Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Text: Mark 1:40-42
A man suffering from a dreaded skin disease came to Jesus, knelt down, and begged him for help.  "If you want to," he said, "you can make me clean."  Jesus was filled with pity, and reached out and touched him.  "I do want to," he answered.  "Be clean!"  At once the disease left the man, and he was clean.

Despairing?  Discouraged?

In 1835 a man visited a doctor in Florence, Italy. He was anxious and exhausted from lack of sleep.  He couldn’t eat and he avoided his friends.  The doctor examined him and found that he was in excellent physical condition.  Concluding that his patient needed to have a good time, the physician told him about a circus in town and its star performer, a clown named Grimaldi.  Night after night he had the people rolling in the aisles.  “You must go and see him,” the doctor advised.  “Grimaldi is the world's funniest clown.  He’ll make you laugh and cure your sadness.” 
“No, I don’t think that’ll work” replied the despairing man. “He won’t be able to help me.  You see, I’m Grimaldi!”

Two of our readings tell us about the healing of people who had leprosy – a terrible, incurable, disfiguring disease that alienated people from their families and their community.  What could be more terrifying, more depressing, more discouraging than to discover that you have leprosy.  Your whole world comes crashing down around you as suddenly every human relationship is cut off.  ‘Hopeless’, ‘despondent’, ‘depressed’, ‘desperate’, ‘trapped’ might be words used to describe how a leper might feel.

Now everyone gets despondent at some time or other.   At the time you are depressed and discouraged it seems that you are the only one who has these problems and burdens.  There are those times when you lie awake at night worried and upset about something that happened during the day, or what someone had said to you that upset you.  Everything goes out of focus, you lose perspective as this problem looms so large in your life and it becomes all consuming. 

When I think of disappointment and despair there is one character in the Bible who really stands out to me – Elijah (see 1 Kings 18 &19).  He became so discouraged that he wanted to die rather than keep going. 

He certainly experienced numerous high points in his life; 
breaking a drought through prayer; 
saving a widow and her son from starving by giving them an unending supply of flour and oil, and then a little later when the widow’s son died, raising him to life again. 
His brightest moment was when he stood up to the prophets of the Canaanite god Baal on Mt Carmel.  Elijah challenged those who worshipped Baal to set up a sacrificial altar and to call on Baal to set it alight.  Nothing happened.  Elijah likewise set up an altar, doused his sacrifice with water. He called on God to light his sacrifice and not only did the fire God sent burn the sacrifice, but also the wood, the stones, scorched the earth and dried up the water (I Kings 19:38).  Can you imagine how elated Elijah must have been at this victory over the pagan worshippers and this undeniable sign of God's power?

But this bright hour is soon followed by a dark one.  Queen Jezebel had introduced the worship of Baal in Israel and now wanted Elijah dead.  She was a woman who was used to getting her own way and there was no doubt in her mind that Elijah’s days were numbered.

Elijah should have known this would have been the queen’s reaction but waves of depression and hopelessness started to crash over him.  He became so upset that his whole view of life became distorted.  He was blinded to the great things that had happened.  He ran away into the wilderness and finally collapsed under a juniper tree.  He exclaimed, “It's too much, Lord.  … I might as well as be dead.” 

Can you understand the way Elijah was feeling?  I think most of us can to some degree.
We become so discouraged that we can no longer see the good in our lives.
We become so focussed on the negative that anything positive is shut out.
We may judge ourselves as worthless and useless. 
We may think that we aren’t able to do anything that’s right. 
We may feel terribly alone. 
We may want to curl up in a ball and hide from everyone. 
We may think that God has given up on us. 
We have a distorted view of reality.  It is our feelings that have gone on a downhill slide, whereas the bigger picture, what is real is still the same.

And that’s what happened to Elijah. 
He was physically exhausted.
He felt God and everyone else had abandoned him. 
He was disappointed in himself. 
He felt alone.  There was only one thing left to do - lie down and die. 

