Posted by: Johnold Strey | June 6, 2010

Sermon on Luke 7:1-10

“LORD, I AM NOT WORTHY”

  1. Despite what others say, I am not worthy of your grace
  2. Despite my unworthiness, you still come to me in your Word

 Text: Luke 7:1-10

Introduction

At some point after today’s service, the school children will head to their classrooms and pick up their report cards for the recently completed school year.  Unless there is some surprise the teachers haven’t told me about (don’t worry—there isn’t!), the report cards will indicate that every student has successfully completed the current grade and can move on to the next grade.  I suppose we could say that everyone is worthy to move up one grade.  The students have done the homework and learned the skills necessary to make them worthy of the next grade level.

The word worthy is an important word in today’s Gospel.  The Gospel for the Second Sunday after Pentecost is the account of Jesus healing the centurion’s servant.  The military official who asked for Jesus’ help felt that he was not worthy of Jesus’ presence.  Perhaps this is a fitting reminder on a day when we talk about the academic worthiness of students to move up a grade that all of us—students, parents, and everyone else—are totally and completely unworthy of the grace and goodness of Christ.  “Lord, I am not worthy” ought to be the prayer every one of us prays.  “Lord, I am not worthy.  Despite what others say, I am not worthy of your grace.  But despite my unworthiness, you still come to me in your Word.”

I.

Luke chapter seven starts a new section in Luke’s Gospel.  Jesus has just completed a lengthy sermon, and now he returns to Capernaum, his adopted hometown.  The incident that immediately grabs our attention involves a centurion, a military official who resides in Capernaum, who has heard about Jesus, and who seeks out Jesus’ help on behalf of one of his servants whose health has so badly declined that he is on the verge of death.

The military official was a Gentile—a non-Jew.  But he was respected by the Jews of Capernaum, and the leaders of the community were truly happy to carry his request to Jesus.  Perhaps the centurion was sensitive to Jewish cultural considerations that frowned upon Jews and Gentiles mixing together.  In any case, he sends a request that Jesus heal his valued but ailing servant.  “The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant.”  The Greek word for “heal” is not the usual word for “heal.”  More often it is translated “save” or “rescue,” so this suggests that the centurion’s servant was in very rough shape—perhaps mere moments from death. 

Given the tendency for Jews to look down on non-Jews, the Jews’ words on behalf of this centurion and his servant really grab our attention.  “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.’”  This is pretty high praise from the village elders!  One translation says, “He is worthy to have you do this for him.”  The word translated “worthy” and “deserves” is a term that implies something has a very high degree of merit and value.  The Jews considered how this Gentile centurion treated their people so well to the point that he used his own funds to build their house of worship, and their only conclusion was that this man was worthy of Jesus’ help.

Jesus heads over to the centurion’s home.  Meanwhile, the centurion hears that Jesus is coming.  He sends others to meet Jesus before he arrives at his home.  And the message he sent with his friends is a bit surprising.  “[Jesus] 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.

Once again, it may have been Jewish cultural sensitivities that led this man to send messengers to Jesus telling him to not worry about entering into a Gentile’s house.  But it wasn’t only that.  “Lord, … I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.”  Again, another translation says, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.”  Even though our translations use the same words used earlier, “deserve” and “worthy,” the Greek word Luke used is different.  Luke didn’t use the same word that meant something of high merit and value.  Luke used a Greek word that adequate or sufficient or “good enough.”  The Jews said the centurion was an “A plus” kind of guy, but the centurion said that he didn’t even merit a “D minus.”  Despite what the Jews said—and their compliments were quite complimentary!—the centurion believed that he was not worthy of the grace or goodness of the Son of God.  Because he didn’t meet the minimum requirements, he explained that he didn’t belong in the category the Jews placed him in as someone “worthy to come to [Jesus].”

Five Sundays ago, I preached a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13, the “love chapter” of the Bible.  My usual practice is to take the general focus of the Sunday sermon and use that in our school chapel devotions on the following Wednesday, and that’s what I did with that sermon.  I asked the students why they love their parents.  The children gave the usual answers: Mom and dad take care of me, they make sure I have food and clothes and a nice home and a loving family and everything else you would expect parents to do.  The reason the children gave for loving their parents is because their parents do something for them.

This was the perfect set-up to the next question.  Why do your parents love you?  If you love your parents because of what they do for you, then why should your parents love you?  That got the wheels turning!  Maybe they could say that they do their chores or listen when they’re told—sometimes.  I could have pressed that more, but the third question was most important.  Why should God love us?  If we love others because of what they do for us, then why should God love us?  The children made a couple of valiant attempts at a decent answer, but we had to conclude that we don’t do anything to make God love us.  Despite what we think of ourselves, despite what others may think of us, we are not worthy of God’s grace.

