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.

Touched by love

During the time our son was at university he was always working either on his own car and that of a mate. At the end of the day, he came home his hands black with grease, his clothes reeking of brake fluid, and his face smeared with grime. "Let me give you a hug", he said to his mother as he walked in the front door. Well, needless to say, Miriam was not too enthusiastic about that offer. She didnít want to have anything to do with him until he had cleaned up.

But thatís not always been the case. Mothers donít always shy away from dirty children. Imagine this Ė you hear the distressed cry of your child and looking up you see your 8 year old son running toward you. He was riding his bike and was flung over the handlebars. His face has gravel rash down one side, his hands, arms and knees are bleeding. In amongst the blood mixed with gravel, tears are steaming down his face. His mother, (who doesnít cope too well with blood at the best of times,) didnít say, "Oo yuck! Donít come near me!" This was a time to comfort him, gently clean off his wounds, love him, and then take him to the dentist because he had also knocked out his front teeth. He was in a mess. He needed help and he came to the person he knew could make things right again.

Today Mark records how Jesus responded in exactly this way to a leper. For a Jew, leprosy was the ultimate in uncleanness. The Old Testament book of Leviticus gives detailed explanations about what to do when skin blemishes appeared. They were considered contagious and so the treatment was tough. (By the way, the term "leprosy" in the Bible covered all kinds of skin diseases). We read in Leviticus, "If you have a dreaded skin disease, you must wear torn clothes, leave your hair uncombed, cover the lower part of your face, and call out, "Unclean, unclean!" You remain unclean as long as you have the disease, and you must live outside the camp, away from others" (13:45,46).

Today leprosy can be treated with antibiotics. But in an era when there was no treatment for this sickness that would lead to eventual disfigurement and death, this disease was feared. The only way to treat leprosy and stop its spread was to isolate those who had the disease from the rest of the community. In the book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, the writer reports, "No one was to salute a less than a distance of six feet must be kept from a leper or if the wind came from that direction, a hundred were scarcely sufficient." (Alfred Edersheim).

We see in Markís brief account the plight of a desperate man. He wants more than to just accept his condition as something that can never change. There was no cure for leprosy and he knew it. He knew that his body would be horribly disfigured as a result of the disease (if it hadnít been already). He was well aware that having leprosy was a death sentence. He was a walking corpse Ė cut off from the people he loved and those with whom he once worked Ė and every day a bit more of his body died.

He wants something more than any human is able to give. He believed that only the power of God could intervene in his plight. He wanted Jesus to use his power to make him well again. He really believed that Jesus could help him and so the man with a skin disease did what he was forbidden to do. He came right up to Jesus. He said, "If you want to, you can make me clean".

Everyone else said, "Oo yuck, a horrible, ugly, dirty leper! Get away from me", but Jesus didnít. He did what no one else was game to do Ė he reached out and touched the diseased man. Deeply moved by this manís plight, Jesus said, "Be clean", and the man was healed.

Isnít it true that we are often in the same situation as the leper? I donít mean we have a horrible disease like that, but that we are
exhausted from pain or grief,
tired of feeling alone and miserable,
worn out from constant bickering and arguing,
drained from worrying about our children,
shattered by broken dreams,
disappointed with ourselves because we just canít get it right,
sick and tired of work and the boss.

The leper knew that he was powerless to do anything to change his situation. He knew he couldnít heal himself or make himself clean. He probably had never even heard of a leper being cured. For years he has lived with no hope at all. Heís absolutely helpless, and he knows it. But of significance is the fact that he wasnít prepared to simply accept his lot in life. He believed that God could help.

Courageously he broke all the rules and went to the one whom he believed could help, if he wished to do so. If he hadnít stepped forward when he did, he could well have stayed a leper for the rest of his life.

