Carlos Wilton, September 9, 2012; Non-Lectionary Sermon; Exodus 7:1-13; Matthew 14:22-33
“[Peter] cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand
and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’”
Our topic today, from the Banned Questions About the Bible book, is “Where Are the Miracles Today?”
Let me start by telling you about Sister Margaret Mary. She worked as a nurse for a home-healthcare agency. The Sister was one of those traditional nuns, who persisted in wearing a “habit” that marked her as a member of a religions order.
One day, Sister Margaret Mary was out in her car, making her rounds, when she ran out of gas. Just as the engine stalled out, she managed to turn the steering wheel and position the car on the side of the road.
“Lord, help me,” she muttered to herself: and then, she looked out the car window, and saw – right across the street – a gas station! Well, of course she went right across to see if she could borrow a gas can.
“I’m very sorry, Sister” the attendant said. “Last week, somebody borrowed our gas can and never brought it back. We’ve got no shortage of gas, but I don’t have anything to put it in.”
They say “necessity is the mother of invention.” It occurred to Sister Margaret Mary, in a flash of insight, that she had in her car trunk a container that – while non-traditional – just might do the trick. She went back to the car and returned with a stainless-steel bedpan.
“OK,” said the attendant, “that’s a new one on me.” But, he knew she was only going across the street, so he filled it up. Sister Margaret Mary made her way carefully back across the street.
She had unscrewed the gas cap and was just about to tip the contents of the bedpan into her tank, when she noticed two men standing there on the sidewalk. They were looking at her rather oddly.
“Will you look at that?” said one to the other. “If that car starts, I’m turning Catholic!”
Miracles. The Bible’s full of them. Sick people healed. Hungry crowds fed. Demons driven out. And those are just the ordinary ones! What are we to make of the mighty walls of Jericho crumbling into dust, at a mere trumpet-blast? Or Elijah soaring up to heaven in a chariot of fire? Or Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead?
In our first reading, we heard about Moses and Aaron, who knew God wanted them to go before Pharaoh and plead for the Israelites’ freedom: but they weren’t so sure they had the right stuff to go up against the Emperor of the Nile.
So, the Lord says to Moses: “See that staff Aaron’s holding in his hand?”
“Sure, I see it.”
“When you go before Pharaoh, have him throw it down on the ground. I’ll turn it into a snake.”
The scriptures do not record what Moses thought of this promise – but they do say that, when he does go before Pharaoh, he heeds God’s instructions. He throws his staff to the ground.
“Whoa….” says Moses, jumping back in fright. I think he may have been just as impressed as Pharaoh!
But then, some of Pharoah’s magicians come over and throw their staves to the ground. Those staves, too, transform into wiggling snakes. “Well-played, Moses. Well-played. But we can do it, too.”
As the ancient tale unfolds beyond the boundaries of today’s reading, Moses tries one trick after another, each one dreamed up by God. They’re known, of course, as the plagues of Egypt. Turning the river Nile into blood seems mighty impressive: until Pharaoh’s magicians can conjure that one, too. Same with the plague of frogs: Moses thinks he’s hot stuff, with all of them hopping around, until the Pharaoh’s magicians pull off the very same trick.
But then, Moses starts to pull out ahead of the pack. The Egyptian wonder-workers just can’t duplicate the plagues of gnats, or flies, or dead livestock. When it comes time for the plague of boils, the book of Exodus gleefully informs us, Pharaoh’s magicians are afflicted with them too!
That’s the last we hear of the court magicians. After that, it’s only Moses on center stage, calling forth plagues of hail, locusts and midday darkness. And when it comes time for the most dreadful plague of all – the striking-down, in a single night, of all the firstborn sons of Egypt – there arises “a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead” (Exodus 12:30). Finally, at long last, Pharaoh is convinced to let God’s people go.
