Sermon – February 8

Sermon – February 8

Mark 1:40-45

A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

 

You need to know I have a bias when it comes to Mark’s gospel. It is my favorite. I appreciate its brevity and directness. I once heard it called the gospel for type-A personalities.

 

There is no fluff in Mark’s gospel. The author gets right to it:   “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The author of Mark’s gospel wastes no time pulling us into the action-packed life of Jesus. By the time we reach verse 40 where our passage begins, Mark has:

 

  • introduced us to John the Baptist
  • informed us that Jesus is the unique son of God and this is confirmed in God’s own words at Jesus’ baptism;
  • Jesus is tempted in the wilderness;
  • John the Baptist is arrested;
  • Jesus calls Simon, Andrew, James and John to be his disciples;
  • Jesus begins astounding crowds of people with his teaching;
  • Jesus exorcizes an unclean spirit;
  • Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law in her home,

 

and when word got out, hordes of people who were sick or demon possessed left no stone unturned to get to where Jesus was. And, everywhere he went, Jesus proclaimed the good news of God: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”[1]

 

Mark’s gospel “clearly depicts Jesus through his words and deeds as inaugurating God’s sovereign rule, the Kingdom.”[2] The leper depicted in this morning’s story wanted desperately to be part of that kingdom. As he followed the crowds from a distance, he saw the blind walking without their red-tipped canes; he witnessed the lame running and leaping for joy. Deaf people responded when their names were called. People who had been possessed by demons walked into the synagogue dressed in their Saturday best. This leper’s yearning for healing was so great, he completely disregarded the laws concerning his circumstances; he approached Jesus, and begged to be made well. His kneeling posture emphasized his desperation and despair. “If you choose” the leper said “you can make me clean.”   To this man desperately waiting on his knees, Jesus’ response was the difference between a full life, or a living death.

 

Leprosy in the first century was not necessarily the skin eating disease we see in the old “B” movies. In fact, I was pretty distressed to learn that the term “leprosy” used in the bible can be interpreted to mean any number of exfoliative skin diseases. Psoriasis and eczema would be considered leprosy as would ringworm and other fungal diseases.

 

Now, can you imagine flaky skin or fungus conditions keeping you from the presence of God? That’s what even a tiny bit of leprosy meant to this man. For this man, leprosy meant he was unclean; and, uncleanness meant exclusion from normal community life – including community Worship.  All the activities of the temple required purity. Anyone unclean could not enter the temple – they could not be in the presence of God. To be clean was to be holy. To be unclean was to be in an incurable state of sin. This unclean leper had no reason to hope for healing. In Judaism it was believed only God could cure a leper.[3] The leper, however, was excluded from the means of grace available only in the temple.

 

I am sure this man’s exclusion from the normal life of his community created an intense loneliness in him. Uncleanness was considered contagious. Exclusion from community was a kind of social death for the afflicted. People might talk to you from across a street, but no one wanted to get close enough to catch your disease – they might also catch your sin. No one would visit your home or eat with you. You would not be invited to the community pot luck or your nephew’s bar ‘mitzvah.

 

As I read this passage I realized that at any given time of year, I might have leprosy as it was known in the day Mark wrote the gospel. How many of us get splotches on our hands and arms? Or have hands and feet that become calloused and cracked? Who hasn’t suffered from flaking skin of one sort or the other? A little dandruff maybe? We may put our hands in our pockets and wear long sleeves, but we know the splotches are there. We know there are chinks in our armor – a few failures under our belts. There may be a flakiness coming from our soul – resentments that erode our sense of compassion – a little fungus, perhaps, growing in our heart – anger interfering with love.

 

The leper in our story was lucky, in a strange sort of way. He knew what his condition was. He could see what ailed him. He knew he had to look for help and that something dramatic would have to happen in order for him to regain his sense wholeness. Many people are not so lucky. Many times the diseases of the soul – the fears and doubts, the inadequacies and imperfections we carry around are hidden to the world – and they often are invisible to us. We don’t know we are sick. We do not know we are unclean. We know only that we are restless and not exactly happy. And we don’t know where to find a cure.

