“Great Faith, Great Compassion”
March 17, 2019
The one we trust is powerful and compassionate.
I. Those with great faith have a great estimate of Christ. (Luke 17:1-10)
II. Those with great need find great compassion in Christ (Luke 17:11-17)
Today in the course of the message I want to tell you some stories about people whose names I have trouble pronouncing. The first is Mary McLeod Bethune. She’s a good example of where we are headed this morning in our Scripture text. Mary McLeod was born in 1875 in Mayesville, South Carolina, the 15th of 17 children. Her parents were so poor that the children had to pull the plows on the farm. None of them were educated, until a small mission school opened nearby. Mary’s parents could only afford to send one child: they chose Mary.
She was a good student, worked hard, and she earned a scholarship to Moody Bible Institute, where, in her words, she “a love for the whole human family entered my soul, and remains with me, thank God, to this day.” While at Moody, Mary felt called to missions in Africa, but every agency rejected her, saying there was no place for a black missionary in Africa. A few years later, however, she found her mission field in Daytona, Florida, where thousands of former slaves lived in the most abject poverty. Remembering how school had lifted her from the depths, she resolved to open a school for black girls, where students would train, their heads to think, their hands to work, and their hearts to have faith. Within two years Mary had over 250 students. She was often asked why black girls needed an education. Her answer: because they are God’s children.
Under Mary’s bold leadership the school surmounted incredible challenges. Mary would often visit the great business leaders of the day as they vacationed in Florida. The Rockefellers, James Gamble of Proctor and Gamble, and sewing machine manufacturer Thomas H. White. White not only replaced her beat-up old Singer machine, but built her a building in which to teach sewing. Her greatest challenge was the Ku Klux Klan, which harassed her at every turn, especially when she encouraged her girls to exercise their newly won right to vote. Before one election a hundred Klansmen stormed the school, Turning out the lights to confuse the situation, Mary gathered her several hundred girls in the auditorium, where they prayed and sang “Be not afraid what’ere betide, God will take care of you.” And he did. Mary McLeod Bethune became one of the most influential women of her generation. But it done by faith, with a high estimate of what God could accomplish. Mary shows us how someone with a great faith can see great things because she relies on a great God.
We’ll see that same thing today in our Scripture. In fact, our text from Luke today is the story of two people who encountered Jesus, who found him to be both powerful and compassionate as he met their needs.
That’s my key thought. The one we trust in is both powerful and compassionate. Over and over this week, as I’ve prayed for others, and with others, this key truth has been central. God is not only powerful and sovereign, but loving and compassionate. God is not only concerned about us but able to meet our needs.
The first account shows the trust of a centurion in the power of Jesus. It’s Luke 7:1-10 After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. 3When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, 5for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” 6And 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. 7Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. 8For 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.” 9When 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.” 10And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.
This story reminds us that those who have great faith, have a great estimate of Christ. That is, they have a very high view of his power and abilities. Isn’t that what we see in this centurion? He is a military man who has been assigned, with either a Roman unit or a Herodian unit, to the seashore town of Capernaum. Capernaum was located on a major road from Damascas, so it was a strategic post. This centurion had a keen interest in the Jewish religion. The elders say of him that “He loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” It’s not often an occupying soldier loves the nation he occupies, and even less common for that soldier to use his own personal resources to benefit the foreign religion.
We guess from this that the centurion was a God fearer - a God fearing Gentile. There were, at the time, many Gentiles who were drawn to the Jewish religion. It seems to have had great appeal to polytheists, in the worship of one true God. If you follow the history of the early church in Acts and the Epistles, you will find frequent mention of these God-fearing Gentiles. In fact, the first Gentile convert mentioned in Acts is another centurion, Cornelius, whom Peter explicitly calls “god-fearing.” This centurion, the one in Luke, may have been exposed to Judaism before he came to Capernaum. He seems to have known who God was and what He had done and promised for the Jews.
