‘When belief becomes faith

4 Pentecost 4
John 4:43-54

John is very sparse in his miracle stories. He includes only seven of them. And unlike the other Gospel writers, he does not call them miracles, but signs. What is important, for John, is what they point to.

You will remember the first of the seven ‘signs’ that John recorded was the turning of water to wine at the wedding in Cana. It was, and remains, in the view of many, a rather odd miracle for Jesus to begin his ministry with. But remember, the point is that it was chiefly meant to be a sign. And while many have wondered over the years what was really the point of rescuing a poorly planned wedding celebration, the sign performed was no ordinary miracle. Many prophets and others, through the power of God, had performed miracle of provision of food or water, great acts of healing, even reviving the dead. But the Jewish understanding of miracle also included a category of the miracle of creation. Of making something that did not exist before. This was a miracle that in the biblical record, only God could do. So when Jesus begins his ministry with turning water into wine, instead of healing a blind person or raising someone from the dead, it might seem rather understated to us. But for those who understood the symbolism, it was a clear message. This was no ordinary miracle worker. This was God himself. No one else could create wine when there was nothing but water to begin with.

And now John comes to what he indicates is Jesus’ second sign. But, of course, we know it is not. John himself makes a point of telling us that Jesus had performed many signs, or miracles, in Jerusalem.  What John means is that this is the second sign that he wants to tell us about. Like the first one he relates, it is symbolically important. And once again, it takes place in the little Galilean village of Cana, not far from Nazareth where Jesus grew up.

So here is the background to the second miracle or sign in Cana.

John begins by telling us that Jesus is heading back to Galilee from Jerusalem. He has just passed through Samaria where he encountered the woman at the well. He was delayed there two days teaching the people of the woman’s village. This gives time for other pilgrims from Galilee to return home, and also for news of what he did in Jerusalem (cleansing the temple, teaching with authority, performing many signs) to make it back to Galilee – including to the court of King Herod Antipas, the man who had imprisoned and then executed John the Baptist, and whose father had sought the death of Jesus as an infant.

A second point to note is that before John begins the account of this second miracle in Cana he relates that after two days in the village of Sychar in Samaria Jesus continued on from Jerusalem on his way to Galilee. Then John adds this comment, ‘because as Jesus himself had said, a prophet has no honour in his home country’ (v. 44). Now this is interesting because the other three gospels have this same saying. But in each of them it takes place when Jesus is being rejected either in Nazareth or in Galilee more generally. But John turns this around.

In John’s account Jesus is leaving Jerusalem where he had taught and done wonders, and has been rejected. He has just been accepted by a town of Samaritans, and now he is on his way to Galilee where the text says ‘the Galileans welcomed him, since they had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the festival, for they too had gone to the festival’ (v. 45). And, of course, the story of the sign that comes is further evidence of his being accepted, not rejected, in Galilee.

Many have wondered whether John has made a mistake here and somehow misplaced this saying of Jesus. The explanation is rather to be sought in the emphasis John puts on Jerusalem and the temple throughout his Gospel. As the Messiah, the descendent and heir to David, Jerusalem is Jesus’ true home and country. And it is in Jerusalem, John wants to point out, and not in Galilee, where Jesus was not accepted. So what takes place next is also part of the case against Jerusalem and the authorities there.

Then John tells us that Jesus comes to Galilee. And he goes to Cana. To get there he would have had to travel past the Sea of Galilee and several major towns. And John points out that it was in Cana where Jesus had turned water into wine. So this is an indication that we might expect something to happen again here. And it does.

And now the miracle story.

There was an important official in the court of King Herod who was based in the administrative centre of Capernaum, about 30 kms away from Cana. The name used in the Greek to describe the man is basilikos, which literally means ‘little king’ and was often used of a prince or an important court official. Whether the man was a Jew or Gentile we do not know. Herod would have had both in his court. While some think him to be the same man described as a centurion, or Roman officer, in the synoptics who was also from Capernaum and had a servant who was ill, it is more likely that John is describing an entirely different incident.

The man’s son is very sick and is near death. If any of you have ever had a child who is seriously ill, then you can relate to the desperation of this man. With his influence he would have had access to the best physicians connected to the king’s court. But they could do nothing. His son was dying and there was nothing he could do about it.

When our youngest child was born he was born with two-thirds of his diaphragm missing and only one semi-functioning, undersized and partially collapsed lung. Surgery was done the next day to rebuild the diaphragm. But there was nothing they could do to restore the lungs. We were told he would likely not survive more than a few days before his lung wore out from being on the highest level of the ventilator.

We were desperate. We asked every question. Explored every option. We arranged for him to be baptized before his surgery. My wife thought if the bishop did the baptism that might help. So she called him and insisted he come immediately. And he did. Like the father in today’s story, she was a very desperate and very insistent parent. Our son clung on for two weeks before his lung function began to deteriorate. I was home minding out other children and Kathy was keeping vigil when the call came. I dropped the children off at the home of friends who lived near the hospital, and hurried in to say my goodbyes to our son.

