AN IMPRESSIVE FAITH
Sermon preached in Rye Lane Chapel, Sunday morning, December 4th, 1960
"Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no not in Israel." Matthew, ch. 8, v. 10.
This incident is also recorded by Luke with a number of variations the consideration of which are not in our purpose this morning. The centre of interest is the centurion, a Roman pagan. his faith is outstanding and calls forth exceptional commendation and a remarkable comment from our Lord. Our Lord indicates what is in His mind. The kingdom of heaven was regarded by every pious Jew as an eternal economy of bliss to which he might with assurance look forward to enjoying as a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Our Lord declares that to be a false impression. The kingdom of heaven will be for those who share, not the fleshly descent from Abraham, but share his faith. There are people who spend their lives in a religious environment of thought, custom, habit, who will experience deep regret, here called, weeping and gnashing of teeth because in actual fact thcy never exercised a vital faith. Their religion was a sentiment. An active faith of a realistic kind must characterise every man and woman who is to sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. Our Lord desired His hearers that day to know that the faith that pleased God was not the miserable thing that went by that name inside the synagogue but the virile, active, achieving reality demonstrated by this centurion. If I mistake not, every Christian here will find both rebuke and encouragement in thinking about this centurion. If we could realistically follow the insight and the logic he manifested we could step into a realm of spiritual activity few of us have ever known. The presentation may not be attractive; indeed, it may be wearisome, yet, even so, let me beg of you to give it the maximum concentrated attention of which you are capable to the end that life henceforth will be characterised by the faith of this centurion. There are three major features that should be considered.
1) THE CONCERN OF THE CENTURION
This officer is concerned, not about his child but about a servant. No doubt he is a faithful servant upon whom he relies and it may be he cannot think how he will do without him should he die but, even so, army officers cannot be too sentimental. Generals in war consider a position that has to be taken, they estimate what is likely to be the cost in human life and forthwith proceed. The loss of life, of course, is regrettable but that is war! There is, however, more in this centurion's concern than that. The servant is sick of the palsy and grievously tormented. It is thought that it may have been an acute form of spinal meningitis. The centurion has had to witness the poor man's agony and his sympathy has not been that of an officer for a servant but a genuine distress of mind and heart as he has shared in the suffering of one who is more a friend than a servant. Indeed, there has been a large measure of identification so that the suffering of the one has really preoccupied the mind and feeling of the other compelling him to get to Jesus that the servant may be healed. There is no exaggeration in this because our Lord distinctly says to this centurion: "As thou hast believed, be it done unto thee." It will be done to the servant but so really one are the centurion and the servant that it will be done unto the centurion! Let us therefore get hold of this basic truth. We are not treating our Lord as He intends He should be treated if we are asking petitions in the easygoing way in which in actual fact we never take the trouble to observe whether prayer is answered or not.
We shall do well if we exclude from our praying all these omnibus petitions of what we call " blessing" and confine our praying to the matters upon which we really feel genuine unmistakable burden. If we have none of these let us tell the Lord quite plainly we are unburdened and happy-go-lucky Christians to whom the state of our friends and relatives before God is a matter of little concern. This will mean that in actual fact while we are indulging beatific illusions as to what it will be like to sit down with Abraham at the feast, the only occupation for our teeth will be gnashing with bitter regret that we scandalously ignored the teaching of the Word. God intends us to have a burden about somebody, a real burden, a costly burden and unburdened Christians are those who should definitely be burdened about their own condition' The thing that impresses our Lord is that this centurion is genuinely burdened about the painful condition of a brother man. We are to have the terrible need of another as a burden, a real burden on our own hearts. There may be a place for general prayers, but there is no place for general prayers without burdened prayers. This perpetual praying for generalities, repetitions day by day for general blessings, endless praying for answers for which we never look can be a spiritual sedative luring us to spiritual inertia.
2) THE CENTUR1ON'S CONVICTION
His thought about Jesus is not that our Lord is a marvellous magician. Some people expect heaven to bring out of the hat anything they desire, and when the rabbit fails to materialise they declare they have lost their faith. They most seriously blame God for what has or has not happened and leave the Church. They may be well assured their teeth will do some gnashing! That sort of attitude is the petulance of a spoilt child and a rightly instructed parent should not have one! This centurion is convinced that Jesus has no need to come to his house, to see the servant. On the contrary, it is his conviction that if Jesus will speak the word, forces will be set in motion that will have their effect on the agonised servant lying in bed some miles away with the result that the servant will be healed. Of course, this was a remarkable conviction: ' 'Speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed."
