Sermon October 6: Miracles

Well this is the week we get caught up a bit, because it’s time to consider some of the miracles that Mark gives us so many of, so we really will cover several chapters at once! In fact, between the last one we even mentioned, the man with the withered hand in cap 3, and cap 7 where we ought to be this week, you’ll see the casting out of unclean spirits in 3.9ff, calming the storm in 4.35ff, the famous Gadarene swine demon in 5.1ff, the woman with the flow of blood in 5.25ff and Jairus’s daughter in 5.35ff (these two intertwined), the feeding of the five thousand in 6.30ff, Jesus walking on water in 6.45ff, healing by touching Jesus’s garment again in 6.56, the healing of the Syro-Phoenician woman in 7.24ff, of the deaf man in 7.31ff, and we can even go on into cap 8 for the feeding of the four thousand in 8.1ff!

That’s a lot more miracles than teachings, or it would be if it weren’t for what I mentioned last week, about miracles being teaching opportunities, or teachable moments as they’re sometimes called. Remember the healing of the paralytic in chapter two: so that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins—I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home. Jesus caused the miracle in order to drive home what He had been trying to teach them about forgiveness. So it would be good to ask, are these other miraculous events teachable moments, and if so what do they teach?

They certainly seem to have a lot to teach us. Some of them drive home Who Jesus is; follow me through these verses in your Bibles, starting on p 838, and see for yourself: In 3.11f, the unclean spirits unanimously recognise Him as the Son of God as they are cast out; over the page at the very end of cap 4, the disciples are brought to ask the question which the evil spirits have already answered, Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?; in case they don’t get it, the answer is repeated by the Gadarene swine demon in 5.7, Jesus, Son of the Most High God (I suppose we should say Gerasene swine, since that’s the name the place is given in all the modern translations, but if you want to recognise the allusions to this incident in the literature of the last 300 years, keep the word ‘Gadarene’ in mind!). Some of the miracles teach who Jesus came to save: 5.20 makes it clear that the man freed from the demon lived in the Decapolis, which was actually Gentile country, not only in that it was in Jordan, outside the borders of the promised land, but the ten cities that gave it its name were inhabited by Greeks and Romans, who were resented by as well as irrelevant to the Jews, yet Jesus sends the healed man back to those cities to proclaim the gospel there; over the page in 7.28f another Gentile, the Syro-Phoenician woman, comes to know Jesus; and then it’s back to the Decapolis to heal the deaf man in 7.31.

Some miracles are teachable moments in a more negative sense; they show how easy it is to miss the point of the miracles if your mind is on other things. The disciples, even though they have seen with their own eyes Jesus do these miraculous things, are still terrified by the storm in 4.40 and again in 6.50, and in fact, 6.52 p 842, did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. The people in Jesus’s home town, and his own family, think they know all there is to know about Him, so they misunderstand too: they say He is out of his mind in 3.21 and they took offense at Him in 6.3. Perhaps most amazing of all, in 8.11, after this long parade of miraculous healings and mastery over the natural world, Mark tells us that the Pharisees were seeking from Him a sign from heaven! Ordering the wind and waves to be still, healing the blind and the deaf and the lame, feeding nine thousand people with twelve loaves and half a dozen fish, and they want Him to prove He is Who He says He is! When He then said, Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation, He was simply saying the same as jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong said when someone asked him to explain what jazz was—‘if you have to ask, you’ll never know!’ If you haven’t drawn the conclusion from all these signs I’ve already shown you, one more won’t make any difference. No wonder He sighed deeply, 8.12.

All these misunderstandings, or even downright hostility to Jesus— remember that the Pharisees have already held counsel with the Herodians… how to destroy Him back in chapter 3—make a very important point about miracles. The miracles don’t lead anyone to faith; they impress everyone, they get everyone talking and bring the crowds to hear His teaching, but nobody comes to faith in Mark’s gospel because they saw Jesus work a miracle. In the words of Morna Hooker, they are ‘not signs which lead to faith, but signs to those who have faith’. If you have listened to Jesus’s teaching about being the Son of God, the miracles have more to teach; if you haven’t, you won’t even be able to believe they happened.

I can provide a good example of this tendency to miss the point, to ignore what Jesus taught, myself. It was the last time I preached a sermon on the feeding of the five thousand, and I came to 6.34, Jesus saw a great crowd; and He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And He began to teach them many things. As I thought about that verse, I was struck by the combination of compassion and teaching. He teaches us because He cares about us! I felt as though I had never noticed it before, yet when I looked in my Bible, I saw that I had not only noticed it before but underlined it! And yet that day it came to me as a new thought that Jesus teaches us because He has compassion on us. I had forgotten it; Satan had taken it away, to use the image of the parable of the Sower, and despite all my familiarity with the text of the gospels, despite preaching on it before, I needed to be reminded of it.

