What Miracles Are For
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
During the long season after Trinity Sunday, in our Gospel readings we see Jesus doing a lot of miracles, such as today's healing of the deaf-mute. So today's a good day to examine why Jesus did miracles like this. First I'll tell you what the miracles don't tell us; second I'll tell you what they do tell us; then we'll examine today's miracle in detail and see what it tells us.
First, the negative answer, what miracles don't tell us: the miracles of Jesus are not definitive proof that Jesus is God. This is a common misconception, often taught in Sunday School: something like, "Jesus did all these amazing things that normal humans can't do, so He must be God." But miracles are insufficient evidence for proving that Jesus is God. Just consider the fact that many of the miracles in the Old Testament were performed by the prophets (not to mention the miracles done by the apostles after Jesus had ascended into heaven). The prophets and apostles were able to do their miracles because God gave them the authority to perform them, but the prophets and apostles most certainly were not God. So the fact that Jesus did miracles could have just been a sign that God was with Him and working through Him, but not necessarily that Jesus was God Himself in the flesh.
But later in Mark's Gospel Jesus gives an even more powerful argument that shows why miracles weren't intended to prove His divinity. He warned us disciples that after He ascended into heaven, "False christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand." Jesus says that false christs and false prophets could do miracles too. When Jesus tells us this, He teaches us that not every miracle or wondrous sign we see or hear about is done by God. He says that false christs and false prophets can do them, too. How could they do such things? Certainly the only explanation is that they are done by the power of Satan.
This is an important point to remember in our day and age. A lot of people—even Christians—make a big deal of miracles happening today, but Jesus warns us that miracles can be done even by Satan. St. Paul says the same thing in 2 Thessalonians when he says that Satan will display all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs, and wonders in order to deceive people. In 2 Corinthians St. Paul says that "even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light."
Now don't get me wrong, God can certainly still work miracles today; no Christian should deny that. And Jesus certainly is God the Son in the flesh, and was able to do the great signs that He did because He is God Himself—but I want to emphasize that Jesus didn't do miracles just to offer definitive proof of His divinity. No, His miracles proved something else. Let me explain the primary significance of Jesus' miracles.
These miracles were a sign that God's Messianic Kingdom was at hand. Our Old Testament reading from Isaiah 29 says that in the Messianic Age "the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see." Isaiah 35 says that the Lord will come in the Christ and "the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy." A pious Jew who knew the Old Testament would have recognized through the specific types and abundance of miracles that Jesus did that the Kingdom of God was at hand. When Jesus did miracles that pointed back to Old Testament prophecies along with His authoritative teaching and specific assertions that He was fulfilling the Old Testament, He was demonstrating that the long-expected Messiah had arrived.
But there is more to the miracles of Jesus. They also point to the redemption of the creation from its sinful state and its restoration to a perfect state. This world was not made for sin. No, it was created perfect, and there was originally no death or pain in God's Creation. Man was not created to experience deafness and muteness. But just look at yourself and at your own body, look around at those you love, and you will see the signs that our world is fallen. You know that you sin often and much. The aches and pains of your aging body, or the ravages of disease, or the loss of loved ones all point to the fact that sin and death reign over this world. But the Old Testament prophets wrote that the Messiah would bring about a new creation, and St. Paul said "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" So one of the things that Jesus was showing through His miracles was that He, the Messiah, had come to restore the creation through His work on earth.
And He did just that. Through His death He paid for all of the sins of the world, and in His Resurrection, Jesus overcame death and provided the guarantee that the sin-laden bodies of His followers will be restored to perfection at the great Resurrection of the dead. There will be no more deafness and muteness and death, and that is another thing that today's miracle pointed to: the restoration of all things in heaven.
Now there's one other important reason Jesus did miracles. Through the signs that He did, He performed acts of physical salvation that pointed to the spiritual salvation that He works through His Church. The miracles really happened, but the way they happened are filled with significance. Let's compare what happened in today's miracle account with what God does for us in the Church.
Some people brought to Jesus a deaf man who could barely speak and they begged Jesus to lay a hand on Him and heal Him. Likewise, we sinners formerly were much like this man: dead in our sin, deaf to God's Word, and unable to speak to the Father.
Then Jesus took the man aside, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into the man's ears. He spit and touched the man's tongue. Then Jesus said to him, "Ephphatha!" (which means, "Be opened!"). Through simple and tangible means, Jesus restored this man to health. Jesus spoke and touched, and His Words and actions brought healing. Likewise, Jesus uses simple and tangible means to bring spiritual healing to you. He has spoken to you through His Word and has created faith in your heart. He has washed away your sins through Baptism. Jesus touches your lips with His own Body and Blood, giving forgiveness, life, and salvation to you.
After Jesus touched the deaf man and spoke to him, the man's ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. Likewise, God has come to you through His Word, the Holy Scriptures, to reveal Himself to you, so that you Christians now are able to speak plainly about God's truth. You now are able to confess your faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You now are free to speak plainly to others about what God has done for you in Christ Jesus.
But all of these spiritual blessings we enjoy today weren't yet full available to the people in today's Gospel reading. In fact, Jesus specifically told the crowds not to tell anyone about the miracle. Of course, they didn't listen, and the more he discouraged them, the more they talked about the amazing things that He had done. But what is Jesus telling us by His admonition to silence here? What's the big secret about this miracle that Jesus didn't want to be made known?
