The Miracle Worker
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
1 Peter 3:18–22
18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
In 1962 the movie, the Miracle Worker was released. Starring Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan, and Patty Duke as Helen Keller both of whom won Oscars for their portrayals. It was the movie version of how Anne Sullivan taught Helen Keller to read and write even though Helen Keller was both blind and deaf.
The story of Anne Sullivan who was partially blind herself, and Helen Keller who went on to be an author, political activist, disability rights advocate and lecturer, is an amazing story.
There is a good reason for the title of the movie. The patience and determination and creativity of Anne Sullivan was amazing. All the while she had to stand up to the parents of Helen, who were minded to put her into an institution, and she had to tell the parents to stop treating Helen like a baby, instead of an intelligent person.
She could see the person of Helen and she recognized the talent and beauty within. Helen went on to be the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, which she received from Radcliffe College.
It really was a miracle. Not a supernatural miracle, but a miracle nonetheless.
Anne brought hope and life and love and a future, and communication to a girl so lost in a wilderness that her own family thought the situation was almost hopeless.
Today we think all kinds of wilderness
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, the day we think of Jesus entering the wilderness with the wild beasts, the place where he was tempted.
Now, wilderness is a big theme in the bible. After the Hebrews escaped, or were delivered from Pharaoh they wandered in the wilderness fourty years. In the wilderness they were tempted and failed. In the wilderness there was danger, and they were so hungry and thirsty at times that they almost died. In the wilderness there were poisonous snakes. In the wilderness they turned to other gods. In the wilderness there was a rebellion.
But in that wilderness God was also there. They received the law, God brought water from a rock and fed them manna and quails, and forgave their sins.
Wilderness in the bible is not what we mean by going camping and enjoying the great outdoors. Wilderness is where your life, your future, your faith, your very existence is threatened and you are tempted to be other than human. You are tempted to be a wild beast to survive. You are tempted to be less than human, to be your worst self. You are tempted to deceive yourself and tell all manner of stories and lies to make yourself look good and not have to deal with the wild beasts inside you.
We all have wilderness.
We might not have wilderness like Helen Keller, deaf and blind, unable to properly communicate, isolated and alone even within a family, ready to be sent away because things are hopeless.
But the feelings she had are feelings we all have. Feelings of being isolated and alone, of not being understood, Feelings of rejection or not being people of worth.
I don’t know what wilderness you have gone through in your life, but I expect you have some stories.
I know several people who have lost a child, a wilderness that is long and painful and often leaves scars and wounds very deep and painful.
One of my children’s friends died as a young man of an overdose. He had an injury several years back and got addicted to the painkillers that were prescribed by a doctor. In and out of rehab and a long painful journey battling the addiction, and just when everybody thought he had it beat, a lapse killed him. Addiction is a long and terrible wilderness.
Mental illness, depression, schizophrenia, emotional baggage and a whole host of things that happen in the body and mind, that affect our emotional, spiritual and mental well-being can be a lonely, scary dangerous place. We just had the Bell “Let’s talk” day to focus on mental health, but believe me, there are not nearly enough resources to deal with mental health, and there is a stigma to owning up to mental health.
I have shared before about a couple of wilderness times in my life. Growing up my father was hardly around. I can only remember my father sleeping in the same house as I about 20 times from the time I can remember until I was in university. I may be off, but it is memory. Without putting judgement on anyone, I am just stating the fact that growing up without a father had its challenges, some of them manifesting much later than my childhood.
And a couple of other wilderness times was being the minister in congregations where there was conflict, and I was the focal point of some of that conflict and there were people who treated me in ways that I don’t think humans should treat other humans. Not that I was perfect. But I know what it is like to be gossiped about, lied about, to have notes under the door saying in effect “you are not wanted,” to have someone file a charge at presbytery against me, and so on, yada, yada, yada.
And of course, this last year of the Pandemic has been one big wilderness, with lots of suffering and struggle for lots of people.
Talk about giving things up for Lent. This whole last year has been like one big Lent and people have had to give up a lot of things.
So, you too have a wilderness story where you were not treated well, or you were alone, or you were struggling with sickness, or loss, or grief, or struggling economically, or in conflict with family members, or in your own mind, or with your faith…
And I want to tell you so too did Jesus struggle. I want to hearken back to the Miracle Worker just for a second. Anne Sullivan didn’t have miraculous powers to turn stones into bread, to physically open Helen Keller’s eyes, or to pronounce a miracle so that Helen Keller could hear.
The miracle she wrought was by her determination, patience, hard work and creativity.
Too much is made of the divinity of Christ sometimes. If superman goes into the wilderness it isn’t much of a test if he is impervious to pain.
The divinity of Christ is not that he could perform supernatural things, the divinity of Jesus is that showed us what divine love is.
But Jesus in this story is fully human. He hungered and was really tempted. He was thirsty and felt pain. The wild beasts were echoing inside his mind and doubting God. They were yelling out to God: “Feed me” “Save Me” “Prove yourself to me”
I am sure that Jesus as a human felt anger. I am sure he wanted to lash out. I am sure he fantasized about who he would hurt, who he would control, what he would control, who he would take, who he would use, who he would have pleasure with….what he would own.
