by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts November 28 , 2004
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts
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Scripture Reading: Acts 2:41-43
So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.
Where would we be without signs? Well, we'd be literally lost. We wouldn't know how to get around. And often we wouldn't know what to do - or not to do - when we got to our destination.
But sometimes signs aren't quite as clear as we'd like. This is especially true when we run into translation problems. Consider, for example, the following signs:
• A sign by a French swimming pool: "Swimming Forbidden in the Absence of a Saviour" [And we thought the French weren't religious!]
• In Moscow by a Russian Orthodox monastery: "You are welcome to visit the cemetery where Famous Russian and Soviet composers, artists, and writers are buried daily except Thursday." [Now that's a helpful sign. You don't want to visit the cemetery on Thursdays when the corpses aren't buried, but are walking around like Zombies.]
• In a hotel lobby overseas: "Please Do Not Use This Lift When It Is Not Working." [Good rule of thumb, don't you think? Never use an elevator when it's not working.]
• In a hotel in Bucharest, Romania: "The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable." [Now this sign must have been specially made for the American tourists.]
Signs, for better or for worse, they're an essential part of our life. And they're also essential in the life of the church.
The Purpose of God's Signs
When God does something unusually wonderful in our world - healing a person's body, multiplying food, raising the dead - we tend to call it a miracle. Scripture, however, prefers the word "sign." In our text today we read: "Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles" (v. 43). Actually, in Greek both the word translated as "wonders" and the word translated as "signs" refer to a supernatural event that points to something else. Both "signs" and "wonders" are, in effect, supernatural signposts.
Question: To what to the biblical signs point?
The clearest answer to this question is found in the Gospel of John. There Jesus does many miracles, which this gospel calls "signs." And where do the signs point? Listen to John's conclusion of episode in which Jesus turned water into wine: "Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him" (John 2:11). The miraculous sign revealed something about Jesus, namely his glory. Moreover, it led his disciples to put their trust in him. Similarly, at the close of the Gospel of John we read the following summary: "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:30-31). Jesus performed many signs to promote belief in himself, and John recorded them in his gospel for the same purpose.
When God does miracles, which is to say, when God does extraordinary things in this world that can be observed, they serve as signs that have two purposes. First, they point to who God is. Second, they attract us to God so that we might put our faith in him.
Now, you may wonder, aren't many signs more than this? For example, if a person is miraculously healed of a disease, isn't this also an act of love on God's part. Isn't restoration to health a good thing all by itself whether it's a sign or not? Yes, of course it is. And God acts graciously in our lives because he loves us, to be sure. But from a biblical perspective, God's mighty works serve multiple purposes. One of the main ones purposes is to point to God, his nature, his presence, and his power, so that we might know him and believe in him.
Of course in our experience churches tend to rely upon means other than miraculous signs to draw people to the Lord. We use clever ad campaigns, word of mouth, appealing programming, eye-catching websites, and so on. These are all great, for the most part. We should use everything at our disposal to glorify God and help people to know him. But we mustn't assume that the signs and wonders we read about in the Bible no longer function evangelistically. If you pay attention to what's happening throughout the world today, you realize that God is pouring out his power to draw people to himself. In Africa and Latin America in particular, signs and wonders are functioning much as they did in the Book of Acts. As people experience miraculous healing or freedom from demonic powers, they are being drawn to Christ by the multitudes.
This is not what we commonly experience. Yet there's no theological reason why such signs and wonders should be limited to Christianity in the developing world. This raises a question that I expect many of you would want to ask right now: How can we experience signs and wonders in our life? in our ministry? in our church?
How Can We Experience Signs and Wonders?
If we let Scripture be our guide in this matter - as it should be in all matters of faith and life - then we discover two primary contexts in which God can be expected to perform signs and wonders.
1. Signs and Wonders in the Context of Mission
The first context is the one we see in Acts of the Apostles. It's the context of mission. Remember what Jesus said in Acts 1:8: "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." The power of the Spirit is given to enable us to bear witness to Jesus Christ. The more we are actively involved in this mission, the more we will experience God's miracles. This is true both for our individual lives and for our fellowship together as a church.
As I've shared with you before, one of the things that most pleases me about our church these days is our growing passion for reaching out to the world around us. Whether we're talking about the new third service, or Pizza lunch, or Mommie Time, or Women's Ministries, or mission trips, or . . . . you name it. I sense within this church an unprecedented eagerness to reach people for Christ. As we act upon this eagerness, we will experience more of God's miraculous power.
The same will be true in your own life, by the way. If you want to see the power of God at work through you, commit yourself to being a messenger of the good news. Tell the Lord something like this: "God, I'm available to you. I want you to use me as channel of the gospel. But I can't do it alone. I need your help. So, Lord, work through me to draw people to yourself. Empower me to be a witness." If you pray this prayer regularly - and mean it - you will be astounded by what God will do in your life.
