A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, August 3, 2014
John 2:1-11 GNT; “Miracles” by Walt Whitman
Even after all these years, I must confess that I still don’t have a completely clear—black and white—opinion about miracles. I still find myself struggling somewhat with what actually constitutes a miracle. Maybe some of you feel the same way. My old American Heritage Dictionary defines miracle like this: “An event that appears unexplainable by the laws of nature and so is held to be supernatural in origin or an act of God.” That seems like a pretty plain, clear-cut definition that sums up the meaning of miracle. But then what qualifies as “unexplainable” or “supernatural” is subjective and open to debate.
Christian theologians, from conservative to progressive on the spectrum, can be ambivalent and divided on the issue of the historicity of biblical miracles. Liberal Christian theologian John Shelby Spong, in his book, Jesus for the Non-Religious, makes it clear that he does not believe that the supernatural miracle stories attributed to Jesus in the gospels are to be taken literally. He sees them as vehicles of proclamation, a way in story form for the early Church to say what it believed about Jesus. For instance, Spong believes the miracle story of Jesus walking on the water was a story the early Church used to proclaim that the God who created the world (whose Spirit “moved over the face of the waters” at creation), this same God was present in the person of Jesus, who was also lord over the waves. The feeding of the multitudes miracle stories, Spong contends, were intended to say that “to know Jesus . . . was to discover that he met the deepest hunger in the human soul, because he was the ‘bread of life’” (Spong, p. 73).1
Which brings me to today’s miracle story from the gospel of John. I was not able to find any pertinent comment by Spong on the Wedding at Cana miracle story. That is not to say he hasn’t commented on it, but only that I couldn’t find anything in his books that I have on my shelves. But more moderate Christian theologian, Marcus Borg, does comment on John’s story of Jesus turning the water into wine. The question is, Did it happen factually and historically just as John says it did, that Jesus turned several big clay pots full of water into the best wine possible? Or were other, deeper spiritual meanings hidden there in the story? As Borg points out in Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, the turning the water into wine story is loaded with religious symbolism (as Borg puts it, “a richly symbolic narrative”) aimed at saying something about the person of Jesus. Borg says, “if we focus on the event’s ‘happenedness,’ we easily become distracted and miss the point. . . the meaning of this story does not depend upon its ‘happenedness.’ Instead, it is a ‘sign,’ as John puts it. Signs point beyond themselves.” Borg notes several important symbols in the story, such as marriage which is often used as a metaphor in the Bible for the relationship between God and Israel. Jesus is often spoken of as the bridegroom of the Church. “A wedding could thus symbolize the intimacy of the divine-human relationship.” But Borg contends that the primary meaning in the water-into-wine story has to do with the good news about Jesus and what he was about: “it is about a wedding banquet at which the wine never runs out and the best is saved for last” (Borg, 204-205).2 So, it would seem that both Spong and Borg interpret the New Testament miracle stories metaphorically, vehicles to point to a deeper meaning about the nature of Jesus and how the early Christians experienced him following his death.
It falls to each of us to decide for ourselves if we take the miracle stories of the Bible to be 100% historically or factually true, or if we interpret them as religious stories which were products of their time and intended to convey deeper spiritual meanings about the nature of Jesus and the meaning he had for the early Church and can have for our lives as well.
But then, the question still remains about whether miracles—supernatural happenings or acts of divine intervention—happen today. Sometimes we hear of things happening in life that that can seem to have no other explanation. We often hear the word “miracle” used in the news:
One sole survivor (maybe a child) in a tragic plane crash. “It is a miracle,” some would say.
A person with stage four cancer all of sudden is found to be disease free. “They have had a miracle!” someone proclaims.
A family in financial ruin, maybe where one or both partners have lost their job, receive a big, unexpected check in the mail from some anonymous benefactor, and it is seen by them to be a miracle.
You get the idea. We could come up with one hundred different scenarios that might qualify as a miracle. But then, the rational, scientific mind might come along and pooh, pooh such ideas, saying that there is no such thing as divine intervention in the natural order of the world, and that there is no such thing as a miracle as a supernatural event or act of God. Again, each of us must decide for ourselves whether or not miracles occur today.
But then, some people approach the idea of miracles from a whole different perspective. Or to put it another way, some people look at the subject of miracles through an entirely different lens. For some people, life is filled with miracles. Such seems to have been the thought of poet Walt Whitman who said,
“. . . who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles”
For Whitman, every day of life held countless miracles—walking barefoot on the beach, standing under trees in the woods, enjoying a fulfilling relationship with a loved one, watching honey bees make honey, bird-watching, watching the sun go down or a night sky full of stars, or gazing at the moon, considering the waves of the ocean and the fishes of the sea. All of these moments and aspects of life Whitman saw as miracles. So he said,
“To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle.”
Adopting Whitman’s thought, we could sit here all day and compose a massive list of life’s miracles, if we allowed ourselves the freedom and time to do so. When we think about how a tiny acorn falls into the ground and sprouts and grows to become a mighty oak tree, it is a miracle; whenever a baby is born with all the organs, bones, muscles, and so on in the proper place and functioning properly, it is a miracle; when we think about all the plants and trees that hold healing powers and from which we get the drugs to make us well, it is a miracle; when we think of the intricate medical procedures that doctors can now do, like transplant major organs and perform microscopic procedures, it is a miracle; when you think that human knowledge is such that men were put on the moon 45 years ago and in recent history a spacecraft was put on Mars, it is a miracle.
Last weekend, my wife and I gathered with our two children and our five grandchildren in Chattanooga for a fun weekend. Saturday afternoon, as I stood in the motel hallway and watched our granddaughter—who the doctors said of her when she was born that she might never walk—as I stood and watched her literally run down the hallway smiling and laughing, and as I watched her dance with happiness, I felt like I was watching a miracle. To watch your four-year-old granddaughter not only walk but run and dance, when the doctors said she likely would never be able to walk, you are witnessing a miracle. So in many ways, I have to agree with Whitman in believing that life in all its facets is nothing but a big bundle of miracles, one after the other.
But returning to where I began, somewhere deep inside I still want to believe in the possibility of miracles. I guess my upbringing leads me to hold onto the tail of the hope that sometimes honest-to-God miracles are possible and do happen. When you experience a time in your life when the physical pain is so severe you can hardly stand to face another day; or when you have a child or grandchild seriously ill in the hospital in ICU, and you don’t know whether they will live or die; or when the doctor gives you devastating news about those test results; it is hard to not wish for a miracle! Naturalist John Burroughs said, “The spirit of a man can endure only so much and when it is broken only a miracle can mend it.”
With all of that having been said, the other side of the issue is that it is important to live with our eyes, ears, minds, and hearts open to the many miracles of life that happen all around us every day. Amen.
1John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious. New York: HarperOne, 2007.
2Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. New York: HarperOne, 2001.