Well, my friends, the Christmas season is over and believe it or not, Lent is fast approaching. The season of epiphany is short this year only four Sundays. This week and next week we are going to look at some of the miraclea and parables in the gospel of Mark. Miracles this week and parables next week.
Most scholars believe that the gospel of Mark was the earliest gospel because 90 percent of it shows up in Matthew and Luke, so it was probably a source those authors had when writing their gospels. Mark is also the shortest gospel and it doesn’t have any stories of Jesus’ birth or childhood. Mark starts like one of those TV shows that jumps right into the middle of the action. In only 20 verses, all in chapter 1, Jesus is introduced, baptized, tempted in the wilderness, kicks off his ministry, and gets four followers. The whole book of Mark is punchy and fast, full of words like “immediately” and “at once.” In Mark, Jesus is always on the move, teaching and healing, as we will read this morning.
This story is in Mark chapter 1 verses 21 through 32.
Jesus and his four disciples went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed by demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases and cast out many demons, and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Hmmmmmm. Miracles. Exorcism of demons and miraculous healings. Some of you find those things totally believable. And some of you find those things absolutely unbelievable. Usually pastors take one side or the other and spend the sermon either trying to convince everyone to believe in the miraculous or unpacking how the miracle could be naturally explained. I hope it will not surprise you to know that I’m not going to do either of those things. Instead, I want to invite you to think about two things: 1. What do miracles open up in us? and 2. What happens when we don’t get a miracle? And then I want us to spend some time praying for and with each other.
Miracles are tough for some of us to swallow, especially exorcism and miraculous healing. I could spend the full length of a sermon talking about demons in the Bible and the modern world, but I honestly don’t think that’s where God wants to speak to us today. If you want to talk to me about that some other time, I’d be happy to. In the Bible, exorcism is often talked about in the same breath as physical healing. Both possession and illness or disabilities were life-controlling issues within someone’s body that neither they nor anyone else was able to resolve. But Jesus resolves those issues. Miraculously.
The gospels tell us that Jesus had compassion on people and so he healed and taught. His disciples both during his life and after his resurrection also did miracles. But we don’t see a lot of those kind of miracles today, at least I don’t see a lot of miraculous physical healing with no intervention from doctors or any kind of medicine. I don’t know why we don’t see them. Sometimes I think it’s because many of us have more options for healing than people did in Jesus’ day, but other people – even in this country, much less developing countries — are just as desperate.
I’ll tell you why I think the miracle stories are in the Bible. I think Jesus really did miracles in order to show people what was possible in God’s Kingdom, when everything is really as God intends it to be. I think that through miracles Jesus gave us a foretaste of what true shalom, collective flourishing, looks like. I think the miracles of Jesus show us what is coming and what it possible.
The miracle stories are there to give us hope, but that hope can be a two-edged sword.
In 2014 the Pew Religious Landscape Survey discovered that American atheists are far more likely than American Christians to say they feel a sense of wonder about the universe. Somehow, and I think legacy churches like ours are especially susceptible to this, Christians have gotten really stuck in our heads. Reason is one of the four sources of moral authority, but sometimes we rely on it far too much. If we can’t reason it out, then we don’t let ourselves trust it. The problem with that is, the world is still cram-jammed with mystery, with experiences that transcend our rational explanations and expectations. If we limit ourselves to the territory that we can understand or that we’ve already experienced or that already makes sense to us, we are going to miss out on some of the beauty of life. Those of you who are doing the Enchantment book study are thinking about this I know.
The miracle stories challenge us to keep an open mind about what is possible. They invite us to maintain a sense of wonder. The miracle stories assert that even when things seem most desperate, when we can’t see any solution, there is a chance that God will transcend rational reality and intervene in a way that makes the impossible possible.
But that right there is the two-edged sword. Because miracles don’t always happen. The miracle stories are also part of what makes us think that God should solve our problems, since Jesus did miracles. But even Jesus didn’t do miracles for everyone all the time. Once he was at the pool of Bethesda, surrounded by people with life-controlling illnesses and disabilities and he only healed one man.
So what do we do when we don’t get a miracle? I bet most of us in this room have prayed for a miraculous healing and not seen it happen. (And that doesn’t even take into account all the other seemingly insurmountable problems in the world. Right now we’re just talking about healing!) What do we do with our pain and our disappointment?
This is a major point of spiritual growth. If we base our faith in God on the idea that it is God’s job to protect us from suffering, we will always wind up disappointed and cynical. Because life is hard. Period. Even rich and privileged people have accidents and get sick and lose loved ones. And everybody dies. I do believe that God is up to good in the world, that God is in the process of reconciling all of creation to the Creator, but that does not mean that everything is going to be good in my life. And the fact that everything is not good in my life, that I or my loved one didn’t get a miracle does not mean that God does not love me. Life is just hard.
Suffering teaches us that we are not in control and that is one of the most important spiritual lessons that we must learn in order to live well in the world. The more different types of privilege we have, the harder it is to accept that we aren’t in control and there’s a lot of different types of privilege in this room.
Suffering teaches us that we are not in control and suffering results in growth that wouldn’t come any other way. Hear me clearly: I’m not saying that pain and suffering are good or that God causes them. I personally don’t believe that. But I do believe that good can come from suffering and pain if we are willing to surrender and trust. You may say “I don’t think I need to grow anymore!” And that’s fair. I get that. But that leads us right back to the deeply spiritual lessons that we are not in control. And that life is hard for everyone. And that everyone dies. All the people that Jesus miraculously healed eventually died. Even the several people that he brought back to life eventually died. It is impossible for us to avoid suffering and pain and death, and we only cause ourselves more suffering if we expect that God will always help us avoid suffering and pain and death. That’s just not how it works. God is the one who stays with us in the suffering. God is the one who heals the heart wounds of suffering. God is the one who redeems the suffering by bringing about new growth and maturity. But God is not the one whose job it is to stop us from suffering.
Before we spend some time praying for each other, I want to share with you two very short quotes. The first is from Father Richard Rohr who says “If we do not transform our pain, we will transmit it.” We can allow God to help us transform our pain, our suffering, and our disappointment, or we can transmit our bitterness to other people.
And the second is from Rev. Dr. Alicia Britt Chole who says, “God did not cause it. But God is not going to waste it.” God did not cause your pain. But God is not going to waste your pain. If you do not get the miracle you are praying for, you can trust that God will help you transform that pain into something that brings about good in you and for the world. In all things, miraculous or mundane, we trust in God, who loves us and will never let us go. Amen.