LUKE 7:1-10

15 Sep 2013


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          Have you ever been flabbergasted?  I love that word.  It's such a fun word to say ... flabbergasted.  The British comedian Frankie Howard used to say, Never has my flabber been so gasted!  Thats about as good an explanation for the origin of this fun word as were likely to get.  It first turns up in print in 1772, in an article on new words in the Annual Register.  Presumably some unsung genius had put together "flabber" and "aghast" to make one word.  I guess that word is no different or stranger than some other words added to the dictionary this past year, words like "earworm" referring to a word or song that keeps repeating itself in one's mind or "gassed" meaning drained of energy or an "aha moment" referring to a sudden realization, insight or comprehension.

            Twice in Jesus' ministry, he is flabbergasted.  Once, in Mark 6:6, after Jesus is rejected in Nazareth, his own hometown, he is dumbfounded ... stunned ... amazed ... flabbergasted at their unbelief!   Today in Luke 7, Jesus is flabbergasted again, this time not in a negative way, but in a positive way.   He is flabbergasted ... amazed ... astonished ... by a Roman centurion's incredible faith.  Jesus turns to the crowd following him and says, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith!"

            Who was this man whose faith amazed, astonished, flabbergasted Jesus?  Luke fills in the blanks. 

            First, he was a man among men.  Luke identifies him as a "centurion" meaning he commanded one-hundred Roman soldiers.  William Barclay, the biblical commentator, says a centurion was the equivalent of a sergeant-major today, and centurions were the backbone of the Roman army.  Polybius, the Roman historian, describes the qualifications of a centurion.  He describes them as "men who can command, who are steady in action, and reliable."  Polybius says, "When hard pressed they must be ready to hold their ground and die at their posts." 

            Remember the television sitcom Home Improvement starring Tim Allen?  If so, do you remember his talking about certain tools on his show "Tool Time" and describing the power of a certain tool and his grunting, "Argh, argh, argh, argh."  Argh, argh, argh, argh, argh?  That was the centurion - a man among men. 

            Second, he was incredibly kind.   We see it in the way he responds to his critically ill servant.  We would expect someone who had an ill child or spouse or parent do what the centurion did in reaching out to Jesus, but it wasn't a child or a spouse or a parent who was ill.  It was a servant.  Most men of power and prestige did back then, but this servant was dear to him, and the servant lay critically ill and the centurion was greatly concerned.  When he heard of the marvelous works of Jesus he sent a delegation of Jews to ask Jesus to come and heal his servant thinking perhaps that a Jewish rabbi and healer would not heed the request of a Gentile.

            Kindness.  When Henry James, the great American novelist, was saying goodbye to his young nephew, Willie, he said something the boy never forgot.  He said, "Willie, there are three things that are important in life.  The first is to be kind.  The second is to be kind.  The third is to be kind."

            You may not be familiar with the name, Stephen Grellet.  Grellet, a Quaker, was born in France and died in New Jersey in 1855.  That's about all we know about him, except for a few lines he penned that live on.  You may have heard them.  He wrote, "I shall pass through this world but once.  Any good I can do, or any kindness that I can show any human being, let me do it now and not defer it.  For I shall not pass this way again."

            This centurion would surely have endorsed those sentiments.  He was an incredibly kind man.  He was both tough and tender.

            Third, he was a highly respected man in the community.   The Jewish delegation implored Jesus to honor the centurion's request. "He is a worthy man," they said.   "He loves our nation and helped us rebuild our synagogue."

            It's probably Aretha's biggest hit, her signature song.  Remember it?  R-E-S-P-E-C-T ... find out what it means to me!"  She pleaded, "All I'm asking for is a little respect when I come home."  The Centurion didn't have to ask for it because he had it.  As unlikely as it might seem, this sergeant-major, a member of a foreign occupying force, had earned the respect of the populace in and around Capernaum.

            Speaking of respect, I love the story Clark Clifford shared about his boss, Harry S. Truman.   Every morning at 8:30 the President would have a staff meeting and Clark Clifford was serving as White House Counsel.  Clifford recalls the day the mail clerk brought in a lavender envelope with a regal wax seal and flowing purple ribbons.  Opening it, the President found a letter from King Saud of Saudi Arabia, whose salutation began, "Your Magnificence."  "Your Magnificence," Truman repeated, laughing.  "I like that.  I don't know what you guys call me when I'm not here, but it's okay if you refer to me from now on as 'His Magnificence.'"

            Now listen to the rest of the story.  Truman subsequently sent a message to the United Nations supporting the admission of 100,000 Jews into Palestine.  Soon afterward he received a second letter from King Ibn Saud.  He still treated Truman with respect, just not as much.  This second letter began: "Dear Mr. President."

