Sixth Sunday After Epiphany (February 15, 2009)
“The Unclean Made Clean” (Mark 1:40-45)
In the name of Jesus, my dear fellow redeemed. Amen.
You are walking along the Seattle waterfront and up ahead you see a homeless man seated on the ground, leaning up against a building. He holds a sign that says “Homeless ... Vietnam Veteran ... Please help ... God bless you.” He’s filthy from head to toe. He smells of body odor and urine and you can already get a whiff of him from where you stand. How do you react to such a sight? More than likely you hold your breath, look straight ahead without making eye contact, pick up the pace, and move a bit closer to the street as you walk by. The man’s uncleanness separates him from you. An invisible barrier exists between his world and yours.
During the earthly ministry of Jesus, there was an invisible barrier between the people of Israel and those who had leprosy. This is probably not the same as what we call leprosy today. The Greek word lepra means scaly or rough, so it could refer to some type of skin disease that creates those conditions. Whatever it was exactly, it was evidently contagious and infectious. For our purposes, we'll just call it “leprosy” like our text does. According to the Old Testament regulations, they had to be totally separate from the community (Leviticus 13 and 14). They had to wear torn clothes, keep their hair messed up, cover the lower part of their face, live on the outskirts of town, and when someone walked by, they had to cry out “Unclean, unclean!” That’s probably the way it was for the man in today’s Gospel lesson. However, when Jesus walked by him, the man fell to his knees and his cry of “Unclean!” became instead “Jesus, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
The separation of those who had leprosy was a sign of God’s judgment, not over the individuals themselves, but God’s judgment over a world that had been corrupted because of sin. Your uncleanness and my uncleanness is the uncleanness of sin. And it’s worse than leprosy because it’s not infectious. It’s hereditary. You can avoid catching an infectious disease by not touching or being near someone who is infected. But you can’t avoid being a sinner. We were born that way. Our father Adam and our mother Eve became sinners when they disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, and they passed that hereditary condition along to you and me. Were your parents Norwegian? Then you’re born a Norwegian. Were your parents Italian? Then you’re born an Italian. Were your parents sinners? Then you’re born a sinner.
Like the invisible barrier between lepers and the rest of society, sin is a barrier between us and God. He shuns sinners and their unholiness. Lepers were cast out of the camp of the Israelites or outside the city where they lived. Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden. You and I deserve to be cast away from God’s presence because of our sin. We are unclean.
But Jesus is willing to make the unclean clean. When the leper in today’s text cried out to him, “If you are willing, you can make me clean,” Jesus replied, “I am willing. Be clean!”
Jesus is compassionate to the unclean. He looks at the person in their unclean condition and is deeply moved, to the very depth of His being. It’s a compassion that only God can have. It’s a compassion so deep that He treats the victim as if the sickness – or the sin – were His very own. In reality, that’s what He did at the cross, as Isaiah 53 says, “He certainly has taken upon himself our suffering and carried our sorrows ... the Lord has laid all our sins on him.” (Is. 53:4, 6 GW) Just as Jesus was compassionate to the leper, He is compassionate to us in our unclean, sinful condition.
Not only is He compassionate, but He goes the next step. He reaches out and touches the unclean. This is quite remarkable. Touching a leper was something that was just not done! But Jesus, in His compassion, laid His hand upon the man. Imagine how that leper felt. Deprived for so many years of the warmth of a friend’s hand upon his shoulder ... deprived of loving hugs from his children ... deprived of tender kisses on the cheeks or the lips from the woman he loves ... now, at last, He is touched by another person ... and not just any person. The love of Jesus was manifested to him as his rotting flesh was touched by the holy flesh of God.
Last week we heard how Jesus reached down and touched Peter’s mother-in-law. Today we hear how Jesus reached down and touched this leper. Again we are reminded how Jesus reaches down and touches us. Our flesh is rotting, too. We’re all dying. But the Lord of Life reaches down and touches us with His love. Our ears are touched with the forgiving message of absolution. Our brows are touched with baptismal water that washes our uncleanness away. Our rotting lips are touched by the holy flesh and the holy blood of God which was spilled out for us and for our forgiveness at the cross.
And once an unclean person has been touched by the Epiphany Lord, the uncleanness leaves immediately. Jesus touched the leper, said “Be clean!” and St. Mark records “Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.” There was no need for this man to go do any good works to deserve his being made clean. Jesus did instruct him to go to the temple to offer the prescribed sacrifices as a testimony to the priests and the people that he was truly healed. But this was not a condition of his being healed. The leper came to Jesus with a prayer of childlike, trusting faith ... Jesus touched him ... and IMMEDIATELY the leprosy went away.
Quite the opposite was the reaction of Naaman the Syrian in today’s Old Testament lesson. When told to go wash in the Jordan River so that he would be healed of his leprosy, he complained and said “Why do I have to go all the way to Israel? Aren’t the rivers here in Syria good enough to wash in? Or why couldn’t the prophet Elisha just come here to me and do some of his ‘hocus pocus’ and heal me?” Naaman did not react with faith to the words of the prophet which pointed him to the place he needed to go to be healed.
We come to Jesus with childlike, trusting faith like the leper in today’s text. We come to Him and acknowledge our need to be made clean, acknowledging our need for forgiveness. In faith, we go to the places where He has said we will receive His forgiveness – in the Gospel, in baptism, in absolution, in the Lord’s Supper. And there is no waiting period between the time we come to Him asking to be forgiven and the time we are actually forgiven. Our sins are sent away IMMEDIATELY. We are forgiven IMMEDIATELY.
After an unclean person is made clean, the natural reaction would be to go out and tell other people about it. You would expect the person to go out and testify about what happened.
That’s what the man in our Gospel lesson did, even after Jesus told him not to do it. You may be asking, “Why did Jesus tell him not to tell anybody?” Most likely it was because Jesus did not want any publicity which might lead to a false idea about what His work as Messiah was all about. He didn’t want the people thinking he had come to establish a fleshly, earthly kingdom through healing their bodies. He had come to bring healing to men’s souls.
Nevertheless, the man went out and spread the news about what happened. But apparently, he did not flaunt his cleanness by saying, “Look at me! Look how clean I am! My leprosy is gone! My faith must have been very strong, or that Jesus guy must have seen something special in me to make me clean!”
No, apparently this one who was made clean flaunted the one who made him clean. He spread the news about Jesus and his healing power, so much so that people came looking for Jesus in such large numbers that he could no longer openly enter any of the towns. Now, there’s no excuse for disobeying the words of Jesus, but dare I say it, can you blame this guy for spreading the news? Just think of the wonderful experience he just had, of going from the living death of leprosy and entering into a new life of health and strength and restored relationships and being allowed back into the community. It was just too much for him to contain.
You and I have been made clean from sin through the shed blood of Jesus. And we do not flaunt our cleanness from sin by saying, “Hey! Look at me! My sin has been taken away. God must have seen something special in me so that He would forgive my sin. I must be alright.”
No, those who have been made clean of their sin flaunt the one who made them clean. We spread the news about Jesus and his saving power. Consider the enormity of what God has done for us. He has brought us out of the living death of sin and into the new life of grace and mercy and divine love. He has done this because of the death of His Only Begotten Son on our behalf. That is too much for us to contain. Jesus may have told the leper not to tell anyone. But He never said that to us.