As horrible and gut-wrenching as the conclusion of that story is – as bleak as the cry of desolation rising up from an entire nation of bereaved parents – there’s one thing that’s different about that plague, compared to the others. It’s personal, in ways none of the others are. Sure, the other plagues are flashy. They’re magic tricks on a grand scale, a spectacle to watch, a rare wonder.
But the sudden death of Egypt’s firstborn male children is different. It has a grim and powerful effect on each and every Egyptian household.
There’s a personal aspect to the tale of Jesus walking on the water, as well. Sure, on one level, it’s a flashy magic trick like none other. It’s absolutely, positively, one of the best-known stories of Jesus.
It’s so well-known that, several years back, there was a story out of Israel that the tourist authority had plans to build a submerged foot-bridge a few feet out into the Sea of Galilee, just inches beneath the surface of the water. For a fee, tourists would be able to walk out onto that bridge and get their pictures taken: “walking on the water,” just like Jesus. I don’t think that tourist attraction was ever built, but it does go to show that magic has a perennial fascination.
The truly endearing feature of the walking-on-the-water story, though – what some would call the true miracle – is what happens with Peter. You know how it goes: he wants to step out there and do what Jesus is doing – without a submerged bridge. Peter actually manages to take a step or two, before he realizes – like Wile E. Coyote, hanging in mid-air a few feet off the cliff-face – what a crazy thing he’s doing. He starts to sink – and it’s a good thing Jesus is right there, to offer a helping hand!
Just as the Egyptian families were powerfully and personally affected by the death of their sons, so Peter is urgently caught up in this walking-on-the-water business. For him, it’s not just a matter of looking on in fascination, at laws of nature wondrously suspended. For Peter, you could say he’s got a personal investment in the success of that enterprise.
There are some who claim the biblical age of miracles is ended. Ever since the death of the apostles, they point out, miracles of the sort we read about in scripture seem to be growing fewer and farther between. Yet, what is it that makes a miracle? Is it really just the suspension of natural law?
The biblical answer, as it happens, is “No.” The Greek word for miracle is semeion, or sign. A miracle, according to the New Testament, is literally something that points to the activity of God in the world. As Philip Yancey explains: “A sign is not the same thing as proof; a sign is merely a marker for someone who is looking in the right direction.” [Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Zondervan, 2002), p. 178. Have you ever gone out looking for shooting stars? There are certain times of the year – during the dates of certain recurring meteor showers – when you can see quite a lot of them in a clear night sky. The most important thing is to keep gazing in the right direction, to relax your eye muscles so that, as soon as a shooting star shows up, it will draw your eyes right to it. It takes patience, and perseverance, and trusting that, if you keep looking long enough, you will be rewarded.
The best way to see shooting stars is to sit in a chair with your head leaning back, or maybe lie flat on a blanket, looking up. Then, you need to relax – to fight the temptation to keep anxiously scanning the sky, but simply look upward in a general way, focusing on nothing in particular. It’s a matter of emptying your mind of everything else you may be seeing, of simply waiting and watching. You’ve got to become a passive, receptive vessel, waiting to be filled by wonder.
You may sit or lie that way for many long minutes, until you start wondering if you’re going to see anything at all. But then, at the moment you least expect it, there it is: the bright flash of a glowing white line, swiftly drawn across the sky. It happens in the twinkling of an eye. In less than a second, the falling meteor will have burned itself out. The shooting star will be no more.
If you’re stargazing with someone else, you may both be lucky enough to see it, but only if you happen to be gazing at the same section of sky. If your star-watching partner is looking elsewhere, there’s no chance of pointing out what you’ve just seen. By the time you say “Hey, there’s one!” it’s already too late.
There’s no way you can plot out the precise segment of the night sky in which a shooting star will appear. The astronomers often supply the name of a constellation, suggesting you look in its general direction at a certain hour of the night, but that’s only the most general guidance. The entire night sky is the canvas; and – when it comes to this aspect of creation – God is the most abstract of artists, a veritable Jackson Pollock, splattering meteor-light across the sky in wildly unpredictable patterns.
