Praying for a Miracle
Most of the things people ask me to pray about, and most of the things I pray for are miracles. We don’t look at them that way. We don’t talk about them that way, but that is what they are. We often don’t pray for things we can do ourselves, we just do them. We pray for things that we can’t do our selves. We often pray for things that are impossible for anyone to do. This is normal. We look to God to change hearts, heal bodies, mend relationships, fill bank accounts or cupboards, etc.
We don’t call these things miracles because of our culture. We have a culture of secular skepticism where we don’t expect God to do anything miraculous in our hearts of lives. We expect God to keep to his side of the line and maybe, though circumstantial or “normal” courses of events to work things out for us if possible. We want to look respectable and not like the kinds of people who are always talking about miracles or seeing miracles or demanding miracles. THOSE people are considered to be foolish, naive or slick in a con man kind of way. Miracle working pastors are often looked upon with suspicion and for good reason. Working the miracle con is a proven way to relieve simple or gullible people out of their money or worse. I am not that kind of pastor. We are not that kind of church.
I do believe in Miracles
If someone were to ask me if I did believe in miracles I would quickly tell them that I do. I know people who have been miraculously cured, and not simply in the sense of “I feel a little bit better today than yesterday”. Not too many years ago a friend of mine who is a CRC pastor had some debilitating chronic conditions for which he had received numerous treatments and surgeries. When some missionaries who work in African were on home service their polite conversation began to focus on his significant medical problems. The missionaries shared a number of stories similar to his own in a variety of ways. After a fair amount of conversation, together with the elders of the pastor’s church they did some intensive effort in prayer and talking through some things resulting in a dramatic change in the pastor’s condition. His healing resulted in him being able to not only engage in normal ministry again but also some of his athletic hobbies. I’ve known the man for years knowing his trustworthy character and I have zero reason to doubt anything about this story. It is not the only story I know like it. I’ve seen enough to have no doubts at all that miracles are just what they are defined to be, acts of God to bring blessing and healing into this world quite out of the ordinary ways the world works. They are uncommon and exceptional, quite outside of our control.
I would love it if every prayer I prayed for someone would result in the immediate resolution of the crisis they are facing. At least I think I would want that. I can’t of course know that even this would necessarily be a good thing.
Craig Keener’s book on Miracles
Craig Keener is a well known and recognized New Testament scholar. He is also married to a woman from Africa. A few years ago he wrote a massive two volume work on miracles, analyzing them from a philosophical perspective, dealing with the common Western skeptical assumptions brought to the miracles in the Bible, and cataloging many many eyewitness accounts of miracles all the way into the contemporary world.
Those who believe in miracles often wish that such a work would convince their friends, family and neighbors who are skeptics but this usually isn’t the case. People bring to their experience their cultural and philosophical filters. CS Lewis begins his treatment of miracles with that observation.
In all my life I have met only one person who claims to have seen a ghost. And the interesting thing about the story is that that person disbelieved in the immortal soul before she saw the ghost and still disbelieves after seeing it. She says that what she saw must have been an illusion or a trick of the nerves. And obviously she may be right. Seeing is not believing.
For this reason, the question whether miracles occur can never be answered simply by experience. Every event which might claim to be a miracle is, in the last resort, something presented to our senses, something seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted. And our senses are not infallible. If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience. It is therefore useless to appeal to experience before we have settled, as well as we can, the philosophical question.
Lewis, C. S. (2001). Miracles: A Preliminary Study (pp. 1–2). New York: HarperOne.
Part of the problem of living in the Western world is that we have a considerable amount of arrogance about those who do not live with the same skepticism we have, even if we are in the minority. Western skepticism is a cultural phenomenon and as Keener notes most of the world doesn’t share it. Most of the world has no trouble believing in miracles even if they may be skeptical about them in any given circumstance. Just because someone does believe that miracles CAN happen it doesn’t mean they will believe any specific claim of a miracle happening. People are commonly fooled and again, the miracle con is one of the oldest ways to fool people who are desperate for home, the kind of desperation common to people with needs they can’t resolve.
Keener notes that many miracles accounts he finds led to the mass conversion of villages and communities in the developing world. This again makes sense. If something truly miraculous happened in a publicly knowable way, then reasonable and reliable people who have good reason to trust one another will believe one another.
