TITLE: Be Made Clean SCRIPTURE: Mark 1:40-45
"A leper came to (Jesus) begging him, and kneeling he said to (Jesus),'If you choose, you can make me clean.'"
How did this leper know about Jesus, who was just beginning his ministry? We don't know for sure, but we can guess. Jesus began his ministry at Capernaum by driving out an unclean spirit and by healing Simon's mother-in-law and a number of other people. As nearly as we can tell, all that happened in the space of a single day -- a big day -- a Sabbath day -- Inauguration Day for Jesus.
The leper said, "If you choose, you can make me clean." He wasn't asking Jesus to make him clean physically. He wasn't asking for a bath. He was talking about spiritual cleanliness. He no doubt wanted Jesus to cure him of his leprosy, but he wanted more, too -- much more. He wanted Jesus to restore him to a normal relationship to his family and his community. He wanted Jesus to cleanse him physically and spiritually so that he would no longer have to live alone -- out in the countryside -- separated from friends and family. He wanted Jesus to cleanse him so that he would not have to shout "Unclean, unclean!" whenever someone came near.
When I read this story, I was reminded of the phrase, "Cleanliness is next to Godliness." You would think that had come from the Bible, wouldn't you -- most people do -- but it doesn't. We can trace it back to John Wesley -- and, maybe even to Francis Bacon.
But I believe that "Cleanliness is next to Godliness" was really invented centuries ago by a mother whose name has been lost to us. As she scrubbed her son's ears, she said, "Cleanliness is next to Godliness" -- hardly appreciating that her son cared nothing about cleanliness OR Godliness. The phrase has remained with us all these years, because mothers find it useful.
But Jewish people really believed that "Cleanliness is next to Godliness." And so this leper, who had been required to shout "Unclean, unclean!" whenever anyone came near, came to Jesus on his knees -- begging to be made clean. He wanted Jesus to make him holy once again, so he could live in communion with God. He wanted Jesus to take away his sin, so he could live in communion with other people. He wanted to be able to live with his wife again. He wanted to be able to hug his children again. He wanted to be able to sit around after work and lift a glass with the guys again. And so he came to Jesus, begging to be made clean once again.
That isn't so unusual, you know. It isn't unusual for people to feel unclean -- unworthy. Let me tell you a story.
You might remember a photograph that came out of the Vietnam War. It was a picture of a nine-year-old girl, naked, running toward the camera. There were other children in the picture, including her older brother, but it was the little girl that we remember. She was screaming. She had torn off her clothing, which had been on fire. We couldn't see her burns, which were on her back, but it was clear that something terrible had happened.
It was one of those photos that stop you in your tracks. You don't want to look at it, because it conveys something that you don't want to see -- but it sears its image on your mind and you can't escape seeing it. You see it even with your eyes shut.
That napalm was dropped by a South Vietnamese plane flown by a South Vietnamese pilot. He had been cleared to drop the napalm by an American, John Plummer, who had been assured and double-assured that there were no civilians in the area.
The little girl was burned so severely that it seemed unlikely that she would survive. She spent more than a year in a Saigon hospital and endured seventeen surgeries. Her body was forever scarred, but she was finally able to return home.
John Plummer finished his tour and he went home too -- but his soul was scarred. He had seen the picture and he knew that he had authorized the napalm drop. He knew that he hadn't really done anything wrong -- someone had given him bad information -- but that didn't help. The picture seemed like it was everywhere, and Plummer experienced a painful stab of guilt every time he saw it.
The little girl's name was Phan Thi Kim Phuc (fan tee kim fook). Ten years after she was injured, she became a Christian. Later, she was granted permission to study in Cuba, where she met her husband. After their wedding, they went on a honeymoon. When their honeymoon flight stopped to refuel in Gander, Newfoundland, they got off the plane and requested political asylum. They have lived ever since in Canada.
John Plummer, the man who authorized the drop, became a Christian in 1990 -- eight years after Kim Phuc became a Christian. Plummer felt a call to ministry, went to seminary, and became a Methodist pastor in Virginia. When I read that, I wondered if he had decided to go into the ministry, in part, to cleanse his soul.
