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Do you believe in miracles? Psychology Today reports of a study that surveyed almost 36,000 Americans and found that almost 80 percent of people DO believe (Pew Research Center, 2010) (1). The overwhelming majority of us believe that God intervenes in everyday life.I believe in miracles. I confess that my modern mind set makes me skeptical about some claims for miracles, but Scripture makes very plain that some things happen for which there is no explanation but the supernatural.
Our Gospel lesson today is one such story, a miracle story. Actually, I think there are two miracles here - the one of the healing of the deranged man, but the other of the way Jesus was received. As the text has it, “when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” The scribes? They were the ones who studied Jewish law most diligently; they were the ones who helped faithful people determine what was right and wrong behavior.
For example, the scribes were the ones who interpreted the commandments such as No Work on the Sabbath - they defined what was work and what was not. For example, under the general No Work law, the scribes solemnly set down, as a by-law, that while a woman could have a ribbon sewn onto her dress, it must not be merely pinned on. If it were only pinned, it was not secure enough to be considered a part of the dress, and in wearing the ribbon with a pin, she was carrying a burden. Under the same heading, it was decreed that false teeth were not to be worn on the Sabbath...they were a burden. A woman was not allowed to use a mirror on the Sabbath to prevent the sin of reaping. Reaping is work. You see, they were concerned that she would see a gray hair and pull it out, and pulling out gray hairs was reaping. Crazy. (2) This was the work of the scribes.
Scribal authority came following years and years of study. Now folks were listening to Jesus - a relatively young whipper-snapper - and crediting him in the same way...or even more. Young folks normally are not listened to that way. Even today.
Are you familiar with the name Greta Thunberg? Greta is a young Swedish environmental activist who is credited with raising global awareness to the risks posed by climate change, and with holding politicians to account for their lack of action on the climate crisis. In August 2018, at 15 years of age, Greta took time off from school to demonstrate outside the Swedish parliament, holding up a sign calling for stronger climate action. Soon, other students engaged in similar protests in their own communities. Together they organized a school climate strike movement, under the name Fridays for Future. People actually listened to her. Fifteen years old. Amazing.
Back to the text. The second miracle. The healing of the man with the unclean spirit. Now most of us in the educated, scientifically advanced world would describe this account as an ancient way of diagnosing some unnamed mental illness. OK. But please be aware that in many parts of the world even today, Christians have no difficulty whatsoever in a belief in spirits, whether clean or unclean, and this old preacher has been around long enough to hold my tongue before going, Tsk, tsk. As you have learned of me before, with Shakespeare I respect the truth of “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy...”
The man cries out right in the middle of the service, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Wait a minute. Where are the ushers? Get this guy out of here! But Jesus apparently holds up his hand to stop anyone from tackling this intruder. Instead, he addresses the spirit saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And, bingo, the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.” A miracle.
The question comes again, Do you believe in miracles? The gospel writers all do. In fact, they all present the story of Jesus in terms of miracles. Mark has this story, Matthew and Luke begin with the miracle of Jesus’ birth, John starts Jesus off with the changing of the water into wine at the wedding in Cana. And the miracles continue throughout the accounts. Do you believe in miracles?
My dictionary defines a miracle as “an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.” (3) I would emphasize the phrase “all known human or natural powers,” with the key word being KNOWN. For example, who in biblical times could have envisioned airline flight or telephones or microwave ovens or instantaneous world-wide communication or walking on the moon, or for that matter indoor plumbing or electric lights or any other modern convenience that you and I take completely for granted? It was Montaigne who said, “Miracles arise from our ignorance of nature, not from nature itself.” (4)
Over this past year, the world has been attacked by a relentless, devastating virus. In America we have experienced over 26-million infections and we will soon mourn over a half-million deaths. Meanwhile, we have vaccines available in unbelievably quick time - I got my first dose last week. The light at the end of the tunnel. Miraculous speed. I would say so.
It has been said that “You’re not a realist unless you believe in miracles.” That quote has been credited to former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and who knows whomever else. But for anyone who knows the least bit about Middle Eastern history, to suggest that the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty of 1979 is anything less than a miracle is clueless.
The point is there are LOTS of miracles out there already, but I would also insist there are lots of unclean spirits out there of who knows how many shapes and sizes that in our own generation are threats. And one of those that REALLY lives up to the name is our climate. It has most assuredly gotten more and more UNCLEAN in our own generation. In his inaugural address, President Biden identified the climate situation as one of most critical crises of our time and he has already begun to take action to get this fixed.
Carbon emissions are holding in warm temperatures; fires in places like the Amazon rainforest which has been called “the lungs of the world” because of its capacity to minimize the dangers of CO2 are a looming disaster. The trapped heat exacerbates western wildfires. The alternating challenges of drought and flooding have made sustainable farming impossible in areas where self-support used to be possible resulting in folks leaving their homes as refugees seeking simply the opportunity to create a life.
