Then said Jesus unto him, Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe. (St. John iv. 48)
It does seem that most men tend to call upon God when they are in trouble and to leave Him alone when things are going well. Francis Chan has said that The irony is that while God doesn’t need us but still wants us, we desperately need God but don’t really want Him most of the time. God doesn’t need us, since He is purely and perfectly Himself and in need of absolutely nothing, and yet desires and longs for us incessantly. We, on the other hand, being finite, frail, and fallen, really do need God all of the time but only turn to Him when we are in what we think is a desperate situation. And man’s definition of being in a desperate situation usually refers to bodily disease, threat of financial ruin, or the potential smudging of an already speckled reputation. The problem is that we are so defined by temporal prosperity or adversity that we neglect, ignore, and forsake the desperate spiritual condition that ought always to characterize our earthly pilgrimage.
This is not the case for those whom Jesus leaves behind when He confronts us in this morning’s Gospel lesson. Jesus had just finished spending time with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well and then with a great number of her people in their town. First, the Samaritan woman believed that He was the Messiah because of what He told her – she had said that she had no husband, and Jesus agreed since she had had five husbands, was now cohabiting with a sixth live-in-lover, and thus no longer had her one and only first husband. Second, her own people believed because of what she had told them about Jesus. And, third, because her people desired to see and hear Jesus themselves, after hearing His teaching, they believed His Word. They sought out neither a sign nor a wonder. They felt a need that became a desire, and that desire yielded the miracle of faith. So the Apostles had witnessed the birth of belief in an alien people who were arrested and converted by who Jesus was and what He said about their desperate spiritual condition.
[But] after two days Jesus departed thence, and went into Galilee. For Jesus Himself testified, that a prophet hath no honour in his own country. (Ibid, 43, 44) Now Jesus returns to His own people well aware that there He will find a faith that honors Him only because of the miracles, signs, and wonders that He had done. What will greet Him at first believes with great joy and enthusiasm in the presence of a miracle, but later wilts, fades, dries up, and dies in the face of earthly adversity because it has no root. This is the kind of juvenile faith that hangs upon God’s immediate, curative response to the disruption of earthly comfort, peace, and ease. This is the faith that does not believe unless and until God ensures the absence of bodily and emotional pain. This is the kind of faith that thinks that no man should ever suffer in any way. It is immature because anyone who has ever accomplished anything knows that for goodness and truth to be found and embraced, a man must suffer and die to their contraries. The aliens and outcasts believed Jesus because of His Word, and were willing to suffer and die in the face of the Truth that Jesus revealed about them. Jesus must return to Cana, where He made water wine, in order to grow and perfect a faith that is much less mature.
Then when Jesus was come into Galilee, the Galilæans received Him, having seen all the things that He did at Jerusalem at the feast: for they also went unto the feast. (Ibid, 45) Again, Jesus’ own people honor Him because of the miracles He had performed. They are consumed with what He did – how relieves a desperate earthly situation, and not with what His Word said to them about their desperate spiritual condition. We read on: So Jesus came again into Cana of Galilee, where He made the water wine. And there was a certain nobleman, whose son was sick at Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus was come out of Judæa into Galilee, he went unto Him, and besought Him that he would come down, and heal his son: for he was at the point of death. (Ibid, 46, 47) The Jews are full of the old wine of Jesus’ miracle in Cana of Galilee. Their faith seems to be at the beck and call of desperate earthly situations alone. One of their own, a Jewish noblemen, nicely summarizes their faith: he believes in order to benefit in an earthly way. Jesus responds: Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe. (Ibid, 48) Jesus does not condemn the man’s sadness over the terminal illness of his son, but judges that his desperate situation that cries out for out a miracle is not as serious as the sickness of his soul. The nobleman’s faith desperately and persistently seeks out Jesus for a remedy to his own potential selfish loss rather than for what His Word and teaching can do for his soul.
