The man who performed miracles and the crowds that pressed against Him

Epiphany 6

All the crowd sought to touch him, for power came forth from him and healed them all” —Luke 6.19

Have you ever seen a celebrity in person? People often go wild when they do. We were at a play one night near Times Square. The show was boring, so at intermission we left the theater. We no sooner stepped outside than we heard women’s voices and saw a lot of commotion. I looked away for a moment and when I looked back my wife was gone. She had run into the crowd and joined the screaming fanatics. There was a man standing beside me, likewise bewildered. I asked him, “What’s going on?” He said, “I have no idea, my wife just suddenly ran into the crowd.” The cause of this riot was: Al Pacino. I guess he had also been at the show and left early, and when the women saw him they all went nuts. The crowd pressed in on him wanting to see him up close and touch him. I’m glad we left the play early. It was a spectacle to behold, and I have to admit to being jealous. I wish I could have that effect on women; it might have changed the course of my life. I just don’t draw big crowds and women generally run from me.

Jesus also drew big crowds. But why? I can see why Al Pacino would draw a crowd. He’s a big star. But Jesus was not a movie star. Up until about two months before this event recorded in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus had been an unknown. He was just a guy living quietly with his mother in the unimportant town of Nazareth. But John the Baptist had been a kind of star. Israel was a very religious country and John was viewed by many as a prophet, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord.” And John had given his blessing to Jesus, indicating to the crowds who had come to the Jordan River to hear him preach that they should look to Jesus. So, John the Baptist made Jesus a kind of religious celebrity. But then Jesus disappeared into the wilderness alone to pray for six weeks. It’s easy to be forgotten in six weeks. So the fact that John had pointed to Jesus as the one whom Israel had been waiting for doesn’t alone explain the sudden explosion of Jesus’ amazing popularity among the Jewish people.

Billy Graham could draw great crowds, and the Pope in any generation can draw massive crowds of the faithful. But Billy Graham had a well-organized machine helping him. His rallies were planned weeks in advance. And the same is true of the Pope. He seldom if ever just shows up somewhere in the street unannounced. So how is it that Jesus, a relative nobody from Nazareth, could excite such large spontaneous crowds wherever he went?

He could draw crowds to hear him preach because he had a charismatic personality, a good delivery, a great message, and the endorsement of John the Baptist who had pointed to him as the one on whom Israel could pin its highest hopes. But Jesus had one more thing going for him that no one else had. He had power; power to heal every disease and infirmity. He could do things that no one had ever done before. Every tribe has had its great medicine men and holy men, its great healers, and its wisdom teachers. But Jesus took it to a whole new level. There was seemingly nothing he could not do. And so the crowds followed him wherever he went and continued to grow because hurting and suffering people wanted healing. There were many in Capernaum that saw him heal a paralyzed man and many others saw him in a synagogue restore an insane demoniac to perfect sanity. The crowds of sick and suffering souls swarmed to Jesus because the word on the streets was that he could work miracles. And he didn’t disappoint them.

This is where, for modern men and for strong liberated women, the story of Jesus becomes complicated. It’s complicated because we want to believe what the Bible says about Jesus and what the church teaches, but the first premise of the modern age is that there is no such thing as miracles. Miracles are events whose cause is supernatural. But the philosophical foundation of the modern age is scientific naturalism, the unassailable belief or secular dogma that everything about human life and the universe we inhabit can be explained by natural causes alone without reference to a Divine Creator. The modern age is a secular age that holds steadfastly to a blind faith, a vain philosophical premise beyond question, that divine grace may not be invoked as an explanation for anything. And anyone who does is just being superstitious or unreasonably romantic; a denier, if you will. According to the modern philosophy a mature and intellectually responsible realist believes that every phenomenon in this world, especially the many miracles ascribed to Jesus, have scientific natural explanations. The faith of the modern age is that if we can’t explain something now, eventually science will explain it. Science will show that God had nothing to do with it. God is an illusion.

So you see the problem. If God had nothing to do with it, how do we explain the miracles of Jesus? And how do we account for the crowds that swarmed around him, trying to touch him? Why does Luke say that “power came forth from him”? What power did he have? If it wasn’t by God’s grace that he healed the blind cleansed lepers, and cured the sick, by what power did he do these things? If it was his own human power— some special talent he had—why didn’t he say so? Why did he lead people to believe that his power came from God? Was Jesus a deceiver, nothing but a magician? That’s what those who doubted him said he was. They said he was demonic, and that his power came from Satan. The doubters today don’t say that. They say that Jesus was a good man but they say that his apostles were the real deceivers, that they invented all these fantastic stories, stories about events that in fact never happened. And when I say “modern age,” I’m not saying that this era of hyper-skepticism began with the higher Biblical criticism that came into vogue in Germany in the last century. The modern age that made an idol of human reason began in the mid 1700s, a period known ironically as “the Enlightenment.” The quintessential Enlightenment intellectual was Thomas Jefferson, a man of corrupt sexual morals with no faith in miracles. He called the twelve Apostles not “saints” but “mountebanks and charlatans” and then engaged in a project to edit the New Testament in such as way as to exclude all the miracles. The fact that Americans have been raised to idolize Jefferson goes a long way towards explaining why our churches today are so mind-numbingly liberal and largely ineffectual. God doesn’t like being dismissed as an illusion. Our Lord doesn’t like it when we insult his Apostles.

