Salem Lutheran Church, Hitterdal
Epiphany 5/February 12, 2012
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
There’s a lot going on here in this story from Mark chapter one, and (at first blush) not all of it makes sense.
Jesus is on a whirlwind tour through Galilee, which we might think of as that portion of Minnesota north of Highway 2. Jesus was hitting mainly small towns not unlike Hitterdal. Which isn’t a surprise because except for a couple of trips to Jerusalem Jesus was mainly a rural and small-town guy. And that’s fine because wherever you go, you’ll encounter persons who reflect the whole gamut of human experience—warts and all.
So, speaking of warts, this leper comes to Jesus, and that in itself is a problem. Because lepers in Jesus’ day were supposed to stay put, in their place, outside the normal traffic patterns of life. The community couldn’t risk contamination by those with skin conditions that rendered them unclean. The rabbis considered healing of leprosy to be about as unlikely as raising the dead.
So if you’re a leper, you’re one of “Walking Dead,” and the wider community prefers that you don’t do much walking.
But not this leper. He walked, he left the leper compound, he refused to stay hidden from others, he ventured forth and found Jesus.
And the first words out of the leper’s mouth tell us that he’d been paying attention to the news about Jesus. “If you choose, you can make me clean,” he said, kneeling at Jesus’ feet.
In the request itself there’s a hint that the leper knows he can press this only so far—“if you choose,”
“Jesus, you can just say it, or maybe even just think it, and I will be cleansed. You don’t need to gaze on my disfigurement, you surely don’t need to touch me; just choose, and I will be well.”
But Jesus doesn’t do doctoring at arm’s length. If the leper made the first move, Jesus—almost reflexively—completes the journey by reaching out and doing something he never should have done: touching the leper’s uncleanness.
This, too, is astonishing. If not downright illegal under Jewish laws, Jesus certainly was expressing a reckless disregard for all the taboos that kept his community intact. A preacher I know once declared that Jesus performed two miracles here. The second miracle was the cleansing of the leper. But the first miracle was Jesus’ touching of the leper’s diseased skin.
Jesus breaks the taboo because he is “moved with pity.” Jesus hurts in his gut for this pitiful man. Some ancient manuscripts use another word, connoting anger, not pity. Jesus was angry, Jesus was indignant against all the dark forces that keep people enslaved.
Either way, the result is the same, because Jesus is in the freedom business. Jesus came to liberate persons, and the best way to set an unclean leper free isn’t just to think kind thoughts about the leper, but to stretch out your hand and break through the barrier and make contact with the untouchable. That’s how you defy a skin disease for which the community believed quarantine was the only protective measure.
So Jesus sets aside all the “rules and regs,” all the laws about leprosy, by taking on the man’s uncleanness and thus sweeping away his uncleanness, setting this man free.
Jesus doesn’t flinch at breaking the law, if it means one of God’s children can be turned loose….
….and then, in the next breath, Jesus the lawbreaker commands the leper to go and keep the law: “Go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded…”
Break the law one minute; keep the law the next. What gives here? Is Jesus a little “schizo” when it comes to the law?
No, not really. Because Jesus is in the freedom business, remember? And sometimes you have to break a law to set someone free, while other times it’s the law itself that allows justice and mercy to roll down like mighty waters.
Here’s what I think Jesus was up to. The community protected itself against leprosy by isolating lepers. You don’t so much treat the leper as you guard the community. And just as leprosy couldn’t be self-diagnosed (you can read all about it in Leviticus 14!), being cleansed from leprosy wasn’t something that you could unilaterally declare for yourself.
Jesus wanted this leper to be 100% free, and that meant being returned completely, to the community from which he had been expelled…..and the way to do that was for the leper to “obey the law,” be pronounced leprosy-free by the priest, and offer up a sacrifice that thanked God for healing and “sealed the deal.”
Jesus broke the law to free the leper, just as he commanded the leper to keep the law, also to free the leper. Law-breaking or law-keeping: it’s all about freedom.
The Law can never save us, but it can keep us alive long enough for our Savior to save us. The key here is: what makes for freedom? Do we obey the law for the Law’s sake? No. But that doesn’t mean that the Law doesn’t sometimes serve the cause of freedom.
OK, we’re in the home stretch now.
But there’s one last twist in this strange story. As Jesus commands the leper to keep the laws regarding re-entry into his community, Jesus lays a harsh gag-order on him: “See that you say nothing to anyone…”
Here, this leper is having the best day of his life, and Jesus wants him to keep mum about it. That would never wash nowadays. The leper would have fired off a Tweet or a Facebook update before Jesus could hush him.
And it didn’t work in Mark’s story, either. Jesus, who was 100% effective as a leper-healer, had no success putting the kibosh on what now came out of the former leper’s lips. “But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word…” Ironically, the leper was such an effective evangelist, that Jesus now had to restrict his own travel plans!
Students of the Bible puzzle over why Jesus tried to muzzle the leper. I think it’s mainly because Jesus didn’t want people to go gaa-gaa over signs and wonders before he got to the greatest Sign and Wonder of them all: the Cross and the Empty Tomb.
But for now, let’s just say that God’s powerful, passionate love overflowed so completely through Jesus, that sometimes it even caught him off guard. Jesus couldn’t keep some folks from singing, because freedom will do that to you!
And the same strong, future-opening love of God in Christ just keeps overflowing, into and through lives, too. This morning we witness that as a miracle unfolds right here, in just a few moments.
Little Courtney is no leper—far from it. Everyone wants to touch her and hold her. She’s the toast of the town, and for good reason.
But Courtney does need what Jesus intends to do for her today. She needs to be set free, just as all of us need to be set free.
Although you have probably noticed little evidence of her sinfulness, Ingrid and Dane, this will change soon enough. She will soon learn to speak and I predict that some of her favorite words will be “me, myself and mine.” She is under your protective care right now, but as soon as she goes out in the world there will be persons eager to lead her astray. And even though she is the picture of health and life this morning, she is not immortal.
All of which is to say: Courtney is like all the rest of us. She is a human child, captive to sin, death and the power of the devil.
But, here’s the good news! Jesus is here. Jesus is “calling dibs” on Courtney. Jesus is going to set her free this morning with water and a Word to which she’ll be able to return, every day, for as long as God gives her life.
And in saying all this about precious little Courtney, I hope you know that I’m saying it about you and me and everyone else whom God is calling to faith. Enslaved to thinking the world revolves around us, captivated by forces that would lead us astray, in bondage to mortality….we are prime targets for Jesus, the freedom-bringer.
Jesus reaches across all boundaries and touches, indeed takes on our uncleanness. Jesus turns us loose from the Evil One, even in the valley of the shadow of death.
And Jesus liberates us so compellingly, that we can’t keep quiet about it…just as I hope and pray that her baptism into Christ will become something that Courtney never grows tired of hearing about and spreading abroad, all the days of her life.
And so may the same be said for all of us who have been set free by Jesus our Lord.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.