Saturday, February 21, 2015

Can Modern People Believe in Miracles?


The following is from a sermon I gave at a healing service at Christ Church Cooperstown.

The Question I want to address with you all is, “Can an educated modern person believe in miracles?” Here at Christ Church, during the season of Epiphany, we have been having a sermon series based on tough questions submitted by our congregation. I was somewhat disappointed that no one submitted this particular question, because it is a very important one. 

Perhaps the reason is that no one in our congregation struggles with the question, but somehow I don’t think that is true. Incredulity towards the supernatural is a prime facie assumption of our culture in the west. We continue to be fascinated by it as evidenced by movies, novels, comic books, and popular spirituality, but it has been pushed into the margins as something not very respectable.

Why is this the case? Critics of the supernatural or miraculous will say, modern science disproves such things. This is not true. There is nothing particularly unscientific about miracles. Science, by its very nature, can only admit those things which are observable and verifiable. That is its job. It is a tool, a method we use to better understand the world around us, and one that has served us very well. Apart from doing the job it was conceived to do, science is mute on the larger philosophical questions such as, “why is there something instead of nothing? Is there more to reality than meets the eye? Is there a God?” Science is simply not prepared to answer these questions. It is outside of its job description. 

The Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein writes, “The great delusion of modernity is that the laws of science explain the universe for us. The laws of nature describe the universe…but they explain nothing.”

The problem is that many in the modern world have taken what is meant to be a tool and expanded it to an all-encompassing philosophical system. The only things that are in any meaningful sense real, they tell us, are those things that can be demonstrated by science. We may call this belief system “Scientism,” it is not to be confused with science proper. Ironically this itself is not a truth claim that can be verified with certainty through scientific methods!

Now although science is not designed to answer philosophical questions, it can provide us with evidence or certain “clues” that can be used either to support or critique a particular worldview. The problem is the assumptions of “Scientism” preclude certain conclusions from the beginning.

Perhaps one of the most influential people in our modern prejudice against the miraculous has been the philosopher David Hume. We haven’t time to go into Hume’s arguments in great detail, but the substance of his position comes down to this, “We know that miracles do not happen because no credible eyewitnesses can be found to attest to their reality.” You may be thinking, “that is an extrodinary claim!” It certainly is, and it is one that he couldn’t get away with making today. Research shows that there is in fact countless individuals from many different walks of life who claim to be eyewitnesses of a miraculous or supernatural event. Some of you may be among them! Here is the really silly thing about Hume’s argument though, those who claim to believe in the miraculous are not considered to be reliable eyewitnesses! This is what you call a circular argument.

Hume defines a miracle as, "a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.” I think we can basically agree in substance with Hume’s definition. A law of nature is based on what he calls “firm an unalterable experience,” the exceptionless testimony of all people in all places. Miracles cannot be true because they violate these laws. The evidence for the miracle will never be enough to outweigh the typical experience of people upon which the law of nature is based. This simply begs the question though.
The fact that miracles are different from our normal experience is what makes them miraculous in the first place!  A miracle by definition is a unique event, an exception, it is God temporarily suspending the laws he has ordained to introduce something new. 

It simply won’t do for us to say, “Modern people cannot believe in the resurrection because Science teaches us that when people die they don’t rise again three days later. We don’t need science to explain this to us! That is what makes it a miracle!

The fact is that we don’t know why things tend to operate according to certain regular and dependable laws, we merely observe that they do. G.K. Chesterton once glibly remarked, "The question of miracles is merely this. Do you know why a pumpkin goes on being a pumpkin? If you do not, you cannot possibly tell whether a pumpkin could turn into a coach or couldn’t. That is all." (Miracles and Modern Civilization)

It is a philosophical leap to jump from the observance of regularity of nature to the conclusion that it is a closed system, a lifeless thing that merely ticks away like a clockwork toy. As Christians, we believe that all things exist by the will of God and that he is every moment sustaining its existence by that same will. The “laws” of nature are less like the operation of a machine and more like the intentional decisions of an artist. 

Again Chesterton writes,

“A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical ENCORE.” (Orthodoxy, The Ethics of Elf Land)

At one time, scientist simply discounted the idea that the universe had a beginning. The idea that there was a time when the universe was not and that God brought it into existence out of nothing, was an idea that was largely unique to the Bible. The overwhelming consensus of modern science today, however, suggest that the universe really did have a beginning, that Space-Time came into existence in a sudden explosion, the so-called Big Bang theory.

