Don’t You Believe in Miracles?
1 Kings 17:17-24
November 23, 2006
Listen to this Sermon
In the current issue of Dallas Connection, the alumni publication from Dallas Theological Seminary, Greg Hatteberg reflects on his wife’s struggle with Multiple Sclerosis. I first met Greg and Lisa when I spoke at the DTS conference at Mt. Hermon Conference Center in California several years ago. Before each service Greg would wheel Lisa to a place in the aisle so she could hear the speaker. Then he would stay by her side after each service, chatting with those who came by. In the article Greg talks about a time when a well-meaning but misguided man came up and told him that Lisa was going to be healed that very day. “God has told me, when you go home tonight, Lisa will run to the door when you get home, proclaiming she has been healed to the glory of God.” Evidently Greg seemed somewhat unconvinced because the man said, “Don’t you believe God can do it? Don’t you believe in miracles?”
That’s a good question to consider on the day before Thanksgiving. As I write these words, millions of people are getting ready for their annual Thanksgiving celebration. Already the roads are filled with travelers, and the grocery stores are clogged with people who waited until the last minute to buy their turkey. The airports are jammed with people flying home to spend a few days with their loved ones. And amid the turkey, the talk, the fun, the stories and the football, someone is bound to offer a prayer of thanksgiving to God for his blessings during the last twelve months.
Tears at Thanksgiving
For some those prayers will be tinged with sadness and tears. Less than twelve hours ago I received a phone call with the news that a friend of our family died last night. It was not totally unexpected because she was in her early seventies and her health was not good, but death never comes easy to any of us. My oldest son and his wife were gathered with the family around the bedside when Grandma McKee passed from this life into the presence of the Lord Jesus. When Josh called with the news, he said that it was amazing to be there and see her pass quietly away. Yesterday morning she was joking in her hospital room and asking to go home, by the afternoon she was unable to talk though she recognized Josh and Leah when they came into the room. Last night she passed away with Tim and Elsa and their children and other members of the family gathered round her bed. It was quiet and peaceful and those who knew Grandma McKee thank God that she is with the Lord. But there will be an empty place at the table tomorrow, and this year’s Thanksgiving celebration will be tinged with sadness for our dear friends.
Don’t we believe in miracles? Yes we do. Christianity is a religion of miracles. Take the miraculous out of our faith and you are left with nothing but a set of ethical instructions that has no power to change the heart. Subtract the miracles and suddenly Christianity becomes just another religion. Without the miracles, we have no good news to share with the world. And the Bible is book of miracles from first to last. Take the miracles away and suddenly the Bible is no longer the Word of God. It’s just another book. You can no more take miracles out of Christianity than you can take light from the sun. Without the light, there is no sun. Without the miracles, there is no Christianity.
Having said that, I readily confess that miracles are a problem for many people. The miracle stories of the Bible pose problems that are partly historical (did this really happen?), partly theological (why did this happen), partly personal (can something like this happen to me?) and partly emotional (why doesn’t something like this happen to me?). A generation ago C. S. Lewis pondered these problems and then wrote a book called, simply, Miracles. Here is his core insight:
The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man. Every other miracle prepares the way for this, or results from this.
He is entirely right about that. Sometimes we focus on peripheral questions (how did Jesus turn water into wine?) that distract us from the central truth of our faith. We believe God became a man. That the Creator became part of the creation. That the infinite became finite. That Almighty God took on the form of a man and was born as a tiny baby. This is the central truth of our faith, and it is the point at which we part company with Islam and Judaism. Both of those religions categorically reject the notion that God has a Son and that God could somehow become one of us. This is not the time or place to debate that fact. I simply observe it as the central dividing line. To Christians it is impossible to speak about God without speaking about Jesus because God became a man 2000 years ago. The Apostles’ Creed puts it very succinctly when it says that our Lord was “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.” As Lewis says, every other miracle leads to the Incarnation or results from it.
What is God Saying?
Elsewhere in the same book Lewis adds this helpful insight about why God works miracles:
Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.
