JOHN IV. 48-50.
Then said Jesus unto him, Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe. The nobleman saith unto him, Sir, come down ere my child die. Jesus saith unto him, Go thy way; thy son liveth.
These words of our Lord are found in the Gospel for this day. They are a rebuke, though a gentle one. He reproved the nobleman, seemingly, for his want of faith: but He worked the miracle, and saved the life of the child.
We do not know enough of the circumstances of this case, to know exactly why our Lord reproved the nobleman; and what want of faith He saw in him. Some think that the man's fault was his mean notion of our Lord's power; his wish that He should come down the hills to Capernaum, and see the boy Himself, in order to cure him; whereas he ought to have known that our Lord could cure him--as He did--at a distance, and by a mere wish, which was no less than a command to nature, and to that universe which He had made.
I cannot tell how this may be: but of one thing I think we may be sure--That this saying of our Lord's is very deep, and very wide; and applies to many people, in many times--perhaps to us in these modern times.
We must recollect one thing--That our Lord did not put forward the mere power of His miracles as the chief sign of His being the Son of God. Not so: He declared His almighty power most chiefly by shewing mercy and pity. Twice He refused to give the Scribes and Pharisees a sign from heaven. "An evil and adulterous generation," He said, "seeketh after a sign: but there shall be no sign given them, but the sign of the prophet Jonas." And what was that,--but a warning to repent, and mend their ways, ere it was too late?
Now the slightest use of our common sense must tell us, that our Lord could have given a sign of His almighty power if He had chosen; and such a sign as no man, even the dullest, could have mistaken. What prodigy could He not have performed, before Scribes and Pharisees, Herod, and Pontius Pilate? "Thinkest thou," He said Himself, "that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will send Me presently more than twelve legions of angels?" Yet how did our Lord use that miraculous and almighty power of His? Sparingly, and secretly. Sparingly; for He used it almost entirely in curing the diseases of poor people; and secretly; for He used it almost entirely in remote places. Jerusalem itself, recollect, was at best a remote city compared with any of the great cities of the Roman empire. And even there He refused to cast Himself down from a pinnacle of the temple, for a sign and wonder to the Jews. If He, the Lord of the world, had meant to convert the world by prodigious miracles, He would surely have gone to Rome itself, the very heart and centre of the civilized world, and have shewn such signs and wonders therein, as would have made the Caesar himself come down from his throne, and worship Him, the Lord of all.
But no. Our Lord wished for the obedience, not of men's lips, but of their hearts. It was their hearts which He wished to win, that they might love Him--and be loyal to Him--for the sake of His goodness; and not fear and tremble before Him for the sake of His power. And therefore He kept, so to speak, His power in the background, and put His goodness foremost; only shewing His power in miracles of healing and mercy; that so poor neglected, oppressed, hardworked souls might understand that whoever did not care for them, Christ their Lord did; and that their disease and misery were not His will; nor the will of His Father and their Father in heaven.
But because, also, Christ was Lord of heaven and earth; therefore--if I may make so bold as to guess at the reason for anything which He did--He seems to have interfered as little as possible with those regular rules and customs of this world about us, which we now call the Laws of Nature. He did not offer--as the magicians of His time did offer--and as too many have pretended since to do--to change the courses of the elements, to bring down tempests or thunderbolts, to shew prodigies in the heaven above, and in the earth beneath. Why should He? Heaven and earth, moon and stars, fire and tempest, and all the physical forces in the universe, were fulfilling His will already; doing their work right well according to the law which He had given them from the beginning. He had no need to disturb them, no need to disturb the growth of a single flower at His feet.