If there was a person who had a reason to be discouraged and depressed it was the leper who lived in Jesus’ time.  There were strict rules laid down for those who caught his terrible disease.  You might say they could be summed up like this.  “If you are a leper, stay away!  You are too horrible to look at!  You must have done something really bad to have been afflicted in this terrible way”.  Lepers had to live and survive outside of normal society.  They had to wear tattered clothes and let their hair go uncombed or cut.  When meeting anyone, they had to cover their mouths with a hand and shout out a warning of their own “unclean” condition. 

I don’t think any of us can really begin to imagine what it must have been like to be leper in those times.  Wives, mothers, children, snatched from their families and forced to fend for themselves among the hills and rocks.  Husbands, fathers, young lovers, respected citizens would suddenly be excluded from society.  I can only begin to imagine the despair and the depression that followed the diagnosis of leprosy.  And what deepened this despair would have been the thought that they were even beyond God’s help.   Or even that this was a punishment from God.

But we read in Mark’s Gospel today, “Jesus was filled with pity, and reached out and touched him.    At once the disease left the man, and he was clean.”

God intervened in Elijah’s life when everything in the prophet’s mind was nothing but doom and gloom and all he wanted to do was to escape his misery.  Jesus intervened in the life of the leper, the outcast of society, the man who has received what he deserves because of some terrible sin he has committed.  Jesus breaks all the rules of his society to reach out and touch a man whom everyone else regarded as an outsider.

There are many reasons why we might begin to be depressed and discouraged about what is happening in our lives. 
You may be an enthusiastic member of the congregation, but no one shares your vision of what the church should be doing. 
You may have a chronic illness and days and hours seem so long. 
You feel as if there is no joy left in your work.
It might be just a comment that someone makes that gets blown out of all proportion in our minds and disqualifies all the positive things others have said and we end up sad and confused.
It might that same old temptation that we fall into again and again that leads us to feeling despondent about our lack of willpower and commitment. 
It might be a relationship that turned sour a long time ago but somehow it has never been resolved and that upsets you.

It’s a bit like leprosy.  You can’t stop getting it and you can’t make it go away and it has a powerful effect on your whole life.  Like Elijah you feel trapped as these things keep going around and around in your head.  You begin to lose your confidence and believe that you can’t do anything right.  You find yourself saying with the Psalmist, “Why am I so sad?  Why am I so troubled?”(Psalm 43:5). 

Whatever it is that gives you these feelings of discouragement, remember Elijah and the way that God sustained him through all his feelings of discouragement.  Remember how Jesus reached out to the leper and gave him a new life free of all the depressing worries of being an outsider in society.  Likewise when we feel despondent we are reminded that we have a Saviour who is always there to help us, encourage and comfort us when things get tough.  Jesus invites, “Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest” (Matt 10:28).  St Peter urges us, “Leave all your worries with him, because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7).

The leper came to Jesus not only trapped in a physical disease but also with all the despair that goes with such a condition.  There is only one who can help him – Jesus.  He healed his body and mind.  Jesus does that for us too.  He reaches out with his hand of blessing and declares us whole.  He reminds us that we are God’s beloved children and that he keeps on loving even though we are so depressed and despondent that we can’t feel that love. 

As Jesus intervened in the life of the leper, he intervenes in ours with his love and promises us that when things are tough and the chips are down that he will be there to help us and support us through those situations that could easily lead us to despondency and despair.

God cared for Elijah as he lay under the juniper tree wishing he would die.
Jesus cared for the leper who came seeking healing.
He cares for us.  He cares for us so much and will help us get our balance again and to live in his strength.
And how do we know that?  Look at the cross.  See there the dying Jesus, and see how much God loved us.  It takes a powerful love to give up something you love dearly for the sake of another person who doesn’t deserve that love one bit.  That’s what he did for us.  Thank God that when we are discouraged and despairing God’s love is still as strong as ever for us.

 © Pastor Vince Gerhardy
12th February 2012
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com

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