Imagine that God came to you in a dream and said that he would grant one request you would make to him. Now let’s hold off on the trick answers or global requests. Just imagine one significant challenge that God would resolve. Perhaps it would be that someone would stop drinking, or that a debilitating illness would vanish, or that a relationship crisis would be resolves, etc. Imagine God miraculously overcomes that problem that you face. How would it change you? A year from now how would you be different?
This is a hard question to answer because while many of us might think things like
- “I’d be happy forever”
- “I’d never ask for another thing”
- “All my dreams would have come true”
- “I’d be a better father/mother/spouse/child/employee/Christian…”
Most of us would have to admit that we’d probably relapse to being pretty much as we are now. Our character might not improve. Our bad habits might not be reformed. Our moral performance might hockey-stick in the right direction. Etc. We’d still be the same.
What’s more it is likely that a year later we’d have yet another thing we’d need a new miracle to resolve for us and we’d be back to where we started from.
All of this is to try to help us imagine the really important things in our lives are not often the things we are praying for, or focusing on, or trying to fix or resolve. The really important things in our lives are far more basic to the normal ways we respond to regular life.
The Diver Bringing Up from the Water The New Creation
Last week we saw Jesus’ baptism as the inauguration of his great work of reclaiming and redeeming fallen humanity and the creation that we sacked by his own incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. In this week’s story he begins his work, but one might reasonably wonder how such a work would be begun. Matthew begins this way with three sections.
Matthew 4:12–25 (NIV)
12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali—14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: 15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16 the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” 17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him. 21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. 25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.
Why Begin with the Miracles
Matthew sets us up to imagine there that with John the Baptist’s arrest Jesus retreats north into the Galilee region for a number of reasons. Jesus, like John, will eventually be arrested and executed but Jesus needs about three years to complete his mission.
While Jesus was born in Bethlehem he grew up in the Galilee region and so according to Matthew he settles in the town of Capernaum. I don’t think we need to assume that the calling of the disciples necessarily preceded the miracle working, I don’t think we really know one way of the other, but I want to talk about the miracle working first.
I don’t think we think through the miracle working enough to really fit it into the whole picture of the story of Jesus. We usually approach the miracles stories in a rather naive way. By naive I don’t mean skeptical, I mean that we imagine that the root of our trouble is the sort of crises that miracles resolve. I tried to illustrate this with my “one wish” imaginary story.
This can be further illustrated by the reality of our lives in the affluent, developed world. Unlike many of the stories that Craig Keener tells many of what would be crises in ages past are resolved for us by medical technology, power or prosperity.
Jesus’ multiplying loaves and fishes is replaced by getting a filet-o-fish at the drive through. Giving sight to the blind is performed regularly by surgeons and cpr brings the dead back to life on a regular basis. This reality tends to lead us towards a sort of “God of the gaps” thinking when it comes to the miracles we desire.
The account by Matthew here is exceptional in many respects. Matthew says that Jesus healed ALL the maladies that were brought to him. No miracles working crusade boasts this kind of output and neither do our modern hospitals.
We might be tempted to imagine that this is the plan of Jesus to resolve the age of decay and the problems of planet earth. If Jesus heals all our diseases then people will be loyal to him, or at least indebted or dependent upon him in such a way that maybe he’ll gain political or military power. If Jesus were to weaponize this power he could of course lead an army that no one could stop. He who could still a storm could create one to wreck the imperial Roman navy. He who could give sight to the blind could blind an army rendering them useless on the battle field. Jesus displays the kind of power that could easily and nearly instantly make him King of kings and Lord of lords in the most political manner we can imagine. All the world’s armies would be obsolete the moment one came to challenge him.
If Jesus were to follow this path he would need lieutenants and helpers but I doubt he’d choose fishermen.
Now the Matthew account here shows the fishermen, who were something comparable to us as small business owners or middle-class tradesmen as being more than eager to abandon their businesses and become Jesus’ disciples. Either the call to them is miraculous or he has already begun his miraculous ministry and has developed a reputation because they do in fact drop everything and follow him. He declares to them than instead of employing their skill at catching fish, they will be “catching” people. We all assume this doesn’t include netting, skinning, frying and eating people too.
Again, however, if Jesus were going to about his world saving business the way we imagine the fishermen would be a rather poor choice. We might imagine he swing through royal or administrative centers to call the kinds of people who manage governing, directing armies and such. Perhaps we might imagine he would go though schools and find budding poets, artists and writers who could write propaganda for him. He doesn’t do any of this though.
