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The Revelation of God in Human Life: Through Ordinary Saints

November 4, 2012
Sermon:  The Revelation of God in Human Life: Through Ordinary Saints
Text:  Luke 7:1-10; Matthew 5


Wednesday morning I went to the hospital early and stopped by the Skillet Restaurant for breakfast.  I was sitting at the counter, reading the paper, when a fellow about two stools down looked up from his paper and asked me, “Can you please explain to me what God is doing?  How can a good God allow something like this Superstorm Sandy to happen in the Northeast?”

I answered him, “We tend to ask the wrong questions.  I certainly cannot know the mind of God.”

I have heard some say, including one televangelist, that the storm is the fault of the people who live in the Northeast.  Some blame God.  The question is not, Who is to blame?  The question is, What is God going to do now?

God is always at work.  God is in the business of working in the disasters of our lives to bring redemption.  If we pay attention, we will see that even in this great tragedy, God will do something amazing.  Christians should look at this kind of disaster and realize that some things are far beyond our understanding.  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,” says the Lord.  “Neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8).  We cannot understand the mind of God, but we can appreciate what He does in our lives.

Our theme for today is The Revelation of God in Ordinary Saints.  Our text comes from Luke 7:1-10.  Hear now the Word of God.

When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, 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.” 10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

Let’s look at the Roman centurion in this passage.  By any account he is an unusual man, a powerful man, in charge of all the Roman troops in Capernaum.  The very word centurion means that he had authority over at least 100 men and probably many more.  The rank of centurion compares to our rank of captain.  He is responsible to others, and he has authority over many others.  If one had to be stationed in the land of Israel, that town was a peak assignment.  A crossroad along the trade route, Capernaum was a pleasant location.

One amazing characteristic about this Roman centurion is that he is benevolent.  Notice that he does not make an appeal for his own good.  He makes an appeal for one of his slaves.  In this day and time the word servant is too mild.  The man needing help is a slave.  Romans generally did not act in a compassionate way towards their slaves.  They had little regard for their slaves, treating them as nothing more than property, nothing more than animals.  Old and sick slaves were discarded.  Dead slaves were just rolled into a ditch and covered with dirt.  Their value rested in what they could offer to their master, and replacement slaves were readily available.  Here we see a centurion who obviously cares about his slave.  He cares so much that he is intent on seeing that the man is healed.

The centurion is probably well-traveled.  He has surely been to Rome, Athens, and other surrounding areas.  He is familiar with various customs and traditions.

He is also likely familiar with other religions, but this soldier is attracted to the religion of the one true God.  He is a religious seeker in matters of faith.  At that time, Gentiles, known as God-fearers, were not allowed to worship inside the synagogue proper.  He joins others in the outer courts of the synagogue to listen to the Scriptures and worship the one true God proclaimed by the rabbis, the one true God of the Jewish people.  He has obviously heard about Jesus’ ministry of healing.  Learning that Jesus is in the vicinity, he searches out the Savior.

Notice that the centurion is highly respected.  Can you imagine Jewish elders making an appeal on behalf of a Roman centurion?  The Jews hated the Romans, the army of occupation.  Jewish elders come to Jesus, though, and ask him to do what this man asked.  They even say, “He deserves to have you do this for him.  He loves our nation.  He has built for us a synagogue.”  They see the love this man has for his slave and the love he has for them.  Imagine a Roman centurion loving the Jewish nation!

Clearly the centurion is generous.  I am not certain how he is able financially to build the synagogue.  It seems as though they are saying that he actually paid for this synagogue.  He probably could not have done that on a centurion’s wages, but maybe he is independently wealthy.  Maybe the elders mean that he used his own soldiers to construct the synagogue.  Regardless, we see that his involvement in the religion of the Jewish people is quite unusual. I have been to Capernaum and seen the ruins of this synagogue.  It is no small building.  Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “For where your treasure is, there your heart be will also” (Matthew 6:21).  This man puts his money into a place of worship because that is where his heart is.  We should not be surprised at his generosity.

Arrogance is a sin.  Arrogance is basically a position people take when they think they are better than everyone else, above the law, exempt from the rules, and ought to be the grand exception.  That is not the case with this centurion.  He is a humble man who honors Jesus’ busy schedule.  The centurion knows that if a Jew goes into the home of a Gentile, the Jew is considered unclean.  He says with the use of messengers, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself.  I do not deserve that you should come under my roof.”  That fact obviously does not bother Jesus.  On other occasions Jesus goes into the homes of tax collectors, such as Zacchaeus, and to the home of sinners.  Jesus is not all that concerned with cleanliness and uncleanness.  He is concerned about the human soul.  He is concerned about this centurion.

