Faith to admire
I’ve been doing Christian summer camps with young people pretty much every summer since I became a Christian at university. They’re great fun, and a brilliant way not only to introduce young people to the person of the Lord Jesus but also to demonstrate to Christian young people what it looks like day by day to seek to live as a Christian.
So if you have a spare week in the summer and you’re not already doing one I’d strongly suggest that you get yourself signed up to be a leader or a cook or something on one as soon as possible. See me afterwards!
Last year I went on a camp that I’ve not been on before and it was brilliant. A great group of young people, a gifted and enthusiastic team of leaders, superb venue, indoor swimming pool and so on.
But I couldn’t help noticing one or two about the camp that I wasn’t really all that keen on.
The main thing was that I thought that while the evening entertainment was absolutely brilliant and spot on the time in the evening where the Christian message, or some aspect of it, was presented were…
…well frankly they were a bit dull.
The content was great – but it wasn’t exactly exciting.
And, being me, I put those comments into the feedback form that I’d been given.
This year I’m going back to the camp. And you can guess what’s happened…
That’s right – I’ve been given the job of planning and putting together the evening meetings. So if they’re dull this year – it’s my responsibility!
The really interesting question, though, is why had that happened in the first place?
After all the other people running the camp were at least as experienced, godly and competent as me – they’d all been doing it for years.
Why did it take me to point out what was, as far as I was concerned, blindingly obvious?
Am I just some sort of Christian genius?
Well I’d like to think so but the truth, again no doubt blindingly obvious to the rest of you, is that I’m not.
My advantage was simply that I was an outsider. The other people there had all been doing this for years – and that was the problem.
The meetings were still just like they were when they started – so they all thought they were fine. But the quality of the rest of the camp had moved on.
There was something that I was able to see as an outsider that the people who had been there for years would have taken much longer to spot.
And that’s true all over the place isn’t it?
Some of the most helpful comments I’ve had about Christ Church and the way we run our meetings, welcome people and so on have come from friends of mine who have visited without anybody else knowing who they were.
There is a whole industry called management consultancy which is, essentially, based on the premis that outsiders going into a business can often see things that are not working, or at least things which could work better, much more clearly than people who are involved all the time in the day-to-day running of the company.
In the verses we are looking at this morning Matthew introduces us to two very different people.
The first is a man with leprosy.
He was almost certainly poor – probably a beggar.
He would have had no social standing and probably very little contact with any other person – except maybe other lepers.
He would have been regarded with a mixture of pity and fear by those who came across him.
The second is centurion in the Roman army.
He was one of the few people in C1st Palestine who could probably be considered genuinely middle class.
He would have had many people coming through his home and been considered a pillar of the community.
He would have been regarded with awe by people who met him – and possibly with animosity by those who saw him as an agent of the hated Roman empire that occupied the land of the Jews at that time.
But these very different men have two things in common.
Firstly both of them, like me on that camp, were in some way outsiders.
The leper excluded from full participation in the life of Israel because of his disease; which the Old Testament law said made him unclean before God.
The centurion excluded from full participation in the life of Israel because he was not Jewish; which the Old Testament law said made him unclean before God.
And secondly both of these men display a startling insight about Jesus Christ that had not previously been grasped by any of the people who you might have expected to see it long before these stranger and outcasts did.
1 Jesus heals faithful outcasts (v1-4)
Jesus was not short of followers at this stage of his ministry. They crowded round him, astonished at his teaching and pressed in on him from every side at once.
But amongst the crowd was one man who, really, ought not to have been there.
It’s hard for us to understand the fear that leprosy struck onto ordinary men and women in the C1st.
People with a whole range of infection skin diseases were forced to live at a distance from the rest of the population. Apart from the horrible physical sufferings of true leprosy – what we now call Hansen’s disease – all sorts of skin conditions, some lifelong and even terminal, resulted in total exclusion from community life and, especially, from the worship of God in the temple in Jerusalem.
To have leprosy was to be, literally, untouchable.
And there was nothing anybody could do for you.
In the Old Testament, in one of the Bible’s most famous cases of leprosy, the king of another nation sends the commander of his army to Israel’s king because he had heard there was a prophet in Israel who could help him.
Israel’s king tears his robes when he hears of this army commander and says:
“Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”
The king is convinced that his counterpart must be trying to start a war because everybody knows that curing leprosy requires a miraculous intervention of God. It is, he says, as hard as raising the dead.
How remarkable that the man who comes to Jesus, who kneels before him and calls him Lord has no doubts about Jesus ability to heal him.
We can’t be certain whether the kneeling and use of “Lord” to address Jesus tell us that the man knew Jesus was divine.
But we can be certain that the leper knew Jesus could do what only God could do – he could cure him.
And we can also be certain that this leper knew what the real issue was.
The natural thing to say, of course, was “if you are willing you can make me well.”
