Hope for the Long Walk (John 4:46-54)
First Sunday of Advent: Hope
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, December 3, 2017
Desire. I wonder what this word brings to your mind. Desire is something one absolutely must have, a “strong feeling of wanting something very badly.”[i] Craving, longing, and yearning, are synonyms. I am craving the sweets on the dessert table. My grandfather died in 2006. I am longing to play golf with him, or hear his lovable growl as he putters around the house. I love my family, my work, my life, and yet deep inside, I find myself yearning for more.
We meet a “royal official” in John 4:46. The notes in the Oxford Annotated Bible say this was a Gentile military officer, a Roman stationed in Israel, in the city of Capernaum. It sat right on the coast of the Sea of Galilee, but the official actually met Jesus in Cana which was as far from Capernaum as the Raleigh-Durham airport is from here, except in that time, you’d walk or go by mule. He walked that 15 or so miles to meet Jesus because he desired something deeply. His son was ill and the best doctors around were powerless to help.
Roman authorities for the most part looked on Jews with condescension. They looked down on everyone that way. They were the mighty Romans after all. Yet he comes to Jesus begging. We all come to that point in life. We desire something and there’s no way we’ll get it. So we beg God to deliver. He didn’t know Jesus was God, but the talk of Jesus’ miracles had spread throughout Nazareth, Cana, Capernaum, and other area towns.
The futility of desire led to desperation, maybe even despair. This man of power was on his knees begging a carpenter turned itinerant teacher-preacher for a miracle. He prostrated himself before a religious man of a religion he didn’t even follow. What dreams do we have that become all-consuming desires that make us desperate to the point of despair?
“I hope all is well with you.” I write that in notes or emails I send to people I haven’t seen in a long time. My desire, when I think about people I love, is that all would be well them. I hope my friends and family can flourish in their careers and in their relationships. This week, one of my best friends, Kevin died. He was young – 39. He had been married 1 month and 6 days. He had been a senior pastor for about a year after many years in youth and college ministry. He was just starting out.
Last Sunday, he and his new wife Jackie posted pictures on Facebook of them going out to cut down their first Christmas tree as a couple. They brought it home and decorated it. Over the last month they’ve posted a flurry of wonderfully happy photos: wedding pictures, honeymoon photos, and pictures of them in the house together. The Christmas tree pictures were posted Sunday night. Monday morning, Kevin, a life-long weightlifter went to work out. He collapsed. How many years will it be before Jackie can enjoy hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree again?
Jesus and the desperate Roman official talk past each other.
“Please, miracle worker, heal my son.”
“Unless you see signs wonders you will not believe,” responds Jesus.
The man doesn’t care about believing! Urgently he says, “Sir! Come down before my little boy dies.”
When Jesus mentioned “signs and wonders,” I don’t think he was talking to the man. His words came in response to the man’s plea, but I think he was actually talking to the crowd around them and to future generations who would live this story through reading John chapter 4.
“Come down before my little boy dies.”
Finally Jesus looks at the man. “Go. Your son will live.” And the man believed Jesus, turned around, and start the 15-mile trek back to Capernaum. He had to stop for the night, then pick up the journey the next day. Everyone in his household – wife, children, slaves, colleagues, neighbors – everyone knew why he took the trip to Cana. Now, here comes a servant, smiling, weeping with joy, greeting him on his return. Breathless, he says, “Your son is alive and recovering from the illness. He’s going to be well.”
“When did the healing begin?”
“Yesterday. One in the afternoon;” the very hour Jesus told him his child would be fine.
And John writes, “So he himself believed, along with his whole household. Now this was the second sign Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee” (4:53).
Do we dare believe that hope is real? Do we dare hold the hope that we sing about in Christmas songs and promise others when we tell them the good news found in the Christian faith?
When Jesus initially responds to the man, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe,” he sounds annoyed. It is as if Jesus is fed up with people demanding proof. Yet at the end of the story, the narrator tells us this the second sign and we know there will be more to come. Jesus tolerated the need for signs because he could see how weak our faith is even as he could see how much we need faith.
