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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

“The Problem With Miracles”

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Matthew 14:22-33

If the truth were to be known, most of us would have to admit that we walk a fine line between believing and not believing. There are times in our lives when we do seem to believe all the things we say about God when we read the Bible and sing the hymns. There are even times when we’d say we feel close to God.

But there are also those desert times in our lives when we wonder whether or not we believe any of it at all anymore. Then God, Jesus, the Church – it all seems like so much pie in the sky, far away and unreal. And it’s especially true of miracles, isn’t it?

The problem with miracles is that they don’t seem to happen anymore, so we’re not sure we believe in them anymore. Even when something wonderful happens, and we say, “It was a miracle!”, after a while we wonder – maybe it just happened by chance or coincidence.

So, we joke about the miracles in the Bible, especially today’s Gospel lesson, because we don’t know what to think of them. You’ve probably heard the one about the three preachers out fishing in a boat. The Presbyterian pastor climbs out of the boat and walks to shore on the water. Then the Baptist pastor climbs out of the boat, and he walks to shore on the water. The Lutheran pastor figures if those two guys could do that, so could he! So, he climbs out of the boat, steps out onto the water, and sinks out of sight. The Presbyterian pastor turns to the Baptist pastor and asks, “Do you think we should tell him where the rocks are?”

Or there’s the one about the little boy whose mother asked him what he learned in Sunday School. So, he told her how Moses had led the Israelites out of Egypt, using helicopter gunships, and guided missiles, and pontoon bridges and heavy artillery. And his mother asked him, “Are you telling me the truth?” And the little boy says, “No, but if I told you what the teacher said happened, you’d never believe me!”

So, that’s one thing we do about miracles in the Bible; we make jokes about them. The other thing we do is try to explain them, trying to show that they were just natural occurrences, doing our best to make them fit into our view of the world. That’s why some so-called “scholars”, who have too much education for their intelligence, have to explain away all the miracles. So, they say that God didn’t really part the Red Sea, but the Israelites knew their way through the marshy areas of the shallow Reed Sea, and the Egyptian horses and chariots got bogged down. And they say that Jesus didn’t really multiply the loaves and fishes but opened the people’s hearts to share the food they had brought and hidden in their coats.

So, if we can’t believe in the miracles, we either joke about them or try to explain them rationally, trying to make them fit into the world as we know it. As J.B. Phillips would say, “Your God is too small!”

Certainly, all things are possible with God, and we want to believe when we’re sinking – and sooner or later all of us feel like we are, whether we want to admit it or not. Peter and the Lutheran pastor were literally sinking, but I’m thinking of a different kind of sinking we’re all familiar with. It's the kind of sinking feeling you experience when you’ve been waiting for the doctor’s report on yourself or someone you care about, and sure enough, the doctor says what you were afraid he was going to say. It’s the kind of sinking feeling you get when all your friends are dying around you and you feel all alone. Or you’re about to start in a new school and you’re afraid you won’t know anyone. Or your finances, or your business, or your marriage, or life itself, is on the rocks, and like Peter you want to cry out, “Lord, save me! I’m about to go under!”

Yes, when we’re sinking, we want to believe. We really, genuinely want to believe – not just in God, but that God intervenes in our lives and in our world. We want to believe in miracles, but we’re not sure they really happen anymore. We want to believe, but we’re not sure we can.

But maybe the real problem with miracles isn’t that they don’t happen. Maybe the real problem is that they do – only not the way we think they should.

Too often we have a predetermined way God should perform a miracle, and what that miracle should accomplish. If we’re feeling generous, maybe we’ll give Him multiple choice! For example, we’d like God to perform a miracle to show an unbeliever that God is real, but that’s not the way miracles work. Remember Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus? They both died, the rich man going to Hades and Lazarus going to Paradise, with Abraham. The rich man called to Abraham and begged him to send Lazarus to warn the rich man’s brothers so they wouldn’t also go to Hell. But “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them listen to them.’ ‘No, Father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ Abraham said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16:19-31) Of course that’s true, since Jesus returned from the dead, and most people don’t believe it! At least they don’t believe what it means enough to let it change their lives!

God isn’t some divine magician ready to pull rabbits out of every hat we offer up in prayer. And although faith itself – the very fact that we believe in Jesus – is a miracle in itself, it’s not miracles that produce faith. Faith comes, one way or another, from the Word of God! Only in faith do we recognize miracles at all. Only in faith did Mary recognize Jesus at the empty tomb. Only in faith did the two men recognize Jesus when they arrived at Emmaus.

And how do real miracles come to us? Only when all seems lost, and we’ve used up all our human resources – when all hope seems gone and there’s nothing left but our faith in God.

We have some very close friends from when we lived in Northern Virginia. We’re close because we have the same interests and the same values. We’re close because we’ve shared a lot of activities and events. And not the least of these was a traumatic time with their son.

When their boy was about seven years old, he was found to have a tumor on his brain – right in the middle of his forehead. To make a long story short, they had to cut a silver dollar-sized hole in his frontal lobe in order to remove the tumor.

For the next year Wayne had to be very careful, wearing a helmet most of the time. No outdoor-type games, no bike riding, and so on. Wayne literally had another hole in his head!

A year later he returned to the hospital to have a metal plate put in his forehead over the hole. But there wasn’t any hole! The bone had completely grown back together! The doctors couldn’t believe it. They’d never seen such a thing. And if you’re thinking: well, that could happen – just because they’d never seen it before doesn’t mean it couldn’t just happen. Well, I suppose you know that when you break a bone, and it heals, there’s a white line there on an X-ray. Well, on Wayne’s forehead there was no white line! No evidence of any kind that they’d cut through the bone!

How do real miracles come to us? Maybe in the dramatic turnaround of an incurable illness. Maybe in the sudden ability to face death unafraid when the illness can’t be cured, and the miracle is that, in the face of your own death, you’re never defeated. They may come quietly and unseen in changed attitudes toward people and events. They may happen through us as the hungry are fed and the naked are clothed. A miracle occurs every time a person surrenders their life to Christ.

I know it’s not easy to believe in miracles in our time. The problem with them isn’t that they don’t happen. The problem is that they do! The question is, do we have faith to see them and experience them in God’s power and presence in our lives?

The two greatest miracles recorded in the Bible are the creation of the heavens and the Earth and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that God performed those two miracles, so the rest of them are easy to believe.

That’s what I believe – how about you? Hmm?


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