A Homily for the Fourth Wednesday of Advent
Text: St. Mark 8:11-26
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who came to work wondrous miracles. Amen.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about our Lenten readings is the sort of haphazard way in which texts are put together. Our Sunday lectionary readings tend to focus on short chunks. We see a single thought or event play out, maybe even skipping over verses to smooth things out; Jesus does one or two related things, and there ends the reading. The daily lectionary, though, follows a different pattern: it flows over two years rather than three and moves day-to-day rather than week-to-week, which means it covers more ground in a single go. And sometimes the result can leave us wondering.
Take this evening, for instance. The Pharisees come to Jesus and demand a sign. Our Lord “sighs deeply in his spirit” – let’s take just a minute and appreciate Jesus’ sarcastic side here.
Anyway, he sighs and refuses to show them a miracle. Not only will he not give them a sign now, but “no sign will be given to this generation.”
But then Christ immediately hops into a boat and asks his disciples if they understood the sign he worked a few verses earlier. And then, on the other side of the sea, hops out of the boat and immediately works yet another miraculous sign.
How is this not a contradiction? I thought “no sign will be given to this generation”? And sure, Saint Mark may not refer to these miracles as “signs,” but the Gospel According to Saint John certainly does.
To be clear, working miracles was not rare in the ancient world. Recall that the disciples are out wandering around when they find someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and that Peter and Paul repeatedly encounter fortune tellers and wonder-workers in their journeys as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles. Miracles, prophecy, healing, and magic were all closely linked and not easily differentiated. Royalty and religious groups would often employ wonder-workers. Having someone who could make it rain was a huge advantage for a king, and miraculous deeds helped establish a level of prophetic credibility – sort of a way to prove that you had the favor of a particular god or could control supernatural elements.
What the Pharisees are asking for is proof. They’ve undoubtedly heard about the work that Christ has been doing, the miraculous healings and the feeding of the multitude. They want something on-demand. “Prove it,” they order. “Prove you are who you say you are; prove that you have power and authority, and then maybe we will listen to you.”
But Christ is not interested in demonstrating his divine power to accrue earthly authority. Throughout Saint Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has repeatedly done just the opposite: warning others to keep silent about his miraculous deeds. In just under a chapter, he’s going to lead Peter, James, and John up the mountain and be transfigured before them – but then immediately order “them to tell no one what they had seen.”
Rather, Christ’s miraculous deeds, the divine signs of his authority, are about restoration and justice. Instead of seeking a cozy position in Herod’s court or as a well-off religious leader or leading a military rebellion, he’s at work feeding the hungry. He’s restoring sight to the blind. He’s liberating the oppressed from sin and death.
In short, he’s putting into action the words we will soon sing in the Magnificat: He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.
These displays of power, these miraculous signs, aren’t to win over the approval of the powerful but to lift up the powerless.
May we go and do likewise.