Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Acts, chapter 3. We’re going to talk this morning about one of my favorite topics from Scripture—miracles, as we read a story in acts about the Holy Spirit miraculously healing a man born lame.
We’ve been in a series on the Holy Spirit since the summer began, talking about big, exciting things, like speaking in tongues, all the way to, last week, the quiet comfort and godly grief the Holy Spirit gives to those who turn to him in difficult times.
We’ve made some important distinctions over the past several weeks, distinguishing God’s wrath, which brings about justice on the earth, from man’s anger, which can only destroy and has no power to mend brokenness. We distinguished the conviction of the Spirit, which causes repentance and healing, from the guilt we sometimes carry around with us, which only weighs us down and brings death bit by bit into our lives. And last week we distinguished godly grief, which accepts the comfort of the Spirit and gives life to the grieving, from worldly grief, which leads, again, to death.
This week, I want to clear up some common misunderstandings about miracles, define terms a little bit here at the beginning, then spend the majority of our time distinguishing between miracles and magic, and talking about the purpose of miracles.
When I say miracle, I’m not talking about things like, every baby is a miracle. Babies are great, I’m not saying they’re not blessed gifts from God, that he crafted them and gave them life. I’m pro-babies—but they’re also natural, so in a strict sense, they aren’t a miracle. The sunrise—beautiful, but natural. Even unusual events, like money showing up in your account or in your hamper, the exact amount you needed to pay a bill that week, are not miraculous. Providential, absolutely. Still the work of God in the world, just not miraculous. When I say miracle, I mean something that is impossible within the course of nature. We worship a God who is able and does do impossible things, even today, even here.
Christians have been accused of believing in what one scholar calls a “God of the gaps,” meaning basically that faith is dependent upon ignorance, it fills the gaps in our understanding of the world. Before we understood refraction, rainbows seemed miraculous. Now we know they’re a natural process, and as knowledge progresses, and we understand the world more and more, our need for faith and God will, bit by bit, disappear.
So miracles, in this understanding of the world, would be things we just don’t yet have a better explanation for. It’s a spiritual form of colonialism, spiritual condescension—they say, if religious people were intelligent, and informed, if you dig deeply enough into it, eventually you’ll find a rational explanation for things like Jesus’ resurrection or the virgin birth. They beg the question and start with the assumption that the miraculous can’t exist, so any report of the miraculous has to be made in ignorance or malice. People who think this way are obsessed with seeing through the religious to find truth in the material, like religious myth busters. That’s also not what I mean when I say miracle.
A miracle in Christianity isn’t a gap in our understanding of the world, and Christianity isn’t anti-science or opposed in any way to gaining a better understanding of the natural world—a miracle, again, is God, wanting to reveal himself and his work in the world, doing something impossible in the world.
Take the virgin birth for example—if you want to see through, you say, oh, those fools don’t even know that virgins can’t give birth, obviously she’s just lying. But, even in the ancient world, people knew how babies happen, and yeah, people considered that Mary might lie. The virgin birth of Christ isn’t marveled at and considered a miracle because the people involved hadn’t quite put together cause and effect. Ancient people had conception figured out through a scientific method of their own—let’s call it trial and error. The virgin birth is a miracle precisely because virgins don’t give birth. It doesn’t happen. And people don’t rise from the dead after three days. And people born paralyzed don’t get up and start walking one day. It’s impossible in nature. So we look and see, in the birth of Christ, in our passage today, the author of nature breaking through nature to act supernaturally in our world.
Stop trying to see through, for your own sake. Trying to see through the religious to get at the “reality” of events is like reading a book about Van Gogh’s starry night without ever looking at the painting; it’s like understanding the chemistry behind attraction without ever allowing yourself to be in a real relationship. You’re so focused on seeing through that you’re missing the deeper truth and beauty right in front of you.
