Seeing Signs or Believing the Word?
In our Gospel reading there is no question that the father's love for his dying son was sincere; and he was looking for help in the right place by going to Jesus. But the man was coming to Jesus with a secular faith, not a Christian faith, similar to the way we take our children to the doctor with confidence that they can come up with the right diagnosis and treatment for most maladies. When we have problems, we go to people that we expect can help, and the father knew that Jesus could get the job done—Jesus had healed plenty of people before. But the father wasn't coming to Jesus with faith in Him as Lord and Savior from sin and hell.
This can be seen first because the father wasn't going to Jesus looking for eternal life but only the preservation of the life of his son. In the man's prayer to Jesus he wasn't asking too much of Jesus but actually far too little of Him, for our loving God sent His Son to give everlasting life, not just temporary healing. Our deepest need is redemption from sin and salvation from hell, not just a healthy family. So Jesus says, "Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness," that is, keep first things first.
When you pray, don't rearrange the order of the Lord's Prayer by skipping over to the Fourth Petition and leaving Petitions One through Three in the dust. Remember that when Jesus gave us the Lord's Prayer He said, "When you pray, pray this way: Our Father, who art in heaven…" Whenever we pray, first we must ask that God's name, which He has placed upon us in Baptism, be kept holy among us; then that His Holy Spirit would come to keep us in God's Kingdom; and third that His good and gracious will would be done in our lives; only then do we ask for daily bread, for health and home and temporal happiness. If first things aren't first in our praying, this betrays a lack of fear, love, and trust in God and shows that we are filled with self-interest and preoccupied with secular happiness. If we dial up Jesus when we need Him for physical things but we don't continually seek the ultimate gifts of forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation, then we must repent. And if we examine our lives honestly, we all must confess disordered priorities; we all must repent.
The second offense the father perpetrated against Jesus was to grossly underestimate Christ's Person and power. The father had heard and maybe even witnessed that Jesus was a wonder-worker, but he hadn't yet come to believe in Jesus as the only-begotten Son of God in the flesh, the same One who spoke the world into existence, as we heard in Genesis 1-2 this morning. The father of the sick boy insisted that Jesus come down to Capernaum to heal his son. He thought the 20 mile journey was necessary for Jesus to help; the father wanted to see with his own eyes while Jesus did the healing. So the man's motto was, "Seeing signs is believing."
But that's not how God's Kingdom works. Jesus teaches us that seeing signs isn't believing; rather "we live by faith" in His Word and "not by sight," and "faith comes by hearing…the Word of Christ," not by witnessing signs and wonders. This is why Jesus is so stern with the father and with everyone who insists on living by sight and not by faith alone. He reproaches them in the Gospel reading, "Unless all you people see signs and wonders, you never believe!"
Again, all of us must repent, for we sinners are like the boy's father, wanting Jesus to come down right away and take care of our problems; we want instant answers to our prayers as visible proof that God is on our side; we crave miraculous healings and visions of the afterlife and signs that we have made correct decisions. We are always looking for signs of God's goodness and presence in day to day events.
One phrase that I've seen recently that drives me crazy is, "God showed up!" When someone's prayer has been answered or they have been delivered from distress, they will say, "God showed up!" But what about all those times in our lives when things don't seem to fall into place right away, or ever? What about the illnesses that don't heal, the abuses that continue to haunt us, the spiteful people that we are stuck living with? When we experience bitter suffering, does that mean that God didn't show up, that God has abandoned us?
If you gauge God's goodness and presence in your life on the basis of outward experiences, then you are trying to live by sight and not by faith, like the father in our Gospel reading. Of course, we do experience all sorts of wonderful gifts from God and for these we must give thanks, but happy outcomes aren't the basis for our confidence in God. Because if we rely on signs and experiences, then when it seems like God isn't showing up to help, we will conclude that He has forsaken us. And so when we try to live by sight and not by faith alone, Jesus rebukes us, saying, "Unless you people see signs and wonders you refuse to believe." And He calls on us to repent of the idea that seeing is believing.
