Maybe you’re the sort of person who believes in signs. Maybe your faith leans in to the miraculous, the significance in the seemingly insignificant. Maybe you believe this is how God still works.
Or maybe you’re the sort of person who thinks all of that is nonsense. Maybe you need logic and reason, facts and figures. Signs are quaint and miracles are rare; give me something I can understand, something I can explain, something I can wrap myself around.
The first Christians had both backgrounds. Some were Jewish, born and raised with an Old Testament God who did Old Testament God things: floods and rainbows, frogs and locusts, pillars of cloud and fire. Their taste for signs and wonders worked backward and forward, drawing on a colorful history of God speaking in these ways to inform the search for a Messiah yet to come.
And some of the first Christians were Gentiles, born and raised in a Greco-Roman culture where professional persuasion was still new and exciting (and perhaps held in higher esteem than in our world of marketing and advertising today). Give me philosophy, give me reason, give me wisdom herself to show the way.
In the New Testament, Paul speaks to not just these two groups but their ideas as he opens his letter to the church in Corinth:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:22-24 (NRSV)
(Everyone should love something the way Paul loves commas.)
Some of us look for signs. Some of us want a better argument. But what we get is Christ: not just a Messiah, but a crucified one. It is not the sign they were looking for, and on its face it doesn’t make any sense. But somehow in receiving this Jesus, we get a taste of both the power of the miraculous and the wisdom of the ages.
This year in the season of Lent our church walked through a series on the seven signs Jesus provides in the Gospel of John. After performing his third sign in John 5 by healing a man by a pool who had been ill for 38 years, Jesus tells him to get up, take his mat, and walk. He does this on the sabbath, which means when the man made well encounters the Jewish religious leaders, what they see is a man carrying his mat. They see someone working on the sabbath. They miss the miraculous because they can’t see past the law. When they confront Jesus with this, he responds, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.”
And so now they want to kill him, not just because he interprets sabbath differently but because Jesus equates himself with God. And Jesus gives a lengthy response to these religious leaders over 29 verses.
I’ve been rediscovering Eugene Peterson’s The Message this year, and his interpretation of John 5:39-42 is striking:
“You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want.
“I’m not interested in crowd approval. And do you know why? Because I know you and your crowds. I know that love, especially God’s love, is not on your working agenda.
I’m not sure how high “don’t be a Pharisee” is supposed to be on our list. But this passage has stayed with me well past the third sign in this series.
Sometimes I encounter this growing sense or fear among the faithful that the Bible is losing its relevance in our world, especially with younger generations. As a 35-year old I can choose to self-identify with millennials when it serves me well and point the finger at those kids when it doesn’t. But when we perceive something we love to be under attack, we often rush in to defend it with equal or greater zeal.
But at least in my corner of the world, the biggest issue the Bible faces isn’t attack. It’s apathy. And if that’s the case, we don’t need a better defense. We need a better offense.
The phrase The Message interprets as, “You have your heads in your Bibles constantly,” is most often translated as, “You search the scriptures,” in more traditional versions. But I don’t think the Jewish religious leaders missed the miracle because they searched too much scripture. I think they missed it because they were holding parts of it so close to their faces they couldn’t see Jesus working outside their field of vision.
We all have our working agendas. Good grief, we do. Sometimes they even have a scriptural basis. But if whatever they are causes us to miss the at-work love of God, or fail to do more than simply acknowledge its presence, we’re holding them too close to our faces.
John’s gospel will go on to say that for us, love is the sign. Sometimes love is the miracle. And it is the best of our many options. God’s love, not just like but as a crucified Messiah, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on the surface. But in its presence we find a greater power and a deeper wisdom than anything we might search the scriptures or anywhere else for.
This love is not only the sign, it’s exactly what makes the Bible so urgently relevant. Our defensive arguments about scripture, even the ones that are actually well-reasoned and true, will never be as relevant as the forest narrative of scripture itself: God’s love made manifest in a Christ who died and a Christ who is risen, indeed.
I’m more of a philosophy guy than a signs-and-wonders guy. I get paid to search the scriptures. And I am fascinated by not just the trees but the branches.
But Jesus is also fond of saying that much of the work we do in judging others takes place with a thick branch in our own eyes. If we are going to see anything clearly, and if we are going to join the God who is always working in our world, we have to make sure our field of vision is wide enough to not miss Jesus.
Whatever our agendas and whatever we’re staring at – whether it’s the man by the pool hoping the water will cure him, the religious leaders with their nose in the law, those of us looking for a sign and those of us looking for an answer – don’t forget to blink every once in a while. Because none of us want to miss Christ at work. None of us want to miss the miraculous. And sometimes, just getting ourselves to blink can be its own little miracle.