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Are You Still With Me (Part II)

So as we catch up to Jesus here he has just finished preaching a very long sermon about how the true citizens of God’s kingdom — Jesus’ kingdom — do not view the world as “Insiders” and “Outsiders”, but are called to have mercy on everyone, friends and enemies alike. And then, Luke tells us (verse 1), when Jesus had finished saying all this in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum

Now that is important, because: if you recall, Jesus has been to Capernaum before. This is the same kampung where Simon Peter lives with his mother-in-law, where Jesus worked all night healing people and casting out demons — and where the townspeople tried to keep him from leaving because they wanted to cash in on his miraculous powers. Remember that? 

So Luke is telling us that Capernaum has heard Jesus’ message at least twice now. The first time…they didn’t quite get it. Now they’ve heard Jesus preach a second time, in great detail, just outside their town. So Luke wants us to wonder, “will Capernaum respond properly this time?” 

He starts by introducing a new character: a centurion, the local army commandant; he would have been like the police chief of the town. His favorite servant is sick, near death. But no worries, Luke tells us, because this police chief has “heard of Jesus.” 

— and that is one of Luke’s little jokes. When he says the centurion has “heard of Jesus”, we’re supposed to say, “ya ke? Ya think?” Of course this centurion has “heard of Jesus”! He lives right at ground zero where Jesus, just a few months ago, healed everybody in town! 

So this centurion, knowing exactly what Jesus is capable of, sends the local Jewish elders to ask Jesus for help. It’s a very simple request: “come and heal my servant”. 

But notice what these Jewish elders turn that request into — 

[4] When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, "This man deserves to have you do this, [5] because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue." 

— and with this single sentence we discover that the elders of Capernaum still do not understand Jesus’ message. 

The centurion does. He sent a very simple request: “help me.” He has heard that Jesus will help anyone who asks, so he’s asking!

The elders are not so sure. They think Jesus won’t help the centurion. Why not? Because the centurion, it turns out, is not a Jew. The elders are thinking that Jesus, if he really is the Messiah — God’s anointed king — has come to save only Jewish people. They are making the same mistake Jesus’ just preached against: they have divided the world into Insiders — those who “deserve” God’s mercy (Jews) — and Outsiders: those who deserve God’s judgement (non-Jews). 

So they think they have to persuade Jesus to help this “Outsider”. They add to the centurion’s simple request. They say, “this man deserves for you to help him, because he’s so good! He’s almost as good as a real Jew!” 

They have totally missed the fact that Jesus helps people not because they are “so good”, but because they see their need and ask — 

Now at this point, if we were Jesus, we would have said, “aiyo! These guys ah! How many time got to preach wan ah?” But Jesus makes no comment (verse 6): he goes with them. He knows he’ll get a chance to correct their misunderstanding. 

Sure enough, the word goes ahead of them, and when the centurion hears it he thinks, “oh no, he’s coming to my house? That’s not what I meant at all!” So this time he sends his friends as messengers — 

— and the implication is these are probably not Jewish friends. These are non-Jews to help make the point (in verse 6) — 

"Lord, I don’t know what these Jewish elders told you, but…I do not deserve to have you come under my roof — 

— because I’m not a Jew! I’m not almost as good as a Jew. If you enter my house it will defile you according to your God’s Law — 

[7] That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. 

— and we see here that this centurion thinks Jesus is obsessed with ritual purity, like a lot of religious Jews were in those days; like a lot of Muslims are today. He has not yet realized that Jesus’ holiness is so holy that when he touches unclean things, he doesn’t become unclean, the unclean things become clean. 

But even though the centurion doesn’t understand fully, he understands enough, because he goes on — 

“Look,” he says, “I’m a soldier, I know how authority works. When I speak, things get done. So you, also: just speak, and my servant will be healed. No need to come. Just speak, and do!” 

[9] When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, "I tell you, this non-Jew has more faith in God than any Jew I’ve ever met!” 