            Fourth, he was a humble man.  Impressed by the testimony of the Jewish elders, Jesus headed toward the centurion's house.  As he neared the house the centurion sent out another delegation.  This time it was some of his friends.  He sent with them a message.  The message read like this: "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word and let my servant be healed."

            "I am not worthy to have you come under my roof..."  Great humility.

            Humility is a quality seemingly out of favor today.  Our culture seems more attuned to "looking out for number one" and "blowing one's own horn."  Sometimes we have too much in common with the terrible-tempered Lucy in the "Peanuts" comic strip.  Lucy comes into the room where Linus is watching TV.  He says to her, "I was here first, so I get to watch what I want."  Without a word Lucy marches to the set and flips the channel to her program.  Linus protests. "Hey!"  Assuming her best know-it-all stance, Lucy intones, "In the 19th chapter of the book of Matthew it says, 'Many that are first will be last, and the last first." 

            The comic strip ends with Linus mumbling, "I'll bet Matthew didn't have an older sister!"

            Having a humble spirit was not part of Lucy's make-up.

            Henry James, you will remember, said that there are three things in human life that are most important: kindness, kindness, and kindness.  According to Augustine, however, the most famous of all the church fathers, there are three requirements to be Christian. They are, first, humility; second, humility; and third, humility.

            There is an incident from the mission field from which we could learn much.  Some native converts were translating I John.  When they came upon the statement, "We shall be like Him," the scribe laid down his pen and exclaimed, "No!  it is too much; let us write, 'We shall kiss His feet. "

            This remarkable centurion had that kind of humility.  So, he was a humble man. He was a kind man. But it was not his kindness or his humility that Jesus praised.  It was his faith. 

            And that's the fifth, and last thing, Luke tells us about this man.  The centurion was a man of extraordinary faith. 

            In their early years People magazine ran a story about the professional acrobat Henri Rechatin.   When Henri was a younger man, he used to do a high-wire act across Niagara Falls.  During one of his performances, he requested a volunteer from the crowd to ride piggyback across the falls with him.  A young lady named Janyck accepted the challenge.

            Obviously, if someone will go with you across Niagara Falls on a tightrope, he or she genuinely believes in you.  So they married and stayed together the rest of their lives.

            The Centurion possessed that type of faith in Jesus.  He genuinely believed in him.

            There is an old fable from Holland about three tulip bulbs. They were named NO, MAYBE, AND YES. Someone had placed them in the bottom of a tin to save them until planting time. One day they were discussing their future as tulip bulbs.

            NO said, "As far as I am concerned, this is it. We have come as far as we are going to come as bulbs.  That's all right.  I'm content.  I don't need anything else."

            MAYBE said, "Well, maybe there is something more.  Perhaps if we try real hard good things will happen to us."  And MAYBE tried hard to be all that he could be, but little changed and soon he gave up in frustration.

            YES, on the other hand said, "I believe there is something more, but I don t believe that it is up to us.  I have heard that there is One who can help us be more than we are if we simply trust him."

            Do we believe there is one who can help us if we simply trust him?

            Some people's lack of confidence in God reminds me of an incident early in the playing career of Jimmy Williams.   Williams was invited to attend a Brooklyn Dodger tryout camp the year I was born, in 1948.  After working out for more than a week, he was one of nine players told to report to the team office, which had been set up in the rear of a sporting goods store.  Before Williams went into the office, one of the other players advised, "I m telling you, whatever they offer you, ask for more money.  You've had a great camp.  They really want to sign you."

            Finally, the great Dodger scout John Carey, who was a tough negotiator, invited Williams into the office and told him they wanted to send him to the minor league team in Kingston, New York, and offered him a contract for the grand sum of $150.00 a month.  Williams remembered the other player's advice and told Carey, "I'd like to sign with you, but I need more money than that.  I'd like to buy a car, and I'd like to send some money home to help my parents, and a hundred-fifty a month just isn't enough to do that."

            Cary asked with a sigh, "How much do you want?"

            Williams didn't hesitate.  "A hundred sixty-five," he said.

            Maybe that is why players have agents now.  Jimmy Williams could certainly have gotten much more than $165.00 per month, but he did not expect more.

            What do we expect?  The centurion believed that Jesus could heal his servant with just a word.  He believed that Jesus did not even have to enter the house.  Just a word from the Master would do it.

            My guess is there are some of us who are carrying heavy burdens this morning, and we really do not believe that God can help us shoulder those burdens.  We do not really believe that He will grant us strength equal to every need.  If we did we would be able to relax.

            A young woman named Janyck trusted that an acrobat named Henri Rechatin could carry her over Niagara Falls on a tightrope on his shoulders.  What extraordinary faith.  No wonder he married her.

            Do we believe that the God of all creation has the ability to carry us on his shoulders across the abyss that we feel is about to swallow us?  "All you have to do is say the word!" exclaimed the centurion.  And it was true.