We also know he was a caring person. He cared very much for a mere servant of his. This might be a servant he had brought with him from outside the country, or it might be a Jewish servant who had become attached to his household. In his concern, the centurion remembered the many stories about Jesus circulating in Capernaum. He calls some of the synagogue elders and asks them to seek Jesus, that the servant might be healed. Now normally in the Gospels the leaders of the synagogues were opposed to Jesus. But there is no indication these were. And he had helped them. So the elders bring his message and Jesus goes toward the centurion’s house. Archaeology shows, by the way, that there was a Greek or Roman enclave just a couple of hundred yards up the lake from Jewish Capernaum. So this walk is probably just that short distance.
As they approached, the centurion sent others, friends, to speak for him to Jesus. He had sent the synagogue officials first, who may or may not have been friends, to beg the favor. Now he sends friends to say to Jesus “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. 7Therefore I did not presume to come to you.” Where did the centurion learn this humility? As an official of an occupying army, he didn’t have any social reason to be humble before Jesus. Yet he felt he didn’t even deserve to have Jesus in his home. Part of it may be sensitivity to Jewish culture. He would know it was a violation of the Jewish purity laws for a Jew to spend time in a Gentile house.
More importantly, the centurion seems to have been in awe of Jesus himself. What he knew about Jesus convinced him that this was somebody very great. He shows this very high esteem for Jesus at the end of verse 7: “But say the word, and let my servant be healed.” “Jesus, all you have to do is speak, and the thing will be accomplished.” This is almost saying of Jesus that he believes him to be God, because in Scripture it is only God who speaks and has his will accomplished. The illustration he gives in verse 8 reinforces this truth: “For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me.” Notice he doesn’t say, I’m a man in authority, with soldiers under me. He says “I know both sides. I’m used to obeying without question, and I’m used to being obeyed: “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.” This is also his estimate of Jesus.
The point, and it is the key point in this section is that we too ought to have a very high confidence, a high estimate of what Jesus can do. We ought to be so filled with wonder at his greatness and his power and his love, that when something bad happens to us, whether it is a sick servant, or a sick loved one, a difficult relationship or a burdensome responsibility, we too should confidently turn to Jesus, knowing that if he will just say the word, it will be done. There is nothing any of us experience beyond his power to put right.
This confidence sees Jesus as having limitless resources, wisdom, love and authority. We see Jesus as a child sees her father, the one who can fix anything. Yet the wonder of the centurion’s estimate is its maturity. He has this confidence in a practical, adult way, the same way he has confidence that if he tells a solder to go, he goes. He’s saying “Jesus, I’m sure you have just as much authority.”
It’s kind of a weird example, but I can’t help thinking about a paragraph in one of my favorite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is not really about Zen, and not really about motorcycle maintenance, but one of the things it is about is scientific method. He says “Actually I've never seen a cycle-maintenance problem complex enough really to require full-scale formal scientific method. Repair problems are not that hard. When I think of formal scientific method an image sometimes comes to mind of an enormous juggernaut, a huge bulldozer-slow, tedious, lumbering, laborious, but invincible. It takes twice as long, five times as long, maybe a dozen times as long as informal mechanic's techniques, but you know in the end you're going to get it. There's no fault isolation problem in motorcycle maintenance that can stand up to it. When you've hit a really tough one, tried everything, racked your brain and nothing works, and you know that this time Nature has really decided to be difficult, you say, "Okay, Nature, that's the end of the nice guy," and you crank up the formal scientific method.” That’s the estimate we should have: “Okay, world, flesh, devil, brokenness, sickness, death, no more mister nice guy. I’m calling Jesus in on this.” That’s what the centurion does.
Jesus heard it, and the text says he marveled, or was amazed. This word is only used of Jesus once in the Gospel of Luke, and that is at the faith of a Gentile centurion. Jesus calls this confidence, this high estimate of him faith. He says to the crowd “not even in Israel have I found such faith.” What is faith? The centurion’s faith is simply a great confidence in Jesus. Faith is putting our confidence in someone who can truly do anything. It’s putting our future in the hands of someone we know can care for it. It’s putting our salvation in the hands of someone we know can accomplish it. It’s putting our needs in the hands of someone who can meet them. Once a lady came up to D. L. Moody and said “Oh, Mr. Moody, you are a great man.” “No, but I serve a great God.”
