A theologian I admire asks whether you’d let God babysit your child. It’s a strange hypothetical. But would you? He asks this question, tongue in cheek, because it sometimes seems like God isn’t trustworthy. God arbitrarily intervenes here and other times God couldn’t care less. If God is babysitting Eden, would God step in when a car is speeding down Melton and she’s playing in the street? We can never pin down when God is going to do something and when God is just going to sit back and let our free-will wreak havoc. (Tripp Fuller talks about this)
This is the dilemma with miracles. The problem is the mystery, the apparent arbitrariness, of the miraculous. We’ve been by the bedside of a loved one dying with cancer. We pray to God, but nothing happens. If God didn’t heal her, then why should I believe that God has ever healed anyone? Sam Wells puts it like this, “If God intervened to save the Israelites, why didn’t he intervene to save the New Orleanites? If God saved the Hebrews from Pharaoh, why didn’t he save them from Hitler? If God held back the waves of the Red Sea, why didn’t he hold back the planes on 9/11?” The problem with miracles is that we all want them, but many of us don’t get them. Meanwhile, this child predator over here prays and he’s healed. The doctors have no explanation. “What’d he do to get one?”
We think that there must be a formula, like God is this old man in the sky who is sending down goodies when we say ‘please’ or ‘thank you.’ But if we don’t get the formula just right, then we’re out of luck. Forgot to do your morning devotion? Better kiss that healing goodbye. Saw this prosperity preacher a couple Sunday mornings ago who said that if you fast, give up those cookies and steak dinners, then God will give you what you want. Hey, it worked for Daniel. But it makes God sound too much like Harry Potter for my taste.
Or, maybe God is like a superhero who can only be in one place at one time. There’s this episode of the Simpsons where Homer is in deep trouble, and he prays: “I’m not normally a praying man, but if you’re up there, please save me Superman!” God and Superman, right, they have a lot in common except the tights. Too often we feel as if we’re really all alone down here, unless Superman decides to swoop in and save us from the burning building.
And I hear that a lot: God chose to supernaturally intervene. That makes God seem more like Superman than the God of Israel and Jesus Christ. It implies that God is hanging out in space and the decides to pop in to break some natural laws—blasts away a cancerous tumor or stops a tornado in its tracks—then God goes back into bed with a bowl full of popcorn. That’s not great theology. God isn’t somewhere else and then, sometimes chooses to intervene. God’s right here, omnipresent, invested in creation right now. That’s God’s nature. God created this rock out of nothing, and upholds it up with God’s own hands. The book of Job says that if God were to withdraw his Spirit, all life would disappear and humankind would turn into dust.
We aren’t alone with these concerns. If you remember the story of Lazarus’ resuscitation, Mary and Martha have similar thoughts. Lazarus lives in Bethany with his sisters Mary and Martha, when he takes ill. Remember, Lazarus is one of Jesus’ best friends and he gets sick (doesn’t look promising for the rest of us). Well, Jesus was out and ministering in another area and the sisters send message to Jesus, “Lord, the one that you love is ill.” There’s some intercessors, reaching out to Jesus on behalf of his friend.
Surprisingly, Jesus doesn’t come immediately. He stays exactly where he is for another two days. While he is gone, Lazarus dies. By the time Jesus finally arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for four days. Four days. Are you kidding me? Mary and Martha are heartbroken, of course, because Jesus didn’t do anything to save Lazarus. Like I said, Jesus is the babysitter who is on the phone while the toddler is playing with electrical sockets.
When Jesus arrives, the whole neighborhood has already gathered at their house with casseroles and jello salads. Martha meets Jesus on the road, but Mary is so upset she can’t leave the house. When Martha sees Jesus she knelt at his feet and asks the same question that we do, “Lord, if you had only been here, my brother would still be alive.” And that sounds familiar: “Lord if you had only been here my brother—sister—daughter—son—mother—father would still be alive.” Other folks in the crowd are calling out, “This man healed a blind man. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”
Jesus doesn’t give her a cheesy, pithy response about ‘needing an angel in heaven.’ He meets her in her brokenness, her fragile faith, and assures her: “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?” Do you believe this? I quote that verse at every funeral, but I have never included that last phrase, “Do you believe this?” It’s hard to believe when you’re staring death in the face.
