Signs and Wonders

Last week, on Easter Sunday, we heard the miraculous story of the women’s encounter with the angels at the tomb—how these mysterious men dressed in clothes that gleamed like lightning told them, “He is not here! He has risen, just as he said!” We heard how the women hurried excitedly back to where the disciples were gathered and breathlessly told their story and…no one believed them. But Peter, for reasons of his own, ran to see for himself what the women had reported. What he found there was not Jesus and no angels, but the discarded linens when Jesus had been.

In Luke’s version of the resurrection story, we didn’t actually hear about people seeing Jesus, but there are plenty of reports in other New Testament books to that effect. In the books of Mark and Matthew, the angels tell the women to have “his disciples and Peter’ go to Galilee, where Jesus will meet them.  In Matthew and John and in the longer ending of the book of Mark, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, who at first mistakes him for a gardener and tearfully pleads with him to tell her where they have taken the Lord’s body. It’s only when he calls her name softly—“Mary”—that her eyes are opened and she realizes it is Jesus himself there with her.

And these are just the reports of that first day. Jesus was just getting started. In fact, in various New Testament books there are at least 10 more stories of the appearances of Jesus. He walked along the road to Emmaus with two disciples—that’s our New Testament reading for today—and in 1 Corinthians 15:7, Paul reported that Jesus appeared first to Peter, then to the 12 disciples, and then to “more than 500 brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive.” What’s more, in the book of Acts, which was written by Luke between the years 70 and 90, chapter 1 verse 3 says:

After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

For 40 whole days, Jesus appeared and reassured his friends and followers, showing them beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was truly still with them, alive and well, independent of the body they saw hung on the cross that terrible day. He continued teaching them, introducing them to Godly concepts, opening their hearts and minds to more about God’s kingdom.

Can you imagine what it would have been like to have been alive in that time? When seeing Jesus, hearing him teach, knowing he might just pop in any moment, literally, was commonplace, even though he was now pure spirit and not a mortal man. The miraculous, for a time, became daily life. It must have felt a bit like God’s kingdom come, for a brief and likely happy period.

God has a long history of providing astounding “signs and wonders” to teach his children that the rules you and I live by—the normal everyday laws of physics, the force of gravity, the flow of time—those things don’t apply to the One who created them all. God operates outside the structure of any earthly limits, and that idea of God’s greatness—and our awareness of our own smallness—brings feelings awe and reverence and gratitude when we consider that this One who created the cosmos also cares for us with an infinitely tender love. A God who knows the number of hairs on our heads. Who understands and guides and ministers to the needs of our hearts.

In our Old Testament reading we heard a portion of Psalm 77, which in its entirety begins as a kind of lament as the writer struggles to understand his misfortunes and wonders whether God’s love has left him forever. The verses we heard are a kind of turning point in that psalm, as the psalmist remembers something important—all the good God has already done for him, the wonders God has performed, the greatness of God’s presence throughout his life. He begins recounting the ways God has been with him, and this begins a shift from doubt and fear to trust and confidence. Here are his ideas at this crucial point:

I will remember the deeds of the LORD;
yes, I will remember your wonders of old.
I will ponder all your work,
and meditate on your mighty deeds.
Your way, O God, is holy.
What god is great like our God?
You are the God who works wonders;
you have made known your might among the peoples.

Throughout their history the children of Israel knew God as a God who worked wonders. So many miraculous things—the mysteries in Egypt, Moses’ staff becoming a serpent, the way God caused Pharoah to let the Jewish people go. How they were pursued aggressively by Pharoah’s army, but God parted the Red Sea and led them across on dry land. This was a God who traveled with them, who brought manna in the desert each morning, and led them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. This was a God of wonders, who went to great lengths to lead His children, day by day, in the way that they should go.

But by the time Jesus was born, peoples’ direct and immediate experience of this wonder-working God had cooled. They still observed the traditions of their Jewish faith and knew all the old stories of God’s faithfulness and favor, but it’s likely they felt far removed from the ancient days when God was among them in such an immediate and vital way. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, it had been more than 400 years since the last prophet had lived. The book of Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, is a prophecy in which Malachi warns the children of Israel to keep God first in their hearts, something which historically had always proven difficult for them to do. That book also foretells of a messenger who will come one day and prepare the way for the Lord—a prophecy of the Christ to come, many generations in the future.

So the excitement and wonder ignited by Jesus’ presence and teaching and surely by his miracles would have been unlike anything the people of his time had ever seen. No person they had known or met—not their parents, or their parents’ parents, or the generations before that—would have been eye-witnesses to the mighty and unmistakable power of God acting in their very lives. They had all heard the stories, but they hadn’t seen it themselves. And then comes this amazing teacher or prophet or healer—this young man from a city not far from their own—who has an otherworldly understanding of God and a wisdom far beyond his years. He begins with a small following and teaches those who will listen, and then he began performing all kinds of signs and wonders—healing the blind and lame, preaching forgiveness of sins, even raising someone from the dead. The action of God broke into their generation and shook the foundations of their faith in a fundamental way. The old stories came alive for them. They knew this wasn’t simply a great man among them but God himself, reaching into their lives, inspiring their hope, enabling them to picture a new, a better, a more loving future.

