Here I am, ordained for almost 33 years, and in every parish in which I have ministered there have been, what I can only term as miracles. Some miracles are as simple as an answer to prayer for a job or financial solvency or inner peace during a time of crisis. Other miracles are much more dramatic.
In one parish I served, there was a female parishioner who was expected to die in the middle of the night. I was called to the hospital to give her the last rites of the Church. We prayed for a miracle that God would give her many more years to do the good work she felt called to do. I left her side, leaving a person I thought was as good as dead. But she didn’t die. Against every expectation by the doctors and her own priests, the lady grew stronger, the cancer vanished and she lived another 19 years to her mid-nineties.
Or, take the man with Stage 4 cancer whom the doctors thought would be dead in a few weeks, or at most months. When he was diagnosed in July, none of the doctors gave him any chance of living to Christmas. But there was faith and prayer – lots of prayer for this man. When he saw his oncologist in early January, the cancer was not nearly as threatening and his health was actually improving. Death was no longer imminent, but maybe a year or two away, if not more. No one expected such an outcome. His own oncologist said to him, “There is a higher power watching over you. I could feel it the first time I met you. You must have a lot of people praying for you.”
Of course, she was right.
In today’s gospel, at a wedding in Cana, Jesus turns a great deal of water into wine. We would call that a miracle, but in John’s Gospel it is called a sign. John says that this was the first sign Jesus performed. Yet, if such an event is a sign, what are we to make of it?
Webster’s Dictionary defines a miracle as “an extraordinary event manifesting a divine intervention in human affairs.” The Scottish philosopher David Hume characterized a miracle as a “transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity.” So miracles may be described as extraordinary experiences of God’s direct intervention in people’s lives.
A materialist rejects the possibility of miracles. After all, if you begin with the assumption that miracles don’t, can’t, won’t happen, they never will. We all know that our senses are fallible. People get hysterical; particularly people in extremis, people in pain, people in fear, and people in crisis. We see things we want to see. You see something that doesn’t fit your expectations of what you ought to see, you can always dismiss it as a mere illusion, wish projection, hysteria, paranoia, or too much food the night before.
Adam Gopnik, for example, writing in The New Yorker in 2013 said flatly, “We know that…in the billions of years of the universe’s existence, there is no evidence of a single miraculous intercession with the laws of nature.” Of course, Gopnik’s presupposition is that the world is all there is. If you view the world this way, then you automatically dismiss outright the possibility of anything beyond the material world of time and space.
Miracles didn’t really become a problem for Christianity until the advent of the Enlightenment in the 18th century. By the 19th century, a number of prominent Protestant theologians and philosophers no longer believed in miracles. David Strauss’s Life of Jesus first published in 1835, treated miracles as myths. How did Jesus feed thousands of people with a few loaves and fishes? Perhaps he had a secret store of food, or people brought their own lunches. How did Jesus walk on water? Maybe there was a platform floating just beneath the surface. How did Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead? Lazarus might simply have been in a trance. How did Jesus come back from the tomb?
He probably didn’t, but the important thing is that his followers believed he did and that belief filled them with joy and hope. A number of Protestant theologians, even today, agree with Strauss. But when they get rid of miracles, they get rid of Christianity.
Christianity is the only major religion in the world that depends on miracles. Other religions, such as Judaism, may report or allow miracles, but only Christianity relies on them. I am referring specifically to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. St. Paul flatly says in I Corinthians 15:14 that without Christ’s resurrection, “our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
But the resurrection is not the only miracle reported in the New Testament. While the founder of Islam, the prophet Mohammed, never claimed to have performed a single miracle, Jesus performed miracles all the time. He walked on water, quieted the storm, fed the multitudes, healed the blind, turned water into wine, and even brought several dead people back to life. Only if miracles are possible is Christianity believable. Strip Christianity of its miracles and there is nothing left of Christianity to believe in.
Critics have long said that primitive first-century Near Eastern people attributed certain events to miraculous divine intervention because they expected divine intervention. Divine intervention was their way of explaining the world. True but they weren’t dumb. First-century people may have been wrong in attributing so many events and phenomena to the gods, but they certainly knew the difference between the way the world usually works and a miracle.
When Joseph the carpenter was told that his wife Mary was pregnant, he didn’t immediately say that God was to blame. He assumed that she was “with child” in the predictable but illicit way. When people witnessed Jesus healing people, most people were speechless; some said he was an agent of Satan. Only a few said he was from God. When Jesus turned the water into wine at Cana, the man in charge of the bar suspected he had switched labels in the wine cellar. He didn’t say, “God must be mixed up with this.”
