Sermon: 4 Lent 2011
Signs and Miracles: Abundance and Incarnation
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We now have come to the middle of our Lenten journey, a journey of prayer and fasting and almsgiving. Lent provides time and space for us to reflect on Jesus and on ourselves, on who we are and who, by God’s grace, we have yet to become. The Lenten pilgrimage is also a season of confession and repentance. And so, I will begin today with a confession of my own. I confess before God and you, my brothers and sisters, that I do not believe in miracles any longer. I once did, but I have repented of it. I mean, of course, that I do not believe in miracles as they are typically understood. In our prevailing Western culture, a miracle is a disruption of nature. A miracle is God stepping into the physical world from which he is normally absent and rarely welcome to violate the laws of nature that govern that physical world. Miracles are the creation of a people who have forgotten that God is everywhere present, filling all things. Miracles are the creation of a people who have forgotten that it is in God that we live and move and have our being. Miracles are the creation of a people who have forgotten that the sun rose this morning not because of Kepler or Newton or even because of natural law built into a clockwork universe, but because our God in his providential care spoke into the darkness once again and said, “Let there be light.” Miracles are not Christian; they are the stuff of mythology or paganism or deism, but not of Christianity. For in Christianity God is Emmanuel – God With Us – feeding the sparrows, clothing the flowers, making his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sending rain on the righteous and the unrighteous – intimately involved with every aspect of his creation. God is not absent from us. He does not need to step into the world, for his is already and always here. Christ is in our midst: he is and ever shall be.
Our faith really owns only one miracle, for truly only one miracle has occurred from the foundations of the world: the incarnation of the Word.
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:1-5, 14, NKJV).
The incarnation – the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us – is the only true miracle, for in the incarnation God did step into his creation from outside it. God the creator became part of his creation in a way that he was not before, and that disrupted the laws of fallen nature: the incarnate God was born of a virgin; the incarnate God was tempted in all things as we are yet without sin; the incarnate God was crucified, died, and was buried; the incarnate God rose triumphant on the third day trampling down death by death and on those in the tombs bestowing life. The incarnation is the one and only, truly Christian miracle, and everything flows from it as surely as the blood flowed from the pierced hands and feet of our God-become-flesh, as surely as the river of the water of life flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb (cf Rev 22:1).
St. John the Evangelist did not believe in miracles either, even though he saw wonder upon wonder in company with Jesus. He never uses the word “miracle” in his gospel, though some English translations impose it on him. Instead, John writes of the “signs” (semeion) that accompany Jesus’ presence. Following the changing of the water into wine at the wedding at Cana, John writes:
Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him (John 2:11, NRSV).
Signs are not disruptions of nature, but are revelations of God’s presence in his creation, revelations of the glory of God in the face of Christ, given that we might believe. Signs are the inevitable result of the miracle of the incarnation, sparks scattered glowing and sizzling from the burning bush of God’s presence. If Christ is in our midst – if God is indeed among us in human form – then signs of his presence must follow.
Once John the Baptist sent two of his disciples to Jesus.
20 When the men had come to Him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to You, saying, ‘Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?’” 21 And that very hour He cured many of infirmities, afflictions, and evil spirits; and to many blind He gave sight. 22 Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them (Lk 7:20-23, NKJV).
Well, of course: these are the signs that simply must follow the miracle of incarnation. When God is with us, creation is restored and men are saved and such signs point to Jesus. The signs that follow Jesus are not self-referential. They don’t point to themselves, but to something else; that is precisely what makes them signs. Signs point the way. Signs attract attention only to direct that attention to something else or to Someone else. The purpose of each healing was not merely to restore health, but to direct attention to the Healer. The purpose of each act of cleansing was not merely to restore ritual purity, but to direct attention to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The purpose of each sign was to direct attention to the miracle of the incarnation, to the miracle of God-With-Us, and to our incarnate God’s redemptive purpose among us.
One of the clearest signs of God-With-Us is abundance. When Israel left Egypt at the first Passover, they left as newly freed slaves with a slave mentality still firmly intact, a mentality of lack: lack of power, lack of freedom, lack of security, lack of rest. The grumbling into which they often lapsed during this period is a reflection of the lack they had known and of their uncertainty about Moses’ and his God’s ability to provide.
When the forces of pharaoh pursued Israel to the Red Sea, Israel cried out to Moses:
“Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt? 12 Is this not the word that we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness” (Ex 14:12b-14, NKJV).
We lack power. We lack security. But Moses replied, “The LORD will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace” (Ex 14:14, NKJV). The LORD is God-With-Us, and the sign of his presence is abundance of power and security.
On the fifteenth day of the second month of their freedom, Israel complained again against Moses and Aaron in the Wilderness of Sin:
“Oh, that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Ex 16:3b, NKJV).
We lack food – meat and bread. And the LORD rained bread from heaven – manna – and meat from the sky – quail – and everyone had enough. The LORD is God-With-Us, and the sign of his presence is abundance of food.
Finally, after forty years of unlearning the slave mentality of lack, Israel came to the land of promise, a land flowing with milk and honey, a land rich in grapes and olives and figs, a land of pasture for sheep. The LORD is God-With-Us, and the sign of his presence is abundance. When the LORD is God-With-Us, no one goes hungry; there is enough and to spare.
