As hard as it is to believe, when we find ourselves in a place of utter helplessness—when we’ve reach the end of our ropes and realize that there’s nothing else we can do to help ourselves—this is often, surprisingly, an amazing place to be! Because this is the place where God’s grace meets us! This sermon explores this idea and more. Enjoy!
Sermon Text: John 4:43-54
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
Growing up, my friend Andy had a street sign hanging on his bedroom wall. It identified a street near where we lived; I don’t know how he got it or where he got it. But the sign hung on his wall, right next to the Christie Brinkley swimsuit poster. It was awesome—and the street sign was pretty cool too!
But I’m sure the people from the county who put the sign up originally didn’t want my friend to have it—in part because the county paid for it, and they had to replace it with a new one. And besides, the purpose of a sign isn’t to be displayed on the wall as a piece of art, as part of the decor of a teenage boy’s bedroom; the purpose of a sign is to point to something, to identify something, to give information about something. If you hang the sign on your wall because you like the way it looks, you’ve missed the point of the sign.
And that’s what these Galileans in today’s scripture have done. They’ve missed the point of Jesus’ “signs,” which is John’s name for the miracles that Jesus performs. So of course, as verse 45 says, the Galileans “welcome” Jesus; they roll out the red carpet for him; throw a parade for him when he returns home to Galilee. Why wouldn’t they welcome him like this? The local boy has made them proud; he’s done well. After all, did you see what he did a couple of weeks ago at the Passover festival in Jerusalem? Unbelievable… All those miracles he performed! And the way he drove away those merchants and money changers in the Temple! But especially the miracles! Everyone’s talking about the miracles! And he’s one of us! He’s a hometown boy!
So they welcomed Jesus, but they didn’t honor Jesus. That’s why John recalls Jesus’ saying, “a prophet has no honor in his hometown.” These Galileans were among those Jews that John describes at the end of chapter 2: “Many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” In other words, these people were believing in Jesus for the wrong reasons. They loved the signs he performed, but they missed the point of them; Jesus wasn’t a magician who had come to dazzle the people with these amazing tricks. He was the Savior of the World, the Lord of the universe, the Messiah, God in the flesh, the Word made flesh.
So John is telling us that unlike the Samaritans in last week’s scripture, who believed in Jesus wholeheartedly, who received the gospel message without reservation, who repented of their sins and were saved, the faith that the Galileans placed in Jesus, inasmuch as they had faith in him at all, was insufficient. And beginning in verse 46, John gives us an example of this insufficient kind of faith with the man who’s identified as a “royal official”—probably someone who worked for Herod Antipas, the man that the Romans had put in charge of the region.
This official, who lived 16 miles away from Cana in Capernaum, had a child—a son—who was dying. He knew Jesus was a miracle-worker—he had probably seen it for himself in Jerusalem a while ago. He heard Jesus was nearby in Cana. And he traveled there to see him. The man was desperate. His son was dying, and he couldn’t do anything to save him. So he goes to Jesus and pleads with him to come to his house in Capernaum, lay his hands on him, heal him. Because after all, his child is dying! And Jesus says something that may startle us. It may strike us as brusque, harsh, insensitive, lacking in compassion. After all, the official is desperate; his child is dying; and Jesus rebukes the man, saying, “Unless you see signs and wonders”—he actually says, “unless y’all see signs and wonders,” referring not only to the royal official, but to all the people who live near Jesus’ hometown—“unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”
So what was wrong with this man’s faith? How is he an example of the kind insufficient faith that John speaks of in verses 43 to 45?
To help us understand the official’s problem, I want to talk about former mixed martial arts champion Ronda Rousey. She is—from what I hear—one of three cover girls on last month’s Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. But that’s not why I want to talk about her! Last year, I talked about her in a sermon—after Sports Illustrated had named her the “world’s most dominant athlete.” And she had had quite a run at that point: the first US woman ever to win an Olympic medal in Judo; the youngest woman to ever qualify for the Olympics, at age 14; consistently one of the top 3 ranked judo champions in the world before transitioning into mixed martial arts, where she quickly dominated and became a world champion; going into November of last year, she was 12-0 as an MMA fighter, and only one fighter had ever even survived the first round…8 of her 12 challengers were defeated in less than a minute.
