Sunday, May 17th
Then Jesus came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine. Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. Then Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my little boy dies.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way. As he was going down, his slaves met him and told him that his child was alive. So he asked them the hour when he began to recover, and they said to him, “Yesterday at one in the afternoon the fever left him.” The father realized that this was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he himself believed, along with his whole household. Now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee.
One of the impressive things I’ve observed during this unprecedented time of crisis is the response of the National Guard, which has sent nearly 47,000 of its members to communities in all 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia. In New York, for instance, in response to the growing epidemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order for the National Guard to retrieve unused ventilators and medical supplies from hospitals and health-care facilities, re-locating them to the areas of greatest need. Without delay, and with efficiency, the National Guard accepted their assignment and performed it, heading off an even greater catastrophe. Around the country the Guard has quietly assisted at testing sites, distributed food and medical supplies, set up shelters, trained responders in PPE use, and even worked on proactive wildfire prevention in anticipation of the coming wildfire season. It is stirring to see these men and women taking their assignments and doing them in ways that are admirable and effective. Today’s story spotlights the discipline of such an official.
Today, we are once again journeying with that beloved disciple named John. John, as we have already discovered, is a remarkable guide — a writer who uses his pen in much the same manner that an artist uses a paint brush. In fact, the Gospel of John reminds me of an impressionist painting, such as a Monet. I mean, the first time you come in contact with John’s work you are drawn to it and feel a relationship to it. And with each subsequent visit your appreciation grows. The closer you get, you become enamored with the man’s genius . . . of how precise each stroke is in itself and how they all come together to glorify the whole. I think this was John’s method in painting a portrait of Jesus.
As you will remember, John fashions his Gospel around seven signs, seven first-hand experiences that for him illustrate the fact that Jesus is Lord. Today’s sign, the second of these seven, deals with a miracle of healing. However, the miracle takes place in such a non-spectacular sort of way that we almost miss it. And because of that, I am intrigued that John would call this miracle a sign.
John places this story in Cana. In fact, he is quite explicit about that, mentioning it twice, reminding us that it is the locale of Jesus’ first sign, the turning of water into wine at the wedding. The person who comes to Jesus is a member of Herod’s court, differing from Matthew and Luke’s stories where he is described as a centurion. Some have speculated that he was none other than Chuza, Herod’s chief steward. And his request, in John’s Gospel is not for a slave, but for his own son. Furthermore, John’s rendition of this experience is interesting in the fact that, while he calls this a sign, he provides such an uncharacteristic lack of detail (…and John is usually big on detail!). It would seem that John felt that the story was already well-known. Thus, it would prove helpful, I think, to re-read Matthew (8:5-13) or Luke’s Gospel (7:1-10) in addition to reading our Scripture Lesson for the day. I suggest that in order that we might get a fuller flavor of what it was that was so important for John.
As we get ready to hear John, let me note a couple of things to help in our listening. First of all, there is an unmistakable similarity in form to the first sign . . . Jesus is asked for a miracle; he seems to say no; and then he performs the miracle, but in a way that draws little public attention to himself. And like the first sign, Jesus’ response to the request seems so abrupt, almost rude. “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” That does seem cold, but it would help us to know that the “you” used here is plural. Jesus isn’t addressing the man who comes in need; he is addressing those who had begun to follow him because of his miracles. Also noteworthy is that word which is vintage Johannine, “believe.” This word is a microcosm of his entire Gospel, because there is more here than meets the eye. Belief as recorded in John’s Gospel is not just an intellectual assent, it is a matter of personal trust.
Jesus’ first two signs, as related by John, are interesting in the fact that they are “quiet” miracles. Both were moments that some people notice, but for the most part they were overlooked. And I guess that is what makes me stop and think. Why was it that Jesus offered grace in such a quiet, unnoticed way? Wouldn’t more people have been drawn to the Kingdom with just a little more exposure? If Jesus had been running a campaign, he could have gotten more votes by just being a bit more public. But maybe that understanding is integral to the sign itself. As author N.T. Wright says, “The Word has become flesh. But supposing people admire the flesh so much that they forget about the Word?” Jesus is intent on making a distinction between that which honors God and that which honors himself.
Phil Donahue once saw that distinction made in a very tangible way. In his autobiography, he tells about a time when he was sent on assignment by CBS News to cover a mine disaster that had occurred in western Kentucky. It was late at night. Snow was on the ground, and the rescue team was working feverishly in the mine. Up above, worried relatives and friends waited for some word about their loved ones. And then, ironically enough, someone began to sing. It was an old country preacher and his song was, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” His deep, bass voice bellowed, “What a friend we have in Jesus all our sins and griefs to bear; what a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.” It was amazing. A hush came over the crowd, and people pulled together and bowed their heads. Donahue said that it was such a moving experience that it gave him goose bumps. Quickly, he got his camera to shoot the scene. But it was cold, so cold that he couldn’t get his camera to work. And before you knew it, the preacher was finished with his song and prayer. Undaunted, Phil went over and asked the elderly man if he would repeat his song for him. He told him that he was a television reporter and that he represented 260 stations across America. He told the old preacher that several million people would be able to see and hear him pray and sing, and that it would be a wonderful chance for him and the Gospel. But to Donahue’s utter surprise, the old man said no. “No?” Donahue exclaimed, “What do you mean, no?” The old preacher said, “I’ve already prayed and it wouldn’t be right to repeat it.” “But look, you misunderstand,” Donahue countered, “I’m from CBS News and all of America is watching, and it would be a wonderful opportunity to let people see what a special community this is.” But the old preacher wouldn’t budge, and Donahue never got his piece. Nevertheless, it was such a moving experience for Donahue that he relates it in his autobiography, saying, “The guy wouldn’t show biz for Jesus. He wouldn’t sell his soul for TV, not even for CBS!” Donahue said that in that simple man, in his faith-filled act, he saw a freedom and a depth and a goodness like never before.
I think John witnessed something like that in Cana. Sure enough, Jesus could have made a big thing about it, but he didn’t. He let the grace work for itself. And that was enough. And maybe that is part of the sign. You have to pay attention and notice it for yourself. This personal dimension is what makes it a sign. It seems that God is not into big promotions; God is into personal encounters!
Dr. David Livingstone understood that. As you know, he was one of the first missionaries to work in Africa. Shortly after he arrived there, he received a letter from a missionary society here in the States. The letter read, “Have you found a good road to where you are? If so, we want to know so that we can send others to you.” Livingstone sent back the following reply, “If you have persons who will come only if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them at all. I want persons who are strong and courageous and who will come if there is no road at all.”
The way of the Kingdom is not a way made clear by unbelievable miracles seen by all. No, the way to the Kingdom is found in ways that most people see and hear, but don’t pay attention to. The signs of God are not conspicuous, but they are not hidden either. They will, though, require our utmost attention and our unequivocal trust. If we could muster such faith, it would be a sign for the times, don’t you think?
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: An Excerpt from William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”