God is waiting for us to step forward and to humbly, yet boldly, ask him to use his power on whatever "leprosy" we have that is eating away at us. We are invited to ask the all powerful and ever loving God to help us. By ourselves we donít have a chance against the forces and foes in this world that cause us so much distress. We know too well from experience that it doesnít matter how hard we try, we canít extract ourselves from our problems, and the more frustrated and anxious we get. There doesnít seem to be an end in sight. You might say our problems are like quicksand Ė the more we wriggle around to free ourselves, the deeper we get until we are in it over our head.

Why not call on the power of God to help us?
The leper did, and look what happened.
When the disciples were out on the lake in a storm that looked as if it would swallow them up, they called on Jesus to help. And look what happened Ė Jesus calmed the storm.
A father begged Jesus to come and heal his dying daughter. And look what happened Ė Jesus brought her back to life.
A man dying on a cross called out to Jesus and look what happened Ė he was promised a place in paradise.

Sometimes it happens that when we ask God to help, his answer is not quite what we expected. Paul was suffering terribly and prayed that God would give him healing and relief. He prayed this over and over again. The suffering continued, but God gave him the strength and help he needed to the point when he could say, "I am most happy to be proud of my weaknesses, in order to feel the protection of Christís power over me" (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Paul prayed for divine power to help him through all the life threatening situations he faced as a messenger for Christ. Finally he stated, "I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me" (Philippians 4:13). Even though life was tough, God gave him the power, the strength, and the grace to rise above everything that threatened h is safety.

I am reminded of the text we heard last week from Isaiah. "Those who trust in the Lord for help will find their strength renewed. They will rise on wings like eagles; they will run and not get weary; they will walk and not grow weak" (Isaiah 40:31).

The touch of Jesus can have a profound affect. It totally turned around the life of the leper Ė the man who not only suffered physically but also suffered religious and social isolation. He was rejected, unwanted and unloved and Jesus changed all of that.
There is nothing that is too hard for Jesus.
There is nothing too disgusting for Jesus.
There is no sin too revolting for Jesus.
He looks at you with compassion and wants to reach out and touch your life. He wants to turn around your life.

There is another aspect of this text that bears mentioning. We are people who have felt the touch of Jesus through his healing death on the cross. When death threatens us we have experienced his healing touch through his words of promise of eternal life. We are people who have felt his touch when we have been overcome by sadness, temptation, suffering and doubt. He does this without any qualification on our part Ė he simply loves us even when we are covered with the leprosy of sin. The question is this Ė how well have we reached out and touched the lives of others with the same compassion and the same kind of love that Jesus has shown to us. There was no one too unclean, too untouchable, and too sinful that Jesus wouldnít reach out and touch.

As the body of Christ, we need to be a people of compassion. Compassion is a quality that you experience as a child, but we tend to suppress it as we get older and become cynical toward lifeís hurts.
What happens when we hear of someone doing it tough? We say their relatives should be doing something, or they have brought it on themselves.
When we see someone obviously in need on the street, we try to ignore them, try not to have any eye contact.
Too often itís easier to send a card to someone who is grieving than to support them personally.

I realize we canít take personal responsibility for every tragedy we see or go into depression because of our inability to heal all the worldís hurts, but neither can we afford to shut our eyes to the fact that there are many people who need to feel the touch of Jesus through us. Jesus touched a leper Ė he calls us to touch the "lepers" of today. He is depending on our eyes to see, our ears to hear, our hands to touch with his grace - in healing, restoring, cleansing.

Where we have let sin harden our hearts and fail to show compassion, may we come to Jesus and ask him to heal and cleanse us. In many ways, sin is like leprosy. Sin does its worst damage by eating away at us, penetrating deep inside, causing us eventually to lose all feelings of compassion toward others. Like leprosy sin will isolate us from God. And like leprosy, there is nothing we can do about sin and it will eventually destroy us.

We thank God for the healing touch of Jesus. He loves us, died for us, and gives us healing. God grant us the compassion and the desire to reach out and touch others with the love of Christ.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
16th February, 2003

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Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from Good News Bible: Today's English Version (TEV), revised edition, © American Bible Society 1966, 1971, 1976, 1992, 1994, inclusive language with Australian usage text, 1994 
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