And then the unthinkable happened and Jesus was arrested and ultimately crucified. Everyone who felt in Jesus the power and presence of God must have been plunged into shock and grief and despair. It’s at this moment that our New Testament story unfolds. Two disciples are walking the road to Emmaus, discussing all that had happened in the previous days.

As they walked, they were probably feeling a range of emotions, from anger and outrage to sorrow and hopelessness. They no doubt talked about the horrible injustice done and likely struggled with age-old, human questions like whether goodness in this life will prevail over evil, whether Light overcomes darkness, and whether human nature can truly change for the better. They had seen, first-hand, the reality of the power of power to seduce and corrupt peoples’ hearts.

While they struggled to make sense of it all, a stranger came and walked with them. He asked them what they were talking about. The scripture here says, “And they stood still, looking sad.” One of them then tells this stranger the story of what had happened—and how their hopes he would be the one to redeem Israel had been crushed. The man—who we know is Jesus—then says, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all the prophets have spoken!” And then, the story says, “beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.”

We learn that in those moments Jesus was talking, the men’s hearts were burning within them, on fire with an otherworldly sense that recognized the truth of the One who spoke. Deep down, in spirit, they knew. But it wasn’t until the meal that night, in the breaking of the bread, that their eyes were suddenly opened and they recognized Jesus. And in the moment of their understanding, he vanishes, right before their eyes.

Signs and wonders. At a time when the peoples’ hearts were broken, their hopes were shattered, and all the things that had made a better future seem possible had been taken away, Jesus appeared—despite all worldly odds—again and again, to show them the all-powerful, all-present reality of God. And those wonders God performs serve two important purposes. They give us big moments to remember as we look back over our lives and see how God has been with us, and they also give us the encouragement we need to step into the future, confident that God is leading still, with a pillar of light.

When you consider the pain and grief of those early days following Jesus’ crucifixion, it’s interesting to note what the disciples didn’t do. They didn’t form a kind of armed rebellion and go after those who were responsible. They didn’t hunt down the people in the crowd who cried “Crucify him!” when Pilate asked what the people wanted him to do with the one they called King of the Jews. They didn’t launch a crusade against the Pharisees and scribes who plotted to have Jesus killed. They didn’t fight in any worldly way to right the wrong that had been done or avenge Jesus’ cruel and unjust death.

Before their grief could turn to anger, God’s signs and wonders—in the risen reality of Jesus—came to lead them forward. Anger and outrage—and the fight for retribution they can elicit—bind us to the past, but the appearance of God—seeing grace in our circumstances, realizing that God has a larger purpose in play—opens our hearts to whatever steps God has for us next. When Jesus appeared, again and again, the peoples’ hopes were revived. They saw with their own eyes and felt with their own hearts the truth that Jesus had been teaching throughout his ministry. They understood in a new way, as George Fox said, “Thus, when God doth work who shall prevent it? And this I knew experimentally.”

When we are lamenting, like the psalmist, or reeling from disappointment and concerned about the future, like Jesus’ friends and followers, it can help a great deal to look back and count all the ways God has cared for us in times of trouble. We remember, our hearts feel it, our spirits are refreshed. We’re reminded: God is always faithful. God is always leading. There is always a next step.

But it’s important that even while we look back, we hold onto the truth that God is not limited by any earthly constraints and God is still loving and leading and acting in our lives today. We don’t want to miss the signs and wonders in our own experience, whatever they might be. Each person experiences God’s presence and God’s pointings in unique ways. You might feel a sense of peace come over you while you pray. Or notice “way opening” in circumstances that seemed all knotted up before. You might find a verse of scripture coming to mind suddenly, or the words of a hymn from long ago, that speak directly to your current condition. And perhaps it’s ordinary, everyday natural things that give you hope and lift your heart, reminding you how good life is—baby ducks following their mother to the pond; the blossoming of the redbud trees; or, in my case, a happy discovery yesterday that my dahlia bulbs made it through the winter and already have tiny green shoots ready to grow. God is still blessing our world with new growth and Light and love. We just need to have hearts and minds quiet enough, receptive enough, to know that.

In closing I’d like to share a poem that leaves us with a peaceful, even joyful image of Jesus still at work in the healing of hearts. It’s called Wanderers Welcome by Fred Lamotte, and it begins with a quote from Irish writer John O’Donahue:

“We seldom notice how each day is a holy place where the Eucharist of the ordinary happens.” ~John O’Donahue

Out beyond Christianity
Magdalene and Jesus are dancing
in a garden where things grow wild,
where things grow into what they are.
Many paths lead here, not one,
and the gates are always open.
Over each gate there's a sign:
'Wanderers Welcome.'
Mary thinks Jesus is the gardener,
and he is.
They drink the wine that turns
temples into bodies again.
She reaches out to take his hand:
he lets her.
There are three rules here:
Yearn, Risk Everything, Connect.

RESOURCES

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