“Miracles, for all their power to shore up faith, are themselves rickety things, flimsy, vaporous. They can only point, mutely, to the place we need to go. …” Mark Buchanan
What a week in His Word we have had at Cover to Cover. Do I say that every week or do I just feel it? Every word this week could be a sermon, but don’t worry. I won’t. I promise. Of all the treasures this week, I’m left still affected by John. John the Baptizer, abandoned in Herod’s prison, sends a message to Jesus, “Are you the One or should we expect another?” Imagine his frustration as he heard of all the miracles that Jesus was doing and felt so deserted by His Lord. Jesus’s answer, “Tell him… (Luke 7 verse 21-23) “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” Miracles abound, but not in John’s own story.
I spent some time working out these verses in my heart this week. I felt so bad for John, forsaken and doubt filled. How could this man, (of whom Jesus spoke, “among those born of women, there is no one greater than John”) be so shaken in his faith? I know the answer before I finish typing the words. I know this man because he is me, unfortunately not for his greatness but because of his doubt. I suspect he is every one of us at one point or another, when we ask, “Lord, I know You can do miracles. Where are You in my circumstances?” Yet Jesus had not forgotten John. He sends him a blessing, not a miracle, “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” John, persevere, and you will receive my blessing.
I want to share an excerpt by Mark Buchanan from Things Unseen: Living in Light of Forever, (who also wrote Your God is Too Safe). If you want to print this out, here it is in an Adobe Acrobat file.
Things Unseen: Living in Light of Forever
By Mark Buchanan
(Mark Buchanan is a pastor and freelance writer/editor, educated at the University of British Columbia and Regent University. He has been published in numerous periodicals including Christianity Today and Books and Culture. His books include: The Holy Wild, Ubiquity, and Your God is Too Safe.)
PART III: Heaven-Sent — Being of Earthly Good
The One Thing Needed
No one anticipated and celebrated the coming of Jesus Christ more than John the Baptist. While still curled tightly inside Elizabeth’s womb, John leapt for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice, somehow knowing, even in fetal darkness, whose presence he was in. Deep called to deep.
Later, as an adult, John was the first to proclaim Jesus publicly “Behold!” he shouted from the shallows of the Jordan to the huge crowds pressing down to the river’s edge. “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29). Then Jesus Himself waded into that river and stood before John, asking for baptism. “But I can’t,” John said, amazed, afraid, thinking, I am not worthy to untie Your shoes. “You are the one who should baptize me.” But Jesus insisted, and John obeyed.
Soon after, John’s disciples worried that Jesus–that man, they called Him, indignant-was eclipsing John and warned him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan-the one you testified about–well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.” John replied, “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:26, 30). There was a small company of saints and sages, holy men and prophets, who from the beginning recognized Jesus as the Christ, and with them not even one thin shadow of doubt skittered across their conviction. There were the magi, the shepherds, Isaiah, Anna, Simeon. And John. But the greatest of these was John.
So it is all the more troubling that one day, John’s faith gives out. His prickly, backwoods, scolding ways, his inability to mince words into droll euphemisms and soft hints, his political meddling devoid of statecraft, have landed him in Herod’s prison. There he sits. His thoughts are on Jesus. He isn’t in prison on account of Jesus. He’s there for daring to confront the powers that be. But his courage to confront those powers has everything to do with Jesus, with who he believes He is and what he believes He will do. Unlike so many others who follow Jesus, John has a heaven-borne clarity about His messianic role: It is not militaristic, but sacrificial; not imperialistic, but priestly; not a bloodstained conquest, but a blood-soaked atonement. Jesus is not the Warrior King who will remove the scourge of Rome from the earth. He is the Lamb of God, who will take away the sins of the world.
John is a good theologian. But he sits in a prison cell, listening maybe to the scrabbling of a rat in the corner, maybe to the cooing of a dove outside, maybe to the rasp and clink of an ax blade being sharpened against a whetstone in the next room. John has never sought for himself creature comforts–a cave dweller he, garbed in camel hair, nourished on wild, winged things–so the hardness and smallness and loneliness of this place fits him.
But he is restless. He is anxious. He doubts.
The firmness in him buckles. His flinty, unflinching boldness, his clear and fierce conviction, breaks. Surely Jesus knows my situation. He’s not going to leave me here. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. I’ve played such a crucial part in His drama. I’ve been there from the beginning. I’m family. And if ever Jesus had a moment to show His authority over every other principality and power, this is it.But Jesus doesn’t come. He is busy with a preaching mission in, of all places, Galilee. The backwoods. Jesus–to put it bluntly–didn’t seem to care. Is Jesus really the one? So John sends his disciples to Jesus to ask the question “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Jesus replies, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:3-5). Go tell John, You want proof that I am the one you were expecting? Look at the miracles I’m doing. Look at the people being healed and blessed. But then, typically, Jesus adds what seems a non sequitur: “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me” (Matthew 11:6). Why would anyone fall away on account of someone who is opening the eyes of the blind, curing leprosy, making lame people walk, and preaching good news to those who never get good news? Why would anyone fall away on account of that?
