21st after Trinity, Oct. 24, 2010, John 4:46b-54
The text is the Holy Gospel from Saint John, especially these words: "Unless you see signs and wonders, you will by no means believe."
Jesus speaks these words to the nobleman, yet He is not only speaking about the nobleman. When He says, "Unless you see signs and wonders, you will by no means believe," the word "you" is plural. Not only the nobleman, but all those who heard Jesus' voice, in fact, all men fit this category, you and I included. Unless you and I see signs and wonders, we will by no means believe.
Jesus is rebuking both the nobleman and us. We should have more believing hearts, so that we do not require signs and wonders. Our hearts should be steadfastly set upon faith in God without the need for anything else. But our hearts are not that way. Our hearts are feeble and weak with sin. The trust that should be in us naturally and automatically is instead lacking. We are born in a state of unbelief. For that is what it is to be conceived in sin. Sin turns our hearts away from God.
There was also a rebuke for the crowds in the words of Jesus. If they were following Him and believing in Him only for the sake of the miracles He did, then their faith was shallow and weak. In time, such people would turn away as soon as following Jesus became too difficult for them. For many of them, this happened in chapter six of John's Gospel, when He taught them difficult teachings. They began to complain about Him, and soon many went back and no longer followed Him.
Many people only follow Christ for the sake of some sign they received and not for the sake of Christ Himself. If we come to Church for the sake of experiencing the closeness of this family of believers, then it is not for the sake of Christ. If we are here to feel something, then it is not for the sake of Christ. If we are here because someone showed love for us, then it is not for the sake of Christ.
In our sinful hearts, we desire signs and wonders. Our flesh gets bored with Christ and His House. We want something else that can make us feel what we want to feel. That is the voice of the old Adam that is in all of us. This voice desires to lead us away from Christ and away from life and away from salvation, in its self-serving quest for signs and wonders.
Yet Christ does something that seems strange. In our text, He gives a sign. He works a miracle for the nobleman's son. If craving signs and wonders is sinful, why does He give a sign?
Well, He said it Himself. "Unless you see signs and wonders, you will by no means believe." We must have signs and wonders. So He gives them to us.
To recognize the signs, we need to know what a sign is. The word "sign" means something miraculous that points our faith to Christ.
What wondrous signs does Christ give to us? He gives the best signs of all.
The primary sign is the Word He speaks. That may not seem like a wondrous sign to us. The Word seems so ordinary. But the Word is the vehicle of the Holy Spirit to give us faith in our Savior. The nobleman believed the Word of Jesus that his son would be healed. We also hear and believe as the Spirit gives us the gift of faith through the Word of Christ. This faith is entirely from God, not ourselves. It is not in us naturally. Unless we had received this sign, we would by no means believe.
See how Christ has compassion on our weakness! He rebukes our lack of faith, yet does not leave us helpless. He gives us exactly what we need, even though it is our fault that we need it.
Yet He does not stop with this sign. He gives us more. He gives us the sign of Baptism. In that water, our faith is pointed to Christ. The Spirit works to implant the precious gift of trust in Christ into our hearts through that miraculous sign.
You might think that this was enough. But no, Christ is not satisfied. He desires to overflow with His grace to us. So He gives us yet a third sign - the Holy Supper. In this miraculous wonder, He strengthens the faith that He already created. He makes sure that our faith does not grow weary and tired because of the troubles of life. He feeds us His own Body and Blood - miracle of miracles!
These sign that we receive create and sustain faith in us. It is not merely an abstract or generic faith. We do not only believe in the existence of Christ, or merely believe that He is out there somewhere taking care of us. No, these signs create a very specific faith.
They direct our eyes to the Cross. For there we see Christ, the Son of God, dying in our place. As He healed the nobleman's son who was hovering at the brink of death, so Christ has also healed us from the death of sin. He took our death upon Him. He suffered what we deserved, and removed it. He substituted His life for ours, so that we will live forever.
So the earthly signs point us to the great sign of the Cross. We cannot see the Cross with our earthly eyes. We were not there when they crucified our Lord. So we need the earthly signs - water and the Word, Body and Blood - in order to see and trust in the great sign of His death for us. The signs on earth do not exist for their own sake, but for the sake of showing us Christ crucified.
The wondrous signs of Word and Sacrament also show us the great sign of the Resurrection. The Jews demanded of Jesus, "What sign will you give us?" He replied, "Tear down this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up." He also called this the sign of Jonah. The Jews demanded a sign, and their demand showed their unbelief. Yet He gives them a sign nevertheless.
The sign of His Resurrection is the great sign of all signs. For in this miracle, He shows what He has accomplished for us. He shows the life that He has achieved for sinful men, a life that defies death. The lives of all the saints are covered with the life of their Savior, covered with glory and holiness and victory.
So we look to the signs He performs, and we see how great His gifts are. How could we not bow the knee before the Lord who provides such wondrous signs for us, who are so undeserving? Unless we saw His signs and wonders, we would not have believed. But He has provided the exact signs that we needed.
All glory be to Christ our Lord, with the Father and the Spirit, one God forever. Amen.
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