Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
St. John’s – Moultrie, GA
January 30, 2011
John, you aren’t going to believe what I just heard. There is a rumor going all around Galilee that this miraculous healer is traveling about, and he might just be coming to town. I’m not really sure what to think about this man because the rumors are flying. Supposedly he cast a demon out of this one fellow, and before he did, the demon called him the Holy One of God. Very strange to say the least.
I also heard that he went to the house of a couple of his followers, and one of the fellow’s mother-in-law was in bed with a terrible fever. He simply lifted her up by the hand and the fever left her and she began to go about doing her normal chores as if nothing was wrong. After that, everyone in town who had a disease, and those who suffered from demons came to him and they were all healed. Do you think that he might help you?
I could only imagine what was going through John’s mind upon hearing this news. For as long as he could remember, he had lived as an outcast. He was forced to wear torn clothing, had to shave his hair, live alone outside the camp, and constantly walked around shouting the same words over and over and over, “Unclean, Unclean.” I can’t comprehend the mental trauma associated with having to call out to each and every person you come in contact with to stay away from me lest you come too close. It wasn’t just a skin disease because you completely embodied the disease. Not only was the skin unclean, I’m sure that psychologically John felt that every fiber of his being was unclean. In a literal sense, John was a dead man walking. The most dreaded of these diseases caused the body to decay and die while the person was still living – if you consider that person’s existence living. Yet, John’s friend has just given him the first glimmer of hope he has ever experienced in his life.
Could things be about to change? Is it possible that this faith healer, this miracle worker might actually come close enough to my town to where I might actually get a chance to see him? But how is that going to be possible – I can’t get too close because he’s clean, and I’m not. Are there going to be crowds following him? I can’t worry about those things, all I can do is believe that this is my chance – this is only way that I might be rid of this dreadful disease.
And so, just as he heard, John sees a crowd coming into town. Tons of people he’d never seen in his life, and this one unassuming figure in the middle. It had to be him. This has to be the man that I heard was coming to town.
Should I run up to him? I certainly don’t want to accidentally defile someone as I try to get his attention. What should I do? What is he going to say? Can I really do this?
I have no idea if any or all of these thoughts ran through the mind of John. No, we don’t actually know the leper’s name, nor are we privy to any of the thoughts running through his mind as he prepared to meet up with this person he had heard about, and saw coming toward him. All we know are the brief words that are before us this morning. This story appears in almost the exact same form in both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, and in all three instances, this miracle occurs at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
There are two points that I want to leave you with this morning concerning the Gospel, and its implications for us in our lives as Christians.
First, it might seem odd for me to say that we are just like the leper. How so? It’s not like anyone here is forced to shave their heads, walk around with torn clothing, having to shout “unclean, unclean” wherever we go. How can we be just like the leper? Because at a much deeper level we share his same condition. His disease affected every part of his body. He was literally dying from the inside out. Because of the disease of sin, we too are dying from the inside out except ours isn’t a skin disease, it’s a soul disease. It permeates every fiber of our being and we are in no way capable of ridding ourselves of it. We are powerless in and of ourselves to help change our condition. That is why in the services of Morning and Evening Prayer, the General Confession states that “there is no health in us.” It is most unfortunate that that line was dropped from the ’79 Book because it clearly and honestly summarizes the human condition. What we inherited from Adam is something we will take to the grave. On this side of life we will constantly be waging war against the forces of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
We must emulate and follow the leper’s wise example. We must acknowledge that we are sick, diseased persons in the greatest need of a physician. We must confess that there truly is no health in us, and that sin robs us of life the way it was intended to be lived. When Adam and Eve sinned they were no longer able to live in union and harmony with God because they were now unclean, and forced to live as an outsider. They were forced to live beyond the walls of Eden, forced to wear clothes for the first time, and not literally, but figuratively forced to cry out “unclean, unclean” because their cleanliness was removed from them forever.
This brings me to my second and final point about this lesson. What Jesus did was so remarkable – not because of the healing (which was quite remarkable), but rather his gesture and words to the leper. First, when the leper assumed a posture of humility and knelt down and asked to be healed, Jesus did the unthinkable – he reached out his hand and touched him. There’s no way to know from the story how long the man had leprosy, but we can probably infer that it had been a very long time since he had been touched by ANYONE! He had lived in isolation ever since he was declared to be unclean, and was a prisoner of his own body. With one move, Jesus changed all of that. He reached out and touched him.
What this ultimately means for him, and for us as well, is that Jesus was willing to trade his cleanness for this man’s uncleanness. He was willing to trade places with this man so that he might go free. Jesus at the outset of his ministry is embodying the full substitutionary atonement – that he would give up his life so that we might ultimately live. He made it possible for us to return to the community and experience life lived to its fullest. He made it possible for the man to experience worship again. He made it possible for the man to know what it was like to be touched by another human being again. Jesus did it for this leper and he does it for us as well.
St. Athanasius in his treatise On The Incarnation makes a most profound statement that at first glance almost sounds heretical until you contemplate what he’s getting at, and what he’s ultimately saying. Regarding Jesus and his life Athanasius said that “God became Man so that man might become God.” St. Irenaeus said in his writings Against Heresies makes a similar point when he writes, “the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through his transcendent love, became what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.” Neither of these Church Fathers claims that we are assuming divine essence, but rather, through the work of Jesus Christ on the cross we begin truly to live out what it means to be “created in the image and likeness of God.”
Jesus was bearing everything that haunted this leper onto himself in order that he might live the rest of his life free from this dreadful disease. Jesus has born everything onto himself on the hard wood of the cross in order that we might live our lives free curse of the law, and might begin to live our lives as the created beings he intended from the very beginning.
As we draw close to Lent, may we contemplate the story of this leper, who drew near with faith, and asked the Great Physician to heal and cleanse him of his dreadful disease. May we also draw near to the Great Physician and ask him to heal and cleanse us from the dreadful diseases which haunt and curse us as well. For if we cry out to Him with a humble voice, and a contrite heart, we will hear him say to us in reply, “I am willing; be clean!”