This man is also insightful.  He recognizes and affirms Jesus’ authority.  He says, “Lord, I know what it is like to be in authority.  I am under the authority of others.  I am responsible to others.  I have people who are under my authority.”

His faith in Jesus is so strong that he believes that Jesus does not have to actually come to his house.  He says, “Just speak a word, and my servant will be healed.”  The Roman Catholic Church has taken those words of the centurion and included them in their Mass right before the Eucharist, before they receive the bread.  The congregation says, “I do not deserve.  I am not worthy that you should come under my roof.  Speak but the word, and my soul will be healed.”

Consider all of these characteristics of this Roman centurion.  We see in him power, benevolence, generosity, humility, insightfulness, compassion, and, love.  He goes outside the lines of anything we might expect from an officer of the Roman army.  His humility and understanding of Jesus are especially noteworthy.

Jesus recognizes all of the characteristics of this remarkable man.  Did you notice, though, the quality that Jesus addresses?  The man’s faith caught the attention of Jesus more than anything else.  Jesus observes, “Never in all of Israel have I seen such faith as this.”  The Scripture says that Jesus was amazed.  Only twice in all of Scripture are we told that Jesus is amazed:  once when the people in his own hometown do not believe in him and here when the Roman centurion does believe in him.

We look at this soldier and ask, “Is this centurion someone we might call a saint?”  I can tell you that the centurion would not eagerly accept that title.  He would not think that he deserved the title.  He said, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.”  The Jews, however, plead, “This man deserves to have you do this for him.

People who are saintly never think of themselves as saints.  The Greek word that is operative here is hagios, from which we get the words holy and saint.

My brother-in-law Steve Suits, a physician, bought a new Jeep some years ago.  He decided to order one of those special license plates from the Department of Motor Vehicles.  The word he chose to appear on the back of his Jeep was hagios.

Not long afterwards, Steve was driving from Spartanburg Regional Medical Center to his home.  As he merged into Pine Street, another driver moved over into his lane and sideswiped him, denting the front and back fenders and scraping the entire side of the car.  The car spun around and hit something else, damaging the front-end.

Steve wanted me to go with him to look at the car, which was towed away to a body shop.  I saw his car, with all its scrapes and dents, and noticed the dented plate on the back that read hagios.  I thought, Man, that is just like every saint I know.  All saints have flaws.  Paul uses the word saint in Ephesians 1:1 to address every single Christian, every faithful follower of Jesus Christ.  We are all saints of God.

How do you define saintliness?

One way is by considering Galatians 5, that passage we used often this summer, to reflect on the Fruit of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

A second way is by considering the Beatitudes, listed in Chapter 5 of the Gospel of Matthew.  We find here a clue to what it means to be saintly by looking at characteristics of those Jesus called blessed.  Jesus includes those who

  •          are pure in spirit.  Saints have a servant’s heart.  They do not put themselves above others, but consider themselves to be a servant to all people.
  •          mourn, not for their own losses, but for those who are suffering:  the people of the Northeast who have been hit so hard by the hurricane, the homeless and hungry, the victims of war and political oppression, the countries like Syria and the Sudan, those who do not know Christ.
  •           are meek and humble, never regarding themselves as being above anyone else but understanding that the ground at the foot of the cross is level.
  •           hunger and thirst after righteousness, desiring to do what is right in the eyes of God.  Saints have an insatiable desire to know the things of God.  They are wholly devoted to prayer and to the study of Scripture.
  •           are merciful.  They know that it is because of the grace of God that their sins have been forgiven.  They, in turn, have a forgiving spirit.
  •           are pure in heart.  Søren Kierkegaard said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.”  Saints have the top priority expressed in Matthew 6:33:  “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and everything else will fall into place.”
  •          are peacemakers who avoid gossip and dissension.  They have a ministry of peace, a ministry of reconciliation, with the motto, “Can’t we all just get along?”  Saints have a desire to be        instruments of peace.
  •           are sometimes persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

A woman visiting Morningside with her children told me, “You will never know what I go through for attending church.  When I get home, my husband mocks me and ridicules me for taking our children to church.  He says that it is a waste of time.”  We do not ordinarily think about Christians being persecuted here in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

I talked with a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army who told me that he was passed over several times for a promotion.  He might have made it to the rank of general except that one of his commanders would never to agree to giving him a promotion because he would not drink socially with fellow officers.