It’s all a matter of being aware, observant, open to God’s possibilities. Those possibilities may get realized in large ways or in small, but – make no mistake – they do get realized.
Here’s another example. You know the story of Wilbur and Orville Wright, the two brothers from Ohio, who invented the airplane. Late in the year 1903, the Wright brothers sent a telegram from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to their family back in Ohio. The message read: “First sustained flight today, fifty-nine seconds. Home for Christmas.”
Their sister was sure this news had to be of interest to others, so she took the telegram down to their local hometown newspaper office in Dayton and showed it to the news editor. The next morning, she opened her paper to read this headline: “Popular local bicycle merchants will be home for Christmas.”
That editor didn’t get it. He didn’t grasp the magnitude of what those two hometown boys had accomplished. He didn’t have his eyes set for stargazing.
A miracle isn’t just about a miracle-worker – and about whatever disruption to the established order one may be able to conjure up. A true miracle involves something else. There has to be a person whose life is changed by it: gloriously changed.
In that sense, miracles function kind of like an electrical circuit. You probably know that, in the world of electricity, if you’re using alternating current you need two connections, the “live wire” and the “ground wire.” You can hold a bare wire connected to a source of electricity and not feel a thing, as long as you aren’t grounded. If you’re not grounded, the power has nowhere to go. But come in contact with something that is, and power will surge through you.
The miracle is not so much that Jesus walks on water. It’s that Peter doesn’t drown, as he tries to do the same. This apostle’s puny, insubstantial faith – so inadequate on its own – gets hooked up to the humming power-source that is Jesus. Once that happens – once the love of Jesus transforms his heart, and Peter discovers what it truly means to trust – this incident becomes something truly awesome to behold.
Are there still miracles today? Sure there are! There are way more miracles happening in the world each day than we could ever hope to count. Maybe not so many of the suspension-of-the-natural-order sort: but that hardly exhausts the possibilities.
In that respect, the Bible may not be the best practical guidebook for us, when it comes to looking for miracles. If you want to see them today, you’ve got to abandon the old-fashioned definition of miracles as a big, splashy suspension of natural law.
That’s not what the people of Bible times understood, anyway. As hard as it is for to imagine, they had no conception of natural law, of abstract scientific principles. What they had, instead, was stories. They lived amidst a complex web of interconnected stories.
What we need to do, today, is tune our eyes to see the miracles that are perfectly ordinary. There’s a wonderful little poem by the Welsh poet Huw Menai that gets that point across beautifully. It’s called “Paradox”:
If the good God were suddenly
To make a solitary Blind to see
We would stand wondering all
And call it a miracle;
But that He gives with lavish hand
Sight to a million souls we stand
And say, with little awe,
He but fulfills a natural law!
[James Dalton Morrison, ed., Masterpieces of Religious Verse (Harper, 1948), p. 13.]
We’re on a roll with poetry, now, so I’ve got another one for you. This one’s just for fun. It’s called “The Angel’s Retirement Speech,” by Annie Farnsworth. Have a good time with it:
[Annie Farnsworth, Bodies of Water, Bodies of Light (Sheltering Pines Press, 2001). Under copyright, but may be viewed at this link:
Another poet, Wendell Berry, says something similar in these words from an essay he wrote:
“The miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”
[- Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (Counterpoint Press, 2002), p. 311.]
Were Jesus to show up today, strolling across Barnegat Bay, it would surely be a wonder. Yet, I’d be surprised if that temporary suspension of physical laws governing the surface tension of water would, in and of itself, lead a great many to commit their lives to him and be saved. Experiencing the miraculous is not simply about being a spectator. It’s also about the experience of stepping out onto the water in faith, feeling the terrifying pull of the ocean depths, and knowing, in one moment of spectacular insight, that we cannot save ourselves – that we need Jesus to catch us by the hand, pulling us to safety.
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.