Sunday, August 9, 2015

"I Will; Be Thou Clean": A Sermon on Mark 1:40-45

In maybe the first few weeks of his ministry, Jesus has found four key disciples, set up base in Capernaum, preached the good news of God's kingdom, and even “cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons” (Mark 1:34). Needless to say, he wasn't just controversial; he was wildly popular in any place he went. Crowds gathered at the doors of the house where he stayed (Mark 1:32-33), his fame spread far and wide (Mark 1:28), and everyone was looking for Jesus (Mark 1:37). Wouldn't that be a wonderful way to be able to describe a country: everyone was looking for Jesus? Whether for him or against him, whether self-serving or self-giving, at least no one was lukewarm? And why had Jesus come? To “preach,” to “proclaim the message” in all the towns, missing not a one (Mark 1:38). And so “he went through Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons” (Mark 1:39).

Between that announcement and his return to Capernaum, the Gospel of Mark tells us just one story offering specifics of that preaching tour. Jesus has healed plenty of diseases, but you can be a respectable citizen and have a flu or a fever, cancer or a cold. But what about if you've got something much more serious, something that makes people keep their distance and look at you with fear in their eyes? What if you're falling apart, what if children shriek impolitely when they see you? If you've spent your years internalizing that shame, would you dare to draw near to Jesus and beg for help? One man did. He had a lepra, some kind of skin disease that could well have been a dreadful sight – maybe leprosy as we know it, maybe vitiligo or alopecia or psoriasis or any number of conditions. Serious leprosy was the AIDS of the first century. But this leper drew near to Jesus anyway, and when he expressed his faith, Jesus did something incredible.

One semester in college – what a wild place that was – I had a roommate, and you could say the two of us had our disagreements. One night, sitting on our beds across from one another, I pointedly asked him what he thought the most important truth of Christianity is. For my part, I said that it's that Christ has died; Christ is risen; and Christ will come again; and that he saves us by grace through faith that works in love. My roommate begged to differ. His answer was miracles, healings, everything pretty and flashy. It isn't that he disbelieved that Jesus died and rose again, but he said that those were the basics and no longer needed to be preached, because in our churches, everyone already grasps those. What really matters, he said, is miracles in our day and age, and that should be the constant theme of our preaching – not Jesus. Jesus is just the means to an end; miracles are the end. Where in the Bible he read, “I decided to know nothing among you except signs and wonders for our modern day,” I honestly couldn't tell you, because it's not there. The verse actually reads, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). My roommate would have said that was fine for Paul, but we've moved past the need for that now.

This man was obsessed with miracles: he went on miracle-themed mission trips, he claimed to regularly see angels flying around his head, he complained that no one else on campus was as “spiritual” as he. I don't say this to hold him up to ridicule, he had a lot of great virtues, but this mentality does exist in the church. He had great zeal for faith-healing: he believed that it is the responsibility of any Christian to be absolutely convinced that God is going to heal someone, whether that's true or not, because that's what faith meant to him. I always said to him that faith is a conviction in the truth of what God promises, not in what God hasn't promised; and that God has not promised to heal each and every person for whom we pray; and that God isn't pleased when we deliberately believe what just ain't so. He disagreed, and he said that it was a sign of faithlessness to hedge our prayers by conditioning them on what God wills. There are a lot of Christians today who agree with my old roommate – Christians who think that faith is just believing something intensely enough, and that anything that provides balance to our prayers is contrary to faith.  Many people believe that! Yet even Paul, a man of the utmost faith, was denied his continual request to be rid of his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-8).

But look at this leper here in the Gospel. His prayer isn't, “Jesus, I know for a fact that you're going to heal me, so just hurry up and do it already.” His prayer isn't, “Jesus, you owe me a healing.” The leper absolutely does not “name it and claim it.” But neither does the leper say, “I wish healing were for today, but I know that ended with the time of Elijah and Elisha.” Nor does the leper say, “It would be nice if you could heal, but I don't know if you can, Jesus. I'm sure your intentions are nice.” What does the leper say? “If you will, you can make me clean” (Mark 1:40). He doesn't come to Jesus with arrogance – the leper kneels before Jesus and begs. The leper doesn't come to Jesus with the attitude of entitlement – he submits his wishes to Christ's will. The leper doesn't come to Jesus with any hesitation at all about who Jesus is or what Jesus is capable of doing. This leper knows for sure that Jesus is capable of healing him – that, if that's what Jesus wants to do, it's a done deal.

