Little Miracles Only Wanted
The tarmac was boiling in the summer sun. The press of cars into the few parking lots was about as fierce as the struggle to find a parking place for the Duke/Carolina basketball game. Cars were jumping the curb to park on any level piece of ground. The small town police were trying to do their best with the weekly explosion of population. Word had gotten out that every Tuesday afternoon at 3:00 in this small Roman Catholic church the imagine of the Virgin Mary appeared on the wall of the church. If she smiled, something very good was supposed to happen. If she was not smiling, then nothing out of the ordinary would happen.
There had been stories of people who were there. They came. She was smiling and they went home and found that they had been included in their rich uncle's will. They came. She was smiling. The daughter got a report card with all A's. They came. The virgin was smiling. The report from the doctor was all clear. They came. She was not smiling. Nothing special.
The word was getting out and the crowds were growing every Tuesday. It was like a Saturday morning flea-market. A mushroom like crowd, suddenly popping up, vendors everywhere. All kinds of stuff. By sundown they were gone. Life was back to normal.
T. V. cameras came. They added the name of this place to the long list of places where statues of the Madonna have been said to weep. They added the name of this town to the list of shrines. They put it in the same category of unexplained events as the marble statues of the Hindu power Vishnu who began to drink milk.
We are fascinated by such stories. We are hungry for those kinds of places. We read with great fascination the tabloids as they report that geologists listening to the rocks five hundred feet down in Siberia hear the screams of the departed souls in hell. We grasp at any and all little miracles, little stories of the supernatural, strange stories of ghosts and spirits, which confirm our desire, our hope, our longing that there is more to this world than what we see. "People will flock to anything that seems to mean there is still some magic left in the world, some little leftover piece of holiness,"1 some little crack in the determinist's view of the world. You and I love to gather up the little stories that trouble our logical and rational explanation for everything. We want a little mystery. We want some little miracles to brighten up our routine and ordinary lives.
But that is not the kind of stories we have in the scripture lessons this morning. When Isaiah comes into the temple and he is confronted with the mystery and the power of the Holy Deep, it is not just some little story. It is a life shattering experience. All of his efforts at righteousness confront the Holiness of God and he is humbled to the ground. Woe is me. I am a man of unclean lips. I have been lying to myself and to everybody else. And I live in the midst of a society of unclean people. The society I live in, Isaiah says, is a society which is based on pretend, is a people who only give lip service; who speak, as the Indians used to say, with forked tongue. Before the Holiness of God, I am exposed. I am revealed. I see myself as I am. The angel of God goes over to the burning offering and picks up a charcoal and brings it over to Isaiah's mouth. You can almost smell the smoke as it gets close to his face. You sense the heat the way your hand feels the heat as it reaches over the barbecue grill to turn the hamburgers. The coal comes to his mouth. The evil is purged away. Isaiah is now pure, but what about the people. They will need somebody to call them to repentance. The voice asks the question, "who will go for me?", and the voice had such a presence, such an insistence in it, such power that Isaiah just knew that somebody in the room was going to have to volunteer. The way the chairman at the PTSO says somebody will have to be secretary, and you know that the meeting will just stand still until somebody volunteers. Whom shall I send? and Isaiah feels the insistence in the question and knows somebody will have to go and he is the only one in the room. Here am I, send me.
We rejoice and delight in little miracles which kind of tickle our curiosity, kind of delight us when all those scientists are baffled, kind of rejoice that life still has some unexplained places around the edges of life. We like those little miracles that enable us to believe that not all the boards are nailed down yet. There are still some splinters in the wood.
Because we can celebrate those little stores and they don't change our lives very much. We might drive to south Georgia to see the image on the wall, but we still got the house and the job, our kids still go to school, you can believe in those stories and not have to give up the game of golf. These little miracles are like the double chocolate cheesecake for desert—great to have, but not all the time.
Little miracles are wanted, but that’s not the kind of miracle story we have in Luke. Jesus has begun his public ministry. He is going about the countryside teaching and preaching. It is early in the morning and he already has a crowd following him. He comes to the shore. You can hear the tired and frustrated chatter of the fishermen coming in from fishing all night. You hear the gravel as the boats are pulled up on shore—the nets tossed on to the beach to be sorted and stored. The breeze is still from the land towards the lake.
