John 4 and Begging for Miracles

When faced with evil beyond our control or illness beyond our technology, Christians often struggle, not knowing how to pray as we should.   If one helpless response is forcefully to demand a miracle, the other is to start counting our losses. We tend either to double down on top of our prayer efforts or we begin preparing for the worst (wishing somewhere in the back of our minds that God might do something drastic in our favor). Neither route does justice to the miracles we find in the gospels; neither can guide us Christianly in our efforts of calling down power from on high.

When I was a young Christian I temporarily lost feeling on my left side. My face went numb on the left, my left hand fingers, and my left shoulder. There was a sharp pain behind my right eye socket. I attended a gathering of charismatics, who prayed for me, and the numbing immediately left. For good measure I had an MRI, and there was nothing to be found. The doctor thought it was a passing virus. I have a hunch that it was a miraculous healing. When facing a wicked sinus infection, my friend went to a healing conference. When they prayed for her sinuses, she felt warmth and a popping, and whatever it was moved into her ear. She contracted her first ear infection of her life at the age of 30. I’ve never prayed for somebody to be healed dramatically, or to be raised from the dead, though I tend to believe in the many reports of modern miracles, though not all reported miracles are genuine. So what are we to do when we need an urgent intervention? Is there a formula? Should we seek out a healing conference? Is there any advice in the scriptures?

The healing of the child in John 4.46-54 proves helpful for anyone in need of an urgent and extreme miracle. For Christians, if our founder and Lord worked miracles, we should pay attention to the details of those accounts, which the gospel writers have left for us. At whatever point this young child fell ill we do not know, but John writes that the dying child’s father, an official of Herod, left his son’s bedside expecting either to return to a dead child or to a miracle. He searches Jesus out and asks Jesus to come and heal his child, and though there are a couple of ways to understand Jesus’s response, it seems to me that Jesus actually is less than straight forward with him. We might even say that Jesus is calculated. “Unless I do a miracle”, Jesus laments, “you won’t believe in me”. But this man didn’t come to Jesus to enroll as a follower. He came for a miracle. And he got a miracle, but the point is not that Jesus only works miracles for those who subscribe to his blog.   Something much deeper is going on. When Jesus says “Unless I do miracles you won’t believe in me”, it seems that he was saying something more than the words John has recorded. It was as if he were looking unflinchingly into man’s eyes and saying actually, “I will heal this boy, but wonder if it will only embolden and harden you? Will you see in his restoration the pre-tremors of my world to come, or will it merely contribute further to the old way, a titillating story to amuse Herod, a stumbling block for the countless souls who have begged for a miracle to the silence of the heavens?” Jesus has dropped a smoke bomb in this desperate man’s face, and when we listen carefully to the man’s response, it seems to me, we are stumbling upon a revelation about the mysterious secret of miracles.

The dying child’s father did everything humanly possible to put his son into the arms of God, and when all is said and done, he held together in one grip a tenacious hope and a very simple faith. He left his son’s bedside, searches Jesus out, asks for a miracle, endures when Jesus’s answer is not straightforward, and believed Jesus’s words.   Asking for a miracle today involves all of these things, putting ourselves or loved ones into the arms of God, asking for a miracle, enduring when the answer is not straightforward, and accepting the outcome. Miracles after all are not like lucky numbers or a formula. Following these “steps” does not require anything of God. Neither does ensuring that our motives are pure and faith is present. Miracles are about one thing only: windows into a world yet to come. We cannot conjure them, but we can appeal for them with a steadfast abandon. Miracles can happen, because the earth will someday quake into newness; today we see the pre-shocks of new creation, which has begun. But our need to control these quakes will only deepen a divide between us and God. As one commentator put it “a faith based on signs or works will not only prove insufficient but in due course will turn into rejection”.[1]The secret of miracles is that while they are all around us, and we can and should learn to open ourselves to them, though we must not confuse these signs with what they point to.

God cares for our loved ones and for us far more than we can ever match. If God wills a miracle and we’ve asked for it, it will happen. Many times the miracles will come even if we don’t ask. Usually he wills miracles when his name is at stake or when it will spur on faith. Otherwise we are bound to a grieving world, and we must learn to be part of it.  God requires tenacious hope, which is a steadfast immovability as we peek open the doors of the emerging new creation through prayer. He also requires simple faith, which embraces the resurrection of Jesus as miracle enough for us. When we embrace the resurrection, we begin living in this world as if something changed when Jesus rose. So bring your sicknesses to Jesus, seek him out.  He is nearer than we know.  And come to him with simple faith and not an ultimatum.

[1] Witherington, Ben (1995). John. Louisville:WJK, 126.

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preLectionary (for Sunday November 9, 2014)

This is a little guide for preachers who preach the lectionary, a little wind in the sails for those who might not make it to Sunday prepared. I’ll give you a push, and you steer your way into the pulpit. What you’ll find below are (1) a cluster of themes that emerge from the readings, (2) a few leading questions and (3) a few helpful links.

 

This week’s chosen readings (for November 9, 2014) are Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78-1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; Matthew 25:1–13.

Topics addressed by these verse include: God creating a people from a godless people, fearing god, serving god faithfully, family idols, choosing a god, scripture as memories of great acts of God, God’s faithfulness, yielding your heart to god, Jesus’s parables, forgotten wisdom, Christian education, passing on the faith to children, trusting God, the dead in Christ, resurrection and hope, end times, drowsy faith, having faith in the end, being alert in faith.

Themes converge more potently in staying faithful to God until the end by remembering God’s past deeds OR the challenge of family idols for long-term Christian faith. Here are a few questions to help you think through staying faithful to God by remembering God’s past deeds:

  1. Can you think of any huge moments in your life that you tend to forget about? Have there been any defining moments in your life that you haven’t though about for a long time?
  2. Why do you think that we do this? Why do we forget about the major ways that God has worked in our lives so easily? Why also do you think that the great signs and wonders recorded in the scriptures for us sometimes seem irrelevant to our lives?
  3. What do these verses say about remaining faithful to God until the end? How should the scriptures as recorded acts of God help us remain faithful? What do you think “yielding our hearts to God” means next to “keeping our lamps lit”?
  4. What are five our six ways that a person might yield their hearts to God today or this week?
  5. How can you serve as Joshua for your congregation this week, offering them a choice again to serve the LORD?

Here are a few helpful links:

Prayers of the Psalms

Psa. 17:1    Hear me,  LORD, my plea is just;   listen to my cry.   Hear  my prayer—   it does not rise from deceitful lips.
2  Let my vindication  come from you;   may your eyes see what is right.
3  Though you probe my heart,    though you examine me at night and test me,   you will find that I have planned no evil;    my mouth has not transgressed.
4  Though people tried to bribe me,   I have kept myself from the ways of the violent   through what your lips have commanded.
5  My steps have held to your paths;    my feet have not stumbled.
6  I call on you, my God, for you will answer me;    turn your ear to me  and hear my prayer.
7  Show me the wonders of your great love,    you who save by your right hand    those who take refuge  in you from their foes.
8  Keep me  as the apple of your eye;    hide me  in the shadow of your wings
9  from the wicked who are out to destroy me,   from my mortal enemies who surround me.