June 2 2013 Sermon
Luke 7:1 After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. 3 When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, 5 for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” 6 And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. 7 Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 9 When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10 And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.
We raise up our voices daily. All over the world you can hear the voices lifted up in prayer, some shouting with joy, some with praise, some with thanksgiving. Others are the still small voices of children praying “Now I lay me down to sleep,” as they are being tucked into bed at night. Others are cries of sorrow, moans of weariness, screams of pain. Around the world, day and night, voices are lifted up to the Lord. The prayers of the saints rise up to God like the sweet smell of incense; a pleasing aroma, and because we are his beloved children he places our tears in his bottle.
To pray is to know God. As we know God, so we pray. As Solomon knew God, thus he prayed: “There is no God like you. You keep your covenant and show steadfast love to your servants.” Solomon prayed this way because this is what he knew God to be like. He had faith that God is a God who keeps his promise. For he had made a covenant with his father David. A covenant that said that David’s son, Solomon, would build a house for the Lord where his name would dwell. And today, this house was completed. It had been built. The Lord had kept his promise. “Oh, Lord, God of Israel” said Solomon, “there is no God like you. No God keeps his covenant like you, no God shows his steadfast love like you do. For what you spoke with your mouth you have fulfilled this day.”
Solomon knew God. He knew that God kept his word. He knew that God was righteous and just and so he would fulfill his promises. As he knew God, thus he prayed. He held God to his word. He appealed to God on the basis of God’s justice, knowing that God would do the right thing and keep his word. Because that’s who God is.
He had just built a house for God to dwell in on earth. But he had the same question we do, “Will you really live here on the earth? Not even the highest heaven can contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” We too ask, “Can God really dwell on earth?” Can the earth contain him? He is far greater than the universe, can he really live here on the earth? Can he be contained in this little house where we worship him? Can he fit into the water of baptism? Can he be contained in the elements of Holy Communion? And so some have denied the presence of God in the sacraments for just that reason.
Solomon knew God and so he prayed, “Have regard to the prayer of your servant,…listen to the cry and to the prayer that your servant prays before you this day. Open your eyes night and day toward this house, the place of which you have said, “My name shall be there,” that you may listen to the prayer that your servant offers toward this place. Solomon knew that God hears and answers prayers. Solomon knew that in this house where God would dwell, he would hear the prayers that his servants offered there. That’s who God is; that’s how Solomon prayed. He held God to his word and his justice.
Then Solomon added still another petition that is hard to understand. It was hard for the people of Israel to understand. It is hard for us to understand. He prayed, “Listen, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name’s sake…hear in heaven and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you.” Now that is astonishing. He was asking God to hear foreigners. People who were not the chosen people of God. People who were considered unclean and sinners by the Israelites. He was praying for people like us, you and me, who are not by birth God’s chosen ones. We are foreigners and outsiders. God chose Abraham and his descendents, the Jewish people to be his own possession. But Solomon prays for the gentile nations too. He was praying for us.
Then one day as Jesus was going home to Capernaum, he was met by a delegation sent by a Roman soldier. He was a centurion, an army officer, in charge of the military cohort at Capernaum. He was a man of authority. He reported directly to King Herod and acted with the authority of the King and the Emperor in Rome. But he was not a Jew. He was a foreigner. Not of the chosen people of God. But Solomon had prayed that when a foreigner came to the house of God, he would hear his prayer. So this man, a foreigner, prayed. He knew God would hear his prayer. He had faith in the God of Solomon. He knew that God was a just God who kept his word and fulfilled his promises. He trusted God to do the right thing. And according to his faith he acted; he prayed. This foreigner knew that God had a house where he dwelt on earth. He also knew that the house was no longer the temple made with stones, but was a flesh and blood temple, made of human flesh, and that temple was Jesus. So just as Solomon prayed to God in the temple, this centurion prayed to God in the temple of Jesus Christ. For, as St. Paul reminds us, “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” (Col. 1:19).
Here is the answer to Solomon’s question: “Will God indeed dwell on the earth?” God indeed did dwell on the earth in the form of a man, the man Jesus Christ. The infinite God whom the highest heaven cannot contain, made his dwelling place in a human being and lived here on earth. The centurion did not go to the temple of stones, but to the true temple of God, the dwelling place of God on earth, Jesus. And yes, as Solomon prayed, God did hear and do all for which the foreigner called him to do.
The foreigner had faith in God. And according to his faith he prayed. His prayer life, and indeed all his life, was shaped by his theology. His faith shaped and directed his every action. His faith was shown by his love, love for his servant who was ill unto death. Love for the chosen people of God for whom he built a synagogue. He faith was shown by his prayer to the God of the Jews, even though he was not a Jew himself. His faith is demonstrated by his humble attitude and repentance. As he admitted when he said, “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.” He was a man of authority. He bore the sword of Caesar and held the authority of King Herod, yet he would not presume to come to Jesus in person for he knew he was an unclean man, a sinner. He sent an envoy to Jesus because he himself was not worthy to be in his presence. He did not expect Jesus to come into his house because he was not worthy to have him under his roof.
He was so very different from many of us today, who think we deserve to come into the presence of Jesus. We think we are doing God some sort of favor to come to his house to worship him. We think he owes us when we pray to him and should answer us because we are good people and deserve his favor. But the centurion had the greater faith, a faith which was lived out in his life, in his humility, in his repentance and confession of sin, and in his love for his neighbor.
So Jesus commended him on account of his faith. Jesus even marveled at his faith. This foreigner had greater faith than those of the house of Israel, the insiders, the members of the church. This foreigner knew who Jesus was. This foreigner who commanded an army and wielded the power of the king, knew his own humble status. This foreigner trusted God and prayed to him according to his faith.
But who are the real foreigners? We are the foreigners. Obviously we are foreigners by the flesh, for we are not Jews, we are gentiles. We are not of the chosen race, the chosen people of God.
But we are foreigners in a deeper sense as well. We are born into sin. From our birth we are separated from God, separated from the household of God, strangers and aliens to the kingdom of God. From our birth we are far away, without hope and without God (Eph 2). We are foreigners and aliens in the kingdom of God, not because of our race, but because we are sinners by nature. That is what the centurion understood; that is what we believe and confess as well.
Even so, God chose to dwell on earth among us. Even to the point of becoming one of us. God came to a foreign land, he lived among an alien people, in order to save us from our sins and adopt us as his sons and daughters, making us citizens of his kingdom and co-heirs with his Son, Jesus. As Solomon prayed, God has heard our prayers and has declared us righteous on account of our faith in Christ Jesus. In baptism we are made fellow-citizens of the kingdom and no longer foreigners and aliens.
And yes, God does dwell on earth, not in a temple made of stone, but in a temple of flesh and blood; the flesh and blood of Jesus which you will receive today at the altar. This is the mystery, that in that bread and wine God himself lives, and he enters into you and becomes one with you. God indeed dwells on earth today, in the Word preached and the Sacraments administered.
As Solomon trusted God to keep his word, and as the centurion trusted him to do what is right, so we trust God to hear the prayer of the foreigner. Therefore we come before him, as foreigners, to confess our sins, receive his forgiveness, and offer our prayers. As we trust in God, so we pray. Our prayers are shaped by our theology, our faith. Faith that he dwells with us and has made us citizens and heirs of his kingdom. Faith that he is a just God who keeps his word and does what is right. Amen.