Yet notice what Jesus does. Go thy way, Jesus commands, thy son liveth. (Ibid, 50) Jesus is going to try and test the man’s faith in relation to His Word after all. The nobleman is left with either trusting in Jesus’ Word or abandoning it altogether. One thing is certain, with regard to his son’s healing, Jesus has had quite enough of the nobleman’s immature faith. The nobleman is now given ample opportunity to prove his faith as it is led through the invisible and distant promise of Jesus’ Word back to the health of his son. The first miracle that Jesus will perform is on the soul of the nobleman. The man must first believe, trust, and follow Jesus’ Word if he is to find what the Word can do in human life.
So slowly but surely the nobleman must discover what faith in Christ’s Word really means. As the nobleman had persisted in his pursuit of a lesser good, so now, whether he liked it or not, he would required to pursue the greater. [But] the man believed the word that Jesus had spoken unto him, and he went his way. (Ibid, 50) He leaves with nothing more than belief. So faith and trust in Christ can either grow or die. Notice that he does not rush back to his home. Christ’s promise has arrested the whole of him. He is beginning to see that faith is about so much more than the destiny of his son and a remedy to desperate earthly situation. Archbishop Trench reminds us that His confidence in Christ’s word was so great that he proceeded leisurely homewards. It was not till the next day that he approached his house, though the distance between the two cities was not so great that the journey need have occupied many hours; but ‘he that believeth shall not make haste.’ (Trench, Miracles, p. 93). As St. John Chrysostom says, His narrow and poor faith is being enlarged and deepened, (Ibid) in his leisurely journey home. The man seems wholly consumed and possessed by the command of Jesus. The contemplation of his own desperate spiritual situation nearly halts and devalues the progress of his now secondary and earthly endeavor. And as he was now going down, his servants met him, and told him, saying, Thy son liveth. Then enquired he of them the hour when he began to amend. And they said unto him, Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him. So the father knew that it was at the same hour, in the which Jesus said unto him, Thy son liveth….(Idem, 51-53)
Jesus’ Word has healed the nobleman’s son instantaneously. But a far more telling miracle is wrought in the soul of the nobleman. Christ’s Word begins to transform the man inwardly and spiritually; it startles and arrests him. He believes that the power in Christ that made water wine has already healed his son. Then this power convicted him of his own sin. Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe. (Ibid, 48) The desperate determination to find physical healing for his son nearly disappears as he persistently pursues the new meaning of faith in Christ’s Word that his sin has engendered. Christ has caught him out in a desperate spiritual situation.
You will notice that the nobleman did not end up seeing any miracle, sign or wonder; he was merely told that the fever began to leave his son at the seventh hour, the same hour in the which Jesus said unto him, Thy son liveth. (St. John iv. 53) And then we read that he and his whole house believed. (Ibid, 54) With them what we need is the miracle of faith, which though slow in coming on the heels of trust and obedience, will place us in Jesus’ healing hands, hands that demand trust at a distance, so that the power of God may be felt inwardly and spiritually, whose spiritual nearness is a sign and wonder of God’s love for us in His Word. The nobleman, like the Samaritan woman, teaches his people all about what Jesus’ Word has come to mean in his life. The miracle of his son’s healing is the reward of faith that takes Jesus at His Word. Paul Claudel reminds us that wherever Jesus passes, nothing remains the same. The whole structure of our ‘desperate earthly situation’ threatens to collapse. Society has been dealt a blow by Jesus; logic has been dealt a blow; common sense has been dealt a blow. Jesus says, Now I must teach you not to make use of your eyes to see me, nor of your ears to hear me, nor of your legs to reach me: but of your hearts to love me. (I Believe, p. 84) The nobleman comes to love Jesus for the Word that first heals his son in order that he might then confront his own desperate spiritual situation.
Today Jesus commands our obedience, trust, and belief. Let us place our souls in the hands of His Word. This is the miracle we seek, not that He might jump down into our every desperate earthly situation, but rather that He might transform earthly desperation into heavenly hope. Christ intends to grow a faith in us that continues to be perfected by His Grace. What should bother us most is the desperate spiritual situation that threatens our eternal destiny. When, where, why, and how people die earthly deaths are really not that important. What is important is whether faith in God’s Grace is lifting us up into salvation. If it isn’t, then earthly tragedy will pale in comparison to the reward of an unfaithful heart that neglected to attend to its first love. Amen.