In this day’s Gospel another Passover is near and Israel gathers on a mountainside around the prophet – not Moses this time, but Jesus of Nazareth. They are hungry; they lack meat and bread. When Jesus proposes that his disciples feed them, Philip reminds him that they also lack money. Andrew snags a little boy’s lunch – five barley loaves and two fish – but what is that among so many? We lack food, Jesus – meat and bread – and we lack money with which to buy.
And so the stage is set for the great proclamation: God is with us, and the sign of his presence is abundance. When God is with us, no one goes hungry; there is enough and to spare.
“Make the people sit down,” is all Jesus says. Then he takes the loaves, gives thanks, and distributes them to the people, and then likewise with the fish: Jesus conducting a Eucharist of bread and meat.
John, who chronicles this event, wants us all to understand: this sign of abundance, like every other sign he documents, points to the one and only great miracle, the miracle of the incarnation – God is with us, in flesh and blood, in the person of this Galilean carpenter turned rabbi. One stands among us on this near Passover who is greater than Moses on that great, first Passover, for the one who stands among us is I Am. The one who stands among us giving us bread and fish is the same God who provided manna and quail to Israel. The one who stands among us brings such abundance that 12 basketsful of bread and fish remain – one for each tribe of Israel, one for each disciple of new Israel. Our God – this sign proclaims – is Emmanuel, the God of abundance, the God of leftovers.
Still, John presses the point; he will not let us miss the incarnation to which this sign of abundant bread points. He records a conversation between Jesus and the Jews just days later at the synagogue of Capernaum. Jesus says:
48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. 50 This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” 52 The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?” 53 Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. 56 He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. 58 This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:48-58, NKJV).
Manna and quail, bread and fish: these fill the belly and sustain physical life for a time. But, the bread which comes down from heaven – the body and blood of God incarnate – that fills the soul and sustains eternal life, abundant life through the incarnation. The manna and the barley loaves were signs of the miracle of the incarnation – God-With-Us. The Eucharist with its bread and wine is the sacramental sign of the miracle of the incarnation, a sign which proclaims that God is still with us. In the Eucharist Christ becomes incarnate in bread and wine and in those who eat and drink, and abundant life follows.
If Christ is in our midst – if God is indeed with us and among us – then signs of his presence will and must follow. If Christ is indeed incarnate – not just as a rabbi teaching on the hills of Galilee, but in the bread and wine on which we feast and in the lives of those who eat and drink – then abundance must be manifest. If Christ is with even two or three who gather in his name – if Christ is with the Church – then the Church must exhibit such signs of abundance that the world can no longer ignore the miracle of the incarnation and the redemptive work of Christ in restoring the cosmos. And what are these signs of abundance?
Worship – an abundance of worship – is a sign the world cannot easily ignore: “Come, let us sing to the Lord. Let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation” (Ps 95:1, BCP). Not just any worship will do, of course: certainly not worship from the lips when the heart is far from God, and certainly not worship as ritual or entertainment. No. True worship – worship in Spirit and truth, worship that gives right glory to our God and Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit – is worship that is unshaken by earthquake, worship that is not drowned by tsunami, worship that is unbowed before tyrants, worship that gives voice to all creation in praise that rises from the heart and pours from the lips in the first and natural language of mankind, the language heard in Eden before the fall: “Glory be to Thee, our God. Glory be to Thee.” This kind of worship is a sign to the world that indeed God is with us.
Love – an abundance of love – is a sign the world cannot easily ignore: “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another,” Jesus said and says still (John 13:35, NKJV). Not just any love will do, of course, and certainly not the romance or lust or even the casual friendship that often pass for love. No. Love as a sign of the incarnation is love that feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, binds up the broken, welcomes the stranger, forgives the enemy, prays for the persecutor, and lays down its life – all at once or day by day – for the sake of those who hate. This kind of love is a sign to the world that indeed God is with us.
Grace – an abundance of grace – is a sign the world cannot easily ignore. Not just any grace will do, of course, and certainly not grace as mere gentility or courtesy. No. Grace as a sign of the incarnation is nothing less than the presence and activity of God. An experience of true grace wakens the world from its sleep and makes it cry out like Jacob at Bethel, “The Lord is in this place, and I did not know it” (Gen 28:16b, LXX, The Orthodox Study Bible). Grace enters the pain of the world and stretches out its arms on the hard wood of the cross to share in, and as much as possible, to bear the pain of the world, bringing God’s presence into its darkest places. This kind of grace is a sign to the world that indeed God is with us.
Hope – an abundance of hope – is a sign the world cannot easily ignore. Not just any hope will do, of course, and certainly not hope that is barely disguised naïveté or rosy optimism. No. Hope as a sign of the incarnation is nothing less than stubborn and rock-solid eschatology – living in this present age with the certainty that Christ has already conquered every enemy and is even now putting the world to rights, living in this present age with the certainty that the last days have already dawned and the glorious consummation of all things is guaranteed, living in this present age with the proclamation always in our hearts and often on our lips:
Jesus Christ is Lord, and
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
This kind of hope is a sign to the world that indeed God is with us.
None of these are miracles; I do not believe in miracles. They are signs, and I do believe in signs of the one and only great miracle, the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ through which he conquered sin and death and reconciled man to God. And I do believe that, with Christ in our midst, signs of abundance will and must accompany the church – abundance of worship, abundance of love, abundance of hope, abundance of grace. These signs in the lives of broken but redeemed men and women and children will awaken the world to the glory, wonder, and power of the incarnation. Five barley loaves and two fish fed a hungry crowd. A little bread and wine can feed the world and restore the cosmos. It does not take miracles – just signs. Amen.