[Genesis 1:1-2:3 / Ephesians 6:10-17 / John 4:46-54]
God speaks and what He says happens. Let there be this and let there be that, and lo, this and that there were. Over and over again. Until the world is shaped and filled and life abounds, with humanity placed at the crown and apex of His spoken-into-being world. God speaks and what He says happens.
Which is all fine and good when you can SEE the immediate results of His speaking. But what about when you can’t? Is it still so? Even though you can’t see or measure or verify, does the creating Word of God still do its job?
The official in today’s Gospel came to Jesus because his son was ill, in fact dying. He had nowhere else he could turn. He begs Jesus to do two things: to come down with him, and to heal his son before death takes him.
Oh, this official has faith, but it’s a weak faith. He knows Jesus can do the job, but he seems to think it only will happen if Jesus accompanies him to the child’s bedside and if they reach the child before the child dies.
Jesus rebukes not only the man but the crowds. The you is plural: “Unless you all SEE signs and wonders you will not believe.” The problem with such faith is that it doesn’t hang entirely on God speaking and bringing about what He promises. It rather hangs on seeing. We recall that in Hebrews faith is defined as: the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Jesus wants to give this man and us a bigger faith than the faith that merely runs with seeing. So rather than accompany the father to his dying son, Jesus sends him home with a word of promise: “Go; your son lives.”
The man believed Jesus’ words. He clung to them and so off he went. But do you think for a second that it was all that simple? Do you imagine he didn’t turn in perplexity a time or two or twenty and look back at Jesus and wonder, in fear and doubt?
In today’s Epistle St. Paul spoke to us of our armor for spiritual warfare. Lots of defensive weapons described, but only one offensive. That last bit: the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. That’s what he puts into your hand to do the battle against Satan.
For battle it is: when the Word of God seems not to be coming true for you, when you are sent away with miles to go and only a promise in your pocket, Satan comes and whispers: “See. I told you he didn’t love you. I told you he didn’t care about the likes of you. He COULD have bothered himself to come down and accompany you, but nooooo. He’s got other things to attend to - people more important than you. He could have come down and saved your son, but no, he sends you away with nothing.”
These battles are not rarities in the Christian life. They comprise it. You will find that they grow as you grow. What is behind them is God getting you ready for the last and final battle. You see, when you go to face your moment of death, when everything is taken away from you, then you will have only the promises of God that will go with you through that last battle and you will either cling to them and be victorious or Satan will succeed in wresting that sword from your hand, making you believe that the promises are worthless, that they are wishful thinking and nothing more, that they have no power to deliver you finally from either your sins (which he will assiduously remind you of in great detail) or your death (which is breathing down your neck at that moment). To prepare you for victory in that battle, again and again the Lord takes away from you this or that, and sends you out with just a word, just a promise from Him. So your Lord teaches you to cling to His promises, promises that do not fail.
The Lutheran Confessions describe this battle when they define true divine services as “the exercises of faith struggling with despair.” That’s real worship. Faith clinging to the promises of God in Christ Jesus against the despair Satan and your flesh would stir up in you.
So the official in today’s Gospel battled back and forth as he travelled all those miles to home. Against the fears and doubts that Satan planted within him, he would hurl the promise: “no, He said my son lives.” So the battle raged within - sometimes the promise brought peace, but then Satan would steal it away with a big “ah, but what if?” And then he’d have to take up the promise again and comfort himself. So it went until the moment he sees the servants coming towards him. He sees the look on their face and his heart melts for joy. They are not anxious, they are joyful. And the first words out of their mouths? Well, our translators did us no favors with this Gospel. They rendered the words: “told him that his son was recovering.” The Greek is more interesting: “they told him: See your son lives.” Do you get it? They spoke the very words to him that JESUS had spoken. The promise on their lips!
When the father learned that it was at the very hour Jesus had said: “your son lives” that the tide had turned, the fever broken, the child’s life spared, he told his household all about it and they believed with him. John says this is the second sign - and all the signs in John’s Gospel culminate in that last and greatest sign: the crucifixion. Here above all is time to not focus on what you see, but on what God promises. What you see is just another human being, trodden down under unjust government, murdered for convenience and because someone thought it to their advantage. Nothing new there. Same old, same old across human history. But let the word of God define what you see and lo, a glorious vision opens before you. The Lamb of God ascending the cross in divine love to bear the sin of the world, to free you and all from sin, from death, from hell, from Satan.
And so the Lord would teach you to trust that His powerful Word will not fail you - especially when it is all you have left to cling to. When you lay dying and Satan brings out those sins of yours in vivid detail, you will turn eyes from them to Him who on the Cross answered for them all, and who promises you that He is the propitiation for your sins and for the sins of the world. You are forgiven. When you lay dying and Satan would bring you to despair over the grave that is fast closing in on you, you will remember Him who said: “Because I live, you will live also.” You will remember that He died and rose again and that He promises to raise you with Him. When you have to say goodbye to those you have known and loved and you think your heart will break beyond repair, you will remember that “in my Father’s house are many mansions and I go to prepare a place for you all” and your heart will ease. That is how you will take up the sword of the Spirit to do the battle - to lean on the words and promises of God for what cannot be seen and you will see in the end exactly what the official in today's Gospel saw: that God is faithful, that what He promises He brings to pass. The Eucharist we celebrate today is the promise that all this is so for you. Amen.