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The Life of Jesus: His Miracles

March 30, 2014

Sermon:  The Life of Jesus: His Miracles
Text:  Mark 6:30-44

Most of us can recall having seen a rainbow. Yesterday was the perfect day for one with lots of clouds and lots of sun. If you look at a rainbow through the eyes of an artist, you see a spectrum of colors that are available in pencils, ink, acrylics, and oils. If you look at a rainbow through the eyes of a scientist, you see something entirely different: an optical and meteorological phenomenon caused by both the reflection and refraction of light, the breaking down of light into prismatic colors. If you look at a rainbow through the eyes of Kermit the Frog, who knows that it is not easy being green, the rainbow connection includes every one of every color, as proclaimed in the Muppet movie of 1979. Jesse Jackson even adapted this theme into the Rainbow Coalition, which became his platform in the 1984 run for presidency. The rainbow theme has even become a flag waved by those who are part of the gay pride movement. Finally, if you look at a rainbow through the eyes of Noah, you see a sign of hope, a spiritual experience, a promise from God. A rainbow can be viewed artistically, scientifically, socially, and spiritually.

Let’s think again about the miracles of Jesus, which can be viewed in these same four ways. Jesus was known for doing mighty deeds, according to Josephus, the Jewish historian who wrote about Jesus near the end of the first century. All four Gospels report many miracles Jesus performed among the crowds that flocked to him because of his reputation as a healer. His entire ministry has miraculous bookends: the incarnation and the resurrection, which we will celebrate in a few weeks on Easter Sunday. Miracles were a part of Jesus’ life from the moment he turned water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana to the miraculous catch of fish recorded at the end of the Gospel of John.

The miracles of Jesus can commonly be divided into two groups. Last week I talked about how we are to understand the twenty-eight healing miracles of Jesus, which included performing exorcisms and at least three instances of raising a person from the dead. This week we move to the other category, those which are nature miracles. Jesus performed fewer of those, only nine: turning water to wine, catching fish the first time, calming a storm, feeding 5000 people, walking on water, feeding 4000 people, finding the temple tax in a fish’s mouth, cursing a fig tree, and catching fish a second time.

Many New Testament scholars widely accept that Jesus performed healing miracles. Eighty percent of those attending the Jesus Seminar, a group of liberal, skeptical scholars, believe that Jesus performed healing miracles and exorcisms. Among biblical scholars that percentage is much higher.

We see much less agreement when we turn to the nature miracles. Some outright deny that these nine occurred, suggesting that they should be considered metaphorical narratives somewhat similar to parables. Those who question these miracles claim they should not be regarded as historical events in the life of Jesus but as another way of teaching. They point out that the stories surrounding the miracles make use of rich symbols drawn from Judaism, especially from the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. For example, the account of the second miraculous catch of fish actually gives the number of fish caught – 153 – which happens to be the number of known countries in the world at that time. Clearly the number symbolizes the task that now faced the disciples – being fishers of men by taking the gospel into the entire world.

Let me be very clear. I believe that both the healing miracles and the nature miracles are real historical events as recorded in the Gospels.

Mark 11 offers one of the most perplexing nature miracles. Jesus singled out and cursed a perfectly good fig tree at a time of year when most fig trees are just barely putting out leaves. This miracle occurred during Passover Week, in fact, not the fruit-bearing season for fig trees. No fig trees in all of Israel would be bearing fruit at that time. Its death causes great consternation among environmentalists. They cannot understand why such a thing would happen. The fig tree died for good reason.

Jesus told a parable in Luke 13:6-9. A vineyard keeper held out hope that a barren fig tree would bear fruit. He dug around the tree and fertilized it agreeing to cut it down as the owner of the vineyard suggested if it did not bear fruit after one year.

I had a similar experience with a hydrangea plant that did not bloom for five years. I asked Jay Moore what I should do, and he said, “Wait.” I waited and continued to fertilize the plant. It did bloom two years later, and it has bloomed every year since then.

In the final week of his earthly ministry, Jesus cursed the fig tree because it was unfruitful even though it was out of season for figs. Prophets used fig trees as a symbol for the nation of Israel, as the people of Israel. The nation, which had been unfruitful, now faced destruction. Events happened just that way. In the year A.D. 70, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and devastated the temple, scattering the people of Israel across the face of the earth in what became known as the Diaspora. I agree that these nature miracles often carry important symbolism.

The doubters also make the point that the nature miracles defy the universal laws of nature. The universe, they say, is a closed system of cause-and-effect, operating on natural law. Within this framework, miracles are understood as God intervening supernaturally in an otherwise predictable system of natural cause-and effect.

Again, let me say that I believe in both the healing miracles and the nature miracles as historical events witnessed and recorded by the disciples of Jesus.