And his divinity was that he simply never let those wild beasts inside him define him or control him. He said “no” to anything that wasn’t loving.
You know, you don’t get to choose your wilderness. The scripture says that the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness. You don’t choose it. It just happens.
And it is in the wilderness when you are experiencing the worst time of your life, that you question God, and doubt God, and wonder why God would let this happen, as if God controlled your life. God doesn’t control your life. You wouldn’t want God to control your life. The truth is that you make your own choices.
But we are always tempted to let those wild beasts take control when we are in the wilderness.
We spin stories and lies in our heads about whose fault is, and how life isn’t fair, and how we would like to hurt those who hurt us.
We doubt our true self, and cover up, and put on masks in front of others, to try and avoid the pain of vulnerability. We wallow in pity and grief and create a narrative of us being the victim, and think of all the times we have been victimized.
We imagine being in control and dominating and having and owning and possessing, and sometimes punishing and or destroying…
And sometimes all those wild beasts become real and we do lash out at others, sometimes even those we love most.
Phew. It is hard.
And Jesus was in that wilderness fourty days. Sometimes it takes a long time to make our way through a wilderness. Grief can take years. Working through abuse takes years. Sometimes mental illness or unfinished emotional baggage is with us for a lifetime.
Some difficult relationships are there for ever because they are family…
But, these are the learning times in life. I would of course prefer dramatic intervention. I dream of winning the lottery and living in luxury. Or I dream of the supernatural and Jesus coming to rescue me.
But I wonder if we need to struggle in the wilderness to really know what it is to be human. It is hard to love your enemies if you don’t have any enemies, or you have never experienced hate. Maybe it is the wilderness that we will learn not to judge others who have their own wildernesses and struggles.
Maybe it is in the wilderness that we will learn what real compassion is, because we have been there.
Maybe we will learn to embrace our own divinity, that is our own creation, made in the image of God, and embrace what it means to love all people, to love unconditionally, to forgive universally and to practice grace radically.
You know I was watching the new incarnation of the show The Equalizer a few days ago. The Equalizer was a television show about 35 years ago where Robert McCall a white retired secret service guy, tries to help people who are in a bad or desperate situation, without many resources to help themselves.
There were a couple of spin-off movies loosely based on the premise starring Denzel Washington.
The current incarnation which just started a couple of weeks ago stars Queen Latifah. She is Robyn McCall a woman who used to work doing clandestine and even illegal work for the U. S. government, but is fed up with that and wants to help ordinary people.
I like the new premise. The heroine is black, a woman, and a single mother with a teen-aged child.
In the first episode she saves a girl who is about to be raped and finds out that she had been framed in a crime by some pretty sophisticated criminals.
She is sitting with the girl in the car and she says to the girl that she knows what it is like to be all alone, not knowing where to turn, not having the resources, and not knowing what to do.
In short, she knows about wilderness.
And the girl turns to her and in effect says: how did you get out of your wilderness.
And Robyn replies. “Somebody helped me.”
Somebody helped me.
Even in the wilderness there are angels. I wonder when you were in the depths of your wilderness, who were the people who were angels to you.
Who helped you, whose shoulder could you cry on? Who was the rock that help you up and kept you from falling?
Who was your listener? Who was the person you turned to when in greatest need?
Who was your miracle worker?
Who taught you to be yourself?
Who told you, you were valued?
Who loved you unconditionally?
Who never gave up on you, even when you were a jerk, or in so much pain, that you were a pain to be around?
Who taught you not to hope for lotteries and supernatural miracles, but that the way through the wilderness is to actually go through it, work hard, be easy on yourself and make good choices…?
Who demonstrated for you that God hadn’t abandoned you, and was Christ to you in your wilderness?
Who helped you resist the wild beasts of hate, condemnation, violence, retribution, “poor me syndrome” and wallowing in self-pity?
What did you learn in that wilderness that has saved you since?
Our old testament story is the promise of God after the flood story in Genesis. The promise is that God is not going to obliterate us, even when we do wrong.
But for a second I want you to think about the flood story metaphorically.
The flood is danger. But think of yourself personally. Think of the things that threaten you most.
I believe that is yourself. Even though the economy is bad, or your health is bad, or you have little money, or you have enemies… or whatever your wilderness is that threatens you…
Your real danger is if you give in to the wild beasts of hate, self-pity, giving up, telling lies, pointing fingers, judging others, taking what is not yours, hurting others…
That is what the flood threatens. That is what the wilderness threatens. That you will give up on yourself and stop being you, your best you.
But God says there is an ark that will save you from the flood of despair and hopelessness.
That ark is love.
It is the love and forgiveness of God.
It is the love of grace and compassion of Jesus
It is the Spirit inside you filling you with love and the other spiritual gifts.
It is the love and inclusion and safety of family, friends and even strangers some days.
And that love will take you ride through the flood, right through the wilderness.
And one day you won’t be the one in the flood, or in the wilderness…
One day you will be the angel that helps another in the wilderness. One day you will be the Christ to someone lost and alone.
One day you will be the miracle worker giving hope and life to someone whom everyone, including themselves, thinks is hopeless and dead. Amen