I find that hugely helpful because it tells us that miracles are not merely a random display of God’s power. Every miracle has a purpose. Think of it this way:
When God works a miracle, he’s not just doing something. He’s also saying something.
Sometimes we focus on the amazing thing that happens without considering what message it is intended to convey. But miracles in the Bible never happen without a context. When God works a miracle, he is using the “small letters” of the miracle to help us understand the same message that is “written across the whole world.” When we read a miracle story in the Bible, we ought to ask, “What is God saying to us through this amazing event?”
That leads me to make these two observations:
1) The Bible is filled with miracle stories.
2) But they do not happen routinely or predictably.
We read of amazing miracles in the time of Moses when he led the children of Israel out of Egypt. We read of more miracles during the days of Elijah and Elisha. We read of amazing things that happened during the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. And we read of other miracles in the book of Acts.
That’s one side of the story. The other side is that you can read page after page after page in the Bible without running into any miracles at all. It’s not as if miracles were an everyday occurrence even in Bible times. They did not happen routinely or predictably. That is, the blind man in John 9 had no way of knowing when he got up that morning that he was about to regain his sight. Ditto for the lame man in Acts 3. As a general rule, those who received miracles in the Bible had no advance notice.
“I Pray for a Miracle Everyday”
It is right at this point that we come to the core issue regarding miracles. You can’t read the Bible without running into miracles, but they don’t happen all the time, and you can’t predict in advance when they will happen. That fact ought to us help us as we think about miracles today. In one of his books, William F. Buckley quotes British author Evelyn Waugh who said, “God does work miracles, but it is presumptuous to anticipate them.”
“Don’t you believe in Miracles?” Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. We believe in miracles! Always the answer is yes. And we pray and fervently believe and hope and trust and wait for miracles to occur. But we understand that God works according to his own will, and that we cannot anticipate miracles even as we pray and wait and hope for them.
I have a friend who serves on the staff of a large church. He has been at the church for almost twenty years. Because of his longevity, and because of his quiet, godly, gentle demeanor, he is beloved by all who know him. Shortly after he was married, his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Her condition deteriorated to the point that she has been bed-ridden for many years. Although my friend has served on the church staff for a long time, many of the people in the church have never seen his wife because she has been unable to attend a service for many years. My friend rarely speaks about the burden he carries. At night he gets up every two hours to turn his wife so she won’t get bed sores. The sadness he feels must be enormous, but you would not know it to listen to him. Somehow he has found great joy in the Lord in the midst of his own personal sorrow, and those who know him cannot doubt his deep love for the Lord and for his wife. A few months ago, during a tour of the Holy Land, a place where you feel very close to the miracles of the Bible, my friend said regarding his wife: “I pray for a miracle every day.”
No one questions the power of God to work amazing miracles today. He’s God. He can break into our world any time he chooses to do things that we cannot explain. It’s not God’s power that is at issue. And it’s not our belief in miracles–past or present. The issue rests at a much deeper level–with the sovereign plan of God for our lives. The question is not, do we believe in miracles? But what kind of miracles do we believe in? And what kind of God do we believe in? Sometimes our understanding of how God works is much too narrow.
Here is another way to say it.
Miracles are not about us.
Miracles are about God.
That’s where the story in 1 Kings 17 becomes so helpful. And so challenging. Of all the sorrows of life I know of no sorrow greater than the death of a child. This is nothing that seems more unnatural. Parents are not supposed to bury their children. It is the privilege and the honor of children to bury their parents. It is not supposed to be the other way around. The death of a child is like a period before the end of the sentence.
Your Starting Point Matters
I have learned that where you start makes all the difference in thinking about sickness, suffering and death. If you start with the accident or with the sickness or with death itself, you will never come to the right answer. I know many people whose faith has been badly shaken and even destroyed by the tragedies of life. I know that feeling myself. If you start at the tragedy and try to reason your way back to God, you won’t make it. You’ll fall off the ladder somewhere. None of us is smart enough to reason from a tragedy back to God. If you start with yourself, you’ll end with yourself, and you won’t be any better off.