Think about this leper's faith! The leper has a bold faith, but not a presumptuous faith. He has a carefully considered faith, but not a weak and anemic faith. He desperately wants to be healed, and he is completely and utterly convinced that Jesus can do it! Knowing who Jesus is, if Jesus had walked up to him on the side of the road and snapped his fingers and said, “Hey, you're healed,” this leper would not be caught by surprise to find no sign of leprosy left in his body. He has absolute conviction of Christ's power and of Christ's goodness – but that doesn't mean he presumes upon being promised healing just because he's an Israelite, just because he's a son of Abraham and an inheritor of Abraham's covenant. No: he knows that God remains supreme, ready and eager to heal but also wisely choosing what's best.

That's the attitude this leper brings to Jesus. Why should our attitude be any less? Why should we divorce humility from boldness? This leper is bold enough to trust that Jesus can, and humble enough to leave it to Jesus to choose if he will. If Jesus had turned him down, if Jesus had chosen to make his power known perfectly in the leper's leprous weakness (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9), can there be any doubt that this leper wouldn't have grumbled, wouldn't have complained, wouldn't have lost faith? That's the kind of faith Jesus is looking for: faith enough to be healed by one mighty word from his holy lips, and also faith enough to not be healed – to bear this illness as a lasting mark of the conflict between God's grace and a fallen world. Do we have faith to be healed, and faith to not be healed?

But look at how Jesus felt when the leper dropped to his knees and spoke those words of bold, humble faith. Mark tells us: Jesus was “moved with pity,” or “moved with compassion” (Mark 1:41). That's not really a strong enough translation, though. More literally, compassion wrenched Jesus in the gut, pulled at his innards, grabbed hold of his spleen. From the deepest and most visceral core of his body, Jesus was flooded with intense yearning to answer the man's heartfelt prayer. It's the same word used to describe a father's first reaction on realizing, after years and years of waiting, that his lost son's face is visible on the horizon and coming his way (Luke 15:20). In the face of that overwhelming jolt, nothing else matters; everything else pales in insignificance. Beyond a calm and sedate attitude of affection, beyond sincere condolences, Jesus isn't just “moved,” he isn't just “touched” – it's a powerful sensation like being torn open from the inside and having your every thought and feeling hang totally on the reality that confronts you. In our words, Jesus is absolutely heartsick over what he sees in front of him. That's real compassion, real “suffering-with.”

Wrenched in the gut by lavish love and overflowing compassion, feeling the leper's woes as keenly as his own, Jesus does the unthinkable: he “stretched out his hand and touched him” (Mark 1:41). Mark wants us to picture this vividly. If there's one thing you don't do with a leper, it's touch him. The Law said to expel lepers from the camp of Israel, to exclude them as carriers of impurity (Numbers 5:2). A leper was under strict guidelines as to how to live: he had to wear torn clothes, keep his hair uncombed, cover his upper lip – all signs of mourning and grief – and warn everyone around not to risk touching him and becoming tainted by his own impurity. A leper “shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:45-46). The rabbis spoke of leprosy as consistently a punishment for sin, with the seven causes including pride, theft, gossip, even murder. Touching a leper can be frightful business – but it was the business of Jesus.

Over a century ago, a Belgian-born priest chose to do the business of Jesus. When he became a monk, he took the name “Damien” after a third-century saint who, with his twin brother Cosmas, both of them doctors, won many to Jesus through their ministry of free healthcare. Not that they were loved by all; Cosmas and Damien were then tortured, crucified, stoned, shot, and finally, for good measure, beheaded. Following their example, this later Damien was sent as a missionary to the Kingdom of Hawaii, where thousands of Hawaiian lepers were being forcibly removed to and quarantined in remote colonies. Damien was the first priest to volunteer to serve them there, writing six months later, “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.” He revolutionized their lives, caring for their physical and spiritual needs until his own death in 1889 – from leprosy. St. Damien, Apostle of the Lepers, gave his life to touch them in the name of that same Jesus who fearlessly touched lepers long ago. No wonder many charities that serve modern lepers or clinics that serve AIDS patients now bear St. Damien's name.

