Sunday, February 12, 2006

6 Epiphany
2 Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 30
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Mark 1:40-45

Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing; Thou hast loosed my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness; To the end that my glory may sing praise to thee, and not be silent. O Jehovah my God, I will give thanks unto thee for ever.

When I read today's scriptures I wondered about the disease called leprosy. I know what I'd heard from Bible teachers over the years, but I wanted to know more. What does it look like? How is it transmitted? Does it still exist?

Leprosy does indeed still exist in our world; seven hundred thousand people a year diagnosed with the disease. The difference today is that leprosy is now fully curable and if found early it leaves little or no evidence of the disease. A six month to two year regimen of multi-drug therapy heals a person from the actual disease. The trouble rests in the affects of the disease which can be extreme.

From my research, I realized that leprosy is somewhat difficult to describe. Leprosy is a skin disease, but it is more. The first symptom is discolored skin, often a light patch compared to the rest of the body. However, at one site I read that leprosy can appear light or dark, raised or flat. It can appear in groups or as single spots. The skin infection is accompanied by nerve damage and a lack of feeling, often in the extremities. Yet, those symptoms can be found in other diseases.

Even though it sounds like it would be impossible to know if a person has leprosy, a well trained clinician can quickly and easily diagnose the disease. The highest prevalence of leprosy is found in India, with many cases in Brazil, Nigeria, Myanmar and Indonesia. One hundred and fifty people in the United States are diagnosed each year. As bad as this sounds since the 1940's, when the cure for leprosy was discovered, leprosy has been nearly wiped out around the world. It is a public health problem in only a dozen countries.

Leprosy is contagious, but it is not highly contagious because most people are naturally immune to the germ that causes the disease. It is passed when the infected person coughs or sneezes. The germ is then carried on dust or droplets. Leprosy does not affect the internal organs, and is thus not normally a terminal disease. Death comes in extreme cases from the loss of neural function which causes muscle weakness and paralysis. If left to continue, leprosy can eat away at the skin and cause the loss of body parts and infection. Until recently, the sufferer was sent away (they still are in some places). For them the disease did bring death – the death that comes from being outcast from society. They were given no food, no love. Death came first in spirit and then physically.

It is likely that the leprosy we know today is not the type of leprosy referred to in the scriptures, particularly the Old Testament. The Hebrew word which is translated leprosy can stand for a number of different types of skin diseases. As a matter of fact, there is no archeological evidence of leprosy existing before 600 B.C. Leprosy instead was used as a general state of uncleanness or imperfection. So, leprosy was not a problem because it was a contagious or terminal disease. Instead, it was a visual manifestation of impurity. When leprosy is used in the Old Testament, the outcome is generally in reference to the ceremonial laws or punishment for sin. In the New Testament, the stories of leprosy speak of healing and social well-being.

In today's lessons we see two very different stories and yet in some ways they are the same. Both men suffered from some sort of skin disease. In the Old Testament, Naaman's disease had not yet caused him to be outcast from society. He was a great commander, a mighty and powerful warrior. We know very little about the leper in our gospel lesson, except the things we know from history. He was probably living outside the village – lonely, hungry and afraid. There was no cure for the disease. The only future he could see was death.

That was until he heard about Jesus. It is likely that he'd heard the stories. By now Jesus had cast out the demon in the man in the synagogue and He had healed Peter's mother-in-law. Many people had come to him in Capernaum and went away healthy and whole. When He left Capernaum, He continued to heal and preach. The stories of Jesus had reached this man and he believed.

Naaman found healing in a much different way. There lived a girl in his house, a slave girl who'd been captured during raids on Israel. She is an interesting character. As a slave, you would not expect her to share the good news of healing that might come from the prophet of Israel. However, in her compassion she offered Naaman hope. "Would that my lord were with the prophet that is in Samaria! then would he recover him of his leprosy." Naaman did not hear the good news from her, another person passed on the message. Naaman went to his king, the king of Syria, and asked to go find the prophet and seek healing. The king agreed and wrote a letter to the king of Israel asking that Naaman receive this good gift.

The king of Israel received this news with grief. He thought that the letter was a trick, that Naaman had come to destroy Israel and was using the request as an excuse. Of course the king of Israel had no power over a skin disease. As a matter of fact, since leprosy made one unclean, and Naaman was a foreigner anyway, the king saw him as beyond redemption. He tore his clothes and cried out, "Am I God that I can bring a man back to life?" A leper was as good as dead, to the king of Israel there was no hope.

Elisha heard about Naaman and sent the king of Israel a message. "Wherefore hast thou rent thy clothes? let him come now to me, and he shall know that there is a prophet in Israel." Naaman's disease had a purpose, to glorify God to the Syrians. Naaman went to Elisha's house expecting the prophet to come out and great him. He expected the prophet to wave his hands over the disease or do something spectacular to bring the healing. Instead, Elisha sent a message, "Go to the Jordan and bathe seven times."

Naaman was angry. What good would it do to bathe in the Jordan River? It was a dirty, ugly, horrible body of water, particularly as compared to the beautiful rivers of Damascus. Surely those rivers, which probably held some mystique to those who worshipped many gods, would be better able to bring healing? He was about to leave when one of his servants said, "My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?"

