All About Miracles

All About Miracles

Matthew 14:22-33

Dr. Jim Denison

A friend recently sent me this story. An Amish boy and his mother were in a shopping mall. They were amazed by almost everything they saw, but especially by two shiny, silver walls that could move apart and then slide back together again.

The boy asked, “What is it, mother?” The mother, having never witnessed an elevator, responded, “Son, I have never seen anything like this in my life. I don’t know what it is.”

While the boy and his mother watched with amazement, an overweight elderly man in a wheelchair rolled up to the moving walls and pressed a button. The walls opened and the man rolled between them into a small room. The walls closed and the man disappeared. The boy and his mother watched for a while, then the walls opened again, and out stepped a 24-year-old body builder. The mother said quietly to her son, “Go get your father.”

Amazing things happen with some regularity. But what about true miracles? That which C. S. Lewis defines as “an interference with Nature by a supernatural power”? Help from above, engagement of the divine with the human, strength and power beyond ourselves?

Where do you most need God’s help today? If you could experience one miracle this morning, what would you want it to be? How can you believe that it’s really possible for God to do that miracle in your life?

This week we come to my favorite story in Matthew’s gospel. Let’s join the disciples, and learn how to experience God’s miraculous power for ourselves.

Witnessing the miraculous

It is late at night, around 3:00 in the morning. We’re on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus has sent us off in our boat while he climbs one of the nearby hills to pray. Suddenly a catastrophic storm attacks us. Matthew got it right: we are “buffeted” by the waves (v. 24), a Greek word which means to be “tortured.” And our boat is very small. Archaeologists recently discovered one like it, measuring 27 feet by 7 1/2 feet, with sides just over an inch thick. It’s no help in a storm. Water is stinging our faces and drenching our clothes. The wind is howling in our ears. We are fighting for our lives.

And Jesus sees our crisis. He walks on the water, three or four miles. It is a sailor’s superstition that just before we drown, we’ll see the ghosts of others who have died in our spot on the lake. So some of us think he’s a ghost, and we’re even more sure we’re doomed.

But then he cries out over the storm, “Take courage! It is I”–literally “I Am,” God’s own name for himself. “Don’t be afraid”–literally, “Stop being frightened.”

And Peter takes him at his word: “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you on the water” (v. 28). Jesus calls, and to our astonishment, Peter goes. He’s actually walking on the waves, until he sees them. Then, taking his eyes from the Lord in fear, he begins to drown.

So he cries the shortest prayer in the Bible, “Lord, save me!” And Jesus does. And we all worship him: “Truly, you are the Son of God” (v. 33).

It’s an amazing story. But does it describe the way God works today? Do you believe that Jesus still walks on water? Are you willing to get out of your boat of security and safety, and trust his miraculous power with your life?

Many are not. I talked recently with a guest in our services who was honest enough to admit that he couldn’t reconcile his commitment to science with the miracles Christians claim. He was speaking for thousands of people who live all around us but didn’t join us for worship. To them, our belief in a miracle-working God is myth and superstition, a worldview they’ve outgrown and categorize with fairy tales and Greek mythology. What can we say to them?

And what about many of us who are here for worship?

You’d vote for miracles. You pray for miracles–for people to be healed and helped, souls to be saved and lives changed. But do you really believe that God intervenes in supernatural ways today? I remember praying for a woman in my first pastorate who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given only months to live. She came back the next week to report that the cancer was gone. And I will confess that my first, instinctive reaction was: I’m so glad the doctors were wrong.

Isn’t there a shadow of doubt in your minds? I know a man whose heart stopped beating during an operation; then, after the doctors had given up, it started again and the man is now fine. But are we sure it was a miracle? A Romanian pastor I know tells of a girl who had been dead four days when she was raised to life in response to the church’s prayers. But do we really believe it’s true?

Subconsciously, do we really expect God to do miracles when we pray for them? Do you assume that God will grant you the miracle you need or something better? Or if something unexplainable does happen, are you shocked or at least surprised?

The Bible says that Jesus could not do many miracles in Nazareth because of their unbelief (Matthew 13:58). How can we be sure our faith isn’t limiting God’s power, that our anti-supernatural, materialistic culture isn’t affecting our souls?

Let’s spend a moment working on the intellectual issues before us. I’d like to offer you four reasons to believe in miracles, then show you how to put your faith into action today.