So in our text today we see an account, not of something unlikely, or something with another explanation—but something impossible happening. You have an opportunity today to have faith and believe in a God who is able to do impossible things in this world. Read with me, Acts 3, starting in v.1. [Acts 3:1-16]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly. Father God, who split the sea and held back the sun in its course. Please show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.
The story we just read is impossible. So praise the Holy Spirit, that he is able to do the impossible.
Throughout Scripture, there are basically three reactions to miracles. One is denial, the kind of “seeing through” we’ve already talked about, assuming that God is not working in the world. The second and third reactions are what I want to spend the majority of our time on: the second reaction to the miraculous in our world is a desire to control the miraculous, to manipulate it, to perform miracles on demand. The third reaction to the miraculous in our world is to praise God, to trust him, and to turn our eyes on him.
The first thing I want you to see from our text today is this: God is not tame. God is not tame. As Lewis famously writes in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when the main characters first meet the Christ figure of the book, hearing that he has enormous power to do anything he wants, one of them asks whether or not God is safe: “‘Safe?’…Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you.” It’s one of many passages in the books trying to get across an idea that should be obvious to us, but we forget: God doesn’t do what we tell him to do. He’s the father. We are children; and good fathers don’t take orders from their children.
This story is a little embarrassing for me now as a pastor: I once had a spiritual crisis over parking. Don’t worry, it was brief. I would never survive at this church if I doubted God every time I couldn’t find parking. But this was back when Anne-Elise and I were dating in college, and I was late to pick her up for a date. I don’t remember where we were going, but odds are I had spent about an hour trying to get my hair and my clothes to say, simultaneously, I want you to think I’m attractive, and I’m cool enough to not care what you think. If you’ve ever tried to do that, it’s a hard balance to strike, I’m going to say that’s probably why I was late.
Anyway, I’m racing over there, and I’m praying, God, please let there be parking open in front of the building so I don’t have to waste more time parking in the lot and walking over.” So I’m praying, and I pull up to the building, and not a single spot is open. One guy’s taking up two spots with his luxury car, you know, that guy. So I drive to the lot, park, and on my walk—I’m like half jogging, but I don’t want to mess up the hair and shirt—I realize I’m angry. I am angry at God because he didn’t give me the parking space I wanted. And I told him, Lord, you say things like “ask and it will be given to you,” “ask in faith,” but it’s all lies. I asked for parking, believing you would give it to me, and here I am walking, late, shirt sweaty, hair messed up. If you really care about me, if you have all power, then why didn’t you do what I asked?
And he responded to me, just brought to memory, Lewis saying, “God is not tame, or safe; but he is good.” God isn’t tame. He doesn’t always do what you want him to do. And it’s not about you, you weren’t given the Holy Spirit so you can heal people on stage. Just because you say a prayer, or you really want something, doesn’t mean he’s going to make it happen. And having faith in God isn’t some mystical means of getting the things you want. The Holy Spirit is not going to just show up and perform a miracle because the preacher raised his hands and prayed for God to heal someone. He might—you can ask; you should ask—but he might not. He’s not tame. I love Peter here: in v.12: “why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk?” He’s like, “what? You thought I could heal people. Oh no, honey. It’s the Holy Spirit who did that.”
We need to make a distinction in our minds, in our lives, and in our churches between the person of the Holy Spirit and magic. Magic, or voodoo in NOLA, is the idea that you have access to a power you can control. If you say the right things, buy the right tokens, perform the right rituals, then the spirit world will obey you.
We treat the Holy Spirit this way. We think, well maybe I’m not praying the right way, and if I say different words, muster up more faith, then God will hear me. Maybe if I send money to the preacher I’ll get my blessing, or if I go to church enough times, then God will give me what I want. If I live my life the right way, God will owe me what I want, and if I don’t get it, I’ll walk away from him. But that’s not faith—that’s magic.
