Do you believe in miracles?
It’s a fair question to ask people of faith. Our scripture is full of miracles, defined as “an extraordinary and astonishing happening that is attributed to the presence and action of an ultimate or divine power.”
In the Old Testament there is Moses, who is so moved at the extraordinary sight of a bush that is on fire, but not consumed by it, that he removes his shoes because he knows he is standing on holy ground.
Moses also sees the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea as the Israelites leave Egypt, and water rushing from a rock in the desert when he hits it with his stick.
There is the story of Elijah and a poor widow who uses her last bit of oil and flour to make bread for him, then discovers that the oil and flour do not run out as long as the area is hit by a drought.
There are Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to worship the king, and emerging unscathed. Similarly, there is Daniel, who escapes unharmed from a lion’s den.
In the New Testament the first sign of Jesus’ power is at a wedding when he turns jugs of water into wine. He heals the sick and even raises his friend Lazarus from the dead.
Today we heard the story of two of Jesus’ most famous miracles, feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish, followed by walking on water in the midst of a violent storm.
These stories are some of the best known and most beloved in the Bible. But they also raise troubling questions, particularly in the modern, scientific world in which we live.
How do you explain these things? Did they really literally happen?
While some may believe these stories are factually true, to many they are simply fairy tales, which are as apt to bring scorn and disbelief as they are to encourage faith.
Theologian Douglas John Hall writes about today’s gospel reading in an article entitled, “The Trouble with Miracles.”
He says that when we get caught up in whether these stories are literally and factually true, we miss what is truly miraculous.
“What is truly wonder-full in biblical times is not that a human could multiply loaves and fishes in so astounding a manner, but that this human being Jesus could represent, by his words and deeds, such a sign of hope and healing that hundreds of needy people would follow him about, and feel that their hunger for the ‘bread of life’ had been assuaged,” Hall says.
“What is truly awe-inspiring is not that someone could walk on the surface of the water without sinking, but that his presence among ordinary, insecure, and timid people could calm their anxieties and cause them to walk where they feared to walk before — in the end all the way to their own Golgothas.
“What is truly miraculous is not that a dead body should come to life again, but that through the journey of the Crucified One, the disciple community was enabled to find hope on the far side of despair, faith that could live with doubt, and the courage to live beyond the sting of death.”
In other words, when the miraculous is identified with only literally incredible events, we miss the wonder of divine grace that permeates all of life.
We can lose sight of the fact that the miracle stories are all tied to the problems of existence that humans face. They deal with real moments of suffering, hunger, and pain.
Miracles show us that God is at work in surprising ways in the midst of life’s problems that we cannot solve on our own.
Hall cautions that the significance of Jesus should not be based on signs and wonders alone, but it is also true that we “should avoid falling into the camp of the skeptics and superrationalists who see nothing unusual, nothing to wonder at either in religion or in life: for whom the world is so utterly flat that there are no surprises as one makes one’s way through life.”
We should avoid the temptation to explain miracles away, saying that they are just metaphors, or that they are purely “natural” occurrences — like explaining the feeding of the 5,000 as the generosity of a little boy encouraging others to share their secret stashes of food.
Or that Jesus did not really walk “on” the water, but “by” it — since the Greek word epi in the story can have either meaning.
“The habit of explaining everything — surely one of the most dangerous as well as pretentious adventures of the modern spirit — leads to a culture that has all but lost the capacity to wonder,” Hall says.
“A people grown skeptical about the extraordinary is likely to miss the extraordinary within the ordinary” all around us.
Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary is what our prayer book means when we pray that the newly baptized have “the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.”
Or as poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning puts it:
Earth’s crammed with heaven.
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes —
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries.