The Super Bowl was pretty amazing. The Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots struggled, banged on each other, and fought for thirty-nine minutes. And then in the final minute, two amazing things happened.
First, Russell Wilson threw the ball thirty yards down the field, and two Patriot corner backs descended on Jermaine Kearse, the fleet footed Seahawks wide receiver. The ball was tipped into the air by Malcolm Butler, an undrafted cornerback who worked at Popeyes and Foot Locker at times when it seemed as if his football career was over. And Kearse touched the ball into the air once, twice, three, four times… and then it came to rest on his body … for a reception. [Patriots fans were reliving the moment when David Tyree pinned a football to his helmet to set up the New York Giants’ winning touchdown in 2007.]
Then, things got really strange. On the half-yard line, the Seahawks decided to throw the ball, even with one of the games pre-eminent running backs on the field. Running a pick play, where one wide receiver legally blocks for another receiver, the Seahawks quarterback snapped the ball and threw with twenty seconds on the clock… into the outstretched arms of the aforementioned Butler. The last addition to the Patriots’ 53-man roster in August, the one who shouldn’t have even been on the field.
Even to someone like me who watches a lot of football (a lot!) these were spectacular plays. They don’t happen every day. They are extraordinary feats of skill, athleticism, and concentration.
To many folks, they had just seen a miracle. Or two of them. A miracle catch, and a miracle interception. A physically impossible play, and a moment drawn up in the sandbox, where the last guy picked makes the biggest play.
But these aren’t miracles. Miracles – in my opinion and in most definitions – actually defies natural and scientific law, involving divine intervention.
A miracle, friends, is the intersection of certain disaster or death with the impossible, hopeful, amazing redemption of that life or moment.
Like our three stories today in Luke 7. Three people meet Jesus and experience an impossible.
In the first meeting, Jesus hears from a centurion, a Roman soldier, an enemy. Remember how Jesus told us to love our enemies and pray for them [last week]? Now, he’s faced with a problem: Jesus is approached by emissaries of the centurion, who wants Jesus to come and heal a servant of his. Jesus goes to see the centurion – and the servant – but on the way, the centurion begs him to stop traveling, as a sign of respect.
We probably think that the centurion is rude: if he cared so much, why wouldn’t he have proceeded to meet Jesus himself? But the centurion’s messengers say, on behalf of the centurion, “‘For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.'” The centurion believes that Jesus can heal his servant without being there but he also assumes that Jesus is so busy that he wouldn’t actually have the time to come; he believes his needs (or the needs of his servant) are so minimal that it’s not enough to bother Jesus.
Jesus recognizes the centurion’s faith – that he wouldn’t even ask Jesus to be physically present, and just say the word – and says that the centurion’s face exceeds what he’s experienced in people of the Jewish faith. And in that recognition, he heals the centurion’s servant from afar (Luke 7:1-10). In a community where touch caused healing (check out the Old Testament to see over and over how people were either touched by a human being or instructed to be in contact with an inanimate object for healing), Jesus’ healing of the centurion’s servant without even being present was a remarkable moment.
Luke, who we know had a medical background, is quick to point out that the physical elements of Jesus’ ministry lack any kind of scientific explanation. Jesus didn’t even make contact with the man- he couldn’t have deceptively used contact with the man or his surroundings – and the man was healed. But Luke is far from through with his testimony about Jesus’ miracles.
Almost immediately afterward, Jesus and his disciples run into a funeral for a boy, the only son of his widowed mother. Jesus is filled with compassion for her, and approaches, telling her not to cry, and laying his hand on the coffin. “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The boy, who is definitively dead, sits up and starts talking, and the crowd recognizes the miracle of this dead boy being made alive again. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said, “God has come to help his people” (Luke 7:11-17).
Luke wants us, his readers and hearers, to know that the boy is so long dead that the funeral procession is underway. This is not some last-second gasp by Jesus to revive someone; this boy has been pronounced dead, laid out and dressed for burial, and the funeral is on. Jesus didn’t know the boy or his mother but he shows up, has compassion for the mother’s grief, and raises the boy again. To be clear, this is not a healing so much as it is a resurrection. Luke is testifying to the fact that the scientific notion “when you’re dead, you’re dead” simply just isn’t true when Jesus is around.
