March 26, 2017
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Rev. Ryan Slifka
There’s a man who was born blind. A person who has been blind since birth. Jesus and his followers are walking and they stop in front of him. One of his followers asks Jesus how this man got this way, how he became blind. “Was it something he did?” they ask, “or something his parents did?” Like elsewhere in John’s story of Jesus, Jesus doesn’t seem to answer the question, at least not in a way anyone expects he would. “Neither,” he says. “He was born blind so God’s works might be revealed in him.” Even something like blindness, lack of sight, something that makes life even harder than it already is. Even, blindness, Jesus says, is an occasion to experience the life, love, and power of God first hand. “I am the light of the world,” Jesus says. Then he proceeds to spit in to the dirt. He rubs the spit in to the clay, making mud. Then he takes the mud in his hands, he rubs it right into the blind guy’s eyes. Kind of gross, but OK. Then he tells him to head down to the pool of Siloam, this spring that’s known for its healing power. He tells him to wash up and return. And he does what Jesus says. He washes up. He returns. And he’s got his sight back. He’s suddenly able to see. For the very first time.
He’s born blind. Jesus lays hands on him, and then he’s suddenly able to see. One moment he has four senses to work with, the other Jesus shows up and suddenly the fifth is online and it’s all there before his eyes. Faces, trees, hillsides, cobblestone streets. Every single shade of colour is a whole new thing. He’s seeing it all for the first time. He doesn’t know much about theology. He doesn’t know much about Jesus. He doesn’t have an explanation for how any of this happened—the science behind it is a mystery. All he knows is that it did happen. He’s gone from blindness to sight, darkness to light. And now he’s literally looking at a whole new world.
No idea how it happened. No rational explanation. What we’re dealing with here is what we might be inclined to call a miracle. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve always struggled with the idea of miracles. Even though the Bible is chock full of them. Even though countless people, even in our modern, scientific age have reported experiencing all sorts of things from miraculous healings. Maybe it’s because I haven’t seen any with my own eyes (I might be blind to them, you could say). Or maybe since I’ve grown up in a world where science seems to have given us such a complete picture of rules that the universe is governed by, maybe I just have a built-in inclination towards skepticism. If a guy who’s blind from birth suddenly sees, there’s gotta be a reason. Surely there’s gotta be a rational explanation. Perhaps my world doesn’t have room for miracles because it’s been so tightly packed with facts, so full of explanations, that there isn’t space left for surprises. Not much space for miracles. Or mystery. Maybe I’m like the man born blind. I just don’t have the eyes to see.
Maybe it’s a problem with me. And the way I see things. Or maybe it’s a problem with the way we understand miracles, and understand God’s work and presence in the world. We tend to think of miracles as a pause in the natural order of things. We tend to define a miracle as an “event that violates (or is otherwise not in accordance with) the laws of nature, caused by God.”[i] And we tend to accept that idea, or we reject it. It’s this idea that the universe is like a machine. Bound, hard and fast by all of these laws and rules. Basically the way everyday life works, and life that we can understand by observing it. The universe is kind of like a giant machine that just chugs along on its own. And God stands outside. And occasionally, depending on the situation God will reach in, stop everything, suspend all the rules. And causes a miracle to happen.
This is how we tend to think of miracles, and maybe the reason why a lot of us reject the idea altogether. Because if this is how it works you start to wonder—if this is the way things are, why isn’t God just doing this more often? Life goes along as it should. But suddenly God reaches in. God stops everything, suspends the laws of the universe, and makes something extraordinary happen. Maybe whenever God feels like it. I know for me, one of the problems I had with the idea of miracles wasn’t just that I’d never seen one in person. Or that they didn’t seem likely. It was that that they seemed to put God in a sticky situation. Because with all the trouble, with all the pain in our world, why not just step in and fix it for good? If one man who’s born blind is healed, why not all of them? If one child is cured of cancer, why not the whole wing of a children’s hospital? The problem wasn’t just with me. The problem would have been with God.