The only hope is to start at the other end, with what we know to be true about God. The theologians call this the First Principles. In the time of trouble, start with God. Ponder his character. Meditate on his attributes. Think about who God is.
God is holy.
God is righteous.
God is just.
God is gracious.
God is merciful.
God is love.
God is all-knowing.
God is all-wise.
God is present everywhere.
His ways are perfect.
His plans are beyond finding out.
He works all things together for our good and his glory.
He loved us so much that he sent his Son to die for us.
He sent the Holy Spirit to indwell us.
He forgives our sin through the blood of Jesus.
He seals us with the Holy Spirit.
He fills us with the Spirit.
He promises to conform us to the image of his Son.
He will never leave us.
He disciplines us when we stray.
He loves us with an everlasting love.
His plans for us are good.
He makes no mistakes.
Make a list like that. Write it down. Say it aloud. Repeat it in prayer. Tattoo the truth on your grieving heart. Start with what you know to be true about God. If you remember who he is and why he sent his Son to the earth, and his wisdom, power, goodness and love, if you start there, you can slowly make your way back to the tragedy itself. I have walked that road myself many times. This is not some sort of magic trick that will make the pain go away (it won’t) or answer all your questions (it won’t do that either), but starting with God provides the only possible framework for answering the questions we all have.
We need a God so big, so great, so powerful, so wise, so vast, so eternal, that he can encompass the sudden death of one of his children. Some people talk as if the tragedies of life are accidents in the universe. As if God turned his head away and something bad happened while God wasn’t looking. As if God tried to stop it but couldn’t. A God like that is no God at all. I cannot worship an impotent, puny, manmade God who abdicates the throne of the universe and leaves us alone in our despair. That is not the God of the Bible.
And that brings us to the story of the death of the widow’s son in 1 Kings 17:17-24. Of all the episodes in the life of Elijah, this is probably the most troublesome. In our text Elijah lays himself out over the body of a dead child and the boy comes back to life. And it’s not exactly like the story of the resurrection of our Lord on Easter Sunday morning, which is surrounded by angels and a sense of glorious triumph. It doesn’t even carry with it the same feel of Jesus crying out, “Lazarus, come forth” (John 11:43). Because this story is so unusual, some people have discounted it as being a myth. They see it as a kind of folk story, almost like a fairy tale. Some liberal scholars suggest that either the boy wasn’t really dead or that it never really happened at all. Before we examine this passage, I want you to know that I firmly believe exactly what the Bible says. I think the widow’s son died, Elijah stretched himself over the boy’s body and prayed, God heard his prayer, and the boy’s life returned to him. But I also acknowledge the emotional difficulties because it raises questions we don’t often talk about. If God does this some of the time, why doesn’t he do this all the time? That is an enormous question, but I don’t know how you can deal with the story without coming to grips with some of the great mysteries of God in his mercy and sovereignty, what God does and what God doesn’t do. We’ll look at that in just a moment.
Let’s focus on three parts of the story:
1) A Sudden Sorrow
“After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill. And his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. And she said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” (vv. 17-18).
Note carefully the first two words, “After this.” The Hebrew literally says, “After these things it happened.” That’s a powerful statement about God’s sovereignty. Whatever else you want to say about this unforgettable episode, don’t call it an accident. The child didn’t get sick by chance, and he didn’t die by chance. His sickness and his death were both part of the sovereign plan of God.
There are so many mysteries about why God does what he does. I’m reminded of the words of Tony Evans who said, “Everything in the universe is either caused by God or allowed by God, and there is no third category.” That’s a hugely important statement. So many times we look at heartbreaking tragedy, and we want to invent a third category called, “Bad things that just happened for no reason.” But there is no such category. When the text says that it came about that the child grew ill, it’s the writer’s way of saying that what happened to this young boy was not an accident. It was not chance. It was not fate. God was present in the home when that boy died.
