I Believe in Miracles
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Do you believe in miracles? I started to ask that question last week when we began this series, but I couldn’t wait to get to the sermon. So, let’s ask it today: Do you believe in miracles? Did Jesus really heal the sick and raise the dead? Did he really walk on water? Did he really turn water into wine, as we heard last week? Does God perform miracles today?
If you say you don’t believe in miracles, you’re not alone. Several years ago, Time magazine conducted a poll. 69% of the people asked said yes, they believed in miracles. That means 31%, or about one out of three, said they didn’t believe in miracles. Where do you stand?
As far as I can tell, there are three dominant views. There are those who believe that the miracles of the Bible are true, but that they ceased at the close of the “apostolic age;” that is, when all of the original disciples had died. This view is represented by liberal and conservative scholars alike. They believe that the miracles of the New Testament served to establish the fact that Jesus was the Christ and to empower the church and get it started. Once that was accomplished, no further miracles were needed. As one commentator put it,
“When that purpose was realized, miracles ceased. Satan is defeated. The truth is established. Miracles are no more.” (Buster Dobbs, Bible Infonet Home Page, 4/22/97)
A second, more radical, view is that the miracles of the New Testament are not to be taken literally. John Dominick Crossan says that the miracles should be understood as parables about power and authority in the new Israel, that Jesus healed people ideologically as a way of saying that the Kingdom of God stands against this worldly system of injustice. (Time, 4/11/95) For Crossan and others, the word, miracle, is little more than a figure of speech.
The third view, of course, is the more traditional view, that the miracles of the Bible are just that – miracles. In the words of Webster, miracles are “extraordinary events manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.” Those who hold this view accept the miracles of the Bible without explanation or proof and believe that, although rare, miracles still happen today.
As far as I know, the Presbyterian Church has no official position regarding miracles. The Book of Confessions and the Book of Order are silent on the subject. My hunch is most Presbyterians, like most Christians, uphold the authority of the biblical witness but are cautious when it comes to miracles. As Father John Meier, professor at Catholic University, said,
“When reports spread of statues weeping or crosses bleeding or Jesus appearing on a tortilla, the church is slow to respond, fearful that the search for a sign will distract from the hard work of faith.” (Time, op. cit.)
Without clear doctrines or dogma to guide us, we’re pretty well left on our own to decide, and so, what do you think? Do you believe in miracles? Are the miracles of the Bible to be taken literally? Do miracles still occur today? For what it’s worth, I believe in miracles. And in the course of presenting this story today of Jesus raising the widow’s son from the dead, I’d like to share with you what it means to me to believe in miracles. The story begins,
“It happened soon afterwards, that he went to a city called Nain. Many of his disciples, along with a great multitude, went with him.” (11)
Nain was located about five miles southeast of Nazareth, near Mt. Tabor. This is the only reference to it in the Bible. We don’t know if Jesus had ever gone there before, if he ever went back, or what prompted him to go in the first place. The story comes on the heels of healing the centurion’s slave, so the picture is that Jesus healed the slave, then left Capernaum and walked to Nain, a distance of about twenty-five miles. A large crowd followed him.
This introduces the first point I’d like to make concerning what it means to believe in miracles; that is, there’s no way to predict when or where a miracle might occur. Jesus could have stayed in Capernaum, or he could have gone to the north, east, south or west. For some reason, he went to Nain, crossed paths with a funeral procession and was prompted to perform a miracle. If he had gone somewhere else or arrived an hour earlier or later, this miracle would have never taken place. Miracles occur when you least expect them.
When our kids were growing up, they were always asking for stuff. “Daddy, would you get me this? Would you get me that?” I learned that it was easier to say, “Yes, but not now,” than to say, “No.” So, I’d say, “Sure, I’ll get that for you one of these days.” “But when?” they’d want to know. Well, if I gave them a specific date, they’d hold me to it. John, especially, has a mind like a steel trap. So, instead of committing myself, I’d say, “I’ll get that for you when you least expect it.” At first, this did the trick. It sounded promising: “When I least expect it … all right!” But, that didn’t last long. One day Patrick asked for something, and I told him I’d get for him when he least expected it, and he snapped back, “But, Dad, I’m least expecting it right now!”
Miracles occur in their own time and place, when we least expect them. The story continues,
“Now when he drew near to the gate of the city, behold, one who was dead was carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. Many people of the city were with her.” (12)
Now, who was this man who had died? We’re not told. Nor do we know his mother. They’re among the myriad of “anonymous ones” of the Bible. We don’t know their names, and after this incident, we never hear of them again.