— basically, Jesus is saying, “this guy is not ‘almost as good as a real Jew’. He is better than a real Jew!” 

And that would have been deeply shocking to everybody. They would have thought, “how can he be better than a Jew? He’s not circumcised, he eats non-Halal food, he’s not even allowed to enter God’s temple!” 

And yet — 

[10] When the men who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well. 

— and we already know from Luke that Jesus’ healings are proof that he has the authority to forgive sins. So does this mean Jesus has just forgiven the sins of this non-Jewish servant and his non-Jewish police chief? 

And here is the real brain-twister: if this non-Jew’s sins have been forgiven by the Jewish Messiah, does that mean this non-Jew has just become a Jew, a child of the True God? 

Well, we have already seen that when Jesus touches a leper, the leper becomes clean, even without making the sacrifices in the temple. We have already seen that when Jesus says, “Friend, your sins are forgiven,” the sinner is forgiven, even without making the sacrifices in the temple. So can it be that when Jesus says, “I have never seen such great faith!” the non-Jew becomes a Jew, even without being circumcised? even without obeying the dietary restrictions? even without making the sacrifices in the temple? 

Oh snap. The Pharisees are not going to like this development at all! 

Right. Moving on! — 

… 

[11] Soon afterward, Luke tells us, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. [12] As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out---the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. 

— I should pause and point something out here. In Jewish society, women depended upon their husbands and their sons for financial support; of course most worked alongside their men in small family businesses, but if a woman lost her husband, and then her sons, it became very difficult for her to support and run a business all on her own. Most widows in that position became very poor very quickly. Many turned to begging. Some turned to prostitution. And to make matters worse, popular belief taught that if a woman experienced that much misfortune she must have committed adultery or some other terrible sin. Why else would God to punish her like that? 

So this is the scene Jesus happens upon here: a woman who lost her husband some time ago, and now has lost her only son, her only hope for a secure income. And there is the whole town, grieving with her, but also secretly wondering, “wow! What did you do to make God so angry?” — 

And Luke tells us that, [13] When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, "Don't cry." 

— and again, I have to pause here to say that this verse contains one of my favorite words in all of scripture. I love it because it is so expressive. Our English translations say something like Jesus “felt compassion” or “his heart went out to her”, but the Greek literally says that when he saw the widow, his guts were wrenched within him. He actually felt pain and sickness — deep emotion — in response to her grief and distress… 

Friends, what a God we worship! He doesn’t stand at a distance and blame us for our suffering; he enters into it. No wonder Luke uses this word “gut-wrenched” here, for the first time, to describe Jesus: he wants us to know that it is compassion that moves Jesus to help us; not duty, not obligation: compassion. 

And this totally explains why Jesus is not interested in the healthy and the wealthy and the proud: I mean, who feels compassion for the guy who already has everything? Nobody. It’s poverty, and hunger, and sorrow that moves God. That’s why Jesus said in his sermon last week, “Blessed are you who are poor, blessed are you who hunger, blessed are you who weep!” because that is how we catch the compassionate eye of our Father. 

So it is no coincidence that here, also, for the first time, Luke calls Jesus “the Lord”. By using this title, Luke signals to us that with this miracle, Jesus’ true identity is beginning to come into focus: he is the compassionate author of life itself! So — 

He goes up and touches the coffin — making himself ritually unclean for seven days, according to God’s Law — and those carrying it stood still. He said, "Young man, I say to you, get up!" [15] The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. 

— and here again we are confronted with the overwhelming holiness of Jesus. Normally, just as in the episode with the leper in chapter 5, when a clean person touches the unclean, the unclean infects the clean. But Jesus’ cleanness is so complete, so foundational to who he is, that when he touches the unclean, he infects the unclean and makes it clean. The dead come to life! — 

[16] 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." 

— well…half right. Jesus is a great prophet. But is that all he is? 

