Seeing Miracles…Beyond Christmas!

By Joe LaGuardia

During our Pastor’s Bible Study last Sunday evening (November 27), someone mentioned that we tend to talk about miracles only around the Christmas season.  We speak of the miracles surrounding Christmas: angels displayed in heavenly praise, heavenly hosts communicating with shepherds and Joseph and Mary, visions for magi, and the greatest miracle of all: the virgin birth of Jesus our Lord and Savior.

It is around this season that we also liken miracles to gifts–God’s gifts to us, from the gift of our Savior to that of God setting us apart to do His will–are miracles that we recognize and affirm.

Why do we not speak of miracles more often?  Do miracles only happen around the holidays–and only those that happened as recorded in the Bible?  Does God still perform miracles even today, even if today is mundane and ordinary?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I still believe in miracles, and the God that I serve, love and worship still performs miracles in season and out.  We simply need to wake up and see them, to be thankful, to have God first on our mind (not an afterthought), and acknowledge that even the slightest, smallest gift a miracle of God can erupt!
When I worked with senior citizens as a chaplain in Atlanta, I learned that even the air we breathe is a miracle.  I often asked people in my visitations, “How are you today?” and they responded, “I am up and I am breathing, its a gift and God’s miracle for me!”

I think that if we do not experience God’s miracles that is not God’s problem, its our problem.  We take God for granted, we forget the sanctity of life, and we tend to ignore (or we totally fail to see) opportunities that the Holy Spirit has for us.On a recent morning, my son Hayden told of being awoken by a still, small voice in the middle of the night right before a thunderstorm came over our home.  The voice said, “Go to mommy!” and while he was walking sleepily to our bedroom to do just that, a loud thunderous boom crackled outside!

Hayden told us that he never heard a voice like that, so clear and commanding–he had to obey it!  I said that it was none other than the Holy Spirit keeping him safe.  Who else would’ve known that a lightning bolt was to strike right outside of the window?  That was a miracle, and my son’s openness to obey the Holy Spirit was a miracle too.

Jesus once told his disciples that when they approach God it is best to do so as children.  Children have that sense of awe we tend to lose as the years pass.  Children expect to be surprised and find joy in learning new things.  Our ability to experience and acknowledge miracles–not just around Christmas, but always!–really depends on our ability to come to God with this same innocent wonder and amazement as our children!

‘Tis the joy of the season and the joy of knowing the God of miracles!

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Bartimaeus: Persistance Pays!

bartBy Joe LaGuardia

As we make our way to All Saint’s Day, I have committed two articles to explore minor Bible characters that inspire us to grow closer to the Lord.  Last week I wrote about Titus. This week, we take a close look at Bartimaeus, the blind man whom Jesus healed according to Mark 10:46-52.

We begin with a statement for reflection: Let it not be said that when Jesus visits us, he leaves as quickly as he came without making a difference in our lives.

Persistence, courage, and passion–not a melancholy faith–are the ingredients for effective discipleship.

In Mark 10, scripture tells us that Jesus exited Jericho no sooner than he entered the city, another way of saying that he did not make much of a difference in the lives of people there.  He did, however, meet a blind man, Bartimaeus, on the roadside.

Mark’s concise artistry is telling: “They came to Jericho . . . he was leaving Jericho.  Bartimaeus was sitting on the roadside.”

Unlike the gospel of Luke, which informs us that Jesus had dinner with tax collector Zacchaeus while in Jericho (Luke 19:1); and unlike the gospel of Matthew, who mentions that Jesus ran into two unnamed blind men, Mark wants us to focus in on this peculiar individual.

It is Bartimaeus’s story that has lessons to teach us and shows the power of persistent faith in the face of all odds.

The first thing we notice about Bartimaeus is that he knew Jesus: he “shouted” out to Jesus and called him “Son of David.”

This is one of the few times Jesus is accredited with a royal title by a person in Mark’s gospel.  It speaks to Jesus’ growing influence, as well as Bartimaeus’ courage: It was not appropriate for a person on the margins or with a disability to approach a person of stature (rabbi or otherwise) without first being acknowledged by said Rabbi.

No wonder the disciples tried to silence Bartimaeus.  Even then, Bartimaeus did not give up in asking for a blessing: “Have mercy on me!”

There is something about Bartimaeus’s deep knowledge of Christ and his persistence that challenges our own search for God: Do we seek Christ’s face and mercy even in the face of steep odds, others who try to silence us, or situations that inhibit us from getting to Jesus?

Or do we let Jesus walk by without transforming us?

