Scripture: Luke 5: 12-16
This sermon reminds us of where our becoming followers of Jesus begins. It begins with one of Jesus' miracles of healing.
It's hard for us to understand the power of some of the New Testament stories because we live in a different culture. Most of them are told only in outline form. We don't get to really know the people involved. I want to begin this morning by retelling the story we just read about Jesus healing a leper. Using the customs of the day and the Law of Moses, let's see if we can try to understand some of the power and passion of this simple story.
The man knew he hadn't been feeling well, but he hadn't shared his concern with anyone. Now he couldn't ignore it any longer. He had seen it happen to other people, but he never thought it would happen to him.
He knew what he had to do. It was the law. He had to make a journey. He told his wife and children he would only be gone a few days and that they shouldn't worry; everything would be all right. The man walked out of the village with tears in his eyes. He walked alone carrying in his heart the knowledge of his terrifying discovery.
Finally he reached the city. He went to a certain room that was part of a great building called the temple. He met a stranger there, a priest. The frightened man described the awful discovery. He showed the priest the white spots on his arms and legs. Even his body hair had turned white over the spots.
The priest's eyes narrowed. His jaw was set. "I declare before God that you are now unclean. God's word says, ‘the leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair on his head hang loose. He shall cover his upper lip and cry "Unclean, unclean!" He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp.'"
The law is found in Leviticus. It is more a public health law than a religious law. It is harsh, but in the days before any scientific knowledge about the cause of disease, laws were designed to protect the community even if it hurt the individual.
The priest left. The man stood alone. Never again would he hold his wife close in the night. He could no longer touch his children. He could no longer worship in the temple or shake the hands of his friends. What would become of his wife and children now that he couldn't support them?
Slowly he began to tear his clothes and muss his hair. He stepped out onto the street, stopped, shoulders sagging. "Unclean! Unclean!" he shouted. People stepped back. They were afraid. The crowds around the temple made a path for him.
When he got back to his village he dared not enter. He yelled from a distance at his wife and children. They must stay away from him. He left them crying; he left feeling totally alone. At the time of Jesus, the leper would have come to that point in his life much as I have described it. To make matters worse, the theology of the day said that God himself had given the man this disease as a punishment for his sins. Not only was this man cut off from his family and community; he was denied access to his God.
Deep in the darkness of our souls, I suspect many of us can at least partially identify with this man. "Full of leprosy" ... A few of us have chronic illnesses that make us unable to do all the things we would like to do - or perhaps we just feel the effects of aging. On television practically everyone over seventy is cranky and partly senile. Why do they think that of us when we don't think of ourselves that way? Others feel a sense of ugliness. We don't talk about it a whole lot, but I think our discomfort with our bodies causes many people a great deal of anxious concern.
Too tall, too short, too heavy, too slim, too old, too many wrinkles - no one ever lost money betting on products and services designed to cater to the anxiety, the sense of uncleanness most Americans have about their bodies. And every day, in movies, on television, in countless commercials, we are given the message that we aren't beautiful enough or handsome enough or young enough to be loved. We can laugh about it, but we spend billions of dollars a year trying to keep this anxiety under reasonable control.
There are, of course, other things that work on our minds. Many people are full of memories that if revealed, they fear, would turn people away. We have done things for which we still feel guilt. We hope no one knows or remembers. We keep this pain, this sense of uncleanness, bottled up most of the time, but it boils up at the strangest times. People seeking relief many times over the years have told me these stories.
I'm probably safe in saying that most of us rather recently have been addressed like the priest in that little room addressed that man. Someone has sent us a message saying in so many words, "You are no good. You are bad. You are terrible. You are a failure. You are unclean." I see children being sent that message every week in the grocery store, in Wal-mart, in parking lots. God knows what they are told at home. Young people sometimes send that message to their parents as well. I never will forget a father bringing in a young teenaged girl for me to talk some sense into as he put it. "Everyone at school tells me I'm too thin, too dumb and my breasts are too small," she shouted as we set in my office. I still feel pain every time I think about her.
The leper comes to Jesus. He is bringing, you see, not only a physical disease but also the effects that this disease has had on his inner being. He feels not only unclean on the outside but unclean on the inside as well. Our ways of doing medicine don't deal very well with the psychological effects of diabetes or heart attacks or arthritis pain. None of us have been labeled "unclean" and we haven't been pushed out of the community, but I think we can empathize with this man's pain. We have each felt unclean in our own way. Jesus comes walking by and this man falls down on the ground. He dare not look Jesus in the eye. "Lord, if you will, you can make me clean," he says.
