I love the title of one of Dr. James Dobson’s books: Parenting Isn’t For Cowards. As a father of three, I, too, know that raising kids is not for the faint of heart.
I remember reading about a guy who stopped in the grocery store on the way home from work to pick up a couple of items for his wife. He wandered around aimlessly for a while searching out the needed groceries. As is often the case in the grocery store, he kept passing this same shopper in almost every aisle. It was another father trying to shop with a totally uncooperative three year old boy in the cart.
The first time they passed, the three year old was asking over and over for a candy bar. Our observer couldn’t hear the entire conversation. He just heard Dad say, “Now, Billy, this won’t take long.” As they passed in the nest aisle, the 3-year-old’s pleas had increased several octaves. Now Dad was quietly saying, “Billy, just calm down. We will be done in a minute.”
When they passed near the dairy case, the kid was screaming uncontrollably. Dad was still keeping his cool. In a very low voice he was saying, “Billy, settle down. We are almost out of here.” The Dad and his son reached the check out counter just ahead of our observer. He still gave no evidence of losing control. The boy was screaming and kicking. Dad was very calmly saying over and over, “Billy, we will be in the car in just a minute and then everything will be OK.”
The bystander was impressed beyond words. After paying for his groceries, he hurried to catch up with this amazing example of patience and self-control just in time to hear him say again, “Billy, we’re done. It’s going to be OK.” He tapped the patient father on the shoulder and said, “Sir, I couldn’t help but watch how you handled little Billy. You were amazing.”
Dad replied, “You don’t get it, do you?” I’m Billy!”
Fatherhood can be a challenge! Consider the first-time father who was taking his first turn at feeding his baby some strained peas. Naturally, there were traces of the food everywhere, floor, ceiling, and especially on the infant. His wife comes in and sees the huge mess. She looks at the baby, then at her husband who appeared to be just sitting staring off into space oblivious to the whole situation. She asks, “What in the world are you doing?”
He replied, “I’m waiting for the first coat to dry, so I can put on another.”
While shopping and feeding may be challenges, nothing is as hard for a parent as watching a little one get sick or hurt. Every parent knows the feeling of wishing they could trade places with an ailing child. On July 8, 1979, Rose and I experienced that first hand. One Sunday afternoon., we took some friends by to look at a new house we were thinking about buying. We were busy inside while our two older kids, ages 9 and 10, had decided to stay outside and play in the front yard.
A few minutes into the visit, I heard a commotion at the front door. It is all sort of blur. Rose says all that she heard was me saying to our ten year old son, “Stay outside! Don’t get blood on the carpet.” Tony had his hand over his fore head as blood streamed everywhere. He and his sister had been racing on the sidewalk. He tripped and struck his head on the corner of the hatchback of our station wagon.
We put a cold rag on his head and decided it looked bad enough that we ought to get some stitches. So off to the emergency room we headed. At the hospital the emergency room doctor examined the minor head injury while we waited nearby. We weren’t surprised when he said they were going take an x-ray. We didn’t think much of it when he stepped out to tell us he was calling in a plastic surgeon to do the stitches. Of course, we didn’t want any major scar. But we spent the rest of the night in shock, after he came out again and said, he had called for a neurosurgeon because our son had a compressed skull fracture and required emergency brain surgery.
It was a long night as we waited while our son went through what could have been a life threatening procedure. After a few days in the hospital, Tony was on his road to recovery. For him the worst thing was that they had to shave half his head for the surgery. His initial scar that ran from ear to ear across his head was so bad that when his three year old brother saw the seam across the top of his head for the first time, he could only say, “Tony, your head looks like a “base-a-ball.”
If you have ever watched your sick child struggle, you know a little bit about what this unnamed father in our story was going through. The gospel doesn’t tell us a lot about him. What we do know paints a graphic picture. He was a nobleman, probably a member of the royal family of Herod Antipas. He had servants, so we presume he was fairly wealthy. Here is the heart of the matter. This nobleman was also a father. More than that, his son was so sick that he feared he would die. Wealth and rank all become secondary when your child is sick.
John includes several interesting details in the story. The most important is probably the fact that this was the second of what John calls miraculous signs performed by Jesus. John will later say that the stories of these seven miracles he records are intended to bring those who would later read his account to faith (John 20:30-31). I think this sign, in particular, teaches some important lessons about the various forms that faith can take, some good and some bad. In this story, we can see illustrated five different levels of faith
The first level is miracle-seeking faith. For some this may be the starting point for real faith. But often it is a dead end. Such a faith is only as strong as the next miracle. Too often the plea of the miracle seeking faith is “Lord, what have you done for me lately?”
John points out the prevailing attitude toward Jesus. First the locals in Nazareth didn’t regard Him as anything special at first. “A prophet has no honor in his own country.” But when the fame of Jesus’ works elsewhere preceded His return to Galilee, everything changed. He was a star!
Jesus’ first response the nobleman’s plea for help was a comment more about the public than about this particular father. Jesus replies in the plural. “Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe” (John 4:48). What is wrong with such faith?
First, it easily degenerates into testing God, as if we are offering God a deal. “Wow me, and I’ll do you the favor of believing in you.” This turns the whole experience of faith upside down. Secondly, such faith is easily deceived. Too many people have been hood-winked and bamboozled by every sort of crook and charlatan skilled at magic and manipulation. Jesus warned that in the last days, “… false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect – if that were possible” (Matthew 24:24).
