Today we have the tale of two lepers. One was a rich and powerful man, the commander in chief of the Syrian army. The other, a poor nameless beggar on the road. One was a Syrian, a Gentile, an enemy of Israel; the other an Israelite, a son of Abraham. One was unbeliever, the other a believer. Two men with leprosy – Naaman, the Syrian; a nameless beggar. Both healed by Christ. One with water, one with the Word.
To have leprosy was to be as good as dead. “Leprosy” was the generic name for a variety of contagious skin diseases in the Bible, among them, what we call Hansen’s disease – a bacterial disease of the skin and nerve cells. A horrible, disfiguring diseases. People lose fingers and toes and parts of their face. Lepers lived quarantined in caves or colonies – isolated and estranged. The modern day equivalent would probably be AIDS.
In the Bible, leprosy was a picture-type of sin. Not that people with leprosy were worse sinners than others, but their condition painted a pictures of our sinful condition. Sin is like leprosy in at least four ways. First, leprosy is a systemic disease, a bacterial infection that affects the whole body. The skin sores were just the outward symptoms of the disease. In the same way sin is a condition of our whole human nature, running through and through our humanity. Our sins – murder, adultery, theft, slander, gossip – those are the symptoms of our sinfulness. But sin runs all through us, even when we’re not displaying any of the symptoms. Sin is a systemic disease.
Think of the measles. Measles manifests itself as itchy red bumps. But you wouldn’t call itchy red bumps the measles. And if all you treated were the itchy red bumps, you would be treating the symptom, not the sickness. You wouldn’t talk about have a little measles or a lot of measles. You either have it or you don’t. Sin is not the sins you do, but the condition that causes you to sin. And even if you’re a pretty good sort, even if you’re asymptomatic, as they say, you still have the disease.
Second, leprosy made you “unclean.” You were required to wear torn clothing and not comb your hair and go around with your mouth covered saying, “unclean, unclean.” You were contagious, “unclean,” and if anyone touched you, they were considered “unclean” too.
In the same way, sin makes us “unclean.” It pollutes our humanity; it makes us less than human. Whatever a sinner touches also becomes unclean. No matter how good your works are, they are always polluted with sin. You could be Mother Theresa and your works would still be soiled, stained with your sin. That piece of charity you did – makes you feel proud, doesn’t it? How much more generous you are than others. Or that bit of volunteer work you did? That must surely make up for all that other stuff you’ve done. You see, no matter what we do, no matter how good it is, it always has the dirty fingerprints of our old Adam all over it.
And it’s contagious. Sin stirs up more sin. That’s why cities have more sins going on than little towns. More sinners.
Third, leprosy cut you off from community. You were forced to live by yourself apart from friends and family, community and congregation. You were considered an outcast, cursed by God. And you couldn’t return to your community until you were judged “clean” by the priest. In the same way sin cuts us off from community. It destroys the community we have with each other. And it destroys our communion with God. Sin makes us outcasts, living isolated lives behind locked doors, locked away in our own little caves. And until we are judged clean, we aren’t permitted back into community.
And fourth, the appropriate response for cleansing is worship. If you were healed of leprosy, the first thing you did was yourself to the priest and offer sacrifices. You worshipped God, which is the only appropriate response not only for healing. God has healed us the leprosy of sin in the death of His Son. And the only appropriate response is to worship, to offer sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. When someone is cured of a dread disease, he is always exceedingly thankful to the doctors. He fawns over them, as though they were some kind of miracle worker. He goes out of his way to thank them. How much more, then, should we give thanks to the One who healed our death by dying for us?
Today’s readings tell us about the healing of two lepers. In the OT reading, Naaman the commander of the Syrian army was healed of his leprosy in the water of the Jordan river. In the Gospel, Jesus heals a leper on the road with a touch and a word. Two men so totally different, from different countries, different backgrounds, different classes. A soldier and a beggar. What brings them together is their common disease and their common Savior.