The first law of thermodynamics says that neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed. That is the uniform observance of science. The fact that all matter and energy were created in the Big Bang is the exception that proves the rule. It was a unique and exceptional event. You might even call it a miracle.

If we can accept one such exceptional event in the Big Bang, why is it unreasonable to think that from time, in extraordinary circumstances, other such exceptional events occur?

In other words, If God can bring all things into existence with a Word, is it too difficult for him to intervene in a miraculous way to answer our prayers for healing? The testimony of countless people down through the ages to the contrary is too great for us to ignore. It is simply too incredible to say that they all are either delusional or liars. If our worldview has no room for the evidence, we must adjust our worldview.

To conclude, I feel it is necessary to touch briefly on the question, “why does God respond with miracles to the prayers of some and not others?” This is really the question of suffering or, “Why does God allow evil and suffering if he has the power to stop it?” This is a very important question that is too large to respond to here. Father Mark addressed the topic in his sermon last week. The one thing I will say is this, If God always answered our prayers with miracles they would no longer be exceptions, they would be laws. Getting what we wanted would simply be a matter of going through the right channels or like pulling the right lever on a vending machine. We would no longer have a God who is free, sovereign, and all wise but something more like a magic genie or a giant ATM in the sky. 

This is an idol rather than the true God. As much as we sometimes wish that we could get any outcome we ask for, it is probably best for us in the long run that we don’t. Instead we must trust that God always works what is best for us, even if we do not understand. When we do experience Miracles, we should receive them with joy as evidence that there really is a God who loves us and hears our prayers. Not only is he loving, but he is all powerful. All things are possible through him. 

Suggested Reading:

For a very thorough and scholarly look at the subject of Miracles written by a New Testament historian check out Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Account
It is definitely a long read, but if you are curious you might consider watching Keener discuss the book here on YouTube. He has also written some articles on the subject such as Are Miracles Real? over at Huffington post. 

A recent and very accessible book on the Subject is Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life by Eric Metaxas.  I found this book very helpful and readable as well as inspirational. More than half the book consist of real life accounts of miracles from personal friends of Metaxas. He introduces the book here in this neat Video: Eric Metaxas Talks Miracles.

You might also consider C.S. Lewis' classic work on the subject Miracles. It is more accessible than the Keener book but more theoretical than Metaxas. 

For a book that deals specifically with the topic of miraculous healing try Healing by Francis Mcnutt.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

How to Become a Real Son

 During this season of Lent our Sunday sermon series at Christ Church will focus on the way in which God calls us to be in relationship with him—his covenant faithfulness—his unbreakable promise to make us his children and be with us forever. We are calling it “The Promise Keeper.” 

Our heavenly Father keeps his promises. He has made a covenant with us, a solemn and binding vow and contract, to make us his people and to be our God. This covenant is much like the vows that couples make at marriage. At marriage couples make a vow to be with one another and to love one another for better or worse, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. In the same way God has vowed to be with us both in times of joy and in times of struggle. Even when we rebel against him and prove unfaithful, he has promised to continue to pursue us with his love. The Psalmist celebrates God’s amazing faithfulness in today’s psalm,

He has not dealt with us according to our sins,   
nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.

All of us have sinned and proven unfaithful to our God and creator, though He has shown great love to us. Rather than dealing with us according to the just consequences of our rebellion, however, God has remembered the promises he has made to us and has shown us pity rather than wrath. He loves us as his very own children. The Psalmist writes,

For he himself knows whereof we are made  
  he remembers that we are but dust.

Before he laid the foundations of the world God chose you. Before you existed he conceived of you and loved you. He molded you out of the dust of the earth, knit you together in your mother’s womb, and breathed into you the breath of life. He remembers the frailty of our nature, our vulnerability to being blown here and there by the winds of temptation, and yet he gives us grace to rise above our earthly nature and live as his children. In all our failings, when we slide back into the mire, he calls us to return to him and press forward towards our higher calling.

God’s love and his faithfulness to his creation is beautifully illustrated in a story I’m sure most us know well, the story of Pinocchio. In our culture the story is probably best known through the Disney animated feature. If you don’t know the story or if the details are hazy, let me remind you of the basic plot. 
Geppetto is an old toymaker who loves children, but never had any of his own. He lovingly crafts a wooden marionette made in the image of a little boy. Geppetto wishes more than anything else that this wooden toy might become a real boy and a son to him. The Blue Fairy hears his wish and graciously decides to grant it by bringing the wooden puppet to life.  Although he has been magically brought to life, Pinocchio is not yet the true boy his creator wishes him to be; he is still wood. In order to become a real flesh and blood boy, the Blue fairy tells him that he must prove himself “brave, truthful, and unselfish.”

