Sunday, February 12, 2012 – The Problem with Miracles, a sermon on Mark 1:40-45

Mark 1:40-45

It is time. We cannot avoid it any more.  It is here.  It is time to talk about the elephant in the room.  But I wonder, do we even know that it’s here?  Or have we gotten so used to it, that we’ve found ways to maneuver around it without much disruption.  Have we forgotten about it, because life is easier that way.  It’s large and dangerous, hard to get our hands around, and perhaps better to avoid than look in the eye.  But it’s here and it’s time.  It’s time we talked about the problem with miracles.  In the last two weeks, we’ve heard many stories of Jesus healing people, removing their demons and curing their illnesses, and today we face yet another miracle story…one in which a man’s isolating, life-destroying, body-wilting disease is removed from him in a flash.

The problem with miracles is that most of us want them and few of us get them.  If one simply walks through our cemetery, the lack of miracles is apparent and the suffering of human life speaks for itself.  A headstone for a child just two years old.  A double headstone where one spouse died 40 years ago and the other lives on.  Imagine the prayers and prayers that must have been spoken for them.  Was anyone listening?  But to be honest we don’t even have to wander as far as the cemetery.  Just slide over to the person next to you or in the pew behind you and you spend all day hearing stories of life-long chronic pain, the grief of divorce, or just how lonely the winter nights can be.  “There is enough suffering in this room alone to freeze the blood[1].”  One doesn’t need to ask, “Where was God on September 11th, 2001?” when the same question bears as much weight on February 12th, 2012.

Which perhaps is what makes Jesus’ words in today’s text that more painful.  The leper says to Jesus, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”  Jesus, if you are willing, you can fix me.  And Jesus says, “I am willing.”

Jesus if you are willing then, why are you not willing now? Why not for the others whose bodies have betrayed them?  Why miracles here and not there?

Miracles and the problem with miracles collided a couple of weeks ago in California when a gravel truck struck a car carrying a young mother and her two children.  The car slammed into the side of the bridge they were on, only to stop on the edge, dangling for life.  Any attempt at rescuing the mother and her two girls was risky, causing the car to teeter and threatening to fall into the ravine below.  The prayers, the prayers. Can you imagine the prayers?  Jesus, if you are willing, you can save them.  And then…a miracle.  Along comes a US Navy convoy that just happened to be near by, and with them – a heavy-duty forklift with a telescoping arm, that could stabilize the car hanging from the bridge.  The mother and children were removed safely and with only minor injuries.  It was a miracle.  God saved that family, people said.  But can the same be said about the truck driver, whose cab went completely over the bridge and into the ravine, leaving him lifeless and his family heart-broken?  No.  Can you imagine the prayers?  “Lord, if you are willing, keep my husband safe today.” “Lord, if you are willing, protect my dad on the roads today.”  A miracle and the problem with miracles, all rolled into one event.

Of course there are potential answers for such pain and lack of miracles.  We all know them and have perhaps even said them.  “Everything happens for a reason.”  “God needed another angel.”  “It was simply his time, but God still has work for her to do here on earth.”  “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.” “Miracles don’t exist.  Everything is just chance and dumb luck.”  Or worst of all, “They must not have had enough faith or prayed enough.”  All of us say such things with good intentions, but rarely do they provide any comfort.  Some responses paint us simply as puppets and God as the puppeteer; others imagine a world which God created and then left to its own devices, letting us figure it out.  Unless, of course, it gets really bad, in which God will stick God’s nose in just for a moment to set things straight.  And some simply make God into a cruel god who tests the faithfulness of God’s people, like a tyrant tests the loyalty of its slaves.  Rarely do these images of God provide any comfort.

Mark holds closely together three stories in which Jesus heals people from their afflictions.  For some of us that might affirm the power of God to heal that they have experienced in their own lives. But for others, it only highlights that which God has not healed.  So who is this God found in Jesus and is there anything that can be said? Is there any comfort to be found in this text?  Whatever we might say, the problem with miracles begs that we be slow to speak and not quick to answer.

Perhaps one place to begin is with the word miracle itself.  Buried within the word is this hidden assumption that God wasn’t already at work in the situation until the miracle came.  As if God only showed up on that bridge in California when the forklift did.  The word “miracle” assumes a God off in the distance, watching and waiting, until deciding to reach into this world with hands that save and hands that destroy.

But that is not the God found in Jesus.  The God found in Jesus abides and makes a home in this world, wandering into wilderness places with the broken, walking beside lakeshores and calling upon the fishermen to “Come and follow me,” entering places of worship and homes, touching and speaking to those no one else will, gathering together the hungry and feeding them.  This is not a god who intervenes, showing up intermittently, in this world; this is a god who lives in this world.

Another place to turn is to Jesus’ reaction to this leper.  Back when leprosy was more common, lepers were sent to leper colonies, where these gross and disfigured people would rot away together, and a safe distance from the masses.  They were quite literally the untouchables – ostracized and thrown out from their community.  As if having your skin reject you isn’t enough, your community rejects you as well.  Upon encountering this man with leprosy, the text says that Jesus was filled with compassion for him.  But some scholars think another possible translation is that Jesus was filled with anger.  Why would Jesus be angry?  Is it that Jesus is angry at this leper?  No, surely not.  But perhaps it is that Jesus is angry whenever someone suffers at all.

In the sermon preached just two weeks after his son’s death, William Sloane Coffin spoke to his congregation and this is what he said, “My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”[2]

God hates suffering.  The suffering of God’s good creation breaks God’s heart.  Which is why with the suffering is where God chooses to be.  In rooms with the sick.  In colonies with the untouchables.  On boats with the terrified.  On a hillside with the hungry.  And on a cross with the thieves.

Why are some people pulled back from the edge of death and others not?  I have no idea.  Why do some seem to have all of the luck in life and while others can’t seem to walk a few steps without tripping over something?  I have no idea.  In the end, where does that leave us?  Certainly, the problem with miracles remains and indeed remains unsolved.  The ways and activity of God –  still a mystery.  But maybe just in naming the problem with miracles, the elephant in the room, we have found that thing we have kept bumping into but never knew was there.  And perhaps that can be healing in itself.

Let us pray…God, you do not jump in and out of this world, but instead have made it your home.  Your works in this world are not few, but many.  You go into dark places and you set your hand on the sickness of the world.  And so we trust that when you feel distant, you are not, and when we feel abandoned, we are not.  Have faith in us, when we struggle for faith in you.  AMEN


[1] Terence Fretheim, said during class on “God, Evil, and Suffering” at Luther Seminary.

[2] Sermon, “Alex’s Death” by William Sloane Coffin.

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