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 Magic Thinking vs Miracle Working

Sermon - 1/13/13
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Acts 8:9-24

We are in the midst of the epiphany season, when we celebrate the coming of God's light into a darkened world. And so we still have the stars shining overhead (as promised), and I got to thinking as I came in this morning and saw it that I kind of like the effect of the stars without all the other Christmas decorations. It draws more attention to it. It's a nice little feature that reminds us of what this season is about.

The word, epiphany, comes from a Greek word -- 'epiphaneia' -- which means "appearance", "showing forth", "manifestation", and it's actually something used in Greek mythology, any appearance or visible manifestation of a deity (whether in bodily form or through deeds of power). So epiphanies are about how God becomes known, visible in our world.

A full century before Matthew wrote his gospel and gave to us what is the shining example of the epiphany story (the story of the Magi following the star that reveals God's light to the world, and is the story we use for the beginning of the epiphany season), Caesar Augustus proclaimed that a shooting star that lit up the night sky in Rome during some Olympic-style games in honor of the slain Julius Caesar, that that star was a sign that Julius (who of course was Augustus' uncle) took his place among the Gods in the heavens. And so the shooting star became a symbol of the divine, son of God, Julius Caesar. And it was used on coins during that time.

Thus, to appropriate the star as a symbol for Christ's' appearance as the true son of God and savior of the world, was an incredibly audacious claim for this small band of followers of Jesus to make. And undoubtedly there were those in that Roman world that would have asked "What's the proof, what's the evidence you have for your claim?"

And our text this morning is one such answer to that question. It presents to us two different examples of deeds of power, these epiphanies, that reveal God to us. And it plays one against the other, to show which is the true epiphany of God. Now, this is a bit of an unfamiliar, curious story, it may sound vaguely familiar to some. It's in the Book of Acts, you may want to follow along, beginning in chapter 8. This is right after the stoning of Stephen, a little more familiar story. And it begins that period of persecution, led by none other than Saul, of course who later becomes Paul. And so there are disciples of Jesus who flee Jerusalem, and one of those is Phillip, who goes into Samaria, and there he performs a number of healings and exorcisms. And we pick up the rest of the story in verse nine:

Now a certain man named Simon had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. 10All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, ‘This man is the power of God that is called Great.’ [See, right there, that's an epiphany -- he reveals God to them through his magic.] 11And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. 12But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place. [Another epiphany]

14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit16(for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 18Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19saying, ‘Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’ 20But Peter said to him, ‘May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! 21You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God.22Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.’ [He's laying it on pretty thick :)]24Simon answered, ‘Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.’


Alright, so what's this have to do with the season of epiphany?

Well, I've alluded already a little bit to it. But the first thing I want to take note of, is that up to this point in the story of Acts, all of the action occurs in the city of Jerusalem. All of the preaching done by Peter and the other disciples in those days after the resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost--all that happens, you see, in Jerusalem. So this is the first story of the good news about Easter being taken out into the rest of the world. And it's therefore quite significant, and I think quite intentional on Luke's part (who is the author of Acts), that it takes place in Samaria. In other words, of all the stories that Luke could have collected, that he shares this one of Phillip in Samaria.

Now, Samaria you may recall from other stories in the New Testament, is only what I have to call (and excuse me for using the word, but it's the right word) is the bastard child of Israel. That's the way that Samarians were viewed -- they were the product of mixed-marriages from non-Hebrew tribes. They worshiped Yahweh as the God of Israel, but not in Jerusalem, they had their own Temple in a different place. They didn't come to Jerusalem for the high holy days. So all the good folk in Jerusalem, you see, and Jews elsewhere throughout Palestine, regarded Samaritans as an apostasy, they shunned them, they despised them. Thus that story that we all know that Jesus tells of the good Samaritan -- you see, "good Samaritan" would be an oxy-moron for folks in Palestine in that day. There was no such thing as a good Samaritan. That's part of what makes that story so radical.

