Worcester Coll. Evensong; 2.2.14; John 4;46-54 (Is 55;6-13) B228
Signs and wonders: what place do they have in the Gospels and indeed in the Christian faith?
The question is asked in the context of this evening’s reading from John’s Gospel, where Jesus is dismissive of signs and wonders. It is not meant to be a compliment when Jesus says ‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe’. But then comes the response from the official, which everyone who has a heart will understand: ‘Come down before my little boy dies’. The fever leaves the boy and this is seen as a sign of Jesus’ significance and purpose.
So you might try to sum up Jesus’ actions: suspicion of those who want spectacular interventions by God, yet at the same time bringing compassion and healing. Usually the wise advice to a preacher is to avoid the subject of healing, as one would a field full of land-mines. But it is important to ignore all that advice and tackle signs and wonders head on. How does God act in the world and indeed make himself known? Is it, for example when we miss the flight that subsequently crashes; when the rain holds off for our wedding; or indeed when I’m hard up and find a £10 note blowing in the wind?
What are the ways of God? And add to that the question: if he acted there in Palestine, why does he not seem to act so wonderfully here and now?
Of course, there are some who think God does act now in a spectacular manner, and they take it to extremes. Morris Cerullo was preaching in Mexico City this week at what he calls a ‘Prophetic Healing Breakthrough Rally’. It was he who once wrote to his British followers promising them supernatural deliverance from debt. What they had to do was to send him £30 per month (instead of the usual £15) and they would experience an unprecedented thing called ‘a debt cancellation miracle’. They were to pray over the paying-in slip while letting the anointing power flow into their lives. God would do the rest and all would be well. There would follow healing of their debt. Well, I am told that we are more likely to be struck by lightning than to win a substantial amount on the National Lottery, but even the Lottery is a more practical approach to debt-cancellation than Morris Cerrullo and his magic.
Yet it would be a mistake to go to the other extreme and say that God does not act and that there are no miracles. I once talked to someone just back from Zimbabwe. He spoke movingly of his experience and of people’s faith in God. We then talked about praying for rain. I thought his answer was fascinating. He said ‘Well, it certainly isn’t right to pray for rain in Zimbabwe between May and September, because it never rains there between May and September.’ So it would be foolish – mere belief in magic – to pray for rain at that time. But at other times, it is natural to pray for something which is central to everyone’s survival: praying for rain, while at the same time conserving water by building dams and so on.
So perhaps we are to pray for God to work on what is possible within the world which is his creation. Like a carpenter, working on wood, I believe God works with the grain of the world, encouraging, loving, prompting, inviting. That way of thinking also applies to healing: God not so much cutting across the world and working against its ways, but rather working with the surgeon, the hospital, the prayers, the family – to bring healing and wholeness. And when someone is happily and surprisingly healed, do you call it a miracle? Yes, you do.
There is room/scope in the natural world and in us for change. So the right language may be to says that God does not so much act on the world or indeed on us, but rather that he interacts with the world and with us – God not a conjuror or manipulator, for he leaves us, and the world we live in, with some freedom.
What then about the official’s son in John’s Gospel? The healing showed what is possible and indeed desirable for us all to work towards. After all, Jesus did not heal everyone he ever came across, and many of them no doubt got ill again and in the end they died. So the healing was a sign of the way things can and should be. A sign. And as shown by the passionate plea of the official – the father – ‘Come down before my little boy dies’, the sign, like the other signs, was not trivial. It was a serious matter of life and death.
So I think we need to see that God is concerned with serious matters like peace and healing and justice and fullness of life, rather than being treated – as he sometimes is by Christians – as a kind of errand boy: topping up my bank-account, making sure that I don’t get wet, or of course, sorting out our parking…..in the immortal words of Wendy Cope’s poem: ‘When I went out shopping/ I said a little prayer:/ Jesus, help me park the car/ for you are everywhere./ Jesus, in his goodness and grace,/ Jesus found me a parking space/ In a very convenient place/ Sound the horn and praise Him!.’ That’s fun, and it admirably sends up the idea that I’m God’s favourite and he is going to look after me, probably at the expense of everyone else.
God is indeed infinitely loving and he invites us to new life in Christ, but he’s not a trivial God who runs petty errands for us and we have to be careful of how we interpret what happens to us. Austin Farrer has a nice piece in his book ‘Faith and Speculation’ (1967 p 68) – a tale of piety improperly triumphing over reason:
‘Mr Jones’ rheumatism was a judgement, until his daughter swore to you on the bible that the tale of his secret drinking was a baseless slander. Her father was a saint. His rheumatism was, therefore, a trial. But then the bowling club went on a day’s outing and drove their charabanc into the sea; and Mr Jones’ rheumatism, since it kept him home on this occasion, proved a blessing in disguise, and a providence indeed.’
Mr Jones’ rheumatism: judgement, trial, blessing? Probably none of those. For whatever reason, he just had rheumatism.
God is with us, patiently working/interacting with us and with the world in which we live. Sometimes a sign/ a miracle: more of them in New Testament times because that is how they saw the world, but that does not mean that there are none of them now. Yet the sign will not be an empty parking space. More likely to be a profound sign of the ways of God and of his creation, like the healing of a child with a fever or like peace brought to a place where it seemed impossible.
At Candlemas and in every season, we can point to signs of the ways in which God reveals himself (and to the ways in which he does not). There is an admirable middle path between what might be called the rationalist and the ridiculous. I believe it is to see God interacting with us and with the natural creation – working patiently, subtly. Inviting – longing for everyone and everything to realize its potential in him.