Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The problem with miracles...

The Rich Man and Lazurus

Text: Luke 16.19-end

If you or I wanted to persuade the world that God is real, what is the most persuasive thing we could do?   Perhaps a great miracle will do it?  Like feeding five thousand families with a couple of small fish and a few loaves of bread?  Perhaps a dramatic healing or two…like giving sight to the blind, or healing a fatal skin disease?  Perhaps we could walk on the water, from Langstone to Hayling.  Or, with a word of command, still the next storm to rage over Havant.

Or how about raising someone from the dead?  Perhaps if we could achieve that, surely the whole world would realise that God is real?

Well, apparently not.  Jesus did all these things, according to the stories we have inherited about him through the lens of the Gospels.  And yet, they were not enough.  In fact, some of the stories in the Gospels go even further than raising only Jesus from the dead.  Matthew’s Gospel, for example, claims that upon the death of Jesus, the ‘tombs of the saints’ were opened, and the dead rose up and entered the City, appearing to many – a story which pre-figures the great Resurrection promised to all believers at the end of time.

But, how is it that despite so many miracles, and the demonstration of so much power, by the time that Jesus was crucified, his followers had shrunk in number down to single digits?  How is it that after great demonstrations of power, whether at Lourdes or during the healing crusades of so many Pentecostals, the world has not yet turned to God?

Scepticism, coupled with scientific rationalism both have a role to play.  Just as when we watch a great magician on stage, we instinctively suppose that even the great miracles of Jesus are a trick of some kind.  We reason to ourselves that perhaps he didn’t walk on water, but on a sand-bank just beneath the waves.  Perhaps the calming of the storm was a lucky co-incidence between Jesus waking up and the storm naturally blowing over.   Perhaps he wasn’t actually dead, after three hours on the cross, but just severely wounded.  And, we reason to ourselves, after three days he had recovered enough to step out of his tomb.  There are of course many ways to refute all these rationalist explanations – and theologians have been ably refuting them for two millennia.  But, still, the world is not convinced.  Miracles alone won’t persuade the people of the reality of God.

This fact is at the heart of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  From his place of torment, the Rich Man begs Abraham to send a miraculous sign to earth, to persuade the Rich Man’s brothers to repent and avoid the same fate.  But Abraham responds that the brothers will not be convinced ‘even if someone rises from the dead’.  This is a perceptive and accurate assessment of the value of miracles in the overall cause of the Kingdom.  Jesus knew that miracles would not persuade the people.  That didn’t stop him from performing miracles – they seemed to flow out of him, sometimes almost in spite of his personal preferences.  Miracles were, for Jesus, what happens when an Almighty God gets incarnated into the world of flesh and blood.  He just can’t help himself. Miraculous powers, defying the laws of physics, just flow from the God who set those laws in place, and who exists beyond and above any such limitations.

But we humans can’t accept them.  We are naturally suspicious – not least because miracles of any kind defy those physical laws which govern the rest of our lives.  Even when miracles happen to us, personally, we have a tendency to rationalise and explain them away.  We put them down to a fortuitous accident of co-incidence, or we wonder about the hidden healing powers of the brain, or we simply don’t trust our eyes, or the reports of others.

Jesus understood this fact at a profound level.  During his 40 days in the wilderness, according to Luke and Matthew, he was tempted by the Devil to base his entire ministry on the performing of miracles.  That’s what the Devil suggested when he took Jesus to the top of the temple, and challenged Jesus to throw himself off, certain that angels would appear and carry him safely to the ground.  But Jesus knew that putting God to the test, and requiring miraculous signs from him, would do nothing to advance the cause of the Kingdom. 

And he had good evidence for knowing this.  Miracles didn’t work for Moses, either.  Despite the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the ocean, manna in the desert, and the pouring of water from solid rock, the people still rebelled, and still refused to truly believe in the reality of God.

Miracles, then, are signs of God’s presence.  They are glimpses of the power of the God who created the Universe to act outside the Universal laws.  But they are not attempts to persuade people to worship and trust in God. 

Instead, the path of Jesus was the path of the teacher.  He took the time to explain, in parables and sayings, what following the Way of God is really about.  It’s not about how many miracles can be performed, but about how many lives can be changed…. beginning with my life and yours.  A miracle may, perhaps, inspire us to love the Lord our God, with all our hearts; but the daily task of taking up our cross, denying ourselves and following our Master is what will lead us to love our neighbour as ourselves, and ultimately will lead to the healing and salvation of our souls.

Most of us, this week, will not be called upon to heal the sick, or raise the dead, or to walk upon the waters of Langstone harbour.  More likely, the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of sugar to a neighbour, or make a telephone call to a lonely person, or send money to feed a starving child or help with the mission costs of this parish.   But in those small acts of love, in those outpourings of humanity, in the little, daily sacrifices – true miracles are found.  Amen.

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