Jesus’ first recorded miracle is the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana which was pretty good for party-goers and maybe not so good for the local vineyards, but just because we know how to turn grape juice into wine does it necessarily mean that should we regard that process as any less miraculous?
The miraculous, the ‘signs and wonders’ part of the Christian experience always seems, to me, to be somewhat controversial. People line up on different sides – cessationist and continuationist/charismatic and all points in between – and, in a spirit of fraternal love I’m sure, proceed to knock theological lumps out of each other.
Some believe that the age of miracles passed with the passing of the twelve apostles and the completion of the canonical Scriptures; others argue that the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit are still available and used today … roll up, roll up, take your choice and pitch in to the debate …
I’m temperamentally sceptic by nature and find the whole idea of ‘miracles and wonders’ challenging sometimes – don’t get me wrong here, I’m all for the idea of the miraculous in Scripture, and in peoples’ lives, it’s just that I’m not necessarily a fan of the idea that there has to be some kind of Big Tent Revival Meeting to go with it! Too many times, I’ve been in meetings and situations that felt like the leaders were relying on whipping up emotions and super-charged sensationalism … I’ve come to dread the words, “Healing Evangelist.” Again, don’t misunderstand – I am absolutely for the miraculous … I just can’t be doing with all the showy, flashy, stage-managed garbage that often seems to go with it.
You see, I’ve been on the receiving end of several people’s prayers for healing, some worked … some didn’t. Interestingly, the one that really sticks out is one where the guy that prayed for me did so in such a melancholic, ‘it’ll never work, ‘cos God never listens to me’ style – which, naturally, resulted in total instantaneous healing! Then I’ve been prayed for by people with a (mostly self-stated) ‘healing ministry’ – wonderful, passionate people, with wonderful powerful prayers, full of Scriptural quotations and ‘claiming’ and ‘believing,’ with exhaustive and exhausting pleading for the Spirit to ‘move mightily’ or ‘undertake in a special way’ (which makes God sound like a subversive funeral director to me!) and … absolutely nada. I’ve prayed earnestly that people would be healed of all manner of things, from trivial to terminal … to date I can’t genuinely say that I ever felt my prayers made one jot of difference; but I’ll keep on praying anyway.
Also, with regard to things like prophecy and ‘words of knowledge’ I’ve been on both sides of that equation, as someone receiving words of comfort, insight, encouragement and direction that certainly seemed beyond the knowledge and capability of the giver and I’ve also had (rare) experiences when I’ve been aware that the words I’m speaking seem to have had a life and an origin far beyond my own resources, and I’ve seen those words have an impact far beyond anything I would have expected. Maybe, because I’m someone that tends to enjoy the sound of their own voice, I’m much more comfortable within this expression of ‘spiritual gifts’ – I don’t honestly know.
Anyway, this whole spiritual gifts and whether they are active and available today feels like a bit of a red herring to me. We spend far too much time arguing doctrinal points and questioning experience when, perhaps, we should look at what we allegedly agree on with regards to miracles, wonders and spiritual gifts.
Wikipedia – the contemporary oracle and font of wisdom that it is – tells me that cessationists and continuationists agree “that the purpose of the gifts is to strengthen the church (1 Cor. 14:26) and that the Bible trains and equips the church (2 Tim 3:16-17).” What I think that means is that – whether we want to consign gifts and miracles to the distant past or not – everyone should acknowledge the role that they play in the life (past and present) of the church, serving as stories of inspiration, example and wonder. I also think that it means we take the Scriptures seriously and try to hold our experience accountable by them – and not the other way round.
But what does all this have to do with fermenting grape juice? Well, what I mean by the comparison between making wine ‘naturally’ and Jesus’ impromptu miracle is just the idea that just because we understand things (the interaction of yeast and sugars within the grapes that produces alcohol) it shouldn’t rob us of the wonder of that particular experience or outcome (the aroma, taste and pleasing effect of the wine – please drink responsibly!). Maybe it’s due to the supposed fall in our collective attention span but it seems to me that we, as a society, are becoming dreadfully blasé and unconcerned by the everyday wonders that surround us.
It’s a little like looking at a rainbow and understanding that the colours are caused by the refraction and reflection of light through raindrops and forgetting to recognise and appreciate the beauty of it. Maybe I have a romantic view of such things, but surely if we atomise everything then we run the risk of separating out things like beauty, wonder, absurdity and awe and valuing them less than scientific method, sceptical enquiry and critical thinking. Don’t misunderstand me here though, I’m not some anti-science Luddite – I try to read and process (notice I didn’t say understand) stuff about quantum entanglement, string and ‘brane theory and such like as I find they open me up to more wonder and more amazement regarding this incredible universe we inhabit. And, through that, a greater sense of wonder and awe when I think of the Creator who made and sustains it.
Maybe if we could maintain a sense of wonder and amazement when it comes to the ‘ordinary’ about us – stuff like rainbows, wine, sunsets, music, other people, impossible bumblebees and soap bubbles – things like schismatic approaches to ‘miracles and wonders’ might seem less important.
I seem to recall that Jesus said “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35) – note He didn’t say “By this all men will know … if you cast out demons, speak in tongues and heal in the name of Jeeeeeeeeeeeeesus!” Equally, He didn’t say “By this all men will know … by your thorough understanding of how to parse the original Greek verb and interpret ancient Hebrew according to the Masoretic text and the Septuagint, and take care to remember that even though it won’t be round for another 1600 years or so, the King James Version of the Scriptures is the only acceptable one!!!!”
I’ve recently listened to a guy called Robby Dawkins who said something along the lines of “God wants our availability, He’ll give us the ability” with regards to gifts and works of the Holy Spirit. I like that, as it encourages me to maintain that sense of wonder – being available to be moved and intrigued and inspired by what I see God is doing around, in and through me, so that I can be more involved in what He wants me to do, see and be.
Accepting the ordinary everyday miracles – the precious small things of day-to-day life – feels like a good way to honour any notion of the ‘grand’ miracles we read and hear about in Scripture and in contemporary experience, whether or not they sit comfortably with us. Finding (or re-finding) wonder in the ordinary might just open us up to the idea of believing that it’s just a few letters more to get us to the extraordinary.