 

And so, we keep looking for that thing that will fill the lonely moments and hold back despair. We reach deep into our internal resources. We reach out to the latest fad or spend hours in front of the television trying to calm our restlessness.   We use these evasive tactics when what we really long for in the deepest recesses of our hearts is the love that is so moved by our condition it desires to stretch out its hand and touch us and to pronounce us clean – to make us whole.

 

What is this wholeness that is so elusive? Well, to be whole is to be in complete harmony with God, with others and with ourselves. But our relationship with our Creator is marred by our human tendency to idolatry and tyranny – our propensity to worship the works of our own hands and our innate desire for superiority. Despite our best intentions, we seem to cultivate leprosy of the soul – resentments that erode our sense of compassion – a little fungus of the heart – anger interfering with love.

 

 

Moved with pity, Jesus – the embodiment of God’s Grace – reached out his hand; he touched the leper and said, “I do choose. Be made clean!

 

Mark records that at Jesus’ touch, the leprosy immediately left the man. With a touch Jesus effected for this man the most complete healing possible. In healing the man’s disease Jesus removed the stigma of sin leprosy represented and the man was restored to full religious and community life. Jesus commanded the former leper to show himself to the priests and to perform the rituals of Jewish law that would bear testimony to his healing.

 

In healing his disease Jesus restored the man to family life. Can you imagine the astonishment of his wife and children when he stepped across the threshhold, certificate of cleanness in hand? In healing the man’s disease, Jesus returned the man to full community life. In healing the man’s disease, Jesus showered this man with the grace of wholeness – communion with God, communion with family, communion with neighbor. It was a healing that bound up a broken heart; it was a healing that proclaimed liberty to one made captive by social convention; it was a healing that removed the imprisoning shackles of sin. It was a healing that included the deepest and widest of reconciliations this man could desire.

 

The leper depicted in this morning’s good-news story experienced the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ. It is the kingdom that we, as followers of Christ, are called to be part of. It is the kingdom we, as followers of Jesus Christ, are called to exhibit.

 

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus gave the apostles authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. This is the ministry to which we are called as the church – as disciples of Jesus Christ. Christ called the Church into being, giving her all that is necessary for her mission to the world. We believe Christ is present with the us in both Spirit and Word, and while it belongs to Christ alone to rule, to teach, to call, and to use the Church as he wills, we believe Christ exercises his authority through the ministry of women and men who are beneficiaries of the great healing Christ bestows. We who have experienced this Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ are called to exhibit the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.[4]

 

God, “who was at work in the world in Jesus, is still at work in the Christ. Wherever there is disease, evil, unbelief and death, Christ is at work proclaiming the gospel of hope, healing people from every disease, casting out the demonic forces of evil and defeating the ruthless grip of death. The task of the church, and the work of the disciples, is not somehow to replace Jesus, but to join him in the work he is already is doing in the world.”[5]

 

In his commentary on Matthew, Stanley Hauerwas notes that “[w]e know little about the individual disciples, but we know they are not a distinguished group. They are people of “little faith,” but they are who Jesus has called. . . . The undistinguished character of the disciples is a sign of hope for us who inherit their task.”[6]

 

We have from Jesus the mandate and the authority and the privilege of bringing good news the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, and leading those imprisoned by the shakles of sin to the healer who forgives all our iniquity, who heals all our diseases and who redeems our lives from the pit.

 

Thanks be to God.

 

[1] Mark 1:15

[2] R. A. Guelich, Word Biblical Commentary:Mark 1-8:26, Volume 34A, Word Biblical Commentary, Dallas: Word Incorporated, ©2002. (xli), Electronic edition.

[3] Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. (1983-c1985). The Bible Knowledge Commentary : an Exposition of the Scriptures (2:111). Wheaton, Il: Victor Books.

[4] See, The Constitution Of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part II, Book of Order,

2005–2007, Published by The Office of the General Assembly, Copyright © 2005 by the Office of the General Assembly Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), G-1.0100b and G-1.0200.

[5] Thomas G. Long, Westminster Bible Companion: Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, ©1997), p. 117 (adapted).

[6] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, ©2006), p. 105.