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Berkeley / Los Angeles / Ireland

The Miracles and Meaning of God

by Ward Stothers

[edited and delivered at Crumlin Road Presbyterian, 18 Nov 2007 Belfast]

          This was the first sermon in a series on the gospel miracles and what we can learn about the person of God through them.  A miracle is a powerful, impossible change in the created order, effecting material humanity and reflecting an interruption and “pin stick” by the divine.  It has also been claimed that God’s every molten sunrise, every swaying tree, every pointing blade of grass, is a miracle.
          The gospel of John records a mere, unique seven miracles, all appearing on in John’s gospel except for Jesus “Walking on Water”, which was chronicled also on the pages of Matthew and Mark.  (The purpose of the John miracles is presented almost as an “advertisement” in chapter 20 reading, “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, you may have life in his name”.  “By believing” means to be served the meal of faithful life by the Holy Spirit so that by eating, we may be full with the nourishing fill of the Savior.  “Believing in His name” carries no automatic, magic wand of salvation in just saying the words, unless you recognize the unseen reality that God is actually fully alive and invisibly present – closer than our warm, timorous breath.
          Each grain of beach sand we pick up on the seashore, is like greeting one more attribute of the diverse and infinite character of God.  The Bible, and its life of Christ, is the shoreline where this aggregate is made visible to us.  Watch the generous and sustaining Jesus at the Cana wedding filling jars to overflow in offering the august wealth of God as his blessing.  And his side by side charity on the Jerusalem ground, teaching the invalid to promenade with his 38 year legs full of paralysis at the Bethsaida pool; see His compassionate feeding of 5,000 from the invisible multiplication of a peasant sandwich of sardines on barley bread, shared by a young boy; also the man-born-blind, pursued and hounded in swirls of love by Jesus after the man defended the Christ with his distinct and accurate big voice of testimony, and being “thrown out of the fellowship,” suffering outcast and excommunication from worship and work in the Jerusalem society; the God-deep tears of an agonizing Christ at Lazarus’ tomb, photographing a compassionate Savior who knew he would sovereignly raise Lazarus back to life, but still heaved and labored over this brambled abnormality called death; and lastly, instead of Christ caring and walking on peak Galilean waves in John, we will row boats and address the storm at sea in Mathew.  It tells us, as an introduction to this miracle series so much more about the God Man who loved us when we were still faithless and adversarial, and saved a place for each of us who respond to his faithful cast and call.
          Hear the Word of God, a reading from Matthew 8,… thanks be to God.
What I want to encourage you with this morning is a story, on the historical happening, of the Matthew 8 incident recorded in scripture as we have just heard read.  Scripture should not and will not be changed, added to nor detracted from, and my story on entrenched scripture will unfold, hopefully embracing your interest and delighting you in a cornucopia of aesthetic detail, surprise and discovery, and a rich pictorial of the Christ we glean fully from the storm on the Sea of Galilee.
          Three questions will be presented, addressed, and offered resolution by Matthew:  First, Does God control the impersonal universe known as Nature, or is it a balloon sailing on its own course, many times recognized by other religions as infinite and independent of a Creator God?  Second, Where is heaven—the place of God, holding reserved seats for his faithful followers?  And thirdly, does the invisible God, made tangible and visible in Christ, care for us since he doesn’t need us, being already fulfilled in, supported by and loved within the trinity.
          The understanding, answers, and practicality are in the story I will tell.  Besides Not being a rewrite of scripture, this narrative commentary is full of images and poetic language---don’t try to catch every word.  The Biblical reality will be painted in metaphors that will come to you as images—true, sound, and loaded images but still visual, non-prose like images, before you.

Here comes the rain!

I am Jonas.  I make my living searching for a daily full net of fish in the two hundred foot depth of Lake Gennasaret .  In Galilee we also claim it as a Sea because it spreads out six miles wide like a pancake on grill connecting nine cities on its adhesive shoreline. I crossed it many times, maybe too many times comforted by the abiding tropics of lotus thorns, indigo and waving palms.  The idyllic landscape on shore is architecturally set, crowded with walnut, fig, and chesty olive trees and courted by grazing wild flowers surfacing between the grapevines on the gradual, sloping hillsides.
          Jesus is my teacher.  I became a follower on the night of the big storm. He and his apostolate were headed for the Gadarene shore looking for the orphaned demoniac.  They boarded my boat—theirs’ was too full of applauding, awestruck Galileans, experiencing the successful, preaching tour of Jesus on the plains near Capernaum.    People were air-tight on the shoreline, all around him and hoping to just get close to him.  His rock star status created an on-shore mosh pit squeezing him involuntarily against the boats on the beckoning lake.
          Climbing hastily for available seats, we pushed off from the wading rocks on a still sea, leaving with a full boat oaring fast for the people less serenity in the middle of the lake. We never reached half way as the cold of Hermon’s mountain top arrived unannounced, bolting through its northern turnstile, the wind around us becoming squall, violent and arbitrary, like a sword of Caesar’s, cutting through the ravines, carving the deep, Syrian gorges to  breathlessly rendezvous with the sweating, slothful heat on the Sea of Galilee—

The wind unwound and the sea released
And the waves caressed the boat in bondage
The sea deep-breathing rose three boat tall