Many of you know that I did not intend to be a minister. I thought I was going in a completely different direction. When I was growing up some of my most important teachers taught science. I loved them and thoroughly enjoyed their classes. I might have become a naturalist like my good friend Rudy Mancke. We were both interested in the natural world of plants and animals. The world fascinated us. We often caught snakes together but parted ways after he began going after the copperheads and rattlesnakes. I very well could have gone in that direction. Having worked at the lumberyard though, I became even more fascinated in human life and behavior. I thought I would go into the field of medicine, but God had planned a different path for me.

When I began attending Furman, well-intentioned people warned, “Don’t let them fill your head with nonsense. Don’t let them take away your faith.” Some people were very concerned that I would learn all kinds of crazy stuff. I did learn some crazy stuff, but most of it was not in the classroom.

Much of the caution I received centered around two individuals: Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud. During my sophomore year I decided to find out for myself about these two. I went to the library and checked out Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle and Freud’s The Future of an Illusion, both very readable books. I found The Voyage of the Beagle to be absolutely fascinating.

Charles Darwin, a seminary student who had an opportunity to travel, made numerous observations. When he returned from this journey of discovery, the Church of England welcomed him and praised his ideas while the scientific community criticized him. What an odd twist! Darwin went astray on many issues, but not all.

Similarly, Sigmund Freud, a physician, was right about many issues but wrong about others. He genuinely cared for his patients, but his biggest mistake was studying only sick people. He took his ideas about religion from people who had a terrible pathology. That mistake finally led to his notion that religion is an illusion.

Both Darwin and Freud were keen observers. I, too, have tried to learn the discipline of paying close attention. Clare would say that I probably need some remedial work.

I want to share some truths I have discovered about miracles.

First, I learned from my professor of Old Testament theology, Dr. Eric Rust, that in trying to understand miracles we often make a great mistake: we believe what we know according to our understanding and then use God to fill in the gaps. We attribute to God something we do not understand. I heard on PBS that one scientist defined a miracle as “nothing more than a natural law not yet discovered.” I completely disagree with that statement. We must recognize the natural laws, but we must leave room for God to work even in what we already know. God is, after all, sovereign. Imagine if we discovered a definitive cure for cancer. We are not to then decide it is unnecessary to pray for cancer patients. Scientific discovery helps our understanding of God to expand. God becomes even bigger because He is sovereign over the entire universe.

Have you ever looked at the magnificent images from the Hubble Space Telescope? When I see those images the song “O the Wonder of It All,” by George Beverly Shea, comes to mind. My idea about God as Creator has grown so much. It can grow by looking into a microscope, and it can grow by looking into a telescope. God is bigger than anything we can ever imagine. He is not a God of the gaps.

Second, I have learned that miracles are not happenstance. One computer magazine, in its Word for the Day section, quoted Irene Hannon who said, “Coincidence is a miracle in which God chooses to remain anonymous.” I believe that coincidences do not exist. God is behind the scenes, invisible, in fact, more often than not. We do not live in a random cosmos. A cat walking across a piano cannot play Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. The created order is not just random happenstance. You see the hand of the Creator at work. Even Charles Darwin said, “It is impossible to conceive that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God.” Albert Einstein made a similar comment: “Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of mankind, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious sentiment of a special sort which is deemed quite different from the religiosity of someone who is naïve.”

Third, I have learned that miracles need not cause any animosity between science and faith. God, who gave us minds to think, discover, explore, and learn, does not appreciate or value ignorance. He values knowledge. The Apostle Paul wrote, “If I can fathom all mysteries and have all knowledge but do not have love, I am nothing.” He also said, “If I have faith that can move mountains but have not love, I am nothing.” Faith and science, both valued by God, must enhance our love for God and our love for other people.

Fourth, it is a mistake to assume that miracles defy the laws of science. Quantum physics is mind-boggling. Even Einstein could not understand it all. He kept saying, “There is a missing piece of the puzzle that I cannot find.” The laws of thermodynamics are intended to give us a sense of equilibrium in the universe, but I was as dizzy as I could be when I tried to understand these laws. The law of gravity is relative, a fact that every astronaut knows. Gravity does not apply in some places. Miracles do not defy the laws of science. If anything, they support the laws of science in a way that astounds us.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “”Tis a short sight to limit our faith in laws to those of gravity, of chemistry, of botany, and so forth. Those laws do not stop where our eyes lose them, but push the same geometry and chemistry up into the invisible plane of social and rational life, so that, look where we will, in a boy’s game, or in the strifes of races, a perfect reaction, a perpetual judgment keeps watch and ward.”

Fifth, I have learned that miracles are not magic. Every magician will tell you that magic is an illusion. Some years ago a magician made the Statue of Liberty disappear. He admitted, “It is absolutely an illusion.”

