Jew first then the Greek
The 21st Sunday After Trinity
Isaiah 59:15b-21, Psalm 76, Ephesians 6:10-20, St. John 4:46-54
His Mercy Endures
Back in Colorado, we were living temporarily above 8,000 feet on a mountain about 30 minutes west of town. In the fall, we could watch the elk gnaw on the trees near the house. An eagle kept watch from his perch 50 yards away. It was all awfully rustic.
One day I learned in the daily report that a varmint had penetrated our perimeter.
Now, you must understand that my wife grew up on a farm. The appearance of a mouse does not excite in her hysteria of the stand-on-a-chair-and-shriek kind.
But in the washing machine?
In the way of his kind, little Tom or Jerry – we can’t be sure – proved elusive. Even in that restricted space, she could not catch him barehanded. She hatched a plan.
She returned with a piece of cheese and a plastic container. That morsel of Muenster proved a fateful temptation. When he pounced on the cheese she pounced on him. Voila! She held him captive.
She headed for the door, intending to release him into the wild where he could roam the Rockies, for all she cared, in search of more agreeable accommodation. On the way, alas, he escaped his plastic prison and scurried off in the garage.
Oh, well. She had flushed him from her washer. So far so good.
But it was – I’d swear it on the Bible – the very next washday when she reported, “He’s back in the washer . . . the same mouse.”
The same mouse?
“I recognized him.”
I of all people do testify to her patient and forgiving nature; still . . . she has her limits. This time, no more Mrs. Nice Gal. This time, that mouse underwent an Egyptian baptism in churning waters that do not part . . . followed by the spin cycle.
Then she cast the furry remains into that dusky netherworld where unrepentant rodents go to ponder the price of their transgressions. That mouse could have accepted her grace with thanksgiving. Instead, he vexed her once too often.
Many people are like that mouse.
St. John takes us to a fork in the road today. At the end of the fourth chapter of his gospel, we find our Lord Jesus back in Cana, the scene of the first of His seven signs. This time, He will perform a miracle more stunning by gallons than turning water into wine.
Of that first miracle, the evangelist has reported, “This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him” (2:11). The Lord went next to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of the Passover, and there He performed more miracles. These are not specified but because of them many more “believed in His name” (2:23).
Follow closely now the progression of events that ensues. In Jerusalem, a Pharisee called “a ruler of the Jews,” Nicodemus by name, approaches Jesus under cover of darkness. Nicodemus confesses that those miracles have proved to him that Jesus had “come from God” (3:2).
Flattery will get him nowhere. Jesus stuns him with the announcement that to enter the kingdom of God one must be born again (3:3). Huh? Nicodemus is bewildered, and his confusion earns him scorn.
Jesus says, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” (3:10). And, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (3:12).
Poor ol’ Nicodemus . . . you just want to hug him. He has taken the unthinkable step of paying homage to this radical rabbi from the hills who has just now thrown the money-changers out of the temple and claimed He could rebuild that temple in three days. For his devotion he gets a tongue-lashing.
But Jesus does nothing without a purpose. While Jews of no reputation, rustics in Galilee and commoners in the capital, believe in His name, the elite of Israel cannot conceive that Messiah has appeared.
Even those such as Nicodemus who do not oppose Jesus, who regard Him as one sent by God, do not grasp the nature of His Person and His mission. This Jesus is the Light of the World. His disciples come to Him in broad daylight, not when darkness blankets the Holy Land. The wealthy and privileged know their Scriptures and the promise of a Savior they hold out; are they blind?
Yet how many today grow up in Christian homes, regular in worship and study, only to wander away and never return. In my own family we have a young man, now in his middle 30s, who fled the faith in his late teens and appears bent on pushing back the frontier of immorality. Will he ever come back? God knows.
Nothing less than the kingdom of God has arrived in the Person of Jesus Christ. He has come to the Jew first and then to the Greek (Romans 1:16, 2:10). But the leaders of Israel, as represented by Nicodemus, the best of them, have inherited and perpetuated a legacy of calcification.
Over generations, over centuries, they have so corrupted the revelation God has given through the law and the prophets that when Messiah appears the best they can do is gawk at His mighty works with no understanding of the “why” of them. They are like children entranced by a magician.
The worst they can do is seek to destroy this God who has challenged the kingdom of man they have constructed so painstakingly on a foundation of sand.
Jesus moves on. We follow Him next, in chapter 4, moving northward through Samaria, where He encounters the woman at the well. We see Him proceeding from a distinguished Jewish teacher to a most common creature.
She is not a Jew and, even worse, she is a member of that despised race of half-breeds descended from the Assyrian conquerors of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the least of the Jews whom they left in the land. She is not a male but a female, and as such her status is little higher than that of a bondservant.
She has a tarnished past and is today a fornicator. Surely, Messiah would not waste a single moment, expend a single breath, on one such as her.
Oh, but He will. God is unfurling His kingdom on the earth and if those to whom the great feast is offered will not enter, the King will call others. Did He not say by His prophet Isaiah, “The Lord has made bare His holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (52:10)?
Jesus says to this woman, “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). The Hebrew Scriptures taught throughout that salvation, in the Person of the Messiah, would enter the world through the Jewish nation. Now He has, and His own do not know Him, but . . .
The Samaritan woman believes, and testifies to others in her city. Many believe her, but then they believe in the One of whom she bears witness: “’Now we believe, not because of what you said, for we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world’” (4:42).
Not Jews but Samaritans echo the confession of John the Baptist, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29).