So that Phillip, then, would go to Samaria to proclaim the good news is shocking enough, but that these Samaritans would respond favorably to accept that message and be baptized (men and women, note there, very intentional) that's even more shocking. You can almost hear the folks back in Jerusalem saying "Well, if the Samaritans are going to be included in this new movement, who's going to be next, the Gentiles? God forbid!". Right?

So, you see, Phillips mission to the Samaritans sets the stage for Paul's later mission to the Gentiles, and the inclusion of all nations, all people, in this kingdom movement. So God's appearance is no longer limited to one location or one select group of people, tribe, race, or nation. And if the Samaritans are included, anyone can be included.

Though the story speaks of the exorcisms and the healings that Phillip performs, I'm suggesting the real miracle of this story is precisely the healing of the division that was centuries old, between these people and nationalities, and to these opposing factions. So that's the first visible evidence that we can point to as a sign of God's appearance in Christ -- walls are broken down. Stones are rolled away for more than just one tomb. Doors are opened, bridges are built.

The second comes in the contrast between Simon's power and that of Philip, Peter and John. Simon uses magic to impress people with his power. Now, set aside any preconceived notions about magic. It may not be a whole lot different than any good magician today -- parlor tricks, slight-of-hand, things of that nature. But note that the text doesn't make any negative judgment here per se, or say that it's not a real power. The story accepts what is given from the testimony of the people. This man is the power of God that is called great. The point of the story, then, is that his power, this magic (whatever it may be) is nothing in comparison to that of of Philip, Peter, and John -- to that of the Holy Spirit.

And his subsequent attempt to buy the power of the Holy Spirit from the apostles only further reveals how bankrupt his magic really is. The power of God is not something that can be bought, like all other powers of this world that have a price, you see.

So you have to forgive Simon in one sense, because it's a rookie mistake that he makes as a new person of faith, he doesn't understand all these complexities. We can't assume that he has some nefarious purpose in mind, you know, he wants to use the Holy Spirit for good. But it's that he's also using it for his own self-serving purpose, to impress other people with his power.

His mistake, it's assumed, is that this gift of the Spirit is no different than his works of magic. That it is something which he can manipulate in accordance with his will. And you see that's in essence what magic is, isn't it? It's the manipulation of things, events, including our perception (and maybe mostly including our perception) according to the will of the magician to accomplish something by hidden means that we do not perceive. You know, picking a card out of a deck, making things disappear and appear onstage, even doing great work in the world by defeating the powers of Voldemort (the magic of Harry Potter), or the powers of the #4 ranked basketball team in the nation (Go Ducks!) -- how'd they do it? Well, it was magic (at least it was magical).

There's a lot of magical thinking, I'm going to suggest, that masquerades as Christian faith. And that's the real challenge for us in this text. If I just pray hard enough, right, God will cure me. Or I'll have success, or I'll get that job, or we'll win that game.

And all that is is seeking to manipulate events to achieve the results that we desire, by some hidden means. But God does not work by magic. Magical thinking is to keep doing things the way we've always done them while praying for a different result and expecting God to change the outcome. It's also crazy thinking as well as magical thinking. Magical thinking is that God will override the forces of nature to suit our needs. Magical thinking is that we can get God to do something for us that God would not otherwise do, or do for someone else.

Mark Twain tells the story of Huckleberry Finn, who gives up on prayer because he tried it once and it didn't work. He put a box underneath his bed, and he prayed that God would fill it with gold during the night. If only :) And of course, in the morning he opens the box, and to his disappointment, it's nothing but dust. So prayer doesn't work. Well, we laugh at that, and it seems trivial, but I'll tell you, I've heard a lot of prayers like that. I've probably prayed a few like that.

You see, magical thinking is getting God to do things for us instead of asking God to help us do things for God. To do those things according to God's will, not our will. There is a reason why Jesus prayed "Your will be done", not "my will". Note, miracle-working, in contrast to magical thinking, begins with following God's will rather than our own. I think that's why Philip goes to Samaria -- heaven knows there weren't very many people in Jerusalem that would have gone to Samara. They didn't care. He goes because he's following God's will, not his own.

