Sermon for May 22, 1994 Sunday of the Paralytic Acts 9:32-42, John 5:1-15
Do you believe in miracles?
In today’s scripture lessons we heard of three miracles, only one done by Jesus and 2 accomplished by his disciple Peter. Since we commonly associate miracles with Jesus and the bible, it is worth taking a minute to look at the notion of miracle and what it means for us today.
Our understanding of a “miracle” is based upon our modern understanding of “nature”. We believe nature to show a fair degree of constancy & predictability. A “miracle” is thus that which defies the laws of nature. We believe nature can be understood in a rationalistic sense, that it is fairly constant, can be observed and explained.
Ancient Israel had no word for miracle or for nature. They did not share our understanding of nature & natural laws of constancy. For the people throughout biblical history, natural phenomena are a result of the will of God or even of local deities. Humans effect natural events to the extent that natural phenomena are God’s response to human sin or prayer. Of most importance to us is that the ancients saw nature as merely revealing God or God’s will, and since they saw all true knowledge as coming from God and not from human effort (science), they would expect natural phenomena to tell them something about God, not about what we call nature.
The words in the Old Testament which are sometimes translated to mean miracle are Hebrew words which really mean “sign” an event which points to some future meaning, or an event that draws attention to something else, usually to God.
In New Testament times, the people expected that God would authenticate any disclosure of his intention with supernatural occurrences. In other words, people expected miracles to occur and those miracles would prove God is somehow involved in this event. Thus the Messiah would appear with signs and wonders to confirm that He indeed was sent by God. The main point, the critical understanding of any miraculous event is not, “does it defy nature?”, but is God to be found in the event? Does God control the event? Is God revealed through the event.
The Lord Jesus also reveals another very biblical view. For humans to demand a sign from God is certainly indicative of a lack of faith. Jesus refuses to give a sign when the demand for one comes from the people’s lack of faith. Jesus seemed to know that unless a person already had firm faith in God and was looking for God’s revelation, signs would be worthless and would never lead to conviction.
In other words, a sign is not an event which is so convincing that it makes faith unnecessary. That is unfortunately what many of us modern people are looking for in miracles – an event so convincing that we can know God and do not have to have faith or trust in him.
In John’s Gospel when Jesus feeds the 5000, Jesus seems discouraged by the people’s inability to understand the sign, and he chastises them for wanting nothing more from him then more bread to eat.
And when they found Him on the other side of the sea, they said to Him, “Rabbi, when did You come here?” Jesus answered them and said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him.” Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” Therefore they said to Him, “What sign will You perform then, that we may see it and believe You? What work will You do? “Our fathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. “For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Then they said to Him, “Lord, give us this bread always.” And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. (John 6:25-35)
Probably one question people in the 1990’s want to know is why we don’t see more miracles like the ones recorded in the bible? I know from reading through history that this same question has been asked in almost every generation since the age of the desert fathers. Usually the answer given is that there is now a lack of faith on the part of those who claim themselves to be disciples of Jesus. At the same time at which people are asking why miracles don’t happen any more, in every generation there are also the reports of miracles that did occur – healings, revelations, conversions, God’s answering a prayer, God intervening in history. What is probably true through history is also what was true in the time of Jesus, God gave miracles in response to faith, not in response to the lack of faith.
What is also true is that miracles are the exception not the rule in the bible. The word “miracle” occurs only about 35 times in the bible, and the bible covers some 2000 years of history. Perhaps it is then true that miracles happen to people at moments of absolute faith in God, and we see how rarely those moments occur in the life of God’s people.
Today, I can testify to you only that the I believe the miracles recorded in the New Testament to be true, events that really occurred. I also know these miracles were given as signs so all people might come to believe that Jesus truly is Lord, Messiah, Savior, King. The miracles were not the main event nor the main purpose of God’s actions. They are rather signs along the road to help keep us journeying toward the Kingdom of God. The signs exist to keep us on the right track by reminding us of God’s Kingdom and to keep us alert and watchful for what direction we are to take.
In the feeding of the 5000, the people asked Jesus, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.”