The Man Without the Miracle

Week of Monday, December 17, 2001

Third Sunday in Advent (2001)

Lectionary Readings
Isaiah 35:1–10
James 5:7–10
Matthew 11:2–11
Psalm 146:4–9

Let me begin this week by admitting that I stole the title for this essay from a pastor friend in Michigan, also named Dan, who used it when he preached on this week's Gospel text about John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2–11). His title points to an important lesson about waiting for the Coming One to come.

John the Baptist, that wild, desert prophet, was languishing in prison. Is that so surprising? Not long after, he was beheaded at the whim of Herod the tetrarch, who at a dinner party one night capitulated to the sadistic demand of his girlfriend's daughter. John was a forerunner of Jesus, but he was also a forth-teller to Herod, having rebuked Herod for sleeping with his brother's wife (Matthew 14:1–12). But as with most perverse, political powerbrokers, Herod had his way with him who had spoken truth to power, so John was murdered.

His own disciples had told him about Jesus, so from prison John sent two of His disciples to Jesus with a question that cuts to the heart of the Advent season: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus responded by saying, in essence, “yes, I am the Coming One and my many miracles attest to this. The blind, the lame, the deaf, and the lepers are healed; the dead are raised, and the Good News is preached to the poor.” But then Jesus said something enigmatic to John: “Blessed is he who does not take offense at me.”

I never understood this text (Matthew 11:6) until my pastor-friend suggested an interpretation. John, remember, was told about the many miracles Jesus was doing, but in his own life he himself would decidedly not receive a miracle. Herod would behead him because of a dinner party dare. John was the man without the miracle, and blessed is he who is not scandalized or offended by this brutal reality.

If you read the lectionary texts for this week carefully, they provide a remarkable litany of the marginal, the vulnerable, and the disenfranchised. From Isaiah, Matthew and Psalm 146 there are seventeen (!) categories of people listed who suffer deeply.

the oppressed the feeble
the hungry those with fearful hearts
the prisoners the deaf
the blind the lame
the bowed down the dumb
the stranger or alienthe leper
the fatherless the dead
the widow the exhausted
the poor  
What we have here is a summary of almost every type of human suffering—social, political, economic, psychological, cultural, ethnic, medical, and so on. These are people who cry out for miracles. But life tells us, in fact, that most of them will not receive one.

Our own human experience is much like John the Baptist's. Much as we hear about miracles, signs, and wonders, much as we long for them and pray for them, most of us do not receive them. To us as to John the Baptist and the many sufferers as those listed above, Jesus says, “blessed are you who follow me even though you have not received a miracle.”

The Scriptures record numerous instances where people in God's kingdom did not receive a miracle. John the Baptist is not an exception but perhaps the rule. Think about just these two data points. In Hebrews 11 the author refers to a long line of saints who were commended for heroic faith but who did not experience miraculous intervention. Rather, their lot was torture, jeers, flogging, chains, prison, stoning and being sawn in two (Hebrews 11:35–40). Or again, in one and the same chapter, James was imprisoned and martyred (Acts 12:1–2), whereas his cohort Peter was imprisoned but received a miraculous release (Acts 12:3–19). So one key reminder for us is that mature faith does not necessarily lead to miracles or even seek them.

The converse is likewise true; miracles do not necessarily lead to mature faith. In the very same chapter as the discourse on John the Baptist, we see that the people and places where Jesus had done his most miracles demonstrated the least faith (Matthew 11:20–24). Often times genuine miracles do little to strengthen faith. Perhaps they are only cause for further doubt, curiosity and credulity. At other times the demand for a miracle is a clear sign of unbelief and doubt.

In our therapeutic culture which places a high value on entitlement, we do well to remember that following Jesus is something very different than personal fulfillment. Whether we are weak or strong in faith, both Scripture and experience tell us that it is quite likely that we, like John the Baptist, will live without miraculous intervention. But this should not make us stumble or take offense. Why? Jerry Camery-Hoggatt put it perfectly in describing his own father: “He measured his life against a yardstick larger than his own vested interests, and charted his course by a compass outside himself.”1 Our yardstick is life in the kingdom of God, not the amelioration of every trial or temptation I've ever had. Our compass is Jesus Himself, the Suffering Servant.

The fourth text from this week's lectionary thus encourages us to “be patient until the Lord's coming.” Remember the farmer who waits for fall and spring rains, who waits for his land to yield its crops. As an example of “patience in the face of suffering”, says James, remember the perseverance of the prophets and suffering saints like Job (James 5:7–12). Waiting with patience and perseverance, of course, is the very sum and substance of Advent, the season now upon us.

  1. Jerry Camery-Hoggatt, When Mother Was Eleven-Foot-Four (Grand Rapids: Revell, 2001), p. 16.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.