Date: 15 May 2022
Sermon Text: Luke 7:1-50
Speaker: Ps Luwin Wong
How would you persuade women to buy the most expensive hair dye in the world? That was the question that L’Oréal had to answer in 1973. They had just released a range of hair coloring called Preference, which is still on the market today. The problem with Preference was that it was more expensive than the best selling hair dye back then – Clairol’s Nice and Easy range.
How do you price your product higher than your competitor’s, and still hope to win over their market share? In other words, how would you persuade women to buy the most expensive hair dye in the world?
L’Oreal did just that. Within 10 years of its launch Preference surpassed Nice 'n Easy as the leading hair-color brand in America.
How did they do it? The year was 1973, and the answer came from Ilon Specht, a 23-year-old copywriter working an advertising agency on Third Avenue in New York City. She coined the iconic tagline, because I’m worth it.
Here’s the script she wrote: "I use the most expensive hair colour in the world - Preference by L'Oréal. It's not that I care about money. It's that I care about my hair. It's not just the colour. I expect great colour. What is worth more to me is the way my hair feels. Smooth and silky but with body. It feels good against my neck. Actually, I don't mind spending more for L'Oréal. Because I'm worth it!"
Which was absolutely genius, because it shifted the focus away from the product, and onto the consumer. The implicit message is “Don’t ask whether L’Oreal’s new hair dye is worth the price, because if you might figure that it actually isn’t worth it. Instead, ask if you are worth spending on, if you are worth pampering, if you are worthy enough to have the most expensive hair colour in the world. And L’Oreal puts the answer on your lips: “I’ll have it, because I’m worth it.
“Because I’m Worth It” quickly became the most iconic slogan in the industry, propelling L’Oreal to become the world largest cosmetic company today. They never left the tagine behind. But in the 1990’s they changed it to “Because You’re worth it”, so it comes across as less arrogant. And in 2009, following research into consumer psychology they again edited the slogan to read ‘Because we’re worth it’.
Do you see? I’m worth it, you’re worth it, we’re worth it. Everybody’s worth it. We all want to believe it, who would dare deny it?
But what the world takes for granted as true, the bible calls into question.
Our sermon text today opens with a question of worth. Namely, are we worth saving? Are we deserving of the favour and attention, are we worthy of the love and affection of God?
Luke opens and closes this chapter with Jesus encounter with two unworthy persons – a gentile centurion and sinful woman. Yet these two are the two characters in the narrative who are rewarded and commended for their faith.
After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” (7:1-4)
From just reading these verses, you might be thinking, wait a minute. You got it wrong. You said he was unworthy, but the text says he is worthy. He is worthy to have Jesus do him a favour.
Except the text doesn’t say that. What the text says, is that elders of Jews said that the centurion is worthy. And the careful reader of the Gospel of Luke would be justifiably cautious against taking at face value, the words of the elders of the Jews. They are not exactly the good guys in the story.
And in saying that centurion is worthy because “he loves their nation, and is the one who built them their synagogue”, they are betraying their captivity to a worldview which is founded upon a works-based righteousness rather than on the sovereign grace of God.
Their relationship to God is transactional. I do enough good to earn God’s favour, I chalk enough merit to deserve God’s love. I obey the law to be worthy of salvation. But that is not the gospel. That is not the good news of Christianity. The good news, as we have seen in chapter 5, is the Christ has come to call sinners. Not the righteous, because there is no such person as the righteous. He has come to call the unfaithful, the undeserving, the unworthy. That is the call of Christ.
Which brings us to the question: why did the centurion send the elders of the Jews to seek Jesus, rather than do it himself? The following verses give us the reason:
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. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. (7:6-7)
The centurion did not presume to impose upon Jesus because he didn’t think he was worthy of approaching Jesus, much less have Jesus come all the way to his house.
This incident thus sets up a contrast between merit and grace. First, the elders say that the centurion is worthy. Then, the centurion says he is not worthy. The centurion voices the theological truth that applies to us all. His hope is based on the Jesus’ graciousness, not on his own worthiness. He knows himself to be unworthy, but he also knows that he does not need to be worthy to seek Christ’s help, for Jesus is caller of the sinner, the healer of the broken, the saviour of the unworthy.
And his faith in Jesus in commended.
But say the word, and let my servant be healed. 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.” 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.” (7:7-9)
Jesus commends the centurion’s faith because he believed in the authority of Jesus’ word. Which is an important element of saving faith. But also because his faith possessed that which is not found in Israel, which is absent from the theology of the Jewish elders – namely, that salvation is received by grace, not earned by works.
Friends, the human heart, by default will always attempt to earn God’s favour through good behaviour. The human heart, by default, will always resist the gospel call to live by grace through faith, and not by works. Because you only need grace because you weren’t good enough. And if there is a slogan that resonates with all humanity, it is, as L’Oréal has discovered, “I am worth it, you are worth it, we are all worth it”.
The gospel turns that slogan upside-down. We want to believe that we are good at heart, but the gospel says we are far worse than we could possibly imagine. We want to believe we are wise, but the gospel says we are foolish. We want to believe that we are worthy just as we are, the gospel says that we are not. But it is precisely whose who recognise their unworthiness before Jesus, who are made worthy through him to become the citizens of heaven, children of the living God.
In other words, the good news is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”
There is a reason we can’t enjoy the sight of a starry night in Singapore. There too many artificial, man-made lights which impairs our vision of them. In the same way, the way to behold the brilliance of the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, would be to extinguish every artificial light in our hearts, and come to terms with the darkness therein.
It is the unworthy, who will respond to, and be saved by, the gospel of grace. And Luke will have more to say on this before this chapter is over.
