|Walking Home By Faith (John 4:43-54)
Myra and I slipped out of town over Thanksgiving. The Talmages had been telling us about a serene, beautiful place in the edge of the Smoky Mountains for a couple of years. We had planned before to test it, but something always got in the way. This time, we made it. And it was everything they had said.
As we walked down to the breakfast part of our bed-and-breakfast getaway, we looked up and watched a V-formation of geese drop through the smoky-looking haze and land on the lake just below us. I whispered, "God does good work, doesn't he!" We both smiled. We both believed we had just seen a glimpse of God's handiwork. In something that small and routine, we are still convinced that our faith was both affirmed and confirmed. In the worship we are offering this morning, something of the thrill of that moment is remembered. Some of our praise today is for that "little" experience.
So it puzzles me when I appear to see a "big" act of God fall flat on someone's heart. What most of us would call a miracle often isn't enough to create or sustain faith. For example, how many times has someone like me been called to a hospital emergency room after a car crash or heart attack by a family? (It could as easily be a failing marriage, a career reversal, or a dozen other things.) In this case, let's suppose it is what we would understand to be a "backsliding" family. They haven't been to church in a while. Their spiritual lives have been neglected. They have been pretty distant from God. But now they are intense about seeking him - with promises attached to every request.
An All-Too-Common Scenario
"Rubel, please pray for God to heal our son [or mother or whomever]! We just can't bear the thought of losing him! And I promise you what I've already told God - that, if he will only grant what we're asking, we'll never be slipshod about our religion again. I know you haven't seen us at church in a while, but all that will change. I promise!"
So we pray. And the person we pray for recovers! The doctors tell the family that they can't understand what has happened, for they didn't really think he would pull through. "I know you had a lot of people praying for your boy," says the surgeon, with a tear in her eye. "I believe God heard you. I would have to say this is a miracle. He gave your son back to you!"
True to their word, the family is back. They sit closer to the front than ever before. They sing with authentic joy and enthusiasm. Then they miss one Sunday. Soon it's two or three in a row. I phone or bump into them at a store, and there's a bit of embarrassment, a rather lame excuse, and a promise - not kept, as it turns out - to be there the next Sunday. Within six months of the big event that I thought for sure would change their lives, they've dropped off the radar screen completely.
In some cases, a tiny little reminder of God's creative genius confirms faith. In others, a mighty deed of his healing kindness is swept away in the rush of people living only for themselves.
Soon in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is going to challenge some people who had been in the crowd of 5,000 he fed with a boy's sack lunch with this: "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves" (John 6:26). Those people saw Jesus supply bread miraculously, but they did not get the point that he is the Bread of Life!
The Relationship of "Signs" to Faith
In this Gospel, a "sign" (Gk, semeion) is an act of divine self-disclosure that allows an observer to see something greater than the miracle or wonder itself. It lets the observer see more than fish and bread, more than a dramatic recovery from illness, or more than a desperate marriage revived. He or she sees beyond water to the Water of Life, beyond bread to the Bread of Life, beyond the gift to the Giver - and embraces the Provider as even more significant than the provision.
Right in the middle of today's text, Jesus turns away from the individual with whom he is speaking to address the watching crowd and says, "Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe" (4:48). Both instances of the Greek pronoun "you" in this verse are plural. I think one man in this text was catching on that day, but the majority simply was not getting it.
Then he came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine. Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. Then Jesus said to him, "Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe." The official said to him, "Sir, come down before my little boy dies." Jesus said to him, "Go; your son will live." The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way. As he was going down, his slaves met him and told him that his child was alive. So he asked them the hour when he began to recover, and they said to him, "Yesterday at one in the afternoon the fever left him." The father realized that this was the hour when Jesus had said to him, "Your son will live." So he himself believed, along with his whole household. Now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee (4:46-54).John records this episode on the heels of the long section about the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well, Jesus' conversation with her about living water and true worship, and the eventual faith of many Samaritans from Sychar. After two days in that Samaritan village, he moved on to Galilee. That movement prompts a wry comment from John about a statement he had heard Jesus make about a prophet having no honor in his own country (4:44). He hadn't missed the stark and obvious contrast of the faith-reception by Samaritans (of all people!) over against the manipulative attitude of the Galileans who were interested in him only for the sake of the curiosity-arousing wonders he had done in connection with his cleansing of the Jerusalem temple at festival time (4:45). All indications are that they were hoping to see more miracles, not that they were welcoming Jesus as a prophet bringing God's words.
One writer thinks "John is supplying a theologically sophisticated comment here about faith based on signs." He says: "Those who witness these signs and who are captive to the darkness of this world will only see deeds of power, not divine deeds of revelation. John therefore is asking us to reflect on the relation among signs and miracles and faith." I suspect he is correct.
Faith vs. Sight
Miracles are spectacular, I'll grant you that. But they don't guarantee faith. They don't ensure anybody's salvation. They don't even mean that onlookers will see the hand of God in what has happened and confess him as the source of life and goodness. In the Gospels, people sometimes saw Jesus' miracles only to dismiss him as being in league with Beelzebul (cf. Matt.12:24). Miracles are not ends in themselves but are means to the end of seeing God's power, glory, and compassion manifest to his creatures.
Have you ever longed for a miracle? I have - usually in a selfish mode. Have you ever thought that a miracle would be a sure way to convince certain people of their need for God? I have - only to run into Abraham's statement to the rich man in torment that his God-ignoring brothers would not repent even if Lazarus were went back from the dead to warn them (cf. Luke 16:31). Why, it's surely true! If that imaginary family I described earlier could dismiss their son's miraculous recovery so soon and revert to their spiritual backsliding, those five men would have found a way to dismiss Lazarus' visit from the dead.