And then, in November 2015, she lost—badly. In two rounds. She was injured so badly that she had to be hospitalized for a while afterward. She won’t be eligible to fight again for a couple more months.
Last month, in an interview, she told Ellen Degeneres how depressed she was. She said, “I was literally sitting there and thinking about killing myself and at that exact second I’m like, ‘I’m nothing. What do I do anymore? And, no one [cares] about me anymore without this.’ ”
Her whole identity was inseparable from her image as the “most dominant athlete in the world.” Without this—if she couldn’t be this person—if she couldn’t have this identity—if she couldn’t be known for being this person, she was nothing! She was good for nothing. She was unlovable.
I don’t know what Ronda Rousey’s religious background is—if she professes any religion at all. But prior to her loss to Holly Holm last November, it is clear that she was a person of faith. It was a faith that was misplaced; it was a faith that was idolatrous; it was a faith that was kicking her butt on the inside even if she never got touched on the outside. And she might have professed faith in Jesus at the same time for all I know, but it’s clear that what she believed in most of all was herself—or at least this false image of herself… this image of being in control… of unmatched strength… of invulnerability… of self-reliance… of independence. That image is gone. Destroyed. That idol inside her heart is torn down. Her faith in herself is shattered. She now recognizes that she is helpless.
This is a wonderful place to be—or at least it can be! Just last week, I was listening to a recording of Paul Zahl, a favorite pastor and theologian of mine, say that in his experience counseling married couples, when they reach a place of utter helplessness—when they reach a place where they believe they themselves can do nothing to fix their broken marriage—that’s actually the best place to be because that’s where God’s grace comes in—and the marriage is only going to be fixed by the grace of God, anyway.
Here’s an illustration from my recent experience. Since my last physical, I’ve been monitoring and recording my blood pressure regularly, and I haven’t liked what I’ve seen. So two weeks ago, I finally broke down and went to my doctor, and I showed him my blood pressure readings, and I said, “I have to face facts: I have high blood pressure.” For years I thought it was just stress, or “white-coat” syndrome—you know, where it would be artificially high because a nurse or doctor was taking it—or not enough exercise, or poor diet. And if I just became less stressed, and exercised more, and ate better, and lost 15 lbs. then the blood pressure problem would take care of itself. But I reached a point two weeks ago at which I realized that there was nothing I else I could do to try to fix this problem. I was out of options. I was helpless to fix this problem. And so I went to my doctor, waving the white flag of surrender. I gave up. I surrendered: I’m placing my life, my health, in your hands, doctor. I’m trusting you completely to solve this problem. Do what you think is best, doctor.
Well, Jesus is our Great Physician, who came not to call the righteous but sinners—sinners like you and me. But the problem is, we’ll mostly only accept the help he offers after we’ve run out of every other option—when we realize there’s nothing else we can do; when we feel utterly helpless, weak, vulnerable, overwhelmed, and out of control. And that’s where God’s grace meets us every time!
C.S. Lewis writes about this aspect of God’s grace in his book The Problem of Pain:
I call this [graciousness on God’s part] a Divine humility because it is a poor thing to strike our colours to God when the ship is going down under us; a poor thing to come to Him as a last resort, to offer up ‘our own’ when it is no longer worth keeping. If God were proud He would hardly have us on such terms: but He is not proud, He stoops to conquer, He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him, and come to Him because there is ‘nothing better’ now to be had.
So it’s a wonderful place to be in—even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time! So getting back to Ronda Rousey… if she trusts in Jesus now, I’m confident that this terrible setback that she suffered last November will be one of the best things that ever happened to her!
