Rudolph Bultmann, a New Testament scholar wrote in the early 1940s, “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles …. (These are) unintelligible and unacceptable to the modern world”.
Remember Bultmann wrote this 60 years ago. He went on to say, “Human knowledge and mastery of the world have advanced to such an extent through science and technology that it is no longer possible for anyone seriously to hold the New Testament view of the world…”
In view of today’s advanced technology what are we to say about today’s Gospel reading of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Is this just one of those events in the life of Jesus that Bultmann would say is“unintelligible and unacceptable to the modern world”?
This is a strange story. Dazzling white clothes – a conversation with heavenly figures – the appearance of Moses and Elijah – God’s voice booming from the clouds – all of this is outside of our normal experience. As I say this, I’m aware that this was way outside the experience of those who witnessed these events. Peter was so impressed he wanted the experience to continue indefinitely. He offered to make shelters for the three dazzling figures – maybe he thought that he could sit down with them and over a cup of coffee join in the conversation Jesus, Moses and Elijah were having. Wouldn’t that be something to tell his fishing buddies?
What shall we do with stories in the Bible that take us beyond our own experiences –
like raising people from the dead,
the miraculous healing of lepers and epileptics,
giving people back their sight and hearing,
enabling people who are helplessly paralysed to walk again,
and today we heard abut the dazzling appearance of Jesus as he talked with two Old Testament heroes – Moses and Elijah?
Was Bultmann right when he said that these are “unintelligible and unacceptable to the modern world”and it is no longer possible to “believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles …”? (I ask – were the miracles any more understandable in Jesus’ time?)
Should we skip over texts like we have today and focus on what is real and possible in today’s world? Of course, to do that would mean believing that miracles no longer happen.
Fred Craddock, a well known preacher and scholar, tells the story about a young pastor who visited an elderly lady who was very sick in a hospital. He entered the room and saw person lying on the bed, gasping for breath. He decided to have a short visit, not to tire her. He asked, “Would you like me to pray for you?” She nodded yes.
“What would you like me to pray?” asked the young preacher.
“I want you to pray that I will be made well; that God will give me health”, the old lady said.
The young preacher gulped. But he prayed, praying something like, “God, if it be your will, restore this person to health. However, let us accept your will, so that whether she receives her health or not, she will know that you are still close to her.”
When the prayer ended, the old lady’s eyes flashed open. She sat up. She startled the preacher by throwing her legs over the side of the bed. She stood up. She stretched out her arms. She turned around to the astonished young preacher and said, “I feel better. I feel a great deal better. In fact, I feel like I have been healed!”
With that she walked out of the room, headed down the hall toward the nurse’s station, shouting, “I’m healed!”
The young preacher staggered out, went down the stairs, out the door of the hospital and into the car park. As he stood at his car, before opening the door, the young preacher looked up to heaven and said, “Don’t you ever do that to me again!”
Maybe you are a bit like that young preacher, you would like to believe in miracles but that sort of thing just doesn’t happen these days.
Or on the other hand, it could be that you have experienced the miraculous?
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One of the young people of St Paul’s recently ran off a country road after passing an oncoming vehicle and was heading straight for a tree. Before hitting the tree the car came to a stop – it had become caught up in a fence thus slowing it down until it came to a stop. The injury that might have been caused was averted. Was that a miracle?
Some would say it was “good luck”.
Others might say that it was a coincidence.
With the eyes of faith we can say that God’s hand rescued that person from harm. This was one of God’s miracles.
In the early hours of the morning I was called to the hospital by the family of a dying woman. The wife and mother had fallen into a deep coma, relying on life support to keep her alive. Tomorrow morning this machinery would be turned off. The family was upset of course, but as we stood around the bed praying, her husband boldly prayed that she might be healed. Others thanked God for the wonderful mother and mother-in-law that she was. Finally, one by one they farewelled her. Her husband’s last words as he left her bed were, “Sweetheart, see you tomorrow” and he blew her a kiss.
Next morning I received a phone call. It was the husband. He was so excited. He was at the hospital. The intensive care nurse reported how her patient suddenly opened her eyes and by the time her husband got there she was sitting up in bed. In due course she went home.
Was that just “good luck”? Or was it one of God’s miracles?
