Sunday, February 12, 2012

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

And being moved with compassion, he stretched forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou made clean.

The Old Testament lesson about Naaman’s healing is often seen as a foreshadowing of the healing found in today’s gospel lesson. Yet, there are some very distinct differences between these two healings. Naaman went through the proper channels. He got permission from his own king to go to the foreigners for help. He sought the aid of the king of Israel rather than visiting the prophet. When he did finally make it to the prophet’s house, Elisha did not even see him face to face. Elisha simply said, “Go and do this.” Naaman was offended by the command and refused to do it. His people convinced him to try. Ultimately the credit for the healing belonged to God, but I have to wonder if Naaman ever really understood the truth of it. He confessed faith that the God of Israel is the only God, but even then he tried to pay the prophet for the gift of healing.

Another difference between the two stories is that Naaman was obviously not outcast because of his leprosy. Perhaps his people viewed it differently. Perhaps his skin disease was not the same as that which affected the man in the Gospel story. Whatever the difference, the man in the Gospel story was set apart due to his condition. We don’t know much about the man, but we do know that he was considered unclean by his religion and by his people. He was untouchable. He may have sought healing as was defined in the book of Leviticus; he might have gone to the priest as he was commanded to do. They were obviously unable to help, because the man continued to suffer from the disease.

I think that’s the biggest difference between Naaman and the man. Naaman did not really suffer from his disease. He was a powerful man, successful. He was not set apart from the business of his people. It was an Israeli girl who told him to get healed. She was probably right to do so, since illness left unchecked can eventually leave one disabled. But Naaman was unconcerned until she brought up the idea of being healed. The man in the Gospel needed more than healing. He needed restoration. He needed to be loved, and touched.

The major difference between Naaman and the man is the humility with which they sought the healing. Naaman tried to use his power and influence to get the job done, and expected the prophet to cater to him. The man humble approached Jesus and said, “If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.” It was faith that drove him to Jesus. He had heard what Jesus could do, but rather than demand Jesus’ healing, he offered himself to Jesus. “If you choose…” he said. Instead of going from one king to another to a prophet, the man went right to the source of healing and asked for help.

Jesus answered, “I will; be thou made clean.” This was an answer not only to the prayer for healing, but also to the prayer to be restored. The man was now clean. He was acceptable. He would no longer have to be outcast or untouchable.

Who else was there when Jesus encountered the man? He was probably not alone, since He was traveling with the disciples from one village to the next. The leper was probably living on the outskirts of a village, having been exiled by his disease. If Jesus cared about what others thought of Him, He would have performed the healing in a different way. By touching the man, Jesus would have been considered unclean, too. All it would have taken was a word from Jesus and the leprosy would have left the man. But Jesus reached out to the man and touched him. The leprosy left the man immediately and he was healed, but the man also experienced the physical touch of another human being. He was on his way to being made whole again.

But he was not completed restored to the community. Only a priest could make that happen, which is why Jesus sent the man to the priest. Jesus ordered the man to remain silent, to go to the priest and to do what was commanded. Instead of doing what he was told, the man went about the village telling everyone what God had done through Jesus. The man did not follow the protocol, removing the authority and power from the hands of the priests. The situation was likely to get out of control.

Jesus’ popularity was already growing. People had heard about His healing power and authoritative teaching. He had to leave the last village because crowds were arriving with their sick and possessed. He healed many. He was changing lives. Crowds make leaders nervous because crowds are easily swayed. Crowds can be manipulated into a frenzy. It is important to squash rebellion quickly. Though the Jews were waiting anxiously for a Messiah, the leadership knew that any rebellion would be a detriment to their own positions and power. It would not take long for those men to begin plotting against Jesus.

During a conversation about the scripture text this week, one member of the group noticed that in her version of the passage, verse 41a said, “Jesus was indignant.” Other versions say that Jesus was moved with pity, or that he had compassion. The word ‘indignant’ in this context seemed wrong. Was Jesus upset that the man interrupted Him? The overwhelming response to His healing in the synagogue earlier in the chapter made Jesus leave that village to go preach elsewhere. After all, that’s what He was sent to do. But in this story He is confronted by another person who needs healing. Was He indignant because He was tired of fixing the physical problems of the people when there was so much that needed to be fixed spiritually?