In 1996, Plummer learned that Kim was scheduled to speak at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Veterans Day, so he decided to attend. At that ceremony, he heard her say that she hoped someday to meet the pilot of the plane that dropped the napalm. She wanted to offer him her forgiveness.
Can you imagine how John Plummer felt when he heard those words! I would imagine that there was something inside him crying, "If you choose, you can make me clean!"
Plummer got word to her that he was in the audience. He later wrote an article for a newspaper where he related what happened next. "She saw my grief, my pain, my sorrow," he said. "She held out her arms and embraced me. All I could say was, 'I'm sorry; I'm so sorry, I'm sorry' -- over and over again. At the same time she was saying, "It's all right; it's all right; I forgive; I forgive."
Or, in the words of our scripture lesson today, he was saying, "If you choose, you can make me clean" -- and she was saying, "I do choose. Be made clean!"
"If you choose, you can make me clean." That raises two questions. The first is "Who is it that you can make clean?" Who is it who needs your blessing? Who is it who needs to hear a kind word from you? Who is it who needs your forgiveness and your love?
Think about that for a minute, because the answer might change that person's life. It might remove a burden from that person's shoulders -- a burden that has stifled that person's growth -- and joy. It might bring that person back from the brink of despair. Who needs your blessing? Who needs a kind word from you? Who needs your love?
It might be your husband or your wife. It might be your prodigal son -- or your prodigal daughter. It might be someone who works for you or someone you work with. It might be someone here in this church. Whoever it is, if you choose, you can make that person clean -- and you very well might be the only person who can do that.
And so I call you today in God's name to say, "I do choose. Be made clean." I call you in God's name to speak your word of blessing -- your word of forgiveness -- your word of love. I call you to right the wrong that exists between you. I call you in God's name to make the brokenness whole.
I'm not suggesting that you endorse bad behavior. Don't tell the alcoholic that it's OK to drink. Don't tell the gambler that it's OK to gamble. In some cases, you need to practice tough love. But, where possible, speak a word of blessing -- a word of forgiveness -- a word of love.
So the first question was "Who do you have it in your power to make clean?" That is an important question.
The second question is equally important. "What would make you clean?" For what do you need to be forgiven? What guilt is weighing you down? What shame is draining the joy from your days? What fault is causing you to limp through life?
Ask God to forgive you. If you ask God to forgive you, he will. God will make you clean.
Then ask God for guidance in approaching the person whom you have wronged. Then go to that person in a repentant spirit and ask forgiveness.
Then leave it in God's hands -- and in that person's hands. The forgiveness might not come immediately, but you can be sure that God will honor your attempt to set things right. You can be sure that God will say, "I do choose. Be made clean." And then you will be clean indeed.
Spiritual cleanliness means both offering forgiveness (making others clean) and seeking forgiveness (asking others to make us clean).
He Touched Me UMH #367
I Love to Tell the Story UMH #156
Just as I Am, Without One Plea UMH #357
HYMN STORY: Just As I Am
Are you ever frustrated that you can't do more for Jesus? That you don't have anything special to offer?
Charlotte Elliott, the author of the hymn, "Just As I Am," certainly felt that way. She had been a brilliant and vivacious woman until an illness left her an invalid. Her situation left her quite depressed. She felt that she no longer had anything to offer -- nothing to give.
But a pastor, Dr. Caesar Malan, came to visit her. Noting her despair, he encouraged her to give Christ her life -- to come to Christ just as she was. That comment started a turnaround for her. While she remained an invalid, she began to search for ways to make her life meaningful.
And Dr. Malan's words stayed with her -- "Come to Christ just as you are." Several years later, she wrote this hymn, which has become a favorite around the world. While she wrote more than a hundred hymns, this one in particular has affected more lives than she ever could have imagined.
So if you ever wonder what you can do to make your life meaningful, just put it in Christ's hands and go where he leads. Christ has a way of using ordinary people to do extraordinary things.