TITLE: Can We Believe in Miracles? SCRIPTURE: John 11:1-45
This is a sermon about miracles. Specifically, it is a sermon about the miracles of Jesus and how we respond to those miracles.
"Miracle" is a word that gets used pretty loosely. Some people use the word miracle to describe anything pleasantly unexpected. But is winning the lottery a miracle?
A man shared this story with me, he said, when I lived in New York City, I belonged to a prayer group that met in members' apartments scattered throughout the city. One of the members often praised God because he had prayed for a parking place and had found one. He thought of his answered prayer as a small but significant miracle.
If you ever tried to park your car in New York City, you can appreciate his fervor. In some places, they allow parking on one side of the street one day and the other side the next day. Local residents order their lives around moving their curs from side to side at a precise moment each day. In some places, they allow parking only between midnight and five a.m. In most places, you can't park on the street at all. Some may see this as trivializing prayer.
It really is all right to pray for small things -- the Heavenly Father is concerned about the most trivial things that trouble us, just as we are concerned about the small concerns of our small children. But miracles are also serious business. They have to do with God -- with faith -- and with the way the world works. Miracles tax our imagination; they bump up against the outer limits of our faith. They make us uncomfortable. Many of us have trouble accepting them at face value.
Today, we heard a scripture which related one of the big miracles of Jesus -- the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The Bible tells many other stories about Jesus' miracles. People have chosen to believe all kinds of things about these miracles.
1. Of course, some people believe that the miracle stories are simply hoaxes put on for gullible people. If this is true, Jesus and his disciples (or the people who wrote about Jesus) were deceitful, and we can't trust Jesus miracles or his teachings. Most of us believe otherwise, or we wouldn't be here today.
2. Other people believe that the Biblical miracles are simply the attempt of primitive people to explain what they couldn't understand.
3. A third view of miracles is similar, but different. It says that the universe in which we live -- and the laws that govern the universe -- are more complex than we can imagine -- and that God harnesses natural laws of which we know nothing to work miracles.
There are some good points about that theory:
First, it gives God credit. It says that God chooses to work through natural processes to work miracles.
Second, the more we learn, the more we realize how little we know. When I took physics and chemistry, I learned that atoms were composed of three particles -- protons, neutrons, and electrons. There were 97 elements in the periodic table. I had to memorize the number of protons and neutrons that each element had. I thought I knew it all.
But I don't know it all anymore. Since my high school days, scientists have discovered a whole new family of sub-atomic particles. The periodic table is much longer than it used to be -- populated by new elements that we didn't even suspect when I studied those subjects. When our children became old enough to study chemistry and physics, the textbooks that I used seem positively medieval, because we have learned so much in a few decades.
And, of course, it won't stop there. When our grandchildren study physics and chemistry, the things that our children learned will be totally outdated and obsolete. All around the world, brilliant men and women are scratching away at the surface of our understanding, hoping to experience a breakthrough that will take them to a whole new level of understanding. And they are succeeding. It is, indeed, a brave new world -- a little different each new day.
The same thing is happening everywhere. Our knowledge is expanding exponentially. We are tempted to imagine that one day we will finally hit bedrock -- that we will finally know it all. But so far every new answer has simply raised a dozen new questions. We learn new things every day, but the finish line seems no closer than it did a century ago.
So, given how little we know, it is possible that God is using natural laws that we don't yet understand to work miracles.
4. But there is a fourth way to look at miracles. It is possible simply to hear and to believe.
When you get right down to it, we choose either to believe or not to believe more often than we would like to admit. At some point scientists choose to believe or not to believe in quarks and anti-quarks and virtual quarks and a host of exotic bits and pieces. They base their beliefs on experiments, and some defend their findings as absolute. But it will be interesting to see what scientists believe in another generation or two. The absolutes keep changing. We keep moving ahead, but the finish line remains always distant.
We also choose to believe or not to believe in God -- in Jesus -- in the teachings of scripture -- in miracles. We, too, have evidence for our beliefs. Many of us have experienced God's power at work in our lives, so it is possible for us to imagine that God has worked in other people's lives too -- sometimes in ways that seem incredible to people who have chosen not to believe.
Skeptics, of course, accuse believers of believing what they wish to be true rather than what is truly true. Sometimes they call us fanatics. But I remember a story about a great jazz singer -- a woman whose real name was Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith, but who was known to most people as Bricktop. Bricktop owned a nightclub in Paris in the 1920s and 30s, and was a friend of people such as Cole Porter and Duke Ellington and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. She even made a cameo appearance in a Woody Allen movie.
At some point, Bricktop became a Christian and got quite involved in various charitable works. Her old friends teased her about her newfound faith and the very different life that she had begun to live. But she said:
They say I'm a religious fanatic
because I'm always running in and out of church.
For forty years, I was running in and out of bars,
and they didn't call me a fanatic.
Perhaps it isn't so foolish just to believe -- and to live differently based on that belief. The poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, wrote:
Earth's cramm'd with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only those with eyes to see
Take off their shoes.
The rest sit round and pick blackberries.
Not that there is anything wrong with picking blackberries! But there isn't anything wrong with believing either!
And so we come to the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. When Jesus arrived in Bethany, he found that his friend, Lazarus, had died four days earlier. He visited the tomb, and said, "Take away the stone." Martha protested that Lazarus had been dead four days. If they rolled back the stone, her last memories of her brother would be the awful smell from the tomb. But Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God."
And so they rolled back the stone -- and Jesus said, "Lazarus, come out!" -- and Lazarus emerged from the tomb, hobbled by the strips of cloth in which they had wrapped his body. Jesus said, "Unbind him, and let him go." And many people believed in Jesus because of this miracle.
Did Jesus really do that? I believe that he did -- and I imagine that many of you believe it too. How did he do it? I don't know the mechanics of it, but I would answer simply that he did it by the power and grace of God.
Many of us here today have experienced miracles in our lives. The question isn't so much whether we have experienced miracles, but is instead whether we will allow ourselves to call them by their proper name.
Jesus said to the people of that day, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God." That is still true today. Sometimes we believe, because we have seen the glory of God. But it is also true that we see the glory of God, because we have believed.
Open your eyes to see the power of God at work in your life and in our world. Open your heart to believe.