My point in saying all that is, I believe Jesus is using this royal official’s crisis to bring him to that place of utter helplessness—to shatter his illusion of being in control. Because notice he tries his best to exert his control over Jesus. This official is a politically powerful man; he works for the local king; he has money and influence. He has friends in high places. He’s a man who’s used to getting what he wants. And when he asks Jesus for help, instead of Jesus jumping up and doing it, Jesus rebukes him—no one had ever done that before. And then Jesus doesn’t give him what he asks for: Notice that twice he asks Jesus to “come down” to Capernaum, 16 miles away, and heal his son. This official wants to see Jesus lay his hands on him because that’s the way a miracle is supposed to happen; so if Jesus lays his hands on him and it doesn’t work, he can try again or do something else. But notice: Jesus doesn’t come down to Capernaum. He simply tells him, “Go, your son will live.” We learn that this happens around one in the afternoon, which means that he couldn’t travel the whole way back before dark—16 miles is a long way to walk, unless you’re Perry Joiner and you have your Fitbit. So he has to wait until the next day to find out whether or not his son was really saved. That’s a long time to be anxiously waiting to see if your son is O.K. It’s as if Jesus were saying, “I know you don’t like this; I know it’s going to hurt; but you’ll just have to take my word for it that your son is O.K. Besides, you don’t really have a choice. You’re not in control here. I am.”
So here we see Jesus using this man’s suffering to strengthen his faith. He does the same for us! I was talking to a psychologist recently who said that research shows that we only grow as human beings when we suffer. Suffering can be very good for us.
Speaking of which, did you see that amazing eulogy that Monty Williams, an assistant coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team, gave at his wife’s funeral? His wife, Ingrid, died last month in a head-on car collision when a driver lost control of their car and swerved into her lane. Williams quoted Romans 8:28 and used it as the theme verse for what he had to say: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
With complete composure, Williams said, “All of this will work out. As hard as this is for me and my family and you, this will work out. I know this because I’ve seen this in my own life…. And I’m evidence that God can work it out.” And he describes the time when he was a freshman at Notre Dame and doctors told him that because of a preexisting heart condition, he could never play basketball again; if he continued to play, he would die. That’s what the doctors told him. He described going to the dorm room of his girlfriend and future wife. After crying for a little while, Ingrid said, “Honey, Jesus can heal your heart.” And Jesus did heal his heart. Monty Williams ended up having a storied career both at Notre Dame and in the NBA.
Williams said, “My wife would punch me if I were to sit up here and whine about what’s going on. It doesn’t take away the pain, but it will work out. Because God causes all things to work out… It doesn’t mean it’s not hard. Doesn’t mean it’s not painful. Doesn’t mean we won’t have tough times, and we will have tough times. What we need is the Lord, and that’s what my wife tried to exhibit every day.”
“Doesn’t mean we won’t have tough times, and we will have tough times. God will work it out.” What a beautiful testimony. And he was able to give that testimony because of evidence in his own life that God works things out.
And you know what? I guarantee you that after this encounter with Jesus, after he returned home on his long, uncertain journey, after he saw that his son was O.K., this royal official could give the same testimony. Because he learned the lesson that the Lord wanted to teach him—that he could trust Jesus. Look at verse 52: the official asked his servants what time his son started getting better, and he saw that it was the same time yesterday when Jesus told him that his son would live.
Was that a coincidence? That’s probably what a lot of us would say. Unless we see Jesus lay his hands on someone and heal them immediately, we’re not going to believe it’s a miracle. “It was the medicine the doctor gave him; it finally kicked in.” We think in those terms.
Listen: you and I may or may never see a dramatic miracle that breaks the laws of physics; I believe those miracles can and do happen rarely. Not often. But you know the kind of miracles that we’ll see all the time if we only trust in Jesus? The miracle of coincidence. I like the way William Temple, an archbishop of Canterbury in the 20th century put it: “When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t.”
That’s exactly right.
Today’s scripture teaches us to pray boldly. Like the royal official, we need to ask the Lord specifically for what we think we need. We may not get exactly what we ask for, but when we don’t, we can be confident that the Lord will give us what we would have asked for if we knew what God knows. When we pray, we’ll either get what we asked for, or get what we would have asked for if we knew what God knows.
In our Bible study in Mark on Sunday nights, the professor Joseph Dongell made a good point about prayer. He said, “When we pray, we’re not putting our faith in faith itself.” In other words, we’re not saying, “If only I believe hard enough, sincerely enough, with purity of heart, without any doubt… if only I say the right words in just the right way, then I know God will give me what I pray for.” No! That’s putting faith in faith. We put our faith in Jesus. We recognize, like the royal official in today’s scripture, that the miracle is up to the Lord. He’ll make it happen, not us.