Look how justified that confidence is: “When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.” Very simple. No dramatics, no pulpit pounding, no wailing, no agonized prayer. Jesus simply says the word and the servant is healed, just as the centurion expected. It’s not hard for Jesus. When Jesus says go, the whole world goes, and when Jesus says come, the whole world comes. If you and I are confident in Jesus, our confidence is well placed.
Someone who displays that confidence in Jesus is George Verwer, another person whose name I can’t quite pronounce. Converted to Jesus at a Billy Graham crusade at 17, Verwer also went to Moody Bible Institute. During his second year he was praying one day when suddenly he leaped to his feet. “I’ve got it!” he cried. “What have you got, George,” asked his startled prayer partner. “Everyone in the States has a chance to hear the Gospel, but not in Mexico. We should go there this summer and distribute tracts. How about it?” That was the start of the evangelistic work now known as Operation Mobilization.
A few years later they opened a small bookstore in Mexico city. One day George said to them: “Do you know its is against the law to preach the Gospel on the radio in Mexico? Let’s pray that we can do it anyway!” “But George, we can’t pray about doing something illegal.” “God is greater than laws,” stated George. So they prayed, and not long after they began to preach the gospel on the radio, legally, paying for it as advertising of the Bibles they sold. Years later Verwer had an idea of using a ship to carry missionaries around the world to teach and evangelize in many ports. Christian leaders told George to forget it: “Stick to the ministry God’s given you. What do you know about running a ship. It would be a disaster.” But Verwer persisted, and the ministry of OM’s ships, the Logos and the Doulos, has been effective, throughout the world.
George Verwer has a faith based on a great estimate of God, a heart confidence in the power of Jesus. But this section not only shows the centurion’s faith and Jesus’ power. It goes on to show his great compassion for our needs. Verses 11-17 Soon afterward he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. 12As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. 13And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” 15And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” 17And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.
Nain is about six miles from Nazareth, about thirty miles from Capernaum, By the way, it’s possible Nain is the New Testament name of a town called Shunem in the Old Testament, where Elisha raised the widow’s son. As Jesus approaches this town, there is a funeral procession. It was the custom to lay the dead in their graves on a simple stretcher, rather than in a casket, and so the young man who has died is clearly visible as the procession approaches.
Jesus never met a funeral he didn’t disrupt, even his own. He knows, though there is no record of his asking, that this young man is the only son and that his mother is a widow. This would be a disastrous and lamentable situation in Palestine. Remember, this is not a welfare state. It wasn’t easy for a woman to find any kind of work or trade. With no other relatives, the loss of her son would bring poverty. On top of which she was grieving. So when Jesus saw her, he had compassion on her. The word is used many times in the gospels, and I’ve told you before, that it refers to the intestines rather than the heart. It’s literally a gut-wrenching experience. Jesus feels compassion in the pit of his stomach.
Those with great need find great compassion in Christ. This implies that when Jesus looks at my needs, small as they are, he feels compassion. He looks at the needs of each one here and feels compassion. Abraham Lincoln once said “I am sorry for the man who can't feel the whip when it is laid on the other man's back.” Jesus does feel that, but goes beyond it. He not only identifies with our needs but does something about them. Someone showed it this way: A man fell into a pit and couldn't get himself out. A Christian Scientist came along and said "you only think that you are in a pit." A Pharisee said "only bad people fall into a pit." A legalist said "you deserve your pit." A faith healer said "just confess that you're not in a pit." But Jesus, seeing the man, took him by the hand and lifted him out of the pit. Jesus is the unique person in history who can not only feel compassion, but has divine power to change things.
Jesus says to the widow, “Don’t weep.” Then he walks over to the stretcher, stops those carrying it, and says: “Young man, I say to you, get up.” A God of compassion without power would be a God who offered no hope. A God of power without compassion would be a God you could not trust. But a God who exercises his power in compassion is a God you should cling to. Jesus, in compassion, bids the dead man arise. And without fanfare or flashing lights, the young man sits up and begins to talk, and Jesus gives him back to his mother. He rescues her from grief, misery, poverty, despair.
