Preached at St Mary the Virgin, East Barnet, on the eighth Sunday after Trinity, 2014
We have heard about a lot of miracles in church recently. This morning at the Eucharist we heard of the Syro-Phoenician woman and the casting out of the demon in her daughter. And then we’ve heard of Elisha getting very busy this evening. He managed to do some impressive work with oil, which would solve many of today’s geopolitical problems if he could repeat the trick today. And then he goes to the village of Shunem, is given hospitality by a rich woman of the village, announces the miraculous birth of her son and ultimately raises that son from his illness. Last Sunday morning we heard of another miracle: Jesus walking on the water.
All of this is very much part of the vocabulary of the Bible. Miraculous deeds appear from first to last. And for many people, they’re one of the biggest obstacles to belief. ‘How,’ they ask, ‘are we supposed to believe this nonsense?’ It just doesn’t happen. People don’t walk on water. Miraculous quantities of oil are not produced from one small container. Children are not raised from the dead. And identifying demons is not something done in society in the UK in 2014.
I saw a website the other day, which made this point rather succinctly. First, it showed the number of ‘claims of supernatural powers refuted by experiment’; second, it showed ‘claims of supernatural powers confirmed by experiment’. There were, of course, no occasions where science had confirmed supernatural claims, and any number of occasions where they had been refuted.
So we can be forgiven if we feel a bit sceptical about all the miracles that happen in the Bible. Now, as I see it, there are three ways often adopted to deal with this.
The first is the Richard Dawkins approach. This can be summarised as ‘look at all the silly things they believe, aren’t they stupid, it’s all false, nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah.’
The second is the fundamentalist Christian approach. ‘It’s all true, miracles did happen and they just show how amazing God is.’
The third is the liberal scholarly approach. ‘All these things happened, but there’s always a good scientific explanation.’ So maybe Elisha had bottles of oil up his sleeves, or the boy wasn’t really dead, or Jesus was walking on underwater stepping stones.
Now all of these have been promoted at one time or another. And I reckon all of them are pretty unconvincing.
I want to suggest a fourth approach. I don’t think we should look at the miracles primarily as historical facts. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe miracles happen—I believe in the Resurrection, and the Virgin Birth, and indeed in many others. It also doesn’t mean that we can’t ask about the historical events. But I don’t think that we should focus all our attention on the mechanics of the miracles.
Instead, we should read them in the context of the message of the text in which they appear. All the books of the Bible have been written, presented and edited deliberately. They aren’t a neutral, disinterested account of simple facts. They are interested in proclaiming a theological or political message. And the miracles and the way in which they happen and appear in the Bible are part of the theological message.
Theologians call this the kerygma. That means ‘proclamation’. And it reminds us that the message of God is not just words. Events, actual historical events, are the way God’s message reaches his world. He didn’t merely choose his people, but he rescued them from captivity in Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land. He didn’t redeem the world by words spoken from heaven, but by his living Word, Jesus Christ. Jesus, like Elisha, one of the great prophets of the Old Testament, was not merely a great teacher. What he did was integral to what he preached. His whole life was a kind of proclamation, done in deeds as well as words.
He did not merely tell people to love God and love their neighbour. No, he lived his life in total obedience to these commands. And of course that caused his death. And God, in the greatest miracle of them all, raised him gloriously from the dead.
So, in the Christian faith, deeds matter. Actions matter. It is why we have solemn liturgies. We could just have lectures; we could just have social occasions; we could just do works of charity. But we don’t. We come here, and with due reverence we take bread and wine and obey our Lord’s command. And God could rest on his throne and consider his work done, but he doesn’t. His activity is ongoing, constant. He comes and gets involved in the world, in us, and in the bread and wine on this altar.
Words and deeds. That is how the Christian faith works. And it is how we should always interpret the miracles we see in the Bible. Asking ‘how precisely did this happen?’ might be interesting in a library or in a lecture hall. But it doesn’t change lives.
And God does change lives. God does change the world. God does transform what is damaged and tatty and worn down by life. And he makes it something new. And it’s ludicrously, brilliantly good.
Think, for example, of Elisha and the oil in tonight’s first lesson. And now take it away from the dry words of our translation. Think of it as a Monty Python sketch instead. See the smug look on the woman’s face as the first container of oil is poured out. ‘As I said,’ she says, ‘one jar.’ And then see her face when the prophet pours out the second. And the third. And the fifteenth. And then see her scurrying around looking for bowls and cups and shabby old lamps, anything that will hold a bit more oil. And see the prophet’s face, calm, serene, totally unaffected by the woman’s flapping about.
It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? It’s a joke. And this says something about the way God works. Of course the story shows God’s power, and it is about compassion and helping the poor and freeing people from slavery, but it’s also about the absurd goodness of God’s grace.
So, when we read the miracle stories, let’s not get caught up in ‘how?’. Let’s ask ‘why?’ instead. Let’s look again, past the superficial superman story and see what is being proclaimed. Let’s see the God who comes to us in texts and in action, in word and in sacrament.
To him and to the Holy Spirit be all glory, honour and dominion, now and forever. Amen.