A teacher was doing her best to discredit the miracles of the Bible. She said, “Take, for instance, the crossing of the Red Sea. We know this body of water was only 6 inches deep”.
Immediately from the back of the room came the remark, “Praise God for the miracle!”
Annoyed, the teacher asked, “What miracle?”
“Well,” explained the boy, “God must have drowned the whole Egyptian army in just 6 inches of water!”
When it comes to the unexplainable in our Christian faith, like miracles, we are tempted to reduce our faith to what is rational and understandable. We feel that modern people just don’t accept what is incomprehensible.
Listen to this. “If we think that we can be Christians and deny the miraculous, we are mistaken”. (Sorry, can’t recall who said this).
How can that be true – if we think that we can be Christians and deny the miraculous, we are mistaken? This is why – the very fact that we are children of God is miracle. In fact, as wonderful as being healed of a sickness or rescued from a tragedy might be, this is a far greater miracle.
Martin Luther in the Small Catechism when explaining the work of the Holy Spirit said, “I believe that on my own I can never come to Jesus Christ my Lord, or believe in him, no matter how hard I try. But the Holy Spirit has called me to Jesus by the good news about him. The Spirit has led me to know and trust Jesus, made me holy, and kept me in the Christian faith.”* This is the miracle of faith. Our relationship with God, our knowledge and trust, faith that believes that Jesus died for me, that he rose from the deadfor me, is only possible through the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
It is impossible for any of us to create faith in God. We can’t do anything to improve our relationship with God because we are so bound up in sin – we are slaves of sin – even our best and noblest desires are affected by sin and there is nothing that we can do about it.
But as we listen to God through his Word –
we become aware of his judgement on our sin,
we hear about the miracle of God’s grace and how his love for me that led to the sending of his Son into this world and then his dying for me on the cross.
The Holy Spirit creates in us the miracle of faith.
The husband of one of the regular members of my congregation was dead set against all this religious stuff. He would bring his wife to church on Sunday, drive to the local shop to get the paper and then sit out in the car and read it.
One cold morning he was invited to come inside and he did – with his newspaper. He sat in the back row and read his Sunday paper. He made this a habit and one day I noticed that he was listening to what was being said. Not long after he fell seriously ill. On my last visit to him we celebrated Holy Communion. He was weak but he wanted to say with me the 23rd Psalm – a confession of his faith – “(The Lord) is my shepherd”.
Now that’s a miracle. The Holy Spirit created faith in that hard-hearted and stubborn man and he died confident of his place in eternity.
That’s the kind of miracle that God wants to do in your lives. He wants to give you his miraculous grace – he wants you to receive his powerful and unquenchable love for you. He wants to give you the miracle of forgiveness – to wipe away all the bad that you have ever thought, said and done. He wants to create in you the miracle of faith.
This is not just a once only miracle – but a miracle that God does every day. “The Spirit keeps on forgiving all my sins and the sins of everyone who believes in Jesus”.*
Even when you offend God in the worst ways,
even when you doubt that God even cares for you,
even when you feel that you are too weak to overcome your temptations and weaknesses,
the Holy Spirit keeps coming to you in a miraculous way to remind you that you have a special place in God’s heart and that he forgives you. As the Bible says, “If we confess our sins, (God) is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
I could go on and talk about the miracle of baptism. The more I meditate on the meaning of my baptism and all that God has done for me by making me a child of God and giving me forgiveness and a place in our heavenly home, the more I am amazed at what God has done and continues to do for me. My life is changed because God has revealed himself to me and assured me that I am his child, that he daily forgives me and that he has promised to always be there when I go through my trials and troubles in life. For God to make that kind of promise to a sinful person like me is an amazing miracle.
So we come back to the mountaintop experiences of the disciples – the dazzling clothes, the appearance of Moses and Elijah and the booming voice from heaven, – this may not be a common occurrence in our lives. But far more important and far more impressive is the miracle of forgiveness and a renewed relationship with God through Jesus.
The miracles recorded in the New Testament changed people’s lives. To an even greater degree the miracle of faith changes our lives and we are ready serve. The holy and loving God claims you, sinful though you are, as rebellious as you are, to be a light in this world. Now that’s a miracle!
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2004, Vince Gerhardy. Used by permission.