You might say that Pinocchio is like us and Geppetto is like our heavenly father. Just as Geppetto made Pinocchio out of wood, God made us out of dust, and just as Geppetto wishes Pinocchio to become a real boy, God wishes us to be more and more conformed to the Image of his true and only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. You might also say that Geppetto is like our earthly Father who gave us life and the Blue Fairy like the Holy Spirit through whom our Father gives us a higher life, a real and eternal life like his own. 

If you know the story, however, you know what happens next. No sooner is Pinocchio sent into the world and charged to be faithful to the Blue Fairy’s instructions, than he is led astray by a deceitful Fox and into the clutches of a wicked puppet master named Stromboli, despite the protestations of his guide Jiminy Cricket who is the voice of his conscience. Again and again Pinocchio goes astray and again and again he is rescued by the Blue Fairy. Each time Pinocchio is untruthful, his nose grows longer -- eventually even sprouting leaves and branches and making him less like the boy in whose image he was crafted and more like the wood he was made from. When he repents and obeys the fairy he becomes more like a real boy. 

When we watch the film, we find ourselves (like Jiminy Cricket) continually exasperated, frustrated, and disappointed with the wooden boy and his continual rebellion, but if we are honest with ourselves are we not all more like Pinocchio than we care to admit? Are we not too easily lured into taking the easy way? Haven’t we all made an ass of ourselves on Pleasure Island? Like Pinocchio, as well, we have all been shown grace and given a fresh start again and again, but how easily we forget God’s mercies! 

God’s love and faithfulness was such that he did not abandon us when we ran away from Him, rather he came looking for us in Christ. He descended into the very depths of our sinful and fallen nature. Saint Paul says,
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

In Christ, God bore the consequences for human sin in himself. He went down to death in our place. Geppetto doesn’t give up on Pinocchio either. He goes out looking for him, and in the process is swallowed by a gigantic whale named Monstro. The obvious Biblical parallel here is of course with the story of the Prophet Jonah who was also swallowed by a whale. Jesus speaks of the story of Jonah and the Whale as a sign of his own death and resurrection. He says, 

“For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

 The story of Geppetto speaks powerfully, therefore, of the way in which Christ descended to the dead for our sake. 

Through his death and resurrection Jesus breaks the power of sin and death over us. This is our salvation. In contemplating the amazing faithfulness of God that he should suffer the agony of death upon the cross for our sake, our hearts should be moved to repentance. Our Old Testament reading from Joel says,

Yet even now, says the LORD,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the LORD, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.

God’s faithfulness should inspire faithfulness in us. Because he loved us we should love him also. Our faithfulness is not an attempt to win God’s favor but a response of gratitude to him because he is gracious and merciful.

How does this play out in the story of Pinocchio? When he reads the note from the Blue Fairy describing what Geppetto has done out of love for him, he races off to rescue him with no thought of himself. It is Geppetto’s love that finally inspires bravery, unselfishness, and truthfulness in Pinocchio. He follows him even into the belly of the great beast and ultimately gives his life to rescue his father.

If we truly understand the love of God in Christ, we will take up our own cross and follow him. Lent is a call to covenant renewal and faithfulness to God. Because God has declared us to be his own children, we must put to death our sinful nature and offer our lives as a living sacrifice to him. In doing so we become like Christ in his own sacrifice. This is what it means to grow into the image of Christ and to receive the life that comes from above. 

Jesus says, “he who does not take his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for my sake will find it.” Pinocchio lays down his life out of love, but in doing so he finds greater life. In his act of bravery and sacrifice, Pinocchio at last becomes the real boy that Geppetto always wished that he would someday become.

God created us from the dust of the earth, but he has heavenly aspirations for us. He made us in the image of his beloved son and it is his desire that we grow more and more like him in every way. Apart from his love, our lives are like the grass of the field, they pass away like a shadow, and to dust we return.  But as the Psalmist says, 

“the merciful goodness of the LORD endures forever on those who fear him, and his righteousness on children's children, on those who keep his covenant and remember his commandments and do them.” 

To those of us who put to death the works of the flesh through his spirit working in us, he will give us a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.