A SOLDIER CALLS ON JESUS
In his book The Greatest Generation Speaks, Tom Brokaw records some of the letters he received from members of the armed forces and their families.
In one section called “Faith,” he includes this story:
John Craven of McLean, Virginia was a military chaplain in four campaigns during World War II and three during the Korean War. His story came to us from an April 6, 1995, article in the Religious Herald, The Virginia Baptists’ weekly. The author is Pam Parry:
Traumatized by mortar fire, the young Marine huddled outside a military hospital, his body trembling, clenched into a fetal position. “John the Baptist” took his hand and began to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” The trembling continued. “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In a moment, the Marine composed himself enough to join the chaplain: “Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” As they finished the Lord’s Prayer, the [Marine} began to relax and the shaking subsided. “The most effective antidote for shell shock is the Lord’s Prayer, “says Chaplain John Craven of McLean, … Craven, affectionately known as John the Baptist by the Fourth Marine Division, ministered to hundreds of wounded, dying, and scared men.” [Random House, 1999, pp. 113-114]
Men and women, even those in the military, can have all of their gear, all of their weapons, and all of their technology, and still not feel comforted or safe in the midst of a shelling, of direct combat, or the fear of stepping on an IED, an Improvised Explosive Device. There are times when even the troops that stand with them, and the chain of command above them, cannot help them out of an emotional crisis. At those times, many in foxholes, or in hospitals, or in camps might call on their Higher Power; or they might fall to their knees and pray to God; or they might call out to Jesus and ask for help. If they do that, they will not be the first to do so, nor will they be the last. Anytime they, or we, feel like the spirit is about to break, or mentally at a point of breakdown, people can feel, hopeless, or in the dark, or not knowing where to turn. God is in the hope business; God shines light in the darkness; God is a guide for those who are lost. Jesus came to share that message.
In our text today, we have a Roman soldier. He is called a centurion, but he is a soldier. Romans centurions were required to give their allegiance to Caesar: Caesar’s image was on their coins, and Caesar wanted to be treated as a supreme being; we might say, “as a god.” So this centurion had a servant, one who was very important to and valuable to him. He needed him. The centurion almost treated the servant as a family member and not as a “piece of property.” He showed genuine concern for an illness the servant had that had brought him nearly to death. Presumably he had used all the Roman or military resources at his disposal. And then, as he was in the town of Capernaum, he heard that Jesus had come into town. He sent elders of the Jews to speak to Jesus, believing that they would be able to get his ear better than a Roman soldier could. Apparently these elders had sympathy and concern for this man among them; perhaps he was more of a neighbor than a threat. As the elders approached Jesus and tried to convince him to come the short distance to help the centurion’s servant, they said: the soldier “loves our nation and he built our synagogues.” Jesus went with them. As he almost arrived, the centurion must have been surprised and humbled to see him coming. He quickly sent friends to greet him and to tell him something those in the military would understand: “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I 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.” Jesus had not found a Jew who honored his authority so well. So he made an example of him. He healed the man’s servant and others saw and heard about his healing.
There are several lessons we can get from this encounter. One is preparing ourselves to respect authority. The security of our nation would be severely challenged if troops do not do what superior officers ordered. Authority must be honored or the system does not work. In civilian life people are challenged to think for themselves, and ever to challenge authority. Some even challenge God, or challenge if there is a God, or a Savior. And then they get into trouble, and they need the teacher, or the police officer, or the firefighter, or the pastor. Then what do they do? Others get sick, and they need the medicine they once refused to take; and still others need the doctor they once refused to heed. Then a person they love gets sick, and without asking, for it, a community of believers starts praying for them; unselfishly, fervently, and [this is the authority part] praying to Jesus as if he has the full authority of God to heal. In many cases, the person starts to heal beyond the expectations or explanations of medical personnel. Some Christians have such a belief in the authority of Jesus: to cast out demons, and to heal those who are ill, so much so that their prayers don’t even include a smidgeon of a doubt of the outcome. How are your prayers? Are you praying to an absolute authority? Or is Jesus among the many figureheads to whom you pray? We cannot split our allegiance. We cannot approach our prayers by shrugging our shoulders and saying;
“Well, I guess it couldn’t do any harm!” Either we honor the authority of Jesus, or don’t bother him with half-hearted or unbelieving requests. As the good soldier demonstrated in Luke’s gospel, he was a man who counted on people doing what he said, and he did what his leaders ordered. So he came to Jesus on that basis. It is a very good basis for all, both civilian or soldier. Believe in the authority Jesus has over brokenness and demons.
Another lesson: remember to show honor where honor is due. In inspiring the armies that fought for American independence, George Washington insisted that that they honor God in all ways. In a piece of legislation he scripted, he set apart “a day of fasting, prayer, and humiliation, ‘to implore the Lord, and Giver of all victory, to pardon our manifold sins and wickedness’s, and that it would please him to bless the Continental Armies with his divine favour and protection’—all Officers and Soldiers, are strictly enjoined to pay all due reverence and attention to that day, to the sacred duties due the Lord of hosts….[George Washington’s Sacred Fire, Peter A. Lillback. Providence Forum Press,2006, p.176.] Honor God. Keep the commandments. How can we kneel before the Lord when we need a favor, when we fail to kneel out of honor or respect on the other days? How do you imagine Jesus would feel about that? Scripture says, “The prayers of the faithful are powerful and effective.” That’s James 5:16. It’s in the setting of healing. Even in the first century, people healed in the name of Jesus. They still do.
Finally, trust in Jesus. Without so much as a question, the friends of this soldier delivered his message to Jesus, and Jesus lifted up the soldier’s trust as exemplary. He had such faith. Jesus is looking for that kind of faith. But in our world so many people of all ages question; so many mock; and so many doubt. What if we try a little faith? I know there as some people who have tried prayer and didn’t get their wish. Yes I use the word “wish deliberately. Some people treat prayer as if they were asking a genie in a bottle to grant a wish. Other people hope prayer is like a vending machine, where they put in a request, and out comes the desired answer. But prayer is different. It is offered through an established relationship, not from a stranger to a questionable God. And prayers are offered with the knowledge that sometimes the answer is “wait,” or “not yet,” or “It’s in my plans,” or even “no.” Even good parents say “no” sometimes. So would do well, when we call on Jesus, to do so with honor, a belief in his authority, and with a humble spirit. Ask for what you need from others. But respect authority. Show honor. And trust in Jesus. What amazing things we’ve learned from a soldier today.
Jeffrey A. Sumner May 29, 2016