That is the exact question Luke wants us to be asking ourselves at this point. 

It’s also the exact question John the Baptist is asking at this point. Remember him? He preached that the Messiah was about to arrive and bring Judgement Day. Then he baptized Jesus as the Messiah, anointing him God’s king. Then he was arrested by King Herod. 

So John has spent the last few chapters in prison, waiting for Judgement Day, waiting for the Messiah he anointed to rescue him from King Herod. And now, Luke tells us, John hears that this guy Jesus is just “a great prophet”? That would be upsetting. And then John hears that instead of judging and destroying King Herod and his corrupt, brutal, non-Jewish police force, Jesus is helping one of Herod’s non-Jewish police captains! Even more upsetting. 

So John is starting to be very concerned that maybe he anointed the wrong guy. He’s like many of us, thinking, “I’m pretty sure my sins are forgiven, I’m pretty sure I’m in God’s kingdom, but I sure don’t feel like I’m in God’s kingdom! In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m suffering in prison! 

“Jesus, you promised me salvation! Where is it? Why don’t you hurry up and rescue me?” — 

So John sends a couple of his disciples to find out. And that is what this third episode is about (verse 20): 

… 

[20] When [John’s disciples] came to Jesus, they said, "John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, 'Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?' " 

— basically: “are you God’s king, or not? Are you kicking off Judgment Day, or goofing around?” 

But [21] At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. [22] So he replied to the messengers, "Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor — 

— now, where have we heard this list before? Jesus himself read it way back in chapter 4, verse 18. Remember that? Jesus went home to his kampung Nazareth, and when it was his turn to preach he got up and read this passage from the Prophet Isaiah: 

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 

That is the Messiah’s job description; that is the job Jesus is doing. Ta da: Jesus must be the Messiah. 

So then…where did John the Baptist get this idea that “Judgement Day” is part of the Messiah’s job description? 

Well, if we actually look up that passage in Isaiah, chapter 61, we find that Jesus left something out. If we turn to Isaiah chapter 61, verses 1 and 2, we find that the last line actually says, “he has anointed me…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.” 

So John is right! “Judgement Day” is part of the Messiah’s job description! 

So why did Jesus stop reading before he got to that last line then? Because he wanted to emphasize that compassion comes first in the Messiah’s ministry. And only after that comes Judgement Day. 

So what is Jesus saying to John here? He is saying, “yes, I am the Messiah. I am God’s king. You anointed the right guy. But don’t forget, John, that my job is not just “Judgement Day”, it is first to have compassion on all these helpless people!” — 

And then Jesus says, “[23] Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." 

— and why does he say this? 

Because the temptation for John, the temptation for all of us, is to fall away because of this news. Basically, Jesus has just told John, “Judgement Day is not yet. Now is not the time for me to rescue you. 

“Are you still with me?” 

Jesus is saying to all of us, “I really have forgiven your sins. You truly are in my kingdom now, in my walled garden, my paradise; you are safe from anything the dragon can do. 

“But sometimes it doesn’t feel like that, because…you still live in this world also, and this world is still corrupt and broken. I know you want me to bring it all to an end now, and start over with a new heavens and a new earth! But if I brought Judgement Day now…sure, I would destroy all the corrupt King Herods in the world, and set you free — but I would also be destroying all the poor, the hungry and the helpless along with the corrupt. And that is not my job. My job is preach good news to the poor until there are no more poor to preach to. And I’m afraid that is going to take some time. 

“And during this waiting time, John, your calling from God is to sit in that prison. During this waiting time, brothers and sisters, your calling from God may be to develop cancer. Your calling from God may be to have children who leave the faith. Your calling from God may be to struggle against homosexual urges, or to live with the emotional and mental instability that results from childhood sexual abuse. It may be your calling from God to suffer terribly in this life — 

“Are you still with me?” 