This is not new information. We have known about the problem for years. I have told you before about my daughter’s kindergarten class studying the destruction of the rainforest and my sweetie’s bedtime prayer urging God to kill the perpetrators. This was 30 years ago. The truth is we have the ability to fix things. Back in the 1970's we got the word that there was a hole that had developed in the Ozone layer of our atmosphere and it was caused by, of all things, the chlorofluorocarbons in our hairspray and our refrigeration systems. We learned of the problem and we fixed it. A MIRACLE? Perhaps. But the truth is we have the smarts to do that sort of thing, to make miracles happen.
As to the problems caused by our excessive reliance on fossil fuels, we are working on that as well but at a speed that makes the tortoise look like a track star. The problem is money and the fact that money has bought off our politicians to keep them from insisting on the changes the world needs. As far back as two centuries ago James Madison, the man who would come to be known as the Father of the Constitution, wrote at the time, "Most of our political evils may be traced to our commercial ones." For Christians, the issue is more than just financial, it is profoundly theological. We believe that God entrusted humanity with a stewardship responsibility toward the earth (Gen. 1:28-31). We have no right to ignore that.
We spoke of Greta Thunberg earlier. In September of 2019, now at the ripe old age of 16 (can you say Drivers License?), Greta addressed the Climate Action Summit at the beginning of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York City. She was exceedingly blunt. She said, "My message is that we'll be watching you. This is all wrong. I shouldn't be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” Wow.
Back to the text. We remember what happened. “The unclean spirit, convulsing [the man] and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” The truth is, Lord, we need another miracle, for Greta’s sake and our own.
Dr. Kate Marvel is a climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. She says there are a lot of things we're really sure about...We're sure sea levels are rising. Scientists are also sure that greenhouse gases — notably carbon dioxide — are trapping heat on the planet, downpours are getting more intense, and rising temperatures are driving increasingly extreme Western wildfires. (5) But she adds, "I am a scientist, which means I believe in miracles. I live on one. We are improbable life on a perfect planet. A flower in a garden is an exquisite thing, rooted in soil formed from old rocks broken by weather. It breathes in sunlight and carbon dioxide and conjures its food as if by magic. For the flower to exist, a confluence of extraordinary things must happen. It needs land and air and light and water, all in the right proportion, and all at the right time. Pick it, isolate it, and watch it wither. Flowers, like people, cannot grow alone." (6) A miracle. But the truth, Dr. Marvel, is that, considering the current circumstances, we do need ANOTHER miracle.
Earlier, I mentioned the inauguration. I watched all day that day and spent half the time choked up. The music was incredible. Lady Gaga and the National Anthem, Jennifer Lopez and “This Land Is Your Land.” The poem by Amanda Gorman:
The afternoon went on with the four presidents going to Arlington Cemetery to pay their respects. Then there was the cross-country virtual concert that evening. Lots more good music, but I was struck by the lyrics of the duet sung by Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard, the refrain in particular:
When day comes we step out of the shade,
I think it's time to come together,
That would be a nice miracle. Lord, we need this one now.
A woman took her 16-year-old daughter to the doctor. The doctor says, "Okay, Mrs. Jones, what's the problem?"
The mother said, "It's my daughter, Debbie. She keeps getting these cravings, she's putting on weight, and is sick most mornings."
The doctor gave Debbie a good examination, then turned to the mother and said, "Well, I don't know how to tell you this, but your Debbie is pregnant--about 4 months, would be my guess."
The mother replied, "Pregnant?! She can't be, she has never ever been left alone with a man! Have you, Debbie?"
Debbie answered, "No mother! I've never even kissed a man!"
The doctor walked over to the window and just stared out it. About five minutes pass and finally the mother says, "Is there something wrong out there doctor?"
The doctor replies, "No, not really, it's just that the last time anything like this happened, a star appeared in the east and three wise men came over the hill. I'll be darned if I'm going to miss it this time!" (7)
Indeed. And, yes, Lord, we need another miracle.
1. https://www.psychology today.com/us/blog/emotional-nourishment/21712/do-you-believe-in-miracles
2. More on this can be found in my book God of Justice: A Look at the Ten Commandments for\ the 21st Century, (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing, 2007), p. 41
4. Frank Mead, Ed., The Encyclopedia of Religious Quotations, (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1976), p. 45
6. Kate Marvel in ScientificAmerican.com quoted in THE WEEK, 9/27/19
7. Mr. FunnyBone quoted in Bible Illustrator for Windows, (Hiawatha, Iowa: Parsons Technology, 1994), diskette