This sermon is part of the sermon series "Doing Good". See series.
For the last several weeks, we've been sowing the seeds of a revolution around here. Being in Massachusetts, this area is familiar with revolutionary talk, as you know. But unlike the other revolution that started just a stone's throw from here, this revolution isn't a political one; it's not a grab for economic power; and it's not fueled by military might.
This is a grassroots revolution of good. The title of our series is "Doing Good," and as we make our way through this year, we're encouraging one another to find creative ways of doing good. We're looking to saturate the greater Boston area with unprecedented goodness.
Since the series began, we've encouraged you to tell us your "doing good" stories, and a steady stream of them has been coming in. One couple left a 100 percent tip for their waiter, a college student who couldn't afford his second semester. This couple gave him some money and encouraged him not to let go of his dream for an education.
Another woman took her paper deliveryman's wife to the doctor and stayed with her all day when the woman discovered she needed emergency surgery. The woman from Grace was there to pray for her and provide her comfort during a very frightening experience.
And a third story came from someone on our tech team who heard last week's sermon four times, and by the fourth time hearing it, she was convinced that she needed to do something. Each week, she and a group of folks from our young adult ministry always go out to dinner after the evening service. Before heading out, she stopped at an ATM, took out some money, and decided that she would randomly pay for other people's dinners until the money was gone. Listen to a portion of her email: "I said to the waitress, 'I know this sounds strange, but can I have the bill of one of the other tables? I'd like to pay for them. The first available check, please. And let me know how many are in their party.' The waitress gave me an odd look, and then said, "Sure."
A while later, the waitress came back, handing her the check for a family of five with young children. She paid the bill and the waitress soon returned and said that the family wanted to meet the one who paid for their meal, and so up came a woman and her three children. Back to the email: "The mother said 'I can't understand why anyone would pay for us.' I told her that we were from Grace Chapel, and we had just heard a sermon about doing good for people for no other reason than because God loved them. She and her kids thanked me, and all of us at the table extended God's love to them. Pastor Bryan was right! There was a rush of exhilaration in this kind of random deed! I told the waitress, 'Can I have another table's check, please?' and I was soon able to bless another five people." Can you see how this kind of thing might become addictive?
In this series we've been learning from Jesus what it really means to do good. So far we've discovered that doing God means following Jesus for the sake of others. Doing good means seeing people as Jesus sees them and finding a way to bless them. Doing good means feeling what Jesus feels knowing God's heart for the most needy and vulnerable in our world. And today we find out that doing good means serving others with no strings attached, believing that doing good is always worthwhile regardless of the response of others.
The gift of healing
Our story today is found in John 4:46-53. Jesus has begun his public ministry and has been making his way through the countryside performing miraculous signs and teaching about the kingdom. Let's pick up the story in verse 46:
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 miraculous signs and wonders," Jesus told him, "you will never believe." The royal official said, "Sir, come down before my child dies." Jesus replied, "You may go. 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, "The fever left him yesterday at the seventh hour." Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, "Your son will live." So he and all his household believed.
Now this is a very intriguing story with two primary characters: Jesus and the royal official. You could explore the story from the perspective of either character. Most of the time I've heard this story taught, it's been from the perspective of the royal official and how strong his faith in Jesus must have been. He took Jesus at his word; he made the long 20 mile journey home all by himself, trusting that his son would indeed be restored to health.
But I want us to think for a moment about this story from the perspective of Jesus. I want to watch and learn from Jesus and see how he ministers to this royal official. He does it freely with no strings attached.
Demonstrating the kingdom
As I've said, Jesus' ministry consisted primarily of two things: his teaching and his miraculous signs. What's so intriguing about this is that when we watch Jesus closely, we discover that his words and his actions were two expressions of the same reality. Both his teaching and his miracles showed people something about the kingdom of heaven—the kind of life that he was making available to people. He was showing people life the way God intended when he created the world—a kind of life that Jesus taught could be restored.
