Leprosy was, and still is, a horrible disease. Medically speaking, it is a systemic bacterial infection that affects the nervous system and the upper respiratory tract. It causes permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs, and eyes. Until 1940, there was no cure. It is still considered a significant public health problem today.
Socially, leprosy isolated the person from the community. Lepers were considered the “untouchables.” They were ceremonially unclean and not allowed in the congregation, which is why Jesus sent the man in today’s Gospel reading to his priest, to show that he had been cleansed. In Jesus’ day, lepers lived apart from everyone else and were required by law to warn approaching people on the road by crying out “Unclean, unclean.”
It is all the more remarkable then, that a leper approached Jesus in faith, begging that Jesus would make him clean. Not simply “heal me” but “make me clean.” He wanted to be part of the community and the congregation again. And only Jesus could do it.
But was Jesus willing? Was it the will of Jesus to cleanse this man and restore him? Was Jesus there for him as He had been there for Peter’s mother-in-law? The answer, of course, is yes. Jesus came “for all,” the uncountable “many” not simply a chosen few. He reaches out His hand and touches the man. If there were onlookers, they would have gasped in horror! Stop! Wait! Don’t touch him! He’s unclean! He’s contagious! You’ll be unclean too, Jesus! What on earth are you doing?
But when Jesus touches the unclean, something utterly remarkable happens. The unclean become clean. That’s the point for us to take home today. When Jesus touches the unclean, they become clean. Lepers are cleansed. Sinners are cleansed. Leprosy was a picture of sin. Sin is systemic, it affects our entire body and soul. We see only its effects, the “bad things” we do, think, and say. But Sin is a disease of our humanity.
Like leprosy, sin isolates us, it renders us unclean before God. The sinner must be cleansed or he cannot stand before God. Jesus must reach out and touch us in our sin, and without His touch we cannot be cleansed. Without Jesus’ touch, we will remain in isolation, quarantined from all that is holy, left on our own in the hell of our isolation.
We inherited this disease called Sin. It came from our father Adam. We’re aware today of hereditary diseases that are passed down from parent to child. In fact, scientists are beginning to find that many forms of cancer and other ailments are passed down in our genes from our father and mothers.
Sin is like that, though in a much deeper way. Everyone is conceived and born in it. “In sin was I born, and in iniquity did my mother conceived me,” David sang in Psalm 51. That’s our condition, and there is no cure on earth for the leprosy of Sin. It calls for the sinless touch of Jesus. The Sinless One must touch the sinner and make him clean and whole. Only Jesus can do that.
And He does. That’s the good news for today. We even have an example right here in front of us so we don’t have to use our imaginations. Justus Onesimus Li was baptized this morning. Jesus reached out, reached down, and touched this little child who has the leprosy of Adam’s sin. He now gets to live up to his name Justus. He is justified, declared righteous with a righteousness not his own, covered with Jesus.
I know, we don’t like to think of cute little babies as lepers, but we need to. And let’s be honest. Cute as they are when they are all wrapped up and snugly, they will grow up to be little monsters, bringing no end of grief and heartache to their parents, pastors, and teachers. They are, as we are, as you are, spiritual lepers, sinners infected with Sin.
To bring a child to Baptism is to bring an unclean sinner to be touched by Jesus, the Sinless One. Through water and the Word, Jesus does for us in Baptism what He did for the leper who met Him on the road. It is, as St. Paul calls it, “a washing of regeneration and renewal,” a birthing water and a cleansing water, washing away the leprosy of sin.
We are impatient. We expect cures to be instant and immediate. Pop a pill and you’re supposed to instantly feel better. And it’s true, as far as God is concerned. As God looks on little Justus Onesimus Li through his Baptism, and you in your Baptism, he is cleansed and pure and holy. A new little person in Christ. No longer a child of Adam, but now a child of God.
And yet, as we see him, and as he will come to see himself, he is still a sinner. The cure takes time in our way of experiencing time. For God, it is finished, once and for all. It’s all a done deal. But for us, the old Adam remains, his leprosy still affects us, we must daily drown it in Baptism. Our leprosy remains, but it is covered with the purity of Jesus. He covers us in our shame, our isolation, our sin, so that we are not cut off from God. Instead we are covered.
We come as Naaman the Syrian commander came to the Jordan. How can water do such things, he wondered. How can the Jordan, of all rivers, cleanse a man from leprosy? You know. It is not the water alone, but the Word of God in and with the water that does these things, and faith that trusts and clings to the Word of God in the water.
The Word in the water declares you to be cleansed from sin, pure, holy. You are part of God’s community, you are welcomed as His child, all because in the water Jesus touched you and made you clean. Now show yourselves to the world and offer your sacrifices of thanksgiving as a testimony to the mercy and compassion of God. He is willing to save you. Your Baptism is the evidence. He wants to save all. The cross of Jesus declares it.
In the name of Jesus,