2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:15
They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority!
You can’t go many pages in the Gospels without encountering a miracle. Some of us find it easy and exciting to believe in miracles. Others of us find them highly problematic.
If you find it easy to believe in miracles, the Gospels are a treasure of inspiration. But you still have to deal with one big problem: the miracles in the Gospels easily stir hopes that are almost always dashed in people’s lives today. For example, in Matthew 9 you read about a little girl being raised from the dead, but since that time millions of faithful, praying parents have grieved lost children without a miraculous happy ending. Why not? In Matthew 14, you read about fish and bread being multiplied to feed the hungry, but since that day, how many millions of faithful, praying people have slowly starved, and no miracle came? Doesn’t the possibility of miracles only make our suffering worse when God could grant them but doesn’t? It’s all so much worse if accusatory people then blame the victim for not having enough faith.
If you are sceptical about miracles, you avoid these problems. But you have another problem, no less significant: if you’re not careful, you can be left with a reduced world, a disenchanted, mechanistic world where the impossible is always and forever impossible. You may judge the miracle stories in the Gospels as silly legends, childish make-believe, false advertising or deceitful propaganda. But in banishing what you regard as superstition, you may also banish meaning and hope. If you lock out miracles, you can easily lock yourself in – into a closed mechanistic system, a small box where God’s existence doesn’t seem to make much difference.
There is a third alternative, a response to the question of miracles that is open to both sceptics and believers in miracles alike. Instead of ‘Yes, miracles actually happened’, or ‘No, they didn’t really happen’, we could ask another question: What happens to us when we imagine miracles happening? In other words, perhaps the story of a miracle is intended to do more than inform us about an event that supposedly happened in the past, an event that if you were to believe it, might prove something else.
Perhaps a miracle story is meant to shake up our normal assumptions, inspire our imagination about the present and the future, and make it possible for us to see something we couldn’t see before. Perhaps the miracle that really counts isn’t one that happened to them back then, but one that could happen in us right now as we reflect upon the story.
Perhaps, by challenging us to consider impossible possibilities, these stories can stretch our imagination, and in so doing can empower us to play a catalytic role in cocreating new possibilities for the world of tomorrow. Doesn’t that sound rather . . . miraculous?
Consider Jesus’ first miracle in the Fourth Gospel. The story begins, ‘On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee.’ Jesus’ mother notices that the wedding host has run out of wine and she nudges Jesus to do something about it. Jesus resists, but Mary doubts his resistance. She tells the servants to get ready to do whatever Jesus instructs.
Jesus points them to some nearby stone containers – six of them, used to hold water for ceremonial cleansing. These cleansings express the intention to live as ‘clean people’, in contrast to ‘unclean people’. The containers are huge – potentially holding twenty or thirty gallons each. But they are empty. ‘Fill them with water,’ Jesus says. So the servants get to work drawing 120–180 gallons of water and filling the huge containers. Jesus instructs them to draw out a sample to give to the banquet master. He takes a taste. He’s amazed! ‘You’ve saved the best wine until last!’ he says.
John says this was the first of the signs by which Jesus revealed his glory. That word signs is important. Signs point. They signify. They mean something. Often the word signs is linked with wonders – which make you wonder and astonish you with awe. So having warmed up our imagination by picturing a story about a far-away place in a long-ago time, let’s now apply our inspired imagination to our lives, our world, here and now. Let’s consider the significance of the sign. Let’s do some wondering.
In what ways are our lives – and our religions and our cultures – like a wedding banquet that is running out of wine? What are we running out of? What are the stone containers in our day – huge but empty vessels used for religious purposes? What would it mean for those empty containers to be filled – with wine? And why so much wine? Can you imagine what 180 gallons of wine would mean in a small Galilean village? What might that superabundance signify? What might it mean for Jesus to re-purpose containers used to separate the clean from the unclean? And what might it mean for God to save the best for last?
Questions like these show us a way of engaging with the miracle stories as signs and wonders, without reducing them to the level of ‘mere facts’ on the one hand or ‘mere superstition’ on the other. They stir us to imagine new ways of seeing, leading to new ways of acting, leading to new ways of being alive.
In Mark’s Gospel, the first miracle is very different. It happens in Capernaum, Jesus’ home base, in the synagogue on the Sabbath day. The people have gathered and Jesus is teaching with his trademark authority. Suddenly, a man ‘with an unclean spirit’ screams: ‘What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!’ Jesus tells the spirit to be quiet and leave the man, and the spirit shakes the man violently and leaves.
Today we would probably diagnose the man as being mentally or emotionally unwell, anxiety-ridden, maybe even paranoid. Instead of being possessed by a demon, we would understand him to be possessed by a chemical imbalance, a psychiatric disorder, a neurological malady or a powerful delirium. But even with our difference in diagnosing and understanding human behaviour, we can imagine how we would respond to seeing Jesus return this man to mental well-being with one impromptu therapy session lasting less than ten seconds!
Again, the story stimulates us to ask questions about our own lives, our own times. What unhealthy, polluting spirits are troubling us as individuals and as a people? What fears, false beliefs and emotional imbalances reside within us and distort our behaviour? What unclean or unhealthy thought patterns, value systems and ideologies inhabit, oppress and possess us as a community or culture? What in us feels threatened and intimidated by the presence of a supremely ‘clean’ or ‘holy’ spirit or presence, like the one in Jesus? In what way might this individual symbolise our whole society? In what ways might our society lose its health, its balance, its sanity, its ‘clean spirit’, to something unclean or unhealthy?
And what would it mean for faith in the power of God to liberate us from these unhealthy, imbalanced, self-destructive disorders? Dare we believe that we could be set free? Dare we trust that we could be restored to health? Dare we have faith that such a miracle could happen to us – today?
There is a time and place for arguments about whether this or that miracle story literally happened. But in this literary approach, we turn from arguments about history to conversations about meaning. We accept that miracle stories intentionally stand on the line between believable and dismissible. In so doing, they throw us off balance so that we see, think, imagine and feel in a new way.
After people met Jesus, they started telling wild, inspiring stories like these . . . stories full of gritty detail, profound meaning and audacious hope. They felt their emptiness being filled to overflowing. They watched as their lifelong obsession with clean and unclean was replaced with a superabundant, supercelebrative joy. They felt their anxiety and paranoia fade, and in their place faith and courage grew. They experienced their blindness ending, and they began to see everything in a new light. That was why these stories had to be told. And that’s why they have to be told today. You may or may not believe in literal miracles, but faith still works wonders.
Meditate & Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a time when you felt you experienced a miracle, or when you prayed for a miracle that never came.
3. How do you respond to the literary approach that looks for meaning in miracle stories? Can you apply it to some other miracle stories?
4. For children: If you could have a magical power, what would it be, and why?
5. Activate: Keep these two miracle stories in mind throughout this week, and see if they bring new insights to situations you face.
6. Meditate: Hold in silence the image of an empty ceremonial stone container being filled with water that is transformed to wine. Hear the sound of water filling to the brim. See the water change in colour, and taste the change in flavour as it becomes wine. Hear the sound of people celebrating in the background. Sit with the words empty, full and transformed. See what prayer takes shape in your heart.