There are no shortcuts to the Kingdom

It’s never a good idea when I try to take a shortcut in the car.

At some point in the late 1990s, when driving from Newport, R.I. to Delaware, I was certain I had a good shortcut to shave some time off my trip. Somehow, I ended up driving through Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan — at rush hour. Needless to say, I did not shave any time off my trip, and for a brief moment in time I was certain I’d end up busking for gas money and bridge fare.

Shortcuts rarely end up being short. But, regardless, we are a shortcut culture.

From fast food to diet fads and “sculpting” undergarments, we want the finished product without any of the work required to really get there.

And, of course, we bring this human propensity for seeking the shortcut to our theology. We want the end result without the intervening hard work.

In our readings today we start out hearing the desired end product — the Good News.

In Isaiah 65 we hear of a world turned upside down, where predator and prey lie down together in peace: 

I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; … The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent– its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

The overturning of the world of labor, pain and grief is reiterated in our selection from Psalm 30:

You have turned my wailing into dancing;  you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy. Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever.

These are beautiful passages that give us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God. And, naturally, we’d like to jump straight to that desired outcome. But, Jesus reminds us, in the Gospel reading for today, there’s some work to be done before we get there.

In our reading from John 4, Jesus has just come from his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. She showed great faith, proclaimed him as the Messiah to her Samaritan neighbors, and because of her testimony, many came to believe in him.

The episode with the woman at the well is beautiful and triumphant. Jesus approaches an outcast, marginalized woman. She has faith. She proclaims his divinity. Many believe. Huzzah!

But, then Jesus chooses to travel to his home country, to Galilee, where he knows he will not be honored — “Jesus went from that place to Galilee (for Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honor in the prophet’s own country).”

Jesus reminds us his is not the path of the shortcut. He walks directly into a country where he knows he will not be honored, and he calls us to walk there with him.

Scripture tells us the Galileans welcomed him. But, why did they welcome him? Was it as the Messiah, who would soon call his followers to take up their cross? No. They welcome him because they’ve seen him perform miracles. They don’t want Jesus of the cross. They want Jesus of the wedding at Cana — the Jesus who turns water into wine, and keeps the party going for days.

Jesus knows this is the expectation of the society surrounding him when the royal official approaches him.

We can immediately sympathize with the official. His son is dying. His son may already be dead, as far as he knows. He’s desperate. He’s just walked about 20 miles to reach Jesus — his last and only hope to save his son.

Who among us wouldn’t do as much for our child?

But, Jesus responds in an unexpected way. He seems to rebuke the official — the man who’s just walked hours on end to reach him: “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.’” 

The original text uses a plural form of you, as in “y’all,” as we say in Oklahoma. It seems Jesus is speaking not just to the man, but to the Galileans who’ve come out to welcome him as miracle-worker, not as Messiah. 

Still, it seems Jesus is rebuking a man who’s hurting, pleading for the life of his son.

To understand this, and how this squares with Jesus’ overarching message of love, we need to understand this is not the only time Jesus appears to be harsh with someone who’s come to him for healing.

In Luke 8:43-48, a woman who has been beset by bleeding for 12 years approaches Jesus, while he’s on his way to heal the daughter of a synagogue leader. She comes up behind Jesus, confident that simply touching the hem of cloak will heal her.

Jesus turns, in a manner that can easily be interpreted as perturbed, as asks “Who touched me?”  When Peter says there’s no way to tell who touched him, Jesus refuses to let it go: “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.”

The image of Jesus having an angry semblance is reinforced by the woman’s response: she “came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed.” 

But, Jesus’ response then is not angry, or perturbed. He tells her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”

Her faith healed her. And he sends her on.

Following the parallel episode in Matthew 9 — Jesus heals the synagogue leader’s daughter in both readings — Jesus encounters two blind men who’ve sought him for healing. He asks them: “Do you believe that I am able to do this?”

“’Yes, Lord,’ they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, ‘According to your faith let it be done to you.’” Like the woman who touched his garment, the blind men are able to receive the power of Christ because of their faith. They open themselves to him, and then they receive.

Perhaps the harshest response Jesus gives to someone seeking healing — at least on the surface — is the Canaanite woman who comes to him in Matthew 15:21-28, seeking help for her daughter: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

On the surface, Jesus’ response is anything but loving: “He replied, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’”

The woman, like the man in our Gospel reading, is desperate, seeking help for her child. And Jesus, in an offhand way, seems to call her a dog.

But, there’s a lot of unsaid subtext here. Jesus is telling her, “the world sees you as a dog,” and asks her “do you see yourself as a dog — or do you have faith to see yourself as I see you?”

The woman responds, in faith, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

“Then Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.’ And her daughter was healed at that moment.”

Like the others, it is her faith that opens the door to healing for her daughter.

In each of these episodes, Jesus turns to those who’ve come to him, and asks: “Have you come to see the miracle-worker, or the Messiah?”

Let’s go back to our royal official, who approaches Jesus in Galilee. Jesus is rebuking those who just want to see the miracle-worker. But, he’s asking the man right in front of him, the man who walked 20 miles to see him: “Who did you come to see?”

The man responds, one last time: “Sir, come down before my little boy dies.” 

Then, “Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your son will live.’” 

And then, there’s the important part — the part we’re meant to emulate: “The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way.”

The man believed. Christ sent him. And he went. And his son was healed.

Christ absolutely has the power to heal. But, as each of these cases shows, Christ doesn’t call us to seek him solely or principally as miracle-worker. Ultimately, Christ doesn’t call us to him for transactions. He calls us to him for relationship. 

And Christ does heal. But healing doesn’t always look like what we want. 

The question we must face is the same one Jesus posed to those who approached him: Do we seek a miracle-worker, who works as we want? Or Do we seek the Messiah, and surrender in faith to His love and providence?

Surrender is the hard path to which we are called. It is the hard path that leads to the promised Kingdom of God. And there is no shortcut on that path.

Lord Christ, in our worldly ways we tend to want the shortcut. In our worldly view, we want to see the miracle-worker. Help us to see through the lens of the Holy Spirit instead, that we may surrender to your love and providence, and approach you as our Messiah, our King and Savior, knowing you have provided before we ask. Amen.

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