The man had leprosy. Not necessarily what today is called Hanson’s Disease, but some kind of skin disease. He had been examined by the priest and declared to be “unclean.” To touch him was to become unclean yourself. The man was cut off, isolated from family, friends, community, congregation. He was unwelcome at the temple, cut off from worship. He could not enter the courtyard; he couldn’t bring a sacrifice – no confession and absolution for him. When he walked down the street or near other people, he had to warn those who passed by, covering his mouth and shouting, “unclean, unclean.” Untouchable, alone, isolated, unclean. If you want a modern picture, think AIDS.
The man with leprosy came to Jesus. He’d heard the stories – stories about the demonized and the diseased. How Jesus could heal with only a word or a touch. He approached the Healer, fell on his knees and begged Jesus, “If you will, you can cleanse me.”
What would Jesus do? He was this man’s only hope. The Jews said only God could heal leprosy. When Naaman the Syrian came to the king of Israel asking to be cured, the king tore his royal robes. Only God kills and brings to life; only God cleanses from leprosy. “If you will, you have the power to cleanse me.” The man with leprosy believed. He trusted that Jesus could do what no man could do. But would He?
Jesus looks at the man and is filled with compassion. Compassion is what you feel in your guts. He looks on this pitiful man on his knees, begging, hoping, praying, and it literally wrenches his guts. Then Jesus does the unthinkable thing, the dangerous thing, the thing Leviticus and your mother said you weren’t supposed to do. He reaches out his hand and touches the man. When was the last time this man ever felt a human touch, let alone the human touch of the Son of God?
In Leviticus, that touch would have made Jesus unclean too. But this is Jesus, the Son of God, the Word made flesh. When He touches the unclean, they become clean. He touches the man and speaks two words into his ears: “I will. Be cleansed.” Jesus’ words do what they say, as they always do what they say. His words are Spirit and life; they are the creating, ordering power of the universe. When Jesus speaks it happens. “Immediately, the leprosy departed from him.” Like the demons and the diseases. It’s that easy for Jesus – a touch and His Word.
Leprosy is more than a disease in the Old Testament; it’s a picture of our sin. Sin is systemic; it’s something that infects our entire humanity – body, soul, spirit, mind – not matter how you slice it, sin pervades everything like a virus or a bacterial disease. And it’s not enough simply to treat the symptoms – a sin here or there. We’re prone to do that – treat the symptoms. We think of sin as bad things we do – our thefts, our divisions, our greed, gossip, angry words, hateful thoughts, our pride, prejudices, envy, adulteries. Those are the symptoms, just as headache, fever, and a runny nose are symptoms of a cold or the flu. But treating the symptoms doesn’t get rid of the disease, does it? Some of you have been nursing this cold and flu thing for over a month. You get better for a while, and you think it’s gone, and then wham! it’s back again for round two or three.
Sometimes we think that sin is just a matter of working on this or that little bit of our lives. Treat the symptoms one by one. And while symptom relief is good, and will make you feel better, it won’t cure the disease.
You remember when I had that nasty case of poison ivy a few years ago. I went to the doctor and asked him, “How long is this going to take to go away.” His answer: “If we do nothing, 21 days. If I treat it, 3 weeks.” Which is exactly how long it took. But it was nice to have the cortisone cream and the Z-pack. It didn’t deal with the condition but it did relieve the symptoms.
Sin is a retrovirus, lying dormant, sometimes producing few, if any, symptoms, as in a tiny newborn baby. How much sin can a baby do, after all, lying there drooling and puking and pooping and doing all that baby stuff? But don’t be fooled. You have a full blown son or daughter of Adam on your hands, as you will quickly discover. They don’t call it the “terrible twos and threes” for nothing, you know.
Think of your own life. You’re going along pretty well; at least you think so. And you start to think, “Hey, I’m getting a handle on things. I don’t drink; I don’t smoke; I don’t gamble; I stopped kicking the dog last week.” And then you get blind sided or your buttons get pushed. You stumble across a commandment, or a new way of looking at an old commandment, and sin flares up like the flu virus in winter.