I don’t think biblical people were dumb or naïve in these matters. They were like us. They generally saw what they expected to see. They dealt with the world with the intellectual tools that had been given to them. Perhaps that’s why Jesus in the gospels doesn’t appear to get much mileage out of his miracles. Rarely does anyone move from seeing a miracle to believing that Jesus is the Messiah, because seeing is not believing. So what are we to think about miracles?
The strongest case for a miracle dates back to the Big Bang 14 billion years ago. All matter that presently exists in the known universe – more than one hundred billion galaxies, each of which contains hundreds of billions of stars and many more planets – exploded out of something smaller than the period at the end of a sentence. Who was behind that? If you are an atheist, you have no answer to that question. The Big Bang just happened. However, most people would say that God was behind the Big Bang. God who is beyond time and space made time and space possible.
If we believe that God created the universe out of nothing – the greatest miracle of all – how can we possibly quibble over smaller miracles like turning water into wine or giving sight to the blind or healing a person with cancer? Believing that God could create the universe but could not perform infinitely smaller miracles is illogical. In that sense, the Bible gets it right. The very first line of the very first book of the Bible, Genesis 1:1 says: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…”
Creation is the greatest miracle of all. It is from that miracle, all other miracles have their source. So it is not accurate to talk of “laws of nature” that God arbitrarily violates to alter the natural order of things. Better to speak of “creation” in which God is within and without everything created. God doesn’t intervene in creation as David Hume surmised, because creation is God’s own work in which God is present in everything that exists. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” as the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins aptly put it.
C. S. Lewis says “miracles are aspects of the continuing creativity of God.” Miracles fill us with wonder and point to the one who moves the stars. When Jesus stilled the storm and made the angry waves to be still, nine out of ten who witnessed it wondered, “Who is this?” To a few, the wonder became a sign that in Jesus they were witnessing the very God who created the wind and the waves.
Lewis says “miracles are a retelling in small letters of the same story that is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.” Thus, they are best referred to as “signs.”
Jesus turned water into wine at Cana. God does that all the time on the Niagara Peninsula or the Napa Valley as the rain waters the fields and the sun matures the grapes. We don’t call a bottle of wine a miracle (except when we use it at the Lord’s Table in making Eucharist), but perhaps we should learn to do so. As Lewis said, when Jesus turned that water into wine at Cana, a number saw this as a sign that something mighty was present in the world, or as John’s Gospel says, “this was the first of his signs” that “revealed his glory… and his disciples believed in him.”
Every day in our hospitals, the blind see; the lame walk. We have spent a fortune teaching you to call it medicine, or technology, or a well-functioning health care delivery system. Today’s Gospel bids you to call it miracle. Call the whole world miracle – the continuing effects of a loving, active, caring faith to see your life for what it is. Thank God that occasionally, for some people, on some unexpected day at an unexpected place like a wedding party, our eyes are opened, the lid is lifted off the universe, and we see the hand of God moving among us. In such moments, we see a sign, and a breakout of glory. And we, like the disciples, believe.
In her book Operating Instructions, Anne Lamott tells the story of a family being interviewed by a reporter. The family was a religiously devout mother in her thirties, a somewhat older and painfully shy father, and their ten-year-old daughter bound to a wheelchair by spina bifida. Every year, this family made a pilgrimage to Lourdes in France, where healing is reputed to occur.
According to Lamott, the reporter was giving the family a hard time for being so gullible. At one point he turned to the little girl and asked, “When you pray, what do you pray for?” She replied, “I pray that my father won’t be so shy. It makes him terribly lonely.”
That stopped the reporter for a few seconds, but then he pressed ahead, questioning the family’s wisdom, saying to the mother that they spend thousands of dollars every year going to Lourdes and still they have no miracle. Looking at her loving daughter, the mother answered, “Oh, you don’t get it. We have our miracle.”
The reporter had his expectations, and the only miracle that would count, was the one that fit his definition: the little girl would get up out of the chair and walk. But he missed the miracle of a daughter’s growing love, the miracle of a family held together in faith. He missed the miracle of joy growing in soil that should not, by all rights, sustain it. God does not work in the world in the ways we expect, because God’s mercy breaks the bounds of our narrow imaginations.
To tell the truth, that reporter is probably like most of us: he really didn’t expect any miracles. We live in a world that has stopped expecting them – a world that has been constricted, narrowed, policed by little more than “mere facts.”
Miracles, wondrous signs, are God’s invitation to move to a more interesting, surprising, delightful, and gifted world. One day, in ways we least expect, that little girl and all like her will get up healed in the power of God. And those of us who have expected far too little will be genuinely surprised.
Dr. Gary Nicolosi
January 17, 2016
Text – John 2:1-11
Epiphany 2, C
Note: References to C.S. Lewis are from his book Miracles, which can be found in many different editions. See also Eric Metaxas, Miracles (A Plume Book, 2015) and Dinesh D’Souza, So What’s So Great About Christianity (Tyndale, 2007).