Faith and Miracles (Fifth Sunday after Pentecost)

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For many of us, the miracles of Jesus are among the most memorable things that Jesus did.  Theologically, we may know that Jesus’ death for our sins is more important than the miracles.  And we might agree that the things Jesus taught are really more important than whether Jesus could turn water into wine.  But the miracles are just really cool!  And so we remember them!

And often, the miracles captivate our attention.  And this isn’t really surprising.  Miracles captivate our attention because they:

  • Are stories with wonderful, happy endings – and in our daily lives, we’re so often inundated with stories that end tragically; with stories of oppression and injustice; and with stories that leave you wondering when the next shoe is going to drop; a story where things come out better than you expected is a great change, and so we love the miracle stories…!
  • Speak to our deepest needs and desires for God to intervene in the intractable problems of our personal lives – the times and situations when there doesn’t seem to be a good way out of whatever we’re dealing with; if God could do a miracle back then, might it happen for me?  And even if I know it’s unlikely, the thought of that possibility can captivate my attention …
  • Seem like the kinds of things that can bring about and strengthen faith – after all, we ask, don’t these stories prove Jesus is who he says he is?  Don’t they prove that God is present?  Wouldn’t they be the kinds of things that would help others come to believe in God’s love and mercy…?

And so it’s particularly strange when Jesus, after performing a miracle, specifically commands people NOT to tell anyone about the miracles they’ve just experienced.  And when Jesus does this, it’s not just a “oh, you don’t need to thank me or make a big deal of this if you don’t want.”  Instead, he’s really serious about this: “he strictly ordered them that no one should know this”!

Jesus does this over and over again in Mark’s Gospel.  Why?! It doesn’t seem like a good marketing strategy – you’d think Jesus would want people to know what he was capable of.  It doesn’t seem like it’s even possible – after all, we’ve heard about these miracles because nobody could keep quiet about them.  And, commanding people to be quiet about miracles doesn’t seem to be a good way to draw people to faith.

Except – except that in both of these stories today, faith doesn’t come from miracles.  Faith precedes the miracles.  Faith is finally about trust and confidence in God’s love and willingness to help.  And both Jairus and this unnamed woman are confident of Jesus’ power before they ever meet him.  Both are certain that Jesus will be willing to help them, even before they experience his help.  And both are convinced that Jesus can do what no one else can, even though they have no idea exactly how Jesus will help them.

And the irony of the miracles is that at the end of these two stories, the only people who are commended for their faith are these two who had faith before the miracles.  Not a single person who sees these miracles comes away saying, “Wow!  Now I believe!”

And maybe this is why Jesus isn’t up on having people focus on the miracles.  Lots of people saw miracles, but only saw neat tricks.  But what Jesus is after is actual faith – trust in God’s love, presence and help even if there are no miracles attached.

That kind of faith is perhaps best expressed by the opening lines of today’s first reading from Lamentation: “the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.”  And it’s important to remember that these words were not written by someone celebrating a great miracle that had just occurred in his life.  They were written by a prophet who was sitting in a destroyed city where everybody thought all was lost and nobody had hope…

But faith is knowing that God’s steadfast love and mercy are always present, even when things seem hopeless, and even when no miracles are expected.  That was the faith that both Jairus and the woman had before they ever experienced a miracle. 

And Jesus wants us to have faith in God’s love, presence and mercy – not faith in miracles.  And so Jesus never promises miracles, but he does promise:

  • God’s love and mercy apart from any “worthiness” on our part – one of the things we should notice from these miracle stories is that we know nothing at all about the “goodness” of either Jairus or the woman – they may have been nice, upstanding people, or not!  It doesn’t matter – they ask for and expect God’s help without any “merit” on their part … and often, people get caught up in whether they’ve been worthy enough (prayed hard enough or believed hard enough) to merit a miracle – and we come to think about God’s goodness as somehow connected to something we do or promise to do – but that’s not how it works; God’s goodness is a function of who God is, not who we are…
  • That God’s “mercy” may come in an unexpected form, and even when we think our situation is beyond help … Jairus hoped for healing; he probably thought his daughter was beyond help when his friends told him she was dead.  But he was open to continuing the journey with Jesus, even though he had no idea what Jesus had in mind to do…And part of the key to our experiencing God’s mercy is not giving up on our journey with Jesus, even when things don’t work out the way we had hoped…
  • That “faith” is not about “how hard we believe” but about our openness to trust God to act, even and especially when we don’t know what that action is going to be … miraculous healing and being raised from the dead are great things! But often, God’s mercy in our lives comes in the form of strength to get through a horrible situation that we never imagined we could live through; or in the form of help from a friend or from our community of faith; or in receiving a sense of peace in the midst of pain and illness that seems to go on forever…

Jesus doesn’t promise us miracles, which is probably part of the reason he didn’t want people talking too much about them.  But Jesus does promise us, and show us, that God’s love is always present for us, even when it’s not apparent to the world.  Jesus does promise us, and show us, that God’s mercies are always being given to us, even if those mercies don’t show up in visible and miraculous ways.  And Jesus does promise us, and show us, that even when things in our lives don’t work out as we’d like them to, God never abandons his journey with us.