We waited with him all through the night and the next day. He did not improve, but he also has stopped deteriorating. And then his lung began slowly to strengthen and the ventilator was turned down ever so slightly. Against all odds he turned a corner. He was going to make it. But it was a horrible and frightening time in which we felt both desperate and helpless. And that is how the father in today’s story is feeling.

He is so desperate, in fact, that when he hears Jesus is in Cana, he gets some men together, and sets out immediately to find Jesus.

Now there are a couple of points that we should take note of. Firstly, how does the man know about Jesus? Jesus had just begun his ministry and the only thing he had done in Galilee before heading to Jerusalem was the turning of water to wine in Cana. It is not the sort of occurrence that would likely have been taken note of in King Herod’s court. What is more likely is that reports had preceded Jesus’ return to Galilee. During the two days Jesus lingered in Samaria, messengers surely would have come to King Herod’s court to report that a Galilean preacher had made a big scene in the temple, casting out all the money changers, and had performed many miracles. This would have been of special interest to Herod and his officials who had only recently dealt with the last troublesome Galilean preacher, John the Baptist. So this court official likely had only in the past few days, that is, after the onset of his son’s serious illness, heard of Jesus of Nazareth.

The second thing to note is the risk the man was taking in going to Jesus. His boss, King Herod, had arrested and then executed John. The same John who had pointed to Jesus as his ‘successor’. Now Jesus, who many were saying was John the Baptist come back to life, perhaps to see justice and vengeance against Herod, was seemingly picking up where John had left off. It is unlikely that Herod would have been pleased for one of his high officials to go to Jesus for help. And it is very unlikely that the man had sought Herod’s approval. His son’s life hung in the balance. He was willing to deal with the consequences of his going to Jesus later.

When the man finds Jesus, he does not ask him to come and help his son. He begs him.

Jesus responds to the man using the plural for ‘you’, hence speaking to the entire crowd, including his disciples. ‘’Unless you see sings and wonders you will not believe.” This is not a promising response for the desperate father, but he persists.

‘Sir, come down to Capernaum before my little boy dies!’

Then Jesus says, ‘Go. Your son will live.’

And the man believe the words Jesus spoke to him and starts for home.

And this is interesting. The father did not ask for proof. He did not ask how Jesus knew his son would live. But he believed Jesus was telling the truth and started straight for home, so eager was he to return to the side of his son. But it was already afternoon and he would not make it back that night. So he camps with his men along the way and gets up to continue the journey early the next morning.

At the same time, back in Capernaum, something both remarkable and unexpected has happened. The fever left the boy who was near death. And some of the man’s servants were so keen to tell him the good news that they left immediately to head for Cana, for they knew where their master had gone and why.  They likely would have met up along the narrow, rocky path through the hill country of Galilea sometime just before noon the next day. The man’s servants share with him the good news and he rejoices. Then he asks the question, ‘When did the fever break?’ And they tell him that is was about 1 p.m. the previous day, the very hour in which Jesus had said to him, ‘Your son will live.’

Now this is the key point to this miracle story and the one we often overlook. It is why the man went from believing the words Jesus said to him about his son, to he and his whole family believing in Jesus himself.

A prophet or soothsayer could perhaps predict that someone might recover from a serious illness. And as Jesus was clearly something along those lines from all reports the man had heard, and he said with such confidence that his son would live, the man believed his words.

But when he learned that his son suddenly recovered at the very time that Jesus had said he would, it was immediately apparent that Jesus and not successfully predicted his son’s recovery. Jesus had caused it. He had healed him. This was a whole other level from simple prediction. Not only that, but he had done so from a distance. There was no precedent for this.

And this is the point John wants to make. It is why this is one of only seven miracles of Jesus he chooses to tell us about. Like the changing of water to wine, it is not a spectacular miracle. There was nothing for the crowd present to see. But it is a sign of who Jesus is. In all the biblical miracle accounts, healings and other miracles only take place when the one God is working through is immediately present. There are no healings or miracles at a distance. But Jesus heals this boy from thirty kilometres away. In this second sign we see once more that in Jesus we are not simply dealing with a miracle worker or a prophet, even a very great one. Something much bigger is happening here. God himself is living and acting among us.

And so the man goes from believing the words Jesus has spoken to believing in Jesus.

And that is the challenge still for us today. Jesus speaks wise and good words. We have many of them recorded in the Gospels. We can easily believe Jesus is the speaker of truth, without really believing in Jesus himself. It is the difference between knowledge and faith. The desperate father understood that his son would live. He understood that Jesus spoke the truth. The next day he came to have faith that Jesus was God in flesh, and he and his whole family became followers of Jesus, despite the risks.

And the challenge and call is that we too move from simply believing what Jesus says to believing in who Jesus is for us. May we move from a knowledge about Jesus to faith in Jesus – as faith so strong, that like the father in the story we cannot help but to tell our family and friends about Jesus.

May we go from looking for a miracle, like the father in the story, to understanding that Jesus is the miracle. God in human flesh, come to dwell among us.


Pastor Mark Worthing.
Port Macquarie.