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Sermon on Choice, Touch and Community

Sermon preached by The Rev Dr Sam Cappleman on third Sunday before lent Year B 2012

In the OT reading today, we read of a story of an outcast, Naaman, being healed through making a choice, after some reluctance, to do what Elisha’s messenger has told him to do.

At first cross and indignant that Elisha had not even come out to greet him, Naaman is persuaded by his servants to wash himself in the Jordan where he is healed.

Perhaps the rivers of Damascus (Abana and Pharphar) were bigger and better then the Jordan but perhaps this is not the point.  They had never been parted to let people through into the Promised Land. 

The Jordan was, if nothing else, a symbol of new life, a new life that was now being offered to Naaman by the simple act of washing in it, symbolically passing through it into a new life as others had done before him.

He could have chosen not to act, not to take the advice from his servants, and remained secure in his own environment, but still with leprosy.

In our NT reading from Mark, the leper too had a choice to make.  Exiled from the community he had to decide to approach Jesus to ask Him to heal him

By this stage of Mark’s short gospel we have already begun to understand the focus of Mark’s writing and that is to present Jesus as the Messiah

Already Jesus has driven out evil spirits, healed Simon’s mother-in-law and healed many others.  We know that he was travelling throughout Galilee and was preaching in synagogues and ‘driving out demons’

So what’s so special about this particular incident that Mark gives it special mention?  If this story had occurred in John I think it would have been called a sign, because this episode is a signpost to the events that are to follow.

As we’ve seen, it begins with choice, similar to the one that Naaman had to make.  The leper chooses to come to Jesus, pushing through the crowds, who would probably be drawing away from him he kneels before Jesus with his plea.  He also had to choose to believe in Jesus as someone who could offer him new life and a fresh start.

‘If you are willing, you can make me clean’.  At this stage, Jesus could have ‘done an Elisha’ on him.  He could have chosen to instruct His disciples to speak to the man with some instructions and moved on.  Alternatively He could have chosen to speak directly to the man words of healing and given Him instructions about showing himself to the priests and giving sacrifices.

But He did not; He chose firstly to touch Him.  The old way of doing things was transformed into the new.

You can imagine the intake of breath of the crowds around Jesus.  What do they now do?  Do they shun Jesus because in some way now He too has become unclean?  Imagine the shock and surprise of the man with leprosy as Jesus reaches down to the kneeling figure before Him and touches him.

In an act of total unselfishness, Jesus chooses to touch the man and confirms that He is willing to heal the man and pronounces him clean.

And in so doing Jesus is unequivocally identifying Himself not with the great religious or political leaders of the time, but with the outcast and the downtrodden.  Those who society had rejected.

Mark is making a very clear statement about who the Messiah is, not a great political leader or religious guru, someone who will overpower the Roman authorities or the Jewish ruling classes.

The message that the Messiah brings is for all, including those who society can’t even be bothered with.

One way of interpreting the leper’s question is, ‘Jesus, can you be bothered with me, no one else is?
To which Jesus answers in the affirmative.  ‘I can be more than bothered with you.  I want to be identified with you in a way which demonstrates my true commitment to you and everyone like you’.

It was a sign of what was to come and a sign of the Messiah’s mission on earth. 

Jesus then instructs the man to go to the Priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for cleansing, as a testimony to them.  (Lev 13 v 49 ff, 14 v 2 – 22)

It’s only by presenting himself to the priest and having the priest pronounce him clean that the healed leper will be able to enter back into the community, no longer be an outcast.  He becomes a living bridge between the old and the new.

The healing of the leper may have been a specific event for him, but it would have implications for the rest of his life as he enters back into normal life, but life as it’s never been before

But as the healed leper begins to enter back into community this story marks the beginning of the road that Jesus would travel to the cross, another part of the sign that Mark gives us.

For as the man begins to be included in the community, Jesus Himself begins to be excluded.  We are told the healed leper spoke of his life changing experience and as a result Jesus could no longer enter a town openly.  He became increasingly excluded from the community in which He lived, an exclusion which would ultimately become final and complete when He was crucified and died on the cross. 

In this simple episode, Mark begins to point to the ultimate mission of the Messiah Jesus, to die for the people He came to include, to heal and to save.

We don’t know why Jesus commanded the man not to say anything.  There have been lots of theories over the years around the theme called the Messianic Secret, put forward by William Wrede around 1900.

Perhaps it’s because Mark wanted to be clear that the miracles Jesus was performing were a sign of God’s New Kingdom breaking through into our world.  They were not the primary purpose of the Kingdom or the coming of the Messiah.  Almost a plea to not take miracles out of the wider context as some would argue the Jews had done to the law.  (Mark writes for a Jewish audience)

Just like the Jordan, they were a sign and symbol of the new life that comes through belief in the Messiah

The story of the healing of the leper is profound. 

It speaks about choices that have to be made
It speaks of the life changing touch of the Messiah in offering new beginnings and to change lives
It speaks of the identification of the Messiah who can be bothered with everyone, even the dirty and the outcast
It speaks of Jesus’ desire to be inclusive in His Kingdom community
It speaks about the ultimate mission of Christ as He starts His journey to the cross

And it also challenges us.  We too have choices to make, day by day. 

We can choose whether we come to Christ and kneel before him with all our needs and desires or stay as we are in our own cocoons

We can choose to reach out and touch our society, to identify with the lost, lonely, dirty and outcast, to be truly inclusive, with all the implications that might have for our lives

We can choose to join Jesus on His journey to the cross, as we take up our own crosses and follow Him

Life is full of choices, perhaps God’s challenging us in some of ours, reaching out to touch us so that our lives and the life of the community can continually be transformed as His kingdom breaks through more and more.