Now I have a very specific word of encouragement for you in this regard. As you know, the next four weeks are prime time for inviting people to church. Even the most secular person will consider attending a church service during the Christmas season, especially on Christmas Eve. And this year we've made it even easier for you to invite your friends and neighbors by having two Christmas Eve services for children and families. In the past our single service at 4:00 p.m. has been standing-room-only. Now we'll have one service at 3:30 and another at 4:45, in addition to later services at 6:30 and 11:0o. So I would urge you to invite folks to church. But here's the kicker: Ask God to help you do this. Pray intentionally and consistently for God to show you whom to invite this year to church. Ask the Lord for a supernatural opportunity to reach out to people, even to share a bit of our faith with them. Then follow God's lead.
2. Signs and Wonders in the Context of the Body of Christ
The second context in which we can expect signs and wonders is the body of Christ. When we gather together as the people of God for the purpose of building up each other in love, the Spirit of God does mighty works.
Many biblical passages make this point, but none more sharply than 1 Corinthians 12-14. The Corinthians, you see, were "into" signs and wonders, but mainly for their own experience. They wanted miracles, especially speaking in unknown languages, so they could feel puffed up about their own spiritual prowess.
Yet this preoccupation with self, strangely similar to what we find in our own day, was inconsistent with the gospel of Christ. So Paul penned what we know as 1 Corinthians 12-14 to redirect Corinthian motivation. In these chapters he reaffirms the supernatural dimension of Christian living. We can expect, Paul says, God to do manifold miracles among us through the Holy Spirit. But the point is not our own thrill or pride. Rather, the point is mutual edification. Signs and wonders are given so that the body of Christ might be built up, so that we might help each other grow into the wholeness and fullness of God.
In one simple verse Paul answers the question: How can we experience signs and wonders? It's verse one of 1 Corinthians 14: "Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy." "Pursue" translates a vigorous Greek verb that means, among other things, to chase after as in a hunt. If you want to experience the supernatural dimension of Christian living, Paul says, chase after loving one another in the body of Christ. Focus, not on your desire to experience power, but on the needs of others. As you reach out to meet these needs, God will provide the power you need.
So, then, if you yearn to know what it's like to pray for the sick and actually have someone get better, don't begin by trying to become a healer. And whatever you do, don't imitate the shenanigans of so-called faith healers on television. Rather, ask the Lord to put upon your heart someone who needs healing. As God leads, find a setting in which to pray for that person, preferably with a few others. In your prayers, don't focus upon making some miracle happen. Let the Spirit fill your mind and heart with the love of Christ, and pray in that love. Whether God chooses to heal or not will be up to him. But I guarantee you that if you seek to love and seek the Lord, you will experience his power in astounding and often unexpected ways. Sometimes these won't be the ways you'd prefer, but that's when you realize once more that God is in charge.
Sisters and brothers, I believe God is calling us to be more actively involved in caring for and praying for each other. I know this happens already in many, many ways. Praise God! But there is so much more that God wants to do in and through us. Our job is to love each other with greater consistency, intimacy, and vulnerability. We need to pray for one another, not just from a safe distance, but with our hands laid on and our hearts open. What happens over here at the Prayer Alcove after worship is a great start, but it's only the first stride in a long journey of healing.
But What About Faith?
As I'm talking, I know that some of you are excited. Some of you have been waiting for permission to do the very things I'm describing, and you're ready to go. But I know others of you are hesitant. You're okay with signs and wonders from a theological point of view, but you're not sure how much you really want to dabble in them for yourself. Others of you may have come from Christian contexts in which the supernatural dimension of the Christian life was mixed up with all sorts of bizarre behavior and corrupt theology. Even the mention of signs and wonders gives you the willies. In addition, I expect that a whole lot of us here today are thinking: Okay, I'm willing to accept what the Bible says about signs and wonders. But I'm not sure I have the faith to step out. I believe that God can heal all diseases, but I don't think I have the faith to pray for someone really to be healed of some terrible disease, like cancer, for example. Isn't faith required for healing prayer? So if I don't have much, what can I do?
This is a GIANT topic that deserves more than one sermon. Maybe I'll do a whole series on faith sometime. But, in the meanwhile, let me say a few words about faith in relationship to signs and wonders.
First, yes, faith does matter. Jesus made it clear at many points in the gospels that faith is an essential component of the miraculous. For example, Jesus once said, "Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive" (Matt 21:22). Furthermore, in one of the most unsettling passages in the gospels, Jesus went to his hometown, where his power to do miracles was strangely limited. Mark explains it this way: "And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief" (Mark 6:5-6). So, even as faith leads to miracles, a lack of faith can keep us from experiencing God's power in our lives.
Faith in Jesus does truly impact our experience of the miraculous. Yet, having said this, I want to qualify it in two ways. First, though our having faith in Christ is essential for healing, this does not mean that every time we pray with genuine faith an obvious healing will occur. Some Christians teach this, to their spiritual peril. We must always remember that God is sovereign, and that though our faith matters, it's not some magic key to make God do what we want him to do. This also means, by the way, that you and I must NEVER tell a person that they haven't been healed because they lack enough faith. This trip has been laid on too many Christians too many times.
