Originally published on December 2014
This sermon was delivered on Sep 21, 2014 at Zion Bishan BP Church. It has been lightly edited to keep its character as a sermon. Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture citations are from the ESV.
Introduction – what are signs for?
Earlier in the year, when I was in England on sabbatical, I found myself missing Singapore food. So, on my computer, I searched for, and read, food blogs from Singapore. I liked ieatishootipost.sg, set up by Dr Leslie Tay. In each entry, which would be filled with photographs, Leslie would review the food from a stall he had visited. Each review would end with the name and address of the stall that Leslie had visited. The point was, of course, that readers of the blog would, after reading about them, go on to visit these stalls and actually try and taste the food.
But what if people were so entranced by the reviews, so caught up with looking at the photographs, that they never actually got up from their computers? What if they just kept reading the blog, and never got round to eating? What if they forgot that the point of the blog is to lead them towards the actual goal – which is taste the food for themselves?
Let me change the picture a little.
One of the games we used to play as children was the treasure hunt. Clues – in the form of clever rhymes or riddles written on small pieces of paper – are left all over a home or a hall. You open the first clue: “What has two hands and no arms, what has two hands and cannot clap?” Answer: “Clock.” So you go to the clock and you find the next clue. Solving that one would lead you to the next clue, and so on, until the final clue led you to the treasure.
But what if, in the middle of this treasure hunt, we find that some of the participants have become more interested in the clues for their own sake, than in following them to the treasure? They are reading the riddles to each other; appreciating them, praising and saying how ingenious the clues are. And they forget that the point of the clues is to lead them towards the actual treasure.
This is the problem that Jesus is facing, in our scripture text. It begins when Jesus returns to Galilee, after two days in Samaria. We are brought full circle to where Jesus’ public ministry began: in Cana, in Galilee. This was where, at a wedding feast, he turned the water into wine. A miracle. And we are told that was the first sign – Jesus did at Cana in Galilee (2.11).
And now, after a circuit that has led south to Jerusalem, and then back north through Judea and then Samaria, Jesus is back at Cana, where he does another miracle. And we are told that at the end of this story that this is the second sign Jesus did when he returned to Galilee (4.54).
These two stories in Cana frame the whole section of stories in between. Each of these stories highlights Jesus over against one of the major institutions of first century Jewish life. Jesus’ first miracle at Cana involved water pots used for Jewish purity rites (2.1-12). Jesus cleared the traders and profiteers from the Jerusalem temple (2.13-25). Jesus’ night conversation was with a learned Jewish rabbi (3.1-36). Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, which included a discussion on where proper worship could occur (4.1-42). And now, Jesus meets an official of Herod’s court (4.43-54).
All these institutions of Jewish life provided possible answers to the questions: How do we humans relate to God? Where does earth and heaven meet? Is it through purity laws? Or the Jerusalem temple? Through the teaching of a rabbi? At a specific holy place? Or in the exercise of political power? Where indeed do we see heaven opened here on earth? In all these? Or in none of these institutions?
And if heaven and earth did meet, would we recognize it? Would we need clues? Would we in fact need signs? Would we know what to do with such signs?
John’s Gospel opens with the startling conviction that heaven has broken through onto earth. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1.14). The eternal heavenly word has clothed himself with mortal earthy humanity. The Gospel wants us, together with Nathanael, to see heaven opened, and the angels ascending and descending on this Son of Man (1.51). Who is this Word? Who is this Son of Man? Well, you’ve got to follow the clues, follow the signs.
But John’s Gospel is also filled with great sadness that people are going to miss the clues, miss the signs, or get so caught up with the signs that they miss the point.
He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. (1.10-11)
An enthusiastic welcome?
You might be wondering how verses 44 and 45 in chapter 4 fit into all this; or indeed, how they fit together with each other.
Jesus says that a prophet has no honour in his own hometown (v. 44). But if Galilee is his hometown, then we have a puzzle. In the very next verse, we are told that therefore or so the Galileans receive or welcome him. So, do the Galileans welcome him, honour him after all? Or not?
