14. October 2012
“Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” Faith and signs go together. How does one know if the sign is true and from God or false and of the devil?
We look under ever rock for signs from God. We believe small events in our lives are signs despite the fact that God never promised such things nor is there any way to verify them. “Show me a sign and then I’ll know what to do!” or “It’s a sign from God,” you say. Especially when things get rough, you seek guidance and help from God and may even believe He speaks by your horoscope, your mystical gut instinct, or some absent hope grounded in nothing.
False teachers tell you to trust in worldly signs. Under the guise of Christianity they tell you that if you have enough faith then God will answer your prayers for great things. If you believe it with enough passion then He’ll do it. Pray hard. Believe that God will bless you abundantly and you’ll be rich beyond comparison. You can have you best life now if you have faith like a mountain. Miracles happen to those who love God completely. It’s almost as if we are trying to convince God to love us. Then we go about our life paralyzed waiting for Him to give us a sign to help us believe, trust, and hope.
God is not without giving of signs. The rainbow is a sign that God will never destroy the world with a flood. We heard from Genesis that the stars and planets were given for signs and seasons. No one disputes that Jesus worked great signs beyond any of the prophets or even Moses. Jesus wasn’t trying to impress people. He couldn’t care less for popularity. And it doesn’t seem like His signs and wonders had much lasting effect.
Jesus said: “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” By signs and wonders, He means amazingly good stuff. Water into wine. Loaves and fishes multiplied. Peter walking on water. The sick healed. The lame leaping like deer, etc. If only God dramatically intervened in my life like He did for those folks, then I’d know He exists, that He loves me, and that He answers prayer. Thus, faith comes post hoc, that is, after signs and wonders. Yet, no one seems to believe based on the miracles He performed. The rejoice and then go back to the unbelieving ways.
What happens if God gives you a sign? Do you even recognize them? How do you know they are from God unless He has spoken? Fact is, you don’t know. That premonition or coincidence might just be that or it could even be Satan seeking to draw you away from God’s Word.
There are still problems with signs even if they are from God. What happens if you don’t like what He tells you? What if God gives you signs that you and all are your stuff are marching towards death? What if the signs are of the end of all things?
Jesus said of the end: “And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” (Luke 21:25-26) Surely, we are already seeing these signs come to pass, signaling the end of this earth?
So also, Jesus said: “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows.” (Matthew 24:6-8). Again, we are seeing signs of the time. Do we despair and panic? These times and troubles tell us that the whole world is under a curse for sin and is being judged. Or do we heed the Word of the Lord, that is, repent and believe the Gospel?
“Turn these rocks into bread!” said Satan. Jesus responded: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4) The signs and wonders recorded by the Evangelists of Jesus are not meant to make you think he’s impressive or even worth listening to. They show the mercy of God and that His kingdom comes in with the Messiah Jesus. That is, the signs are given as proof that God has done what He has promised. They don’t grant faith but they confirm it.
Jesus said: “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” What is He getting at? As with the Centurion, the widow at Nain, or the begging Canaanite woman, Jesus is speaking rhetorically to test this nobleman’s faith. Will this man believe solely upon the Word or will he only believe with a sign?
The Nobleman from Capernaum came to Jesus for a sign. This wealthy guy comes seeking healing for his son who he has left at home, next to death. He wants a miracle and is willing to beg. What does Jesus give Him? Not a sign or a miracle but a Word. The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” Jesus said to him, “Go, your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way.
Notice that no sign or wonder was performed before this man’s eyes. Jesus didn’t leave Cana and go to Capernaum. He didn’t touch the boy, call out to the boy, and give the boy one of Miracle Max’s potions. No miracle to see. Not even His word is all that miraculous. Jesus did not say, “Go, your son is healed” or “Go, your son is all better now.” Simple words only are uttered: “Your son lives.”
While this man comes noble and bold seeking signs and wonders, Jesus sends him away a simple man with only a word of promise: “Your son lives.” No one believes with signs and wonders. When good fortune comes your way you’re just as quick to credit the doctors, the employer, the government, or even Lady Luck before you give God the glory. Faith doesn’t come by seeing or experiencing. Faith comes by hearing.