Arguing for the miraculous

Reason one: the contemporary, scientific bias against the supernatural: science and faith are separate methods of inquiry, neither of which is qualified to judge the other.

Our culture tells us that the scientific worldview makes miracles impossible. It’s either science or belief in the miraculous, either the natural or the supernatural. And we must choose. But that’s not so.


Darth Vader Doesn’t Wear Gray

Darth Vader Doesn’t Wear Gray

Matthew 16:13-20

Dr. Jim Denison

As everyone in the so-called “civilized world” knows, the final Star Wars movie opened this week. The first Star Wars movie, made back in 1977, used 360 visual effects; the last episode has 2,151. The six movies have sold $9 billion in merchandise to date. Darth Vader even made the cover of Time magazine.

I’m not giving away any of the plot to tell you that in the world of Star Wars there is good and there is evil. The Emperor is bad; the Jedi are good. Darth Vader doesn’t wear gray. In the “real world,” of course, things aren’t so simple.

Last week, tattoo professionals attending their convention in New York City complained that tattoos have gone so mainstream that they have lost their “artistic value.” Individual expression rules the day.

A middle school girl in Oregon made the news after hugging her boyfriend in a hallway and getting detention for violating the school’s no-hugging rule. The parents of the students involved are the ones most upset–they don’t understand how school administrators have the right to force their ethics on their children.

In a world of gray, what are we to do with black-and-white passages such as this week’s text? In truth, if we cannot answer that question, we cannot understand the origin and essence of the Christian faith. Let me explain.

What Jesus claimed

The scene is one of the most dramatic locations on earth. Standing 1150 feet above sea level, the massive rock outcropping is the largest I’ve ever seen, gray with streaks of metallic brown, flat and imposing. I will never forget standing on that rock at Caesarea Philippi as long as I live.

As I stared in awe, I could feel the religious significance of the place.

Just a short distance away stood the brilliant white marble temple built by Herod the Great as an altar to the worship of Caesar, hence the name of the place, “Caesarea.”

Beneath our feet was that cavern where the Greeks said Pan, their god of nature, was born. And so I knew that Greek and Roman gods were worshiped here.

Scattered around the place were fourteen temples to Baal, the Canaanite fertility god, where the Syrians worshiped.

Somewhere below was one of the origins of the Jordan River, the holiest river in all the Jewish faith, the water Joshua and the people walked through to inherit the Promised Land. On this gigantic rock, standing in the midst of temples to every kind of god known to his culture, a Galilean carpenter asked, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter declared, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And the Galilean said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” What “rock”?

Was it Peter? No, Jesus said in the Greek language, “You are petros” [small pebble], “and on this petra [giant boulder] I will build my church.”

Was it Peter’s confession of faith? Many think so, but I don’t think Scripture teaches that God builds his church on our faith. Our faith is too fleeting, too weak, to be the foundation of his kingdom on earth.

I think Jesus pointed to himself when he said, “On this rock I will build my church.” 1 Corinthians 3:11 is clear: “no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” The church, and this church, is built on the foundation which is Jesus himself. Our lives and eternal lives, our future destinies, all depend on him. Not on Caesar, or Roman gods, or Canaanite idols, or the Jewish traditions. On him alone.

Such is the consistent claim of God’s word:

When Jesus stood on trial for his life, the high priest challenged him: “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (Matthew 26:63). His answer sealed his fate: “Yes, it is as you say” (v. 64).

Earlier he had told his opponents, “‘My Father is always at work to this very day, and I, too, am working.’ For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:17-18).

Later he claimed, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

When Peter was threatened with his own execution if he did not stop preaching the gospel, he replied, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Let there be no mistake: Jesus believed himself to be the only way to his Father. The apostolic Christians held the same conviction. They did not die by the multiplied thousands for announcing that Jesus was a great moral teacher, or that his message was but one of many ways to the same God, or that sincerity is spirituality. They died for the conviction that Jesus is the only rock upon which eternity stands.

Remember again the most famous words C. S. Lewis ever wrote:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to” (Mere Christianity).


Help for Desperate Housewives

Help for Desperate Housewives

Matthew 12:46-50

Dr. Jim Denison

Laura Bush made history with her remarks at the White House Correspondents Dinner last Saturday night. Her most repeated line complains that her husband, “Mr. Excitement,” is in bed each night by 9:00 o’clock, leaving her to watch “Desperate Housewives.” Then she added, “I am a desperate housewife.”

