John 4:46-54 & Romans 1:1-7

Signs of the times

In the introduction of his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul describes himself as someone who was sent by God to “call the Gentiles to faith and obedience”. It is this call that we’re exploring tonight. We don’t know if the official that Jesus spoke to was, himself, a Gentile, but we do know that faith and obedience were central to his conversation with Jesus.

Before we dive into the details of that conversation, though, let’s just take stock of where we are in John’s account of the good news of Jesus’ life. One of the motifs that keeps recurring in John is that of the signs that Jesus performed throughout his ministry. Many of the conversations that Jesus has with the crowds and religious leaders revolve around the signs he performs, or chooses not to perform. John is selective about which signs he records, and this selection is made with a purpose. Towards the end of his book, in chapter 20, he writes this,

“Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

So, for John, the purpose of signs is always to encourage belief, faith, that leads to salvation. Let’s keep that in mind as we look more closely at our reading tonight.

In a slightly contrary way, we’re going to start at the end, where we read that this was the second sign that Jesus performed. Which does rather beg the question, what was the first? Well, if we flick back to Chapter 2, v11 we read this, “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples put their faith in him.” What was it that Jesus had done in Cana? He had turned water into wine at a wedding feast. His mother had seen a need and believed that Jesus could meet it, the servants had obeyed, doing what Jesus had told them, a miracle had happened, and faith was the result.

Since then, Jesus had been been down to Jerusalem to clear the temple courts, and have the conversation with Nicodemus that Neil explored with us a fortnight ago. On the journey home, he’d stopped by a well and had a conversation with a Samaritan woman, and encouraged his disciples to look at the harvest ripe fields. Now he’s back in Cana – the scene of that first sign, which John reminds us of at the beginning of the story, priming us to start looking for the next sign.

Having established that Jesus is in Cana, John takes us 25 miles away to Capernaum to meet a royal official. We don’t know his name, or much about him at all, but his title does suggest some things about him. If we were in Kings Lynn and we met someone who described their job as being a Royal Official, it would not be a huge leap to work out that they probably worked at Sandringham, and probably not in the gardens. In the same way, the nearest royal household to the area of Capernaum was that of Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, and tetrarch of Galilee. It was this Herod who persecuted John the Baptist, and was involved in the trials of Jesus before his crucifixion.

We know from elsewhere in the New Testament that there were followers of Jesus in Herod’s household. In Luke we read of Joanna, wife of Chuza, one of Herod’s stewards, who supported Jesus’ ministry financially, and in Acts we read of Manaen, a Christian in Antioch who had been brought up with Herod the Tetrarch.

So, it is not a huge leap to suggest that this royal official was probably an important person in the household of Herod.

Why is this significant? Well, if nothing else it reminds us that wealth and positions of worldly influence are no guard against trouble and heartache. When all that is stripped away, we all stand equal before our God. But I think that there may be more than that.

Does Jesus’ response to the father worried for his sick child strike you as a bit odd? Callous, uncaring, even? If not, just imagine for a moment that it’s not Jesus, and you overhear this conversation between someone looking for help, and someone who can provide it. It really isn’t very kind on the face of it. So what’s going on?

Well, if we look at Luke’s account of Jesus’ trial before Herod, we might get a clue. Luke writes, in chapter 23, “When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort.”

Now, this did happen some time after the episode we’re looking at this evening, but I do wonder if Herod, and by extension his household, had got a reputation, even at this stage for looking for signs and portents, not because they needed help, or because they wanted to experience God, but for entertainment. Is it possible that Jesus was concerned that this might be an emissary from Herod looking for a magician to amuse his courtiers?

The officials response lays these possible concerns to rest with its simplicity and grave reality. “come down before my child dies.” All other considerations are out of the window for this man in the face of the impending death of his child. Just as the rich have troubles, so the young sometimes get sick and face death. We see it throughout Scripture, and we see it in our world now. None of us know when our life will end, or when we will have to give account, are we ready today?

In response to the man’s plea, Jesus tells him, “your Son will live”. This claim puts the man in an interesting position. You see, at each stage of this conversation Jesus challenges the man’s faith, and he has a decision to make.
We know that he started the day with enough faith in Jesus to travel 25 miles across the Galilean countryside, and to ask Jesus to come back with him to heal his son. Jesus challenges him in the way that we’ve already discussed, and the man reaffirms his faith by repeating his request to Jesus to come with him.

Now he has to decide if he has enough faith to believe Jesus, to obey him, and to set out back home on the strength of Jesus’ word that the healing had taken place. Jesus declaration of healing is as much a challenge to the man’s faith as it is a vindication of it.

The official decides that he will trust and obey, and sets off home. As he travels he meets his servants who are coming to tell him, “your son will live.” He asks when the recovery began, and discovered that it was when Jesus had made the declaration that it would be so. Just in passing, I think that it’s worth noticing that this meeting with the servants happened the next day. It wasn’t like the man set out from his conversation with Jesus, and five minutes later he met the servants who told him it was all fine. It was the next day – he’d had to spend a whole night – maybe travelling, maybe trying to sleep in a wayside hostel, wondering if he’d made the right call or not. Sometimes we have to wait between God saying something will happen, and it actually happening.

Anyway, they meet up, have this great realisation, and again we get this phrase “your son will live” and now faith overflows from the official to the whole of his household. As we go through this account, we move from the uncertain faith of one man (his household hadn’t gone with him after all), to the saving faith of a whole household, with each increase in faith marked by the refrain, “your son will live”

This was the second sign that Jesus performed – and John records them that we might believe and, believing, have life in his name.

Most of the signs that John writes about are like these first two, John is absolutely clear that they are signs, he says so in the text. The final one, however is indicated in a slightly more subtle way. In John chapter 2, following the clearing of the temple courts, Jesus is challenged by the religious rulers, who ask him “what sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” We know that Jesus was not referring to the temple building, he was talking about his death and resurrection, which he offers as a sign- not one that the people he was talking to would see for three years, but a sign nevertheless.

Then, in John chapters 19-20 we read of Jesus’ death and resurrection, culminating with the appearance to Thomas, an account which is threaded through with the theme of belief and disbelief, and finishes with Jesus saying to Thomas, “because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” And what’s the next verse? We’ve heard it this evening once already, “Jesus performed many other signs….” which suggests, to me, that what John has just been writing about is the final sign, the one that Jesus promised three years previously in the temple courts.

In this final sign, Jesus is the son facing, embracing, and defeating death for all who have faith and obey him. Having seen the Son die, God said, “My son will live” and he was resurrected. Because of this, we can all become God’s children, adopted into the family, and God will say over us, “My child will live.”

We don’t always see healing in this world. Everybody dies of something. When we do see healing, it is always a sign of God’s love and compassion and points us towards the Kingdom, it encourages and builds our faith. Some of us have been waiting for healing for ourselves or others for a long time, even longer than the night that the official had to wait. We have not seen, and yet we are blessed if we believe. If we continue in that faith, and in the obedience of God’s command to trust him, then we will experience the wholeness of life in all its fulness, with God, forever, in glory. “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

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