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 requires nothing in addition to Himself to be pure and perfect. Yet He wants or desires us. 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 means being in bad health, teetering on the edge of financial ruin, or discovering that our reputations might be less than stellar in the eyes of our fellow men. The problem is that we are so defined by temporal prosperity or adversity that we neglect, ignore, and forsake our desperate spiritual condition that cries out for redemption.
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 own people. You will remember that the Samaritan woman had come to believe that Jesus 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 was far removed from her first and only husband. Second, her own people believed what she had told them about Jesus. And, third, because of it, her people desired to see and hear Jesus themselves, and when they had done so, believed that He was the Messiah because of His Word. They sought neither sign nor wonder. They felt a need that became a desire, and that desire generated the miracle of faith in their hearts. So the observant Apostles had witnessed the birth of belief in an alien people who were converted because of how Jesus spoke to 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 until God removes all 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 obtained, 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 he 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 inconvenient or desperate earthly situations alone. One of their own, a Jewish nobleman, 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 the 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 both for his son’s soul and his own.
Yet notice what Jesus says: Go thy way, thy son liveth. (Ibid, 50) Jesus is going to test the man’s faith in relation to His Word. The nobleman can either trust in Jesus’ Word or abandon it altogether. One thing is certain, with regard to physical healings, Jesus grows impatient of immature faith. The nobleman must find faith as he is commanded to follow the invisible promise of Jesus’ Word back to the state 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 and discover what the same Word can effect in human life.
So slowly but surely the nobleman must discover what faith in Christ’s Word really means. As the nobleman had persisted feverishly in his pursuit of an earthly cure for his son, so now, whether he liked it or not, he would be required to consider its spiritual source. [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 increase or decrease. Notice that he does not rush back to his home. The promise of Christ’s Word has overcome and overtaken him. He is beginning to see that faith is about so much more than the destiny of his son and a remedy to a 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 Word of God in Jesus has stopped him in his earthly tracks. The truth of his own desperate spiritual situation impedes the progress of all earthly endeavors. 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 had healed the nobleman’s son instantaneously. But a far more telling miracle is wrought in the soul of the nobleman. Christ’s Word had startled him into a serious consideration of its power and nature. He believed with the other Jews that the power in Christ that made water wine had already healed his son. This power now convicts 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 he believed. 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 hear Christ the Word, and trust Him at the distance that prevails between Heaven and here. Then the power of God will be felt inwardly and spiritually, in spiritual proximity to our desperate spiritual condition. 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 God at His Word in Jesus. 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 not only heals his son but rather addresses 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.