Thursday, February 19, 2009

Epiphany 6 of Series B (Mark 1:40-45)

“Moved with pity, He stretched out His hand and touched him and said to him, ‘I will; be clean!’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from Saint Mark, the first chapter. Dear friends in Christ, Naaman had a problem. Our Old Testament lesson describes him as “a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the Lord had given victory to Syria.” He was a great man, a powerful man, someone who had the world on his plate, but he had a problem. “He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper.” Disease has a way of leveling society. The greatest general and the poorest bum on the street are all susceptible to it. The curse of our sin picks its victims at random, and in our Old Testament lesson, it picked someone who could defeat armies, but could not defeat leprosy.

In our Gospel lesson for today, we hear that “A leper came to Jesus, imploring Him, and kneeling said to him, ‘If you will, you can make me clean.’” This poor, lonely man, alongside the dusty roads of Galilee, was in the same situation as Naaman. Both were unclean, unable to participate in society, cast out until they were healed. Naaman’s country surely had its own laws about leprosy, but only Israel worshipped the true God, a God who was holy, a God who was clean, a God who could not stand having anything unclean in His presence. That unnamed man in our Gospel lesson was under the condemnation of God’s just Law- he could not come into contact with His people, and He could not worship God. We learn about this in Leviticus: “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.” Both Naaman and the leper had a disease that had no cure, a disease that would take their lives, a disease that separated them from their people, a disease that separated them from the God who created them.

Our situation was hardly different. We were conceived and born in sin, our bodies have been filled with the corruption that Adam and Eve brought us since the very moment that our lives began. Every child comes from the womb unclean, and not just physically unclean, they come out spiritually unclean, filled with the disease of sin. And this disease clings to us like leprosy, and just the same as that deadly disease, it makes us unclean before a holy God. And the unclean cannot stand in the presence of a holy God. But if we were only unclean because of the disease passed onto us from Adam and Eve, we could find a way to pass the buck, to blame others for that corruption. But you and I know that this sin that we have inherited has only led to more and more sin. The leper in our text chose to disobey the words of Jesus, when told to go to the priest he instead went all around the countryside. The leper may have not have actively done anything to earn his leprosy, just as we have not actively done anything to earn the inheritance of sin, but he made himself unclean by disobeying the words of Jesus. Even a brief look at the Ten Commandments reveals that we are in the same situation. We disobey God in our thoughts, words, and actions each and every day, making ourselves unclean in His sight.

What is our response to this? Like the leper in our text, we have inherited sin, we were unclean since conception, and have only added to that uncleanness since. We have no other option but to follow the leper in begging for forgiveness. “A leper came to Jesus, imploring Him, and kneeling.” The leper has the posture of repentance; he is summoning Jesus to come near to him, to take pity on his pitiful state. He kneels in repentance; he kneels before the Lord of all heaven and earth, begging for mercy. We do the same each and every day, we continually come to our Lord with bowed knees, begging Jesus in repentance to heal us. “Almighty God, our Maker and Redeemer, we poor sinners confess unto Thee that we are by nature sinful and unclean, and that we have sinned against Thee by thought, word, and deed. Wherefore we flee for refuge to Thine infinite mercy, seeking and imploring Thy grace for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But notice that here we have something else in common with the leper- we confess our sins with the confidence that Jesus is able to cleanse us. “A leper came to Jesus, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, ‘If you will, you can make me clean.’”