          This was no ordinary storm.Ordinary storms have waves wetting you down like a Saturday night bath preparing you for a new and welcome time of next day worship.  Ordinary storms unnerve you, make you call out for God, “Are you there” while still eyeing a safe, dry earth on the horizon.  This storm was a gale— with sheets of water standing upright, like they told me were at the Red Sea, telling gravity to go to hell, and sucking breath from a  prostrate,  panicked humanity.  This storm was about to pour scorn on our dying entreats and loose us to the deep—

The waves, collapsing, gaveled with a crack
On the collected crowns of huddled humanness
Their echoes rebound like trumpets in blare
Addressing anyone who cared to hear,
in that hopeless seaman’s chant—
“Fish no more, sing no score
God almighty swum to shore
Meet you soon on tearless ground”

          Everyone was coughing up life, except Jesus.  He was asleep nestled and
bundled in the stern and not very attentive to the disciples sketch of death, and pleas for him to captain the ship.  We were all scrambling in terror for the nearest dry exit, playing musical chairs on a deck becoming walls, while leveling fearful waves of criticism at the Christ’s sleeping contour.
           Then, my sight became faith.  I realized that the safe place was not in the water doing a desperate dog paddle to a now, invisible shore but in the boat, on the seat, with the watchful Rabbi;  he was drawing his fishing lines, Us, closer to him.  We were resisting with every available finger, holding on to the boat in a closed tight fist.  He was the Captain, testing and trying our each kernel of faith, causing my memory to flash and release pictures of  Peter walking on a sea of unbuckling  wave tops, thoughts of Abraham facing his coveted, beloved and only son Isaac with a knife, lamb from God,  and then yesterday, Jesus emboldening us  not to worry about our life, but to grab the essence of Psalm 46 abiding with the protective fortress of God, that the Spirit knows our needs even down to the count of our hair follicles on our balding distrust .
I offered a psalm as response.  Where better to be then in the boat of Life with its Author, the Creator, Sustainer, and Lover of our souls :  the Creator, the one who thought it all, yes, planned it all and spoke the anno seconds into an earthy, grounded fruition in Adam and Eve within a life filled garden .  The one so in control of all he has made, that He can make the Sun blink, the waves sleep and people to walk on air or toddle atop grasping waves;  The Sustainer “in whom all things hold together” not in a desperate,  bandaged scarred attempt at creaturely revitalization with glue,  but as an involved, incarnate Christ healing us from the inside— out so that we may revel in a future,  unerring life, outside—in, with him;  The Lover of our souls who is complete in their affection and relationship within the Trinity, but still would not leave us to a just judgment and  wrath, resulting in an eternal di-section from his presence because of our sin;  Christ lived death and bought life for us demonstrating  life to us, and stills holds up our hands in trials, and steadies our feet ‘til eternal life do we dance.
          I came home.  No more the mea culpas of hanging our heads over the sides of the trawler barking and cursing at sentencing waves. The boat was heaven on earth—the place of God sharing breath with us here, in an earthen, angst kiln---clasping our hands shepherdly within this broken creation.  Evil left the boat to await judgment on the Gadarene shore.
          Jesus finally stood like the proverbial angel on pinpoint, unaffected by the storm’s grip and toss, and  asked us where our faith was hiding; he leveled a last compelling query like a stuck  anchor for us bailing  the boat, casting hooks at our pausing breath :
Why do you fear ?  Don’t you see me here?

All men teethe on the ring of unrest
But your sketch of death shrieks of doubt
Did you just listen to, or really hear my mountain sermon ?
Must I recount    your hairless scalps?

He arose and marking the incision
Deflated the tempest with--
“Peace, lay down!
The sea bowed in thunderous glory
Offering praise in sunken genuflection---

          God is our anchor.  He cares for us.  He saved his chosen from drowning to provoke a greater faith, a tighter grip on Him and a pungent worship of life.  Richard Cory is a poem that you may have bumped into in secondary school.  It described and serenaded a man who had it together, and had it all.  His approaching top hat was admired by all the aspiring townsfolk, representing humanity.  They would oo and ah at his passing by, prominent diadem, with person beneath.  Certainly Richard Cory knew the good and lasting, meaningful life for all of us.  Perfect fitting clean clothes, dry cleaned breath.  Then/ one day/ (the line read)/ “Richard Cory went home and put a bullet through his head.”  Brothers and Sisters: Christ wears the only lasting, and sustainable crown within the Creation.  He wore it for us as the God-man who loves us deeply and won’t let you drop out or disappear.  He is our Worship and fulfillment.  We will own eternal life as his gift one day not soon enough.
          Our call and His glory is for us to work through the toils and storms of our daily lives in this grimacing, broken creation, being Christ to the drowning world, with God in our boats, and we at his side.  In the future our reward is not only eternal life but eternal living, unhampered, unhindered nor scarred with any strife, wound, oppression nor threat of death. Our destined and sure life with God is described in Revelation 21: 1-4…”Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them, and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has disappeared”…
          For the present,  these are the oars and offerings we are to carry with us daily; every day doing glory for his namesake,  giving our breath and life back to God; no day missing out on that secret pain-talk with the Creator of the universe, in prayer; all days waiting for those scripturally sweet words of gospel and redemption in the vast dining hall of the Bible; one day knowing communion, face to transfigured face, in depth and fullness of life with Jesus Christ, the Lamb for us, and Shepherd over us.  For, we may clearly see now and will fully know then, the Captain of glory on God-only shore.

May God, our maker
Creator of Every thing
Send you out,
Carrying the Good news and peace of Christ everywhere
Where the Spirit dances, In God’s world.


Copyright © 2007 Ward Stothers