They provide a study in contrasts: Naaman and the Centurion. Both military men. Both men of power. Men who were used to uttering commands and having them followed. Men who battered down their enemies. Men who were used to being in control. In all of that, I suspect they were rather much like each other. The contrast came when they bumped up against events beyond their control and were suddenly faced with being unable to help themselves, to fix the problem before them.
For Naaman it was leprosy. Maybe his wife noticed the spot one day, or maybe he did. But it progressed, grew, and this mighty, powerful man – rich in goods, high in favor of his King – he had to face the fact of his inability to fix what ailed him. And even when the little servant girl pointed him in the right direction, and he heads off to Israel, you can still see a man wanting to be in control. When the prophet gives him an incredible promise – just go dip in the Jordan seven times and your flesh will be restored and you will be clean – he marches off in a huff, pouting that the prophet wasn’t impressed by his large retinue and didn’t come and do wonders on the spot for such a mighty and important person. It takes his servants arguing with him to even give the prophet’s words a try. Don’t know about you, but I’m thinking he did it to humor them. Maybe so he could say: “See, I told you so.” But of course, the Word of God in the mouth of Elisha was truth. The man dipped himself seven times and he came out of the water clean, his flesh like a baby’s. He’d met in that water the living God, the God of Israel for whom there is NO problem that’s too big, too hopeless. Naaman became a believer that day and he confessed his faith to the Man of God, Elisha. A man of power dragged into the kingdom fighting to the end, but finally overcome by grace.
And then there’s the Roman centurion. His servant lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly. The man tells Jesus about it and when our Lord, in His compassion, states immediately that He will come and heal the poor man, behold the faith of the centurion. “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. They do what I tell them.” Jesus stares in marvel at this powerful man who confesses that he’s not worthy. He’s not out to impress Jesus with his fine house, his large retinue, his pomp and circumstance. He knows that he’s unworthy of what he’s asking. But it doesn’t stop him because of his faith – everything he’s ever heard about this Jesus of Nazareth persuaded him that He would care and that He had the power to heal when it was beyond any remedy. “Only say the word and my servant will be healed.”
The man’s faith in Jesus was that Jesus’ word was mighty and strong and could give exactly what it promised. Not empty air like so many of our promises; His word does exactly what it says. Naaman found out by experience and confessed it was so; but the Centurion – his faith came before he experienced it. Jesus praises that faith that marks the people of God in every age – the faith that lived in Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, the faith that makes any human being a child of Abraham, when you believe that the Word of God can call into being things that are not and make them be. “Go, let it be done for you as you have believed.” And his servant was healed at that very moment.
Your God is a God of promises. A God who speaks His word and it is so. Many, many times His word tells you things that seem silly to prideful human beings – folks like Naaman who think entirely too much of themselves and look down on what seems pure weakness – like the Jordan’s waters.
I mean think of it: Your God tells you that the obedience and death of His Son IS your righteousness. That in Baptism where His Word is joined to the water, He wraps you up in the holiness of Christ and so YOU stand before Him spotless and without sin. That this good news, this gospel, is His power to save you, to save everyone who believes – whether Jews or Gentiles like Naaman and the Roman Centurion. That this Gospel pulls the veil off the righteousness of God so that you can see that God considers ANYONE righteous who credits His Word as truth – “the righteous shall live by faith.” Not just any faith, but the faith that God speaks truth to you, above all truth to you in Jesus, in whom all His promises are yeah and amen. That His death is your life. And His life will destroy your death. Your sins His, His holiness yours. He promises it to you.
He goes on speaking promises today. He speaks His words over bread and wine and He causes them to be exactly what He says they are: His body and His blood shed for you, on Golgotha for the forgiveness of all your sin, to give you a share in His own divine life.
Long, long has the Church put onto the lips of all her children coming to the Eucharist the words of the believing Centurion: “Lord, I am not worthy for you to come under the roof of my soul, but only speak the word and your servant will be healed.”
When you are up against the stuff you can’t control; when your powers are at their end, remember where to turn. Remember who waits to heal you, to hold you, to embrace you and to set you free. Men of power and pride may scoff at how He chooses to love you, but men of faith learn to bow in humility before the Crucified and Risen One and confess His apparent foolishness wiser than all our wisdom and His weak ways – water, bread, wine, words of promise, words of hope – His weak ways stronger than all our strength.
And then we too are free to go – knowing it has been done for us even as we have believed. To our almighty Lord Jesus with His Eternal Father and Life-giving Spirit be all glory and honor, now and to the ages of ages. Amen.