Naaman the Syrian. Commander in chief of the Syrian army. Public enemy number for the Israelites. God had given Naaman big victories over Israel, though he wasn’t a believer, a worshipper of Yahweh. (Go figure!) A respected, decorated war general. A valiant soldier, admired and adored. And he had leprosy. Disease is never a respecter of persons.
It turns out that in one of the many border skirmishes between Syria and Israel, a young Israeli girl was taken captive. And, as “holy luck” would have it, she became a slave in the house of Naaman. And instead of whining about her misfortune, she preached the name of Yahweh. She told Naaman’s wife, “If only my master would go see the prophet in Samaria, he’d be healed.”
And so Naaman went to his king and requested permission to go to Israel and see this prophet. Imagine someone like Sadam Hussein coming to America for medical treatment! He takes a letter from his king to the king of Israel. And figuring he’s going to need a little grease for the bureaucratic machinery, he takes 750 lbs of silver, 150 lbs of gold, not to mention ten sets of clothing. And he sets out with his entourage of horses and chariots and gallops off to the king of Israel who thinks this is all a big trick. And king tears his robes and says, “Who do you think I am? God? Can I kill and raise to life?” (Note – His theology isn’t half bad. Death and resurrection are God’s cup of tea!)
When the prophet Elisha heard that the king had torn his robes, he sent for Naaman. And as the horses and chariots double park in front of Elisha’s door, the butler is waiting there with a message from the prophet. “Go wash seven times in the Jordan River, and your flesh will be restored, and you will be cleansed.”
And Naaman is insulted and stalks off in a rage. He comes like a big shot – riding proud and tall in his saddle. And he gets treated like a vacuum cleaner salesman. He was expecting something big, powerful, something… religious. Like what you see on channel 40. Some religious hocus-pocus where the prophet waves his hand over the diseased spot and calls on God’s name. We love that stuff; we’re hooked on it. And the more desparate the disease, the more superstitious and religious we get. But really. Dip yourself seven times in the Jordan? Isn’t once enough. And why the Jordan, of all the rivers in the world. That muddy creek is hardly the picture of cleansing!
And again, it took a servant to talk some faith into the man. “Listen. If he told you to dance naked around a bonfire, you would have done it, right? So what’s the problem? Why not do as he says? Wash and be cleansed.” The problem is pride and religion. That’s our problem too. We expect big things from God. And God delivers – death and resurrection. That’s big. But that’s not what we wanted. We want religion – miracles and answers. And our religious old Adam is offended. Offended that God doesn’t deliver on demand.
The question is, will this proud military man trust this humble word? Will he drop dead to his pride, his ego, his arrogance? Will he drop dead to his expectations, lose his religion, and dip himself seven times in the Jordan? Will he trust the prophet’s word over his own expectations and ideas of how God should work?
Will we? Will we trust these lowly signs that God puts in front of our eyes. Signs of our healing. Will we trust this simple water of Baptism? Will we trust this humble word of forgiveness spoken by a fellow sinner? Will we trust this bit of bread, this sip of wine? Or will be look for greater, more spectacular, more religious signs? Will we trust the Divine Service or will we look for something more divine?
Naaman reluctantly did as he was told. He dipped himself seven times in the Jordan. This proud commander in chief of the Syrian army, lowered himself into the silty water at the command and promise of a prophet he never even met. Once, twice, a third time, then a fourth, a fifth, and a sixth. Each time nothing. What a joke. And then the seventh time. “And his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.”
The unbelieving, enemy army officer is healed! (So much for faith healing, eh?) And he got more than he expected. Not only a healing, but a facelift. His skin was like a young boy’s! It was like rising from the dead. Regeneration, renewal, resurrection.