Rather He loved to tell men to look at them, and see how they went well, because His Father in heaven cared for them. To tell people to look, not at prodigies, comets, earthquakes, and the seeming exceptions of God's rule: but at the common, regular, simple, peaceful work of God, which is going on around us all day long in every blade of grass, and flower, and singing bird, and sunbeam, and shower. To consider the lilies of the field how they grow: which toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.--And the birds of the air: They sow not, neither reap, nor gather into barns; and yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. How much more will He feed you, who can sow, and reap, and gather into barns?--O ye of little faith, who fancy always that besides sowing and reaping honestly, you must covet, and cheat, and lie, and break God's laws instead of obeying them; or else, forsooth, you cannot earn your living? To see that the signs of God's Kingdom are not astonishing convulsions, terrible catastrophes and disorders: but order, and peace, and usefulness, in creatures which are happy, because they live according to the law which God has given them, and do their duty--that duty, of which the great poet of the English Church has sung--
Stern Lawgiver! Thou yet dost wear The Godhead's most benignant grace Nor know we anything so fair As is the smile upon thy face. Flowers laugh before thee on their beds, And fragrance in thy footing treads; Thou dost preserve the stars from wrong, And the most ancient heavens, through thee, are fresh and strong.
But men would not believe that in our Lord's time; neither would they believe it after His time. Will they believe it even now? They craved after signs and wonders; they saw God's hand, not in the common sights of this beautiful world; not in seed-time and harvest, summer and winter; not in the blossoming of flowers, and the song of birds: but only in strange portents, absurd and lying miracles, which they pretended had happened, because they fancied that they ought to have happened: and so built up a whole literature of unreason, which remains to this day, a doleful monument of human folly and superstition.
But is not this too true of some at least of us in this very day? Must not people now see signs and wonders before they believe in God?
Do they not consider whatever is strange and inexplicable, as coming immediately from God? While whatever they are accustomed to, or fancy that they can explain, they consider comes in what they call the course of nature, without God's having anything to do with it?
If a man drops down dead, they say he died "by the hand of God," or "by the visitation of God:" as if any created thing or being could die, or live either, save by the will and presence of God: as if a sparrow could fall to the ground without our Father's knowledge. But so it is; because men's hearts are far from God.
If an earthquake swallowed up half London this very day, how many would be ready to cry, "Here is a visitation of God. Here is the immediate hand of God. Perhaps Christ is coming, and the end of the world at hand." And yet they will not see the true visitation, the immediate hand of God, in every drop of rain which comes down from heaven; and returneth not again void, but gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater. But so it always has been. Men used to see God and His power and glory almost exclusively in comets, auroras, earthquakes. It was not so very long ago, that the birth of monstrous or misshapen animals, and all other prodigies, as they were called, were carefully noted down, and talked of far and wide, as signs of God's anger, presages of some coming calamity.--Atheists while they are in safety, superstitious when they are in danger--Requiring signs and wonders to make them believe--Interested only in what is uncommon and seems to break God's laws--Careless about what is common, and far more wonderful, because it fulfils God's laws--Such have most men been for ages, and will be, perhaps, to the end; shewing themselves, in that respect, carnal and no wiser than dumb animals.
For it is carnal, animal and brutish, and a sign of want of true civilization, as well as of true faith, only to be interested and surprised by what is strange; like dumb beasts, who, if they see anything new, are attracted by it and frightened by it, at the same time: but who, when once they are accustomed to it, and have found out that it will do them no harm, are too stupid to feel any curiosity or interest about it, though it were the most beautiful or the most wonderful object on earth.
But I will tell you of a man after God's own heart, who was not like the dumb animals, nor like the ungodly and superstitious; because he was taught by the Spirit of God, and spoke by the Spirit of God. One who saw no signs and wonders, and yet believed in God--namely, the man who wrote the 139th Psalm. He needed no prodigies to make him believe. The thought of his own body, how fearfully and wonderfully it was made, was enough to make him do that. He looked on the perfect order and law which ruled over the development of his own organization, and said--"I will praise Thee. For I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Marvellous are Thy works, and that my soul knoweth right well. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being imperfect; and in Thy Book were all my members written, which day by day were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. How dear are Thy counsels unto me, O God! how great is the sum of them!"