My second qualification is this. Though faith does matter if we're going to experience God's power in our lives, remember how much faith Jesus said we need to have: "For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you" (Matt 17:20). How much faith do you need? A mustard seed's worth! Elsewhere Jesus emphasized how tiny a mustard seed is. So to experience God's power you don't need a mountain of faith, but only a smidgen. In practice this means that if you have enough faith actually to pray for God's supernatural help, that's enough faith.
Yet the challenge for us in the Western world is to overcome the anti-supernaturalistic bias of our culture and even of our own hearts. We have learned to rely so much on ourselves, our science, and our technology that we have a hard time learning to put our primary trust in God. If we're struggling with a severe illness, for example, we'll think nothing of investing hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars in getting the best medical care. This is fine. Medical care is one of God's good gifts to us. But, in contrast, we'll often invest only a few minutes - if that -- in getting folks to pray for us. You might come up once to the Prayer Alcove if you've got something seriously wrong with you, but you probably won't come again even if you're still not better. We need to learn together to trust God more, to pray more, to ask for prayer more often. We must get others to pray for us, sometimes again and again and again. We need to learn to lay hands upon one another as we pray, and to intercede, not just for a few moments, but for longer periods as we seek the Lord. In this process we will encourage each other to have more faith in God.
By the way, I should add here an exhortation to each one of us: As the Lord blesses you, share it with others. If God uses you in some exciting way in ministry, don't keep it to yourself. When you experience God's miraculous power at work in your life, let us know. Not only will we be able to join in your gratitude, but also we'll be encouraged to trust God more. The overall "faith-quotient" of our church will rise. We'll expect more of God. We'll pray more. And, as a result, we'll see God do more than we ever imagined to be possible.
Signs and Wonders for Today
Last week I shared my process in coming to believe that signs and wonders are for today, not just for Bible times. If you missed that sermon, you might want to check it out, either on tape, or by streaming it from the IPC website, or by reading the manuscript from my website.
I want to wrap up this sermon by talking about signs and wonders for today, but with a different sense of "for." Yes, I believe that signs and wonders are "for" today in the sense that God does miracles today. But I also want to ask what sorts of signs and wonders might be effective "for" people in our time and place. In other words, if God wants to point to his presence and power in this community, what might he do?
Of course classic miracles wouldn't hurt. If you have a serious illness and God heals you miraculously, that will speak loudly to your friends and neighbors of the reality and mercy of God. But I believe there are other signs of God's presence that will communicate powerfully in our community. These signs may not be quite as supernaturally flashy as miraculous healings, but they have power to speak to people's hearts. And I believe they are every bit a much miraculous as other more obvious actions.
What signs am I thinking of? Well, how about the sign of a healed marriage? As you know, marriages are breaking up all around us. With all the pressures of family life and work, not to mention a culture that tempts us to be unfaithful to our spouses, it isn't easy to keep a marriage strong. The mere fact of a healthy marriage may itself be a miracle. But when people go through terribly difficult times in their marriages and yet come out of it, not only still married, but often with a stronger marriage than before, this is a powerful sign of God's work. I know several marriages in this church, for example, that have weathered the storms of separation and even adultery. In these relationships God has done a profound work of healing. One couple in our congregation was literally a signature away from divorce when God intervened to heal their relationship. Now this is a sign and wonder if ever there were one!
Another powerful sign of God's supernatural presence is genuine Christian community. I'm not speaking merely of Christians being nice to each other at church. I'm talking rather of deep, risky, committed involvement in the lives of others. I'm talking about fellowship that is bathed in grace and mercy. I'm talking about relationships in which, when one person wrongs another, both parties seek reconciliation. I'm talking about a church where people forgive and are forgiven. I'm talking about a community in which you are loved for who you are and, at the same time, encouraged to become more and more like Christ.
I could go on with many other signs, but I've run out of time. You might like to think up some on your own. Please remember, however, that I'm not downplaying the reality or the power of the classic signs, such as physical healing. I'm simply trying to stretch our vision for how God's power might speak through us to our world.
Conclusion: Keeping Our Focus in the Right Place
Let me close by reminding you of where we must focus if we want to experience signs and wonders. Not on signs and wonders. Not on miracles. Not on charismatic personalities. Not on magic words. Not on what you or I can get out of it. Rather, we're to focus first of all upon Christ. We're to seek him and to seek to be like him. If our passion is to lift him up and to glorify Christ, then we'll be in a place to experience miracles and genuine signs.
Second, we must focus on loving one another and building up the body of Christ at Irvine Presbyterian Church. God will provide, through his Spirit, gifts of power to help us bring healing to each other and wholeness to our church.
Third, we must focus on reaching out to the world with the good news of Christ. Jesus promised that the Spirit would empower the church to be his witnesses. The more we do this, the more we will experience the signs and wonders that accompany God's mission in the world.
So, my friends, let us seek to glorify Christ, to love one another, and to bear witness to Christ in the world. As we do, may God perform signs and wonders among us that point to his power and presence. May he receive all the glory!