Some of you know the feeling. This is a wonderful day for many of you. Your family is with you today, or will be in touch soon. Your husband loves you, and your children and even grandchildren are doing well. This is a day of celebration and joy.

This is a hard day for others. You’re worried about children who aren’t making the choices you wish they would. Or you’re a single mother trying to be mother and father to you children and support your family. Or your child is already in heaven, and this is a hard day for you. Or you want to be a mother–you’re happy for those who are, and a bit envious as well, wondering if this will ever be your day.

God has a word for every woman I just described, and every person who cares about the women I just described. Here is help we can get nowhere else but God’s word. First we’ll explore the connection between Mother’s Day and the Lord’s Day, the spiritual significance of this occasion. Then we’ll apply what we learn to our families and our own souls.

Be the person you want your child to become

Our text reminds us that Jesus had a mother, brothers, and sisters. Remember how it all started, as the angel Gabriel appeared to a peasant teenage girl to ask her to be the mother of the Messiah. If she agreed, she would likely lose her fiancée–how will he ever believe a virgin birth story? Her family and his would reject her. She will then be a single mother; her only options would be prostitution or begging. That’s just the reality of the moment.

But remember her response: “I am the Lord’s servant–may it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38). She submits herself to God.

Now consider her Son’s response when he faced his own life-and-death test of obedience. When he struggles in the Garden of Gethsemane, knowing that he will die if he agrees to God’s request. What is his reply? “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away from me unless I drink it, may your will be done” (Matthew 26:42). Mary’s Son submits himself to God. I wonder why.

Now skip ahead to Mary’s visit with her relative Elizabeth, where this young mother-to-be prays one of the most remarkable prayers in all of Scripture. It’s composed entirely of parts of the Bible, including 1 Samuel, Psalms, Isaiah, Micah, and Exodus. She quotes God’s word and claims its promises as his own.

How did her Son respond when faced with the attacks of Satan? Three times he quoted Scripture. How did he respond when challenged to name the greatest commandment in the Law? He quoted Scripture. How did he respond when he was on trial for his life? He quoted Scripture. How did he respond when dying on the cross? Mary’s Son quoted Scripture. I wonder why.

Now move ahead to Jesus’ problematic relationship with Mary’s other children.

When Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth to teach, the people responded: “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:3).

Now Jesus, the oldest brother and caretaker for this family, has left them to begin his public ministry. Opposition against him affected his siblings. John informs us that “even his own brothers did not believe in him” (John 7:5).

With this result: “Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He’s out of his mind'” (Mark 3:21).

Then, when they arrived, they couldn’t get to him because of the crowd, so they sent someone to call him (v. 31). His response is in our text: “Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:49-50). His own siblings are clearly not acting in that will.

But Mary never gave up on her eldest Son or her other children.

She continued to trust in Jesus and his mission. She was at his cross to watch him die. She stayed with his followers, risking her own life. She must have continued to pray for her other children to trust in her Son as she did.

Then came the pivotal moment when, after his resurrection, Jesus “he appeared to James, then to all the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:7). This James was his oldest half-brother, the oldest child of Mary and Joseph. He eventually became the first pastor in Christian history, leading the Jerusalem church to reach the world and writing probably the first book of the New Testament, the letter of James.

And he and his mother had a remarkable influence on the rest of their family. A few weeks later, in the upper room, Jesus’ disciples gathered along with “Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers” (Acts 1:14). His once-rejecting brothers received his Holy Spirit along with the rest of his church, joined the first witnesses to the world, and led the movement which would win a million converts within a generation to their older brother, now their Savior and Lord.

Mary would serve her Son as her Lord for the rest of her lives, and so did her children. I wonder why.

Learn to be a deliberate mom

We have established today the clear link between a mother’s faith and that of her children. What Mary was, her children became. While our children have free will and may not follow our example, the chances are much better that they will. The vast majority of conversions and baptisms in churches across our land come from Christian homes. The same is true of our church as well.


The Solution for a Stressed Soul

The Solution for a Stressed Soul

Matthew 11:28-30

Dr. Jim Denison

Rogers Cadenhead is one stressed individual. The Florida resident and technology author registered www.benedictXVI.com shortly before the new pope took that name. Now he’s heard offers from all kinds of businesses which want to purchase the site. He promises not to sell it to pornographers or others who would use it improperly, and in fact is trying to arrange its sale to the Vatican.

