There have been a number of movies that have stuck with me as having a real impact. One of those movies was the 1962, The Miracle Worker. This is the true story of Ann Sullivan and Helen Keller. I think what really hit me was the portrayal of Hellen Keller before Ann came into her life. She was wild and out of control. The family gave into her actions because there seemed to be no other alternative. The situation was hopeless.
And then came the Miracle Worker. Ann Sullivan poured her life into Helen. She received abuse from Helen and disapproval from the family but slowly there was progress. Eventually Ann taught Helen how to communicate and to achieve goals that we can only imagine. It was a miracle.
I am not suggesting that every miracle is about working hard and getting what you want by sheer determination. I believe in miracles in the supernatural sense. I believe that people do get healed. I believe that other things take place that we cannot explain by human reason.
Jesus was a miracle worker. As much as Jesus preached and taught, he also performed miracles. For many people back then, that was the draw. They didn’t necessarily go out to hear a sermon, they went out to see a miracle. What will that Jesus do next?
But it is actually difficult to separate Jesus’ teaching from his miracles. They are all interwoven. We are going to look at three different miracles, each one of which will reveal different aspects of miracles.
Healing the Leper
If there was one disease that ancient Jews dreaded it was leprosy. There were more deadly diseases out there, ones that would kill you quickly or at least within a few weeks or months. But people would rather have a quick and even painful death by one of these diseases than to live for many years with leprosy.
Of all diseases, the Bible speaks of leprosy more than any other. This was one of the problems. It would be bad enough to get sick, but the Old Testament had quite a few limitations for people with leprosy. When we get sick, we want to go to church and be prayed for by the pastor and other leaders. The Law prevented that from ever happening. When you had leprosy, you were cut off from all Temple activity. People did not have a personal relationship with God, they had a corporate relationship. Worship was with other people, offering sacrifices in the Temple. Lepers were not allowed in the Temple until they were healed and even then there were some hoops to jump through.
Being cut off from the Temple was bad but that was not the end of the suffering. Lepers were cut off from all community. They would cover their faces and yell, “Unclean, unclean!” so people knew not to come too near.They were not even allowed to be with their families. It was complete isolation.
It is to such a man that Jesus interacted. The man was brave to come near Jesus as such things were invisible. Notice how the man asks for healing. “If you are willing.” There is a question there. Jesus could feel contempt for lepers the way so many did. If you are willing. Jesus was willing.
I want you to notice three things that take place here. Jesus touched the man. When was the last time this man had been touched? Jesus did not say he was healed (although he was), he was clean. By using that word, Jesus was acknowledging that the man’s problem was not just physical, it was social. Becoming clean meant he could return to community. Finally, Jesus told him to go see a priest. I thought Jesus was in conflict with the religious leaders? He was not in conflict with every religious leader but the point here was for the man to start the process of regaining his Temple access.
This man was healed physically, but he was also healed socially.
Healing the Paralytic
I must confess that the healing of the paralytic has always been one of my favourite Jesus stories. There is so much that we could look at in this story. There is the role of the faith of the friends in the man’s healing. There is the desperation of the friends to bring the man on the roof, make a hole in the roof and lower him in front of Jesus. There is much that we could learn from these friends, aside from the destruction of private property that is.
But I want to focus on something else. The man appears on a mat. It is obvious that his immediate need is to be healed of his paralysis. But what does Jesus say? Your sins are forgiven!
Two questions should come to mind? Who is Jesus that he can pronounce forgiveness of sins and why would he focus on a spiritual need instead of a physical need?
Some have argued that Jesus was just acknowledging that God would his sins, similar to the way a priest pronounces absolution. But the Pharisees and teachers of the Law seemed to understand Jesus perfectly well. Jesus forgave the man’s sins. Only God can forgive sins. Therefore Jesus was claiming to be God. This is the kind of thing that kept getting Jesus in trouble. Jesus was able to forgive sins because he was God incarnate whether people liked it or not.
But that still leaves us wondering why Jesus spoke about sin instead of paralysis. Jesus was not trying to be heartless. This was not like handing a starving person a coupon to save $500 when they buy a brand new car. Jesus understood that even if we are physically healthy, if we are not right with God, we are still sick. The spiritual need was the greater need. Thankfully, Jesus did heal the man of his paralysis, but even so it was done as evidence that he had the authority to forgive sins.
