You can talk about Jesus’ teaching and even healing, and people will nod their heads and think it’s nice. But the minute you mention miracles people start to either look for the exit or hold their breath to see what you will say next. A miracle. What will it be this time? Believable? Unbelieva-ble? Explainable? Or just plain crazy?
Miracles are difficult to talk about because they don’t always happen. Albert Einstein once wrote, “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.” And at my core I absolutely believe that. We have to be looking for them, we have to recognize the things that are right in front of us that truly are miraculous. But let’s face it. What we mean, when we say that miracles don’t always happen, is that they don’t happen when we want them to. Plenty of stuff happens that I don’t want to happen and that I truly believe God doesn’t want to happen. We all live in our own brokenness— we know people who have died too young, or addictions that we are facing, or mental or physical illnesses that we’re battling. And I know many people who have prayed for a miracle all of their lives and are still waiting. Even the Apostle Paul, probably the most influential person in sharing the Gospel in the early church, who knew what it was to experience a miracle in his own conversion, also wrote about having a thorn in his side, an ailment, something about himself that he kept praying God would take away, and God never did.
So sometimes its tempting to say that miracles don’t happen or don’t happen anymore. It’s tempting to explain away the miracles in Scripture and say that they were different somehow or that we are different somehow or that they never really happened at all.
But when decide to only live in a place of “yes they all happened exactly as we think” or “no, none of them are even possible,” we miss out on why these stories were ever written down to begin with. To say “yes miracles happen” or “no miracles don’t happen” reduces the Bible into either a book of tall tales or stories to be taken at face value. But perhaps what these miracle stories do best, is to help us look for the miraculous in our everyday lives— to be open to how God is working within us to bring new life. Instead of asking whether they are real, a more entic-ing question, is what do they say about who God is and what Jesus wants for us?
The author of the Gospel of Mark wants us to know that Jesus came to bring freedom and joy and life to all people— even those we have already dismissed. In Mark’s gospel it is often the demons who know Jesus the best— can see him coming for a mile away, because those de-mons know they can’t stay if Jesus is around— the two are incompatible. Nadia Bolz Weber, author of Accidental Saints, suffered with depression as a young adult. She remembers very well what her demon, depression, used to say to her— telling her she was worthless; keeping her distracted so she couldn’t do simple things like pick out something to eat when she was hungry or reach out to friends when she was lonely. Her mother noticed this demon, saw that it wasn’t her daughter anymore, and helped her to get help., and lucky for her one of the drugs they use helped her so that she didn’t have to listen to that voice anymore; so that she had the energy to create the kind of habits that the demon of depression can’t stand— habits like healthy eating, exercise, community, and Jesus. To her it very much felt like an exorcism, even though she sometimes still finds herself in that place, listening to that demon, and she has surrounded herself with people who can identify it and get her help. I can’t say that I’ve ever witnessed an exorcism, but I’ll tell you what I have witnessed:
Many years ago a man came to the Board of Ordained Ministry to be ordained. It’s a two-step interview process with three years in-between. You actually answer the same questions both times, but with three more years of experience, so you answer the questions rather differently and it’s expected that you rewrite them all— not cut and paste the ones from your first go-round. As I read his papers, however, something seemed familiar. I went back to look at his papers from three years ago, and I found that they were identical. Nothing had changed. Within the course of that interview, we brought this to his attention and had a conversation and he left knowing that he was denied ordination that year. Well a year later he showed up for the interview process again and I confess to you that I was skeptical. I was still frustrated that he had wasted our time the year before and I was committed to holding him to a very high bar of excellence this time. But as I read his paperwork, I saw a miracle unfold. Here was someone who, as a pastor, had slowly become an alcoholic because of a lot of grief that he wasn’t working through very well. And up until that interview a year before, he had been in total denial of his situation, of what he was doing to his family, of how broken he really was. After his interview, when he realized all that he had to lose, he began to see our denial of his ordination as a wake up call. He spent that year doing what he needed to do to ask for help, to get his life back on track, and to reclaim his gifts for ministry instead of drinking them away. It wasn’t an exorcism that happened in ten seconds in a synagogue, but it was quite miraculous for those of us who knew him, to see all the adversity that he came through in that one year to accept God’s grace for himself and to live a different life. He was very open with us that if we had agreed to ordain him the year before as he had been praying, he would’ve never dealt with the brokenness he was carrying and his addictions that were ruining his life.
