Matthew’s gospel this morning takes us back to Jesus hometown of Capernaum. He’s a local here. This turns out to be a problem. Everybody in town knows him and his mother, Mary. Wasn’t he the local carpenter? Isn’t he James and Simon’s brother? Aren’t his sisters right here in town? We’ve watched him grow up. How can this local kid work miracles? They had Jesus figured. They KNEW what he could and couldn’t do. They had him boxed. Jesus was astonished at their lack of faith. You can almost see Jesus throwing up his hands in exasperation.
All over Judea, the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life. But the people of Capernaum knew Jesus couldn’t really have done this. They had him boxed.
Jesus himself attributed these healings to faith. Jesus didn’t say “I have healed you.” Again and again, Jesus told people, It is your faith that has healed you. The people he healed, their families, their friends, they had faith that the power to heal was somehow resident in Jesus. They wanted healing, and they believed that God, through Jesus, could and would heal them. They brought their faith to Jesus. They took the enormous risk of belief. Faith is risky. We’re a little afraid of faith. If we have faith God can do great miracles, that means God is very, very big and very, very powerful.
So, what do we today feel about these miracles? Was Jesus a super-powerful faith healer? Some are convinced there had to be natural, physical causes for the miracles. Or a sociological, or psychological cause, or even an honest error in perception. Some describe the feeding of the four and five thousand as social miracles. Those tough, field-smart Israeli peasants must have packed extra bread and dried fish, and moved by the words of Jesus, shared their food. Maybe willingness to share food with strangers is generous, wonderful even, but not miraculous.
The gentile woman from Tyre who begged Jesus for the scraps that fell from the table? The deaf and dumb man whom Jesus healed with a touch and a word. The woman who, unseen by Jesus, touched the hem of his garment and was instantly healed. The blind man whose sight was restored. All the miracles of healing for those who asked or wanted to be healed. Were these just a “placebo effect?” Were the illnesses and blindness just hysterical, psychosomatic and Jesus maybe a “fast-acting shrink?” When we think this, we trivialize the power of G-d’s ability to merge the surface material and the spiritual real. Oh, how we put God in a box!
I don’t need to remind you that God is really big. God is so big we can’t calculate the height, depth, width or length of God. God is beyond human comprehension, never mind human measurement. Still, many otherwise very smart people are determined to whittle God down to human size. Put God in a manageable box. There’s nothing new in this. And, there is nothing new in the price it exacts. A small God can make us feel big —but only for a little while. I think much of the anxiety, anger and outright craziness we see affecting our country —and much of the Western world— comes from our ever-increasing efforts to stuff God into an ever smaller box. The news plays out the consequences of trying to put God into a small box.
God warns us over and over in both Old Testament and New Testament. God is Holy, Incomprehensible, Loving and Real. Do not try to explain God in human terms. Do not try and reduce God or contain God in a space in which we allow him to exist. Do not try to make God over in your image. Our role as a human being is to allow God to transform, change us into his image.
People have been trying to put God in a box as far back as we’ve recorded. Even a literal box. King David tried to put God in a box. He decided to build God a house. God’s answer through the prophet Nathan, ’Are you to build me a house to dwell in? Down to this day I have never dwelt in a house since I brought Israel up from Egypt; I lived in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I journeyed with Israel, did I ever ask any of the judges whom I appointed shepherds of my people Israel why they had not built me a cedar house?
David’s son Solomon decided to build God a house. Solomon’s Temple as it is called, was just that. Solomon’s Temple. God did not ask Solomon to build it. But, God accommodated Solomon and let him build it. It’s humbling to realize that the wisest human being of all time made the same mistake as his father David. Solomon wanted to put God in a box. God let him build the temple. God also let Solomon acquire 1000 wives and concubines. God also let Solomon restore the pagan high places so his women, and Israel, could worship these fake gods. But, the result of Solomon’s actions, putting God safely in a box and in doing things his own way, led to the breakup of Israel and Judah, the civil war and the destruction and captivity that followed Solomon’s death.
