Dr. Doug Hardy, Professor of Spiritual Formation, Director, Doctor of Ministry Program
Amazing things happen every day. I just did a YouTube search for “amazing” and it yielded 85,000,000 results! TV shows use the superlative liberally: The Amazing Race. The World’s Most Amazing Videos. Amazing Planet. We know that with another Olympic Games just around the corner, athletes from around the world will soon amaze us with more feats of physical strength, endurance, and skill. Many of us work with, are friends with, married to, or attend church with people who are truly amazing and who do amazing things. I just returned home from attending the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature and I can tell you there is some amazing scholarship being conducted in the fields of religion and theology. (By the way, the meetings were held in Baltimore—a pretty amazing city in its own right!)
We seem to be easily and repeatedly drawn to the spectre of the amazing. This is true in religious experience as in other areas of life. Take, for instance, the account in Acts 8 of Simon of Samaria who “practiced magic … and amazed the people” causing them to conclude that “this man is the power of God that is called Great” (Acts 8:9-10, NRSV). The narrator points this out because a follower of Jesus named Philip traveled to the same city to proclaim the good news (gospel). The accompanying amazing phenomena—exorcisms and healings—caused many to pay attention to Philip, including Simon who became a believer and was baptized. We’re told that Simon “was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place” (v.13).
This brief biblical scenario is instructive in that it notes a similar reaction of people to magic as to the gospel of Jesus; in both cases they were amazed. The new Common English Bible makes a distinction (even though the Greek word is the same), translating the people’s reaction to Simon as “baffled” and the reaction to Philip as “astonished. ” It seems to me unhelpful to translate them differently if it implies that a non-Christian magical display elicits a different human response than an authentic Christian instance of miraculous healing or deliverance. Not necessarily so. In both cases, people will be amazed and give it their attention.
So, what are we to make of amazing displays in the context of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ? Amazement can be an entry point for faith in Christ—it certainly was for Simon—but it can just as easily become a reason for shifting attention to something else. Christians are called, not to fuel an “amazing race” (pardon the pun) by trying to out-do the many other displays in society and culture. Rather, we are to help others (whether they are amazed or not) ground their lives in “the good news about the kingdom of God,” the signifance of what “the name of Jesus Christ” stands for, and the community of faith into which they can be “baptized” (v. 12).
It’s Advent. This season anticipates the amazing things that God has done and will do, birthing into the world love, joy, peace, and hope that endures. Don’t be fooled by displays of Christmas (including those in churches) that elicit amazement but fail to re-direct our lives.