Not everything is a miracle

On a pair of blogs, both written by faithful Christians, I have recently seen the following quote from Albert Einstein: “Either everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle.” At first glance it appears that Dr. Einstein was affirming the existence of miracles, but I am afraid that was not the case. That quote does not mean what some Christians think it means.

Consider the source: Einstein was a scientist who studied the principles of the universe—physics—and discovered new aspects of physics that had not been seen before. Religiously, Einstein wavered between Deism and atheism. Sometimes he spoke of the universe as God’s creation and described science as learning God’s rules for creation. But in other cases he stated that he used God’s name as a shorthand label for the order and structure in the universe without considering God to be a personal or accessible Being in the Christian sense of the term.

“Either everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle.” Einstein probably believed that nothing is a miracle. Everything happens according to natural law, and the more we study the universe and learn its laws, the fewer things will surprise us. If everything is a miracle, then the word “miracle” has lost its meaning. Deists and atheists disagree about whether there is a god, but they agree that no god interferes with the universe and causes events that are against the natural laws of the universe.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” He established the natural laws that scientists like Einstein study to learn, but he did not bind himself by those laws. God’s creation is full of marvels and wonders. We should be astounded every day by the glorious things God has made. But to call created things miracles robs the word “miracle” of its meaning. We must reserve that word for the special actions of God that show him acting within his creation.

We are wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). Every human baby born is a marvel and a wonder. But when ninety-year-old Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac, that is more than a marvel and a wonder; it is a miracle. When Mary, a virgin, conceives and gives birth to Jesus, that is more than a marvel and a wonder; it is a miracle.

God sends rain to water the earth, making it grow and flourish. Some of that rain lands in vineyards, where the grape vines soak up the water through their roots along with nutrients from the soil. The vines produce leaves which gather energy from the sun and change carbon dioxide into oxygen to give energy to the vines. That is a wonder. The vines then develop bunches of grapes, which swell and ripen in the sun and the rain. That is a wonder. The grapes can be picked and eaten, or they can be cooked into jelly, or they can be crushed and fermented to produce wine. That is a wonder. But when Jesus calls for six pots to be filled with water and then instantly transforms it into wine, that is a miracle. God is at work in his creation, doing suddenly what his creation requires time to accomplish.

When grain is sown and sprouts, that is a wonder. When it grows in a field until it produces a crop, many times the number of grains that were planted, that is a wonder. But when Jesus takes five loaves of bread and feeds a crowd of thousands, with basketfuls of leftovers remaining after they had eaten their fill, that is a miracle. Once again, we see the Creator at work, going beyond the laws of his creation.

Some people claim that primitive and unscientific people wrote about miracles. They go on to say that we would see the same things today and understand them scientifically; we would not call them miracles. That is far from true. The writers of the Bible described the miracles they saw because they knew those events were special. They knew that ninety-year-old women do not conceive and give birth. Nor do virgins. Water does not instantly transform into wine, nor does a loaf of bread multiply in one day to feed a thousand people. Dead people do not return to life. These miracles were signature events, indications that the Lord of the universe was present, doing good things to help the people he loves.

Miracles show us that Jesus is the Son of God, though whom and for whom all things were created. They show his compassion, his desire to help his people. They show him at work fixing the things that sin and evil have broken in his creation. They foretell what he will do on the Day of the Lord, when all the dead are raised, when every eye will see him, and when the entire planet will be transformed. That new creation will be the ultimate miracle, after which no further miracles will ever be needed. J.

Advent thoughts: December 23

“Behold, your King is coming to you, righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9—read Zechariah 9:9-12).

When Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week, he was fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah. Of course, God did not create a checklist through Moses and the prophets and then begin figuring out how to accomplish all that he had said. God created time. God exists outside of time. God experiences all times at a glance. When Moses and the prophets spoke the Word of the Lord, their messages were already accomplished in the sight of God. The Holy Spirit reported the plan of salvation to Moses and the prophets as if it had already been accomplished in time. Therefore, they wrote in the past and present tenses about events that were still centuries in the future.

The donkey is a humble creature, a beast of burden. Having a king ride a donkey in a parade is equivalent to seeing an important leader today riding a bicycle in a parade. The humility of Jesus is reflected in his choice of a donkey, yet Jesus also exercised the royal privilege of riding an animal that had never been ridden before.

