The miracles - Luke 4:31-44
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There is a quaint little story of the 19th century French artist, Paul Dore. He was travelling in a foreign country and had lost his passport. In the event, he found himself confronted by a rather formidable and suspicious passport official at the border. ‘I’m sorry’ he said, ‘I’ve lost my identification papers, but I can assure you that I am Paul Dore the painter.’ ‘Ah’ said the sceptical border guard, ‘we will soon see about that.’ So he went into his office, and presented Dore with a pencil and paper and said, ‘Right. Prove it!’ And so Dore made a lightening sketch of some nearby travellers with such inimitable skill that the official could only say, ‘There is no question about it- you are Paul Dore!’
Well, that is a fanciful story but there is still no doubt that unique men carry their own credentials with them. And that certainly applies to Jesus of Nazareth. You see, he didn’t need a stamped passport saying- ‘Country of origin- heaven. Father’s name-God. Occupation-King of God’s Kingdom. To some extent you can tell Royalty when someone acts like Royalty. It might be helpful having some press release declaring that the Queen is to visit Hull on such and such a date at such and such a time. But if I happen to be walking down Beverley Road and see a motorcade with Police outriders, headed by black Range Rover with darkened windscreens and a large limousine bearing the Royal Crest I can safely assume that the Queen or some such Royal personage is in town. And so when after the Royal announcement back in the synagogue in Nazareth at the beginning of chapter 4, Jesus begins to do the most extraordinary things such as healing the sick and casting out demons on a scale no one has ever seen before, everyone is expected to put the two together- the proclamation has been made that the King has come to bring about his kingdom, and then we see it; God is on the move in his world in a way unparalleled in human history, because God in the person of his Son is present- divine royalty has arrived.
And this gives us some insight as to what miracles are according to the Bible. They are not just strange things which happen, but unusual things which God makes happen. In one sense God makes everything happen- the revolving of the planets, the explosion of supernovas, the millions of electrical impulses which fire through our brain moment by moment. These events are the domain of science, and science has been described as ‘thinking God’s thoughts after him’. This answers the question posed by Stephen Hawking in ‘A Brief History of Time’: ‘What is it’ he asks, ‘that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?’ the answer is ‘God’s Spirit’ breathed the fire and brought into being and sustains the universe which they describe. And since God is the author of the whole drama, he can from time to time redirect things in his drama in an extraordinary way which suits his purpose and forwards the plot- these are called miracles.
In the past miracles played a very important role in the Christian apologetic, that is, forming part of the argument for the truth of Christianity. C.S. Lewis wrote a whole book on the subject. But we have to be careful that we don’t exaggerate the place of miracles in establishing the truth of the Christian faith. For one thing, what are claimed to be miracles in and of themselves do not necessarily point to God at work. In Deuteronomy 13 God warns that there will be plenty of false teachers who will come into Israel and perform miracles not in order to lead people to God but to lead people away from God. So we are not to be impressed by miracles in and of themselves, even if they are performed by people who call themselves Christians. Miracles do not always lead people to Christ- the Christ of the Bible, they can lead onto other things which push out Christ- the adrenaline rush that the weird and spectacular can give for instance, and so we move on to the next miraculous event and the next to keep the high going.
For example, what do you make of this? In 1171 a 21 year old Belgian peasant girl called Christina (later dubbed Christina the Astonishing) suffered a seizure so profound that she was thought to be dead. During her own funeral mass, it is claimed that she came back to life and levitated to the ceiling of the church. The priest told her to come down, which she dutifully did. She then told the dumbstruck congregation that she had died and gone to hell, purgatory and heaven and in all three places she saw some old friends. Then she said Jesus gave her a choice, ‘Assuredly my dear daughter, you will one day be with me. Now, however, I will allow you to choose either to remain with me henceforth from this time, or to return again to earth to accomplish a mission of charity and suffering. In order to deliver from the flames of Purgatory those souls which have inspired you with so much compassion, you shall suffer for them on earth…without dying from their effects. And not only will you relieve the departed, but the example you will give to the living, and your continued suffering, will lead sinners to be converted and to expiate their crimes. After having ended this new life, you shall return here laden with merits.’ And until her death in 1224, she lived a life of utter misery which her followers thought was redemptive- sleeping on rocks, diving into furnaces and rolling in fires ( apparently without being burned), being savaged by dogs, seeking refuge in thorn bushes (apparently incurring no wounds) and spending days standing in graves and icy rivers. She hated the smell of other people because she said they had the smell of sin and to avoid meeting folk she would climb trees, hide in cupboards or levitate. That is weird to put it mildly. ‘Ah’ you say, ‘That was in the Dark Ages- people were more gullible then.’ What if I were to tell you that I heard someone who claims to have had a similar experience- going to hell, then to heaven and God gave him a choice to come back? And that man is still taking this story around the world telling it in charismatic churches up and down the country-including Hull. Alleged miracles can promote the lie as well as the truth, no matter how sincere the speaker.
