Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Seven Miracles in John's Gospel - #2, John 4:46-54, the healing of the official's son

I am not sure what is happening with the travel in John’s Gospel.  It may be that John is not concerned with telling the story in a historically linier fashion.  Because as it is, in John 2, Jesus turns the water into wine, then he goes to Capernaum, then he is in Jerusalem, then into a Samaritan town, then to Galilee, and finally, he is back in Cana.  He is all over the place.

Coming back into Cana, John reminds us that this is where Jesus performed the first sign, which was turning the water into wine.

46 Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine. And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum.
4:46 “Royal official” in Greek is "basilikov" The term can designate either a person of royal blood or a servant to the king. Here, the latter is almost certainly in view; this man is a servant of Herod, tetrarch of Galilee. Capernaum was a border town, so doubtless there were many administrative officials in residence there.
I am not sure it makes much difference – one way or the other here is a person like Donald Trump – powerful.  It is someone who is accustomed to giving orders and making demands of others.

47 When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death.

So here is this powerful man, accustomed to giving orders, often making demands of others, having power over others, comes to Jesus as one who is powerless and does not request, but begs for Jesus to heal his son who was close to death.
And Jesus has this response: 
48 “Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”

In the Old Testament the word 'sign’ is used by itself for a pledge or token, between one person and another, or between a person and God.  It often refers to something that is yet to come, as in a reflection of the future.  In John’s Gospel, a “sign” is more specifically something that draws us to the unseen truths.  Like the needle of a compass, it points to an invisible magnetic north pole.
For John, Jesus is doing signs and wonders because without them, people will not believe.

49 The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”
50 “Go,” Jesus replied, “your son will live.”
The man took Jesus at his word and departed.

This is a remarkable faith, because this man took Jesus at his word.  No evidence at all.  Here was a man who did not need to see the sign and wonder, he simply believed.
51 While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living. 52 When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “Yesterday, at one in the afternoon, the fever left him.”
53 Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and his whole household believed.
54 This was the second sign Jesus performed after coming from Judea to Galilee.

Let’s talk about this business of believing.

Right before this is the story of the woman at the well.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.[a])
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

This is an interesting story and very typical of the onion like book of John.  The woman is on one layer, Jesus is on a deeper level.  The woman is talking about water as in H2O, Jesus is talking about spiritual sustenance. 

Now jump to the end of that story, just immediately before our text for today with the healing of the royal man’s son, and we come to this…

39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, (not signs, not wonders, but her words).  “He told me everything I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41 And because of his words many more became believers.
42 They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

I wonder if Jesus really means what he says when he says, “Unless you see signs and wonders you won’t believe,” or does Jesus say this as a challenge – “other people need signs and wonders, but you need to be better than that, you need to hear because of the words.”

Now jump to the end of the Gospel of John and you have the story of Thomas meeting the resurrected Jesus.

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written (that is to say, these words are written) that you may believe[b] that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

I think this miracle is here to help us move to the doubts of Thomas and the truth that we can believe the words of Jesus without seeing the miracles of Jesus.

What does it mean to believe in Jesus?

Does it mean to believe that Jesus exists? 

What is belief?

Belief might be a matter of the head and the mind –Do you believe the earth orbits the sun or not?  You are given evidence, you evaluate it, and you come to believe in a scientific fact.  Belief in Jesus for many is a matter of the mind – I believe Jesus lived and taught.

Belief is also a matter of the heart and soul - when a parent says to a child, “I believe in you,” it does not mean “I believe you exist.”

It means “I have confidence in you.  I value you.”

If one says to a spouse, “I believe in you,” it means, “I trust you.”        
This is the kind of believing we see in the royal official. Understanding the official’s belief as “trust” in Jesus opens some riches in this passage. Trust is what a child has in his or her parents. You see it when a parent tosses a small child in the air, and the child laughs, completely trusting that the parent will catch the child. 

Trust is being in a relationship in which a person can be completely vulnerable and open, knowing with utter certainty that he or she         will not be unfairly used. 

The royal official has only a little evidence, but he comes to Jesus believing Jesus can heal his son. When Jesus refuses to go with him, the man takes Jesus at his word, trusting Jesus with the life of his son.

The passage invites us to explore our own level of belief and/or trust in God through Jesus Christ.

Many of us trust in our savings account, or in our paycheck, or in our ability to hold a job – but these can disappear anytime.  To trust that God will care for us even when the visible signs of that care disappears, that is belief!

Henri Nouwen once talked about trapeze artists who swing up high in the air, holding on to the trapeze until just that moment when they have to let go and fly through the air, unsupported, in order to be caught by the hands of the other artist. Trust is in that moment of letting go.
Complete trust is letting go without a net.
(source:  Feasting on the Gospels, John, Volume 1, p. 264)

Here are some other interesting things to learn from this passage.

Here is a man who has to come to Jesus, he seeks Jesus.  We do better in our spiritual discovery when we are intentional about going out and seeking Jesus than we do when we just wait for ourselves to accidently bump into Jesus. 

Jesus was in Cana and this man lived in Capernaum, almost twenty miles away. That is why he took so long to get back home.

Another thing – this man had to swallow his pride. 
He was in need, and neither convention nor custom stopped him from bringing his need to Christ. His action would cause a sensation, but he did not care what people said so long as he obtained the help he so much wanted. If we want the help which Christ can give, we must be humble enough to swallow our pride and not care what anyone else may say.

Here is a man in need who refused to be discouraged.
Jesus met him with the, at first sight, bleak statement that people would not believe unless they were supplied with signs and wonders. If the man had turned irritably away; if he had been too proud to accept a rebuke; if he had given up despairingly on the spot – Jesus would have known that his faith was not real. People must be in earnest before the help of Christ can come to them.

Here was a man who had faith.

It was enough faith to take him to Jesus and try to get him to come home with him – and this faith grew to the point at which the man was able to accept Jesus at his word and go home alone.
If Jesus says a thing, it is not a case of ‘It may be true’; it is a case of ‘It must be true.’

Here was a man who did not get his own way.
That is so invaluable.  I meet so many people who have to have their own way. 
He wanted Jesus to come to his house, and that didn’t happen, and he lived with it – and for the better. 

His son was healed, and he and all his household believed.

Additional resources if someone wants to refer to Matthew or Luke.

Matthew 8:5-13New International Version (NIV)

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”
Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”
The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
10 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.

Luke 7New International Version (NIV)

The Faith of the Centurion

When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” So Jesus went with them.
He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” 10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Seven Miracles in the Gospel of John - #1 - Water to Wine

We are going to begin to study John’s Gospel – but not the entire Gospel.  We are going to look only at the miracles in John.

The Gospel of John is written in very complex forms.  Billy Graham used to give all new converts a copy of this book of the Bible because he believed it was so simple, but it like an onion, with layer upon layer and one can never exhaust the depth of John’s meaning.

One aspect of this book is the fact that it is built around seven miracles:

Seven is a special number in the Bible, signifying completeness. 

Eight is a number that sometimes refers to re-creation, and as such many Baptism fonts are built with 8 sides.  Some scholars will say there is an 8th miracle in John, and that is the Resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning.  And that would signify the recreation of all sinners.

Today we start with the first miracle – the changing of water to wine.

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

We mentioned the significance of numbers, and we see right away another significant number “on the third day…”  What does that recall?  The resurrection of Jesus who was on the third day.

On the third day, there is a wedding, and it takes place in Cana

Cana of Galilee is was a very small near Nazareth. Jerome, a church scholar who lived in the 5th century and who translated the Bible to Latin (called the Vulgate), said that he saw Cana from Nazareth. It is mentioned briefly in some other historical documents, but never with any great significance.  It is just a tiny little town – and more of a place than a town.

I think of Cana and I think of places in the area where I grew up.  We had Crawford Land and Little Acres, and places that had names, but never showed up on a map and never had any signs saying Welcome to Crawford Land.  People just knew generally speaking where they were.

So Cana is just a humble little area. 

In Cana, there was a wedding feast.  Jesus, his mother, and his disciples were all there as invited guests.

Weddings are a big deal – I don’t care where you live or what time it is in history, they are big deals.

Couples come to me and ask me to do a wedding and I always give them a pamphlet on wedding policies for this church, and I think we charge $1,000 or so – which is really just what it costs us for the custodial work, the music, and the counseling program.  But I tell them, “show up with a license and we’ll stand in front of the fountain in the courtyard and it is free of charge.”

I’ve seen lots of elaborate weddings.  I was in India and traffic came to a standstill for an hour – we had to wait for the wedding elephants to go by.

In ancient Palestine a wedding was, of course, a very notable occasion.

Jewish law mandated that the wedding of a virgin should take place on a Wednesday.

The wedding festivities lasted for more than one day.

Today we normally have the festivities last for the afternoon or evening and it starts with a ceremony, and then we move to a place for a dinner or a reception.

In ancient Palestine, the feast came first, and then came the ceremony late in an evening.

Before the ceremony, there was a processional parade.  In a small community like Cana they may have made the processional a big deal. 

Referring to India again, we went to a small village and I was the guest of honor.  They put flowers around my neck, and put me on the back of a motorcycle and a brass band played in front of us as we literally went up and down every street in that tiny village.

There is another march – a recessional, in which the wedding guests conduct the couple to their new home.

They newly weds did not go away for their honeymoon; that tradition did not start until about 500 years ago.  Instead, the couple stayed at home.  For a week they kept open house and would receive guests into their home.  The bride and groom wore crowns and dressed in wedding clothing. They were treated like a king and queen and were even addressed as king and queen.  Their word was law.  Imagine, in a life in which there was so much hardship and poverty, this week of festivity was a joy to the community – and in a small community, weddings did not happen very often.

One gets the impression that Mary had a special place in this wedding event.