The prophet calls the King righteous. Jesus is perfectly righteous. He lived a pure and sinless life, never once breaking any of God’s commands. He loved his Father fully and trusted his Father completely. He loved the people around him and helped them in their needs. Jesus never used his power as the Son of God for his own benefit. In righteousness, he used his divine power to help others: to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to calm storms, to cast out demons, and even to raise the dead. We view perfect love as we read about all the miracles Jesus worked to help others, and as we realize that he refused to use any of that power to help himself.

Jesus also has salvation. He rescues people in trouble. His healings and other miracles were part of his rescue mission, but they only paved the way for his greatest act of service. Jesus could fix anything that goes wrong with the body: eyes, ears, legs, and even minds. But his goal was to strike at the root of the problem—to overcome evil at his source. Therefore, Jesus took on the guilt for the sins of the world and carried them to the cross. He paid in full the penalty for all the sins of history. In the process, he defeated sin and evil, and in the end, he defeated death itself.

The full results of that victory will be experienced when Jesus is seen on the Day of the Lord. All the dead will be raised on that Day, and all will stand before his throne of Judgment. Every eye will see him, and every ear will hear his voice. No one will be blind or deaf. On that Day, the King will welcome into his kingdom all those who trust his promises. Those who looked elsewhere for salvation will be left standing in the darkness, outside the celebration of his kingdom.
“Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.” The price Jesus paid to redeem us is more than sufficient. We will not always be prisoners of sin and evil and death. Because of the price Jesus paid, we will celebrate his victory with him in his kingdom forever. Thanks be to God! J.

Advent thoughts: December 16

“He [Jesus] will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:2-3—read Isaiah 42:1-9).

Each of us is the bruised reed and the faintly burning wick that Jesus will not break or quench. We wish we were the strong ones, warriors for the Lord, bringing glory to his name and winning victories for his kingdom. Instead, we find ourselves trapped in sin, overwhelmed by evil, struggling to get by in a world polluted by sin and obsessed with death.

When John the Baptist was sitting in prison, he sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask if Jesus was the Messiah or if John should wait for someone else. John knew the answer to this question. Perhaps sitting in prison he felt abandoned. Perhaps he thought Jesus needed a reminder of his job. Perhaps John simply wanted his disciples to hear from Jesus himself that he is the Messiah. Jesus quoted from Isaiah and pointed to what he was doing as evidence that he is the Messiah. Jesus quoted, “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” Yet John remained in prison and was eventually killed in prison. Jesus opened the eyes of the blind and worked many other miraculous healings, but he did not release John from prison.

Sometimes we can relate to John’s situation. We know that Jesus is the answer for all our problems, but we trust Jesus, and the problems remain. We know that Jesus hears and answers all our prayers. But we pray about our problems, and the problems remain. Jesus does not give an instant “yes” to our requests. Instead of removing our burdens, he lets our burdens remain to strengthen our faith and increase our hope for the future. He will release us from those burdens, but at a time of his choosing, a time that he knows is best for us.

Jesus is gentle with us. He does not treat us as we deserve when we sin. Instead, he removes our sins and bears the punishment we deserve. Whatever goes wrong for us is not punishment from God’s hand. Whatever goes wrong is a consequence of living in a world polluted by sin. God can do anything; he could keep us from having any problems. Instead he permits problems in our lives. He permits problems so we continue to turn to him for help. He permits problems to strengthen our faith and our trust in him. He permits problems to give us opportunities to serve him, either by resisting evil or by persisting to do good in the face of adversity.

Jesus does not break the bruised reed. He does not quench the faintly burning wick. He loves us and cares for us, bearing our iniquities and giving us strength to continue on our walk of faith. He is continually transforming us into his image, reshaping us to be children of God in this world and in the world to come. Thanks be to God! J.

Christ is risen!

The moon, two days past full, was hanging in the western sky as the women from Galilee left the place where they were staying. They had come to Jerusalem with Jesus, but on Friday he had been crucified. Joseph and Nicodemus claimed his body, burying it in a family tomb recently acquired by Joseph. They wrapped the body of Jesus with strips of linen, along with seventy-five pounds of myrrh mixed with aloe. The women watched the burial from a distance. They were not satisfied; they knew they could do a better job.

On the Sabbath the women rested. They arose before dawn, though, gathered their spices for burial, and began walking to the tomb. The sun rose while they traveled, and as it rose the earth shook, perhaps an aftershock from Friday’s earthquake. The women did not worry about the earthquake; their only concern was who would help them move the heavy stone away from the entrance to the tomb.