When he taught, he taught about the kingdom—where goodness prevails; where people treat one another with respect; where love defeats selfishness; where the hurt, needy, and neglected find comfort, care, and community; where brokenness gets restored; where God is honored; and ultimately, one day, where all things that are wrong with the world will be made right.
And Jesus didn't just talk about the kingdom; he began to show people what it looks like. Healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, calming the storm, releasing people from the power of evil, making the lame walk, giving people victory over death—these weren't just gimmicks to get people to listen to him; rather, they were early evidence that the kingdom of God was present and coming. And Jesus was making it clear to everyone that the pathway to the kingdom was through him. He was the king of the kingdom, and this he both proclaimed and demonstrated.
We find in Scripture that there were a lot of people who didn't have much interest in Jesus' teaching, and they were not persuaded by the things Jesus said. Many thought that his teaching was just a bunch of words. But these people were drawn to the beautiful things that he was doing; they might not have come to grips with his spiritual teaching, but they knew that he was addressing real human need. In Jesus, they saw someone who deeply cared for their problems. In Jesus, they saw someone who was willing and able to help.
This seemed to be the case for the official who came and begged for Jesus to heal his son. He was disinterested in Jesus' proclamation about the kingdom, but he was desperate for Jesus' demonstration of the kingdom. This attitude is not far from our reality, is it? People who are unimpressed with all the talk about God's kingdom and love are looking for a demonstration of it in real life.
Jesus starts down the road of a spiritual conversation. He wants for this man to know not only the healing of his own son, but the greater restoration Jesus has come to provide. "Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders," Jesus told him, "you will never believe." The man abruptly cuts Jesus off. He's not all that interested in a spiritual conversation. He just wants Jesus to help his dying son. We hear his desperation: "Sir, come down before my child dies."
What is Jesus' response? Does he sit down and lecture the man about religious things? Does he stop and walk him through the plan of salvation? Does he talk to him about his need for repentance and forgiveness? Does he fill up the man's bag with tracts or literature from the local synagogue? Interestingly enough, he doesn't do any of these things. Jesus didn't choose to talk to the man about the kingdom of God; rather, he chose to show the man what it will look like.
Jesus gave the man what he was looking for: assurance that his son would be healed. He didn't even follow him home so that he could be sure that he got the credit. He blessed the man with no strings attached by meeting his need and sending him on his way. Jesus allowed the man the dignity and opportunity to put two and two together, and that is exactly what happened: "… then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, 'Your son will live.' So he and all his household believed."
This story of Jesus clearly shows us that a demonstration of the kingdom is often more powerful than a proclamation of the kingdom. I think in our day of cynicism and skepticism—in a time when a lot of people talk a lot about a lot of things—it is more important than ever that we let our actions speak louder than our words. When we do good, we can show people more about the kingdom of heaven than our words could ever express.
Now let's be clear about this: we want everyone to hear and embrace the message of Jesus. We want people everywhere to hear the truth about their need for forgiveness and God's offer of grace. But what we can't do is demand a hearing. God never asks us to help him grow his kingdom by manipulation, coercion, or arm twisting. Jesus' bold community grows when his people find ways to serve the world and do good in the lives of the people around them.
We will be ready to give an account to anyone when the timing is right—when people demonstrate an openness to the Holy Spirit. In the meantime, it's not always easy. There will be times when we wonder if the good that we do will actually ever lead to something positive. This is why Paul says in Galatians 6:9. "Let us not become weary in doing good"—there will be many times when we do good, and there will seem to be little or no result, but Paul continues—'for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." Continue sowing seeds of good!
Doing good with no strings attached is not easy, but it is good.
I would suggest that doing good is good for three groups of people. First of all, it's good for us. When we do good for others without any expectation or demand for a response, we learn that, ultimately, it isn't our work; rather, it's God's work. We can back off from our attempts to be the puppet master and simply make ourselves open and available to what God might be doing.