It is, therefore, a question to be put and not lightly set aside: Are you so convinced about the Lord Jesus in heaven? Do you believe there is no need for Him to come from heaven to meet a dire and desperate need but that from where He is at the Throne of Grace He has powers of transmission of energy to a single named individual about a preci se and exact need. Do not dissolve this tremendously serious issue in irrelevant conversation after this service until you are telling God quite seriously whether you do or do not believe. If what the centurion believed was in fact correct, how much more is it true of our Enthroned Lord' "Greater things than these shall ye do; because I go to My Father." The Lord Jesus from heaven where He is, can send forth energies from His Person transmissible to named individuals, suitable to specific conditions and can remove evil and establish good according to His will and the precise need of the individual concerned. This is not a piece of superstition; it is not even an hypothesis, but the working principle upon which we are to have dealings with our Lord.
The centurion appreciated the competence of our Lord from another angle. This was something he had thought out very carefully. It was, if you like, a little bit of philosophy based upon insight. He had looked into the powers of Jesus from the standpoint of authority. The centurion was a servant of Caesar. He had but to receive an instruction from Rome and without hesitation, even if his life were involved, he would obey it. It was this absolute obedience to Caesar that endued him with authority over his soldiers. They obeyed him because he obeyed Caesar. Behind every order the centurion gave was the power of the obedience he himself rendered to Caesar. The centurion has no doubts about Jesus. Jesus is absolutely obedient to God in heaven. Everything Jesus did or said, had an authority that emerged out of His obedience to God. Therefore, any command Jesus gave would have immediate effect in the realm in which God had given Him authority. The powers of God are exercised by the man who lives in absolute obedience to God. This is the reason why the centurion is sure that if our Lord will issue the command from wherever He is, the effect upon the servant where he is, will be registered forthwith. Therefore, this centurion is not petitioning, hoping. praying piteously, he comes to Jesus on very sure ground without any doubt in the situation. You must ask yourself if your praying is based solidly on such a conviction as this pagan Roman who had never read one word of our New Testament! Finally, there is
3) THE CENTURION'S INTEGRITY
Worry and anxiety are the common affliction of the race of Adam. In one sense it was worry and anxiety that afflicted the centurion. There is, however, a difference. If anxiety over another bring us to a state where we sit in our room or lie in bed during the night unable to sleep, dosing ourselves with aspirin, bemoaning the situation, wondering what we could possibly have done for this thing to come down upon us, then we are without the shadow of a doubt well in the grip of the powers of darkness! Nothing delights them more than to find a professing Christian so decisively immobilised. Down in the dungeon of Doubting Castle we shall be comfortably housed by Giant Despair. We may indeed finish off our lives in his domain. There are many Christians who have plenty of time for prayer, who could carry the battle through to victory like this centurion but who in fact are oblivious to the power of a living faith and are deprived of any spirit that would make them useful to God.
But let us imitate the centurion. Anxiety for his faithful servant brought him to Jesus. That is where every anxiety should bring us and it is a sound principle for life. As we have noticed, it is not mere impetuosity that brings him. Behind his approach to Jesus there is intelligence, thought and conviction. He believes that Jesus from wherever He may be can deal with his servant wherever that servant may be. He believes, too, that His power is not magic but the precise ordered result of our Lord's absolute obedience the Father. And these are the considerations that to bring him face to face with Jesus. Much, it is evident, depends on his attitude as he deals personally with Our Lord. We note his humble spirit. His objection to our Lord proceeding to his house is that he, the centurion, is unworthy of such an honour. He meant it! Most of us would feel honoured by the coming of such a One into our house, but the Roman centurion cannot bear the thought that the Lord should so humble Himself. The whole attitude and spirit of this man is marked by a complete absence of claim, demand or right, -and what he asks he pleads and beseeches because he is moved with the deepest compassion for his servant.
This needs to be noted with care, for while we should ever come boldly to the Throne of Grace we must ever remember that all our rights as we call them are vested in Christ. This brings us to the final consideration. The centurion is burdened but not overwhelmed by the serious and painful condition of his servant. In this critical moment he stands with our Lord sharing His spirit to the full and meeting this situation not according to the terrible condition in which he left his servant but in a really strong, enlightened conviction that to stand in simple faith in the Omnipotence of the Lord is to be the channel of victory and so it proved. As sensible people we are bound to consider all the circumstances and we must face them. As, however, we bring them to Jesus, really burdened by them, we must turn the burden into a footstool of intercession. No matter how hopeless the situation may seem to be we must stand with our Lord in confident faith, strong conviction, that from the moment we do so He will be responsible.
We cannot, so far as we know, transmit thought and energy to somebody at a distance but the Lord in heaven can know such an anonymous person as a servant and from where He is minister according to His perfect will, to the servant wherever he may be. What a blessing it will be if every believer here takes this message to heart. If hitherto you have usually succumbed to difficulties bemoaning your hard and difficult lot, let that attitude be accounted sin before our Heavenly Father. He will forgive and forthwith to teach us how we can stand with His Beloved and Omnipotent Son to challenge any and every evil situation. Whether the answer comes precisely and exactly and as quickly as in this case is not really the question. We have placed it in His hands, we stand in the confidence of His victory and not in the overweight of the challenge, and in that stand of faith the power of God will handle and control the situation.
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