Oh, friends, this is hard news, isn’t it? We have been forgiven! — and so now we long to be healed completely. We are longing for the new heavens and the new earth, where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. We want to say to Jesus, “you claim to be so compassionate! Where is your compassion for me, in my loneliness and suffering?” 

And Jesus is saying here, “it is because of my compassion that you must wait — because of my compassion for all those who have not yet entered in.” 

See, we forget so quickly that we were once Outsiders, and that it was Jesus’ compassion alone that carried us through the gates into paradise. We forget so quickly that we have already received the ultimate in Jesus’ compassion: the total forgiveness of our sins! We forget so quickly that even though we are now Insiders, we are called to keep those gates of forgiveness and compassion open for as long a possible to everyone else out there, especially to those who don’t deserve it. Because when Judgement Day comes, those gates will be closed, and everyone on the outside will be lost. That will be a day of terrible grief, and even more terrible joy. 

So, out of compassion, we must pay, in our own bodies, for every moment of mercy that Jesus extends to the undeserving. We continue to suffer in this world so that others might be saved. As it says elsewhere in scripture, “we fill up in our flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s sufferings, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” (Col.1:24) — 

So Jesus says to John, “Blessed are you who endure suffering for my sake. Blessed are you who wait patiently for Judgement Day. Blessed are you who do not fall away because of my compassion.” 

Then John’s messengers leave, and the crowds are wondering, “so, John the Baptist was kind of wrong, then. Right? Because how can he be right in saying, ‘Judgement Day is here! The ax is at the root of the tree!’ and Jesus also be right when he says, ‘…not yet’? Is John even a prophet?” 

So in verse 24, Jesus turns to the crowd to reassure them: “yes, John really is a prophet from God. In fact, he is more than a prophet. Because he is ‘the Messenger’ that the Prophet Malachi promised, the Messenger who would announce the Messiah. And here I am: the Messiah! Which makes John the greatest prophet who has ever lived, because he had the greatest message ever given to a prophet!” 

And then, in verse 28, Jesus says, “[28] I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." 

— so Jesus is saying that we are greater than the greatest prophet who ever lived. How is that possible? Well, John anointed the king, but — spoiler alert! — he is not going to live long enough to see him take the throne. We, on the other hand, live in an age where the king is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. John announced the kingdom; we live in it! and that makes us greater than John, more blessed…even though sometimes that’s hard to see — 

So, Luke tells us, [29] (All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus' words, acknowledged that God's way was right, because they had been baptized by John. 

— the tax collectors and “sinners” get it. They understand that they have already received the greatest possible gift from God: the forgiveness of their sins. They understood that John’s baptism of repentance was pointing forward to a Messiah who would actually forgive all their sins. And now they understand that Jesus is that Messiah: “God’s way” into the kingdom. So, as Luke says, they “acknowledged that God’s way was right” — 

[30] But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.) 

— the Pharisees refused John’s baptism because they didn’t feel the need to repent. And now they are rejecting Jesus’ forgiveness for the same reason. God’s purpose had been for the Pharisees to guard God’s kingdom until the Messiah came, and then to hand the kingdom over. But they are not going to do it: they have rejected God’s purpose for themselves. 

And here we see — take note! — that in this way the Messiah has already brought Judgement Day. John the Baptist prophesied that Jesus would divide people, gathering the wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff. The Pharisees are well on their way to becoming chaff. So Luke is hinting to us, in his usual subtle fashion, that just as God’s kingdom is already here and yet not completely here, so also God’s judgement is already here, and yet not completely here — 

So Jesus goes on: 

[31] "To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? — 

— oh, and by the way, in Luke, whenever Jesus says “this generation”, pay attention, because he’s about to insult somebody — 

So, "To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? [32] They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: " 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.' 

— he’s saying, “these Pharisees and other ‘worldly people’ (and you know that would have burned them, right?), those guys are spoiled brats. They’re mad because God is not acting how they expected him to act!” 