This brings up the second point I’d like to make concerning miracles; that is, there is little correlation between the miracles of Jesus and the people involved in them. This is hard for us to accept. We’d like to think, for example, that Jesus healed those who were righteous or who had exhibited strong faith – those who, somehow, deserved it. We like to remember the stories where Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well. Go in peace.” (Luke 8:48)
But this is not always the case. For example, later in this series we’ll hear how Jesus healed a man paralyzed from birth. He was brought before Jesus on a stretcher and lowered down through the roof! But, as we’ll see, it was the faith of the friends who carried the man to Jesus, not the paralytic, that prompted the miracle.
In the story today, neither the dead man nor his mother demonstrated faith or asked Jesus to do anything. Jesus raised the man from the dead simply because he had compassion on his mother. Luke writes,
“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said to her, ‘Don’t cry.’ He came near and touched the coffin, and the bearers stood still. He said, ‘Young man, I tell you, arise!’ He who was dead sat up, and began to speak. And he gave him to his mother.” (13-15)
As often as not, there’s no cause-effect relationship between faith and miracles. And, personally, I’m comfortable with this. It concerns me to think that the degree of our faith or righteousness is the deciding factor in whether or not God will be merciful. And, frankly, it offends me to think that those who are healed are more deserving than those who are not.
When my wife, Donna, was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer, we prayed for a miracle.
Well, that’s an understatement. We prayed for a miracle every day for three and a half years.
And we weren’t alone. Countless others, many we didn’t even know, prayed with us. Yet, in spite of all the prayers, Donna still died.
On the one hand, you could say our prayers weren’t heard. Or that God said no. I prefer to think there’s a bigger picture than this, one we can never fully comprehend or explain. And in this bigger picture of life, we see that God is faithful, even though there are questions we’ll never be able to answer and ambiguities we can never explain.
And this is the thought I’d like to leave you with: Praying for a miracle, even when it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted, can open up a whole new dimension of God’s grace and love.
It helps to remember that healing and wholeness and salvation are first cousins. They’re closely related. To be healed is to be made whole, and to be made whole is to be saved. God doesn’t heal the body apart from the mind and the soul. What would be the point of having a healthy mind, if you didn’t know the love of God? Or a healthy body if you weren’t willing to serve others to the glory of his name?
This is why, for the most part, the miracles of Jesus have to do with restoring those bodily functions that, when they’re not working, impede our relationship to God: He opened the eyes of the blind in order that they might see God’s glory; he unstopped the ears of the deaf in order that they might hear God’s Word; he loosened the tongues of the dumb in order that they might sing God’s praise; he made the lame to walk in order that they might walk in newness of life. The nature of the miracles is that they remove the obstacles separating us from God.
What are miracles, anyway, but signs of God’s power? We miss the point when we ask, “Why did Jesus heal this man or this woman and not another?” Or, “Why didn’t he heal all those who were sick and raise all those who had died?” Better still, “Why didn’t he put an end to disease and death, then and there?”
In his life and ministry, Jesus healed a lot of people, but he didn’t heal everyone, and he didn’t heal anyone, once and for all. Those he healed got sick again, and those he raised from the dead eventually died again. The purpose of healing the sick and raising the dead was not to suspend the laws of nature but to bear witness to the power of God over life and death. Miracles are signs of God’s power bearing witness to the sovereignty of God over our lives.
What’s important is not the sign but the One to whom the sign points. And this is a paradox we ought always to keep in mind: When you look for miracles to confirm your faith, you can never quite get enough of them; but when you center your mind and heart on the presence of God, you’re able to perceive signs of God’s power and love all around you, not only in the dramatic, unexplained happenings such as instantaneous healings, chance meetings, near-death experiences; but in the more commonplace, yet no-less-miraculous events of everyday life like the dawning of a sunrise, the rebirth of creation in the spring of the year, the transformation of men and women into children of God, the gift of love given, received and shared.
To feel the wonder of God in the fury of a storm, the gentleness of God in the touch of a child, the grace of God in the generosity of others, the love of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is to experience a power greater than yourself and know that your life is secure in God’s hands.
And so, I’m here to tell you, I believe in miracles. I believe God can heal the sick and raise the dead; but most of all, I believe God is at work in every aspect of our lives, pouring out his love for us, revealing his majesty and inviting us into a closer relationship with Jesus Christ. In the words of a song,
“I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows;
I believe that somewhere in the darkest night, a candle glows;
I believe for everyone who goes astray, someone will come to show the way;
I believe above the storm the smallest prayer will still be heard;
I believe that Someone in the great somewhere hears every word;
Every time I hear a newborn baby cry, or touch a leaf, or see the sky,
Then I know why, I believe.” (Ervin Drake, et. al.)
Copyright 2005 Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.