The man reaches out to Jesus in faith. Why does he say, "If you will" to Jesus. I wonder if he doesn't believe that everyone is right. Maybe he does deserve this disease that makes him unclean. I've spend most of my life trying to convince people not just that Jesus has the power to forgive us but that he wants to make us clean. Why do we believe that our sins are bigger than God's love shown in Jesus? Why? I've struggled with that question for 40 years.
Can Jesus help him? He knows Jesus can. But is Jesus willing to make him clean? Yes, of course he is.
"Jesus reached out and touched him!" Think for a moment about the power contained in that simple sentence. Jesus reached out and touched a man who was unclean. Think about Jesus reaching out and touching you. The Good News of the Gospel is that Jesus himself has pronounced us clean. That's the Good News even we believers find so hard to accept. Just about all of us are hard on ourselves. Sometimes those who speak with the most self-confidence hurt the most inside. Touched by Jesus! Jesus talked about his miracles as being signs. The outward sign of course is Jesus touching the man. But the inward meaning is that Jesus has the power to touch even those of us who feel the most unclean and unloved.
In his death and resurrection Jesus has given us worth and value not at some future time but now, while we are still sinners. It is very hard for me to describe with words the effect this can have on us if we let it. Some people use the phrase "born again". I don't use it much because it implies something dramatic. Sometimes God's love just creeps over us.
I believe that this is the starting point on the faith journey and that until we begin to understand what it means that God is reaching out to us, we won't get much else right. C. S. Lewis wrote that the Christian faith is just the opposite of what you would expect. Everything we know says that we need to make ourselves acceptable to God. Our faith says, on the other hand, that God has already made us acceptable in Christ.
Jesus touched him. Years ago I was asked to preach in a leprosy hospital in Guyana. Some of you may remember me saying that one of the great tests of my faith was when a leper struck out an ugly stub of an arm for me to shake after I had preached on God's love in the little chapel. Because God has touched us, we can touch others. For Luke, Jesus' touching of the leper was symbolic of the fact that there is no one beyond his touch, no one so unclean that he will not touch them. Even the thief on the cross opened himself to Jesus' touch.
This is where faith begins. It begins with the inner knowledge that our self worth and value don't depend on what anyone else thinks of us or how we look or what we can do or how much we know! Even when we do wrong, we know that we can't send God's love away; we are valued and loved. God sent Christ to die for us.
The man is healed. Now Jesus gives him his marching orders. "Don't tell anyone, but go straight to the priest and let him examine you; then to prove to everyone that you are cured, offer the sacrifice as Moses ordered."
Sometimes people did get over leprosy; sometimes they had something else that was misdiagnosed. A man who made such a claim had to go to a priest to be carefully examined. He had to bring two birds as a sacrifice. One bird was killed. Its blood was taken and sprinkled over the man as the priest dipped hyssop in the blood and sprinkled him from head to toe, seven times. The other bird was set free! Then the man washed his clothes, bathed, shaved his head, his beard, and his eyebrows. He had to wait eight days before the priest would decide if he was cured.
On the eighth day the man offered a lamb as a guilt offering. The priest took the blood of the lamb and touched the right ear of the man, the right thumb, the great toe of his right foot. Then he took oil and sprinkled it seven times on the man. Then the priest said, "Go, you are clean!"
Now the man can rush home. See him come, scrubbed, shaved, cleansed, healed. Can you imagine the joy when he got to his village, his home?
We don't believe in ritual - to our loss, I'm afraid. Or maybe we believe it but we just don't pay attention to it. Why did Jesus insist that this man go through all these requirements? Why make him wait eight days plus the time it took for the journey to hold his wife and children?
Think of the effect the ritual would have on the man. Blood, the sign of the life force would be placed on him. Bathing and shaving were symbols of cleansing. Eight days to think about how Jesus had healed him in the name of the Father! Time to adjust mentally and emotionally to thinking about himself as one who has been cleansed! Ritual can have a powerful effect on us when we don't just go through the motions but relate it to our lives.
What are the symbols of our cleansing? Baptism of course is one. The prayer of confession is another. For me that is one of the most meaningful parts of our worship service. "In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven." I need to hear those words week after week. They say to me, "You are cleansed. You are cleansed not by the words of the pastor, but by the death of Jesus Christ."
We don't use real blood, of course. We don't kill any animals and ask a priest to put blood on us. But if we will drop your defenses for a minute and let God speak, perhaps we will hear what God wants us to hear. "I don't care what anyone says about you or to you. This is the rock on which you are to build your life and faith; I have made you clean by the sacrifice of my son. Reach out your hand for I want to touch you as you are. In the name of Jesus Christ and by his blood, you are forgiven." That's the first and perhaps the most important step in following Jesus. Confess your sin and accept God's amazing grace.
Source: Faith Presbyterian Church, Sierra Vista, AZ
Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for 2nd Sunday in Great Lent (Garbo Sunday)
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