God doesn’t live in a box or a house. Our human tendency, like David, and even like wise Solomon, is to think in human terms, not God’s terms. When we put God in a box, we diminish our faith. We push faith away. We deny faith —we even hide from it. For some who run away from the riskiness of faith, church becomes empty rituals. Others can lose themselves in good works. Good works are very important, charitable works are one of the fruits of our faith. There is a potential trap in “good works.” Doing good works makes it easy to let the good works substitute for faith. It’s safe. We don’t need a powerful God to do good works. We can do this ourselves. We can trust in us to do these things. Faith in a powerful God is unnecessary.
Were the miracles real? Did events unfold in Judea as the Bible describes? Did Jesus really work miracles for people who believed he could do this? If God can’t even really multiply bread and fish, If God couldn’t even drive out a demon, if God couldn’t actually open ears and loosen tongues, how could God have created the universe! Walking on water? It’s no metaphor. God who created the elements in the stars and who established the unchanging rules which govern all matter and energy, seen and unseen, who created light from darkness and life out of entropy, our God can and does overpower the material by the spiritual. Faith drove out the demon. Faith gave the hearing and speech. Jesus walked on water. Peter walked on water, and only when Peter took his eyes off Jesus and looked down did he begin to sink.
This is good advice for Christians. Keep your eyes on Jesus! It should be easy. Jesus is ten dimensional, not three dimensional. Jesus is everywhere, unboxed and unlimited by time and space, unbounded by physical vision or human touch. Jesus wants us to pay attention to him because he wants us to become like him, become his brothers and sisters. The Lord is not finished with us. We are still evolving. We humans are still transforming from our animal roots to becoming children of G-d. Engaging our faith will change us and bring this transformation!
When we try to put G-d in a box, reduce God to what we think is reasonable, we trivialize G-d. With G-d in the box we just “go through the motions” of religion. Friends, G-d is not in a box. God is on the loose and wants something from us and for us. He wants to do great things for us. G-d will multiply whatever we bring him. So, bring God your best, bring him your faith, suspend your skepticism!
Jesus used farming and fishing parables for the farmers and fisher-folk of Judea. Jesus wanted them to understand that Faith is not just “more of the same.” Faith is exponentially powerful. Faith lifts us out of the everyday box of our lives and breaks open our limitations. The parables and lessons Jesus teaches are familiar to us. Maybe too familiar. Let’s hear a few again with a fresh ear, listen and really hear Jesus teaching on the multiplication power of faith.
‘The kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed... smaller than any other seed, but when it has grown ... it becomes a tree, big enough for the birds to come and roost among its branches.’
‘Your faith is too small. Truly I tell you: if you have faith no bigger than a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there!” and it will move; nothing will be impossible for you.’
‘Truly I tell you: if only you have faith and have no doubts, you will do what has been done to the fig tree. And more than that: you need only say to this mountain, “Be lifted from your place and hurled into the sea,” and what you say will be done. Whatever you pray for in faith you will receive.’
‘The kingdom of Heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour till it was all leavened.’ A merchant looking out for fine pearls found one of very special value; so he went and sold everything he had and bought it.
To him who has, more will be given. To him who has not, even the little he has will be taken away.
The seed sown on good soil is the person who hears the word and understands it; he ... yields a hundredfold, or sixtyfold, or thirtyfold.’
For our more mechanical and scientific times, 2,000 years later we might paraphrase Jesus and say: Living With Faith is like shifting your life into a higher gear or being raised up into another dimension. Living Without Faith is like driving your car with the little starter motor, never switching on the engine. Engaging Your Faith is shifting your life out of Neutral into Drive and Opening the throttle.
Our human tendency is to avoid the risk, the challenge of faith in a powerful God. The people of Capernaum show what happens when we put God in a box. Our human tendency is to make man the measure of all things. We know what we can and can’t do. We want a God like us. An unthreatening God who doesn’t make unreasonable demands on us. A God who accepts us just the way we are. We’re happy with the “loving us” part. We’re not so happy with the “changing us” part.
The ritually faithful of Capernaum were certain Jesus’ could not work miracles for them. Their faith was that miracles would NOT happen. Their faith was proved right. The people of Capernaum show what happens when we put God in a box. God left town!
So, keep your awe but lose your fear of a God big enough to do all these miracles. Trust your faith. Go with it. Take the risk. Keep God here in town.