People who think they don’t harbor prejudice haven’t met the object of their prejudice. I grew up in a neighborhood in Chicago where everyone was just like you. It’s easy not to be prejudiced there. Try living in our multi-cultural diversity for a while and see what happens.
Sin is contagious; it’s impossible to keep it to yourself. It sends out ripples all over the place, to places you probably aren’t even aware of. You hear stories of people who commit terrible crimes, and in the course of the trial their past comes out. Beaten by father, abandoned by mother, parents divorced, the sins of the father and mothers trickling down to three and four generations. People see you sinning, and they say, “Hey, it must be OK. He’s a Christian, and he’s doing it.” Sin loves company. It’s always looking for willing accomplices. If diseases were as contagious as sin, we would be done for. It would be a “pandemic” of apocalyptic proportions.
Sin cuts us off. Like leprosy, it shuts us off by ourselves, isolated from each other, cut off from God. You can always tell when someone’s in trouble. They cut themselves off from family, from friends, from the congregation. They withdraw and isolate themselves. Sin does that. It puts us in a sealed isolation ward, out of touch. And how we long for touch in this virtual world of cell phones and email and chat all alone in our little prison cells.
Jesus reaches out to us. He touches us and speaks to us. Just as he did for that man with leprosy. The preached Word, the sacramental touch. He touches you in Baptism, cleansing you of the leprosy of sin with water and Word. That’s how Naaman the Syrian was cleansed, remember. Water and the Word. He touches you in His Supper; He gives you His Body and His Blood for your life, your healing, your strength. He speaks cleansing words to you: “I forgive you all of your sins.” You are clean, whole, restored, forgiven, all because of His Word.
When Jesus healed the man with leprosy, He sent him away with a warning. “Don’t tell anyone, but show yourself to the priest and offer the commanded sacrifice as a witness to them,”
Don’t tell anyone. Odd, don’t you think? The man with leprosy thought so. He told everyone. Oh, well. Who can blame him? When Jesus heals your leprosy, it’s hard to keep quiet. It’s also hard to keep quiet when Jesus forgives your sin. Jesus didn’t say to any of us, “Don’t tell anyone.” A church that believes it’s cleansed from sin can’t keep quiet about it. You have to tell everyone.
Why wouldn’t Jesus want everyone to know? Why keep it a secret? Wouldn’t it be nice to know someone who could heal all your diseases with a touch and a word? Here’s why: Jesus didn’t come as a one-man medical clinic. He came as the Savior of the world, and to accomplish that He had to die and rise. You see, none of these miracles make sense until you see them in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The miracles were signposts along the way, telling people that Jesus truly was God in the flesh. They were signals that the age of messiah had come, that the kingdom of God was here. They were sneak previews of the resurrection, when every disease actually will be wiped out together with death itself.
But first, Jesus had to die on a cross and rise from the dead.
That’s the biggest miracle of all, the one on which our faith rests. It really doesn’t matter all that much if we get healed of our diseases or not. Oh, it would be nice, but sooner or later something will kill us. There were plenty of lepers in Israel who were not cleansed that day. There were plenty of lepers in Israel who were not cleansed the day Naaman, the Syrian general, was cleansed in the Jordan.
Jesus didn’t come to put a bandage on our sin, to treat this trouble spot or that sin. He didn’t come to give us an easy way out of suffering, as though all we have to do as name it and claim it and we could have anything we want. Jesus came to be our sin, to become the leper in our place, the outcast, the cursed one for each of you. He became your sin, absorbed it all into His own body cursed on the tree, broken, despised, forsaken, crushed to death to be your healing, your life, your salvation.
His will for you is that you be cleansed from sin. That’s why He baptized you. That’s why He forgives you. That’s why He feeds you His Body and Blood. Those of you who come to private confession know the opening sentence: “Pastor, please hear my confession and pronounce forgiveness in order to fulfill God’s will.” That’s right, it’s God’s will revealed in Jesus that you be forgiven and that you learn day by day to live in the freedom of that forgiveness.
To be touched by Jesus, and to hear His Word. It means cleansing for a leper. Forgiveness for a sinner. Life for the dead. And for you.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.