Trinity 21 Sermon, 2016
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
All of our understanding of today’s Gospel lesson hinges on two seemingly out of place questions.
First: What difference does it make if a verb is past, present, or future tense? Or, to ask it a different way, Why does grammar matter?
And second: What does a stop sign mean?
What does a stop sign mean? It doesn’t mean “Stop.” It means “Stop. Then, when appropriate, go.”
Believe it or not, we have a hard time understanding even the simplest signs.
A red light means what? Stop.
A yellow light means what? Go faster? Yield?
What does a green light mean? Go? Perhaps. A green light means “If certain conditions are met, when appropriate, go.” A green light doesn’t mean you can cut through a parade or a funeral procession or push the slow-moving cars out of your way. Most often, if signs are always interpreted in a simple and plain way, you’ll miss the nuance behind it.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus says to the official (and he’s really a nobleman, the word means “royal official”), Jesus says, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (John 4:48). This is a rebuke. We’ll talk about this more as we go, but right off the bat, signs are bad. It’s as if Jesus says, “You don’t need signs and wonders, nevertheless, because of your hardness of heart, you will not believe unless you get what you want.”
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:39). Signs are, again, bad.
But John’s gospel is different in many ways. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the “synoptic gospels.” They have the same eye; they look at things the same way. And John’s gospel doesn’t.
John shows Jesus performing signs for the benefit of the people. His first was turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, and that’s referenced in the first verse of today’s gospel lesson. The second sign Jesus performs is healing the nobleman’s son. Today’s last verse: “This was now the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee” (John 4:54).
We are used to signs telling us to do very specific things.
A stop sign means stop. A green light means go. Traffic signs tell you to do something with your car. Billboards tell you to do something with your wallet. Yard signs tell you to do something with your vote. Signs, the way we understand them, are commands to do something.
The signs that Jesus performs are not commands to do, to buy, or to vote. The signs that Jesus performs exhort and invite us to believe.
John writes, “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).
This is exactly how you interpret signs. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, believe in Him, and you have life in His name.
That Jesus turns water into wine doesn’t mean that the Christian’s wedding feast will be particularly opulent.
That He heals the nobleman’s son doesn’t mean that every sick child will be brought back to good health.
Water into wine shows us the opulence of the wedding feast of Christ, the groom, and the Church, His bride.
Healing the nobleman’s son shows us the good health of the resurrection and more! Jesus says, before He raises Lazarus, the seventh sign in John’s gospel, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).
So signs don’t tell you what your earthly life will look like. Signs show you Jesus, the Christ, and exhort and invite you to believe in Him unto life everlasting.
Now the grammar question.
We understand past tense. I ate the cheeseburger. We understand future tense. I will eat the cheeseburger. But even though we use it all the time, present tense sounds weird to us. I eat the cheeseburger.
That weirdness aside, we understand. Ate, in the past. Will eat, in the future. Eat, in the present.
Now, turn this into a theological example: I was saved. I will be saved. I am saved. I was a child of God. I will be a child of God. I am a child of God.
Of those, which one do you want to be true for yourself? In every case, you want the present tense to be true. The past tense examples are true, but they might only describe yesterday. The worst is the future tense. No Christian sleeps soundly saying “I will be saved some day.”
What’s really interesting is when this comes up in our hymns.
You’ve heard the hymn “Jesus Loves Me,” right? In our hymnals, the second stanza begins this way: “Jesus loves me! He who died / Heaven’s gates to open wide / He has washed away my sin / Lets His little child come in.”
But if you look at that hymn in almost any other denomination’s hymnal, the words are very different. Most other denominations sing it this way: “Jesus loves me! He who died / Heaven’s gates to open wide / He will wash away my sin / Let His little child come in.”
Every time I think about this I get angry, because the way other churches sing this hymn, they don’t believe Jesus has washed away a child’s sin, they don’t believe that a child yet has salvation.
We sing: “He has washed away my sin. [He] Lets His little child come in. Yes, Jesus loves me!” The proof that Jesus loves me is the fact that He washed away my sins and lets me come in.
Most everyone else sings: “He will wash away my sin. [He will] Let His little child come in.” Those words are followed with “Yes, Jesus loves me,” but what proof is offered since Jesus will do those things but He hasn’t yet?
It seems like I’m wasting time talking about grammar, right?
When I start talking about grammar, most people are just waiting for me to say “Amen.” But here’s why this matters.
When I read today’s gospel lesson, I read it as it’s printed in the ESV, the NIV, and most other English translations, but that’s not what Jesus says.
Jesus doesn’t say, “Go, your son will live.” Literally, Jesus says, “Go, your son lives” (John 4:50).
You see, the nobleman wants Jesus to dance like a trained monkey. On command. For a price. When and where it pleases him, not God.
The nobleman sees the signs as promises for earthly life.
The real problem is that he’s turned his son’s life into an idol. His son isn’t an idol; his son’s life is an idol. “When this [nobleman] heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went to him and asked him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death” (John 4:46).
He wants the monkey to dance. He wants a sign as it pleases him, according to the desires of his heart. He wants God apart from God’s Word and promise. That is idol worship.
“So Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe’” (John 4:48). The man has immature faith. He knows Jesus has done great things; however, he doesn’t want Jesus—he wants the great things.
“The [nobleman] said to him, ‘Sir, come down before my child dies.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your son lives.’ [And] the man believed the word that Jesus poke to him and went on his way” (John 4:49-50).
The heading in your Bible will tell you that these verses are about Jesus healing an official’s son, and Jesus certainly heals him.
Part of the sign, certainly, is the recovery of the sick son, but I think we’re too quick to jump to that. The sign must also include the fact that the man who had immature faith at best, the man who wanted Jesus to dance for him, this man hears Jesus’ word and believes.
“Your son lives.”
This isn’t a doctor coming to you after a risky operation saying, “You’ll live.” While good, that’s not this.
This is God coming to you with all your sins burdening your conscience, this is God coming to you saying, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die, and you, my dear child, you live. Present tense.”
You can ignore pleasure. You can’t ignore pain.
Jesus uses the pain of the father to rip away the idol of his son’s life.
The nobleman finally believes that there’s hope even if his son dies, because Jesus says, “Your son lives.”
He wanted something like the wine from Cana. He forgot that all that wine is surely gone.
He wanted his son’s health. He forgot that even the healthiest among us eventually fade.
He needed something that endures forever.
So Jesus speaks. And the man believed His Word, because “the word of the Lord endures forever” (1 Peter 1:25, NIV).
His steadfast love endures forever. His righteousness endures forever. His praise endures forever. His faithfulness endures forever. His righteous judgments endure forever. His name endures forever (cf. Psalm 136; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; Psalm 117; Psalm 119:160; Psalm 135:13).
The sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of the whole world endures forever.
When Jesus says something, when Jesus does something. Believe it.
What He says to the father, what He does for the son, is true for you, because Jesus says, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). And because Jesus Himself is raised from the dead.
This is why grammar matters. This is how to read the signs.
“These [things] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you [definitely] have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).
In Jesus’ name, Amen!