But secondly, miracles are never ‘in and of themselves’ as far as Jesus is concerned. They all have a point. They are not the stuff of the Christ files, they are not the stuff of Britain’s Most Haunted Houses, they express something vital about God’s character and mission. That is why in John’s Gospel they are often referred to as ‘signs’ – pointing beyond themselves to someone or something else. If for example tonight I were to wave my hands over Lee and suddenly he grew another 12 inches- there is he six foot something handsome evangelist. You would never forget this night would you? You would be plastering it all over Face Book, and in years to come you would be telling your Grandchildren all about it- the night when Lee McMunn was made into a giant. And think what that would do to my reputation? I wouldn’t need to write any more books would I? - Except the million best seller, ‘How to make Big People’. And think of the following I would have- especially amongst little people-they would be following me around as if I were Snow White. But I tell you this- it would all die with me. It might be fascinating, it might make a TV series and rake in some money- but what it wouldn’t do is extend the Kingdom of God. What would God be doing in making little people big-what would be the point as far as his saving purposes are concerned? And that goes for people falling down shaking and howling or legs growing or whatever. So when we turn to look at Jesus miracles as we have them here in Luke 4 there are two things we need to pay very close attention to- the place of miracles and the purpose of miracles- and they are not what they are often being presented as today in some churches.
First, the place of miracles. What is so striking when you come to this passage is that it is not Jesus miracles which are given pride of place but Jesus message. If I can put it like this, the emphasis is on the Word not the works, although the two ultimately belong together. The miracles are recorded but not that much detail is given about them. In v 41 we are told that all the sick people who were brought to him he healed of various diseases and cast out demons. But the text is very clear that Jesus priority was proclamation. This whole section which begins in v14 starts with that emphasis. No sooner has Jesus returned from the desert full of the Holy Spirit we read in v15, ‘He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.’ This is in Galilee the northern part of Israel- the backwaters of the country- this is Grimsby. And when Jesus goes to his own synagogue on the Sabbath he continues doing the same thing- he reads the Scriptures and points to their fulfilment in him and backs it up with an exposition and application of two other Scriptures which upsets the local congregation so much they want to beat him up. Then in v31 he goes to Capernaum a fishing town, the ruins of which are still there today and what do we see him doing? More of the same- ‘he was teaching them on the Sabbath.’ Then in v 43, while there is a whole crowd of people lining up to be healed he excuses himself and leaves them in their sickness- why? So he can preach in other cities, in fact it is much stronger than that- ‘I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to other towns because that is why I was sent’. There is a divine ‘must’ about it all- Jesus is a preacher. And so in v44 he moves south to Judea and they get more of the same. So at the forefront of Jesus work is a message ministry-teaching the word of God.
But what surprised people was not just that he taught- all rabbis did that by definition, but the way he taught, for we are told they were astonished that his word had authority-v33. And this is where the word is even central to his working of miracles. Notice in v 35 he rebukes the evil spirits. He tells them to get out and they get out and the response of the onlookers is there in v36 ‘All the people were amazed and said to each other, "What is this teaching? With authority and power he gives orders to evil spirits and they come out!" The same thing happens with Peter’s mother- in- law who is laid up in bed with a fever in v39; Jesus speaks to the fever, and rebukes it ( a strange thing to do) and she is immediately made well. You don’t have Jesus having to spend ages in prayer. You don’t see Jesus splashing holy water around the place. He speaks and things happen. This is an unmistakable characteristic of God in the Bible. In the very first book, Genesis, God speaks a universe into being- that really is a powerful word isn’t it, to bring this universe with its hundred billion galaxies into existence? It is by his Word that he calls a rabble together and forms a special people for himself at Sinai- Israel. It is by his Word that he calls hostile nation against Israel to punish her in Isaiah 10 – a word of judgment. And it is by a word of salvation that he brings his chastened people back out of Exile in Isaiah 40. And as the Word of God is carried out on the breath of God that is how he will bring a new people into being according to Ezekiel 37- the church. So no wonder that when God came into his world in the person of His Son, he would issue what in effect were royal proclamations, edicts, so that when a King says such and such is so, it become so, it becomes the law. When a King speaks it is not just to impart information but to bring about a transformation- making things happen.