God is always trying to call us into new life— to leave behind the demons inside of us that keep us from reaching out for God’s grace and love, and to welcome in God’s love and peace.
In the Gospel of John there are actually only 7 miracles recorded at all, one of which is the wed-ding. And in each miracle story, there are very few people with names. John doesn’t bother to name the people in the stories. Maybe he was just bad with names, but even in the story of the Wedding at Cana where Jesus’ Mom talks to him, she is only listed as his mother or as “woman.” Somehow I don’t think he forgot her name was Mary. Rather, John is using a literary device which allows the reader to put our names in the story. John wants us to be able to see ourselves in the miracles that are happening.
And what an awkward miracle this is. If ever there seems to be a wasteful miracle, than this might be it. I don’t even want to know how those early Methodist temperance movement folk saw this one. Changing water into wine seems like the least of what Jesus could do. I have often wondered what this miracle was all about— especially since he seems to reluctant to do it at all! Mary just seems to roll her eyes at his reluctance and then tells the servants to do anything he says— putting him in the spotlight to do something. So what does he do? He spots the jars that were meant to hold the water that would make everyone clean— these were the jars that ritually were able to free people to live life— to come back into community— to be able to receive God’s grace. These jars held the water that allowed people to participate in the wedding itself. And Jesus asks them to take these jars— these ritual cleansing jars— and fill them with water. The servants may have assumed that there were more people who needed cleansing. They may have wondered what it was all going to be used for. And then he tells them to pour a bit of it into a glass and give it to the wine steward to drink. Can you imagine the delight of the hosts? To go from the panic of thinking they were out of wine for their guests to seeing these jars, so symbolic in their nature, offering them enough wine for the entire town and more? This is a feast—a sign of abundance.
Three years ago, my youngest daughter Annie was born three months early. She was 3lbs, 3oz and we were spending our days sitting by her incubator in the hospital, praying that she would hit all of the milestones that were in front of her. We prayed that she would stop forgetting to breathe. We prayed that her jaundice would resolve itself. We prayed that she would begin eating by herself and that her body would learn to regulate its own temperature. We prayed that she wouldn’t have to come home on a monitor that would alert us whenever she stopped breathing. We knew it could’ve been so much worse, but we also knew from our first two daughters, that it could be so much better. And all along the way, there were small miracles and big ones and lots of setbacks where we had hoped for miracles. The week before they were saying she would probably go home, my husband saw that the Okee Dokee Brothers were giving a free concert at an indoor park nearby. The Okee Dokee brothers are a children’s group that sing bluegrass folk music and write songs that adults can appreciate as much as kids. I decided to take Olive, our middle child, while our oldest was at school and Todd was at the hospital. Well we got to the concert and there were no seats left. But I was determined that this was going to be a success because so much else had gone wrong around us. So I took Olive down front, where they had taped a line on the stage to stay behind, and we sat down on the other side of that line. More and more people came so that pretty soon we were crowded on that stage, and then the Okee Dokee Brothers came out and began to play their music which is joyful and carefree. And Olive stood up, at the age of 2, and began to dance, and I began to laugh. Watching her dance; listen-ing to the music that was so extremely joyful; I found myself singing along and for that 30 minutes I remembered what it was to rejoice again in God’s goodness. You may not think that is a miracle, but to me, it was like someone had turned water into wine. Joy was brought back into my life and I could breathe in God’s goodness in a new and yet familiar way.
Sometimes miracles transform our lives and sometimes miracles help us to get in touch with the joy and peace that is Christ- even when the miracles we wish would happen continue to elude us. Christ’s love comes to us time and time again. Jesus’ love and presence is abundant to us, even in times of deep darkness; even in times of stress; even in times when we can’t figure out how we got here or how we’re going to get out. Christ never leaves us— not even in death. We worship a God who wants to be part of our lives— who is with us day in and day out through the most difficult moments of pain and doubt and despair— a God who continues to love us through it all. That’s a miracle worth celebrating.
- This sermon was inspired and informed by readings from Brian McLaren’s book, “We Make the Road by Walking;” Nadia Bolz Weber’s book, “Accidental Saints;” and a few other commentaries on textweek.com.