Epiphany 6 (B)
A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First & Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 12, 2006
Text: Mark 1:40-45
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In our readings this morning we have two stories told side by side. One comes from the Old Testament, in the time of the ancient kings of Israel. The other is found in the Gospel of Mark, written down hundreds of years later by a member of the newborn Church. When taken separately, each one tells of a marvelous work of God – in each, a sick man is freed of his disease. But placed together, as they are today, they speak of a greater truth – that Jesus Christ is greater than the mightiest prophets, the only sure cure for an ailing people. You could call today’s lesson “A Tale of Two Healings.”
You’ve just heard the story of how Elisha, God’s prophet, cured the Syrian warrior Naaman of his leprosy, a skin disease that plagued him and set him apart as unpleasant, if not flat out unclean. Let’s consider the differences between his story and that of his unnamed brother in Mark; they will help us to see Jesus more clearly.
First, notice the tremendous effort it takes for Naaman to even get an audience with the prophet. Slave girls, and kings, and caravans of silver fill his story. The lowliest member of his household, a capture Hebrew girl, sets Naaman on the right track with her kind words of wisdom – that the prophet in Israel might cure him. Naaman sets out immediately, bringing gifts of fantastic wealth, as well as a letter from his king to the king of Israel – old rivals, they – explaining what this deadly soldier required. Naaman pulled every string he could think of to get himself well. He spared no expense. 750 pounds of silver, and fifteen pounds of gold were nothing compared to his health!
Compare that with the anonymous leper in the Gospel. He has no power. He has no influential friends. There is no money in his pocket – much less great chests of it balanced on the backs of beasts! He comes to Jesus with nothing at all to offer him. Nothing, that is, except for hope. The leper has hope that this Jesus can do for him the kind of miracle he’s supposed to have done in other places. The sick man has hope that Jesus won’t send him away in anger because he can’t pay – hope that Jesus will be merciful. This poor man brings nothing to the table except his simple hope that Jesus is good and will make him well.
We can see here that access to Jesus doesn’t depend on wealth or status or connections, or any of the other things that our world prizes. But come to Jesus with a trusting heart, and will receive.
Now, consider for a moment the way the two healings take place. Naaman’s certainly isn’t to his liking – not the way he expected it at all! No doubt this important man had seen many priests and healers in his quest for relief, so he knew the routine: There should be an appraisal of his misfortune, where the healer looks him up and down. Then a hollered prayer or a murmured incantation; a magical waving of the hands would be next. But from Elisha he got none of this pomp and circumstance. The prophet would not even come out to meet him! Naaman’s cure came by messenger, by long distance, without the slightest bit of personal contact.
But that is not how Jesus chooses to heal in Mark. Without any hesitation, he reaches out his hand and touches the leper’s skin. Touched the man! That was a dangerous choice – not only did Jesus risk contracting the awful disease in his own body, but he had deliberately made himself unclean according to the law of the Jews. Lepers were sent away from the populated places to live in graveyards and caves, constantly calling out, “Unclean! Unclean!” so that proper Jews would not accidentally touch one and thereby defile themselves. Jesus chooses to heal this leper with a touch – skin to skin – no matter what propriety or common sense say.
And in his action, we can see how little Jesus cares about the world’s taboos. There is no one so unclean that Jesus will not reach out his hands, offering health in the kindness of his touch.
Let us consider one more difference to be found in these two stories: the healer’s motives. In Elisha’s case, his message to the king of Israel says it all: Naaman will be healed so that “he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” The soldier of Syria, who had in all likelihood fought in armed combat against Elisha’s people, was to learn humility from an Israelite prophet. The worshiper of the pagan God Rimmon was to be taught that Israel’s God was the one and only true God. Politics and religion intermingle hopelessly in the prophet’s motives. Naaman the Syrian would be healed, yes – but his healing was intended to teach him a lesson about Israel and its God.
That may all be well and good, but Naaman’s unnamed brother receives health from Jesus for quite another reason. His cleansing is not a teaching moment for Jesus; our Lord doesn’t desire to show him a thing. Instead, scripture tells us that Jesus was moved with pity. He felt it deep down in his guts, the Greek word suggests – the kind of compassion for a suffering person that you and I would call heart-wrenching. Jesus’ only motive in healing that man was a deep, heartfelt desire for him to be well again.
We catch a glimpse here of the infinite goodness of our Lord. He does not offer us good things with catches, with ulterior motives, with dozens of strings attached. He doesn’t engage in tit for tat, doing good so that others might be in his debt. When Jesus acts, he does so because of the love of God that is in his heart for every bit of God’s creation.
Friends, you are sick just as surely as Naaman and the man from Mark were. You sins hang from you like a leper’s stricken skin. No matter how you scrape and pull, no matter how much you manage to peel away of your outer husk, the disease of sin remains in you, corrupting each new patch of skin as soon as it is exposed. There is no more a cure for you than there was for those two men from our readings – your disease is lifelong. And worst of all, Elisha the prophet of God is long dead and in his grave. You are sick, and there is no longer any prophet at all in Israel for you to seek!
But this Jesus who healed the leper is your Jesus. He is not dead – he lives! He is the cure for the sin that eats away at your soul.
You do not need power or riches or anything else to come to Jesus. Just the faith that he can cure you of your sin will do.
And you need not ever fear that you are too dirty, too awful to approach your Lord. Whatever symptoms your sin-disease shows to the world, Jesus will still reach out to you and touch you with his healing hand.
Most of all, this Jesus – your Jesus – does all this for you out of his deep, unimaginable love for you. He does not place conditions on you before he forgives the plague of your sin into nonexistence. He does not make demands, or teach lessons, or lord it over you. This Jesus – your Jesus – cures your soul free of charge, because of nothing but his gracious free choice to do it for you.
In the end, this story isn’t a tale of two healings at all – it is the story of your healing as well. Jesus Christ has made you well, brothers and sisters. Live today full of thankfulness, in the joy of that knowledge! Amen.