Unless, of course, you’re sitting in prison and, regardless of how great you’ve risen in the kingdom of God (see Matthew 11:11), not a single miracle is coming your way–not today, not tomorrow, not ever. And one day a man with arms like oak limbs and a hood that hides his face will stretch out your neck on a wood block, bring the burnished blade of an ax whistling down, and then serve up your head on a platter to a weak king and his spiteful wife and a foolish daughter. And Jesus will still be running His little crusade up among the yokels.
Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.
One morning I got a phone call from Craig, a man who attends the church I pastor. Craig has come out of a hard past. Alcoholism. A life of petty crime. A wife who drank herself to death. And one day Craig fell off a retaining wall that he sat on while waiting for a city bus. He plummeted forty feet, shattering bone, rending muscle, rupturing insides. It broke his back. Now he’s in chronic pain and unable to do any work involving sustained physical labor. He eventually got a legal settlement for his injury, but on the day he called me, the hope of that was far off. The case had suffered delay after delay, year after year, from lawyer apathy and bureaucratic backlogs.
Through it all, Craig came to Jesus Christ. He was baptized. He was freshly alive: always smiling, telling everyone about Christ, spending his days reading the Bible and Christian books, dreaming about God’s plans for him now. “Can I see you today?” Craig asked the morning he phoned. It was a day when my wife could hardly see me. “What’s up?” I asked. “Uh…, I don’t know,” he said. “Don’t take this too seriously…I just don’t want to live anymore.”
I made time. I met Craig at a coffee shop and asked him what was happening. “It’s what isn’t happening,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for a long time for something, anything, to change–my body to heal so I can work, a woman to come into my life so I’m not always alone, the court case from my accident to settle so I can get past that. But nothing ever happens. Or if it does, it just gets worse. Bad news. Another setback, and then another. I’ve had enough. I just would rather not have to live anymore. It’s like God doesn’t notice me. I don’t rate His attention. I sometimes wonder if any of this Christianity stuff is even real.”
Are you the one who was to come? Or should we expect someone else?
Earlier in the week I had talked with someone whose life had been utterly transformed by Christ. I spoke with another whose prayers for financial breakthrough had been answered beyond what they asked or imagined. I thought of a woman who had recently become a Christian, who told me, “Six months ago, if someone had tried to explain to me the sheer freedom and joy I would have today, I would have thought they were nuts.”
The eyes of the blind are being opened, Craig. The lame walk. The lepers are being cured. The good news, Craig–the good, stand-on-your-head, dance-in-the-streets, shout-from-the-rooftops news-is being preached to the poor.Now how does that make you feel? Worse.
Blessed is the man who doesn’t fall away on account of the One who does all this for others, but who sometimes leaves you–you!–in your prison, with death just outside the door. For me, one of the most difficult things about being a pastor is that too often I witness firsthand the lopsidedness of divine miracles. This man over here loses his car keys and after praying finds them right there on the sofa, where he had already looked three times before. Praise the Lord! That woman over there loses her child in a park one day, snatched away when her back is turned for thirty seconds, and never sees him again. This lady has a sinus headache, and when her friends lay hands on her, it vanishes. Isn’t God good? This fellow has bone cancer and feels as if broken glass is rending his insides, but even an entire church fasting and praying for forty-eight hours doesn’t relieve a single pang of his pain. This couple sells their house two days after they list it and, in a bidding war, get $15,000 more than what they were asking, only to find the “perfect place: four thousand square feet with wood floors and three stone fireplaces on two acres with fruit trees and a duck pond” for $30,000 less than they were ready to pay. Doesn’t God love to bless His children? Another couple has six children, one of them with severe learning disabilities and another with cerebral palsy, but the city inspector has just condemned their half-wide trailer, and they have no money to go elsewhere.
Blessed are those who don’t fall away on account of Jesus.
Jesus often pronounced the most unlikely people blessed. The Beatitudes are our primary evidence: “Blessed are the poor… those who mourn… those who hunger and thirst… those who are persecuted” (Matthew 5:3-11). “Because you have seen me, you have believed,” Jesus told Thomas after He had shown Himself, alive, to meet Thomas’ demand for proof of the Resurrection. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29, emphasis added).
What is it about the poor, the persecuted, the grieving, those who never see or touch the risen Christ, those who never taste one of His miracles–what is it about all these bruised up, broken-down, cut, and scabbed people that makes them blessed? More blessed, in fact, than the rich, the comfortable, the happy, the witnesses to resurrection? The answer must be that those who never see, never touch, are being forced by a divine austerity, by a God who remains elusive, to grasp the substance of faith. “Faith,” Hebrews says, “is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1).