Yet it is not only in this resurrection that Jesus displays compassion. Like all miracles in the New Testament, even this is a picture of what Christ has done for us and will do for us. His ultimate compassion was not directed at one tearful widow, nor at one caring centurion, but he gave his life for all sinners. He gave his life for his enemies. When we rebel against God and make other things the gods of our lives, when we put ourselves, our fulfillment first, go our own way, do our own thing, and live without regard for others, we make ourselves enemies of God. Sinners. But God demonstrates his compassion for us in this while we were still sinners, Christ died for us, to gain for us forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God.
And just as he had the power to raise this young man back to life, so he also has the power to raise us to eternal life, as he proved by his own resurrection. If we have faith in him, confidence and trust in what he has done, we receive the triple gift of compassion: forgiveness and love in this life, resurrection in the last day, and eternal life in the new heavens and new earth. Ultimate power and perfect compassion. There is nothing he can’t do, no limit to his love.
It’s not surprising then, that he expresses his compassion for us every day. He cares when we hurt, he cares when we suffer, he cares when bad things happen, he cares when we lose loved ones or go through trials. He is the one who will help us, the one who will hold us, in our every need. He doesn’t always miraculously intervene, as he did for this widow, for this centurion, but he always, always expresses his compassion, by being the hope and comfort of our hearts, our refuge and strength, our very present help in time of trouble.
This is the Jesus I know. This is the one the crowd recognized when they said: God has visited his people, or come to help his people. Isn’t that a remarkable statement? I don’t know how much they knew of what they said: the words themselves express a common Old Testament affirmation. But when applied to Jesus they are more true than ever. God has come to help his people.
Let me share about one more person in closing, someone whose name I can pronounce: Mel Trotter. Born in Orangeville, Illinois in 1870, Mel Trotter spent most of his early years losing a battle with alcohol. His father was an alcoholic and a bartender. When he got too drunk to tend bar, Mel would have to stand in for him. When Mel grew older he could always find a good way to make a living, but he spent it all drinking and gambling. He lived a cycle of drunken binges and sober resolves, self-hatred and powerless remorse.
Not even the death of Trotter’s two-year-old son could break the addiction. One day, returning home after a ten-day binge, he found his only child lifeless in his mother’s arms. Swearing never to drink again, Trotter left the funeral, only to drown his sorrows in the nearest saloon. He hopped a freight train to Chicago, where he landed penniless and hopeless on the bitter cold night of January 19, 1897. He sold his shoes for one last drink, and set out for Lake Michigan, where he planned to commit suicide. But as he stumbled down Van Buren Street, a young man standing outside the Pacific Garden Mission stepped forward to break his fall. Tom Mackey gently helped the ragged, dirty stranger to his feet, brought him inside, and helped him gently into a chair in a meeting room, where Harry Monroe was preaching to a group of derelict men. At the sight of the bedraggled newcomer, Monroe was moved with sorrow and pity, “Oh God, save that poor, poor boy,” he instantly prayed aloud.
In simple words he gave an account of God’s love in his own troubled life, a story that gave sudden hope and purpose to a man without a reason to live. At the close of his message, Harry Monroe said “Jesus loves you,” he said, “He wants to save you tonight. Put up your hand for prayer. Let God know you want to make room for Him.” In simple response, Trotter did. At 27 years of age, his battle with alcohol was over. Until his death in 1940, he worked as a rescue worker, mission superintendent, and evangelist, devoting his energy to redeeming the lives of men and women who fought the same demons he once knew all too well. Before his death he had founded or supervised rescue missions in fifty cities. The short biography I read ends with these words, which are a fitting ending to this message as well. Mel Trotter, the author says, “remained a simple person, for the great lesson of his life was a simple one: God loves you in the midst of the deepest failure and despair, and his love has the power to change even the most ruined life.”
Or as we’ve been saying: The God we trust is both powerful and compassionate.