Bartimaeus’s persistence worked, and Jesus called him over.  The blind man threw off his cloak and “sprang up” to meet him.  He did not hesitate for a moment to come to Christ.

When Jesus asked Bartimaeus what he wanted, Bartimaeus bypassed mercy and expressed his deepest need, “Heal my sight!”  He did not mince words.

Too often, we hesitate to approach Jesus and tell him of our deepest needs.   We beat around the bush, stumble along, and ask Jesus what we need with half-hearted pleas common of mediocre faith.

This blind man risks everything in becoming vulnerable, exposing that which kept him outside of the city walls and beyond the reach of friends.

Jesus healed Bartimaeus and said that Bartimaeus’s faith was a factor in that miracle.  In other words, it was persistence, passion, and an unrelenting pursuit of Christ that made a difference.

But the story does not end there.  Bartimaeus “followed Jesus on the way.”

He could have easily entered Jericho, returned to family, or went to live a comfortable life in a city known for its bustling economy.  Instead, he followed Jesus without ever considering the destination, future, or outcome of that radical life of discipleship.

Although the historical accuracy surrounding this story is fraught with varying traditions among the gospel witnesses, Mark’s purpose is quite clear: He does not want us to be the type of people whom Jesus visits and leaves as quickly as he came without ever making a difference in our lives.

Mark wants us to follow Bartimaeus’s example by recognizing Jesus for who he is, being persistent in prayer and our relationship to Jesus, and following Jesus with unwavering faith.

 

 

Every Sermon a Miracle

journal

By Joe LaGuardia

How is it that a preacher can come up with a sermon each week?

I can’t speak for other pastors, but I’m quite certain that each sermon idea that hits me–especially on a weekly basis–is a miracle in and of itself.

There is something to be said about miracles, and a few weeks ago I wrote how miracles happen when we are willing to take a closer look at things.

But have you considered that your pastor’s sermons are the stuff of miracles too?

Pastors go about preaching in different ways, be it expository, narrative, or yelling words of doom.  No matter the style, however, something has to fill the 20 minutes it takes to persuade a congregation to connect with God, live into a new truth, and see life differently.

How easy would it be to stand at the pulpit and say, “This scripture lesson teaches us about this, and this is how it applies to our life”?

Sounds simple, but I imagine that a pastor would get fired if she did that every Sunday.  There is an expectation that a preacher will deliver a message that changes us from the inside out, and we want an award-winning one every week.

I liken this to love.  I can tell my wife, “I love you.”  It’s true and it may be convincing, but I have to express my love in concrete ways: doing kind gestures, taking time to listen, showing compassion.

Its the difference between telling my wife I love her and showing her that I love her.

A sermon is supposed to show us God’s truth and how that truth might impose upon or break into our life experiences.  This is why Jesus used parables to describe heavenly principles, such as the Kingdom of God.

If Jesus told me that the Kingdom of God is everywhere, I’d politely agree and move on.  But when Jesus said that the Kingdom of God was like a seed that grew exponentially without any help from the farmer (Mark 4:26-29), than the metaphor opens up all kinds of meaning for my life.

Its the art of “showing” that takes all of the work, and the illustrations that come about are a result of the miracles of God evoking effective sermon preparation.

There have been a few occasions when I arrived to church on a Friday, my sermon-writing day, with nothing in mind.  I may have the scripture lesson for Sunday.  I may even have the point I want to make or the sermon title.

But the beginning and the ending?  That’s a different story.

Once, I read Facebook post and had that “Ah-ha!” moment of clarity.  Another time, my wife said something about her day that inspired what I call a “point of contact,” that moment in the faith when we can connect something universal and conceivable and relevant to the biblical text.

Other times, I’ve put my anxiety aside and went for a walk.  Its a mind-clearing experience.  Birds, flowers, traffic, and even the litter I pick up around the church can be unlikely sources of inspiration.

Sermon ideas can come from reading.  I make it a habit to read the newspaper when it comes in the mail, at least one Christian magazine a month, and several books from different genres.  The material not only provides content for sermons, it also teaches the sermon writer how to organize or write sermons differently.

Nor is it unusual for pastors to gather together with other pastors in monthly groups to discuss sermon ideas and themes.  Several of us pastors in town do so and find the experience quite enriching.

When I was called into full-time pastoral ministry years ago, I had to face a certain truth that scared me: I need to write and preach a sermon every week.  Without God’s intercession and those miracles that continue to surprise me in new ways, I wouldn’t have much to say come Sunday morning.