Jesus knew that the full meaning of his miracles would only be revealed in the light of His Death and Resurrection. Jesus knew that when people — like the ones in today's Gospel — went around talking about the healings and exorcisms He did, other people would get hung up on the miraculous nature of these acts and not focus on the truth that these miracles conveyed — that is, the truth that the Kingdom of God was at hand, that the Messiah had come. Sinners tend to focus on the miraculous and not see through the miracles to what they are intended to tell us. Just weeks ago we heard about the Jews who wanted to make Jesus a Bread King after he fed the five thousand; the people who saw Jesus work other miracles wanted to follow him around because of what they could get out of him.
But miraculous healings didn't produce saving faith then and they will not today. And because of this, we see Jesus hushing people up left and right after He has performed signs and wonders. Mark reports that Jesus healed the sick and cast out demons but He wouldn't let the demons speak because they knew who He was. After Jesus healed a leper, He told him, "See that you say nothing to anyone." When unclean spirits fell down before Jesus and shouted that He's the Son of God, Jesus "earnestly warned them not to make Him known." After He raised the daughter of Jairus, Jesus "gave them strict orders that no one should know about this." When Peter confessed Jesus to be the Christ, Jesus "warned them to tell no one about Him." After the Transfiguration, Jesus told the three disciples who witnessed it what they had seen until the Son of Man was raised from the dead. So from all these examples we can see that Jesus wanted us to focus on His cross, and not get hung up on the miracles.
If the main focus of Christianity is on miracles, then why did Jesus need to die on the cross? He could have easily created a miracle-working church without even dying. No, the reason Jesus died was to save us from our sins—to pay the price that we couldn't pay. And that's why the saving Gospel is not about miracles today—nor was it about miracles then.
The way Jesus wanted to reveal Himself — and the way He wants to reveal Himself today – is in the Cross. What else could St. Mark be telling us when he recorded these words near the end of his Gospel: "They crucified two robbers with Jesus, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, "So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!" In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. "He saved others," they said, "but he can't save himself! Let this Christ, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe."
Coming down from the Cross would have been an impressive miracle. The chief priests and teachers of the law even said that they would believe in Jesus if He would do that. But that would have done absolutely no good for all of the condemned sinners of the world. Jesus loved us too much to come down from the cross. He knew that He had to die and pay the price for all of our sins. Jesus is the Son of God who came to reconcile the world to His Father. We see that Jesus most clearly in the account of His death: "With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!"
It is not pleasant to look at the Jesus on the Cross. It is much more pleasant to think about the miracle-worker Jesus. Like the chief priests and teachers of the law, we often are tempted to say, "Come down now from the Cross, that we may see and believe." Frankly, we would like to see some miracles with our own eyes as we struggle to believe and as we suffer afflictions in this sinful world. But it is in Jesus' death that we truly see that He was the Son of God. The centurion was able to see this, and so do we through the eyes of faith. How can we believe such a thing? Only through the work of the Holy Spirit, for it is truly the greatest of miracles that we are able to believe that God became Man, suffered, died, and rose again for all of us.
In order that we may believe, the Holy Spirit points us to the Word and the Sacraments, which are miraculous places where faith is created and sustained. These miracles connect you intimately to the death and Resurrection of Jesus. St. Paul wrote, "Don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?…If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection." And in the Lord's Supper, Jesus says, "This cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins." The Sacraments are drawn directly from Jesus' death and Resurrection. They forgive our sins and deliver to us the Jesus who brings us eternal salvation. What could be more miraculous than that?
You have been given the miracle of faith in Jesus, and you are miraculously preserved in His Church by the Holy Spirit working through the Word and Sacraments. And now that you know these saving truths, you must be careful not to let your faith depend on whether or not God delivers specific earthly miracles to you in answer to your prayers. "Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness." God points you to the love He has shown in the Cross, not to miracles of health, wealth, and success during your time on earth. Again, don't get me wrong, when your diseases are healed and your lives are blessed, it is the Lord's grace. But the key word there is grace. All of God's miracles are done out of grace, with no merit or worthiness in us.
Even when life's sufferings and afflictions seem to be impossible to deal with and you're desperate for a miracle, but God doesn't seem to be answering your prayers, because of the Cross of Jesus, because of God's unfailing grace, you still have complete assurance that God is always at work for your good—He even works through your afflictions and crosses. That's why St. Paul says that he would rather boast about his weaknesses and that he was content with insults, persecutions, and difficulties for Christ's sake. When Paul was weak in himself, then he was strong in Christ. And so with Jesus, it was a dead Jesus on the cross who had the power to convert the centurion, not a miracle-working Jesus. It is not a miracle-working Jesus but a Jesus lifted high and horribly on the Cross who has the power to drag all men to Himself and give them everlasting life.
So give thanks when God works earthly miracles, but don't look to earthly miracles for comfort for your conscience; look to the God-Man Jesus who suffered on the Cross for you. Look to Him with faith, believing that He comes to save you eternally through His Word and the Sacraments. As He did with the deaf-mute, He says to you, "Be opened" and your ears hear His Word, which brings with it His life-giving Holy Spirit. He sprinkled water upon your head in Holy Baptism and brought you into His Church. He touches your tongue with His very Body and Blood, given and shed for your forgiveness. Because Jesus has spoken to you first, you are able to confess with your mouths, "He has done everything well." Jesus has made your deaf ears to hear and your mute tongues to speak, so that you may hear His Word of salvation now and sing praises to Him eternally. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.