Today, I want to talk with you about miracles. Particularly, the miracles performed by Jesus and, in our own day, the miracles that come when people call out to God in Jesus’ name.
Probably all of us have experienced the agony of prayers offered for loved ones or for ourselves when God seemed to ignore what we prayed for, when the miracles we've sought haven't come. Nothing is more painful or haunting for the believer in Christ than this. And it's something I want to ask the Lord about when I get to see Him face to face in eternity.
But I’m confident that if we were to poll this group of worshipers this morning, a majority of us would affirm not only that Jesus works miracles, but also that we know of at least one miracle from our own lives or from the lives of those we know, that can only be attributed to Christ. When I had a heart attack five years ago, I had what's called the widow maker, a 100% blockage of the left anterior descending artery, I was told by my cardiologist that, given the lack of risk factors on my part, he had no way of explaining why I'd had the heart attack. He also said that he was also nearly as baffled by my survival. (My body had developed lots of ancillary arteries that were picking up the slack.) But his nurse cut to the chase on this last point. I survived, she said, because God had things for me to do. I believe in miracles.
One reason this is true is that there are televangelists who have built vast empires on their claims that God wants our entire earthly lives to be miraculous walks in the park and that if we haven’t experienced a miracle in the past twenty-four hours, there must be some deficiency in our faith. It’s a deficiency likely to be cured, they imply, if we’ll send their ministries a $100 love-offering. But this notion of miracles being the normal mode of life on this earth flies in the face of Biblical truth.
All of Jesus’ miracles call us to faith in Him, not in the sign.
To believe in the miracle and not the miracle worker is to pursue a “what’s-in-it-for-me-now?” religion. It’s utilitarian.
To believe in the miracle-worker is to know that God is for me, whether things are going badly for me or whether, as a sign of His grace and power, Jesus visits me with a miracle.
This is exactly why Jesus scorned the crowd that came tearing after Him following His feeding of the 5000. He told them in John 6:26: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”
Let’s take a look at this lesson, Mark 7:24-37.
First though, let’s set the scene because understanding the context in which these incidents take place is a key to understanding what Jesus wants to tell us today. Our gospel lesson picks up the narratives from Mark’s gospel that we looked at during the past two weeks.
Two weeks ago, Jesus declared that His disciples were not defiled by failing to observe ritual cleansing before sitting down to dinner.
Last week, He told us that nothing from outside of us can render us unclean in the eyes of God, only the sins that come from inside of us can make us unclean.
(In the bargain, He declared that all foods are clean. I suppose that means Big Macs are clean, though they’re hard on the arteries, and I hope it means that Chipotle’s burrito bowls are clean.)
After declaring that all foods were clean, Jesus goes to Gentile territory, a place that His critics would have regarded as unclean. He goes there apparently to rest, not to minister.
While Jesus did minister to the stray Gentile who approached Him in Judea, of course, and though, after His resurrection, Jesus did send His disciples to make full-fledged equal partner disciples among the Gentiles, Jesus was clear about His own mission. As He puts it in Matthew 5:24: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But by simply going to this Gentile territory, Jesus was making clear that no place, no person, no nation, is so unclean or so distant from God that they're beyond the scope of God’s dominion or grace.
This scene violates so many cultural norms of Jesus’ day that if the Pharisees had seen it, they might have gone crazy!
In a Gentile house, a Gentile woman dares to speak to a Jewish man in front of other Jewish men. And this unclean woman asks that this Jewish man would employ the power of Judea’s God to cast a demon from her Gentile, unclean daughter.
The cultural norms of Jesus’ day would have said that He should turn His back on this foreigner, that He should spurn her, that He should ignore her desperate need.
But Jesus was no slave to cultural norms. Instead, His heart was, in Martin Luther’s phrase, “held captive to the Word of God.”
So, rather than rejecting this woman, Jesus decides to teach His disciples, including you and me, an important lesson by satirizing cultural norms and, in a friendly exchange, bantering with this woman before saying yes to her prayer.
I love this dialog!
Jesus first signals that He intends to honor the woman’s request when He says, “Let the children be fed first.” The implication is that she will be fed second. In Jesus’ Kingdom, there’s plenty of love to go around, whether we’re Americans or Syrians, Iraqis or whatever.
But also in saying what He does in verse 27, Jesus parrots the bigoted conventions of His fellow Judeans: “I can’t give you what belongs to God’s children, lady. Don’t you know that the nickname given to Gentiles by my countrymen is dogs.”
In Judea, people didn’t keep dogs as pets; they were just unwanted scavengers. And to call Gentiles dogs was to say they were nobodies, non-humans, unworthy of the attention or help of God. (This is what many Muslims today mean when they call non-Muslims, infidels.)
The woman immediately picks up on Jesus’ Saturday Night Live-worthy sendup of His fellow Judeans. And, drawing on her culture’s habit of keeping dogs as pets, she says: “Yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Jesus saw her faith and He delivered her daughter from evil.
A second Gentile, this one a man and this one suffering from a physical rather than a spiritual ailment. As was true of the little girl, someone else came to present the man’s need to Jesus. In effect, they prayed to Jesus, just as we do when we pray for those who have spiritual or physical needs. Again, Jesus doesn’t turn His back on these foreign petitioners.
He honors their faith in Him. He performs a miracle.
Jesus told the crowds not to tell others about the miracle because He knew the danger of worshiping the miracle instead of the miracle worker. Jesus didn’t want people to see Him as genie who could be bottled up until we get into a jam, a pushover who will bend to our wills and otherwise leave us alone.
To see Jesus in that way is to miss the point and it is to be far from Him and the eternal life He gives to all who turn from sin and believe in Him as God and Messiah.
Jesus wanted--Jesus still wants--all people to see Him for Who He is: Lord of heaven and earth; God in flesh appearing; the hope of sinners; the only way to life with God; the only way to sanity and peace.
Today, we who confess Christ are the beneficiaries of His greatest miracle and sign: His death, in which He bore our condemnation for sin, and His resurrection, in which He opens up everlasting life free of sin and death, to all who trust in Him.
And today, He calls us to go where He never went in His time on earth, sharing the benefit of His death and resurrection with others: praying for the hurting; serving our neighbors; and making disciples of Christ through our confident sharing of the good news of Jesus. In fact, Jesus says that we will do greater works in His name as His Church than He was able to do confined to His singular human life in first-century Judea, precisely because we can pray, serve, and make disciples in the power of His name!
But in the miracles we’ve looked at today, He also gave signs that no one is beyond the scope of His grace and lordship and that we who confess Him as Lord, should see everyone as worthy of our prayers, our compassion, our help, and our proclamation of Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life.
May God help we redeemed sinners, bought out of death by the blood of Jesus Christ, to see others, even those who hate us, as our mission field.
And, as we do, may we see them with the compassionate and humble eyes of our miracle working Savior Jesus. Amen