Perhaps she had something to do with the arrangements.  She was worried when they were running out of wine.  She had some sort of authority – because she was able to order the male servants to do as Jesus instructed. 

There is, in fact, a tradition that goes back only a couple of centuries after Christ, and perhaps may be older, that the mother of Jesus was a sister of the bridegroom’s mother. There is an early set of Prefaces to the books of the New Testament called the Monarchian Prefaces that even tell us that the groom was none other than John himself.  All very interesting – and may or may not be true.

Joseph is not mentioned here.  A simple explanation is that by this time Joseph was dead.

Now, even today, one of the most important traditions of a wedding is that something MUST go wrong. 

As pastor, I can tell a few stories of things that go wrong!

First wedding – the vomit king.
Lost ring

But in this wedding in John, the wine runs out.

Wine was essential for this event.

The ancient Rabbi Yehuda b. Beteira said, "there is no joy without wine.”

Psalm 104 says that God causes “the grass to grow for the cattle,
    and plants for people to use,
God brings forth food from the earth,
15     and wine to gladden the human heart…”

To drink too much was a dishonor and a disgrace, but to enjoy wine was joyful.

They actually drank their wine in a mixture composed of two parts of wine to three parts of water.

And now to run out of wine in the wedding feast was a nightmare. 

When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 

The word “woman” is misleading because to our ears it sounds rude. But it is not.  Perhaps “Lady” or “Ma’am” would be more appropriate of a translation.

This word “woman” is the same word that Jesus used when he was on the cross and speaking to Mary when he left her in the care of  John (John 19:26).

In other ancient literature it was a polite term of honor. 

In Homer, “woman” is the way Odysseus addresses Penelope, his much beloved wife.

Augustus, the Roman emperor, addressed Cleopatra as “woman.” 

So it may sound harsh or even disrespectful to our culture, but it was definitely a title of respect.

So Mary came to Jesus to tell him about the wine and Jesus replies, ““Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 

Again, the tone that we think we hear is not there – this is a very common conversational phrase. It means: ‘Don’t worry; you don’t quite understand what is going on; leave things to me, and I will settle them in my own way.’ Jesus was simply telling Mary to leave things to him, that he would have his own way of dealing with the situation.

However Jesus spoke, Mary was confident of him. She told the servants to do as Jesus told them to do.

Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 

Water was required for two reasons.

First, it was required for cleansing the feet on entry to the house. The roads were not surfaced. Sandals were merely a sole attached to the foot by straps. On a dry day the feet were covered by dust and on a wet day they were soiled with mud; and the water was used for cleansing them.

Second, it was required for the handwashing. Strict Jews washed their hands before a meal and between each course.

Jesus commanded that the jars should be filled to the brim. John mentions that point to make it clear that nothing else but water was put into them.

He then told them to draw out the water and to take it to the steward in charge. This would be like the wedding director at today’s weddings, or perhaps even better, the DJ at the reception, who introduces each guest and then calls on different people to give toasts.

When he tasted the water which had become wine, he was surprised by the quality. He called the bridegroom – it was the bridegroom’s parents who were responsible for the feast – and spoke almost in jest. ‘Most people’, he said, ‘serve the good wine first; and then, when the guests have drunk a good deal, and their palates are dulled and they are not in much of a condition to appreciate what they are drinking, they serve the inferior wine; but you have kept the best until now.’

Now what are some of the spiritual truths to be gained here?

  1. Jesus serves the best last.
Robert Browning wrote in his poem:
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith "A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!''

Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 7, “the end is better than the beginning.”

2.  Another way to look at it is when, where and why:

  1. When it happened – a time of joy.  Our faith celebrates joy.
  2. Where it happened – it is in a humble home.
  3. Why it happened – it is an act of kind mercy helping the newly weds avoid the disgrace of failing to show hospitality.

3.  Another point is that when things go wrong, we can turn to Jesus. 

Instinctively, Mary turned to Jesus when things went wrong. She knew her son.

It is still true that those who know Jesus intimately turn instinctively to him when things go wrong – and they never find him wanting.

(2) Understanding God is not faith – faith is faith even when one does not understand or anticipate the HOW of God.

Even when Mary did not understand what Jesus was going to do, even when it seemed that he had refused her request, Mary still believed in him so much that she turned to the serving folk and told them to do whatever Jesus told them to do.

Mary had the faith which could trust even when it did not understand.

She did not know what Jesus was going to do, but she was certain he would do the right thing. In every life come periods of darkness when we do not see the way. In every life come things which are such that we do not see why they came or any meaning in them. Happy are those who in such a case still trust even when they cannot understand.

One last spiritual truth – maybe the biggest of all.

There were six stone water pots – six is the number of imperfection.  These jars were for Jewish law of purification. 

Jesus has come to give new meaning to the old.

Jesus came to do away with the imperfections of the law and to put in their place the new wine of the gospel of his grace. Jesus turned the imperfection of the law into the perfection of grace.