New year, physical fitness goals
Happy new year! This is the time of the year when more people than ever actively pursue physical fitness. Any day in the YMCA where yChurch meets, there are new members setting goals, learning how to use the equipment, and showing up in the pursuit of stronger health.
One of the best stories from this YMCA is about a community member who had gained an unhealthy amount of weight and wanted to feel better again. But she was intimidated at the prospect of working out with others watching, judging her.
So she got in her car, drove here, and parked in the lot outside to watch who comes into this place. I think she says she did that thirteen times before she found enough faith to come in.
It was only after all those times watching others that she began to believe she wasn’t alone; that there are people who look like her here, who are making progress as she longed to. And that is how she found the courage to come inside and connect with a trainer. Over the ensuing twelve months, she dropped more than a hundred pounds as she grew physically stronger.
New year, spiritual fitness goals
The new year is also a great time to pursue growth in spiritual fitness. Today we pick up where we left off in our walk with Jesus through the gospel of John, so if you have a Bible or a Bible app, please open it to John chapter 4, beginning with verse 45. It’s an encounter that models an example of growing faith—what we can call the fullness of faith. Like that community member who took a first step driving to the outside of this Y, and then grew in physical fitness, this is an encounter with Jesus with faith that starts at one level, and keeps growing until it reaches the end goal the Lord has for our faith.
In John 4:45-54 we read…
When [Jesus] arrived in Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him. They had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, for they also had been there.
Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine. And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum. When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death.
“Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”
The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”
“Go,” Jesus replied, “your son will live.”
The man took Jesus at his word and departed. While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living. When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “Yesterday, at one in the afternoon, the fever left him.”
Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and his whole household believed.
This was the second sign Jesus performed after coming from Judea to Galilee.
The first time we read of Jesus being in Cana features the first sign that John’s gospel is structured around, Jesus miraculously turning water into wine. In that sign Jesus shows his power over time: something that naturally takes time to ferment, wine, is created instantly at Jesus’ command.
This second sign shows Jesus’ power over space: the fact that Jesus was in one place, Cana, while the sick child was in another place altogether, Capernaum, makes no difference. Jesus is Lord and is in no way limited by the normal restrictions of time or space.
So the question this passage raises is, if Jesus is Lord, how’s your faith in him? Is your faith growing? Starting wherever your faith is now, what could it look like in the year ahead for your faith to mature and deepen and come to fullness?
Growing in faith
In this man’s interaction with Jesus, he moves and grows through four levels of faith. Let’s take them one at a time. And here’s what I suggest: as we walk through this man’s story, think about where your faith is today. Coming off last year and all that it held for you, and with whatever your hopes are for the year ahead, how’s your faith? What is it that you believe the Lord would have you believe him for?
If you like to take notes, this father’s faith starts where it does for most people, and that is with a crisis. The first level of faith most begin at is what we can call…
1. Crisis faith
Verse 47: When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death…The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”
Any parent can viscerally feel the panic that this father was feeling. He’s likely wealthy—a royal official. He would have access to the best health care anyone could get. But nothing is working. He’s about to lose his loved son and has nowhere else to turn. All of his options have been exhausted.
But somehow, he hears of the miracle that Jesus did the last time he was in Cana. Admittedly, it wasn’t a healing. But if he could turn water to wine, maybe he could turn dying into thriving. So he leaves his dying son’s bedside and rushes to Cana. It took faith for him to leave his son. Think about that. That’s an amazing demonstration of faith in Jesus. Crisis faith can be genuine, real faith, as it is here.
And here’s good news, friends: time and time again in the gospels we see people turning to Jesus in crisis, and he doesn’t turn them away. Our Lord welcomes crisis faith—faith enough to cry out in a time of trouble.
If you are in a crisis right now, or if you are fearing a potential crisis on the horizon, here’s hope. As Psalm 46:1 sings…
“God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.”
When crisis comes, don’t hesitate a second to bring it to the Lord. Make calling on him the first thing you do, not the last resort.
Dr. Helen Roseveare has a story about this. She was a medical missionary in the Congo and tells of a mother dying after giving birth to a premature baby. Dr. Roseveare tried to improvise an incubator to save the baby’s life, but there was none. The only thing they could think of was to nestle the baby next to a warm hot water bottle. But the only one they had was split open and beyond repair. It was a full-blown crisis: a dead mother and about to be her prematurely-born baby dying as well.
So they called people together to pray. They called on Jesus with crisis faith on behalf of that baby and for her older sister who was now an orphan. One of the girls prayed, “Dear God, please send a hot water bottle today. Tomorrow will be too late. And dear Lord, send a doll for her sister so she won’t feel so lonely.” That was a crisis faith prayer: it roared up in a moment of deep crisis, and there was faith in the Lord to intervene. But what would happen?
That same afternoon, in their village in the Congo, a package arrived from England. Everyone watched as they opened it. First, they saw clothing. And then as they lifted up the clothing, beneath was a new, ready-for-use hot water bottle!