Instead, I think Jesus was indignant about the situation in which the man was forced to dwell. The word ‘indignant’ means, “feeling, characterized by, or expressing strong displeasure at something considered unjust, offensive, insulting, or base.” Jesus was indignant because the man was forced to be separated from his family, living outside the village. He did not have access to food or home. He could not experience loving touches or familiar embraces. He could not visit the synagogue or join in social gatherings. He was outcast, and if we look to the story of Naaman, we might wonder if there was good reason to do so. Yes, there are contagious diseases and we need to be careful. But was the man treated rightly? Did the Laws of Moses insist that the lepers be destroyed in the pursuit of protecting the rest of the community?

Jesus touched the man. He did not fear the disease that had sent the man into the outskirts of the village. He did not accept that the man was untouchable. He was indignant because His people had taken something good (the Law) and turned it into something that had no mercy or grace. He showed the people that those who are suffering need compassion and help.

Most of all, however, Jesus’ healing was meant to establish His authority and glorify God with His power. Unfortunately, His amazing touch was bringing all the wrong attention to Him. Jesus could not ignore the needs of those who were suffering, but He knew that it was giving people the wrong perception of Him. They wanted a king who would fix all their brokenness, but He was there to restore them to God.

Jesus was well aware of the power of His message and of the miracles He was doing. He told the leper not to tell anyone, not because He wanted to hide the miraculous work of God, but because He knew that if everything would be destroyed if it built too quickly and with the wrong purpose. The people sought Jesus not for the spirit but for the flesh. They wanted to be physically healed. If it meant listening to a sermon, they would, but they wanted healing. But the man did not listen to Jesus. He went throughout the countryside telling every one of Jesus’ mercy and power. He made it impossible for Jesus to enter into towns and villages. Jesus had to work on the outside. 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.

Jesus did not let that stop Him from doing what He was sent to do. This story tells us that Jesus has to withdraw, and it is at the very beginning of the book of Mark. He has not even called all His disciples at this point. But he continued to do the work His Father sent Him to do. I wonder how many times we give up on a task because things aren’t quite going the way we expect. I wonder how many times we let others get in our way. Do we treat people as untouchables because it is expected? Do we allow people to be cast out because we are following some idea of what it means to follow the Law?

We are reminded in the psalm that our God is a God of mercy and grace. His purpose is not to burden us with a heavy set of rules, but gives us the gift of the Law to protect us from ourselves. As we see in these stories, lepers were treated differently in different nations. Isn’t it odd that the foreigners who did not know God were the ones who treated their lepers with grace? But those who supposedly knew God piled heavy burdens of ungraciousness on the backs of those who were suffering. It was good to protect yourself from leprosy, but it wasn’t good to do so in such an extreme way. God does not allow us to remain outside the community. He draws us in and connects us to one another. He transforms us in ways that makes us fit.

Paul writes that we are striving, like an athlete strives to win a race. But our race will not end with a crown that will tarnish. We are working toward that eternal life that Jesus already obtained for us. Paul writes that he punished his body and enslaved it. How could this be what God wants of us? The point Paul is making is not that our work will be the guarantee of our salvation, God is the guarantee. Our striving is pointless unless we keep Jesus in His proper place. He took on our exile, our pain, our loneliness so that we could be restored to the community and made whole. Our response to this grace is to to make everything smaller and put God where He deserves to be. When we trust in God, our burdens will be removed, we’ll be transformed, and we’ll be restored to one another in a way we would never expect.

The psalmist writes, “Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing; Thou hast loosed my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness.” That's what God does; He removes the things from our lives that bring us down and sets us free to live in joy and thanksgiving. It was wonderful that Elisha gave Naaman the words that led to his healing and that Jesus touched the man and set him free from his leprosy, but there was much more to those encounters. Both Naaman and the man confessed faith in God, being saved from death and the grave. But do we accept that grace like Naaman, still trying to pay back God for His gift? Or do we take it like the man, and run from place to place telling others of God’s amazing grace? Do we seek a prize that will tarnish, or so we rejoice in the greater prize?

It is all well and good when we are healed from our dis-ease. But it isn’t enough for our flesh to be healed. It isn’t all that God wants for us. He desires that we have everything, which is why He sent Jesus. Jesus is far more than a wonderful teaching, prophet and healer. Jesus is our Savior, the one who touches us so deeply that we are made free from everything that binds us and keeps us from God. He turns our wailing into dancing and He clothes us with His righteousness. How can we stay silent? How can we go on without telling everyone this good news? Thanks to Jesus, we have a crown that will last forever.

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