He commented on the frailty of people’s belief. Then the man made a decision. Jesus told him the boy would be fine and he believed. At least he believed in the sense that he turned around and walked back to Capernaum. As he trudged those 15 miles, was he scared out of his mind? Did he walk along desperately repeating, “God please let his words be true? God please let his words be true. God please let his words be true.” This man moves from the desire for his son’s healing to desperation to decision. He decides to do what Jesus says. In that decision to walk back to Capernaum, John writes he, “believed.” His belief came in a decision to obey Jesus and accept his word.
Then, the servant tells of the healing and the man realizes it happened right when Jesus said, “Your son will live.” Again in verse 53, John writes that he believed, only this is different. This is the belief of a man who has seen God act. The first instance was the belief of a man who hoped God’s word could be trusted. At the end of the story we see the belief of a man who knows he can count on God.
I mentioned Kevin who died just a month after marrying Jackie. She has to go on with life. She’ll have more Christmas trees to decorate. It may be years before she has the strength to do it. Healing will take time, but long before she met Kevin, she made the same decision this Roman official made. She learned the story of God-come-to-earth, the baby in the manger. She worshiped in churches where she heard preaching about the death of Jesus on the cross for her sins and for the sins of the world. She has worshipped the Risen Lord Jesus on Easter Sunday. Just as the Roman decided to believe Jesus and to take that long walk back to Capernaum, not knowing, she long ago decided to believe Jesus is the Savior. She put her trust and hope in him.
Now she’s on the long walk. Now, she discovers whether the decision to believe will be confirmed by the presence of God in her life. This story of the boy healed in John chapter 4 is no help to her. Nor is it a real help to you if you are going through a crisis or loss in your life. The idea that Kevin is with Jesus now, or resting peacefully awaiting resurrection, which is assured, is of no help today. Kevin will be resurrected. Jackie will be. I will be. That doesn’t help today. Today, she’s really, really sad.
At times the long walk is that way. It’s long and hard and sad. The shadows are so deep, we can’t see the sunshine around the bend. This is where we need to remember something very important about the hope we have in Christ. Yes, in Jesus God redeems the world. Our sins are forgiven. With his victory on the cross and resurrection, our hope of eternity spent with God is guaranteed. But, there is more.
The resurrected Jesus departed bodily but left behind the Holy Spirit of God. In addition to forgiveness and new life and the hope of eternal life, we are promised the Holy Spirit. That’s God with us, all the time. Jesus speaks explicitly about this in John chapter 14. He calls the Holy Spirit the “Advocate,” which could also be translated “Helper,” or “Comforter.” In upcoming days, Jackie is going to meet God the Comforter and God will stay by her on every step of the long walk. I pray that she will have her moment, where, like the Roman official, she realizes Jesus spoke truth. I pray for Jackie that as she steps out on the long walk, the Holy Spirit will help her feel God’s presence. God was with Kevin right to the end just as Kevin is with God now. And God is with Jackie now, when hope seems so far away. I pray she will allow herself to feel hope, of life with God.
I pray this for you too. One of our long-time members, Marion Charles, lost her son Roy. He was 65 and died during heart surgery. Marion is many steps further along the long walk to Capernaum. She knows sadness, but she has seen God work. Over and over, she has experienced the hope to which she steps.
Maybe you have as well. When you sing of hope at Christmas, it is a hope you know.
Maybe you’re where Jackie is and with each step, you have to force yourself to believe. With each painful step you pray “God please let hope be real. God please let hope be real. God please let hope be real.” I promise you, you’re not on the walk alone. God’s church walks with you. God’s Holy Comforter walks with you.
Maybe you have other struggles or other things on your mind as you walk through life with God. The promise of hope is assured. God can be trusted. Make the decision to believe. Then walk into that belief. We all can because the hope of the Gospel is that God the Comforter has come and is with each of us, the Holy Spirit walking the long walk with us. We do not walk alone, but with God, every step.