Friday, February 17, 2012

Sexagesima Sunday Sermon

[24] Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. [25] And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. [26] I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: [27] But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.
- 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

[40] And there came a leper to him, beseeching him, and kneeling down to him, and saying unto him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. [41] And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean. [42] And as soon as he had spoken, immediately the leprosy departed from him, and he was cleansed. [43] And he straitly charged him, and forthwith sent him away; [44] And saith unto him, See thou say nothing to any man: but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer for thy cleansing those things which Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them. [45] But he went out, and began to publish it much, and to blaze abroad the matter, insomuch that Jesus could no more openly enter into the city, but was without in desert places: and they came to him from every quarter.
- Mark 1:40-45

How do we know God’s character? How do we know, for example, that God is love and not a malevolent and mischievous deity, as the jaded Mark Twain thought at the end of his life? According to Christianity, we know God and his character by his self-revelation, what he tells us about himself. A facebook profile for an individual is full of details, nuances about favorite books, movies; habits, likes and dislikes. God represents himself much more succinctly; it is not a set of words that he uses to reveal himself, but a single Word, the man Jesus. The Gospel of John calls Jesus the Word of God, and for those in the first audience of this Gospel who were Greek and had a secular education, they would have connected this idea of the Word of God with Greek philosophy; But for the Jewish audience, the Word of God would evoke the words of the prophets, who received the Word of the Lord. The prophets were the vehicles through which God revealed himself to his people Israel. But the final prophet, the Word himself, comes to reveal God definitively, for all times and all places. Jesus is the Word of God—God’s self-revelation—not simply on account of the words he has to say, although this is obviously an important part of his message. He is also the Word of God in his actions, in how he relates to the people of his own time. This is very well illustrated in the Gospel lesson today.

In the account, a leper approaches Jesus asking to be cleansed. Now leprosy in the Old and New Testaments was probably different than the leprosy with which we are familiar. The leprosy we know causes extreme lacerations to the skin; fingers and toes can fall off, and death is not an uncommon end. The leprosy of the Bible appears to consist of relatively mild skin lacerations, which by comparison do not sound too severe; however, according to Old Testament law, someone with this type of leprosy was prohibited from living within the walls of a city or from entering the temple. In the language of the Pentateuch, a leper is unclean; he cannot worship in the temple; he cannot be touched without making the one who touches him unclean and therefore, at least for a time, unable to enter the temple. It is likely that in the parable of the good Samaritan, the priest and Levite pass by the bleeding and beaten man because touching him would have made them unclean and therefore unable to fulfill their formal religious duties. A leper or any person who remained unclean for a long period—like the woman with the issue of blood—would have felt cut off from society and cut off from God.

Notice the reaction of Jesus to this leper: “Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him.” Jesus is moved with compassion; God is not simply aloof and detached from the trials and troubles of humanity. What Jesus reveals about God is that God is moved to pity by the sufferings of individuals. But this pity is not simply the pity of abstract good will towards the less fortunate. Jesus has pity and his pity moves him to identify with the leper, to share in a small way in his affliction. By touching the leper, our Lord himself becomes ritually unclean. This is precisely the point of the incarnation, God the Son, identifies with the plight of man—his bondage to sin and death; he takes this plight upon himself and shares, as a brother, in our afflictions.

To the leper’s declaration—“ If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean”—Jesus says, “I will; be thou clean.” Jesus has compassion on the leper, he identifies with him by touching him, and finally, by his power, he makes the leper clean, restoring him to society and, in a very tangible sense, to God, by making him fit to enter the temple. Amongst our peers we are very accustomed to hearing ‘I will not’ to our requests. Part of the process of growing up seems to be accepting that we will encounter these disappoints, these rejections, all the time. But the word of Jesus is different. To the leper, he is a yes that negates all the no’s that society and established religion had issued to him.

Listen to what a Jewish scholar has to say about this incident from the Gospel: “Here we begin to catch the new note in the ministry of Jesus; his intense compassion for the outcast, the sufferer, who by his sin or by his suffering, which was too often regarded as the result of sin, had put himself outside respectable Jewish society, who found himself rejected and despised by men, and believed himself rejected and despised by God. Here was a new and lofty note, a new and exquisite manifestation of the very pity and love which the prophets had demanded” (quote by Sir Moses Haim Montefiore from Branscomb, The Gospel of Mark, p. 38). The fact is to a degree we all are lepers and outcasts. Even the most popular teenager, if he were honest, would say that he felt, at least to a degree, like an outsider. The only difference between people really are those who know that they are outcasts and those who all their lives have tried to deny and hide this reality, by conforming themselves in such a way that they will be accepted. Once we can identify ourselves as outcasts, then we are ready to hear the word of Jesus to us: “I will; I will, be thou clean.” We can hear the invitation of Jesus: “Join me in the fellowship of God; join me in the community, the family of my people.” What freedom is to be found, when we can hear this “I will” as spoken to each of us as individuals. There is no longer any need to make ourselves clean: touchable by our fellow men and able to enter into the temple and the fellowship of God; we have been made clean by this word of Jesus, “I will.” To put it in its simplest terms, this “I will” means that we have a home and family: our home is fellowship with God, our family those who share in this fellowship. The very longing of the human heart is for home and for family, and we have it, freely given, in our Lord Jesus and his word of “I will”. This is the freedom of a Christian, and you can see how it runs counter to the movement of individuals in society who are striving to be accepted by God and by their fellow-man.

From this standpoint of freedom, we can enter the sanctified life of a Christian. For example, as Christians—those who follow in the teachings and example of Jesus—we ought to have a particular compassion and love for the rejects and forgotten—the lepers—of our society. Those who their whole life have heard “I will not” are to hear the voice of Jesus, “I will”, through our lips. Paul writes of this sanctified life in the Epistle lesson today. From the standpoint of knowing ourselves as those freely accepted and made clean by Jesus, we can know our final destination. In a series of sports metaphors, Paul compares the Christian life to a race and a boxing match. It would be to misunderstand the lesson, if we heard it saying that we just need to try a little harder or that the Christian life is about competing with other Christians. The first point to be made about this passage is that it reminds us that we are indeed in a race. Most people do not even realize this; they live as if life were a dress rehearsal. The second point is that we need to run the race knowing the destination; you don’t want to run backwards around the track or off the track altogether. In the same way, we need to hit our opponent, not simply punch the air in futility. If you knew you were going to run a marathon tomorrow or fight a boxing match, there would be certain things you would do today: you wouldn’t eat this, you’d train, you’d go to bed early; in the same way knowing we have a race to run and a destination means we will consequently live in a certain way. Now, all this is true because we see it modeled and fulfilled in Jesus. He has already run the race set before him and gone on to glory where he sits at the right hand of God. We hear the word of Jesus, “I will” and we are set to the destination to which he has already led the way. The Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, describes this reality beautifully, when he writes in his Church Dogmatics, “What the Holy Spirit positively wills and effects. . . is always a human existence that deserves to be called a life to the extent that it is lived in the light of the royal man Jesus, in an attentiveness and movement to Him, because the Christian who receives and has the Holy Spirit recognizes and acknowledges that this man [Jesus] died for him and has risen again for him, that [Jesus] lives for him, that [Jesus] is the Owner and Bearer, the Representative and Lord of his life, and that in [the] exaltation [of Jesus] he too is exalted and set in a living fellowship with God” (Barth, CD IV.2, p.375). If the day has never come for you, may today be the day you hear Jesus word of acceptance and healing, “I will, be thou clean”, and in hearing this word may know that our true and final home is in God.

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