And let’s, for a moment, remember Jesus’ Apostles. In relating the story of the calling of Peter and Andrew, and James and John, Luke tells us that they were moved to follow Jesus because of the miraculous catch of fish. They had not caught much that night. But Jesus told them to take their boats out a ways and then drop their net. They then hauled in so many fish that it filled the boat. These young men were so impressed by what they had heard and seen in Jesus that Luke said, “They left everything and followed him” (Lk. 5.11). It takes a lot for men to leave their jobs and their wives and their homes and devote themselves to a guy they had just met. Their commitment to him says something. On the other hand, the world is full of clever charismatic leaders who have gained a fanatical following. But not many go on following when the leader dies in disgrace. And fewer still are willing to die for their belief in that leader decades later. James was beheaded. Peter was crucified. John was boiled in oil. Bartholomew was flayed alive. On top of all the other miracles they had seen him do, they were beheaded, crucified, boiled in oil and skinned alive rather than deny that Jesus had revealed himself to be God by raising himself from the dead. Who but God could do such a thing? Their enduring faith in Jesus speaks volumes, does it not?

The skeptics will argue that the Apostles’ devotion to Jesus was impressive but that they were mistaken about his miracles. That although we can’t yet explain how Jesus did whatever he did, that there must be a natural explanation for all of it. And one day science will explain it and on that day don’t you know we’ll all be rising from the dead. It’s inaccurate to say that the modern age is faithless. The modern age lives and dies by a blind faith fanatically held in the power of science to explain everything about life and this universe. And that is why so many millions today are lost souls, wandering hopelessly through this valley of tears with no clue as to the true meaning and purpose of life. When you fall victim to a fallacious philosophy that denies the soul and insists that human beings are no more than the sum of their chemical parts; when you begin to see yourself as nothing more than a random collocation of atoms, a complex piece of tissue no different in essence from an amoeba, a direct descendant of apes, don’t be surprised if you begin to act like apes and wiggle through life aimlessly like amoebas. It matters greatly what you think a human being is. The great gift that Christ came to give us is knowledge of ourselves. What is a human being? We are all sinners in God’s sight. What dignity then have we? Who are you that I should care about you more than any other beast in the jungle? We are the creatures for whom Christ died on the cross; that‘s who we are. We are the reason there is a universe and you, my friend, are the reason Christ redeemed it.

After Peter had hauled in that enormous catch of fish, he fell to his knees and begged Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” But rather than depart from him, Jesus called Peter to join him on the mission. “I will make you a fisher of men,” he said. What Peter would learn was that Christ came into the world to save sinners, a task he would accomplish by dying on a cross for the sins of us all. Christ came to lift Adam’s heirs out of the abyss of idolatry and paganism into which we had fallen and reveal to us the truth about life. We are not on this beautiful earth by chance for no reason. We are each here for a very specific purpose. God made us in his own image, as a living souls, so that we might love him and love others and by so doing prove ourselves worthy of the kingdom of Heaven into which he calls us each by name. That is why Jesus did not depart from Peter. Jesus loved him. And when you love someone you don’t give up on them.

The modern age has given up on God. But don’t you give up on God. Trust in God, as the prophet said, and for your faith God will reward you. Don’t be among those who discount Jesus’ miracles as so many transparent fictions. Believe in him as the Bible says and by the power of God’s grace that came forth from him, Jesus will heal you. On the deepest level, Jesus will give you the reason for living. Living is not easy. He will not make it easy but he will fill your heart with the sure and certain hope that all the suffering we have to endure in this world is worth the glory yet to be revealed (Rom.8.18).

You may feel like saying, “Okay, but the people back then could actually reach out and touch him. That made it easier for them to believe in him.” But Our Lord, foreseeing that difficulty, went to great pains to make up for it. He knew that future generations would need to touch Him as well, so He gave them the means to do that. “I am with you always even to the end of the age,” He said before ascending into heaven. He ascended to the Father but Christ has not abandoned us. He is present among us, really and truly today, as he was then. “Where two or more of you gather in my name, there I am in the midst of you,” He promised, (Mt. 18.20). Jesus Christ comes to his faithful people around the world every day disguised under the appearance of bread and wine, and when the faithful reach out to receive Him, the power of God’s grace flows forth from Him. Just as He did then, so He does today. Whatever your suffering, whatever your sin, when you come to the altar of God kneeling before Him, give it all to Him and He will give his grace to you. And there will come a moment in that exchange when you will know that everything, absolutely everything, written about Jesus in the Bible is true. And then you will have learned the hard way, as repentant sinners must do, that the true purpose of life is to know Him and to love Him who loves us without end.

Fr. Jansen String