You don’t have to pray the right way for the Holy Spirit to hear you—you just have to pray. He created you. He knew your words before you spoke. And why do you think you have control over the faith you have? Faith is a gift of the Spirit—just pray and ask for it, like the man who asked Jesus, “help my unbelief.” God may not be saying yes to you because he is our father, and he understands the world, even our lives, better than we do. When we tell God what to do, when we pray for a parking space, and then get mad at him because he didn’t do it, we’re like children trying to boss their parents around and throwing a fit when we don’t get our way.
Every day, fifty times a day, AJ will say something like, Daddy, do this, and I just stare at him, and say “Try again.” He’ll want to buy something at the store, and I’m channelling Meghan Trainor like, “my name is no.” So I understand more now why sometimes my hopes, my prayers are disappointed. God is able to say no. He’s the king, I tell you. He’s not tame, but he is good.
I recognize, friends, sometimes there’s more than a parking space at stake. Sometimes it’s your sobriety, or mental illness, or a loved one. My best friend, Landon, who was in seminary with me, a deeply faithful, spirit-filled man, had cystic fibrosis, and I prayed every week, almost every day really, for years for a miracle. CF is incurable, so I prayed for the Holy Spirit to perform a miracle and heal him. About every day, for years. And the day I graduated from seminary was the day he died of CF, almost like the Lord teaching me one final lesson to prepare me for ministry ahead, a difficult lesson, unbearable at times: God isn’t tame. The Spirit doesn’t always give you what you want, even if you pray for it with faith.
People love quoting James 5, “the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick,” but that’s not the end of the verse. The end of the verse is, “and the Lord will raise him up,” speaking of resurrection, the healing God will give to his children when he returns. The presence of God is promised to us. Resurrection is promised, either to life or judgement, and peace, justice, and joy in the end. But between now and then, everything is according to the will of the Father. We tell AJ, you can ask us whatever you want, and we say yes as much as we can, and we will give him more than he could possibly think to ask, but when he asks, sometimes the answer is no. Because sometimes we have reasons he can’t understand, and we know what he needs far better than he does.
A part of my friend Landon’s story—God did miraculously heal him once of CF—for a single day. Had had a stranger walk up to him in the park one day—bizarre experience—pray for him, and he felt the disease leave him. For the first time in his life, he breathed in without any pain, no difficulty, lungs completely clear. He told me he ran around the park that day, ten times, like the man in our passage who gets up and starts leaping, and when Landon prayed that night, the Lord told him that it wasn’t permanent. That his testimony would be one of faith through long suffering, even to death, and in the morning he woke up with labored breath again.
Believing in an untamed God is hard.
It’s easier to discount miracles, to doubt, to always be looking for some other explanation, because then we don’t have any hope, and without hope we can’t be disappointed. If God doesn’t exist, then we don’t have to be so angry with him for what happened. We just accept the brokenness, stop struggling, stop praying, and sit on the steps of the temple to ask for alms. That’s easier.
It’s also easier to believe in a magical God, who, when you say the right words with enough faith in your heart, does whatever you want him to do, because then we can blame ourselves for anything that goes wrong, and try again later.
It’s hard to believe in a God who is able to perform miracles, like healing the lame man in our passage, and then you’re there with your brokenness looking at other people leaping, praising the Lord, wondering why God hasn’t healed you yet? There were other people at the temple that day begging. Not all of them were healed. I prayed every day for my friend to be healed until he died. And even then, I prayed a couple times for his resurrection. God could have done either. He didn’t. That’s hard. I pray for many of you, too, every day and others who aren’t here. For healing from addiction, from anger at God, from mental illness, from sickness. He’s healed many of the people I’ve prayed for, some even miraculously. But God is not tame. He is good, and because he’s good I know that he will heal all of my friends in the end, and do more than I could have imagined to pray for.
We should pray for miraculous things, and we should pray for them in faith, knowing the Spirit is able to do anything we could imagine, and many things even beyond our imagination. But we should also pray knowing people are not healed by our piety, and God does what he wills. Carry Peter’s question in v.12 with you: “why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk?” Pray knowing people are not healed by our piety, and God does what he wills.
