How great is our expectation for miracles?

By Paul Harcourt

There are few things in life than hearing the story of how someone’s life has been irrevocably changed by a miraculous encounter with the power of Jesus.  It strengthens our own faith and, often, reminds us of some of the wonderful ways that Jesus has worked in our own lives.  Testimony raises faith, and, as we often say in New Wine, “what we celebrate, we propagate” – faith raised tends to make it easier for other people to receive similar blessings.  That is, of course, completely in line with the way that Jesus and the first disciples preached the gospel.  Jesus commonly would not only proclaim but also demonstrate the kingdom.  He went so far seemingly as to acknowledge that some people may not believe until they see some supernatural evidence (John 14:11).  The disciples similarly saw that people came to faith after seeing some work of power.  We only have to read the early chapters of Acts and note the occurrence of phrases such as “all were astonished”, or “this became known”… with the result that, “a great many people believed in the Lord” (e.g. Acts 9:42).

For some years, our church has had a tradition of featuring in our Christmas services a story of someone whose Christmas is going to be different because they have met Jesus.  The idea is that we bring the familiar and comforting celebration of Christmas right up to date – not some fable, nor even something that happened over 2000 miles away and over 2000 years ago, but an event with ongoing present-day implications.  The incarnation as an invasion, rather than a visit!  This year, we were privileged to hear from Dean, a young father who has joined the church in the last year.  Shortly before lockdown began, Dean started to experience troubling symptoms of pain and energy loss, which were initially and incorrectly thought to be related to Covid.  With the early days of the pandemic, it was many months before he was properly diagnosed, by which time he was rarely able to leave his bed.  When the diagnosis came, he was told that he had a rare and incurable auto-immune disease.  This could only be managed by daily doses of strong drugs, and frequent surgeries lay in his future.  

By chance, or we should say by the grace of God, when Dean attended his local clinic, the nurse who attended him was a member of our church.  It came out in conversation that Dean had in the past attended a church and she encouraged him to start attending once more.  He immediately felt at home when he entered our building, and over the weeks, increasingly met with God in worship. In one service, a word of knowledge was given for someone with regular sinus infections, which was a by-product of his condition, and Dean came forward from prayer.  I remember seeing the power of God touch him and was not surprised when, a week later, he reported that his sinus condition had gone.  What was surprising to me was to hear about his underlying illness and how, over the next month or so, his strength returned.  When he gave his testimony at Christmas, Dean said that his doctors are delighted at his progress.  He reckons that he is 95% cured, they have been able to reduce his medications, and his life has been dramatically transformed.  As he spoke about this, his wife (who comes from a Muslim background) and his 6-year old son sat in the congregation, so that you could see how the grace of God was changing not one life but three.

I believe that such a testimony could be heard in any church.  God is present wherever faithful people gather, and answers prayers more generously than we could ever expect.  However, we would all want to see more stories like that than we do!  At the New Wine “United” summer conference last year, Jon Tyson, our bible teacher for the week, threw out the simple challenge – “God comes where he is really wanted”.  Whilst we may blithely say, “of course, we want God to come”, the reality is often more complex.  How much are we prepared to seek him?  How much are we willing to lay down our assumptions about how he might wish to move?  How great is our expectation of the work of his Spirit amongst us – do we allow him space, and do we seek to understand his gifts?

Being challenged by Dean’s story to see more people experience something similar, I found myself reflecting on Jesus’ first mention of the Spirit in John’s gospel.  John 3 tells the familiar story of Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus by night.  Knowing the whole gospel, we understand that Nicodemus is a good man, later to speak up in defence of Jesus and even accompanying Joseph of Arimathea to take Jesus’ body and anoint it for burial.  At this point though, all we know is that he is a religious leader and influential figure.  He represents perhaps the religion without the reality.  Nicodemus is drawn to Jesus by the way that God works through him… but equally is embarrassed to admit it.  Coming to Jesus by night suggests a sense of shame over the poverty of his own experience, a humbling of himself before someone without human credential or power.  I wonder whether, within the dialogue that follows, we can see three challenges from Jesus that apply to us also?

Firstly, and despite Nicodemus having asked no question, Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3).  The reality that we seek requires a radical change that can only be brought about by God.  If that relates to conversion, surely it sets the standard for the life that follows.  I was reminded of Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones, one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century, saying, “I do not preach decisions – I preach regeneration”.  Hebrews 6:4-5 sets a high expectation for the life of the Christian, ending by describing us as those who, “have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age”.  How often do we settle for less?

Secondly, Jesus challenges Nicodemus to acknowledge that God is in control, not man.  “The wind blows wherever it pleases” (John 3:8).  Perhaps this is a constant struggle for humanity – always seeking to place ourselves at the centre and in control.  We are responsible in our service to God, but it is response to what he is doing, dependent on him rather than ultimately deriving from our own gifts or skills.  We can set our sails to catch the wind, but it we can’t organise how the wind will blow.  There needs to a surrender to God as the driving force, however he wills.  And that may take us into uncharted waters and new experiences, far beyond the bounds of the familiar and safe.

Finally, those new experiences will challenge our theology.  This is a hard thing, especially for those of us who love God’s word and have made much study of it.  “You are Israel’s teacher”, said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?… we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen…  I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (John 3:10-11)  Experience is subjective and needs to be tested by revelation… but we must never forget that our understanding is partial and provisional, and always needs to be stretched to acknowledge more of God’s glory.

As a leader, I’m not ashamed to say to lament the poverty of my experience.  I hope that, like Nicodemus, my hunger will always overcome my pride and that, this year, I will see even more lives changed in a church where God is wanted… and allowed to move as he wills.

Paul Harcourt is National Leader of New Wine England and Vicar of All Saints’ Woodford Wells