February 12, 2012
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Dallas, TX
Text: Mark 1:40-45
The leper talked. He didn’t listen. Why didn’t he listen? After this wonderful thing Jesus did for him, the least he could have done is honored Jesus’ request. “See that you say nothing to anyone…” That’s what Jesus said.
Now Jesus also said to the cleansed leper “[G]o, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded…” No doubt the man did that bit. After all, if he wanted to get back into society, hang out with his old pre-leprosy friends, maybe get back into his former trade, he had to be ritually declared “clean”. The Law required it. But seriously, did he really have to open his trap and brag all about what Jesus did for him?
Because of his loose lips, the leper caused a definite, tangible impediment to Jesus’ ministry. “…Jesus could no longer openly enter a town…” Mark shares with us. In fact, Mark’s the only one who frames this event in the negative. Matthew doesn’t mention it at all, and Luke references the former leper’s talkativeness but doesn’t present it as a problem. Not so Mark. The leper’s disobedience stirs up trouble for Jesus.
We should see in this seemingly insignificant detail great importance. This is an impediment to people hearing Jesus’ preaching of Good News. Really! Jesus came to preach that the Kingdom of God was at hand, had arrived in Himself. Think back on the previous lessons we’ve heard from Mark. Jesus preaches “[R]epent and believe in the gospel.” Jesus rids a man of an unclean spirit, with the result that the people marvel at His word of authority. He’s a teacher with a message that’s not like the message of the scribes and pharisees. Jesus hangs out with the disciples, Peter, and Peter’s family – and heals Peter’s mother-in-law. And when everyone shows up so that the healing spree can continue? “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.”
Does Jesus desire to heal? Certainly. “If you will, you can make me clean.” says the leper. Jesus makes it very clear: “I will; be clean.” As in, yes I very much desire to make you clean. He does this because He has compassion on His creation. This is that funny sounding word, σπλαγχνίζομαι, translated “pity” in our text, which fully means a deep-in-the-gut sense of sympathy and empathy and complete caring. It’s the kind of caring for all that only God can have. And Jesus has it – here evidenced in the merciful healing Jesus gives to this leper.
But if we only declare the love of Christ in this temporal healing, like the leper did, we’re preaching an incomplete love. If we preach the message that “Jesus healed this guy or that guy, and He can heal you too,” then we’re seriously short-changing our Savior. We can preach medical-clinic-Jesus, but we’d all be no better off in the end. This healing is no big deal for Jesus – it comes naturally to Him. Healing and care and mercy are just part of who He is, done effortlessly. Back then, today too, many people would love Jesus if all He was about was taking away this disease or that ailment, curing this psychosis or that “daddy issue”. In fact, we’d probably all have a lot more cash in our pockets. Doctors need to get paid, but the Son of Man, He just does what comes naturally. Compassion always leads to healing with our Lord.
The ultimate point isn’t the healing. That’s why Mark includes this little (read: BIG) character-marring detail of the leper and his chattiness. There’s no malice on the part of this guy. He’s just thrilled to have been healed. But in his excitement he gets the message wrong; he preaches the wrong thing. We already know what Jesus’ message is: “Repent and believe in the gospel.” As time goes on, and Calvary draws closer, Jesus begins to flesh out that message with the clear prediction of his betrayal, crucifixion, death, and resurrection. That’s what the Son of God came to proclaim. And he bids us to proclaim the same thing, for example in Luke 24: “[R]epentance and forgiveness should be proclaimed in his name to all nations…”
What gets in the way here in this part of Mark is that Jesus wanted to keep on message. He wanted no distraction for all the people who would hear Him. So when the leper, in his zeal, heads off and tells everybody, they all show up with the wrong expectation. That’s our danger, too. The preaching of Jesus is not to be about things like these: “if you’re sad, Jesus will turn that frown upside down; trust in Jesus, and He’ll take away that cancer; if you want a child badly enough, Jesus will give one to you; don’t worry if you’re poor, Jesus will make you rich.”
All of these focus on things which perhaps God will do – God does bestow on His children very good 1st Article created gifts, after all. And I think we often proclaim these things because of the very real, tangible things that the Lord has done for us and those we know and love – healed, blessed, rewarded. We’re excited, we’re loved, and we want to tell all about it. But again, that’s not the message that our Jesus is about. It distracts from the main point: Christ Jesus came to save sinners from their sins. Don’t get me wrong, it’s OK to tell others about God’s care for them, even in such temporal matters. After all, the Scriptures do the same thing. But it’s always pointing to the great thing, the pinnacle of care and comfort that God has for us.
Here’s the comfort for us, for that healed man in the text. When he asks Jesus “if you will”, Jesus doesn’t mince words. There’s no requirement. “I will” is what He says. It’s all free, no up-front payment required. He does heal the man. And He continues to heal; Pastor McGuire delved into that last week. But that’s not a universal promise right now. His answer of “I will” that applies to each and every one of us, to the whole world, is when we come to Him and beg of Him, “Lord Jesus, please forgive my sin.” When you ask Him that, He cannot say anything but an unhesitating, loving, free-without-any-cost-whatsoever “I will”. As in, “I desire it, I want it, that’s precisely the thing which I want you to know about me.” That’s the message Jesus wants everyone to hear. Because that’s the only thing that matters in the end. Healed, our bodies still weaken again and we face death. Given money, we have to render it away to taxes and bills and all sorts of other financial demands. Given happiness, we’ll eventually face trials and suffering again. Given a child, you have the difficulty of raising them, watching them struggle, perhaps even seeing them die or fall away from the faith.
But Jesus’ gift of forgiveness is immoveable. It’s the rock upon which a wise man builds his house. Hear Jesus’ promising word again: “I will.” You and I don’t have leprosy, but we do have something far more serious. We are sinners, and with those words Jesus promises that He is our dearest and most loving friend. He took that leper’s uncleanness upon Himself that day long ago. And today He takes away your uncleanness as well. Perhaps not the sort that I, or your brothers and sisters in Christ here, or even you might see. But since God’s Word declares that you have the uncleanness of sin, you ought to believe it. And then all the more does Jesus’ wonderful gospel demand that you believe it. “I will”, Jesus says. “I will cleanse you, and heal you, and make you rich, and give you joy unto eternity, because I forgive you all your sins. Not as the world gives, but instead as only the very Son of God can.” Do you hear what a marvelous message our dear friend and Lord Jesus has for us? Let us then listen closely to Jesus, our preacher of forgiveness. His will is that we are forgiven and clean, and so therefore we are. Amen.
Thanks to the Rev. Norman Nagel and the Rev. David Petersen for insight on this text.