But will you notice that he would not share that proclamation with demons, it was his prerogative alone-v 41, ‘Moreover, demons came out of many people, shouting, "You are the Son of God!" But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew he was the Christ (that is, the King).’ What they were saying was true- he was the Son of God, the King-but they were forbidden to declare it. The question is: why? Maybe we can think it through like this: One of the most critical battles of the Second World War was the Battle of the Bulge, this was when the Germans launched a massive counter attack against the allied forces focusing on a place called Bastogne. The US troops had to hold that important communication town or else the war would either be lost or set back maybe years. They found themselves surrounded and outnumbered in appalling weather conditions which meant no allied planes could fly. Eventually they were relieved with the arrival of General Patton’s Third Army and the Germans were beaten back. Now, imagine an American soldier who was freezing from the cold, more or less down to his last bullet, seeing Patton coming up the road sitting on the top of his Sherman tank. How might he react? Would it not be something like this: ‘It’s General Patton!’ (said with delight, meaning we are saved). But supposing it was a German soldier standing by the roadside, how might he react? ‘It’s General Patton!’ (spoken with anxiety in his voice meaning -we are finished.) Both are saying the same words, both are speaking the truth, but for one the words express liberation, for the other, condemnation. And so into which category do you think the exclamations of demons would fall? It is hardly going to be one of welcoming Jesus is it? No, it is going to be acknowledging him with horror. Now, why should that kind of response get a wide hearing? It shouldn’t- it is a wonderful thing that Jesus has come-but not for demons. What is more, as we work through the Gospels there are plenty of people, especially amongst the religious leaders of the day who in their own way would side with the reaction of the demons to Jesus. And it may be the case that if the truth be known that is your reaction to him. Perhaps you have been coming along to St John’s for a while now or one of the student groups and you know with your head that all the evidence points in the direction that Jesus is the Son of God, the King of God’s kingdom. In some ways you admire him, but what you don’t want is to surrender the whole of your lives to him, there are things you want to hold back on and keep for yourself and say, ‘This is my domain not yours- keep out.’ If so, then perhaps now is the time for that to change and for you to lay down your arms of rebellion and surrender yourself to your rightful king- mind, body and soul. Jesus will not have those who are opposed to him announcing who he is in this declaiming way, but those who know him and love him.
And this leads us on to the purpose of miracles. Now remember that the Royal declaration of intent, the purpose of the divine visitation has been made back in v18 of chapter 4 and this is what we read Jesus declaring from the Prophet Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.’ Again you see what comes first- proclaiming the Good news- the Gospel, the gospel which spells freedom and seeing straight, but that word also leads to release from oppression- the oppression of sickness and spirits. So the miracles are not just demonstrations of power, direct proofs if you like, as if Jesus by them is saying ‘Look at me, I am God’. No. They are means of setting people free and in that way provide indirect evidence of Jesus divinity because this is what God is like; this is his character whose name is love. So often in the Gospels Jesus is said to have had compassion and it is the compassion which leads him to perform the miracle. He doesn’t see it as an opportunity to show off to the crowd, but to serve the crowd- as with the feeding of the 5,000. And when the Gospel writers focus on a specific miracle and specific individual it is always with a view of showing this is the kind of Kingship Jesus exercises- a kingship which is other person centred, a servant kingship if you like. Unlike Christina the Astonishing, Jesus does not avoid people, he seeks them out. Unlike the lie which her alleged miracles promoted, bondage and fear- believe in what I say or it is hell or purgatory for you and your relatives, he offers release and faith. Do you see that? More importantly, do you know that?
Someone who did and discovered the wonderful release Jesus brings to a works based religion was a student called Simon. As he came up to university with a smattering of church in his background he encountered a group of Christian students. This is what he says: ‘What really impressed me was meeting Christians my own age who were clear on what they believed and why they believed it, and who also had the integrity to live that out. This put to shame what was beginning to look like empty religious performance on my part…In fact all my religion succeeded in doing was deceiving people and deluding myself- and the cracks were beginning to show. It was only because these new Christian friends of mine took time to talk with me that I heard and understood the truth about Jesus. It was amazing news. Forgiveness, purpose in life now, and certainty beyond death had all been made possible through Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection. As they explained, what my religious effort could never achieve, Jesus Christ alone could bring, if I trusted him. Towards the end of my first year I stopped going my own way and turned around to Jesus. I simply asked him to include me in his rescue and gave my life up to live for him.’ Could I ask: is that what you want- true release? Is that what you need? You most certainly do if you are not yet a Christian or you are just religious. So why not tonight experience the greatest miracle of all- the miracle of new birth as you ask Jesus into your heart.
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