And I will tell you of another man who needed no signs and wonders to make him believe--the man, namely, who wrote the 19th Psalm. He looked upon the perfect order and law of the heavens over his head, and the mere sight of the sun and moon and stars was enough for him; and he said--"The heavens declare the glory of God, the firmament sheweth His handy-work. One day telleth another, and one night certifieth another. There is neither speech nor language, where their voice is not heard among them."
And I will tell you of yet another man who needed no signs and wonders to make him believe--namely, the man who wrote the 104th Psalm. He looked on the perfect order and law of the world about his feet; and said,--"O Lord, how manifold are Thy works. In wisdom hast Thou made them all: the earth is full of Thy riches. So is the great and wide sea also, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts. These all wait upon Thee, that Thou mayest give them their meat in due season. Thou givest to them; they gather. Thou openest Thy hand; they are filled with good. Thou hidest Thy face; they are troubled. Thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. Thou sendest forth Thy breath, they are created; and Thou renewest the face of the earth. The glory of the Lord shall endure for ever. The Lord shall rejoice in His works."
My friends, let us all pray to God and to Christ, that They will put into our hearts the Spirit by which those psalms were written: that They will take from us the evil heart of unbelief, which must needs have signs and wonders, and forgets that in God we live and move and have our being. For are we not all--even the very best of us--apt to tempt our Lord in this very matter?
When all things go on in a common-place way with us--that is, in this well-made world, comfortably, easily, prosperously--how apt we all are--God forgive us--to forget God. How we forget that on Him we depend for every breath we draw; that Christ is guarding us daily from a hundred dangers, a hundred sorrows, it may be from a hundred disgraces, of which we, in our own self-satisfied blindness, never dream. How dull our prayers become, and how short. We almost think, at times, that there is no use in praying, for we get all we want without asking for it, in what we choose to call the course of circumstances and nature.--God forgive us, indeed.
But when sorrow comes, anxiety, danger, how changed we are all of a sudden. How gracious we are when pangs come upon us--like the wicked queen-mother in Jerusalem of old, when the invaders drove her out of her cedar palace. How we cry to the Lord then, and get us to our God right humbly. Then, indeed, we feel the need of prayer. Then we try to wrestle with God, and cry to Him--and what else can we do?--like children lost in the dark; entreat Him, if there be mercy in Him--as there is, in spite of all our folly--to grant some special providence, to give us some answer to our bitter entreaties. If He will but do for us this one thing, then we will believe indeed. Then we will trust Him, obey Him, serve Him, as we never did before.
Ah, if there were in Christ any touch of pride or malice! Ah, if there were in Christ aught but a magnanimity and a generosity altogether boundless! Ah, if He were to deal with us as we have dealt with Him! Ah, if He were to deal with us after our sins, and reward us according to our iniquities!
If He refused to hear us; if He said to us,--You forgot me in your prosperity, why should I not forget you in your adversity?--What could we answer? Would that answer not be just? Would it not be deserved, however terrible? But our hope and trust is, that He will not answer us so; because He is not our God only, but our Saviour; that He will deal with us as one who seeks and saves that which is lost, whether it knows that it is lost or not.
Our hope is, that the Lord is very pitiful and of tender mercy; that because He is man, as well as God, He can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; that He knoweth our frame, He remembereth of what we are made: else the spirit would fail before Him, and the souls which He has made. So we can have hope, that, though Christ rebuke us, He will yet hear us, if our prayers are reasonable, and therefore according to His will. And surely, surely, surely, if our prayers are for the improvement of any human being; if we are praying that we, or any human being, may be made better men and truer Christians at last, and saved from the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil--oh then, then shall we not be heard? The Lord may keep us long waiting, as He kept St Monica of old, when she wept over St Augustine's youthful sins and follies. But He may answer us, as He answered her by the good bishop--"Be of good cheer. It is impossible that the son of so many prayers should perish." And so, though He may shame us, in our inmost heart, by the rebuke--"Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe"--He will in the same breath grant our prayer, undeserved though His condescension be, and say--"Go in peace, thy son liveth."
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