But where the scribes and Pharisees would never have touched a leper, fearing to catch their impurity, Jesus had a greater sense of daring. Jesus didn't act in fear. The Spirit of God dwelling in the Son of God is greater than any presence out there in the world, including impurity (cf. 1 John 4:4). The leper doesn't make Jesus unclean through touch, because the contagiousness of Christ is greater than the contagiousness of the leper! So Jesus “touched him,” and the health of Christ's holiness overcame all the sickness, all the disease, that the leper bore. The leper said to Jesus, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Jesus replied, “I will; be thou clean” (Mark 1:41). With a touch and a word, it was a done deal, as immediate as all the action in Mark's story (Mark 1:42).

Jesus healed then. Does he heal today? We often say he does miracles, sure. I recover from a cold – we call that a miracle. Someone makes it through surgery, or their cancer goes into remission – we call that a miracle. In biblical language, a miracle is a “wonder,” something marvelous and awe-inspiring that points to God's power working in it, and a “sign,” something that expresses the nature of God's kingdom and the rhythms by which it operates. One of the professors at my seminary, Craig Keener, put together a fabulous two-volume work – it was meant to be a single footnote in one of his other books, but you know how professors can be – all about miracles. Christianity Today gave the book an Award of Merit. In it, he summarizes stories of healings in the name of Christ done all across the world – plenty with multiple eyewitness accounts, some with conclusive medical documentation, even in America, though he also suggests that God might “answer prayers regarding health through medical means in medical cultures.”

I can't speak to the many accounts this professor has put together, though Dr. Keener's not a man given to gullibility or grandiosity – I've scarce met anyone so humble and so meticulous. But I believe my college roommate was half-right. We do serve a God who is “mighty to save” the body as well as the spirit (Isaiah 63:1). Still he is “the LORD who heals you” (Exodus 15:26), a God “who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases” (Psalm 103:3). I've seen the proof. After college, I went to seminary, a place where I mingled with pastor's kids and redeemed drug dealers, where I studied alongside Americans and Koreans and Indians and Kenyans. I made some of the greatest friends of my life at seminary.

I hope one of those especially close friends won't mind if I mention a part of his wonderful testimony. See, for years he suffered a condition – somewhat enigmatic to his doctors – that produced nerve damage affecting the right side of his face. He couldn't fully smile, couldn't shut his right eye, not even when sleeping. Looking back on it, his half-expressions were apparent. So the first time I saw him in a full-on grin, awash in the joy of the Lord, I had to hear the story. He'd just come back from a trip to South Korea, a place where Christianity is thriving in ways we can only dream here. And while he was there, he ascended a prayer mountain tended by one of the local churches. Wonders happen in the solitary places when the grace of God bursts through, as it turns out. Confronted by God's presence unearthing all the hidden things of his soul and transforming him in the refiner's fire, he pressed on past a statue of Jesus praying in Gethsemane, past the crucifixion, past Emmaus to an empty grave. And as he descended the mountain again, burning with the Holy Spirit, he laughed and smiled; his face, once numb, was sensitive to touch. When I saw him again after his return to the United States, the change was visible – not just one opinion among many, not just wishful thinking, but literally as evident as the smile on his face. It was clear and drastic – just like when Jesus cured that leper two thousand years ago.

In touching the leper, the leper was made clean – just as Jesus offers to cleanse our souls with one touch of his grace, and just as he may also choose to purge our bodies of ill health. He has the power, but may his will be done, and not our own. But for an Israelite, leprosy wasn't just a physical condition; it was a social standing. And the only way to resolve it fully was to get a bill of clean health from a priest through the proper procedures. So Jesus immediately sent the leper to finish the process: “Go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses has commanded, as a testimony to them” (Mark 1:44).

Jesus was not asking the leper to rebel against the Law. Jesus was not attacking the Old Testament. That wasn't why he came. No, he wanted the leper to go do exactly what the Law prescribed for the situation at hand. Why? As a testimony. It's one thing to say that Jesus has done a mighty work in you. It's another thing to be able to wave around the proof, to display it for the sake of his glory! Jesus came to preach and live the gospel of the kingdom – that the life-changing power of God had come to shake things up, to inject the peace and wholeness of God into our war-torn and diseased world. The leper was excited – almost too excited – and it isn't clear he even bothered to go get the priestly exam the Law mandated. In the Gospel of Mark, this ex-leper could be called the first evangelist: before any other specific figure in the story other than Jesus himself, he's the one who goes forth to preach and “spread the word,” so much so that Jesus is thronged by crowds and can't even walk through the town gates without causing a traffic jam (Mark 1:45). What an effective evangelist! Just as the one leper came to him, so now people come from all around. So Jesus sticks to “solitary places,” the places he goes to pray (Mark 1:35).

