In his new book, The Miracles of Jesus: Meditations and Prayers for Lent (Upper Room Books, 2012), the Rev. Wessel Bentley says the miracles of Jesus, performed 2,000 years ago, can still change hearts and lives today. Mr. Bentley, an ordained minister in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, is a part-time lecturer in the department of philosophy and systematic theology at the University of South Africa and lives in Pretoria, South Africa. He answered questions from staff writer Mary Jacobs via email; here are excerpts.
I have always been intrigued by the stories of how Jesus touched people’s lives through the miracles. For quite some time I have been reading through the miracles (and commentaries on them) and confirmed my belief that the miracles are much more than impressive once-off “tricks.” Each miracle has a profound life lesson, which, if embraced, leads to personal transformation on a much grander scale. Through these meditations, I hope to lead the reader to think about how these miraculous life lessons can touch us in the 21st century.
What do the stories of miracles tell us about Jesus?
We do not only get to know Jesus through the miracles, but also by how the stories of Jesus’ miracles were told by the Gospel writers. The way Matthew uses the miracles to show that Jesus was the long-expected Messiah or how Luke writes his account to show how Jesus takes note of the marginalized lead us to look at Jesus from different vantage points. The meditations in this book are sorted according to Gospel accounts, starting with an introduction to Jesus through the Gospel of Mark, slowly building up to the final meditations based on the Gospel of John, whereby Jesus is spoken of in more philosophical, theological and triumphant language. I hope that with this progression, the reader will discover something more about Jesus each day, to the point where we can celebrate Jesus as the risen Son of God.
We think of Lent as a somber and reflective season. How do miracles relate to Lent?
To me, Lent is all about the process of letting go, leading to rebirth and new beginnings. To see change in people, the transformation from those moments of release to embracing something new which God leads us to is nothing short of miraculous. I am sure you have heard people say “I will never change” or “They cannot change.” Lent is the perfect journey in the Christian faith where that can be proven wrong. People can change! The miracles supply us with testimonies of how, when we open ourselves to the touch of God’s love and presence, we can experience renewal.
Why are Jesus’ miracles useful as the source material for Lenten devotionals?
Jesus’ miracles are so much more than stories of Him healing ailments, calming storms or multiplying food. Jesus’ miracles touched people’s lives, so much so that I believe that people left those places being changed for the rest of their lives. If we want to change during Lent, I believe that the miracles hold a timeless effect of making us think about more than the obvious in the miracles.
How did you define a “miracle” for the purposes of this book? Are there other ways to define “miracle”?
I don’t think that miracles are simply unexplainable acts. If we confine Jesus’ miracles to this definition, then the miracles would not have any lasting value. The raised son died eventually. Those fed by the multiplication of bread and fish had to eat again sometime. To me, miracles refer to moments of unexpected transformation, those times when a person’s life is touched by the love and presence of God and they are changed forever. Not only are they changed, but this blessing spills over into the lives of others as testimonies are shared, attitudes change and perceptions are transformed. These are the greater and more lasting miracles we encounter.
We read about miracles in the Bible, but most of us don’t witness miracles in the conventional, supernatural sense—such as, seeing someone walking on water or instantaneously healed of blindness. Any thoughts as to why that is? Are the days of true miracles over?
I think we make the mistake to believe that as soon as we are able to explain something, it ceases to be a miracle. Granted, spectacular and instantaneous miracles are not the order of the day, but what about recognizing the love and presence of God in that which we perhaps take for granted? The miracle of birth and life, or the miracle of a recovering alcoholic or the miracle of modern medicine to me are testimonies of transformation which are beyond our control, but perhaps not beyond our understanding. To take God out of these, to me is claiming for ourselves that which we cannot achieve on our own.
In South Africa, for instance, we celebrate the miracle of transformation after Apartheid. Christians in this country continuously give thanks that we did not slip into civil war. Of course this example, and others, lead to theological problems such as “Does it mean that God and God’s miracles are not in places where there is conflict?” With Job I stand astounded by God, not knowing the answers, and I think that those who claim to have answers miss the complexity of life. The words in Galatians, “Now we see in a mirror dimly,” are quite apt for what I am trying to say.
Methodists don’t really talk much about miracles. What do you think is behind that hesitancy?
I think we will start hearing about miracles when we dare share our stories with each other. Once again, these testimonies may not be filled with dramatic and supernatural events, but we will hear of how lives have been changed by the touch of God. This does not mean that we must dismiss any claims of instantaneous healing or dramatic divine intervention. God meets us in ways and forms which cannot be dictated by our limitations.
What do you hope, overall, that readers will take away from reading the book and reflecting on the material over the course of Lent?
Most of all, I hope that readers will draw closer to Jesus during this time of Lent. If this book aids in this rediscovery and reconciliation, then all praise to God! This is such a special season, pregnant with the possibility of personal and social transformation. I hope that when we reach Easter Sunday and look back over the Lenten journey, we will say to each other, “I have died, but now I am alive, I was lost, but now I am found, I was blind, but now I see, I was hungry, but now I am satisfied, all thanks to Jesus!” This is the miraculous touch of God’s hand during this time.
Dr. Bentley’s book will serve as the text for the Upper Room’s 2013 Lenten eRetreat, offered Feb. 13-March 30. For information, visit http://elearning.upperroom.org/events/78.