Mark 1:21-28
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
January 31, 2021

 

British researchers once polled people about their belief in God.  They asked, for example, whether people believed in a God who intervenes in human affairs and performs miracles.  One man’s answer typified many others.  He said, “No, I don’t believe in that God.  I believe in just the ordinary God.”

Do you believe in an ordinary God or in an amazing God for whom nothing is too wonderful?

Jesus “amazed” people in today’s scripture.  He “astounded” them by how He spoke and took action.

Unlike the “scribes” – Israel’s officially sanctioned Bible interpreters – Jesus taught as “one having authority”.  That is, without citing any outside accreditation to add credence to His word, He declared what the scriptures mean and what God was up to.  He presented Himself as directly in the know about what He was talking about. And, with the same self-authenticating authority, He commanded one of “the unclean spirits”, those fallen angels who oppose God and bedevil people, to flee with its tail between its legs – while confessing what every demon hates to acknowledge: that Jesus is “the Holy One of God” who will one day destroy all evil!

“If Jesus can do all that,” people back then asked themselves, “is there anything Jesus can’t do?”  Well, what do you here and now say?  Do you view Jesus as a figure of ancient history who might have a mild influence these days or as a living and present God who is able and eager to do amazing things these days?  Do you think it possible that what He once did, He might do now; that what He did elsewhere, He might do here; and that what He did for others, He might do for us?

As you think through whether you believe there’s nothing Jesus can’t do, it might be useful to avoid thinking mostly about spectacular miracles like demonic deliverance or physical healing.  For, even if Jesus still does such miracles, He’s more likely to do ones that are less flashy but just as wonderful: like changing a person at their core and giving them the inner strength to radiate joy and hope even in dark and difficult days.

Sometimes our expectation disables our perception. Dogmatism about how things are, or can be, may blind us from seeing what we never considered a possibility.

Some psychologists asked a group of Ivy League students to perform the simple task of identifying playing cards.  The catch was that the cards were shown only for a split second and came from a deck that, while it had all the ordinary cards, included six “trick cards” with odd color/suit combinations (such as red spades or black hearts).  It took the students on average four more tries to apprehend the reality of a “trick card” than a normal one.  Their brains struggled to recognize they were looking at something they’d never seen before – say, a red six of clubs.  Even after they’d seen such a card several times, they were slow in seeing it for what it was, a trick card.  Often they unconsciously altered what they actually saw to align it with what they expected to see.  For example, shown that red six of clubs, some saw a black six of clubs illumined by red light.

This illustrates how we fight facing facts that fail to fit within the parameters of our expectation.  We’re prone to deny and distort experiences incongruous with our preconceived notions of what should be there.  We especially resist the unexpected we encounter if it runs counter to our worldview about what is and can be.  We tend to fudge with the integrity of what’s appearing before us if it contradicts our previously accepted ideas.

Jesus was always surprising people and dislodging them from prior assumptions.  Maybe we fail to notice some of His miracles because, though they are in fact as wonderful as what we had in mind, they fail to arrive in the form we were looking for or hoping for?

Steve Hayner, the president of Columbia Theological Seminary who died a few years ago from pancreatic cancer, believed to the end that there’s nothing Jesus can’t do.  But he had a wide view of all the wonderful miracles Jesus might do.  So, when the chemotherapy ceased to make a difference and the doctors told him he had but months to live, he neither quit praying for a supernatural healing (his preference) nor quit looking for some other wonderful miracle Jesus was doing instead.  Steve believed that, no matter what path Jesus was choosing for him, Jesus was taking him to a complete and ultimate healing.  He just didn’t know whether his path to that healing involved his being cured of cancer, though he never ruled out the possibility or stopped praying for it.  Steve was content to leave it up to the Lord in His supreme wisdom to determine his path.  He zeroed in on what he considered his to do: keep trusting the God for whom nothing is too wonderful and keep revealing to others how wonderful that God remains even if He lets awful things remain.  Steve focused on making sure that, though he suffer deterioration and distress, he was allowing God to develop in him an empathy and potency for helping others who suffer and allowing the powerful presence of Jesus to enable him to manifest good cheer and peace in defiance of terrible times.  Steve never got his “miracle”; but in his living and in his dying, in his character and in his witness, Steve became a miracle: evidence there’s nothing Jesus can’t do!

May we, whatever happens to us, become such evidence ourselves!

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