This story – Jesus and one brave leper – confronts us with some powerful questions. Are we ready to have the faith that Jesus could still heal, can heal, does heal? For many American Christians, we don't take the prospect all that seriously. We give it lip-service, but to see a man shout hallelujah and toss his cane to the wind – that would stop us in our tracks. There's plenty we can learn about openness to the wonder-working Spirit of Jesus from our friends at Pequea Presbyterian and other charismatic churches in our area and across the globe. Let's dare to seriously and persistently pray big, bold prayers, knowing that to restore sight to the blind or health to the ill is no heavier a thing for God than to make water be wet. When we give God our biggest prayers and treat their fulfillment as a live possibility, God may just take us up on that. “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5).

Second, with this faith, are we also humble enough to have the faith to not be healed? My old roommate wasn't quite right on this front: we need the faith to not be healed. We need the faith to live in a complex and broken world. We need a faith like the faith Jesus himself had: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). God didn't ignore that prayer: “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears … and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Hebrews 5:7). But God delivered Jesus, not in avoidance of death, but through suffering and death and out the other side. Jesus “has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases” (Isaiah 53:4), yet we're called to “suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17).

Plenty of famous Christians suffered from medical conditions: Pope Pelagius II died of the plague, as did Luther's friend Andreas Karlstadt; Fanny Crosby was blind; Joni Eareckson Tada is a quadriplegic; Charles Haddon Spurgeon had rheumatism and kidney disease; Mother Teresa had heart problems and a bout with malaria; David Livingstone died of malaria and dysentery; John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace and Oft As the Leper's Case I Read, was often sick in his later years; Martin Luther had arthritis, a cataract, an inner-ear disorder, and plenty else; we've already mentioned St. Damien's leprosy; Billy Graham has Parkinson's disease and has dealt with pneumonia and cancer; and our very own Jacob Albright died early in his life partly because of tuberculosis. Jesus' own parable of the sheep and the goats implies that God's servants will at times be sick, just as they'll at times be in prison (Matthew 25:36).  In illness as in opposition and persecution, “let those suffering in accordance with God's will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good” (1 Peter 4:19).

Don't trust God only when it satisfies your wants, only when it seems to benefit you. Trust in God's wisdom to withhold for the sake of purposes of which we've scarcely scratched the surface. That means withholding physical healing, it means withholding physical safety, it means withholding physical security in finances. Trust like the leper trusted: “If you will, you can make me clean; yet not my will but yours be done, even if it means leaving me in leprosy until you make all things new.” Have a faith that knows how to wait upon the LORD. Have the humble faith that can stand to not get what you most want out of God.

Third, empowered by a bold and humble faith, are we willing be like Damien, imitating Jesus in touching the lepers of our world? For too long, the church has been afraid to get outside of itself, afraid that mingling with “sinners” will contaminate us. While Christian fellowship is limited to faithful disciples (Matthew 18:17; 1 Corinthians 5:11-13), we were never told not to associate with “the immoral of this world … since you would then need to go out of the world” (1 Corinthians 5:10). But we're “sent into the world,” Jesus said (John 17:18), and he prayed to his Father, “I'm not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the Evil One” (John 17:15) – precisely because, under God's watchful care, we're meant to go find people and touch them with the finger of God, the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. Are we ready to go to the pubs, go to the prisons, go to the pride parades – or, less dramatically, just go into town and get involved in the lives of those who need the Jesus we know? Or are we living by fear instead of by faith?

And finally, are we eager to spread the good news, excited to share what Jesus has done in us? We may not all have been rescued from some specific ailment you'll find in a medical textbook. But we're all sick and in need of a Great Physician (cf. Mark 2:17). And if you've met Jesus, if you've entered his soul-healing care, if you've been scrubbed down in baptism and gone to his table for the “medicine of immortality,” if you still devote your life to the diet of the Word and to the exercise of carrying your cross, then “go in peace; your faith has made you well” (Mark 5:34). “Go in peace” – that is, “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19), “go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). If we've really grasped the depths of our own sickness and the healing that Jesus gives, how can we rest in the knowledge that others don't know where to turn for the wellness they so desperately need? We have one powerful imperative: to go out and “proclaim it freely, and to spread the word” so that people come to Jesus from every quarter (Mark 1:45)! Go spread the word!

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