Thursday, December 29, 2011

30 December: Man of miracles or Man of his word?

Opening Sentence
Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:10, 11

Commemoration: Josephine Butler
Let your continual mercy, O Lord, kindle in your Church the never-failing gift of love, that, following the example of your servant Josephine Butler, we may have grace to defend the poor, and maintain the cause of those who have no helper; for the sake of him who gave his life for us, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Psalter: Psalm 20, 21

Lessons: 1 Kings 17:17-24, 3 John, John 4:46-54

Idolatry is born of the fallen human desire to see that in which we believe. It is so much easier to place our faith in a visible image created by our hands than it is to trust in the invisible God who created us in his image. One of the major themes in John’s Gospel is summed up in Jesus’ words to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

Even though the “gods” we make in our image are, as Jeremiah points out, “no gods” and “worthless" (cf. Jeremiah 2:1-13), the human desire for a visible object of worship overcomes us more often than we would like to admit. The result, as Paul goes to great lengths to explain in Romans 1, is disastrous. We worship created things, we become like created things. We worship that which is worthless, we become worthless.

Jesus was certainly aware of this all too common human failing. When he began performing signs and wonders, John tells us, “many believed in his name.” But Jesus did not “entrust himself to them” because “he himself knew what was in man” (cf. John 2:23-25). That is, he knew those who were believing him because of the signs and wonders were believing in him for all the wrong reasons. So it should not come across as shocking or inconsiderate that Jesus said to the official who pleaded with him to heal his dying son, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” Was this a man, like so many others whose faith was misplaced, or was there a depth to his faith which was lacking in those who merely wanted to see some miracle?

The man persisted: “Sir, come down before my son dies.”

Jesus probed the depths of the man’s faith: “Go; your son will live.”

Had this man placed his faith in what Jesus did, or in who Jesus was? “The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way.”

Here, at last, was a man who was willing to believe without seeing, to walk by faith and not by sight. He “believed the word that Jesus spoke to him,” and without making any further demands, he “went on his way.” By the time he arrived home the next day, he learned the happy news that his son was well on his way to a full recovery, and that the healing began the day before, at the very hour Jesus had said, “Your son will live.” As a result, the man and his whole household put their faith in Jesus, not because he was a “man of miracles,” but because he was a man of his word.

To the Western mind, a “word-based faith” sounds much like legalistic fundamentalism. It connotes a hard rationalism with little use for the signs and wonders so often associated with what is often called an “experiential faith.” Yet, in this biblical context, the opposite is true. Those who placed their faith in the signs and wonders were the hard rationalists who, like Thomas, refused to believe without seeing. But the man who “believed the word that Jesus spoke to him” was the one who was able, ultimately, to have a faith so substantive and real that he saw Jesus’ word fulfilled in the healing of his son.

Faith in the visible is a shallow faith which inevitably leads to idolatry. To be genuine, faith must look beyond the visible to the realm of the invisible; beyond this world and into the world to come. The signs and wonders Jesus performed were not ends in themselves. They were means by which he sought to draw attention to the Father, whose love for those he created in his image was so infinite that he would go to the extent of intervening in human history to save them through the sacrifice of his own Son, the Word made flesh.

Jesus’ signs and wonders were not “supernatural” events involving the temporary suspension of the laws of nature. That definition of “miracles” owes more to Enlightenment philosophy, which sought to de-emphasize them or explain them away. These signs were, instead, eschatological events bringing forward into the present God’s future promise to restore all things.

As paradoxical as it may seem, faith in Jesus as a “man of miracles” is a faith misplaced in the present, where sin and sorrow, sickness and death still reign, but “miracles happen” to make us feel good about ourselves. Faith in Jesus as a man of his word is a faith which looks beyond the present, fallen state of things toward the day when, according to God’s infallible Word, sin and sorrow, sickness and death will forever be a thing of the past. This fallen world will be redeemed. This mortal body will be clothed with immortality. This is the promise which we believe without seeing because this is the Word of the Lord!


Do You Hear What I Hear