But we move on to the second question of the text: A question of Identity.
Namely, who is Jesus? Is he the one?
The disciples of John reported all these things to him. And John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” (Luke 7:18-20)
John the Baptist is seeking clarity. Jesus, he knows, is the promised “one who is to come”. The one who has come to fulfill the Isaianic prophecy to liberate humanity from captivity. And we can understand the motivation for the question. We learnt from chapter 3 that Herod had John locked up in prison. So John was in captivity while Jesus was going about his ministry – a ministry which aim included setting captives free.
So are you the one who is to come? If so, why has this captive not been liberated?
But this question of identity doesn’t begin, in this pericope, with John’s question. We see it in verses 11-17, in the raising of the widow’s son.
Soon afterward he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As 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. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. (Luke 7:11-15)
Here is the response of the crowds to this resurrection miracle:
Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” (Luke 7:16).
You see, the crowds assumed they knew who Jesus was – he was a great prophet. But the one who is to come, isn’t supposed to be a prophet, however great of a one he may be. To be clear, the One who is to come will have a prophetic ministry, because he will be proclaiming good news, but he is supposed to come in the shape of a king – the son of David, the son of God. And just like how King David liberated his people from the oppression of the Philistines and established the kingdom of Israel, the One who is to come is supposed do the same things.
Where then is John’s liberation, where then is Jesus’ kingdom?
Jesus didn’t simply say, cast your doubt away and simply have faith. Nope. He spent the next hour answering the question by his deeds:
“In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Luke 7:21-23)
In effect, Jesus is telling John, that the prophecy of Isaiah 61 is being fulfilled by him. But with a twist. Because the captivity from which he is liberating people isn’t a physical-political captivity, but a spiritual captivity. Which is why the raising of the dead is included. People may die from natural causes, but death is always a spiritual consequence. It harkens back to the garden of Eden, where God told mankind that “on the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17). The wages of disobedience to God is death.
So, the reversal the effects of death, he has erasure of the consequence of sin.
So in raising the young man by the power of his word, Jesus is demonstrating that he is the one who has come to liberate humanity from our great spiritual captivity. John himself will be liberated, he will be saved, even if he dies in prison.
Jesus, through his ministry of healing, and exorcising and resurrection has more than backed up the claim that he is the one who will bring liberation to humanity oppressed by sin and its consequences. He is the promised one. He is the one who is to come.
Having answered the question about his identity, Jesus moves to question the crowd about John’s identity.
When John's messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who are dressed in splendid clothing and live in luxury are in kings' courts. What then did you go out to see? (Luke 7:24-26)
He asks them, who is John the Baptist, whom you went into the wilderness to see? What sort of man is he? Is he a reed shaken by the wind? In other words, does he bend his message to suit popular opinion? When the winds of culture blow left, he goes left, when shifts direction, he plays along? No, John’s message is clear and consistent, even if it is controversial. He calls his listeners “to repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He does not shake, he will not yield, not even for Herod the Tetrarch, which is why he is imprisoned at the time.
Who then is John? A man dressed in soft clothing? A prophet who is in for profit? A retainer of the king? Hired to lend legitimacy to the ruling class? No John was dressed in camel’s hair, and his food was locust and wild honey. He didn’t care for luxury. He cared that people repented of their sins, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
So who is John?
A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’
I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:26-28)
Jesus calls John the greatest man of those born of women, because of his unique ministry as the herald, the proclaimer, the messenger of the One who is to come. That makes him the greatest among those born of woman.
Which raises the question: Doesn’t that make John the greatest of all men, period? For what man is there who is not born of woman? Jesus himself, mind, was born of a woman. Luke has told us that.
Yet, Jesus adds, the one who is least in the kingdom of God us greater than he.
What does this mean? It means that the advent of the kingdom has created a new class of men and women, citizens of heaven who are distinct from the natural person. The apostle John calls it “being born of the Spirit”.
Those born of Eve, are by nature, children of wrath, alienated from God. Those who would enter the kingdom must be born again. You must be born of the Spirit.
And the implicit question that Jesus asks of the crowd is again a question of identity. To which category do you belong? Are you merely born of woman, or are you a heavenly citizen of the kingdom of God?
And where you belong depends on how you respond to the gospel preached by Jesus and John.
And so some heard this and rejoiced.
When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John.
But other heard this and took offence.
but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him. Luke 7:29-30).
To those who did not listen and respond to the call to repent and enter the kingdom, Jesus says,
“To what then shall I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another,
“‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’ (Luke 7:31-32)
The flute and an instrument common at wedding and festivals. It’s chirpy and upbeat. It’s hard to get a flute to sound sad. So it’s an instrument associated with celebration. A dirge is funeral song. It’s sombre and solemn and sad. It’s associated with mourning and weeping.
And he applies these analogies to the ministry of John and himself.
For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.” (Luke 7:33-35)
He says, John comes all fire and brimstone, doom and gloom, solemn and serious and you don’t weep, you don’t respond to his message. The accuse him of being demon-possessed. And do not follow John.
Jesus comes eating and drinking, proclaiming liberation and healing, and feasting with people and they also do not respond to his message. They accuse him of being too licentious in his living. And do not follow him.
It’s like my mom used to say to me as a kid “I talk to you nicely you don’t listen. I scold you don’t listen. What you want me to do?” Something like that.
So friends, have you responded? The gospel of the kingdom demands a response. Are you going to repent or not? Are you in or are you out of the kingdom? Do you love Jesus or do you remain offended by him? Offended because his word describes you as unworthy, offended because his gospel labels you a sinner?
Ironically, the key