The timing of all this deserves our attention. The boy gets sick after many weeks and months of miraculous provision by God. After many months of the flour and the oil never running out (1 Kings 17:8-16), suddenly the boy gets sick and dies. Why does it happen that way? We walk with the Lord and we do the best we can, and one day the phone call comes that changes life forever. Or we get a report from the doctor with bad news. Or our children get into terrible trouble. Or our marriage falls apart. Why do these things happen?
It is very easy for us to become complacent in the midst of the blessings of God. We secretly begin to think, “Everything’s okay now; I’ve got life all wired up. My marriage is good and my kids are doing well and my job is good and life is good and I love my church. Everything in my life is exactly where I want it to be.” If that happens to be your situation at this moment, don’t feel bad about that. If your life is like that, you ought to enjoy it and be profoundly grateful to God. But know these two things for certain:
1) You don’t deserve these blessings.
2) They won’t last forever.
They never do. Soon enough the clouds will move in and the rain begins to fall. You shouldn’t live in fear, but you ought to be wise enough to know that after sunrise comes sundown, and after high noon comes the darkness of midnight. So it is for all of us sooner or later.
After the time of God’s blessing, disaster strikes. We don’t know why the child got sick. It almost seems like a contradiction. There was the testing, then the blessing, and then the sorrow comes. It seems like it ought to be reversed around somehow, like it ought to be sorrow and then testing and then blessing. But that’s not how God works. It’s more often this way:
It is so easy to be lulled into false thinking. “Ah, we made it through the hard times. It’s going to be smooth sailing from here on out.” But that usually is not God’s design for us.
It’s good for us to remember this as we approach Thanksgiving. If this year your family is gathered round your table and everyone is doing well and everyone is happy, if as you celebrate, you have no problems to speak of, rejoice and give thanks. But don’t take your blessings for granted. Enjoy them, but do not presume they will last forever.
2) A Powerful Prayer
“And he said to her, ’Give me your son.’ And he took him from her arms and carried him up into the upper chamber where he lodged, and laid him on his own bed. And he cried to the LORD, ’O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by killing her son?’ Then he stretched himself upon the child three times and cried to the LORD, ’O LORD my God, let this child’s life come into him again.’ And the LORD listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. And Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper chamber into the house and delivered him to his mother. And Elijah said, ’See, your son lives’” (vv. 19-23).
As I read the text, a question comes to mind that I cannot answer. When the child first became ill, where was Elijah? Was he there and did he pray for the boy? I assume the answer is yes, but the Bible doesn’t tell us. I have a further question. When the child died, why did Elijah do what he did? Here’s my answer.He got involved because he saw God in everything, including all the sorrows of life. I find his response very instructive when the mother accuses him of coming to her house just to kill her son.
Number one: He doesn’t get angry.
Number two: He doesn’t try to explain why her son died.
Number three: He doesn’t argue with her.
Number four: He doesn’t make any excuses.
There is no easy way to explain what happens next. Elijah lays down on top of the body of the child. Foot to foot. Leg to leg. Chest to chest. Arm to arm. Hand to hand. Face to face. He does it not once, not twice, but three times. No one really knows exactly why he laid down even once, much less why he did it twice or three times. Perhaps Elijah understood that to do anything for this boy he was going to have to get very personally involved. As a side note, since the boy was dead, he was now unclean under Jewish law. It was wrong for a prophet of God to touch a dead body, but extreme cases call for extreme measures. And so by lying down on the body of the child, it is as if he is saying “Oh Lord, take some of the life from within me and give it to this boy.” He prayed for a miracle because he believed in a power greater than death.