It’s a great verse to think about, actually, because it is a really important thing that He is moved to compassion by the fact that we are like sheep without a shepherd. It’s important firstly because from what I’ve read, sheep without a shepherd just eat the grass in front of them until there’s none left, and then they stand there looking at each other, bleating and wondering what to do next. If someone doesn’t prod them and move them to where there is more grass, they’ll starve to death. They won’t find it for themselves. They cannot meet their own needs. Jesus saw the same characteristic in that crowd, only instead of physical food, it was spiritual food that they were bleating for. And that is the second reason it’s important, because it is what anyone with any sense still sees today in any gathering of people except a gathering of people whose shepherd is Jesus: we see people who are depressed because they don’t know what the purpose of their lives is, or they are in pain because they are barely on speaking terms with the person who last week was their best friend, or because college isn’t what they dreamed it would be; people who are coveting their neighbor’s bank account; people who are so confused by life that they are misusing alcohol or drugs or sex. That’s what Jesus saw when he looked at that crowd, and He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd, spiritually rather than physically. They needed spiritual help. He knew their need, and His heart ached for them; He felt the same way we do when we are healthy and see a friend sick, or when we’re getting good grades but a friend is not—we wish with all our heart we could do something that would make a difference. Jesus felt the same way, but He could do something that made a difference, and He did it: He began to teach them many things. He prodded the sheep to get them to move towards where the nourishment was.

Jesus’s response to our helplessness is teaching, because He knows what we need most is understanding of our situation, and the only way we can get it is to learn from Him. We were created through Him, the Bible says; He knows what we were designed for, whereas we only know how we’ve actually been living, which is something quite different. Without His teaching, we are spiritually helpless. With it, our lives begin to recover God’s original purpose for them.

And if that’s true, then our spiritual work is to learn. Teaching achieves nothing if those who hear it aren’t learning, even when the teacher is Jesus. Christianity is not something you absorb by standing near it, it’s something you acquire deliberately or not at all, it requires our full mental assent and cooperation. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, Jesus said. Teaching and learning are both activities, learning isn’t happening if Jesus is active while we remain passive. We have to be as active in learning as He is in teaching. It is a yoke, He says; we put ourselves in harness and get to work, because that’s how His teaching changes our lives. We apply ourselves to His teaching and apply His teaching to ourselves. That’s when it becomes teaching with authority, teaching with power, teaching that changes things.

In some ways, the people Jesus was looking at on the occasion Mark describes were better off than many people today, because at least they were like sheep without a shepherd. Too many people today are like sheep with a bad shepherd: they’re led by the nose by people who don’t have their best interests at heart, who are exploiting them for their own purposes, whether it’s getting them to buy some product, rally round the latest fad, or just hook up with them. And the characteristic all these bad shepherds seem to share is that they don’t teach, they just command: buy this, vote for me, do this, it won’t do you any harm. They don’t have anything to teach because they’re not interested in us, only in themselves. They act like our shepherds not because they want to see us fulfil God’s purposes for us, but because they like roast lamb.

Jesus teaches. He gives us understanding. That’s His answer to the confusion so many of us experience so often in this complicated world we live in: understanding. Faith in Jesus is not blind, because Jesus teaches; it’s only the bad shepherds who ask for blind obedience or put you off with some glib reassurance. Jesus appeals to our minds, as you would expect, since intellect is what makes us the image of God; all life, even at the simplest level, seems to have emotion and feeling; only humans have intellect on the same or similar scale. But because we’ve turned away from God, from the source of all wisdom, our intellect is disordered, and Jesus teaches in order to restore it to its proper working condition.

Jesus’s teaching is that we can trust Him. We can trust Him when we have made listening to His teaching a higher priority than shopping for dinner, and we can trust Him when we are in the midst of a storm and don’t know if we will survive. We can trust Him when we are barely on speaking terms with our best friend, or when we have failed a class, or been blown off by someone we thought loved us. He has compassion on us, and if we turn to Him and trust His word, He will help us.

I don’t know what aspect of Jesus’s teaching you need to revisit in your life. I could finish this morning by mentioning any of Jesus’s teachings and be quite confident I had applied the gospel to the lives of some of us. But I do know that the fact that Jesus’s teaching is a response to human helplessness needs to be revisited by the Christian community. Let me remind you what Matthew tells us after he has quoted this same verse, which he does in his chapter 9. Matthew says, v 36, When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest’, and immediately sent His disciples out to tell people The kingdom of heaven is at hand. In other words, Jesus not only responds to human need by teaching, as Mark says, but responds to human need by making sure that His own followers will share His compassion and pass on His teaching. That we will not keep Jesus to ourselves, but tell those who have no shepherd that there is one Who cares about them, and tell those who are following a bad shepherd that there is a better one.

Jesus’s words are written down for us so we can turn to them any time. We can share them with others who need them. We don’t need any expertise, just enough faith in Jesus to say to a friend or a colleague, ‘Jesus has compassion on those who don’t know where to turn; when I get into trouble, I turn to Him, I pray for His help and I read His words in the Bible, and I find hope and strength in them.’ His teaching is still spreading because those who have experienced its power share that experience with others. My prayer is that even as students we will share His compassion, and pass His teaching on.

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