Stay with me in the flow, now, because our understanding of our text for today rises when we see in it the climax of the events that precede it. St. John relates in the next two verses that after spending two days in that city of Samaria the Lord proceeds farther north into Galilee. Why?
“For Jesus Himself testified that a prophet has no honor in his own country” (4:44).
He is going home to those who hold Him familiar. He’s the carpenter’s kid, not a rock-star rabbi from the capital. Who there will recognize Him for who He is?
His fellow Galilean Jews “receive” Him. They welcome Him, treat Him with deference. Why? They have “seen all the things He did in Jerusalem at the feast; for they also had gone to the feast” (4:45). They accord Him the drooling adulation of teen-aged girls at a concert, not the honor due a Prophet of God.
And now we arrive at the episode of the nobleman whose son is dying. This man is probably a Roman official working in the administration of Herod Antipas, governor of Galilee. The gentile government in the region is headquartered at Sepphoris, three-and-a-half miles from Nazareth, where Jesus grew up.
This nobleman lives in Capernaum, at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. Having heard of Jesus and His mighty works, he treks westward through the mountains to Cana, 20 miles distant, to plead for his son’s life.
And he, like Nicodemus, earns a rebuke. “Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus says to him, “you will by no means believe.”
Jesus is not addressing this gentile official alone but the Galileans who have thronged to this wonder-working rabbi. St. John, who makes so much of the seven signs he shows us the Lord performing, is not condemning the signs themselves but those who will not regard them as manifestations of One endued with divine power and authority.
For the nobleman, the Lord’s words are a test of faith. Will he skulk away, humiliated by the accusation that he is imploring help from a wizard rather than the Creator of heaven and earth?
“Sir,” he says urgently, “come down before my child dies!” (4:49). He did not come looking for a theology lecture; he’s trying to save his son. He knows in the depths of his soul that Jesus has the power of life and death. He is the life of the world. Is that not the faith to which you and I are called?
But Jesus does not budge a single step. “Go your way; your son lives,” He says (4:50). And the man’s faith is sufficient. He simply turns and goes, trusting. And then he confirms, perhaps for the benefit of his servants he meets on the way home, that the boy’s fever broke at the time Jesus pronounced him healed.
“And he himself believed, and his whole household” (4:53).
The rulers of the Jews will not believe, but many Samaritans and now an official of the occupying force and his family and servants do. From what does this love of God spring? From need, need for a God who first loved us.
But one born into sin must put away pride. He must first humble himself to admit his need for the saving power of One greater than he.
A nobleman of the ruling Romans pours out his need to a low-born carpenter of the subservient people. You and I have the great privilege of approaching our Lord on His throne to beg, “Lord, have mercy upon us.”
First, the Jews of Jerusalem; next the Samaritans; then the gentile nobleman in Galilee. The evangelist is showing us our Lord foreshadowing the mission of His church revealed in the Book of Acts. In chapter 1, the resurrected Jesus says:
“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (v. 8).
In chapter 2, St. Peter tells the Jews gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost to repent and be baptized (v. 38), adding, “For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off (the gentiles), as many as the Lord our God will call” (v. 39).
In chapter 10 we encounter the Roman centurion Cornelius who feared God “with all his household.” In chapter 16, first Lydia and then the Philippian jailer come to faith and they and their entire households are baptized. The kingdom is billowing out to blanket the known world.
In the fourth chapter of his gospel, meanwhile, St. John shows us his Lord and ours at that fork in the road. He will take the path that leads to the cross, where He will make the final sacrifice – not for one tribe or nation but for those from all tribes and nations.
Opposition in Israel will mount even as Jesus’ fame grows among those enchanted by His signs and wonders until, in chapter 6, He tells the adoring masses, “. . . unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (v. 53).
And His popularity plummets. A gentile nobleman trusted in Him as the life of the world but Jesus’ fellow Jews will not make that radical confession. Salvation is “of the Jews” but masses of the Jews will join their leaders in rejecting their promised Messiah.
For us gentiles, I suppose, there would be no end of comfort in leaving the story there. Alas, we know too many people like the mouse who would not accept grace.
When I was attending another school before I moved over to our Reformed Episcopal seminary, Cranmer Theological House, I had a professor in a preaching class who told of his own father.
This man had heard the gospel of God’s salvation from his son, who was eminently qualified to present it, and he refused it. “I want to go to hell,” he told his son, and no argument, no plea, could dissuade him. “For the life I’ve lived, hell is where I deserve to be, and hell is where I want to go.”
Few are quite so candid, but many share the sentiment.
Rejection of the gospel burbles up from a pit of perverse pride that makes one’s own acts the measure of his worth before God and not faith in the consummate act of the Lord Jesus on the cross. If only those who lived a meritorious life entered the kingdom of heaven, its population would never exceed Three.
But God’s mercy endures . . . and it extends to all who draw breath, to both Jew and gentile. The way of salvation is open today to any Jew who will name Jesus as the promised Messiah.
Indeed, the New Testament shows Samaritans and gentiles embracing God’s grace in no small measure to fill the first covenant people with envy. St. Paul writes in Romans 11 that he takes the gospel to the gentiles to “provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them.”
The way is open to that young man in my family. His Christian parents named him Paul and his namesake was once a sworn enemy of the Lord Christ. The way is open, if he is still alive, to that seminary professor’s father.
Salvation dangles like low-hanging fruit before anyone who will join the gentile nobleman who humbled himself before a Jewish carpenter’s son, placing his trust in Jesus Christ as the life of the world. His kingdom has come. He abides with us today in His Holy Spirit. He is our Redeemer, our Head, our joy . . . and the hope of the world. Amen.