Modern movies have trained us to expect showy spectacles of power. The Emperor throws lightning from his fingers with the power of the Force; Tony Stark blows up a mountain range with the power of his mind (via engineering); Superman flies around the planet to turn back time with the power of Earth’s Sun.
This is true even in depictions of miracles from the Bible. Cecil B. DeMille filmed the waters of the Red Sea roaring back from the staff of Moses like he was Gandalf, but in Exodus 14:21, Moses just stretches his hand out over the sea, and God sends a strong east wind. Parting the Reed Sea takes all night.
In all fairness, the Bible does mention the walls of water, which later crash in on the Pharaoh’s troops, and earlier God does ask Moses to take a shepherd’s staff with him to work his wonders. But it isn’t mentioned in the parting of the Red Sea itself. It isn’t as photogenic as we want to remember.
This is true about many miracles in the Bible, especially the miracles of Jesus in the Gospels. Lazarus is brought back from the dead, but people do recover from seemingly fatal-looking illnesses. The feeding of the crowd can be chalked up to underestimating how much food people had with them. And so on.
Now, there are unambiguous miracles in the Gospels – my favorite is Jesus stilling the storm and walking on water – but many of the miracles are events which you not only have to take on faith, but you have to use faith to recognize that they are even indeed miracles, much less interpret them properly.
Such is the story of Jesus’s triumphal entry in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He sends His disciples ahead to retrieve a donkey, which is mysteriously tied up precisely where He says it would be, and whose owners yield it to the disciples without a fuss when told that the donkey was needed for the Lord.
Then, upon Jesus’s entry, crowds gather and, even though they don’t precisely know who He is, lay down for Him cloaks and palm branches – from where we get the name Palm Sunday. Supposedly, all the city was moved by this triumphal entry … but only then learned that it was Jesus, the prophet from Galilee.
Wait, what? How did they know to gather? Remember, this is before Twitter, before cell phones, even before CNN and the 24-hour news cycle. And Jesus didn’t exactly have the largest staff – He had twelve close confidants (we call them Apostles) and sent out seventy or so followers (we call them disciples).
But even so, the Bible narrates Jesus’s advance team, which doesn’t do more than procure some transport. The appearance of the crowds that gather for Jesus, much less the donkey that Jesus mysteriously knows about from miles and miles away, are a rational mystery.
Now, if you’re a skeptic, you’re likely aware of “information leakage” which can cause the appearance of paranormal phenomena when in truth the “counting horse” was just paying close attention to the body language of the trainer, or the “psychic” was learning to predict from subtle smudges on the cards.
A skeptic must admit that it’s possible that in the six days prior to Palm Sunday, when Jesus was staying in nearby Bethany, that He sent messengers ahead to prepare the way. By my count above, plus other hangers-on in the Bible, He likely had a hundred followers, seventy embedded across Israel.
So, from a skeptical perspective, there’s really not anything to explain. But if you take the story on faith – if you believe that the Bible, even if it isn’t literally true and is primary source material, isn’t just primary source material and is inspired by faith to tell us what’s important – then you see God at work.
Again and again, Jesus works small miracles, things which a skeptic can easily explain away, things which don’t require an extravagant budget, complex special effects, or thousands of extras. Sometimes, it’s just seeing someone from afar, be it a donkey for the triumphal entry … or the apostle Nathanael.
“When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, He said of him, ‘Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is no deceit.’ ‘How do You know me?’ Nathanael asked. Jesus replied, ‘Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.’ ‘Rabbi,’ Nathanael answered, ‘You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!'”
It’s a simple miracle. A skeptic would chalk it up to a cold read and go on about their business. But to a believer, it’s a sign. Jesus knows who we are and what resources we have, even from a great distance, and He sees what role we can play in His Kingdom … even if we sometimes seem very far away.
God acts in the world around us all the time. Earlier in this series, I pooh-poohed the experiences some people have with spiritual or magical experiences which require a prepared mind, but it is true that there are things which we cannot easily see unless we’ve trained ourselves to see them.
Once I was working on a logo for a startup on a very early CAD program at a friend’s family printing plant, and just as I was getting satisfied with my work, one of the foremen came over, looked at my drawing, and said, “Yeah, doesn’t look too good. Those little chevrons there don’t line up.”
And, dangit, they didn’t. I had a lot to learn about how to “see” features of drawings. And even though it was a pain – the custom vector-graphics program was very hard to use – I had to take the advice and laboriously fix each little chevron, because what the foreman had pointed out was absolutely true.
Jesus once said that no sign would be given to this generation except the sign of Jonah – referring to Jonah’s three-day stay inside a giant fish, and meaning Jesus’s own Resurrection. And that is all we need, if we’re paying attention, to the ordinary miracles God works around us every day.
If we learn to see.
Pictured: He is Iron Man, thanks to a suit which, both in-and-out of universe, is a very expensive effect.