Right away we have to begin to ponder the strange way he begins this entire endeavor. We would likely rather Jesus have focused on politics, education and technology. If perhaps the job of healing everyone’s diseases in one particular time and space would be getting too much maybe he should focus on sanitation, clean water and the development of anti-biotics. That, combined with better education and good government we would imagine would resolve so much of what the 1st century Galileans would face shouldn’t it?
The Choice of Galilee
Matthew makes a big deal about Jesus heading north, away from Jerusalem and returning to the Galilee region. He sites Isaiah 9 where the northern Kingdom of Israel is being dismantled by the Assyrian empire and the southern kingdom threatened. Matthew alters the Old Testament quote to highlight the first tribes who were captured and hauled away into exile. Galilee would be resettled by the Assyrian empire in their blender approach to cultural subjugation and assimilation with other conquered peoples form other places leading to this region becoming a place where Jews had to live side by side with people from other lands including what would become the Samaritans. The empires that would continue to invade these lands would all leave their mark, their towns and their peoples in the region. You could not live in the Galilee region and not know that your land had long ago been taken over by powers greater than your own. Galilee would also be a place from which nationalist revolutionaries would arise wanting to purify the land by expelling the nations. Galilee will be where Jesus begins.
The Miracle in the Moment vs. the Long, Connected Story
My miracle moment story was designed to illustrate the impotence of even an miraculous wish for the fallen and broken nature of our existence. Maybe if God would resolve a relational crisis or an incurable illness or a physical, behavioral or emotional handicap things would improve but not nearly as much as we imagine or hope for. The roots of our distress, of our fallenness and the ways we cannot measure up to the shalomic eternity God has placed in our hearts. What this quote from Matthew tells us is that this work of Jesus is not a miracle moment but something that is reading back into the past because the only way to rescue us from the brokenness in the past that ruins today is to reach back into the past. Jesus begins where the exile began. It is in the chaotic ethnic jumble of the Galilee that Jesus begins to preach and to heal. The healing is not a delivering of the things we need, it is a sign of the direction of God’s restorative work. When we confuse the healing for what we need or all we need we lose sight of the depth of our need and the depths of the work that will be needed to address it.
Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come Near
If Jesus is not a miracle dispenser, or a political, educational or military general ready to take power and wield it “for good”, then what is he?
Jesus begins by announcing that the kingdom of heaven has come near. If you recall this diagram you can recall the longer story of how the catastrophe began of the divorce of earth from heaven and how the pieces fit together.
In this context the miracles make sense, the call of the fishermen makes sense, this is the invasion of our rebellious and broken world in a particular moment but to address the whole history and scope beginning in one place and time.
Next week we will begin working through the Sermon on the Mount which will outline what our repentance should look like.
I want to return to the miracle your hear craves. On one hand we can see how limited such a resolution would be even as we realize how significant it would also be. Those who saw the power of God in Jesus resolving their greatest struggles would likely never be the same again in some significant ways even as all of their brokenness and suffering would not be resolved by that one thing. The miracle was at its heart a sample, like the sample you get at Costco when you’re shopping there. It points to the far larger, wider, miracle that we need to not just address our moment of misery now but the roots of all the world’s miseries throughout its history.
We are right to bring our needs to Jesus in prayer. We are right to ask for a miracle. We are right to hope that God will act today and now for these things that we need so badly. It is because of Jesus’ kindness and goodness that he heals and gives and forgives.
As we saw the purpose of the miracles is not the full deliverance but rather a sign, a point to and encouragement towards the full deliverance. The gospel is the message of the deliverance achieved but it has not yet been fully accomplished. The Christian life is leaning into the reality of the deliverance by faith, receiving the large and small miracles and enduring where there is no miracle.
While the miracles are welcome signs it is the work of Christ on the cross where the heavy lifting happens. While God shows his favor and his power by his miracles he shows his love by his suffering on our behalf. As the invasion of heaven upon earth happens wrath and judgment threaten. It will be that wrath that Jesus will bear on the cross revealing the miracles to be the gifts of grace to the unworthy that they are.
Our response to the gift is obedience. Our repentance does not resolve or help us to avoid the wrath but rather allows us to bear witness to and participate in the deliverance.
The fishermen leave their nets not out of fear but from joy and the hope of opportunity.