But isn’t there at least something within us that makes God love us?  Shouldn’t God love me because I obey him?  Oh, really—on what day did that take place?  Well, then, shouldn’t God love me because I try to obey him?  But isn’t true that when we “try” to obey God, so often it involves something that we have little to no trouble doing?  How often have we really fought against the lust and greed and assuming arrogance and disrespect that our sinful nature has no trouble producing?  Well, then maybe God loves us because we believe in him?  But doesn’t our faith in God waver the moment something challenging comes up?  Oh, well, we’ll believe in him when we recite the Apostles’ Creed in worship but then we doubt his promise to work good blessings out of even the worst trials of life?

Perhaps there exists a perception that church-going, tax-paying, law-obeying, Lutheran-school-attending people are a cut above the rest of society.  But that’s a phony line if there ever was one.  Despite the perception others have of us, despite the perception we have of ourselves, we are not worthy of God’s grace.  We are only worthy of his just and eternal judgment.

II.

The centurion knew two important truths.  He knew he was unworthy of Jesus’ presence and help.  But he also knew that, despite his unworthiness, Jesus could provide everything he needed with a mere word.  “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.”

All that the centurion wanted was a simple word.  He knew from his life’s vocation that he could issue a simple command, and the men under him would carry it out.  How much more could God incarnate issue a simple word, and since everything is under the authority of God, that simple word would be as good as done.  Jesus didn’t need to come personally.  He just needed to come in the power of a simple word.

It takes a lot to amaze God.  Only twice in the Bible do we hear about incidents where Jesus was amazed—once, negatively, when he was rejected by the people from his boyhood hometown, and here, positively, when he was struck by the simple faith of a Gentile!  We can easily gloss over Jesus’ response, but it is truly astonishing!  “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.’”  Jesus never said this about someone from God’s handpicked Old Testament people, the Israelites.  The greatest example of faith Jesus points to is a Gentile, a man who never had the advantages of the Hebrew Scriptures or the God-ordained ceremonies of the Old Testament—all of which pointed ahead to Jesus’ saving work.  This man knew his unworthiness, but he also knew that Jesus could heal his servant by the power of his word, and that is exactly what Jesus did.  “Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.”

As summer vacations start this week, it is appropriate for us to remember that we dare not take a vacation from the Word of God!  The Word of God is the way that God comes to us.  When we keep ourselves away from God’s house and from his Word, we’re keeping ourselves from the way that God comes to us.  But when we come to his house and open his Word, then—despite our unworthiness—God comes to us with the power of his forgiving grace and mercy.

If you were confirmed in the church as a child, you might remember these words from Luther’s Small Catechism that you memorized when you studied Baptism.  Luther asked, “How can water do such great things?” and then answered his question with this summary: “It is certainly not the water that does such things, but God’s Word which is in and with the water and faith which trusts this Word used with the water.  For without God’s Word the water is just plain water and not Baptism.  But with this Word it is Baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of rebirth by the Holy Spirit.”

This is how God comes to us—in his powerful and gracious Word!  God’s Word turned your baptism from a mere church ceremony into a faith-creating adoption into his family.  God’s Word takes the elements of bread and wine and presents you with the very body and blood of Jesus that accomplished your redemption on the cross and comes to you with forgiveness today.  God’s Word in the mouth of his servants present you with the promise and assurance of pardon and absolution from Christ himself.  God’s Word preached from this pulpit today and every Sunday proclaims the heavenly good news that Jesus’ blood has cleansed you from sin and that Jesus’ resurrection has secured your own resurrection on the day of his return.  God’s Word that was taught in our school over the last year has fed his little lambs with the spiritual food that keeps their faith alive.  God’s Word shared among Christian friends comforts us with the knowledge that Jesus has come to be our Savior, our Redeemer, our salvation from sin and our reconciliation with God in heaven.  Despite our unworthiness, Jesus still comes to you today by the power of his life-giving, sin-forgiving Word.

Conclusion

Teachers sometimes say, “If you remember anything from this class, remember this.”  And if the students have as much as a beating pulse, they’ll sit up and take notice of whatever the teacher says because they know that whatever follows will be important.

If there’s ever a lesson we need to remember from the Word of God, it is that we are not worthy of his grace.  That’s not exactly a popular lesson to learn, but like many life lessons, the most important lessons aren’t always the easiest ones to learn.  But when the reality of our unworthiness strikes our souls, then we can truly appreciate this greater reality: Despite our unworthiness, Jesus comes to us in his Word and gives us everything we need that we could never get for ourselves—pardon for our sins, peace with God, and the promise of heaven.  That’s a lesson worth remembering, now and forever!  Amen.

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