Or “you can heal me.”
But that’s not what the man says. The thing he is most conscious of is that his disease separates him from God. It makes him unclean – unable even to appear in the temple to offer the sacrifices needed for his sin to be forgiven.
Here is a man with great perception.
He sees what his real need is – that his physical healing will result in something even more wonderful – cleanness, restoration to relationship with God and his people.
And, somehow, he sees that Jesus is the answer. No doubt there were all sorts of quacks and charlatans around at the time. I imagine that there were people hawking all sorts of potions and remedies for leprosy for a hefty sum, none of which probably made the slightest bit of difference.
But this man perceives that Jesus – who is neither claiming to cure nor offering to heal – can do what none save God himself can do and make him clean.
It is this perceptiveness of faith that Jesus implicitly commends with his reply:
“I am willing, be clean.”
The word is effective – immediately the man is cured.
But Jesus doesn’t just speak here.
He also reaches out his hand and touches the man.
It’s hard to imagine the shock that would have created amongst the crowd.
You would have heard the collective gasp for breath as the people around saw what was happening and then the low murmurs as they turned “did you see that? Did you see what he just did? Unbeliveable.”
It’s become something of a clichéd illustration, but it was a defining moment in our cultural history. In 1987 Princess Diana visited Middlesex hospital and shook the hand of 28 year old Shane Snape. Not very remarkable – except that he had AIDS and she wasn’t wearing any gloves. The photos were all over the front pages, not just of British but of the world’s newspapers the next day. That handshake was all about overcoming prejudice – many well-informed people already knew there was no way you would contract HIV from a handshake...
But everybody knew you could get leprosy from skin contact – which, of course, you can. And more than that while nobody would have expected Jesus to instantly display symptoms of the disease – or even contract it at all – it would certainly have instantly defiled him and he would have had to take steps to ensure he became ritually clean again.
After all this was the man who has just said that he has no plans to abolish even the smallest pen stroke in the law – let alone the several chapters that deal with leprosy!
But there is no doubt in Jesus’ mind that he is undefiled by the man’s uncleanness.
Rather Jesus’ purity has flowed the other way. The man is cleansed by the word and touch of Christ.
The ex-leper’s confidence is fully justified – here is God breaking into the world in power.
Many people must have seen the miracle.
But Jesus tells the man not to go shouting his mouth off but, rather, to make the long journey to Jerusalem and sacrifice the offering of animal that the law of Moses required for readmission to full relationship with God and his people.
It’s not that going to make the sacrifices will make the man clean – Jesus has already done that. He has what he wanted.
Rather the sacrifices will be a witness, a testimony, to the religious authorities about who Jesus is.
Maybe you found it hard to understand what Jesus was talking about when he said that he had come not to abolish the OT law but to fulfil it, though I’m sure Jeremy’s excellent sermon on that which I was listening to the other day on CD helped you with that.
But this passage helps us to understand.
What purpose do the sacrifices this man will offer serve?
They won’t make him clean – Jesus has already told him he IS clean.
So what will they do?
Well they will be a testimony to the fact that is was Jesus who made him clean.
The Old Testament sacrifices for the person healed of leprosy ultimately point to Jesus – because he is the one who can and will make people clean.
This man was an outcast.
But he saw something about Jesus and was healed.
2 Jesus praises faithful outsiders (v5-13)
It’s almost certain that this incident didn’t take place at the same time as the one before it – notice how vague Matthew is about the timing.
That means he has deliberately chosen to place this incident here in order to teach us something.
We’ve already seen that the great similarities between these two men – apparently at polar opposite ends of scales of power, influence and wealth – are that they are both outsiders as far as the religious establishment of Israel is concerned and that they both display astonishing insights about Jesus.
The centurion comes and asks Jesus for help.
Actually I’m sure most of you noticed that he doesn’t actually ask anything at all. Just as the leper made a statement rather than asking a question so does the centurion.
He describes the pitiful agonies of his servant who, from the word he uses, may well have been only a boy – a child in pain and distress.
Jesus’ reply, in v7, is almost certainly a question rather than a statement as the NIV has it.
It should probably be something like “shall I go and heal him?”
This, in turn, prompts a remarkable response from the centurion.
It is remarkable for two things.
Firstly this reasonably senior officer – more of less equivalent to the rank of Captain in a modern army – of an occupying army, not usually noted for their deference and courtesy, says that he is unworthy even to have Jesus come under his roof.
But even more strikingly he expects Jesus to be able to heal his servant without going anywhere at all.
Well, he says, READ v9.
Reading most of the commentaries they tend to concentrate on the later part of the verse – the centurion is a man with authority so he is used to people doing what he says.
Therefore he expects that Jesus’ words will be effective also.
But on its own that doesn’t make any sense.
After all if someone has authority then shouldn’t the centurion be able to heal this illness?
No the key to understanding this comes in the first few words of v9.