But God wasn’t done: the girl who had prayed that crisis faith prayer dug deeper into the package, sure that God was answering her prayer. And there, in a package that had been mailed five months before the crisis, was a doll—just as she had prayed for. Five months before that girl prayed a prayer in time of crisis, God had already led a women’s church group to send a package with both of the items she would pray for: a hot water bottle to save a prematurely-born infant, and a doll to comfort her sister.
Maybe there’s something you’ve prayed many times for, and you’re getting desperate. You have waited for the answer, but none has come yet. Know this: God knows what you need. Rest assured that an answer will come. “Before they call I will answer,” the Lord promises in Isaiah 65:24. “while they are still speaking I will hear…”
Simon Guillebaud, More Than Conquerors: A Call to Radical Discipleship (Monarch, 2010), p. 80
Even the most basic level of faith, crisis faith, God affirms. Maybe you’ve been here, in a crisis faith situation. Now you want to grow to the next level in your faith. That’s what we see next, what we can call…
2. Confident faith
From crisis faith prompting this father to leave his dying son’s bedside believing that Jesus could heal, watch how his faith grows to the next level upon hearing Jesus’ reply. Verse 50:
“Go,” Jesus replied, “your son will live.”
The man took Jesus at his word and departed.
Jesus goes from expressing frustration in verse 48 at those who won’t believe unless they see signs and wonders, to promising this child’s healing. I’ve read the commentaries, and I don’t know for sure how to make sense of verse 48. But I don’t think we need to be bothered by it. Jesus honored this man’s crisis faith and promised healing.
What’s worth paying far more attention to is the man’s growth in faith—that at the mere word of Jesus, he believes his son will be restored to health: confident faith in Jesus. It’s remarkable. He believed Jesus’ word and suddenly had confidence within. “The man took Jesus at his word and departed.”
How confident are you that what God in his Word has clearly promised, he will do? I found a powerful modern-day example of growing into confident faith, from Bryan Stephenson, founder of The Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that tries to help those unjustly convicted of crimes.
Stephenson tells of a case where he was trying his best to gain freedom for a man who was clearly innocent but declared guilty and sent to prison. He knew the charge was fraudulent in that about a dozen people had seen the man elsewhere when he allegedly committed the crime.
But none of those witnesses were allowed in the courtroom in that era because they were African-Americans. So Stephenson complained to the judge, and the judge reluctantly allowed a bit of that previously unheard eyewitness testimony.
An older black woman named Mrs. Williams was chosen to represent the group. But then came another big problem: a huge German shepherd stood guard outside the courtroom. And when Mrs. Williams, who was deathly afraid of dogs, saw the German shepherd, she froze in place and began to shake. Tears began running down her face before she turned around and ran out of the building.
Later she explained, “Mr. Stephenson, I feel so badly, I let you down today. I was meant to be in that courtroom. I should have been in that courtroom.” She began to cry again, and Stephenson couldn’t console her.
She said, “I wanted to be in there so bad. But when I saw that dog all I could think about was Selma, Alabama in 1965.” If you’ve seen the news footage, you know what she was remembering, with beatings and police dogs let loose on peaceful protestors.
Mrs. Williams continued, “I remember how they beat us, and I remember the dogs. [Thinking of that court building she explained] I wanted to move, and I tried to move, but I just couldn’t do it.” She walked away defeated, tears streaming down her face.
The next day her sister told Stevenson that Mrs. Williams hadn’t eaten or talked to anybody all night. They just heard her praying all night long the same prayer: “Lord, I can’t be scared of no dog. Lord, I can’t be scared of no dog.”
The next morning in the court building, she walked up to Stevenson and said, “I ain’t scared of no dog. I ain’t scared of no dog.” Then she walked right past that huge German shepherd and took her seat in the courtroom.
The room was packed when the judge walked in and everybody rose. Following court protocol, the judge announces that all may be seated. Instead, Mrs. Williams remained standing and announced in a loud, firm voice: “I’m here!”
Now catch this. Bryan Stevenson explains: “What she was saying wasn’t that she was physically present. She was saying, “I may be old, I may be poor, I may be black, but I am here because I got a vision of justice that compels me to stand up to injustice.”
And that, he explains, was when the tide for the case turned.
What are you scared of? And are you ready to grow from crisis faith to confident faith like Mrs. Williams, trusting Christ to keep you moving through that thing that so scares you?
From crisis faith to confident faith, this man’s faith keeps growing to the next level, what we can call…
3. Confirmed faith
While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living. When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “Yesterday, at one in the afternoon, the fever left him. Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.”
We don’t typically get answers to prayer as quickly as this man did, but confirmation of faith often does come. You look back and realize God did answer that prayer in crisis, or that prayer prayed with confidence.
This father suddenly realizes that not only had his son been healed. And not only did the Lord heal his son without Jesus being anywhere nearby physically. He realizes the Lord healed his son the moment that Jesus spoke. And so his faith was confirmed and strengthened.