He says he’d like “one of those big papal hats, and maybe three days/two nights at the Vatican hotel they built for the conclave.” His site received 1,000 hits a minute after the election. But he promises not to anger 1.1 billion Catholics: “Even though I’m a lapsed Catholic, I’m not lapsed that far.” He’s a wise man.

Mr. Cadenhead is not the only person under stress today. The Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology reports that during exams, students are less likely to control their behaviors. They eat more junk food, exercise less, and leave more dishes in the sink. They also neglect to shave, brush their teeth, wash their hair, change their clothes, and do laundry. Sounds like a normal day for me in college.

Workplace stress continues to grow, sparked by demands for increased productivity and longer hours; the need to gather and synthesize growing amounts of information; job insecurity; and the need to balance obligations between work and family as women enter the workforce worldwide.

Twenty five to 40 percent of U.S. workers say they deal with burnout caused by stress. Depression caused by stress is predicted to be the leading occupational disease of the 21st century. $300 billion is spent annually in the U.S. on stress-related issues.

Women who work full-time and have children under the age of 13 report the greatest stress worldwide. More than 20 percent of all executives and professionals say they are “super-stressed.”

The six leading causes of death in America are heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide. Each is linked directly to stress.

Some of us are experiencing acute stress today, dealing with short-term issues which cause anxiety and pressure. Some of us are victims of “episodic acute stress,” living in a constant state of acute stress.

But many of us are dealing with chronic stress, defined by one physician as “the grinding stress that wears people away day after day, year after year.” It results from situations which have no solution, unrelenting demands and pressures, a sense that things will never get better.

Whether you’re stressed today or you will be tomorrow, there is only one solution guaranteed to work. Only one way to find a deep sense of satisfaction and purpose which transcends the struggles of the moment. Only one way to get ready for acute stress, and to get rid of chronic stress.

I need this week’s study as much as you do. Let’s find help together.

Read your invitation

“Come to me,” our text begins. Jesus constantly invited people to come to himself. The fishermen and tax collectors who became his disciples, the lepers and prostitutes who became his followers–always he was inviting others to follow him.

“Come” means “come on.” It is both an invitation and an encouragement. “Hither to me”–hurry on to me, now.

Who?

“All the ones laboring.” This is in the active tense–those who are wearing themselves out today with work, what we would call “acute stress,” the stress and burden of the moment. Jesus knows that we all face such stress. If his invitation applies to you, you have met every requirement to come to him.

And those “having been burdened.” The tense expresses a state of weariness, the kind of chronic stress that others place on us. The immediate context is likely the Jewish law, 613 daily requirements the people must follow. For instance, a woman could not look at herself in a mirror on the Sabbath, lest she see a gray hair and be tempted to pull it–which would be “work,” a violation of the law. There were 612 other laws like that. More generally, his words apply to all of us who are living under the constant grind of demands placed on us.

Whether your stress is acute or chronic, self-imposed or caused by the world around you, you’re invited to Jesus’ promise. Stress is the only requirement.

What happens when we come to him? “I will rest you.” “I” is emphatic, implying that only Jesus can do this. The syntax is similar to a doctor’s promise, “I will heal you.” “Rest” means to refresh or reinvigorate. It is the picture of a weary, tired person being refreshed by water and rest. Something like a sideline rest for a player, or a pit stop for a race car.

How?

“Take my yoke on you.” The yoke was used by the master to control the animal, usually a donkey or ox. As each animal’s shoulders and neck were different, a good yoke was fitted specifically and personally. The yoke then told the animal where to go, when to go, and how fast and how far to go. Everything the ox needs to know, the yoke tells him.

“My” yoke shows that we are to choose his alone. There are many yokes you can wear–the one you design for yourself, your own plans and ambitions; or the yoke made for you by your employer or colleagues, or friends or culture, or religion or family. Jesus says to wear his yoke, his plan, his direction only.

“Learn from me,” sometimes translated “enroll in my school.” The rabbis of Jesus’ day typically had schools of disciples. Here is Jesus’ invitation to enroll in his school of life. We may not be able to go to Harvard or Stanford, but we are all accepted into the university of the God of the universe.

Why? “Because,” for this reason. He is “gentle.” The Greek is praus, which means to do always the right thing and never the wrong thing. His will and purpose are always best and right for us.