Finally, Mary wanders out of the house and they go together to Lazarus’ grave. It says that Jesus was deeply disturbed and deeply moved. There was grief deep down inside of the heart of God and Jesus had the same heartache that we have in the face of death. “Show me where Lazarus is,” Jesus says. He is taken to the grave and do you remember what happens next? It’s the shortest verse in the entire bible. Jesus wept. Jesus wept because he felt the heartache of humankind. He looked at Mary and Martha, and all of the friends who had gathered; and he cried with them. That’s a great first lesson about prayer: Jesus hears your pain and he weeps with each of you.
This story doesn’t end with tears. Jesus then cried out, “Lazarus! Come out!” Martha, who says she believes—Martha, full of faith—says, “Lord he’s been dead four days, there will be a stench.” Or, as King James (Jimmy) translates it, “Lord, he will stinketh.” But all of a sudden, the kingdom breaks through and the stone is rolled away, Lazarus walks out. This is the seventh, and the final, sign recorded by John.
Still, there’s this problem: what about the stories that end in tears? The endings where there is no resuscitation. The Lazarus story seems callous. Sure, he’s resuscitated. But we aren’t. We don’t get a miracle like this. The lure of these miracle stories is that it gives us all just enough hope that God will do the same in our lives. And so we pray for our suffering, our crippled, and our dead. We look for a miracle. Nothing. Think of the hundreds of sick and dying who were not healed while Jesus walked around Galilee. Jesus could only be one place at a time.
It all seems random, or lucky, that some folks were in the right spot at the right time. What’d they do right? There’s no formula, no definitive patten to these stories. Some have faith, others’ faith is half-baked, and even others have no faith at all. No one even asked Lazarus if he’d like to be woken from his rest. The same must hold true for us. No amount of faith will bring a miracle. When things don’t go well, you’re not to blame. It’s not because you don’t have the right kind of faith. Your perfect worship attendance does not bring a miracle. There’s no magic prayer. God’s not a vending machine—put in the faith and get the blessing.
It helps me to think that Jesus had a similar pathos on the night before he would hang on a cross. “For you all things are possible,” he prayed to his Father. “Remove this cup from me.” There were no angels swooping down from heaven. God seemed glaringly absent as he hung on the cross and cried, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Barbara Brown Taylor’s idea).
In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ miracles aren’t called miracles. They are called signs. A sign is something that points the way ahead. It bestows directions to a new destination, it advertises something that’s in the distance. And maybe that’s the point of miracles—they remind us that the way things are today are not the way things will always be.
We live in the already, and the not yet. It’s a paradox. There are only glimpses, snapshots, of the kingdom that will one day reign fully. Every healing, exorcism, stilled storm, is a sign that one day God’s kingdom will fully break through and what appears to be supernatural to us, will be fully natural. A theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, talks about it like this: “Jesus’ healings are not supernatural miracles in a natural world. They are the only truly ‘natural’ things in a world that is unnatural, demonized and wounded…Finally, with the resurrection of Christ, the new creation begins, pars pro toto, with the crucified one.”
So here’s what I’ll say about miracles: I want to believe that God is always doing “all that God can do.” Maybe there’s a reason that God can’t or God won’t do more. But I don’t know the rules or laws that govern God. (Roger Olsen and Greg Boyd talk some about this).
And that brings us to the raising of Lazarus. It’s a sign, an arrow pointing forward to the day when death will be no more. It was a teaser of something more—resurrection. The miracle for Jesus came three days after he died, when the stone was rolled away. The sign is that death has no hold on Jesus, no hold on Lazarus, no hold on you.
In the mean time, you don’t have to stop praying for miracles. Jesus didn’t. We could all use a little more heaven on earth. Every time you hear about one, remember that you are getting a preview of life as it could be, life as it should be, life as God intends it to be. But even when there’s nothing, there will always be a prayer of resurrection. Christianity is founded on the dead coming to life. Jesus has risen. The grave couldn’t hold him. The same will be true for us. Even when you haven’t got a prayer, you’ll always have a prayer of resurrection.