Tuesday, February 1, 2011

On Miracles - Richard R. Crocker

Richard R. Crocker
College Chaplain
Rollins Chapel
January 30, 2011
Exodus 8:16-19

Like many ancient texts, the Bible is full of miracle stories. From the creation story, to the plagues in Egypt, to the miraculous healings wrought by Elijah, to the miracle stories about Jesus (the virgin birth, the healings, walking on water, raising Lazarus from the dead, and, not least his own resurrection) the Bible is full of miracles. How are we, who live in the age when almost all phenomena are subject to the explanation of natural law, to regard such stories? For those of us who believe that he Bible contains the word of God, it can be difficult. Are we simply to accept the stories literally, as many would have us do? Or do we take another approach?

Any informed study of other ancient texts makes one aware that almost all of them contain miracle stories. Whether we are talking about accounts of the life of the Buddha, Confucius, Greek and Roman Gods, even great conquerors, stories of superhuman, or supernatural, occurrences are common.

But there is the rub. “Supernatural” is a modern term, not an ancient one. With few exceptions, it is only in the sixteenth century that the notion of natural laws emerges – laws governing the movement of objects, including, ultimately, the planets and stars. As natural law developed, there were more explanations for events. And many came to be believe that scientific inquiry and the natural laws discovered thereby could account for almost everything. Miracle stories have come to be regarded as stories of events that contradict natural law; they are therefore things that cannot and could not happen.

Obviously, the word “miracle” did not originally mean an event that contradicts natural law, since there was no concept of natural law. Originally, and still, a miracle is something that causes wonder, something that astounds us. Miracles are important because they stop us in our tracks and cause us to wonder. Maybe they have a natural explanation, and maybe they don’t, but they certainly leave us with an abiding sense of wonder. And given this definition of miracle, it is not surprising that our most valued, sacred stories should contain many moments of astonishment – many astounding moments, many marvels, many miracles.

I chose for our scripture lesson today the beginning of the exodus story, when Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh to demand the release of the children if Israel. Anticipating that their request will fall upon deaf ears, God instructs Moses to perform a sign in front of Pharaoh. Aaron will throw his walking stick on the ground, and it will become a snake. Pretty impressive, huh? Well, Pharaoh is impressed, but not convinced, he calls together his court magicians, sorcerers – his version of scientists – and commands them to do something similar. And they are able to do it! They can make sticks turn into snakes, too. But, of course, our story indicates that Moses’ snakes were more powerful; they ate up Pharaoh’s snakes.

I chose this story because it shows that miracles are not always unique. They may have many explanations; they may be repeatable. A miracle carries power only if the observer is able to see its power, or, perhaps more accurately, able to feel its power, or savor it.

I told some of you a few weeks ago how I learned scripture as a child: how my church community taught me sacred stories so that I came to believe them – or rather, came to love them. (Belief is another word for love.) I stand by that story and that community. But I must also admit that during my life time of hearing sermons, I have heard a lot of non-sense. One bit that I heard frequently was that the miracles described in the Bible prove that it is true. Nonsense. We do not believe the Bible because it contains miracle stories, but rather we believe the miracles because we already love (or believe) the Bible. I could stand here and argue pointlessly with someone about Jesus turning water into wine. I could say: “he did,” and you could say "he did not." Did so; did not. Did so, did not. And so the argument goes, and it becomes pointless. Rather, as John’s gospel really makes clear, the event at the wedding was a sign to people who later heard about it and who were already committed to loving Jesus. And I, because I already love Jesus, am perfectly willing to say: something really astounding happened at that wedding, but Im, mot sure what. (Interjected story: I grew up in a culture/church that disapproved of drinking alcohol – for good reason. There was, indeed, an absolute prohibition on its use. In my first pastorate, when as a young pastor I made the mistake of getting into an argument with a very conservative older woman about alcohol – with my maintaining that alcohol itself, while frequently abused, might not be essentially evil, I pointed to this miracle story and said – well, look: even Jesus drank wine,’ To which she replied, “Well. Maybe he did, but I would have thought more of him if he didn’t.”)

Let us not get fixated on particular miracles. Did God actually stop the movement of the sun (or, as we know, the earth) during one of Joshua’s battles? Well, the story says God did. Such a thing would violate everything we know about physics and astronomy. But did something astounding happen in that battle? I’m sure it did. And I will let it go at that. As I will with the other stories: the feeding of the 5000, the story of Jonah and the whale – all of them. Something marvelous happened, but I don’t know what. Now, scriptural literalists may have no trouble with such stories, because they believe that God can do anything, including making the sun stand still and having a whale swallow Jonah. For them it poses no intellectual problem. But for most of us, such an explanation does not appear either necessary or reasonable.

Miracles are astounding moments and marvelous events. If we have eyes to see them, miracles surround us. The most miraculous thing of all is our existence, or the existence of anything at all. Astounding, isn’t it, that we are sitting here tonight and thinking, having consciousness – that we exist and are aware of existing and have no clue at all about how such a thing as you or me ever came to be. Oh, I know how human reproduction works, but that does not answer the question of why any one of us exists and perceives and knows. The Christian doctrine of the Virgin Birth, which seems to have developed in different ways and at different times, attests only to this universal Christian notion: Jesus was very special. His birth represents unprecedented unity of the human and the divine. Can I affirm that? Certainly, I do affirm it, because I acknowledge his specialness, his uniqueness. Could a person be born of a virgin? Maybe. I’m not denying it, but I’m also not saying that the story of the Virgin birth makes me believe in Jesus. Rather, it is because I believe in Jesus that I can say, with the church through the ages, "I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary….”

And then, of course, there is the ultimate Christian miracle of the resurrection. If existence is our fundamental miracle, death is our fundamental enemy. We who at one time did not exist will one day cease to exist. The resurrection of Jesus, for Christians, gives us reason to believe, or hope, that there is an eternal dimension to our lives. Now, there are, in the ancient world, many other resurrection stories that have no meaning to us. But this one does have meaning for us who live by it, who believe it, who love it, who hang upon it.

Right now, we Protestant Christians are somewhat confused or amused, I think, by the process of the canonization of former pope John Paul II. The Catholic Church has a process for establishing sainthood – a very definite process that includes verifying at least two miracles that can be attributed to the candidate. One has been verified. A woman was healed of Parkinson’s disease by, she thinks, her prayers to Pope John Paul II. I do not mean to be disrespectful. I am glad the woman was healed, and I have no doubt that she connects her healing with the former pope. But, thank God, many healings occur. Any of us who have been seriously ill and who have been healed know that it is a miracle, to us. Maybe medicine helped – as I am sure it did for me, but the renewal of life is always a miracle, to the one who believes.

Astounding things happen. Some of them seem to have natural explanations. Some of them don’t. To live in a state of wonder is a blessing. To see and be aware of miracles is a blessing. One might say that faith itself is a miracle – just as life is. But, given the fundamental miracles of life and faith, I would say, faith brings us to miracles more often than miracles bring us to faith.

1 comment:

  1. My graduation from Dartmouth in 1979 was viewed by many as a miracle! Richard, thanks for the encouraging word.