Sign In, Please

JN. 4:46-54 10/30/11 Today’s Gospel reading is fitting for the season of Halloween. The story in the Gospel of John tells us of the healing of a government official’s son. There are parallels in Matthew, Luke and Mark. It is quite possible that there were many stories about Jesus’ healing miracles. We don’t have to assume that one event was told in different ways.
The Gospel of John is about appearance and reality, about the hidden and the revealed. Hence it is good for Halloween. What is behind the mask? What is behind the appearances? Now, what is behind is often scary, but more often than not it is positive. In the background is a loving father or mother. There is affirmation and life giving love. For the Christian, in the background is the unfolding Kingdom of God.
I am overwhelmed by the realization that you and I live in a world that is pretty tough and down right scary. On the surface we look okay, but you and I often bare huge burdens of all sorts: unemployment, poverty, physical and mental illness, uncertainties, losses and deaths.
You and I live with losses. We live with sadness. We get lost and don’t know in our lives which is appearance and which is the real reality. That is the point where faith enters in.
Our present time is not all that much different from the time in which Jesus lived and the time in which John wrote. Life was tough and life seemed cheap. The Romans occupied most of the middle East. Herod was king and ruled in the manner of Saddam Hussein, Mubarak, Quaddafi and our current despots. The burdens of health, poverty, death, dying and living with loss were all too familiar. People were looking for signs of hope. People were looking for signs of affirmation. People yearned for signs of life.
Jesus begins His ministry as a teacher, healer, prophet and preacher. Over time His true nature as the embodiment of the law and the prophets, and the embodiment of God’s revelation and intention to mankind emerges. He becomes one who connects His hearers to the true reality behind the world in which they lived (and in which you and I live). He connected them to the kingdom, not of Herod, but of God.
So how did Jesus make that connection? How did He show that God was doing something Really Big – that there was a new beginning, a new covenant, a new kingdom? Well, He did it by preaching, telling parables and stories, teaching and healing and by His actions –signs. There were other healers, other prophets, other teachers all around. There always are in all cultures. But the power of God, the charisma, the embodiment of the Law and the prophets, the force of creation and recreation is seen by those who came to Jesus and found Him to be revealing the nature of God. Hence Jesus’ works are seen to be not only miracles, but also signs.
Now I want to speak for a moment about signs. I have a discerning eye and think metaphorically. Visual impressions register with me very sharply. I notice signs. Most recently I saw a sign before an underpass of a bridge. The clearance height was ten feet six inches. No more. The sign read: “Clearance height 6’ 10 inches – STRICTLY ENFORCED.” I practically flipped my car from laughing so hard. The “strictly enforced” bit gave me all sorts of images of automotive decapitation. Never the less, the sign was pointing to something important. Ignore the sign and you run into serious trouble. Jesus’ signs were actions pointing to the hard fact of the revelation of God. Ignore those signs and you are in big trouble.
The philosopher, Susanne Langer in the first half of the 20th century wrote about images and art. She is famous for saying that a “sign is not a symbol.” A sign informs and points. A symbol is evocative and suggests. Well, “yes and no.” A sign can also be a symbol of stupidity, intolerance, bigotry (Irish need not apply was such when my father in law was looking for work) or of hope and compassion (the red cross or even the word “Hospice.”)
Back to the story. There was a government official in the Herodian kingdom, a Gentile, whose son was sick and dying. The man heard of Jesus and travels 20 miles to ask Jesus, the healer, to come and heal his son.
Is there any parent who is not frantic when his/her child is sick? Would you not do anything to make it go away? How often have we prayed, “Lord, take my life, but spare my child.”
Were there other children? Doesn’t matter. Why didn’t the official send a messenger? Doesn’t matter. Jesus initially turns the man away. But the man persists. Then Jesus says, “You seek signs and wonders.” Scholars like to see this as a denunciation of the Gentile. I don’t. The man is not a Jew. He does not have the background of the Torah, the Law and the prophets. He needs a sign that says 10’ 6”. So Jesus says, “Go. Your son will live.”
Whack. “Clearance strictly enforced.” The officer had hit bottom. All his pride and status and power were ephemeral. Only God could be real. The man had broken through to the reality behind our everyday material world to the real reality – God’s manifestation in Christ Jesus.
The Gentile officer returns home. His son is recovering. The conversion of the whole family takes place.
So we have a story about healing and health. It is a story of a father and a son. The father loves his son so much that he will sacrifice pride, position, heritage and more in order to find healing and health.
We also have a story of faith. Faith is the casting away of the things that people normally value. It is hitting bottom and putting ultimate trust in our ultimate God. Faith is what gets you and me through the day. Faith is what helps you and me make sense of our lives – enables us to see behind the masks and costumes to the life affirming reality behind all things. Faith is the affirmation of new life – life with the communion of saints. Faith is recognizing the breaking in of the Kingdom of God in Christ Jesus.
We don’t make it up. Our faith is fed by the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, by the prayers of the people in the here and now and by the prayers of those who have gone before us as well as of those who follow us.
Read the signs of God on your pilgrimage of faith. Watch out for the low clearance – but rejoice in the power of God. Rejoice in the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life giving body of the Church. Rejoice in the fellowship of your brothers and sisters in Christ. Rejoice in the life giving body and blood of Christ in the holy sacrament.
Let your life, your faith – and mine - be a life-giving, healing sign that points to the true reality of God’s action and love. Let your life be a sign to your family, friends and to the world of masks and costumes of our every day world that in Christ Jesus there is a new kingdom breaking in. Sign in. Sign up for the Kingdom of God. Amen. – Fr. Gage