Luke 7:1-17 (click to display NIV text)
April 21, 2013
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
“They were all filled with awe and praised God. ‘A great prophet has appeared among us,’ they said. ‘God has come to help his people.’ ”
When do you ask God for help? Every day? When you feel incompetent to the task? When there is nothing you can do to change your situation? When you feel fear and anxiety? How have you been asking God for help this week?
Someone sent me a recording of an interview with John Piper, as he is retiring from pastoral ministry this spring. He was asked if he leaves with any regrets. He said he has regrets about everything he has ever done. He always felt he fell short, he could have done better. But he has no regrets about being a pastor through the years. That spoke to me. I see how often I fail, how incompetent I am to do this. That is why I daily ask God to help me. I don’t know that I could survive without the help of God.
Sometimes we ask for help through a long, difficult time: an extended illness, a long unemployment, dealing with a troubled child. There is no immediate answer. We pray and we wait.
In those times, our inclination is to ask “Why?” or “Where is God?” The biblical question was “How long, O Lord?” When we read the Old Testament, we see that the help of God was seldom immediate. Generations cried out for help. The faithful sought the Lord over time. Israel was in Egypt for 400 years asking to be delivered. Sarah and Abraham waited past age 100 before a son was born. Part of our understanding of the help of God, found in the Bible, is that God’s help is not given on demand; it is not like fast food, it has its own timing. That is part of the mystery and the testing of faith.
One of the great privileges of being a pastor for the last 38 years has been time spent with older members of the church. Early in my time I found that visiting those who had lived a long time showed me that true faith waits and hopes and longs, and yet is content and is able to trust. I have talked to people who went through world wars and the Great Depression and various illnesses and griefs, and yet they trusted in the Lord and knew his goodness. The help of the Lord does not make life easy or simple or make it turn out the way we thought it should. But the help of the Lord is real. He is faithful.
The word in Luke that is translated as “help” (“God has come to help his people”) is one of those interesting biblical words, with long roots in the Old Testament. In different versions of the Bible it comes out as “God has visited his people,” or “God has looked favorably on his people,” or in The Message, “God is back, looking to the needs of his people.” The definition of this word is “to look observantly, to inspect, to look out, to visit for the purpose of comfort and relief, or when used of God, “to visit with gracious intervention.” What Luke is saying here is that in Christ God is visiting or helping his people.
Luke writes of two events that show the help of God coming to his people through Jesus Christ. One is the healing of a centurion’s servant in Capernaum. The other is bringing to life the son of a widow who lived in Nain. In these events we see Jesus’ identity as a great prophet like Elijah or Elisha. But Jesus surpasses the prophets, for the help of God that he brings leads to salvation. David Tiede writes of these events, “Jesus is truly the anointed one of God, the fulfillment of God’s promises and the faithful revelation of God’s will and rule.”
The servant of a Roman centurion fell ill and was near death. His situation was hopeless, beyond the ability of any medicine to cure. This reminds us of the story of Namaan and Elisha in II Kings chapter 5. Namaan was also a well respected Gentile, a military officer, and he was healed at a distance, cured of leprosy by washing in the Jordan River as instructed by Elisha. But we also see that Namaan was a proud man, upset at having to enter the muddy Jordan waters. We see that his healing required a ritual, washing seven times.
In contrast, the centurion was not proud or demanding. He was a benefactor, which was a community leader who paid for buildings to be built in the community, like the Ricketts family. This centurion built the synagogue. The elders who came to Jesus knew of all the good this man had done, and felt in debt to him. They thought that Jesus was obligated to heal the servant of this deserving man. It was typical in that culture to live with a sense of obligation to repay the gifts of the Benefactors.
But the centurion only confesses his unworthiness. The concept of a “deserved grace” made sense to the elders, and I think often to us as well. Those who are worthy should get the help. The ones who are loving and kind and good deserve to be healed. The centurion will have none of this thinking. He does not come to Jesus because he feels worthy of being helped. He does not believe that Jesus owes him a favor because he built the town synagogue. He does not question the authority of Jesus, he recognizes it. He comes to Jesus with simple faith.
The response of Jesus, who looks for faith, is to heal the servant with a word. Darrell Bock writes that “The essence of faith is humility – the recognition of the uniqueness of God’s power and our unworthiness before it, while trusting in God’s care.”
So Jesus looks for faith in us when we ask for help. This is the combination of lament and trust that we found in reading Psalm 70. “Hasten O God to save me; come quickly, Lord, to help me” and then “May those who long for your saving help always say, “The Lord is great.” It is trust that comes from lament that leads us to a greater help, to salvation through the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
The second event is the bringing back to life of the son of the widow at Nain. This is an example of Jesus’ proclaiming Good News to the poor. The son who has died is the last means of support for this widow. She joins the funeral procession as it winds through the village. The mourners ask the community to share the grief of the widow. Jesus sees the procession and goes directly to her, out of compassion. Jesus touches the funeral bier, becoming ceremonially unclean. He speaks directly to the young man, who sits up, and then Jesus returns him to his mother. She is helped, restored to life in her family and community and not left impoverished.
What Jesus does reminds us of the prophet Elijah, who raised the son of the widow of Zarephath in I Kings 17. But in that event, there is much ritual action and crying out to the Lord. Here Jesus does not plead with God. He simply speaks and the young man gets up. Jesus is more than a prophet. He is the Lord. The help that he brings comes from his compassion. Jesus sees the need of the widow, the marginalized one, the helpless one. In this act of compassion, the people realize that “God has come to help his people.”
I think of Margaret Austin. She and Clarence are from North Chicago, and they used to stop by church to get help with gas or other needs. They are poor and life has been hard for them. Her son was shot and killed about a year ago while sitting on his porch in Chicago. Then Clarence developed a tumor in his brain, but the surgery not successful, and he went to a nursing home. I gave him a wooden cross to hold. He died a few weeks ago. We will have a service for Clarence next Saturday. Life is terribly difficult for those who are poor. Nothing is easy. Sometimes it seems there is no help. Margaret waits for the help of the Lord. She feels it. Her prayers get answered one at a time. The compassion of Jesus is present. Sometimes you simply have to receive the help of the Lord.
In Christ God has come to help his people. This is the Good News. Because of the cross and resurrection, we have the help of God, which is our salvation, through Jesus Christ the Lord.