When they came close to the tomb, they saw that the stone had been moved—not merely rolled to one side, but thrown out of its place. One of the women abandoned the others and rushed into Jerusalem to tell Jesus’ disciples that something had happened. The other women went into the tomb. The strips of linen were there, but the body of Jesus was missing. The women saw a mystery. Tomb robbers would not have stripped the corpse bare in the tomb. Yet the evidence of a miracle did not, at first, convince them of anything.

Two angels appeared in the tomb and spoke to the women. “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” one asked them. “He is not here; he has risen.” The other angel added, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that he Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” The women then remembered his words. They believed, not because of what their eyes saw or because of what their brains perceived, but because of the power of the words of Jesus as they were spoken to them.

Miracles do not create faith. They strengthen the faith of believers, but nonbelievers can always find another explanation for a miracle. Jesus said in one of his parables, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31). Paul wrote to the Romans, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Thomas did not believe the news that Jesus was risen; he demanded physical evidence. When Jesus provided that evidence, Jesus added, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). Faith is a blessing, a gift from God, which is granted to his people by the power of his Word.

“These things 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” (John 20:31). We cannot travel back to Jerusalem this Easter Day to visit the empty tomb, to see the strips of linen, or to talk with angels. We do not need to make that trip. By his Word Jesus grants faith and strengthens faith. We celebrate his resurrection today, joyful and confident that all his promises are true. Our sins are forgiven. Our enemies are defeated. Eternal life is guaranteed. Jesus lives, and because he lives we will live also. J.

Palm Sunday and Holy Week

Most weeks consist of seven days, but Holy Week—the most important time in the Christian calendar—is eight days long. The first day of Holy Week is Palm Sunday, and the eighth day of Holy Week is Easter Sunday. The Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each devote at least one-third of their volume to these eight days.

As he was approaching Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday called Passover, Jesus sent two of his disciples into the suburbs to get a young donkey that had never been ridden. The donkey was so young that, according to Matthew and Mark, the disciples also brought its mother to Jesus. A donkey is a simple beast of burden, hardly fit for a king, but the privilege of being first to ride an animal is indeed the prerogative of kings. The prophet Zechariah had foretold that Jesus would enter Jerusalem in this way. He wrote, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Thousands of other people had come from Galilee to Jerusalem for Passover. Some of these people had heard Jesus preach and had seen some of the miracles he performed. Maybe the Galilean crowd included some who had eaten bread and fish when one boy provided his lunch and Jesus used the food to feed five thousand people. Maybe some of these Galileans had been healed by Jesus and others had friends or relatives who had been healed by Jesus.

The crowd gave Jesus a red-carpet treatment. They lined the road with their cloaks so the donkey would not get its feet dirty. Others cut branches from the trees to line the road, and still others waved branches in the air. John reports that some of the people waved palm branches, which is why the commemoration is called Palm Sunday. Palms do not grow in the hills of Jerusalem, but their branches can be obtained in the Jordan River valley near Jericho, and many of these travelers had passed through Jericho on the way to Jerusalem. The palm branch is a symbol of Israel, so waving a palm branch is like waving a flag at a parade today for the people of Israel.

The crowd also sang as Jesus entered Jerusalem in their midst. They sang “Hosanna,” a Hebrew word that means “Save us.” It had become a word of praise, since only the mighty can save others. The people sang, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” a quote from Psalm 118 that their teachers said refers to the Messiah. They sang about the King, the Son of David, other labels given to the Messiah. They openly declared their belief that Jesus was going to keep the promises God had made to Moses and the prophets, that he was going to redeem and rule the people of God. Some of the Pharisees in the crowd objected to the parade and the words the people were singing, but when the citizens of Jerusalem asked who was causing all this fuss, the Galileans told them, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”

Jesus chose to enter the city of the Lord on a special day. He entered on the tenth day of the month of Nissan, a day of preparation for the coming Passover celebration. On this day, every family among God’s people was to take a lamb into their household and treat it as a pet for half a week. Then they would kill, cook, and eat this lamb. The death of this lamb would remind these families of the cost of their sins, but it would also remind them how God rescued his people from slavery and death in Egypt at the time of the first Passover. Jesus now began to fulfill the promise John the Baptist made when John pointed to Jesus and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” This is what Jesus came to Jerusalem to accomplish that week. J.