he said to the Lord, “What am I doing here? I had faith you would save me!” The Lord replied, “What? I sent two boats and a helicopter!”
So faith is not turning off our eyes and ears and refusing to acknowledge what is clearly out there. Nor is faith simply persuading us to do something that plain judgment and ordinary evidence contradict. Faith is not turning off our eyes and ears and refusing to acknowledge the obvious. Nor is faith simply persuading us to do something that plain judgment and ordinary evidence contradict.
Luke did not record this story so that people in congregations would feel guilty that we don’t have the same faith the centurion had. It was not Luke’s purpose to give us a guilt trip for not having enough faith. We have to start any such examination by asking who Jesus is and what the Bible is all about. Why was this story recorded? If we are feeling alone and helpless in this world, what does the story say about God’s love and grace? Is God available to us in our world?
When Solomon dedicated the new temple in Jerusalem, he saw that no earthly house could contain the God of heaven and earth. Yet he realized that God does dwell on earth, and because of his own mercy, he will be available to all who call on him. The temple would be a sacred place and God would make himself known there, but he was not trapped there. Solomon realized that God bends himself, accommodates himself, to our understanding. Solomon’s builders brought in the best materials and hired the best artisans. They furnished it with gold, silver, and fine linens. But does Solomon say, “God, look at how often we read the Torah, and at how we celebrate the Passover. Lord, look at how much faith we have had in times past.
“So, God, when the floods come, you will look at this enormous amount of faith we have on reserve and save us, won’t you?” No, Solomon does not try to bargain with God. He focuses on God and his mercy, on his power, and on his grace, on his willingness to look with pity on those who offer their supplication.
Solomon is amazed at the love of God. Will God indeed dwell on earth? Of course we live in unsettled times. What we can be sure of is that God came to the earth in Jesus Christ and his spirit is reaching out to all who need him.
When we gather in this fellowship, we are still in the place where from ancient times the Almighty has said, “My name will be there.” The story of the centurion is really about God’s willingness to include an outsider, someone whose ancestors were not at Mt. Sinai.
The centurion had a need. Jesus helped him. Because of his faith? No, because it is the nature of God to have mercy. The love of God, undeserved, not purchased, not traded, is always the sticking point in our relation to God. We want to make an exchange with God, but God already loves the unlovely.
He helps the helpless. Does the story mean that God will send some invisible power to heal whoever is sick or whatever is broken depending on the strength of my faith? The story was not told to make us think we have to try harder as though God’s power depends on us. The story tells us that in God’s showing his love and power in Jesus Christ, no one is outside the reign of his kingdom.
Jesus was kind to all outsiders. He remains a savior to all who need him. We can take great comfort in the stories of God on the mountain with Moses, or God calling Abraham, or God being with Jesus in his temptation, or of God in his power at the resurrection.
God who sent his son is alive and well and at work in our midst and throughout the whole world. Faith believes that God is at work, that he loves and has mercy on all of us, that we are somebody in his sight. The history of God’s dealing with people is that he has called the whole human race to be his family.
We are indeed outsiders upon whom God has had mercy. He has taken us in. When we simply believe that we are God’s people, then we have all the faith we shall ever need.
May the Risen Christ live in you?