So you can’t really blame anyone’s doubts. If this is the definition of miracles we’ve got to work with. But you know, I’ve come to realize the Bible doesn’t think of miracles this way. Miracles aren’t a holy interruption. They are an extension of the way God is already at work. The way God is always at work.
Look at the text. I mentioned this in the weekly email. Irenaeus, one of the early fathers of the church says that here Jesus is reenacting the creation story from Genesis, the first book of the Bible. First, Jesus says “I am the light of the world.” In Genesis, chapter one, the first thing God does while hovering over the deep void at the beginning of the universe, God says “let there be light.” The same light that shone at the beginning of creation is shining again. And then, to heal him, Jesus spits in the mud, he molds the dirt. He applies it to this man’s eyes. In Genesis chapter two, God molds the clay dirt in to the shape of a human being. And then God breathes life into him. The man is being re-creating out of the dirt by Jesus. He washes in healing waters, kind of like baptism. And Irenaeus says that in Jesus, it is God’s power as Creator that is on display. The power for life that brought creation in to being, the power that sustains the whole universe, power that makes the whole universe possible. This power is at work in Jesus in bringing healing and life to this man.
This is how the Bible defines miracles. Not with God distant, apart, waiting to step in whenever she feels like it. Here’s what one of my favorite writers, Cornelius Plantinga says about miracles: “Miracles,” he says,
are closely connected with God’s other acts. The Bible seldom makes sharp distinctions between God’s Providence—God’s [every day] providence with God’s “special providence.” In fact, as Gregory the Great, C.S. Lewis and others have pointed out, many of Jesus’ miracles are small, fast examples of the big, slow [work] that God performs all the time. Every harvest God feeds the multitudes with many loaves multiplied from a few grains. Every summer, along sunny hills, God turns water in to wine. Jesus does the same thing fast and on a small scale. He just does what he sees his Father doing. There is, as Lewis puts is, a kind of “family style.”[ii]
Miracles are not exceptions, where God is somehow absent, then decides to reach in to our world toshow up and act one day. No, miracles are part of God’s greater work on a small scale. But local, intensified. Like an underground spring that suddenly bubbles up to the surface. Like a river that rushes over its banks to create a whole new waterway. The sight given to this man born blind is like a power surge. The same spark that was ignited in the big bang billions of years ago overflows through the hands of Jesus. And into a whole new act of re-creation. It’s not an exception to the rule. It’s God’s “family style.” Small scale.
In the end, this is good news for us all. It’s good news for those of us who already believe in them, or have already experienced them. These are not merely isolated moments of grace, signs of a God who occasionally wakes up to do something. Miracles are signs of God’s power for life at work at all times. Bringing healing, hope, and newness in various shapes and sizes. Small signs of that greater goodness that we can trust our lives to and live them in the light of. Like the blind man, we can progress in deeper trust and belief in God’s mercy in Christ.
But it’s also good news for those of us who find ourselves on the skeptical side of things. Those of us who have never experienced the miraculous, and perhaps never will. It’s good news because it means that the miraculous isn’t just an explanation for the unexplainable. A break in the natural order of things. Rather it means that the same power and presence that made the universe possible, that made life possible, continues to be at work in some mysterious way here and now in and through the natural world. It means that our own eyes that have been sealed shut by the modern world can be opened to the possibility that life is even more wonderful, mysterious and beautiful than we ever thought it could be. We can somehow look at the world with fresh eyes. And we can join in Leonard Cohen’s poetic affirmation that “God is real… magic is afoot.” God is real… magic is afoot.
Either way, friends. Whether you are a true believer, or a skeptic. May you leave this place with your eyes opened to the work of God at the smallest scale as well as the greatest one. May your eyes be opened to the incredible love and mystery that burns like a supernova at the heart of all things. One that surges, one that flows into our lives and our world from the hands of Christ. May your eyes be opened. And may you see every day and every moment as a miracle from the hands of the Creator.
[i] This is David Hume’s definition, which I think probably suits the way we see miracles well.
[ii] Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Beyond Doubt: Faith-Building Devotions on Questions Christians Ask (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 42.