Miracles are not illusions though some have tried to create an illusion. At Capernaum, for example, someone wanted to construct a Plexiglas platform out into the Sea of Galilee. People could have a photo opportunity while re-enacting Jesus’ walking on water. The idea was that people could take off their shoes, roll up their pants legs, and walk out on that platform in water about ankle-deep. It would look as if they were walking on water. I do not know how deep the water was when Jesus walked on the water. It does not matter. He walked on water without the aid of Plexiglas.

Sixth, miracles do not need to be explained in order to be understood. Our western minds ask, “How did he do that?” That is not the point. The questions we need to ask are, “What is the purpose for the miracle?” or “What is the reason behind this miracle?”

Seventh, we do not need to cheapen, explain away, or discount miracles. We see advertisements for miracle skin products and Miracle Whip Spread. We hear such songs such as Al Michaels’ “Do You Believe in Miracles?” during the 1980 Winter Olympics. Miracles, a real part of the life of Jesus, must be taken seriously.

Eighth, Jesus never performed a miracle on demand. Even at Cana when his mother suggested that he turn water to wine, he said, “Woman, what have you to do with me?” Jesus performed the miracle because he was the Son of God, not because she suggested it and not because he was the son of Mary.

Ninth, miracles were never intended as a form of entertainment. Jesus performed miracles because they had a spiritual purpose. Certainly Jesus did not want to prove himself amazing, dazzling, or spectacular. We saw last week that very often he took the person aside because he did not want a crowd to witness the healing miracle. Jesus resisted the temptation to do spectacular miracles in the wilderness. He resisted that temptation throughout his entire ministry.

I want us to look at the specific miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand. I invite you to turn with me to Mark 6 and look briefly at this passage, beginning at Verse 30.

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. 31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
32 So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. 33 But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
35 By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. 36 Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
37 But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”
They said to him, “That would take more than half a year’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”
38 “How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.”
When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.”
39 Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. 41 Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. 42 They all ate and were satisfied, 43 and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. 44 The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.

When the disciples argued that it was impossible to feed the 5000 men plus women and children, Jesus answered, “Bring me what you have.” Did Jesus distribute the loaves and fish to the people? No, he blessed this meager amount, broke it, and returned it to the disciples so that they could accomplish the task he had given them – to feed the masses. Afterwards, the disciples collected leftover pieces of bread and fish in twelve baskets – one for each of them.
What is the meaning of this miracle? Other than the incarnation and the resurrection, this miracle is the only one recorded in all four Gospels. It is highly probable that only the disciples, not the crowd, knew that a miracle had occurred. The crowd thought the meal was just part of the day – an all-day singing and dinner on the grounds in which they did not have to bring food. It would be provided.

When we go to a large banquet we give very little thought to the meal placed in front of us. A caterer somewhere, usually out of sight, prepared the meal; but we give little or no thought to how long it took the caterer and helpers to prepare. They probably worked all day, but we simply enjoy the meal.

The crowd gathered to hear Jesus probably responded to the meal in the same way that day. The disciples, however, understood that Jesus had done something they could not do. He actually enabled them to complete a task they thought was impossible.

Jesus still performs miracles. He has done what many of us thought could never happen right here in this congregation, time and time again. Would you have ever thought that this church would be responsible for supporting, starting, or planting up to thirteen, fourteen, fifteen different churches? Would you have ever thought that this church could make a unanimous decision to tithe the building fund, call it Growing Together for God, and support struggling churches all over this world? If we commit to God what we have, He will bless it and do more than we ever thought possible. God has continued to perform miracles over and over at Morningside.

I have seen my share of rainbows. I saw one after a tornado-like hailstorm blew over our chicken house when I was a boy. The chickens that survived began pecking hailstones off the ground. I have seen a rainbow high above our garden and one in Africa above the magnificent Victoria Falls where the heart of David Livingston is buried. I have seen a double rainbow in the big sky country of Montana and rainbows twice in Israel, one going from the top of Mount Carmel down to the Mediterranean Sea and one arcing from the Golan Heights to the Sea of Galilee. I have also seen rainbows at Greenlawn Cemetery more than once, following funeral services I conducted.

I view rainbows in much the same way I view the miracles of Jesus. Artistically, I appreciate their sheer beauty even though I am colorblind. Scientifically, I marvel at the way our Creator fashions this world and the unusual things He continues to do. I understand and appreciate that both rainbows have special meaning for people. Spiritually, I find in every rainbow renewed hope and a quiet call to worship. I will sing along with Al Michaels’ “Do You Believe in Miracles?”

Do you believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, loves you so much that He came to this earth, died for you, and conquered death itself? Our invitation is to come forward and accept Christ if you have never done so. We will gladly receive you.

Kirk H. Neely
© March 2014



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