How can the Jordan do that? You know. It’s not the Jordan river, but the word of God that was in and with the Jordan. Literally, Christ the Word in the Jordan healed Naaman. And Naaman becomes an example of God’s universal grace in Jesus. The commander of the enemy army is healed of leprosy by the God of Israel in the water of the Jordan River by the power of His Word. It’s a picture of salvation in Jesus. Our cleansing through water and the Word. Baptism is our Jordan river, where we are cleansed personally by God. What God did for the world in the death of Jesus, He does for each of us personally, by name, in Holy Baptism. He touches you. Makes an example out of you. Puts you on display. Washes away the leprosy of your sin. Restores and renews you in the death and life of Jesus.
Like the Jordan river, Baptism isn’t much to look at. But there in the water is your healing, your life, your salvation, because there in the water is the Word, the Promise of God, Christ, in all His creating and redeeming power.
The leper that came to Jesus that day on the road out of Capernaum was healed with one word from Jesus. “Be clean.” That’s all it took to heal this terrible disease. Just a word from the Word made Flesh. And like the demons, disease disappears. The Word does it all. Jesus does it all. And Jesus did what Jesus always did when people got an inkling of who He was. He told the man not to tell anyone. Just go the priest and make your sacrifices. Worship God, and don’t tell anyone about this. “Just between you and me.” Jesus avoided celebrity.
He didn’t want to be known as a healer of the favored few, but as the Savior, Redeemer of the many, the world.
There were plenty of lepers in Israel who werent healed that day when Naaman dipped himself seven times in the Jordan. And if they would have tried the Jordan river trick, it wouldn’t have worked. No holy water, no special healing powers. That sign was for Naaman alone. And there were plenty of lepers in Israel who weren’t healed when Jesus healed that man on the road. Why just this one, who had the “holy luck” to be on the same road as Jesus heading out of Capernaum?
Jesus didn’t come to treat the symptoms, but the disease. Sickness is only a symptom of our death. Every sickness is a visible sign of our death. Jesus came to deal with death. To say, “it is finished” to our death once and for all. He bore our sicknesses in His own body on the cross. Every last virus and bacteria and cancer cell, every last bit of our death, He buried in the black hole of His death. That’s why He didn’t want anyone to know about this or that miraculous healing. Death and resurrection are His medicine, not miracles. Miracles are the exception, not the rule. They are foretastes of the feast to come, they aren’t the feast themselves. Miracles are for unbelief, that you might trust Jesus; they aren’t the food of faith.
Jesus deals with disease by dying and risingHe heals us by raising us from the dead, not by giving us band aids and bromides.
I like to remind people that every prayer for healing has been answered “yes” in Jesus. It is God’s will that you be whole. It is not God’s will that anyone be weak and sick. It isn’t God’s will that you get cancer or AIDS or Alzheimer’s or even the cold or the flu. And every prayer for your healing is answered “yes” – in your resurrection. And if Jesus should give you a little sign of resurrection in your healing, thank Him for it. All healing comes from Jesus. Every healing is a sign of resurrection, a reminder that these bodies of ours will rise in the power of Jesus’ resurrection.
I think it’s wonderful that Charles and Martha’s daughter Melanie is coming home from the hospital today, the day of resurrection, after five long weeks in the hospital. It is for her a “day of resurrection.”
And if Jesus doesn’t heal you right away, if He postpones His yes, trust Him all the more. You have been doubly-honored. There by the grace of God go you. You don’t need miracles. You have the greater signs of your healing – your Baptism, the Body and Blood of Jesus, the word of forgiveness. Here He touches you – in your uncleanness, in your isolation and estrangement, in the “leprosy” of your sin. Here Jesus reaches out His hand, bearing the marks of His love. He reaches out His hand to you and touches you. And you are clean.
Jesus is your healing. He holds your life in trust for you, your whole life, renewed, raised up for good, restored. In Jesus you already have it all – health, wholeness, cleansing, salvation. You can’t see it, but you will, one day soon. Now you must trust, not in miracles but in Jesus. Jesus who casts out the devils and wipes out diseases. Jesus who forgives sinners and raises the dead. Jesus, your cleansing; Jesus your life.
In the Name of Jesus,