St Michael’s 19th March 2017
Readings – Romans 4: 16-25; John 4:43-54
I wanted to show you this particular Youtube clip for a number of reasons:
First of all, may I encourage you to pray for the Archbishop of Canterbury? To our great shame, the Church of England is behaving rather like a dysfunctional family at the moment – with groups of people pushing forward their own agendas, not prepared to listen to anyone else, and certainly not behaving with the love and grace that Jesus expects of His followers. Personally I believe we are approaching a point where the church will split into two mutually exclusive factions, and somehow the Archbishop is at the centre of it all, trying to hold everything together. So please pray for Archbishop Justin, for him to have the wisdom and the strength only Jesus can give in the months and years that lie ahead.
Secondly, this clip is a promotional video for the second Thy Kingdom Come event, which is happening from Ascension Day 25th May to Pentecost 4th June. I will be coming back to this at the end of the sermon, because as I hope will become clear prayer needs to be at the very heart of our efforts to reach out with the good news.
And thirdly, I wanted to show this clip to remind us again of the simple fact that Jesus changes lives. We’re not here today because we are part of a religious club, or because we want to catch up with our friends and neighbours. We are here today because we are the church, that is literally, a people belong to the Lord, and we have come in the expectation that this same Lord Jesus will meet with us, change and transform us, as He comes amongst us now.
So the first question I want to ask this morning is this: how exactly does Jesus change lives?
Now I realise it’s very easy to look at a film about the Archbishop of Canterbury and think it’s all very well for him to talk about Jesus. After all, he is a public figure, and a man of God. Of course you’d expect him to have a story to share. Or maybe you’ve recently heard the testimony of someone whose life was turned right around, a career criminal, maybe, or a murderer, who suddenly met with Jesus and changed dramatically overnight. And perhaps you’ve thought, Jesus has never come to me like that. I’m not an important person. I don’t have a dramatic story of conversion.
My message to you is that if you have a story of how you came to faith in Jesus, your story is just as important as anyone else’s. We can so easily fall into the trap that miracles or stories of famous people are what really count, as if somehow the more spectacular the experience, the more impressive they are to God. And that’s simply not true.
In our reading today Jesus is very careful to describe miracles as signs and wonders, in v.48: “Unless you people see (miraculous) signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.” (Quite why our translation decides to add the word miraculous is anyone’s guess – it really is quite unhelpful). Now the whole point of a sign is that it points to something else. When you are driving along in a car and you see a stop sign, your first thought is not to admire the beauty of the sign, maybe take a picture of it and post it on Instagram or Facebook. At least I hope not. No, when you see the sign, you read it and you do what it says. It tells you to stop and so you stop.
In the same kind of way Jesus wants to teach us that miracles are not an end in themselves, but rather that they point to something else. Yes, we may want to pause for a moment and praise the God who works in such mysterious and powerful ways, and I for one am certainly grateful for the way I was once healed by the laying of hands. But the purpose of miracles is that they should point us to the presence of Jesus, and inspire us to put our faith and trust in Him. Because actually the greatest and most important work Jesus can do in anyone’s life is quite unseen, and that is to change our hearts. Someone is dramatically healed, that is wonderful. But the person who was healed will one day in some other way fall sick and die. Someone who is quietly converted, when there’s no-one else around, and who will never make the news headlines, that is even more marvellous. Because the moment that person accepts Jesus as their Saviour, they receive the gift of eternal life, a gift which is stronger even that death itself.
It’s important to understand this point if we want to make sense of today’s passage. Because at first glance verses 43-45 are rather puzzling: After the two days he left for Galilee. (Now Jesus himself had pointed out that a prophet has no honour in his own country.) When he arrived in Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him. They had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, for they also had been there. John goes out of his way here to say that the Galileans welcomed him while also throwing in the comment about Jesus recognising that a prophet has no honour in his own country. So how do we tie up this apparent contradiction?
We need to realise that the Galileans only welcomed Jesus because they wanted to see wonderful things going on. They had heard what had been happening down south, and now they wanted to taste some of the action. What they weren’t prepared to do, however, was to recognise one of their own, Jesus, as Saviour and as King. They might admire His miracles but they weren’t about worship Him as Lord. Faith for them was like a kind of spectator sport, where they would look on and praise God when something wonderful happened, but they wouldn’t engage with Jesus on His terms.
And sad to say, I believe there are some who rather like the Galileans even today. They may have had an emotional experience where they have seen God at work. They may be able to describe and praise what He has done in their lives. But even so, they have never actually given their heart over to Jesus. And because their faith rests on an experience, rather than a settled trust in Jesus as Saviour and as King, sadly, all too often such faith as they profess often falls away when the going gets tough.
Actually, though, I realise I am being a little harsh on the Galileans. Because there was one among the Galileans who did have faith and who was prepared to engage with Jesus on His terms. Let’s read on to verses 46-47:
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. 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.
Now we don’t know anything much about this certain royal official, but his actions reveal so much about his attitude towards Jesus. Jesus had arrived in Cana, a town somewhere in the hills of Galilee. Capernaum was down by the lake, and if Cana is the modern town of Kafr Kanna, then it was about 38 km away – at least according to Google maps. For such a long, hot journey you may well have expected this official to send a servant. But no, he went in person, because he recognised the importance and authority of Jesus. And when he arrived, he didn’t give Jesus an order, even though he was a VIP – he begged Jesus to come. This was a man who was willing to give up his dignity and his status before someone he acknowledged as greater than himself.
