Saturday, October 23, 2010

Sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
October 24, 2010

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11.1)

Our Gospel lesson for this Sunday shifts gears a bit as we heard a passage from St. John’s Gospel. We will return to Matthew for the remaining Sunday mornings in Trinitytide until the Sunday next before Advent when we will hear John’s account of the feeding of the 5,000. We heard a portion of the fourth chapter this morning, which tells the story of the healing of the nobleman’s son.

There are a number of items that aren’t readily accessible when reading this passage and the first comes from the fact that the beginning of our reading doesn’t actually start with the entire forty-sixth verse. The beginning of that verse reads, “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.” We are back in the very same city where Jesus performed his first sign as recorded in John, and now he is about to do it again. Our lesson this morning follows the long dialogue that Jesus has with the Samaritan woman at the well, and we hear of her faith, and the faith of the people who hear her story, who see and hear Jesus themselves, and believe that He is in fact the long awaited for Messiah.

I also don’t think we fully grasp this term “nobleman.” The word in Greek has its roots in the same word that means “kingdom.” Apparently this nobleman was perhaps a royal official in the court of Herod Antipas because that word literally means, “of or belonging to a king, royal, regal; the officer or minister of a prince, courtier.” We are dealing with someone who possesses an earned rank at the highest levels of government, someone who is used to getting what he wants, when he wants it, in the manner he wants it done. He carries with him the voice of the king, and that means people usually listen to him.

How appropriate, rather, how ironic, that a minister of the king, would humble himself to come to the King of kings, seeking his help that he might come and heal his son. What we have here is the birth of faith – that notion of realizing that we are impotent to do it for ourselves and that we must place ourselves into the care of someone else. It means that we have to place our pride upon a shelf and leave it there for the seeds of this infant faith to take root and begin to grow and sprout.

Most likely since this interaction takes place again in Cana, the nobleman had heard about what Jesus did at the wedding feast. He had prior knowledge that this man had performed a miracle and if he would come with him back to Capernaum he might be able to heal his son. That’s certainly a reasonable request since Jesus was physically present when he performed this first miracle, it should stand to reason that Jesus would need to travel with this nobleman to his town so that he might perhaps do the same. However, the nobleman has unintentionally placed limits on where, when, and how Jesus might work in our lives. It’s certainly logical that his first glimpse at faith in Jesus would require Jesus’ physical presence. As we will see shortly, as the nobleman’s faith matures quickly this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Jesus then responds with what sounds like a sarcastic response to him when he declares, “Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.” However, we have to pay attention to the pronouns here. One of the shortcomings of the English language is the fact that we don’t have a mechanism for distinguishing between “you” in the singular and “you” in the plural. Except of course, here in the South we’ve solved that problem with what might be the best word ever, Y’ALL! The Old English of the King James does help us see this when it uses the word “ye.” That is the second plural of “you,” so he’s actually talking to the crowds here and not singling out the nobleman. If he had been speaking to him individually, it would have been rendered “thou.” See, Elizabethan English is good for something after all.

Why do I mention this? Because so many simply want to see the signs and wonders. So many want the empirical evidence before they commit to belief. So many have to see it for themselves. “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” There is also the more grave issue of attempting to separate the miraculous from Source of the miracle. With the miraculous comes the teaching and instruction of the miracles are even there in the first place. The miracles are nice, but if it does not lead to a full surrender of life to Jesus, then all has been lost. This is what begins to move faith from birth toward growth.

Even after the man hears these stinging words, he is not dejected, angry, or despondent. He simply asks again in faith, “Sir, come down ere my child die.” The nobleman again checks his pride in light of the gravity of the situation, and out of desperation asks again for mercy in whatever fashion it might manifest itself.

What happens next is almost hard to comprehend. Jesus says to the nobleman, “Go thy way; thy son liveth. And the man believed the word that Jesus had spoken unto him, and he went his way.” He didn’t ask him, “Are you sure?” He simply turned and walked away.

What has Jesus done here? What is the significance of why he did it this way? I think that Fr. Dunbar explains this wonderfully when he says, “By telling the man to leave, with the assurance that his son will live, he pushes the miraculous event, the wondrous sign, out of the spotlight, where it cannot be seen and cannot become a sensational crowd-pleaser. The miracle is pushed ‘offstage’, and the challenge of faith and obedience in response to Jesus’ word are brought into the spotlight instead. So the question for the royal official becomes not, will Jesus come down and heal my son, but, will I obey his command? And that in turn depends upon the question, will I believe his promise?

Those are the questions for us all, when we bring our hopes and fears to God in prayer. Will we insist on his submitting to our demands? Or will we subordinate our wishes to the purpose of his will? When we rise from our knees, are we still trying to have our way with God, or have we decided to let God have his way with us? Specifically are we ready to trust in his mercy, and obey his will, leaving the outcome to him? Notice also that you can’t believe, but refuse to obey; or obey, without first believing: Christ gives us something to believe, and something to obey, and our faith and obedience are the right and left hands by which the soul receives the blessing he gives.”

His turn toward home is the transition point between hope and faith. Something within his very soul helped him turn away from Jesus, with some type of assurance that what he had hoped for, the healing of his son, was going to happen. He came to Jesus as a nobleman who was used to issuing orders and having them carried out. He came to Jesus with the hope and expectation that he would come with him and perform something miraculous. He left in a spirit of true humility, with the assurance that something miraculous was going to happen.

As the man was on his way home, his servants ran out to meet him and told him that his son was fine. He inquired of the servants as to what time he began to improve and they said about the seventh hour, the same time that Jesus had told him to go his way that his son would live. The man “knew” that it was the Word of God who had spoken but a few words to him was the source of his son’s healing and restoration to health.

The birth and growth of the man’s faith comes to full recognition and fruition when John says that the man, “himself believed, and his whole house.” This is an emphatic statement in the Greek, and has the connotation of saying something like, “He, himself, this one, he believed.” This man went to Jesus as an officer or nobleman in the service of a king. He left as a servant of the true King.
In a few weeks we will hear the story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000, and the miraculous multiplying of food. This morning, we heard of the miraculous multiplying of faith. We saw the transformation of one man’s faith from birth, to growth, to maturity. The overarching theme that permeates this entire exchange is the posture of the man’s heart. He came in a state of humility, seeking a miracle. It was through that humility that Jesus was able to do more than simply heal a man’s sick son. He was able to heal the souls of an entire household.

The signs that Jesus worked while he was here on earth point to something greater and more glorious. May we have the humility to go in faith, believing in the evidence of things hoped for; and receiving the assurance of those things left unseen!

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