Well, yes and no. In Samaria Jesus has just enjoyed overwhelming and unopposed success. The Samaritans received Jesus because they believed he was the Messiah, the Saviour of the world. (4.29, 42) In stark contrast, the Galileans welcome Jesus not because he might be the Messiah. They welcome Jesus because some of them had seen what he had done at the Passover feast in Jerusalem. They had seen him throw traders and profiteers out of the Temple.
Perhaps some had even cheered – here was someone who had the courage to take on the greedy powerful establishment in Jerusalem. So exciting! So flashy! Celebrity! But even back then we already heard how Jesus viewed this kind of faith, this kind of welcome.
Because of the miraculous signs Jesus did in Jerusalem at the Passover celebration, many began to trust in him. But Jesus didn’t trust them, because he knew human nature. No one needed to tell him what mankind is really like. (2.23-25, NLT)
Jesus knows this is precisely the kind of “welcome,” the kind of “trust” or “faith” he will get in Galilee from his own countrymen and women. It is NOT the whole- hearted, believing welcome of the Samaritans. It is a superficial welcome that does not understand him, does not seek him to know him. It is a welcome that does not honour him for who he is. Nevertheless Jesus determinedly heads into Galilee. Therefore, when he arrives in his home country, he does get that kind of “welcome.”
This superficial welcome, this shallow “faith”, depends on flashy acts and miracles. That is why Jesus says:
“Unless you people see signs and wonders you will not believe.” (v. 48)
The Galileans are more interested in reading the food blog than actually going out to try the food. They are sitting down to read the clues of the treasure hunt rather than following the clues to the treasure. They want a Messiah who will perform miracles to order, a magician, rather than moving on to real faith that will grasp who Jesus really is.
Is there anyone from Cana who would move beyond this kind of superficial faith?
A desperate father
At Cana, Jesus is approached by a man from Capernaum (v. 46). He is an official, probably in the service of Herod Antipas, ruler over Galilee. An important man, he is used to ordering people around, summoning people when he wanted answers or reports.
But he is also a desperate father, for his son is ill and about to die. He had probably heard how Jesus acted with authority in Jerusalem. If anything, this official knows about power and authority. So, when he heard Jesus was at Cana, he makes the 30 km journey from Capernaum, down by the lake, to Cana, up in the hills, to meet Jesus. He asks Jesus persistently to come down to Capernaum to heal his son (v. 47). This is the point where Jesus makes his charge against the atittude of the Galileans:
“Unless you people see signs and wonders you will not believe.” (v. 48)
But the father would not be deterred. It’s almost as if he wants to prove Jesus wrong. “Sir, come down before my child dies” (v. 49). It is an order. Perhaps this official cannot help himself, he is used to giving orders. Perhaps, like the other Galileans, he still thinks of Jesus as a miracle worker, a magician he can order around. Or perhaps this is his cry of desperation. It’s hard to know. Maybe he himself doesn’t know at this point.
And Jesus matches the official’s order with an order of his own. A bare word “Sir, come down before my child dies.” (v. 49) “Go; your son lives.” (v. 50)
As we find out later in the story, this is the moment the son’s fever breaks, and he recovers. But the official does not know this yet. In my imagination, I see the official pause for a while, as he ponders what to do next. It has taken more than a half day’s journey for him to meet Jesus at Cana. If he goes as Jesus says he should, he would have to make a night stop somewhere, and Page | 4 continue the journey to Capernaum the next day. “What if my son …?” “Would there be time to find help again?” You can almost hear the calculations inside his head.
And then, something surprising happens.
The official accepts Jesus’ bare word and leaves. He believed the word Jesus spoke to him and set off home. It is almost as if the official has heard what Mary had said to the servants at the wedding in the same town earlier: “Do whatever he tells you” (2.5). He did not insist Jesus come with him. He did not insist on any flashy proof or verification. He has seen no signs and wonders, and yet he believes. His faith is in Jesus’ word, and in that alone.
That word of Jesus’ is confirmed by news from the official’s servants, who meet him on his way back. They have come to inform him of good news: his son is recovering (v. 51). How can this be? When did this happen? They tell him: “Yesterday, at 1 pm, the fever left.” And the father – this is the first time the official is called a father in this story, all the way near the end, as if he can finally be assured that he is still a father of a son – the father remembers that 1 pm was the exact time that Jesus spoke the bare word to him: “You son lives”.