And what is the response of Jesus? “Moved with pity, He stretched out His hand and touched him and said to him, ‘I will, be clean!’” Jesus is moved with pity, the same pity for our sinful and unclean situation that God the Father had when He sent Jesus to this earth. The word for ‘pity’ here means to literally be ‘torn at the guts,’ to feel anguish and compassion for the situation of another. Jesus had this compassion for the leper that day, just as He had compassion for the sinful state of all people, including you and me, the compassion that sent Him to this earth. He came to this earth as the One to clean up the filth of our sin, and He began by healing disease and cleansing leprosy, one person at a time. The leper cries out with confidence in Christ’s ability to heal: “You can make me clean.” Christ has this ability because He is God Himself, God in the flesh, the one born in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve is the One to restore fallen humanity, to remove disease and demons, the One to cleanse this earth. And He does so with His word. “I will; be clean!” He gives an order that the leper cannot follow. He cannot make himself clean, but the Word of Jesus does what it says, and here it is joined with a touch. A leper is a walking corpse, any contact with that person makes others unclean, a touch passes this highly contagious disease to others. But when Jesus, the Clean One, touched this unclean man, his leprosy did not pass to Jesus, but instead the holiness of Jesus passes to the man, and he was cured. “And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.” The cleansing power of Jesus overcomes the uncleanness of fallen man- Jesus is the clean one, the one whose cleanness, whose holiness, is greater than our sin.

At no place is this shown more clearly than on Good Friday, for there the Holy One, the Clean One, shed His blood, and there His holiness, His cleanness, was greater than our sin, it was greater than all that made us unclean, it cleansed us. In our text, Jesus says to the cleansed leper: “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” Our Lord did not come to abolish the Law of Moses, He came to fulfill it, He came to die in obedience to it. And what did the law require? It required blood. Leviticus tells us: “The priest shall command them to take for him who is to be cleansed two live clean birds... And the priest shall command them to kill one of the birds... He shall take the live bird…and dip…the live bird in the blood of the bird that was killed... And he shall sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease. Then he shall pronounce him clean and shall let the living bird go into the open field.” Jesus Christ shed His blood as the sacrificial offering for our uncleanness, as the offering that God required through Moses for our sin. Jesus told the man to “offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded,” but glory be to God that Christ offered Himself for the cleansing that Moses commanded- Jesus paid the price for us; His shed blood cleanses us because it is the required offering for all of our uncleanness, all of our sin, and all of our disease. Jesus took the place of the bird that was killed when He was hung on a cross and was killed by Pilate’s soldiers. It was on that day that our cleansing was accomplished. It was only the basis of His death on Good Friday that Jesus could make this world clean, because only His blood could atone, only His blood could make clean what was unclean by sin. But there were two birds, weren’t there? Leviticus commands that the priest “shall let the living bird go into the open field.” On Easter Sunday Jesus fulfilled the second bird, when He went free from the open tomb resurrected- the price was paid and now victory over sin and death was accomplished. He rose as a proof to the entire world that He died to cleanse, and He died to cleanse all.

And He does so now through means. Naaman came to Israel in search of healing, and when Elisha, the prophet of God, heard about it, he said, “Let him now come to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.” Elisha did not have the power to cleanse in himself, as Jesus did, but the ability to cleanse came from the Word of God, and he spoke that word to Naaman: “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.” Naaman could not believe that water, joined with the Word of God, could do such great things, but the wise words of a servant convinced him, “so he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” How remarkably similar is our cleansing today! We don’t have Jesus visibly standing here and touching you to cleanse you of your sin, but He does so through means, most especially through the washing of water with the Word. It is easy to doubt that water with God’s Word could cleanse you of sin, but here today a fellow believer says to you that it is true! In your baptism Christ made you clean, just as He made Naaman clean, and just as He made the leper clean.

The wonderful thing about the cleansing of Christ is that it extends throughout our lives. Each and every time that you come to this place and Christ touches your lips with His very Body and Blood, you are cleansed. Each and every time that you hear you’re your sins are forgiven, you are cleansed once again. Christ’s cleansing is overflowing, it is amazing, it is abundant throughout your life. And because you are clean, you will dwell with our holy God forever in the new heavens and the new earth, the heavens and earth that have been renewed and restored, cleansed from all impurities forever. We too will fulfill the two birds of Leviticus- we will die like the first bird, but for the sake of Christ, we will live free eternally like the second bird, more free that we could ever be on a sinful world. May the Lord continue to cleanse us with His blood through the means that He has appointed until we live free before Him in His kingdom, Amen.

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