If Jesus showed up at every funeral to raise the dead; if He showed up at every famine to multiply the meager rations into a banquet; if He showed up for every Thomas who declares, “Until I see, until I touch, I won’t believe”; if He showed up in every prison cell to fling the iron bars wide and, by angel-escort, waltz the prisoner out–well, indeed, our faith would be strengthened. But also weakened. Faith would more and more twine its roots just beneath the surface, splaying wide but not striking deep, gathering its nourishment from the capriciousness of circumstances. Jesus calls miracles signs. The writer of Hebrews calls them shadows. Miracles are meant to point to something bigger, more real, more alive, than themselves. But when faith comes to depend on miracle, it ends up mistaking the sign for the destination, the shadow for the substance, the nourishment for the soil itself.
Miracles, for all their power to shore up faith, are themselves rickety things, flimsy, vaporous. They can only point, mutely, to the place we need to go. They can only cast, coolly, the flat dark shape, devoid of detail, of the thing we need to embrace. At best, they are silhouettes, showing us in outline, without color or feature, the reality we need to behold. They are the fingerprints of God, a clue to His presence, but they are not His hand.
Blessed are those who don’t need the sign, the shadow. Blessed are those who, bereft of the miraculous cure or rescue or windfall or breakthrough, believe anyhow, turn and embrace the Reality anyhow. They have not fallen away on account of Jesus. They have grasped that a relationship with Jesus is different from a bargain or a contract with Him–an “if You do this for me, I will do this for You” arrangement. They have understood that a miracle is as much a veil as a shrine, that it conceals God as much as it discloses Him, that it can become not the “sign” that points to God, but the diversion that keeps us from Him. They have refused to stand in the company of those who “demand a sign,” whose demand is not an expression of their faith, but a display of their “wicked and adulterous” hearts (Matthew 12:39).
They are, rather, among the pure in heart who will see God–the Reality who casts the shadow, the Destination to whom the signs point.
Hoping for something is very different from hoping in Someone. This is what I told Craig that day. The difference is not one of degree, but of kind: To hope in Jesus is categorically different than to hope for anything He might do for me or for others. Hope that is built on Jesus’ feats and wonderworks–even if He were to perform such things over and over on demand–is hope built on sand. “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'” (Matthew 7:22-23).
I do hope that Jesus will do some things–reverse my male pattern baldness or give me fresh insights for the book I’m writing or protect my wife as she drives to town this morning or help Craig find a wife and a job. I hope for some of these things with more earnestness and ache than others, but my faith does not rest in them. They are in some ways the sentiments of faith, the feelings and wishes that arise from having faith, but they are not what grounds or gives rise to my faith. As the old hymn says, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”
“If only for this life we have hope in Christ,” the apostle Paul wrote, “we are to be pitied more than all men” (l Corinthians 15:19). We can hope in Christ, but if that hope is only for the here and the now, if it is strictly earth-bound, we are in the deepest sense hopeless. If the fullness of our hope is no more than a divine miracle brokered in the temporal realm–our sicknesses cured, our ruptured relationships mended, the prisoners set free, the famished fed–our lives are ultimately pathetic, pitiful. Because hope then is only hope for something I might get, not hope in Someone I know. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we’re to be pitied more than all men.
We hope in Christ not just because He feeds us, or heals us, or routs our enemies. Indeed, sometimes he doesn’t do any of that; sometimes He turns us away empty-bellied, cancer-ridden, defeated. No, we hope in Christ because of who He is, because He has the words of eternal life, and because anyone “who feeds on this bread will live forever.” Because the world–and all its bread and all its fish and all its jewels and all its wonders and all its everything–is not enough. Life doesn’t justify living. Only eternity does. And Jesus alone grants that.
But here John is in prison. The stone walls press close, taunting. The stifling, rancid air goes down his throat like a burr, catching, stinging. His voice, thin and dry, sounds far away: a voice, crying, in the wilderness. He instructs his disciples: “Go ask Jesus, ‘Are you the one who was to come?”’ He pauses. Some gray shadow of memory crosses his face. ‘‘‘or should we expect someone else?'” (see Matthew 11:3). They leave. He waits. The waiting is terrible. A waiting like that is an unfortified city, begging for vandals, plunderers, ghosts. John tries to sleep, but he is too anxious and too weary for it. So he waits. His disciples return and report all that they have seen and heard. “There was this old woman, John, bent and twisted as that lone tree in the potter’s field, and Jesus spoke a word and she straightened up, supple as a willow branch, and started dancing. And this man, his eyes were dead as stones, and Jesus spit on His fingers and rubbed them, and when the man opened his eyes, they shone like wet jewels. He laughed; he started singing. And that leper… and those beggars…and even a dead child–John, we saw it with our own eyes–Jesus brought that little girl back to life. The parents–oh, John, I’ve never seen joy like that. “Oh, and John, Jesus said something strange just before we left. It was a word, He said, just for you: ‘Blessed is he who does not fall away on account of Me.'”
John, I think, smiled. And he knew: Jesus is the one.