I wonder how often our own response to God's Word is the same as Naaman's? As a matter of fact, I think most Christians find it difficult to believe that we are saved by God's grace. We feel like we need to do the big gesture. We think that the only real healing and salvation comes from some grand miracle or by some extraordinary event. Naaman took his servant's advice and did as the prophet had spoken. After seven dunks in the Jordan River, Naaman was healed. The healing did not come by some supernatural incantation or magical water. It was God's Word that brought healing and all of Syria saw that the Lord is God.

It is interesting that the scriptures tell us that Naaman was restored to health, clean like that of a young boy. His healing was not only physical. We don't hear it in today's reading, but Naaman said to the prophet, "Behold now, I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel." We don't know what happened to Naaman, whether he continued to worship God or if he falls back into the worship of his nation. All we know is that Elisha sent him home in peace.

Peace. That is very much what this is all about. In the Gospel lesson today we meet another man who has leprosy. When he saw Jesus he knelt down and cried said, "If you are willing, you can make me clean." He already had a sense of peace, peace in knowing that Jesus has the power to overcome that which was beyond our human ability to overcome. His faith in Jesus gave him the peace that passes all understanding. It is even a peace that allows Jesus to decide whether or not he will be healed. "If you are willing…"

Naaman tried to demand something more from the prophet than the prophet was willing to give. He wanted to hold on to the power in the relationship. He wanted what he thought was best – some magic words and a flashy act. He got the truth and found peace. The man in the gospel story already had peace.

In the man's request we see the Old Testament perspective of leprosy – that it was a manifestation of imperfection, of impurity, of sin. The Jews believed that someone who was unclean could make everyone unclean. This is why they were sent away. They did not want to risk destroying the entire community with the sin that caused their disease. The man knew that his problem was not really the leprosy – it was that he'd been cast out of the community, left alone to die. While the healing would necessarily be the means by which Jesus made the man unclean, it was more important that he be restored to his community. "You can make me clean."

All it would have taken was a word from Jesus and the leprosy would have left the man. Jesus reached out to the man and touched him – an act that would have made Jesus unclean. However, we see here that Jesus' perfection, purity and sinlessness is far greater than the man's uncleanness. The leprosy left the man immediately and he was healed. Social restoration would take something more. Jesus told the man to go show himself to the priest. It was the priest who would allow the man back into the village, back into society. Jesus also sent the man to the priest to show them (his detractors) the power of God. Just as Naaman's healing was to show Syria that there was a prophet in Israel, Jesus' healings were signs to the priests that the Messiah had come.

Strangely, Jesus also told the man not to tell anyone. I suppose it isn't that strange, particularly after the affect His healing had on the village of Capernaum. Crowds of people gathered around Him, seeking His healing. Those who were healed went out into the countryside telling others about Jesus. That's how the leper heard that Jesus could heal. How could he stay silent? He found healing, restoration, peace. Is that not a message meant to be shared? As a matter of fact, the psalmist says, "Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing; Thou hast loosed my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness; To the end that my glory may sing praise to thee, and not be silent. O Jehovah my God, I will give thanks unto thee for ever."

In this psalm, the singer praises God for raising him out of Sheol. Sheol was 'the place of the dead.' It was a shadowy existence far removed from God. The leper in the Gospel lesson was not only removed from his family and his neighbors, he was removed from God because he would never be able to offer sacrifice at the temple or join in worship at the synagogue. He was cast out of society, and out of God's presence as they understood it. But Jesus entered into his presence, not only passed his way but reached out and touched him. Jesus lifted him out of the hell that had become his life on earth and restored to him his family, friends and his relationship with God. This is the Gospel, and this is a message that can't be hidden.

"For his anger is but for a moment; His favor is for a life-time: Weeping may tarry for the night, But joy cometh in the morning." Naaman's servants heard the hope that is found in the word of Israel's God and encouraged their master to heed the words. The leper heard the hope in the message being shared by those who'd been healed. Though he sought to be cleansed, he knew there was a greater hope. There might be a moment of mourning, God is gracious to take our sackcloth and grant us joy.

A friend recently went to Disneyland with grandkids and came home exhausted. He warned everyone within earshot that if we planned to go to Disney we should prepare by walking miles a day for weeks beforehand. This is exactly what a marathon runner will do. Someone preparing to compete in a race will practice, beginning small and working his or her way to the point of being able to run the whole distance. It takes discipline and self-control. It takes practice and patience.

Paul writes, "Now they do it to receive a corruptible crown." The prize received from winning a race won't last forever. Even a gold trophy will eventually fail. The same is true of physical healing. We might get better for this moment, but we will still die. So Paul reminds us that the prize we seek is not like a laurel wreath or gold medal that an athlete might win. No, we run after an imperishable prize, true peace.

Not that we can earn that life. No, Paul's words here do not proclaim that the prize is eternal life. That is a gift given by grace through faith. But we do have to get from here to there, living in a world that is imperfect, facing the difficulties of the flesh. We will get sick and we might be healed. Do we receive the word of God like Naaman or like the leper? Do we complain because the course is too simple that it couldn't possibly do any good, or do we respond to God's grace with faith, living in the peace that passes all understanding? Do we demand God's healing or do we seek to know His will?

Sadly, the consequence of the leper's proclamation was that Jesus was forced to stay out in the countryside. Jesus' healing restored the man to society, but it cast Him out. This story foretells what will happen at the cross, as Jesus takes on the sin of the world. There, Jesus will die in our stead as God's power overcomes death and the grave. At the cross we find true peace, are healed and made whole. At the cross we are restored to God. For a moment we will mourn, but we can look forward to the hope of the joy that will come with the Easter dawn. Thanks be to God.

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