We won't have to manufacture opportunities. We don't try to manipulate the outcome. The good we do doesn't need to come with a sales pitch for our church or for Jesus. We don't have to constantly be thinking about when and how to turn the conversation to spiritual things. We just need to be ready to respond to whatever God seems to be doing. The pressure is off of us to be someone we aren't. We can be real and authentic with others and open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. If and when there comes a time to speak, it will come from an authentic place from within, and we'll make ourselves available to whatever else may come as things progress. When we do good like this, it's good for us.
Doing good is also good for others. It keeps the doors of their lives open rather than closed to what God is doing. Because of this reality, as we find ways to serve people, we need to be sure that we're not using them as a means to our own end. When people begin to feel the tug of a string that's attached, they begin to feel used, unimportant, unheard, and devalued. In that case, the value of whatever good we might be doing gets completely lost, and people begin to close the door to life with God.
But when you bless people in ways that meet their needs—when you show them dignity and respect their openness—the door to other things God may have in store for them remains open. Then, when the time comes that they're ready to understand more, they don't have to overcome a bad experience with us in order to hear the Good News.
Thirdly, doing good is good for the kingdom of God. When we follow Jesus by doing good—when we are merciful, kind, and generous; when we show compassion to hurting people and care for those in need—we aren't simply showing people what the kingdom of heaven is like; rather, we are partnering with God in making his kingdom a reality in our present lives.
There's a wonderful children's story by Barbara Cooney called Miss Rumphius. It's a story of a woman named Alice who, as a child, dreamed of two things: she wanted to go to faraway places, and someday she wanted to live by the sea. When she shared her dreams with her grandfather, her grandfather said, "That is all very well, but there is a third thing you must do: you must do something to make the world more beautiful."
Little Alice grows up and becomes Miss Rumphius, and as her life goes on, she travels to faraway places, and eventually, she settles down to live by the sea. But there was yet one more thing—to find a way to make the world more beautiful.
Time passes, and Miss Rumphius starts getting older. One spring she falls ill, and she spends the summer in bed. Outside her bedroom window, she sees some flowers that she planted earlier in the spring; they had grown up and were now bursting with brilliance—red and purple and rose-colored. "Lupines," she said. "I have always loved lupines the best. I wish I could plant more seeds this summer so that I could have still more flowers next year." But she was too sick to do this.
When she was finally well enough to walk again, she made an amazing discovery. The seeds from the lupines that she'd planted outside her home had been blown and scattered, and lupines were growing at the bottom of the hill. When she saw this, she got a wonderful idea. She hurried home and ordered five bushels of lupine seeds.
All that summer Miss Rumphius flung handfuls of seeds around the schoolhouse and back of the church. She tossed them everywhere she could.
The next spring there were lupines everywhere. The land was covered with blue and purple and rose colored flowers.
Some people call Miss Rumphius a old crazy lady, but the truth is, she had done the third, the most difficult thing of all. She found a way to make the world a more beautiful place.
You see, this is how the kingdom works too! When we do good to others liberally and with no strings attached, we discover the kingdom growing around us in unexpected places.
N. T. Wright says:
If we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus … then every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care or nurture, of comfort and support, for one's fellow human beings and for that matter one's fellow non-human creatures … all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God."
So the reason that we do good with no strings attached—without requiring, demanding, or coercing people to respond favorably—is because we know that the good we do is an active part of the advance of the kingdom of God in the world!
What is our response? Our response is simply this: to reach into our pockets, pull out fistfuls of seeds, and see what God might do as we freely and openhandedly toss them everywhere we go. We do good for others with no strings attached—for our own good, for the good of others, and for the good of the kingdom of God.
As we bless people in these ways, we, like Christ, become bearers of the gospel of the kingdom of heaven in both word and deed.
Tom VanAntwerp serves as Pastor of Community Life at Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.