3) A Joyful Testimony
We come now to the end of this amazing story. Seeing that her son has come back to life, the grateful mother declares to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth” (v. 24). The Bible doesn’t record that she said, “Thank you,” though surely she did. It’s not recorded here because that’s not the point. Her words explain the miracle, and they also explain why not every mother receives this miracle when a child is sick to the point of death. The miracle happens to authenticate Elijah as God’s anointed prophet. God had promised to sustain all three of them–mother, son and Elijah–until the rains came and the drought ended (v. 14). On the basis on that promise, Elijah believed that God would bring the boy back to life. Strange as it may sound, the miracle is less about the boy and more about God’s power working through Elijah. It is a miracle of sovereign grace, given this one time in Elijah’s life and never again given during his ministry. God answered this prayer by this man in this way at this particular moment in time. And he did it for his own purposes. There is no other way to understand the story. This is a lesson about the Sovereign of the universe moving in a miraculous way in answer to the prophet’s fervent prayers.
Here are two Scriptures to meditate on. The first comes from Isaiah 53:10 in the New American Standard Bible: “But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief.” Isaiah is speaking of the Father’s decision to put his Son to death on the cross for the sins of the world. Think about what that says. Not just that the Father sent his Son to die or that he allowed his Son to die. It is much stronger than that. In ways that we cannot fathom, it pleased the Lord to allow his Son to suffer and die. How can any father be pleased to crush his own son? I cannot imagine it. Parents do all they can to protect their children. But our Father was pleased (for the sake of our salvation) to crush his own Son. That tells us that God’s ways and our ways are not the same, and we cannot judge him by human standards. The second verse is Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him” (NIV). This means that God does what he wants and no one can stop him. Here we come up against the bedrock of God himself. He is great and powerful beyond our imagining. All that he does is right, even those things we do not understand.
And that brings me back to the original question:
Don’t you believe in Miracles? Yes!
Do you believe God can work miracles today? Yes!
Should we pray for miracles? Yes!
I think of my friend who said, “I pray for a miracle every day.” And I remember the words of Evelyn Waugh: “Miracles do happen. But it is presumptuous to anticipate them.”
Another Kind of Miracle
We can’t boss God around. As a friend said on Sunday, “God’s God.” That’s right. He’s God and we’re not. He’s in charge of the universe, and he does what seems best to him. You can fight against him if you want to, but you’ll lose every time because your arms are too short to box with God.
Let’s return to the story of Greg Hatteberg for a moment. When that well-meaning but misguided man predicted that Lisa would be healed of MS that very day, Greg seemed unconvinced so the man said, “Don’t you believe in miracles?” Here was Greg’s answer:
I believe with all my heart that God can heal Lisa. I pray that when I come home Lisa runs out to greet me. If she does, you will be the first one I’ll call so we can praise God together. But if when I go home, Lisa is sitting in her reclining chair and says, “Did the seminar go well?” I just want you to know that another miracle happened today–the miracle of God’s sustaining grace keeping her close to him for another day.
That strikes me as exactly the right biblical balance. We are fully justified in asking God to work miracles on behalf of our loved ones. I can think of some friends in desperate situations who need some miracles at this very moment. But God doesn’t limit himself to our understanding of what our loved ones need most. He is fully able to do spectacular miracles today just as he did in Bible times. But more often he gives strength to the weary and courage to the fainting and hope to those who feel like giving up. Greg and Lisa Hatteberg are living proof that God’s miracles come in more than one variety, a truth they experience every day.
I am writing these words on the day before Thanksgiving. If your heart is filled with joy because your life is free from trouble, rejoice and give thanks to God. You need not feel guilty if at this moment your problems are small and your blessings are large. But if you are in the 99% of the human race to whom those words do not apply, keep these truths in mind.
God still loves you.
He has not forgotten you.
He knows what he is doing in your life.
He loved you enough to give his Son to die for you.
He is with you even when you do not sense his presence.
Keep Believing. Never give up.
When you count your blessings this year, remember to give thanks that we serve a God who is bigger than all our unanswered questions.
Do you need a miracle today? Or do you seek a miracle on behalf of someone you love? You need not feel bashful about asking your Heavenly Father for what you believe you truly need. Pray and believe, and then leave the matter in God’s hands.
Trust in the Lord with full confidence, remembering this truth:
Miracles aren’t about us.
Miracles are about God.
Let God be God and all will be well. Amen.