We still seek after signs of God’s glory before faith. We want God to give us spectacular displays and pageantry, glorious anthems, beautiful surroundings, miraculous congregational growth, and overflowing wealth. We think that if we have these things then faith will grown and Grace will prosper. Does God give us these things as signs and wonders? Does He seek to impress you and be the most popular church on the block?
Jesus deals with us as He dealt with the Nobleman from Capernaum. It is enough to simply give you His Word of promise. Everything we do rests not on seeking after signs and wonders but trusting only in the full counsel of God. We hear His Word. We dwell richly in its doctrine. We meditate upon what He has said day and night. Our confidence, our hope, and our trust is not in signs and wonders but in the promises.
We know He keeps His promises and will always. By His holy prophets, God promised a sign: “On that day I will raise up The tabernacle of David, which has fallen down, And repair its damages; I will raise up its ruins, And rebuild it as in the days of old; That they may possess the remnant of Edom,
And all the Gentiles who are called by My name,” Says the Lord who does this thing.” (Amos 9:11-12, c.f. Isaiah 2:1-4; 42:6-7; 49:6; 52:10)
Dear brothers and sisters, this great sign which was both promised is now fulfilled in your hearing. God has raised up a new temple in the body of Christ. He has called you into this holy house, He has taught you his ways and granted to you faith, righteousness, and salvation. This is great sign: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14)
Maybe you recall the conversation Jesus had with the Pharisees and Saducees: Then [they] came, and testing Him asked that He would show them a sign from heaven. 2 He answered and said to them, “When it is evening you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red’; 3 and in the morning, ‘It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times. 4 A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” (Matthew 16:1-4)
The sign of Jonah is Jesus’ death and resurrection. Just like the prophet Jonah, Jesus came preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins and they murdered Him. Jesus was buried three days in the belly of the earth but the earth could not hold Him. Just as Jonah was spit from his watery tomb, Christ burst forth on Easter morning proclaiming the resurrection for all who believe.
The unbeliever sees the signs of the sky and yet fails to believe when the final sign comes. When confronted with the truth of this great sign, people do not believe. Despite the historic evidence, the eyewitness testimony, and even the hostile witnesses, even the greatest sign and wonder of the cross of Christ and his empty tomb does not grant faith.
A sign without a Word is empty. No one will believe unless this truth is married to the preaching of the Gospel. We must hear from Jesus that the guilt and shame for sin that we know and feel was placed upon Jesus. We must hear that death has been destroyed and that Christ’s resurrection is ours. When we see the sign of the Crucifix we only believe if we hear the Word that says: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!” and “It is finished!”
It is the same every Divine Service. You want your spirit lifted and He gives you the whole Word in Psalm to sing by the Holy Spirit. You come seeking joy and Christ gives you the Word: “Go, my son, your sins are forgiven!” You come hungering and thirsty for righteousness and He says to you: “Take, eat, this is my body.. [and] take, drink, this is the blood of the new testament shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” These are not empty signs but great gifts because Jesus said so.
All this requires faith—trust. Even this trust is a gift from God by the Holy Spirit through the Word. When Jesus speaks, you believe. When He says, “You are forgiven!” this Word does what it says. You conscience is freed. You guilt is pardoned. Your shame is removed. At the Word of Jesus, you receive every hope, joy, and comfort that God gives.
John the Baptist recognized the sign when he pointed to the cross, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” “For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:22-23). Only the devil and his host seek to take you away from this Word of Gospel, good news. Only he would have you trust in worldly signs and earthly wisdom. Instead, be strong in the Lord by taking up His every Word of promise as your shield and weapon. Trust in His promises and you will never die. Trust in Christ and you will find peace that passes understanding and joy beyond measure.
The cross of Christ is the sign that God answers our every prayer. By Jesus, every petition is given, including His kingdom, His will, daily bread, forgiveness, escape from temptation, and eternal life. We trust in God first in faith given by the Holy Spirit and then this faith is confirmed because He gave His son to die for us. It is enough. You may not be thoroughly convinced that God has your best interests in mind. Life has its horrible moments. Wars and rumors of wars surround us. The whole earth groans with birth pangs. They are a sign of the death of this body and this world. But the greater sign has already appeared. Christ died our death so that we will never die. He lives and so shall we live now and eternally. It is enough. Amen.
In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church