Then he goes on to say, “God sent them a prophet (John) who acted like a prophet — fasting and praying for God to have compassion on his people! — and they were like, ‘that guy is demon possessed!’ Then God sent them a Messiah (me) who acted like a Messiah — feasting and celebrating God’s compassion on his people — and all they can say is, ‘that dude is a wasted party animal, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.”’ 

[35] But wisdom is proved right by all her children."

— aaand…what does that mean? 

Well, Jesus is basically saying, “you’ll be able to tell I’m right by the quality of my disciples.” 

Which is another one of Luke’s little jokes, because so far Jesus’ disciples are tax collectors, fishermen, “sinners”, non-Jewish policemen! Not an impressive bunch by the standards of the religious world. 

But Jesus is proud to call them his disciples because…they know the meaning of compassion. The Pharisees look religious and respectable and “good”! — but they have hearts of stone; they have rejected the Messiah who would have had compassion on them. Jesus’ tax collectors and “sinners” look the opposite of respectable and “good” — but they know what compassion is, because they have embraced the King of Compassion. They have tasted compassion themselves, so they know how to show it to others, and Jesus will be proved right as they do. 

The true mark of a true disciple is not found on the outside, in religious clothing or special diet or lengthy prayers or extended fasting; the true mark of a true disciple is compassion. 

… 

Well, that was the Word of God, and you guys know the question we have to ask now: what does this have to do with us? How does God want to change our lives through this text? 

Looking at these three episodes, we see that there is one overarching question being asked: “who is this guy?” And this question is being asked because Jesus is not acting as people expected the Messiah to act. On one hand he does have amazing miraculous powers, which he is using to save the lost sheep of Israel from the ancient dragon. But on the other hand, he has just used his power to help one of the wolves: a foreign soldier, a servant of King Herod, a king who is obviously God’s enemy! On the one hand he claims to be God’s Messiah, sent to cleanse the world of sin. But on the other hand he eats and drinks with sinners, he touches lepers and dead people, he willingly defiles himself! On the one hand he has this great compassion, this gut-churning compassion for the poor, the hungry, the grieving. But on the other hand he refuses to rescue God’s greatest prophet from prison! 

All these contradictions were hard for the people of that age to accept. They are just as hard for us to accept. On the one hand we are told our sins are forgiven, we are blessed above all God’s creatures! But on the other hand we suffer, we are struck down by sickness and grief and all the small betrayals of life, and like John the Baptist we wonder, “where is this king who was supposed to rescue us, vindicate us?” 

Because the people of this world mock us, don’t they? This generation mocks our Messiah as ineffectual, this “king” who claims to save his people and then leaves them to suffer along with the rest of mankind. And sometimes, we have to admit, that is exactly how it feels. 

So what are we supposed to do about it? How are we to accept these apparent contradictions in our king? How are we to answer those who mock us, mock our faith? 

Compassion. Compassion is the key. Fix the compassion of Christ in your mind. Remember this episode where he saw a woman who was in free-fall right down to the very bottom of society, and his gut was wrenched with grief for her. Remember that however terrible we may feel about our situation, Jesus feels it more. He is man, so he feels our pain; he is also God, so he feels our pain multiplied by infinity. 

This is the hard truth we have to face, as Christians: sometimes Jesus answers the prayer of a foreign soldier, and heals his servant. Sometimes he restores a widow’s son, and saves her from a life of begging or worse. And sometimes he leaves God’s greatest prophet to suffer in prison. We don’t know why. But we do know now that whatever Jesus does, he does with a compassion greater than we could ever imagine. 

Only by remembering his compassion we have the courage to trust him when he decides not to deliver us from a particular situation. 

Only by remembering his compassion will we be able to respond with compassion even to those who mock us. 

So, brothers and sisters, this is God’s command for you: remember! Remember! Remember. 

Blessed are all of us who do not fall away on account of this word. 

Amen. 

Jesus, the Pharisee, and the Woman

Opening the Gates of Paradise