This man was healed physically, but he was also healed spiritually.
Healing the Tax Collector
The third story that we are going to look at may not look like a miracle, but I will argue that it is just as much of a miracle as the other two.
We have previously seen that Jesus called a number of fisherman as disciples. Now Jesus is at it again and this time with a tax collector. The Jews hated tax collectors. The tax collectors collected money for the Romans. They were given a certain amount to collect and anything they collected above that was their pay. They didn’t always ask nicely when it was time to collect. This would be bad enough but these Jews and not Gentiles who were working for the Romans. The tax collectors were seen as traitors.
It was to such a man that Jesus gave the command to “Follow me.” Jesus wanted a tax collector as one of his disciples. That was not a very good marketing move. Jesus would have been much more popular if he condemned the tax collectors instead of inviting them to join his group.
Jesus didn’t stop there. To make it clear how different Jesus was, Jesus agreed to have dinner at Levi’s house. Levi invited all his friends and guess what? They were all tax collectors. Jesus is eating at a tax collector’s house, a house filled with other tax collectors.
You might think, what’s the big deal? It’s only a meal. The thing is that in the ancient world it was never just a meal. Table fellowship was about community and relationships. You didn’t just eat with anyone. You thought very carefully about who you were willing to eat with and who you would never consider eating with. Jesus knew what he was doing when he went to Levi’s house.
Think about this from Levi’s perspective. When he was sitting at his tax booth and saw Jesus coming, he probably looked down at the table, attempting to avoid his gaze. Levi knew what people thought of him. It was probably pretty close to what Levi thought of himself. Then Jesus called Levi to follow. Then Jesus agreed to come to house to eat. Jesus is fully embracing Levi.
This is where the miracle is. It was not that Jesus tolerated a really wicked man. It was that Jesus accepted Levi in a way that Levi could forgive himself.
Levi was not healed physically, but he was healed of the shame that he had carried for years.
Healing in the Church
There are churches that seek to have signs and wonders happen on a regular basis. I am sure that we would all love to see miracles. We pray for people who are sick and we desperately hope that God will heal them.
I do believe that miracles happen today. I have heard of many stories on the mission field but miracles happen right here as well. I have talked to people who have received healing and I have even been told that people have been healed after I have prayed for them.
I think that churches should have expectations that God will perform miracles. But at the same time, we should reflect deeply on the purpose of miracles.
God is not Santa Claus who just wants to spoil us with every good thing we desire. What have we learned from the miracles in our passage? God healed the leper socially, the paralytic spiritually and the tax collector from shame. Every person that Jesus healed physically, including those he raised from the dead, got sick again and died. This will happen to all of us eventually. So why does God perform miracles?
I often hear about faithful Christians who get sick and die. People ask why God did not heal them. I would suggest that we ask a different question, why is that some people do get healed? I don’t believe that it is because God can’t handle the thought of anyone sick. I believe that these miracles are only outward signs of what God is doing on the inside and what he plans to do with them.
There is an interesting story in Acts 12 about two of Jesus’ twelve disciples. Herod arrests James and Peter. Both belonged to Jesus’ inner circle. But God allowed James to be executed while rescuing Peter from prison with a dramatic miracle. Did God love Peter more than James? Did James have sin in his life that prevented a miracle? It ends up that Peter will eventually die a martyr’s death, probably more painful than what happened to James. Peter’s death was simply delayed so that he could fulfill the mission God had for him.
The purpose of miracles is not to make our life easier but to be signs of God’s plans.
The Jesus of the Gospels was a miracle worker. Jesus is still a miracle worker. He performed miracles for a leper, a paralytic and a tax collector. He will perform miracles in us as well. We pray and hope that those miracles will include the healing of our sick loved ones. God does do that. But sometimes God performs miracles on a deeper level. What happened to the three men in our passage was much more than just a shift in health. They were transformed on the inside. I would argue that God is doing that within us right now, whether or not we see the dramatic miracles on the outside. Thank God for miracles.