WHY I BELIEVE: MIRACLES ABOUND
A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on September 21, 2014 (Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
5Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
7all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
8the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
– Psalm 8
– Matthew 6:25-33
For the next several weeks I will be preaching a series of sermons on “Why I Believe” – reasons that I have chosen to believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and even follow a call to ministry in Christ’s name. Perhaps my thinking will encourage you to think about what you believe and why – and how what we believe might impact the things we do and the way we act.
Last week I talked about how, for me, belief and faith in God are finally not a given, but rather a choice I make – to believe in One who can make all things new. It is a choice for hope – hope that I – and all life on earth – are not some cosmic accident, but a conscious creation by a living and loving God. Belief in God is a “leap of faith.”
Today, I want to talk about miracles. The Bible has a lot of wonderful stories that many people would call miraculous: creating a world from formless chaos is a pretty good trick, and then creating life from non-living matter tops even that. A group of slaves escaping an army by walking right through the sea; the sun stopping in the sky during a battle; a virgin birth; sudden healings; turning water into wine; rising from the dead – just to name a few.
It may have always been difficult for people to believe these miracle stories. I think it is even more difficult for us today because we have learned so much about how the world works in the past few centuries that many of these stories seem – improbable. Thousands of years ago people believed the sun was carried across the sky on some heavenly chariot. Today we understand that in order for the sun to stand still in the sky it would mean that the earth would have to stop rotating on its axis. Physics tells us that isn’t going to happen. Thousands of years ago, people believed that water and wine were just different kinds of liquids. Modern chemistry understands that wine contains sugars and alcohol and colorful chemical compounds that can’t be made just from water. With what we know about medicine, it is hard to understand how blindness or leprosy or paralysis could be suddenly healed.
You may be surprised to know that I – like many other people — have my doubts about whether such events actually happened. Let me say more about that later…
Our whole concept of what a miracle is may be different now than what it was hundreds or thousands of years ago. In the past, anything miraculous that people didn’t understand or was out of the ordinary was chalked up to God, or the gods. Today most people think of miracles as events that we don’t understand – we haven’t worked out an identifiable cause for some effect we observe. Many people believe that science will eventually understand how everything works. When that happens, there will be no more miracles, — no more need for God.
As much as I enjoyed – and still enjoy – learning about and doing science, and as much as I have great regard for what science is able to do, I’m not so sure it will eventually understand all things. And even if we do come to understand all things, I think there will still be room for God in our world and in our lives. But I also don’t buy the inverse of that proposition – that if we understand how something happens, it is not a miracle.
Miracles reveal something about God. And miracles abound.
To begin with, we are here. The earth is here – a tiny speck in an incomprehensibly huge universe. In recent decades scientists have worked out a general scheme about they think this all happened – starting with that “Big Bang” more than 14 billion years ago. They have worked out mathematical equations to try to describe the conditions of the early universe – right back to the first second of its existence. But the fact that they can provide an explanation for how the universe and the earth developed, that doesn’t make it any less a miracle.
And there is no equation to explain WHY we are here.
I still read magazines that report recent scientific research. The things that are being discovered about living things are just astonishing. Living cells have thousands of different chemical processes that must take place at just the right time and in the right way in order to function. I was just reading that we used to think of bacteria as dangerous organisms that could cause illness in people. But it turns out that our bodies are host to hundreds of different kinds of bacteria and other microbes that no one could even detect until recently. Our bodies have more bacterial bugs in them than human cells — perhaps ten times as many – and most of them are beneficial to us.
Biologists will say that life is this way because it has evolved in order to survive – and that explains why things are as they are. No need to bring God into the picture. But I say to you that the fact that life exists at all – and life that is capable of evolving and adapting to changing conditions — is a miracle. Even when it is shorter than we wish it were; even when it is more painful than we think it should be – it is still a miracle.
We sometimes are disappointed – or angry – when people we care about are sick or in pain. We may pray to God for healing. Sometimes healing happens, but we usually chalk those cases up to the skill of doctors or the effects of medicine. Sometimes healing does not happen, and life ends – as all life does – and people get angry at God, or decide they don’t believe in God because their prayers were not answered this time. We stop believing in miracles because we don’t control them, and we don’t understand them.
But I tell you, rather than being rare, miracles are all around us. They are so common they are tedious and boring – as common as the stars of the sky, the birds of the air, and the lilies of the field. They are so common we show our friends pictures of the miracles in our lives – like grandchildren – and brag about how cute they are!
Maybe it all comes down, once again, to a choice. We can see commonplace, ordinary stuff, or we can see miracle. I opt for miracle.
But what about those so-called miracles in the Bible? If they likely didn’t happen, then is there anything of value in the stories, or is it just worthless nonsense – or even dangerous delusio
For now, my answer is that I haven’t yet decided. Many of the stories seem unlikely, but this world is still more amazing than we know – there is still so much that we do not understand about God’s creation. And the God who created the world and all that is in it can do some pretty amazing things with that world. But I have come to believe that the important thing about those miracle stories isn’t whether they actually happened that way long ago or not, but that they are signs that point toward the ways that God works in the lives of people right now
Did God lead a bunch of slaves through the sea? I believe that God liberates oppressed people from impossible situations so they might be free to love and serve God. Did Jesus heal a blind man? Christ allows us to see what we could not, or would not, see. Did Jesus heal a leper? Christ welcomes into community people who have been excluded and shunned by society. Did Jesus rise from the dead? He is still with us when we gather together and pray together and break bread together, and Christ offers us the hope of eternal life. Those are the real miracles – and they happen all the time. Miracles abound.
That is why I have such regard for the Bible. It points to the ways God is work among us even today. And that is one of the reasons I believe in the God who made miracles happen, and makes miracles happen even today. Our world could use some miracles; our church could use some miracles; I could use some miracles.
Robert J. von Trebra
Copyright 2014 by Robert J. von Trebra
(Here is a link to a piece of music that would go with this sermon:
“These Are Days” by 10,000 Maniacs)