The reality is, however, that such faith is seldom ever enough. Most people treat miracles, real or pretended, simply as an opportunity to demand another one. Jesus offered a penetrating observation in His conclusion to the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16. In a strange expression of last minute compassion the Rich Man, now dead and in torment, condemned for his callused life, cries out to Abraham and the poor beggar. He had ignored both his God and his needy neighbor in life, but requests the help of both now that he is in an eternal predicament. He asks for personal relief and then asks that someone from the dead be sent to warn his family of what is to come if they don’t turn their lives around. In Jesus’ story, Abraham replies, “‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead'”(Luke 16:31). Miracle seeking faith is never enough!
I think this is at least part of the reason Jesus performed the miracle the way He did. The father wanted Him to come to his boy. Jesus chose to perform a long distance miracle. Faith is never about where you are, but who you turn to.
This brings us to another aspect of faith. Some people’s faith is casual or academic. Praying and worshipping provides a nice respite from the routines of life. But religious matters remain on the fringes of what really matters. We all know people like that. Church membership roles are filled with such folk.
All of that changes when life come crashing in. I have no idea what this Nobleman’s faith or religion was like before. But when his son almost died, everything changed. The father responds to Jesus statement as if to say, “I don’t know anything about what other people are thinking or doing or what signs they are demanding. I just want my son to get well. Can you help me?” Did you note the words the father used? John says the Nobleman’s son was sick. When the father himself speaks, the terminology changes. He says, “My little boy is dying.” He was desperate. A desperate faith is better than a casual faith, but it is also dangerous. When we are desperate we are prone to turn to anything for help.
I cannot say this strongly enough; faith is only as good or effective as its object. Desperate faith in the wrong object always disappoints. Faith without a reliable object is mere superstition or gullibility. Desperate faith is one thing, blind faith is another. Faith is not about how strong you feel or how emotional your intentions. It is always about trusting the right object. I can believe/have faith that the pill I take from the medicine cabinet is my prescription for gout, but if it is something else, no matter what I believe or think, it will either do me no good or actually cause me harm.
The Nobleman turned to Jesus. He probably rode twenty miles across Galilee to find Him. He could have gone elsewhere and been just as sincere and desperate about it. Sincerity alone is never the issue. It wasn’t for this desperate father and it isn’t for you.
Our desperate father went to the right source. He also put his faith into action. Faith is always more than emotion and tingly feelings. It never just stops at words and sweet professions of sincerity. Observe what the Nobleman did. “He went to Jesus. He pleaded his case. He listened intently. And then he took Jesus at His word. Jesus replied, “You may go. Your son will live.” The man took Jesus at His word and departed” (John 4:50).
Faith that saves for eternity and sustains in the emergencies of life always produces a positive action. It takes God at His word and obeys. The hymn we often sing teaches this: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey. What He says we will do, Where He sends we will go, Never fear, only trust and obey.”
But the Nobleman’s story doesn’t end here. He takes Jesus at His word. A little later, he is met by servants who had been sent to tell him that his son was well. He asks about the timing. He learns that the fever had broke at exactly one o’clock, the very time Jesus’ had pronounced the boy healed. Coincidence? This father knew better.
It is like what the old country preacher replied to a skeptic. “All I knows is that when I pray, coincidences happen. When I don’t pray, they don’t.”
People who turn to Jesus in faith don’t believe in coincidences. They believe in God-incidences!
John records an interesting note in the story. At this point, when the father realized the timing of the event, he believed in Jesus. Hadn’t he believed before? Hadn’t he turned to Jesus? Hadn’t he taken Him at His word? Of course he had. But there is an important progression in faith. First he came out of desperation, then he believed in a specific event or power. But once he understood who Jesus really was his faith took on a new dimension.
It is one thing to believe that Jesus answers my prayers of desperation or helps me in emergencies, it is altogether another matter to believe that He is Lord of life, that He is worthy of following and obeying all of the time all of the way.
At this point in the story, the Nobleman becomes a follower of Jesus, not just a miracle seeker or desperate father. He became a personal believer.
There is an interesting footnote to this story that some Bible scholars point out. We have no way of knowing for sure, but some feel this same nobleman is referred to by name later in the New Testament. In Acts 13, Luke records the call of Barnabas and Saul to their missionary ministry. He notes that among the leaders of the church in Antioch through whom the Lord issued this directive was a man named “Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch)” (Acts 13:1). Perhaps, Manaen first came to Christ as a desperate father and then followed as a true believer who would be an important leader in the early church.
There remains one other fact about the faith of the Nobleman that takes it to another level. His new found relationship to Jesus was contagious. He not only believed personally, his family followed. This is the acid test of a true conversion. When those who know us best are so impressed by our testimony and transformation that they want to follow too, then something very significant has happened.
Of course, there are no guarantees. All of us know that after a certain point we have no control over the actions and decisions of our children. Despite the fact that everyone of us who love and know Jesus want our families to follow, that does not always happen for lots of reasons. But I am sure of this, the deeper, the more genuine, the more sincere and personal our faith, the more likely it will rub off on those around us. A hypocritical, inconsistent, compromising, shallow faith has little appeal to those who live with us day in and day out.
This desperate father received more than he bargained for. He came wanting his sick boy to become well. Apparently, his boy not only lived; he also came to believe in Jesus!
This was the second of Jesus’ seven miraculous signs John tells us about. As Professor Merrill C. Tenney observed, these signs seem to operate in the very areas of life where we are most powerless, where we most need divine intervention (Survey of the New Testament, p. 191). Our families certainly qualify as such an area. Who among doesn’t desperately need and want Jesus’ help in the lives of our children and loved ones?
Faith may start with a search for a miracle. But that is never enough. Real faith is a desperate turning to the right source for help. That right source for life and eternity is Jesus Christ. But faith must move beyond desperation to trusting obedience. It must be personal and hopefully contagious. We can pray that those we love will catch it as well.
At what stage is your faith? Are you ready to take it to the next level? You can today, right now!