This is not to say that miraculous signs have no place in the ministry of the church. They do. But John 4:43-54 suggests to us that they have a limited scope and usefulness. . . . Miracles were a natural part of Jesus' ministry and led people to faith (10:38). But Jesus is more than this, and he expects more. He looks for men and women not only to believe in his ability to work a miracle, but especially to believe in him. Merely witnessing or experiencing a miracle does not mean that one has experienced a gift from God; rather, it is faith itself that permits someone to participate in the miracle he grants; it is faith that turns these miracles into "divine signs."The rude treatment Jesus had received in Galilee at the start of his public ministry had turned into receptivity (of a sort) because of the miracles he had performed at Jerusalem. Yet the faith of these people was so shallow that most of them would have to see repeated feats of the supernatural to remain with Jesus. Then comes a "royal official" - perhaps from the court of Herod Antipas, most likely a Jew rather than a Gentile - who had no inclination to get into this issue that was emerging between Jesus and the people of Galilee. He was a desperate daddy whose concern was altogether personal. His little boy was dying!
The Predicament of Faith
Jesus' response was both negative and positive. Negatively, he declined to accompany the man to his home in Capernaum. He also refused to do anything eye-popping to signal the miracle he was performing. Positively, he gave the distraught dad an assurance that his request was going to be granted. "Jesus said to him, 'Go; your son will live' " (4:50a). This was not a facile "I hope he gets along all right" but a statement to the effect that what the man had come begging (cf. v.47) was being granted.
By giving nothing more than a word of promise, Jesus had created a faith predicament for that man. If he went home without Jesus, he would be going back to a desperate situation with nothing tangible to comfort him or to save his boy. On the other hand, if he refused to walk home alone simply on Jesus' word in the matter, he would show that he did not believe Jesus' word was powerful enough to save.
With no visible proof that anything had changed, the important royal official who was used to having people do whatever he ordered "believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way" (4:50b). By the straightforward act of taking Jesus at his word for what had been promised, this unnamed man became the prototype of all "those who have not seen and yet have come to believe" (cf. John 20:29b). His example encourages those of us whose faith is based on the message we have heard rather than on first-hand experience of Jesus' words and deeds.
Since this encounter took place in the early afternoon (4:52-53), it would have been possible for the man to reach Capernaum that same day. The emotionally drained man appears to have been so confident of Jesus' word that he did not feel compelled to rush home to see about his boy. Then, even before he arrived at his residence the next day, "his slaves met him and told him that his child was alive" (4:51). In the conversation that followed, he pressed them for details about the boy's healing. They told him, "Yesterday at one in the afternoon the fever left him" (4:52). The nobleman realized that 1 p.m. (lit, "the seventh hour") "was the hour [NIV, exact time] when Jesus had said to him, 'Your son will live' " (4:53a).
He did not keep the events we have been studying to himself. He told his family and household slaves the story of his request, of Jesus' promise, and of his son's healing at that very hour. All this combined to create this outcome: "So he himself believed, along with his whole household" (4:53b). A man whose initial faith in Jesus was based on testimony rather than direct experience had had his faith confirmed. Now he had become the instrument of God to create faith in others through the testimony he was able to give. This is the pattern of believers awakening faith in others through our testimonies that is still characteristic of the spread of the gospel.
I suspect John has told us in this narrative the meaning of something we read earlier in his Gospel: "When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone" (John 2:23-25). Jesus wasn't seeking sign-faith but word-faith, not faith in his miracle-working ability but faith in him.
The moment you are truly saved and born from above, all your questions get answered and all your troubles are over. You will meet and marry your soul mate in God's good time. You'll never have an argument with that perfect spouse. Your child will not have a wreck or get involved with drugs. You won't lose your job, your house, or your health. And if you don't marry Mr. Right, have perfect children, make lots of money, live in perfect health, and have a spiritual life free of doubt or sin, it will be proof either that you never were saved to begin with or that you have retreated from God and are being punished. Right? Wrong! Terribly, devastatingly, faith-destructively wrong! But it is what lots of people think: If I am not seeing God's power, experiencing his best gifts, and able to call him to my immediate and miraculous rescue, religion is all a sham.
Jesus positioned himself squarely between the felt need and the response in this text so that the royal official who came to him that day had to "walk by faith, not by sight" all the way home (cf. 2 Cor.5:7). So do I. And so do you.
My prayer for a miracle of healing for my father twenty years ago this month weren't answered. The request of a miracle for your child or your marriage or your career may not have been granted. The request of some father equally devoted to his son as the one in our text for his boy's safety aboard ship or on the ground to fight terrorism may not be granted. Don't you think some people have had their faith challenged - if not devastated - by the events of 9/11?
If your faith in Jesus must pass through a condition you have set - whether miraculous or providential or semi-ordinary in nature - you have the sequence wrong. Trust Jesus. Then feel empowered to ask whatever you wish in his name. Then trust him to answer according to his wisdom and purposes, to draw straight with crooked lines at times. Otherwise, if you condition your faith on getting your way and having an easy time of it, you almost surely will not believe - at least, you will not believe for long.
God has been through the deepest valley with the death of his Son. The Son has come back to say, "I know the way out. I am the way out. I'll hold your hand every step of the way - even in the painful, confusing ones." That is why the littlest of things confirms faith to the one who has read the signs pointing to Jesus and come to believe in him, and the greatest of miracles will never be enough for the one who has not.
Often there is no way out but through. In the meantime, regardless of the circumstance, walk toward home with full confidence in his promise. No, walk all the way home with full confidence in him. He will not abandon you. He will not allow Satan to devour you. He will be waiting for you when you arrive.
 Gary Burge, John: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Company, 2000), p.159.
 Burge, John, p.167.
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