A lot of the no’s we receive from the Lord are the result of our being too easily pleased. We pray for things to improve our lives here on earth, to prolong them, to make them more comfortable. And God says, no, child, I’m doing something far greater in the world than that. Wait, watch, see. I was praying for my friend to be healed, to live a few more years in this world, but God offered him the next world. My friend will be raised, healthy and whole, and I’ll see him again. God didn’t do what I wanted him to do. He’s doing something far better than what I imagined, which brings me to the next point from our passage today:
Miracles are signs pointing us toward God. Miracles are signs pointing us toward God. It’s so interesting the role sight plays in our passage—over and over again, we’re told where people are looking: v.3, the lame man looks at Peter and John, and they fix their gaze on him. v.4, Peter says, “look at us,” to the man, he looks at them, God heals the man miraculously, and then we’re told the whole temple comes out to look at, to see the lame man leaping and praising God, and then in v.12: “why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk?” Miracles are signs, like a billboard, catching our glance, directing our eyes, pointing us toward God, and his work in the world.
Throughout scripture the words miracle, wonder, and sign are used interchangeably—there’s no difference in the concepts—and the message is clear: miracles are a divine means of communication, a word preached to the lost, meant to grab our attention, and draw us toward the thing we should have been looking at the whole time. As Lewis writes in his book on miracles: “Each miracle writes for us in small letters something that God has already written, or will write, in letters almost too large to be noticed, across the whole canvas of nature.” He also breaks miracles down into two helpful categories: miracles of the new creation, and miracles of the old creation.
Miracles of the old creation are meant to draw our attention to some amazing thing God has been doing in the world, only we’ve missed it. Like turning water into wine, Jesus’ first miracle. God turns water into wine every day in the world he created, through the vines he crafted, the ripe fruit, the sweet juice. Only when Christ was able to turn water directly into wine, speeding up the natural process, it was a sign and a wonder, pointing us to see what we may have missed before, that God has given us good gifts on the earth—growing vines and trees with fruit that sustain us, nourish us, and give us pleasure. He could have created a world without sweetness, without taste or color. But he gives us all of these things to remind us of his goodness and provision, and he gave us the miracle at Cana as a sign to help us see what we so often miss in our day-to-day, eating whatever we can find as quickly as we can, and not stopping to think of the purpose of food and drink.
So that’s the first category, miracles of the old creation, which show us something God has been doing in the world. The second category is miracles of the new creation, which are meant to show us something God will do. Look, for example, to Christ and his resurrection. In him we see a new kind of humanity inaugurated, the firstborn of the new creation. “He was the first, but he will not be the last.” His resurrection bears with it a promise of resurrection for us all, bodies that are unmistakably our own, and even bear scars of the pain in our lives, but yet are perfected all the same. Humanity as it was meant to be. Humanity as it will be.
Landon’s healing, and the miracle performed in our passage are miracles of the new creation, showing us that in the new heaven and new earth, those who have faith in the name of Christ will be healed by that faith, as we read in v.16. This miracle shows me that chronic illnesses, pains that have lasted for years, griefs that have been lifelong—will be undone with the resurrection. The lame man leaps and praises God. It’s a sign, a promise, of what God will do. All of God’s people will one day leap and praise him, breathe deeply, run around the park.
And you, what griefs and pains do you carry? In what ways do you go through this life crippled, waiting, resigned? What is the Spirit saying to you today, what sign is he giving you? Don’t be angry if he doesn’t do what you asked—he’s not tame. But he is good, so you’re able to trust that he is doing something infinitely more than what you were hoping.
And wherever you see God working in our world, whether its the taste of your food or the color of the sky or a miracle that astounds you, all of creation is begging you to look and see a God of wonders, whose glory “is written across the canvas of nature.” Look to him who is able to do immeasurably more than we could ask. And his name—by faith in his name—will make you strong.
Pray with me.