And he believed. And his household believed.
The Right Response
Throughout this little story, there is a question that’s been brooding, crouching always just around the corner: “What is the relationship between seeing and believing?”
Jesus despaired that the Galileans wanted to see before believing. In a way, we can understand the Galileans’ attitude. We understand the need for proof, or verification. All the better if the proof or verification is a miracle. And of course, the greater the miracle, the stronger the faith. Obviously, right?
Now, in theory seeing should lead to believing, or stronger believing. But often it doesn’t. The problem lies with us, inside us. That’s why Jesus says all the way back in chapter 2 that he doesn’t trust people who believe because they have seen miracles. Because Jesus knows what’s inside us. He know our problem. Faith that is based ONLY on miracles, on flashy successful answers to prayer, has a tendency to miss the point. It has a tendency to focus on how God can serve us, rather than the other way around. It wants the miracle, but fails to see what God is really doing. This kind of faith – to return to the language of our opening illustration – is like people who only read the blog instead of using it to find the stall and eat the food. It’s like people in a treasure hunt who sit down and talk about the clues rather than use them to find the treasure.
Or let me return to the language of signs. Throughout John’s Gospel, the language of signs tells us that God wants to reveal something of himself to us. That’s what signs are supposed to do: Point towards a greater reality. And when these signs, these clues, are about how heaven and earth meet, about how heaven is breaking into our earthly life, then of course some peculiar things happen. When the life of heaven explodes in our existence, of course there are some curious aftershocks.
We call them acts of power, we call them miracles, wonders.
The danger occurs when we see them ONLY as acts of power and not as acts of revelation. The danger occurs when we value these miracles for what they can do for us and not for what they reveal from God, about God, about our relationship with God.
So what is the right response?
The official came looking for a miracle. He wanted Jesus to go with him, and to perform a miraculous healing. Jesus placed himself squarely and stubbornly between the request and the healing, so that the man had to act in faith and walk home without the thing he wanted. He had to decide if he would trust Jesus.
In the end the official believed the word Jesus spoke to him. He responded without the benefit (the distraction!) of seeing a miracle. He trusted Jesus, that was what formed his belief.
This is the challenge the gospel presents to us today. I do not doubt that there are miracles today: wonderful healings, great deliverances from physical and spiritual danger, answers to prayer which cannot be explained by the normal ordinary laws that govern our universe. And why shouldn’t they happen? When heaven breaks through on earth, as it has in the person of Jesus Christ, there will be some aftershocks on earth.
But miracles don’t automatically lead to more faith. Neither do they banish all doubts and unbelief.
In the end, the gospel is not about believing in powerful miracles you can see.
Neither is it about believing in an intellectual idea you can reason through, or a warm feeling you can sense, or a spiritual experience you can have. The gospel is about trusting a person with whom you enter into relationship. We are invited to believe in the Word become flesh. Jesus is still looking for men and women not only to believe in his ability to work a miracle, but especially to believe in him.
And when we trust, when we believe, we see … signs of life. Believing is seeing. That is what this second sign points to. Life in Jesus. Life flows out of him. Life as celebration, as at the Wedding at Cana. Life beyond death, like what Jesus said at the Temple. Life eternal, as both Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman heard. Life for the official’s son AND the official. We see life, eternal life, abundant life, the life of heaven, life that’s deeper and more real than what we’ve experienced on this earth … because in Jesus heaven and earth meet.
It may not come all at once, on this earth. It may not come in a way that we expect. But let the blog lead you to the food. Let the clues lead you to the treasure. Let the signs lead you to the Word of Life. Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20.30-31)
MR. QUEK TZE-MING
Tze-Ming is a Ph.D candidate in New Testament Studies at the University of Cambridge. His special area of studies is in the use of the Old Testament in the New. After leaving legal practice, he served in student ministry with the Fellowship of Evangelical Students (Singapore). He then commenced theological studies, receiving a Dip. C.S. from BGST, a M.Div and a Th.M from Regent College, Vancouver. He is married to Sharon, and they have two daughters. He serves in the teaching ministry of his church, and maintains a lively interest in local food, football, and movies.