But the crowd mourning the dead boy know that others have raised the dead (Elijah did it in the Old Testament) and they raise him from mere teacher to… prophet. He’s not yet worthy of their absolute attention because they figure he’s a man close to God’s heart but they don’t really understand yet what Jesus is really all about. Yes, Jesus cares for the immediate physical needs, but Jesus is about the soul, each individual’s relationship with God. So Luke lays out yet another miracle…
It’s like Luke is saying, “watch me top this.” And in that spirit, we get to the third story in Luke’s trifecta, where Jesus takes a miracle in a different direction. He’s healed a sick man, raised a dead boy, and now … he shows that healing is more than skin deep.
One of the religious leaders, a Pharisee, invited Jesus over to his house for dinner. A woman who is described as “having lived a sinful life” comes to the dinner to see Jesus, with a jar of expensive perfume. She cries and washes his feet with her tears and perfume, drying them with her hair. The people gathered for the dinner are most focused on the fact that (gasp!) she’s a sinner and she’s touching Jesus (culturally inappropriate!) This woman would have seemed to be “too far gone” to the people gathered around that table; she was so broken and degenerate that she was beyond repair, beyond saving, beyond worth.
[Sidebar #1: Could someone walk in here today that we would turn our backs on? Is there someone we’d consider “too far gone”? Better yet, given that Luke’s story isn’t actually in church, is there someone you or I should be paying more attention to Monday through Saturday, someone we need to wrap our love around and say, ‘you matter’?]
Jesus doesn’t really address their concerns head on. Instead, he tells a story about two people who owe money to the same person, the one owing ten times more than the other. Neither could pay the man back but he forgives them both. Jesus asks who is happier by being forgiven, knowing that the Pharisees will see the financial sense of ‘the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.’
[Sidebar #2: Do you know you’ve been forgiven? I’m not asking for a show of hands. But do you recognize the things you’ve done (and do) that need forgiveness? If you do, where does that leave you when it comes to Sidebar #1? If we can see how much we need forgiveness, how can we judge someone else to be ‘out’ when we’re ‘in’? I mean, even the Pharisees can answer the question of the parable… but do they get the implication?]
Acknowledging that this is the obvious, correct answer, Jesus proceeds to point out that the Pharisee has been culturally inappropriate by not washing Jesus’ feet or at least providing water to wash his feet. That complaining about the past of the woman is ridiculous – that there is more to holiness than cultural purity. That those who can’t see their own sin are dead in their sin, while those who have sinned much when they recognize their sinfulness, are coming alive to something more.
So Jesus forgives the woman’s sins, stunning those gathered there, and the woman leaves, liberated by God’s own son (Luke 7:36-50).
Remember, Luke the Physician is telling these stories. He’s recounted how Jesus healed a man without touching him, then how he raised a dead-as-a-doornail boy from the dead. But Luke lays out a pattern where this final miracle, healing, resurrection tops them all: Luke is telling us in the pattern of his testimony that the greatest miracle of all is that a person’s sins could be forgiven.
Luke has laid out for us three stories, three miracles, three instances of Jesus reaching into the natural order of things and making them right. We now know that in the future (to these stories) that God will raise Jesus himself from the dead, that there is a greater miracle coming. But for Luke, the miracles of today aren’t just precursors to Jesus being raised from the dead: they are the pattern of the way that God works in the world to set things straight which will be, in the long run, worked out in the life of the church.
Luke is the author we know of both the Gospel of Luke and of Acts. Luke is the one who most closely understands how the miraculous work that Jesus did in the lives of the servant, the boy, and the woman is all a precursor not just of Jesus’ resurrection but of the kingdom of God as exemplified by the church!
None of these miracles happens in a vacuum; none of them play out the way that the audience of the day would have expected. But when Jesus is present, when God is moving, expectations, like footballs, get tossed into the air.
I ask you today to consider how you heard (or read) those stories. Were they ‘historical documentation’ of Jesus? Were they flights of fancy? Or is there a third, living, breathing option: are they spotlights of the work of God in the world that we’re to be looking for? That we’re to be pursuing?
I pray today that you would ask God to open your eyes to the miraculous.
To the healing of lives and relationships.
To the resurrection of people from brokenness and hopelessness.
To the forgiveness of sins even in those thought to be too far gone.
And may you recognize in what you see shining there this truth: that you are forgiven, so that you might go forth from this place to love God and forgive others, sharing miracles like glimmers wherever you go.