You no doubt have stories of praying, and God answering, and it confirmed and strengthened your faith. J.P. Moreland has an amazing story not too dissimilar from the one we’re reading in Scripture today. Moreland is a philosophy professor at Biola University in California and tells the story in his own words, writing…
The Sunday evening service on February 20, 2005, had just ended and I wanted to get home. I was frustrated. …The previous Thursday a virus landed in my chest and throat, and in a period of less than three hours I went from being normal to having the worst case of laryngitis in the 35 years since college. On Friday I went to our walk-in clinic and received the bad news. The doctor warned that this virus was going around, she had seen several cases of it in the last few weeks, and there was nothing that could be done about it. I just had to wait it out. The laryngitis would last 7–10 days.
This couldn’t be, I whispered to her. My main day of teaching at the university was Monday, and I was looking at a full day of lecturing. I couldn’t afford to cancel classes because I had already missed my limit of canceled classes for that semester. To make matters worse, I was scheduled to deliver a three-hour lecture at a nearby church that Tuesday evening, and I didn’t want to let the church down.
It made no difference. The doctor said I wasn’t going to be able to speak either day, so I had to make other plans. My throat felt as if it had broken glass in it, and I was reduced to whispering. On Sunday evening I whispered a few greetings to various church friends; I tried to speak normally, but it hurt too much. After the service I had to get home, try to contact our department secretary that night…and cancel my classes for Monday. I could cancel with the church the next day.
As I was walking out of the sanctuary, two lay elders intercepted me. “Hey, J. P.,” one yelled, “you can’t leave yet. Hope (Moreland’s wife) just told us you have laryngitis, and we can’t let you get outta here without loving on you a bit and praying for your throat!” So one elder laid hands on my shoulders and the other placed his hand on my lower throat area and started praying.
To be honest, I wasn’t listening to a word they said. I had already left the church emotionally and wanted to get home to make my phone call. But something happened. As the two men prayed gently for me, I began to feel heat pour into my throat and chest from one elder’s hand. After two or three minutes of prayer, I was completely and irreversibly healed!
I started talking to them normally with no pain, no effort, no trace that anything had been wrong. I never had to make that call to my secretary. The laryngitis never returned.
Source: J. P. Moreland, distinguished professor of philosophy, Talbot School of Theology; source: Kingdom Triangle (Zondervan, 2007)
John highlights this son’s healing from a distance as a miracle, a sign revealing who Jesus is, the Word become flesh, God with us. He only highlights seven such signs. But history since then shows many examples of the Lord supernaturally healing the sick, in answer to believing prayer. In J.P. Moreland’s case, it was his friends’ faith that was confirmed within minutes of praying for him. For them, too, their faith grew from crisis faith, to confident faith, to confirmed faith.
There’s one more: the fullness of faith is right there in the final verse, even though it’s easy to miss. But John makes sure to include it for us. It is…
4. Contagious faith
Listen again to verse 53 in full and see if you catch it:
Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and his whole household believed.
Do you see it? The final sentence that John includes: this father returned home and told the story and led his whole family to faith in Jesus. He came to trust Jesus as Messiah. And he influenced them to trust Jesus as well. How could they not? That dying-now-thriving child was all the evidence they needed that Jesus is worth believing!
Here’s something fascinating you may never have noticed: both of these first two miraculous signs that John features—Jesus turning water to wine and Jesus healing this child from far away—were private rather than public. In both miracles, few knew what Jesus had done. But then faith went viral as word spread. This is the fullness of faith—when it goes full circle, starting when you were in crisis and cried out to the Lord, and going full circle as you tell the stories of how the Lord has answered your prayers.
Every believer has stories of answered prayer. And along the way this year, every one of us is going to come into conversation with someone who is in crisis. When it comes, ask the Lord for the opportunity to tell your story, so that your faith experience can help someone else in their crisis to trust the Lord and see their faith grow.
Someone has said that it’s usually not helpful to say to someone else, “Go to the cross. Trust Jesus.” Instead, it’s far better to invite that person, “Come to the cross. Trust Jesus with me.” To do the first is to stand over the other person. To do the latter is to do what this father did when he returned home: simply tell the story of how good the Lord has been to you, and invite them to trust him with their crisis as well.
You can do this. You can grow this year to fullness of faith whatever this year holds, trusting the Lord with crisis faith, that grows to confident faith, that goes on to become confirmed faith, and ultimately presents opportunity to become contagious faith. Jesus is awesome. He loves to be your refuge and strength, your ever-present help in trouble. And in the months ahead, you can be sure that he will open doors for you to invite others to trust him, too, that their faith can grow. Toward that end, let’s take a moment to call on the Lord. Let’s pray.
Lord Jesus, you who turned water to wine and dying to thriving;
You who turned a desperate father’s crisis into fullness of faith;
We trust you to do great works in us in this new year.
Grow our faith, we pray, from where it is, all the way to making it contagious in helping others come to trust you in their struggles.
Hear our prayer, and be pleased with your good work in us, we ask, our Savior and Lord. Amen!