I think that this has been the week for miracles.
Finding Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight along with a young child alive felt pretty miraculous, didn’t it?
Then on Friday’s news, maybe you heard as I did that seventeen days after a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh, a woman worker was found alive and relatively unharmed, and she was restored to her family. Everyone described it as a miracle.
And in between times, on Thursday, Jesus ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God, as it is described in the Gospel according to Luke,
“He led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven.” (Luke 24:50-51)
It does seem to have been quite the week for miracles. But miracles, as it turns out, are not quite as straightforward as they might seem.
Look at the lesson from the book of Acts. First of all, Paul, is fed up to the back teeth of being followed around by a pointing, teasing spirit who is in the possession of a young girl, even though it seems to be telling the truth and maybe even giving them some free advertising; still, Paul is fed up with the constant refrain of “I know who you are,” and he orders the spirit out of the girl to get a bit of peace and quiet.
That’s miracle number one, and the flipside of the miracle is that the girl’s owners – owners, because she was a slave – see the spirit leaving and taking all of their money with it, all of the earning potential of this girl, all of her powers of divination. So they have Paul and Silas arrested, dragged into the marketplace, beaten, and thrown in prison. So much for peace and quiet.
At midnight, there is a miraculous upheaval in the earth that knocks down the prison walls and shakes free the shackles of the prisoners – good news for some, but the jailer is about to kill himself for fear of what the others might do to him when they find out that he has accidentally let all of the criminals in the country loose to do what they will.
Miraculously, however, they are all still there, and Paul and Silas are able to use the jailer’s gratitude as a way into conversation with him, as a way to convert him to the knowledge of the love of God that is found in Christ Jesus.
It is miracle after miracle, and yet at the end of the story, although soothed and bandaged, Paul and Silas are still prisoners, at least until the next day, and the jailer will still have to account for any other prisoners who might have taken advantage of the earthquake to make a break for it. Not to mention that the slave girl is no doubt very worried for her own position in the household for which she is no longer a source of great income. I do have to wonder what happened to that girl. I worry for her.
I sometimes think that the reason that we don’t see more miracles than we do is that they may appear to create as many complications as they solve.
The women who escaped from a decade of imprisonment and abuse in Cleveland this past week, and the little girl born in captivity, whilst their survival and their restoration is miraculous, will have so many complications to deal with, many sorrows and trials. So much has already been lost that this miracle will not restore. Of course, it is good news, it is wonderful news that they who were lost have been found; but it is not altogether a happy ending, because their suffering will, unfortunately, last a lot longer.
And the woman who was pulled from the rubble in Bangladesh – what a miracle! After seventeen days living on scraps dropped by fleeing fellow workers who had brought their lunch to work, hoping and praying to be found, she has been raised up and lifted out; but on the same day that she was found, the death toll of those lost rose above one thousand.
Miracles are not straightforward. The universe cannot bend so far without some warping and creaking. That simply is not the way that it is made. We live in a physical world bound by certain limitations.
At his Ascension, Jesus left his disciples alone once more, waiting, watching. We would kind of like Jesus to stay here with us, to be with us in the same way that he was with them. But if he had stayed as he was, he would have continued to be limited to being in one place at a time, healing one person in place of another, making one miracle in place of another. While Jesus was incarnate, while he was in one place talking to the Samaritan woman at the well, that other woman, the one with the blood, she was hemorrhaging money to doctors, so that by the time she met Jesus she was not only desperate but destitute. Miracles are not uncomplicated, because they happen in the midst of complicated lives. The wine at the wedding in Cana may have delighted the steward and the bridegroom, but there were most likely some sore heads the next day, maybe even a midnight brawl or two. Even miracles have their shadow sides.
So what should we do? Should we give up hoping and praying for miracles? By no means! Miracles continue to give us hope where we had given it up, ten years from the date of a disappearance, seventeen days from disaster. Miracles remind us that there is more to life than we can see from day to day, that there is always reason to persevere. We should give thanks where we notice them, and especially if they happen to happen to us.
We just need not to make idols out of them not, not to hang more hope on them than they can bear, give them more weight than they can carry. A miracle is not the same as a happy ending. Endings only happen when there is nothing that comes next. Miracles happen in the middle of everyday, complicated, continuing lives.
And after the miracle is made, and the earth stops shaking, there is still work to be done: there are factories to be reformed so that the workers can make a living without risking death; there are jailers to be brought to baptism, turning from evil to the truth, because no one is altogether beyond redemption; there are slave girls to be freed, who will need a lot of help to live into that newfound freedom; there are neighbourhoods to be redeemed from fear and division; there are always wounds to be soothed, folks to be forgiven and set free.
Yes, miracles are complicated, and they happen in the middle of already complex, continuing lives. But when they do happen, when the lost are found, when those we had resigned to death are found alive, those complicated little miracles remind us always to have hope, to live with steadfast and stubborn faith that good will come, that righteousness will prevail, that life and love will win out, come what may. They restore in us that sense of wonder that left the disciples looking upward into heaven, watching transfixed as Jesus ascended into the glory which was his from the beginning of time.
After they watched him leave one last time, Luke says that the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God, not because they knew that from now on life would be easy, or that they would live happily ever after. The imprisonment and beating that Paul and Silas suffered were just drops in the ocean compared to what the early church would go through. But in Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the disciples found new hope. Jesus had promised that he would return to them, and he had. Jesus had promised to be with them always, and his ascension allowed him to transcend the limitations of his Incarnation, so that he might be with all of us, always.
That’s a miracle worth celebrating.