Those of us who are Christian will be left out of activities at times.  People will look on us with disapproval, not because we flaunt our Christianity but because we live the way Jesus Christ wants to us live.  Paul tells us, “Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you can prove what is the good and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2).

Saintly people are “the salt of the earth” is an expression used a lot at the lumberyard.  The saints among us are plain, ordinary people who do what is right and make life better for others.  They are the light of the world, bringing the light of love where there is darkness, prejudice, and suspicion.  Robert Benson, in Between the Dreaming and the Coming True, said, “All of the people in our lives are really saints; it is just that some of them have day jobs and most of them will never ever have a feast day named for them.”

Who are the saints here in this congregation?  Please take your worship bulletin and look again at the list of people included under the title All Saints Day.  The list begins with Allan Graham and ends with Betty Miller.  Allan lived on Washington Road, and Betty grew up on Washington Road.  If you are looking for saints, go to Washington Road.  Some mighty fine people live there.  If you are looking for saints, go to Pacolet.  You will find some good people in Pacolet.  Where do you find saints?  You find them in all the places that you find Christian people who are simply trying to live the Christian life as best they can.  Just like Steve Suits’ wrecked Jeep, they all have dents and scrapes.  No one is perfect, but they are trying their best to live like Jesus.

That list includes the names of all members who died in the past year.  We could point out aspects about each individual that are so much like characteristics we read in the passage on the Fruit of the Spirit, so much like the qualities we read in the Beatitudes.  I know you have your own list of people who are saints, too.

I could name Mike and Jo McGee as saints.  Mike would say Jo was a saint, but I am not so sure Jo would say the same about Mike.  I just do not know many preachers’ wives who consider their husbands saints.

I want to point out three others here.  Have you ever known anybody who had more of a servant heart than Bob Shoupe?  I have seen Bob clean tables and wash dishes in the kitchen.  He has served as a deacon.  He has built several handicapped ramps and taken his turn working at TOTAL Ministries.

After I preached the sermon in the early service, a member came to me and said, “Right after we joined this church, we had a power outage at our house.  Bob Shoupe called and said, ‘We have an extra bed if you are cold.  We would be glad to have you in our home for the night.’”  Bob Shoupe had a servant’s heart.

Have you ever known anyone who was as much a prayer warrior as Frances Dabney?  She was a praying woman.  Frances had a hard time hearing.  At times she would turn her hearing aid up so loud that it would hum during the entire service.  Frances came every week and took her turn in the Prayer Room.

One day while Frances was in this very room, she did not hear or see me enter.  I was like a fly on the wall.  I watched as she went from one pew to the next, praying over every seat in this Sanctuary.  She went up to the balcony and prayed over every pew there.  She came in here frequently to pray for the people who worship here on Sundays.  She prayed at the piano and the organ and prayed at every row in the choir loft.  Then she put her hand on this pulpit and prayed.  Frances Dabney, a woman of prayer, was a saint of God.

Jim Covington, a Methodist minister, began visiting this church with his wife, Jane.  They really had not been visiting here that long when they came to me and explained why they could not join Morningside.  Jim would lose his pension from the Methodist church if he joined a Baptist church.  Jim asked, “Is there any way we can become a part of Morningside?”

I told him, “You can come as a member under Watchcare.  You can be a part of Morningside but not transfer out of the Methodist church.  You do not have to move your membership under Watchcare.”

Soon afterwards, I found out about a part of Jim’s work called the Psalm 91 Ministry.  That passage of the Bible addresses God’s use of His guardian angels to protect us.  If you read carefully, you can see that it is a psalm for soldiers.

Jim wanted to make a copy of Psalm 91 available to soldiers.  He began distributing books that expounded on the passage and then added camouflage bandanas printed with the words.  He first sent them to military chaplains, to people he knew in the military, and to everyone on our prayer list who was serving in the armed forces.  General Norman Petrakos received one of Jim’s books and bandanas and ordered 500,000 copies, which were given to every military person serving in Iraq.

Jim Covington believed that the Word of God is powerful, that it is active, that it never returns empty.  He shared story after story about how Psalm 91 had meant so much to the people in our military.

What are we to do?  We are to live our lives the way Jesus wants us to live.  If we commit ourselves to that purpose, then we, too, become ordinary saints.  We are not perfect, but we are saints of God who can make a difference in this world.

Have you acknowledged Jesus Christ as your Savior?  Many of you have, but some may need to rededicate your life.  Simply say, “Lord, I want to do this right.  I want to live my life for you.”  Why delay?  You respond.

Kirk H. Neely            
© November 2012

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