Miracle-working comes as a gift of the Holy Spirit, rather than through our efforts to manipulate things to suit our desires. Which is to say, that it's not something that we control. It is a true gift of God. Or, to put it differently, miracle-working recognizes that at the end of the day, when truly something wonderful, good, and blessed happens, it's not about what we have achieved, it's not about what you or I have accomplished, it's what God has done through us. And sometimes in spite of us.

Miracle-working is when God has done something through us truly greater than what any of us could do on our own. Something others said could not be done. Something on which you cannot set a price. That which only comes through the grace of God.

And I experienced one of those miracles this morning. This was the first morning that we had the Sunday Breakfast and the Egan Warming Center at the same time. We missed it last year, they never came together. And we knew this was going to happen eventually, and some of us were pretty worried, how was this all going to work. We had over 90 people sleeping in the building last night, we typically serve a couple hundred for breakfast (the count was 288 this morning, that's a new record). And it happened. It was actually a beautiful thing to watch. I came in at one point, and there's a guy with a guitar singing his heart out in the parlor, a little Sunday-school class of their own that's happening, there's a guy playing the piano in the dining room, people here, people there. Egan Warming volunteers having breakfast with the folks that spent the night. Incredible fellowship in so many ways.

But here's the thing: we get a lot of credit for it because it happens in our building. But it ain't us. This morning it was the folks from the Church of the Resurrection and the United Lutheran Church mostly who were doing the breakfast. Most of the Egan volunteers (not all, we had a few from our congregation) are other people in the community. That's what I'm talking about -- it's not our work, it's the work of God. It's the work of the Spirit coming together. And one more thing while I'm on it. . . . . nah, I'm going to save that for later. At any rate, it's a wonderful thing.

So here's the challenge for us: we are called as God's people not to perform magic, but to work miracles. The work of the church is not to pull rabbits out of the hat (although we're pretty good about squeezing blood out of turnips at budget time :), the work of the church is to continually open ourselves to God's will rather than our desire. And that's not always easy, as witnessed in our conversation earlier this morning about changing our worship times. We all want to worship at the time we want. It's about being a host, and not just filling our desire.

The work of the church is to reach for the stars, to strive to do more than what ordinary people are thought to be capable of doing because we believe with the power of God and the Holy Spirit, ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

The work of the church is to heal divisions people thought could not be healed, to overcome barriers no one thought could be overcome.

The work of the church is to believe that miracles are still possible because God is still at work in our world.

The work of the church is to be God's epiphany. That others will see the light of God shining, right here.

It's not magic. You see, it's the miracle of God's grace, the work of the Holy Spirit. And it happens here. It happens in the things we (you) do. It happens in our music ministry, and the wonderful music that's put together for us every Sunday. It happens in our children's work, in our youth work and what they do. It happens in the Sunday Breakfast and the Good Samaritan Ministry, and the Helping Hand ministry, and all of those outreach things. It happens in our small-group ministries and in our prayer pods. There are just so many ways that those little miracles and epiphanies of God happen because of the things that you do with God.

So I just want to use, as kind of a closing illustration, a wonderful little clip from the movie "Aquila and the Bee". If you haven't seen that movie, rent it, it's great, family oriented, heartwarming story about a little girl, about 13, who just can't find her place in life. She doesn't have anything to offer. The only thing she can do is spell -- what good is that? And her principle of her school, played by Laurence Fishburne, helps direct her to find that light in her to claim for herself. And then the story is about how she does that.

But in it, he uses a quote from Maryanne Williamson (a fairly well-known quote that's not attributed in the move) that speaks to that power of God possible to all of us. So let's play the clip and listen in:



We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is in us. Epiphany.

The invitation God extends to us is to be a part of the miracle. To share in the work of the Spirit. To shine with all the stars around you.


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