Sunday, February 15, 2009
Sermon - Epiphany 6 - Mark 1:40-45
Today when we think about the categories of “clean” and “unclean” it has more to do with whether someone has taken a shower, or whether the laundry has been through the wash. But for the Old Testament people, and even in Jesus' day, “clean” and “unclean” were important ceremonial categories. Things were either “clean” or “unclean”. And even people were either “clean” or “unclean”. Usually, if you were unclean it was a temporary situation. And there were rituals of cleansing prescribed to deal with it all. But why did God institute this cumbersome system of categorization for his people? Why all the fuss?
Some suggest the things God designated as “unclean” were those things especially unhealthy in the ancient world – eating certain foods that were more prone to make you sick, or associating with diseased people would expose you to contagion. And while there is probably something to that, the real reason is much deeper.
I'm convinced that God wanted his people to think in the categories of “clean” and “unclean”, so as to remind them of deeper spiritual realities. While not exactly congruent, the categories of “clean” and “unclean” point to the truth that we are all “unclean” in sin, and all need to be washed, purified, cleansed.... by the grace of God.
So today we encounter the lepers. In the Old Testament, Namaan. In the Gospel reading, the nameless leper healed by Jesus. Both men, in their disease, were unclean. And though we are not lepers, we can relate. For we are unclean, before God, in our sin. And we too are made clean by Jesus, who always wills to forgive and restore his people.
Leprosy was, in those days, much more than a disease. Actually in those days it was a whole complex of skin diseases, all of which were lumped together. Some were temporary and perhaps curable. But some were the particularly chronic kind. In every case, though, the disease made the victim more than just sick.
Maybe the worst part of coming down with leprosy was that you became a social outcast, stigmatized and excluded from the community. The law was quite clear – lepers weren't even supposed to come close to healthy people, much less touch them. They could make you sick. They could make you unclean.
So here comes a leper, who falls on his knees before Jesus. Too close for comfort? No. Jesus doesn't run away or turn him away. But he recognizes the need. In pity he responds. He reaches out and touches the man. Touches him! This would make any normal person unclean too! But with Jesus, it's the other way around. He has come to make the unclean clean.
I suppose you could say that Jesus did become unclean. He did it most fully at the cross. He who was without sin, we are told, was made to be sin for us. He who was not subject to death, humbled himself even unto death on a cross. And if touching a dead person made you unclean, what does it mean to be a dead person? But all this Jesus did to cleanse us, restore us, forgive us.
When Jesus touches the leper and makes him clean, it's on the basis of the cross. When Jesus comes to you, and cleanses you from sin, it's always on the basis of the cross. Each act, each declaration of forgiveness is meaningless without the death and resurrection of Jesus. But each absolution has behind it the full weight and force of a dying savior who pleads, “Father forgive them” and assures us, “It is finished”.
But is it enough for you? Try this on for size. Today in the age of modern medicine, we usually don't ostracize the sick like they used to. But we do have our modern lepers. Those whose sins make them so unclean we shun them. Ask yourself. Could Jesus cleanse... a murderer? Could Jesus forgive.... a child abuser? Does Jesus offer forgiveness, even to the most “untouchable” sinners of our day? It's hard to imagine, but we must say, “yes”.
As disgusted as we are, and rightly so, by the most grievous sinners among us, God must be even more disgusted with our sins. For the unclean thoughts, words, and deeds, for our very corrupted nature... his ultimate holiness cannot stand sins such as ours. Scripture says God hates sin. There are no soft edges to it. Even the sins that we think, in our rationalizations, are no big deal, the ones we tell ourselves don't really hurt anyone, are no one's business, or really have a plus side to them... NO. God hates sin. He is disgusted by it. And he prescribes for sinners the ultimate ostracism of eternal separation – we call it Hell. Some of the scariest words in scripture are when Jesus says he will tell some people on the last day, “depart from me. I never knew you”. Can you imagine that ringing in your ears for all eternity as you trudge off to your endless suffering. God wants nothing to do with you.
But. But, we Christians, though sinners, are like that leper. We come before Jesus and beg pity. We come on our knees, in humility. We come confessing sin, admitting our need, not hiding our disease. And he takes pity on us too. He is willing to make us clean. By all rights he could and should turn us away, keeping his distance. But he has mercy. He comes close, and touches us. He is present with us. And his cure is immediate, and permanent.
One beautiful picture of the Lord's Supper is that it is the “medicine of immortality”. How true it is. That Jesus' own body and blood not only feed us, but cure us, and strengthen us in our faith. And it's that faith that carries us through – even through death – to eternal life. To that day when these bodies diseased by sin are raised incorruptible, and body and soul live in perfection with him forever. Then we will be clean not only by faith, but in full. There will be no more sin, or death, or suffering or pain. Then and there he will wipe every tear from our eyes.
So come this day and receive the medicine prescribed for you, the person infected by sin, the one who would be cast out from God. Come, in humility, confessing that sin. Come, expecting his mercy, receiving his cure, know his forgiveness. For he is willing to make you clean.