Jesus needs to find a way to get a little distance from the press of the crowd so that he can share his message with all who want to hear. Jesus asks Simon to let him teach from the boat and the lake can be the barricade between the crowd and the stage. It is an inconvenience. Simon and his coworkers are tired. They fished all night. They did not catch anything. Nothing makes a person more frustrated than to work all day and get nothing accomplished. Now Jesus interrupts their closing of their office. Take me out a little way so I can see the crowd and the crowd may see me better.
Oh, o.k. We do not know how long Jesus preached. We do not know the sermon. Maybe he was working on an early version of the Sermon on the Mount. Maybe he was refining his series on the Lost Sheep, the Lost coin, and the Lost Son. But when Jesus finishes he tells Simon and the workers to let down their nets. Now Simon shows some frustration. Look, we are the fishermen. We know what we are doing. We fished all night. Nothing. Now you come meddling and tell us how to run our business.
Yet for some reason Simon and his workers obey. And the catch is magnificent. So great that Simon and his workers have to call for help from the second boat. Wow, Boy, Simon and his friends are really lucky. This will make them rich today. But Simon doesn't react that way. This is not a little miracle story. Simon knows that he is in the presence of the mystery and power of God and in that presence everything in his life is up for grabs and Simon begs Jesus to leave. Get away from me, for I am a sinful man.
Little miracles are enjoyed, but we do not really want the great miracle of the presence and power of God which suddenly makes everything you ever thought you knew about the world, everything you thought you knew about fishing, the invasion of the Holiness of God which makes everything you thought you knew about yourself, sudden insignificant, inadequate, deficient, and ineffective. Here in this boat suddenly Simon was face to face with the moment which forced him to have to make a decision about whether or not to really believe in the presence and power of God involved in our lives or to deny what had happened to him, return to shore and pretend that it never happened and forever to live the rest of his life trying to pretend it never happened.
Little miracles of strange and delightful events which allow us to go on about our daily lives comforted with the thought that maybe our world really is surrounded by powers and principalities, love and mercy of the Holy Other. We enjoy those. But the great miracles which come to confront us with the majesty and power of God that it feels for all the world as if we are being compelled to follow because not to follow would be to live forever with the nagging regret of knowing that we had come to the narrow door and refused to walk through it. Follow me and I will make you fishers of men. And Simon and his coworkers left everything and followed.
She was a teenage girl from a nice family. Her parents were hard working, responsible people, but they had never made it very high up the economic ladder. When it came time for this young girl to think about college, all she knew she might be able to do was to attend classes at the local junior college. Live at home and wait and see what might happen then. Then her minister invited her into his study. There is a man in this town who is deeply committed to seeing that young people from this community have a chance to go to college. He has asked me to offer you a full four-year scholarship to Austin College. Would you be interested in going to Austin College?
Little miracles we like, but deep, real miracles which suddenly change the whole way you look at your life, at the way you look at how the world treats you, changes all your plans for the future, which come to you and has all the feel of being compelled by something in a new direction, we don't really want those miracles very often. We don't want them or if we suddenly begin to tremble with excitement at the adventure of being called into this whole new world, fishers of men, send me, there are others who will not celebrate with you.
The words of the scriptures continued to press upon her as she shared them with her bible study group. The words became alive for her and suddenly she was in front of the invitation to accept the challenge to take her medical training and to go to a mission hospital to care for the sick in the name of Jesus Christ. When she made her decision known to her parents, her father called up the chaplain at the school. Listen, Reverend, you have to talk her out of it. We did not spend $150,000.00 to send her to one of the finest universities in the country and then to medical school so she could go off into some poverty infested country and play missionary. We expected her to become a doctor in some progressive community near us and become very well situated.
Little miracles, like even Jesus turning water into wine, we like them, we don't have to change much. The wedding party can keep going. When the party is over we can all go home and get on with our lives. But we are not so sure about what happened to Isaiah and to Simon. To come to the place where we are so confronted by the holiness of God, where nothing we have done or wanted to do seems to have escaped the entanglement of our own self interest, to be confronted by the power and mystery of God in such a way that his compassion and concern for all creation, for all people, becomes a kind of compulsion upon us to change our lives, to reshape and to redirect what we have been doing and how we have been doing it. Maybe we put so much attention on the little miracles because we are not sure what we would do with the bigger one.
First Presbyterian Church