Mark 1:40-45 / Epiphany 6B / 12 February 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
Leprosy was a dreaded disease. Don’t think necessarily of the specific disease we call “Hanson’s Disease” but it could be any of a family of skin diseases. Leprosy isolated people. It forced them to live in isolated colonies. It rendered them “unclean” and cut them off from access to the temple and their families and communities. The leper was forced to warn others who approached by shouting “Unclean, unclean” lest anyone come into contact. To touch a leper was to incur the same uncleanness. You would never think of touching a leper, which makes Jesus’ actions all the more remarkable.
Jesus has demonstrated the absolute power of His Word over the demonic realm and over sickness. He cast out a demon from a man in the synagogue with a word, He healed Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever with a touch, He healed all sorts of diseases and ailments. As Jesus’ fame spread, He was forced to retreat to the wilderness, away from the crowds clamoring for more. At one point, Jesus says clearly to His disciples that He didn’t come to do miracles but to preach the Word, that same Word that cast out demons and healed the sick.
Along comes a leper. He foregoes the usual protocols and doesn’t keep his distance shouting “unclean! unclean!” No, instead He comes right up to Jesus, kneeling before Him and pleading, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” He believes at least this much: Jesus is able to cleanse him of the uncleanness of his leprosy. Jesus is able to do what the priests cannot do. Jesus is able to restore him to congregation and community, to rid him of the label of being “unclean.” Jesus is able to cleanse him. That’s what he believes and what drives him to his knees and take the risk. He believes that Jesus can help him, if He wills.
But does He? Does Jesus will to heal him. Of that he can’t be sure until he hears a word from Jesus directly. And so he knees before him, pleading, waiting, wondering. Mark doesn’t tell us how long he waiting, how long the silence was, though it seems as though there was a long pause, a long moment of silence. And in that long silence, Jesus is moved to compassion. He has compassion on this man. While the rest of the world covered its mouth and ran from this man the way we tend to run from diseases we are afraid of catching, like AIDS, Jesus looks on this man with compassion.
He could have refused. Jesus was clear. He had come to preach. The miracles were incidental. Jesus did not wish to be known as a wonder worker or healer. He seemed to shun the publicity. He didn’t want to be followed by hordes of people demanding favors and miracles. He silenced any attempts to broadcast who He was or why He came or what power His words had. But this poor man’s humble and desperate plea moves Jesus to compassion.
And out of that compassion Jesus does something that would have made the disciples and onlookers gasp with horror. He did the unthinkable thing. He reaches out and touches the man! In the OT, to touch something unclean was to become unclean. To touch a leper was to put yourself in the same category of unclean. But with Jesus, the very opposite thing happens. The unclean becomes clean! With simply a word, “Be cleansed” the man’s leprosy disappears, evaporates.
Again, as always, Jesus sternly charges the man to tell no one. He does not want to be known as a healer. He wants to be known as the Redeemer and Savior. Not a quick cure for every ailment, but the Source of eternal healing, redemption from Sin, deliverance from Death. He sends the man to the priest who served as the public health inspector and commands him to offer the sacrifice of cleansing that Moses mandated as a proof of his cleansing. And, as usual, the man disobeys, and tells everyone he meets what happened, creating such a ruckus that Jesus has to withdraw again into the wilderness. And even there, people came out to Him from every quarter.
Paired with this Gospel reading, our OT reading tells of Naaman the Syrian commander who also had leprosy, whose leprosy was cleansed in a most remarkable way: by washing seven times in the Jordan River. Washed by water and the Word. Does it make you think of anything? I hope so! Though it’s not technically a “baptism,” it is a picture of Baptism, in which by water and the Word we are cleansed from a disease far worse than the disease of leprosy – the disease of Sin.
Leprosy forms a good picture of Sin as a condition. It is systemic. It isn’t a bunch of little local symptoms but a systemic disease that affects the whole body. Sin is not simply a bunch of little sins – here a sin, there a sin – that we can somehow touch up with a few little lifestyle changes aided by a couple of good books. Sin is a systemic disease of our humanity, a deep corruption that goes to the core. Like leprosy, it renders us unclean before God. The ripple of Sin reaches far and wide and deep. The sins of the fathers reach down to the children for three and four generations. Sin divides us from each other. It sets us against each other. It infects everything that we do, so that even our best works are unclean and unpresentable before God.
Here’s the good news: Jesus reaches out to touch the sinner. You. He brings a watery Word like the Jordan for Naaman, a cleansing water that washing away Sin, the cleanses us from the leprosy, that restores us to community and congregation, that births us into the family of God so that you stand before God sinless and holy and righteous, not on your own, but covered with the sinlessness and holiness and righteousness of Jesus.
We in our sin are very much like Naaman, enemies of God by nature, set a war with God and His kingdom. Leprous and without hope or resources. And none of our wealth, our power, our influence can cleanse us. Only the Word can do that. That humble, simple, hidden, powerful Word of God that comes to us through means. You notice how offended Naaman was at the humility of God’s Word. He doesn’t even speak directly to the prophet Elisha but only to his servant. And then he’s sent to dip himself in the Jordan seven times, which is a complete insult to someone from upstream Syria because surely the rivers there run cleaner than that old, muddy Jordan which couldn’t clean a load of laundry much less a case of leprosy. But when that water is combined with the Word of promise, watch out. Big things happen! A leper is cleansed and renewed and his skin became like that of a young boy.
That same word emanates from the mouth of the Word Incarnate, Jesus, and with His cleansing touch drives out the leprosy just as the water of Baptism and the Word of Absolution drive out the leprosy of Sin and wash it in forgiveness.
There is also sacrifice. Jesus ordered the man with leprosy to go to the priest and offer the mandated sacrifice for cleansing. The sacrifice was a reminder that there is no such thing as a free lunch, or in this case, a free cleansing. Every healing, every demon cast out, every miracle that Jesus does comes with a price. Jesus isn’t doing “magic” here. He is ordering a disordered creation. He is undoing the decay and destruction that Sin has brought to the cosmic order. He is absorbing all the evil, the decay, the degradation, the disease, everything that has gone wrong in the world, in our bodies, He takes into Himself the way a dry sponge absorbs a toxic liquid. And He takes all that to His death on the cross and buries it all in His grave.
That is your healing, your cleansing, your peace from the devil, from the demons, from your conscience that accuses you or attempts to excuse you. That man who came to Jesus with his leprosy left with much, much more than he came for. He came to be healed. He left with a Savior. He knew whom to trust the next time he got sick and when he died. He knew the power of Jesus word and touch to heal and to save. He knew the compassion of the One whose Passion brings our ultimate and final healing.
One thing is very different with us than with that man. He was told to tell no one. Jesus time had not come. People were prone to misunderstand. Jesus did not want to be known as a miracle worker or healer. But you and I are in a very different time and place. Jesus has died and risen and reigns. The kingdom has come. The news can now be told to the world. The cleansing and the healing are here for anyone and everyone who desires it. God’s will in Jesus is that all be cleansed from the leprosy of Sin. All without exception. And to that end, He has provided a water, a word, and a medicine. The water of Baptism. The word of forgiveness. The medicine of immortality, the Sacrifice that brings our life in the Body and the Blood of Jesus.
There with His Word and Body and Blood, He touches you in His compassion, His love to have fellowship with sinners, His passion to seek and to save the lost. He touches you with His Word, and you are healed. Go and tell the world.
In the name of Jesus,