Jesus shows us that seeing isn't believing when He responds to the father's begging for help not with a visible miracle but just with a Word, saying, "Go, your son is alive and well!" Jesus gave him nothing to see, just a Word to hang onto. And then the Holy Spirit worked a miracle in that father's heart by the Word of Jesus, for St. John tells us that the man believed the Word that Jesus had spoken and went on his way. He went home with nothing but a word in his pocket (M. Franzmann). The father started out on the difficult 20 mile journey back to Capernaum trusting that Jesus would keep His promise, and when he finally met up with his servants, they told him that a great sign had occurred, that the boy was healthy again, and it had happened at the very moment Jesus had said the boy was alive and well. And then another miracle of the Holy Spirit occurred: the man and his whole household came to believe in Jesus not just as a great wonder worker but as the Christ, their Lord and Savior, the Son of God who came into the world to seek and to save the lost. Jesus had shown through this miracle that His Word is completely trustworthy and therefore everything He teaches about Himself is true; when He teaches that He is the Savior of the world, the only faithful response is, "I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord."
But Jesus did produce a miracle, a sign for the man who believed His Word. Should we be expecting more signs and wonders from Jesus today? No doubt, Jesus does work miracles in this world even today, but we should properly understand the purpose of Jesus' signs and wonders in His ministry 2000 years ago. Their purpose was to show that He was the Christ, the Son of God sent from heaven to redeem the world. So to believe in Jesus today means to look past the impressiveness of the signs and to see Him as the Savior who shows us the way of everlasting life through Baptism and faith in Him. Just look at what Jesus taught about seeking signs during His ministry. When people started to get fixated on the signs He did rather than on His Word, He would point them away from signs. When the Pharisees came to Him and said, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you," He answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:38-40). He was speaking of His death and resurrection. On the cross as Jesus was being swallowed up by death for our sins, He refused to do a sign for those who passed by, mocking Him, saying to Him, "You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross…He saved others; he cannot save himself. [If] He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him" (Matthew 27:39-42).
When it came time for Jesus to answer for the sin of the world, and our salvation hung in the balance, He rejected signs and wonders as the way to go and instead chose the way of suffering, self-giving love. Coming down from the cross would have been an impressive sign for onlookers, but it would have done us no good. It would have served to save Jesus' life, but as He Himself had said, "The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for the masses." He came on behalf of all the people in the world to reconcile them to God, to suffer for all sinners, to spare you from the wrath of God. He died and then fulfilled the sign of the prophet Jonah by being swallowed into the belly of death, the heart of the earth, a tomb of stone.
But it was impossible for death to hold Jesus, for He had done no wrong; in fact, He had done everything right, obeying the Law perfectly, something we could never do. It was impossible for death to hold Jesus, for He is the Lord of Life, so on the third day the Father reached down and snatched His Son from the tomb, declaring that He had accepted Christ's sacrifice for your sin, declaring you righteous and holy for the sake of Christ. Then Jesus showed Himself alive to the apostles, and when doubting Thomas finally saw Jesus He said to Thomas, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." By this He showed us that disciples of Jesus are those who don't live by sight and experience but rather by faith alone in the apostolic testimony about Jesus.
Then Jesus commissioned the apostles to go out and make believers not by signs and wonders—although they would do signs along the way as a way of getting people's attention—but what He really commissioned them to do was go out and deliver His Word: in Matthew He says, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). In Mark Jesus says, "Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation." (Mark 16:15). In Luke He says, "Repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in [My] name to all nations" (Luke 24:47). The marching orders Jesus gives the Church and her ministers is to preach the Word, Law and Gospel, judgment and grace, repentance and the forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus, who is the Word of God made flesh.
Jesus leaves us with only His Word and promises to go on. This isn't what the sinful world is looking for. As St. Paul says, "Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom." All sinners are looking for some experience of the divine to prove His goodness and presence. But what does St. Paul say that we Christians are to preach and believe? He says, "Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God." So while that "word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing…to us who are being saved it is the power of God," "the power of God for salvation to all who believe."
The Word of the cross, the Word of forgiveness of sins, the Word of grace that is attached to the sacraments of Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord's Supper—that is the Word given to us by the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. That Word is all we have to go on, it's all we've got. So if Jesus and His Word are not the only ground and foundation of our confidence, then our hopes are misplaced. "On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand," we sing in the hymn. In fact, the greatest signs and wonders that Jesus leaves behind for us are the miraculous sacraments that come from His Word: Holy Baptism, where He combines His Word with water to bring dead sinners to life in Him; Holy Absolution, where He speaks pardon to the guilty for the sake of His sufferings and death; and the Lord's Supper, where by the power of His creative Word Jesus makes bread His body and wine His blood so that He can feed us with forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. These are the most amazing, wonderful signs Jesus gives to us in this life and they assure us of that much greater, fuller life that we look forward to in heaven.
So while seeing signs isn't believing, believing does come by hearing; faith comes by hearing the Word of your Lord Jesus Christ, who promises you this: "Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life" (John 5:24). Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.