Furthermore, whoever he is, he isn’t put off by Jesus’ warning to the onlooking Galileans who are presumably hoping to see some kind of spectacle. Verse 49: Sir, come down before my child dies. For this person to call Jesus Sir – or possibly Lord – when he himself is a royal official is truly astonishing. But what happens next is even more extraordinary.
Verse 50: Jesus replied, “You may go. Your son will live.” The man took Jesus at his word and departed. Now if someone simply told you to leave at this point, would you go? Your son is at death’s door. You have gone all this way to seek the only help you have left. And you have, in effect, been told simply to trust and believe. As I read this verse, I really find myself wondering what I would have done in this situation. Yet something about Jesus made this man trust what he said, and so he left. He was willing to go back alone, on a long, hot journey, just because Jesus had said his son would live. And so he went.
This remarkable encounter helps to answer my second question this morning, namely: what is faith? From this passage, and from our passage in Romans, we can see that faith is believing in the promises of Jesus, no matter what situation you face.
If we were to translate verse 50 literally, it would read: The man believed the word which Jesus said to him. Now I guess we all know it can be a risky business to believe someone else’s words. We can all think of situations where what we’ve been told hasn’t been quite right. Maybe we’ve been tricked or manipulated. Maybe we’ve been sold a lie. It’s not really surprising that quite often we find it hard to believe the words other people say to us.
But Jesus’s words are different because they are the words of God. God isn’t out to trick us or manipulate us. His words are truth and they are life. Therefore we have all the more reason to love and treasure the word of God, because we can stand on every promise of his word. Therefore we have all the more reason to act on His word, because no matter what happens to us, Jesus’ word can be trusted.
So in our reading from John’s gospel, the royal official left because he claimed the promise Jesus made to him. That promise was more valuable than any spectacular miracle or divine intervention. It was a guarantee from God Himself of life and of healing. In our reading from Romans we hear how Abraham trusted God that he would have a son, even though he and his wife were well past their best before date. Romans 4:19-21 tells us: Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead – since he was about a hundred years old–and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.
Now I don’t know exactly what kind of situation you are going through this morning. I expect some of you are facing some very tough times. Maybe you are not sure where to turn or what is going to happen next. My question to you is: are you still reading God’s word? I know from my own experience that when the chips are down, it can be very easily to stop reading the Bible, to stop claiming the promises of God’s words to us. Actually when we face a really difficult situation, turning to the Bible should be the first, and not the last thing, we should do. If that’s too hard to do on your own, or you don’t know where to begin, find a friend who will help you, or join a small group. God’s word is for you. Jesus wants to speak to you His truth and He wants you to act on His promises. No matter your situation, no matter what you are facing – God hasn’t stopped loving you and caring for you.
And notice one more thing about this royal official. Verses 51-53: While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living. When he enquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “The fever left him yesterday at the seventh hour.” Then the father realised that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and all his household believed.
When one person steps out in faith, the effect on those around them can be dramatic. Statistics show that for some reason when in particular a man comes to faith, often the whole family follows suit. And this is what happens here. The man has staked his son’s life on Jesus’ word, and as he sees how Jesus has so wonderfully intervened, his whole family comes to a living faith.
Meanwhile back in Cana the Galileans were still waiting for a miracle. Few, if any, would have understood why Jesus didn’t go. Few, if any, would have understood why this royal official took Jesus at his word. John is usually very careful to record when people put their trust in Jesus and there is no evidence here that any of them came to a saving faith.
And I guess we all know people like the Galileans today, people who do not recognise the power and authority of Jesus and will not listen to His word. So how should we respond? I think it is important to say right away that ultimately we cannot change the hearts of those around us. Ultimately only Jesus can bring them to that point where they believe and trust in Him. Our part is to bring these people constantly and consistently to the Lord in prayer, asking that He might have mercy and show our family, our friends, our neighbours His underserved love and grace.
That is why, to finish, I want to talk about our future Thy Kingdom Come event. This is period of ten days between Ascension Day, May 25th, and Pentecost, June 4th, when churches up and down the country are committing to pray for their local communities. So first of all, can I ask you to keep those dates free? How good it would be if every church member came together and spent time asking Jesus to bring new life to those we know and love. And secondly, over the next couple of week, let’s ask Jesus how we should best use that time. My ideas would include prayer walking, visiting local schools and businesses, going door to door. But let’s really all spend some time getting a clear vision of what the Lord wants us to do. Next time your small group meets or when you have a coffee with a friend. Talk about Thy Kingdom Come and what you would like to see happen. The new PCC are meeting to discuss the event on 4 Apr, and we would love to have your ideas and insights.
Because of these three things we can be sure. Jesus still is in the business of changing lives. He still calls people to a living and saving faith. He still loves to hear the prayers of his faithful people. So today let us have a new expectancy of what Jesus can do. Let’s look forward to hearing many stories of people who have taken Jesus at His word and so discovered the new life only He can bring. And let’s start today by a new commitment to prayer so that God’s kingdom might come. For the sake of His glorious name.