“I myself am a man under authority.”
What happens when the centurion speaks? His men obey him. Why? Because he is a particularly charming man? Possibly. Because he has great personal charisma? Well maybe.
But the main reason people obey his military orders is because the centurion is himself a man under authority. He is under the authority of his colonel and then his general and so on right the way back to the Roman Emperor himself.
When the centurion speaks he does so with the authority of Rome and therefore he must be obeyed.
It is the source of the centurion’s authority that really matters. Because in military matters Rome was supreme.
So what about Jesus?
What authority does he speak with that could heal terrible diseases with just a word?
Well the only authority in the universe over sickness and death is the authority of God himself.
The centurion realises that Jesus can heal with a word because he sees that Jesus’ words are God’s words.
The crowds have been astonished by the authority of Jesus’ teaching. But the centurion alone so far has seen that Jesus speaks with the very voice of God.
That is why he is commended by Jesus for his faith, v10, and why Jesus acts to heal the servant in accordance with what the centurion believes, v13.
In these incidents it is the outsiders, the unexpected people who have great insight into who Jesus is.
And they will not be the only ones. Many, Jesus says, v11, will come from all over the world and join in the great feast of God’s faithful people in eternity.
But, he warns the crowd, the subjects of the kingdom, many of those who ought to have recognised the source of Jesus’ authority, will miss out on that banquet in eternal darkness.
It is shocking that no one in Israel has been found with such great faith – because, in one sense, it doesn’t require great faith to see that Jesus’ words and God’s words. He’s actually been making that abundantly clear as he has talked about how he fulfils the law, how people will call him Lord, how he will decide who does and who does not enter the kingdom of heaven.
The people he is talking too are following him around. They are astonished by his teaching.
And yet, Jesus says, they are in danger of hell.
There is a real danger of being an unbelieving follower of Jesus.
And that is not a danger confined to C1st Jews.
It is a real danger for all of us that familiarity breeds contempt.
That we become those who hang around close to the kingdom but who have no genuine insight into Jesus. Who may be astonished by his teaching but do not trust his words as the very words of God himself.
One of the most striking things I have heard in recent months was Stacey giving her testimony when she got baptised here at CCL a few weeks ago.
I thought it was a very Christ-centred and moving testimony. A heartfelt and passionate statement that she had never been more certain of anything in her life than she was of the Lordship of Christ and his ability to bring her salvation.
That was the testimony of someone who knew almost nothing of Christ but who had been brought by the work of the Holy Spirit, as the word was presented to her, to astonishing new insight into the authority of Jesus. Stacey has seen that Jesus brings the very words of God – the words of life.
Now I don’t want to take away anything at all from the other excellent testimonies we heard that Sunday.
But I did wonder whether my life exhibits the same clear eyed, perceptive insight into the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Of course in one (very limited!) sense being a Christian is a bit like going out with someone.
There is a first flush of excitement and enthusiasm which, to be honest, you just couldn’t live with for a lifetime. All that adrenaline coursing round your system would mess you up pretty quickly.
But if your vision has become blurred. If you’ve begun to take everything about you boy or girlfriend for granted you need to act don’t you?
If you carry on like that you’ll soon find yourself in a real mess.
You need a nice meal out. Some time talking, interacting, enjoying each other’s company.
It’s the same as a Christian. If all the enthusiasm has gone. If music or work or cars or family or getting married or writing sermons has become the focus of your life you have lost the plot.
And you are in real danger, whether you call Jesus, “Lord, Lord” or not of him saying he doesn’t know you.
There is a real danger of being an unbelieving follower of Jesus.
What can we do about that?
Well if you’ve been a Christian any length of time you’ll know that the leper and the centurion didn’t work out who Jesus was all by themselves.
The kind of insight they displayed requires revelation from God – it is a sign of the Holy Spirit at work that they saw what others did not see.
And the Spirit is at work, the kingdom of heaven is inherited by who?
5:3 – by the poor in spirit. By the humble.
And that is a characteristic shared by both these men isn’t it?
The leper kneels. The mighty centurion knows that he is not worthy even of Jesus’ presence in his home.
These men came in dependence. In humility. Knowing that they needed to receive from Jesus – and that there was no other hope for them.
If we want clear eyed, wonderful, refreshing, liberating insight into who Jesus is we too must come in poverty of Spirit before him.
Day by day we need to do what I so often fail to do and ask him to help us understand his authority, his power and his compassion.
And to be honest I know from bitter experience that that is not going to happen if the sum total of time I commit to time with God is 90 minutes at church once a week and 2 minutes a day of requests for people I’m concerned about.
We have no need of legalism. There are no compulsory 20 minute quiet times or minimum church attendance figures for Christians. We aren’t required to pray 10, 5, 3 or even 1 time a day.
But we must cultivate poverty of spirit, the realisation of who we are before God or we will die.