Monday, March 14, 2011

Signs (2): Signs and Wonders

Matthew 4:1-11 (children)
John 4:45-54 (message)
Missing the stop sign in Mont Alto ...
The point of the sign is not the sign itself, but what it points to.

Some background:
As we begin this story, we are reminded of the first sign in Cana of Galilee: Jesus turning water into wine. These signs in John’s gospel are linked. They both occur right after Jesus returns to Galilee from Judea. Unlike the other signs in John’s Gospel, they do not lead into extended preaching by Jesus. And, the sequence of the story telling is the same.
(1) Jesus is approached with a request
(2) Jesus seems to refuse . . . with what sounds rude and out of place
(3) The person persists
(4) The request is granted
(5) People respond in faith
(See Raymond E. Brown, 1966, The Gospel According to John I-XII, Anchor Bible Commentary 29, p. 194.)

Last week, Mother Mary comes to Jesus: “They have no more wine”
Refusal: “What is that to me? My hour has not yet come”
Persistence: “Do what ever he tells you”

This week, that exchange is with the official, who asks Jesus to heal his son.
Refusal: “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe”
Persistence: “Come down before my little boy dies”

Last week, we looked at Jesus’ apparent refusal, his peculiar response to his mother. And, she did not respond with a typical parenting remark, “because I said so” “don’t talk to your mother like that”. Jesus pushing back was not to deter but to teach, to move us deeper.

In that first story, Jesus is teaching on the nature of prayer. Prayer is not about what Jesus can do for us, but what we do for Jesus. Thus, Mary’s persistence is manifested in the directions to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you.”

So, if Jesus is not simply being rude, flippant, or worse, what is he teaching us, and this distressed father, by pushing back against his request? He is teaching on the nature of faith. What does it mean to believe?

Commentators and pastors have struggled with this verse from the beginning. John Chrysostom, onetime archbishop of Constantinople, wrote that this father was “saying that Jesus could not raise his son after death” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT IVa, John 1-10, 2006, p 174). The idea of resurrection was certainly not in the father’s mind: “Come down before my little boy dies”. Interestingly, when Jesus grants his request, he says, “Return home; your son is going to live”. In the Aramaic language of the time, there was no exact word for “recover” from an illness. Jesus’ expression could mean both recovery from illness AND return to life after death (Brown, 191).

Gregory the Great, some 200 years later, remarked that this father was “asking for the physical presence of the Lord, who is nowhere absent” (ACCS, p 175). In the letter to the Hebrews, faith is defined as the “conviction of things not seen” (11.1). But, too often, we want to link something physical with our faith, we want evidence, proof. “If you are the Son of God . . .” (Matthew 4.1-11). We want faith to be a mathematical certainty instead of a personal confidence. Yet, that is not what faith is, and it is not what Jesus offers.

“Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe”. Remarkably enough, Jesus still performs the sign. In doing so, he teaches us not just about the nature of faith but also about the nature of signs. Signs are not about the “wonder” aspect but about the “word” (see Brown, 195). “The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way” (4.50).

The distance between Cana and Capernaum is about 20 miles, through a range of hills and then down to the edge of the Sea of Galilee, several hundred feet below sea level (695 feet, F. F. Bruce, 1983, The Gospel of John, p 118). The conversation with Jesus is at 1 in the afternoon. How long does it take a father to get home? When he meets his slaves, who themselves are on their way to meet him, they say that “yesterday” at 1 pm, the boy was healed. When did the servants have confidence that the boy was healed, and when did they set out with the good news for their master? F. F. Bruce suggests that the father had plenty of time to cover the 20 miles in one day, but that he was so confident that he either delayed his return or did some other business along the way (119). I find that delay hard to imagine. I’d be rushing home, even with confidence.

Either way, when he returns home, we are told that “he himself believed, along with his household”. Didn’t he believe a few moments ago, when he believed the “word”? Yes. But belief in one specific word of Jesus is not necessarily the same as believing in Jesus and every word he speaks. “We shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4.1-11).

The point of the sign is not the sign itself, but what it points to. We can marvel at the sign all we want and totally miss the point. It happened years prior in Egypt when the LORD sent Moses to declare “let my people go”: “Though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharoah will not listen to you” (Exodus 7.3-5; cited by Brown, 191). In that case, signs of destruction were multiplied and Pharoah still did not believe. The point of the sign is not the sign itself, but what it points to.

“Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe”. Jesus pushes the father to deal not just with miracle but with Jesus himself. And Jesus does that today, with us. Do you come seeking a miracle, or do you come seeking Jesus? Do you come seeking bread from stones, or do you come seeking the word of God? Do you come seeking mathematical certainty or personal confidence?

The point of the sign is not the sign itself, but what it points to. In this case, the sign points to Jesus the Life-Giver. “Your son will live”.

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