Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sermon for February 12th: Mark 1:40-45

Does God Care?

I want to start my sermon this morning by telling you a story I heard a few years ago, from a girl called Jocelyn. Here’s how she tells it:
I was born with a disability - I was born with a fatty tumor on my spinal cord. I use a wheelchair full-time, and though I walked a little as a child, I had complications from my disability that caused scar tissue to damage my spinal cord (called “tethering”), which caused repeated problems for me as I grew up.

About three years ago, I had taken some time off of school, done a mission trip to Ireland and eastern Europe, worked for a while, and then gone back to school. I had only been back for about a year, when very suddenly I started to have pain in my legs. I’d never had pain before, and this was really bad. It deteriorated really quickly, and within six months I was completely incapacitated. I was twenty-four. It turned out in the end that all the surgery I had had as a kid to correct the tethering had damaged the tissue around my spinal cord and caused a crazy condition called arachnoiditis. I was told it wasn’t treatable, they couldn’t do anything about it and that I would have to live with it. I was devastated and lost hope.

I had countless tests and procedures, and was on every kind of medication imaginable (it actually felt like I had cancer - the drugs made me sick so I couldn’t eat at all. I lost weight, my hair started falling out, my memory deteriorated). My church was so great to me: people drove me to my appointments, they fed me, stayed with me, encouraged me. Spiritually it was impossible for me to reconcile with my faith. The suffering of the situation was not as much in the pain itself, but the feeling that God had abandoned me to it - that either he had caused it, or allowed it and then left me to it alone. The Bible seemed to be full of pretty verses and promises that were so completely divorced from my reality that I felt excluded. I begged God to let me die a few times, and there were times I was afraid I would go a little crazy and attempt suicide, but thankfully I had the watchful eyes of my entire church community and my campus ministry on me, and that never had to happen.

I’m sure we can all understand how, in the situation Jocelyn found herself in, the idea of God’s love didn’t seem to make much sense to her. She was faced with the reality of daily pain – awful, debilitating pain, day in and day out – and nothing in her Christian formation to that point had helped her to deal with it and still cling to her faith in God.

If you can imagine for just a moment what it might feel like to be Jocelyn – and I suspect that a few of you can relate very directly to what she was going through - then you can imagine the world of the leper we read about in our Gospel for today. He would really like to believe that God loves him, but he’s having a tough time reconciling that idea with the cold hard reality of life as he lives it. And so he comes to Jesus in a very hesitant manner, and he says in verse 40, “If you choose, you can make me clean”. “If you choose”; what on earth would give him the idea that Jesus would not choose to make him clean?

Well, to understand the answer to this question, let’s first of all think about the suffering this man was going through. Nowadays when we use the word ‘leprosy’ we mean Hansen’s Disease, a disease that attacks the nervous system in such a way that the sufferer loses feeling in the extremities of the body. Think how important that feeling is. If you’re lighting a fire and you accidentally burn your finger, how do you know what’s happened if you can’t feel pain? If you’re asleep in a village in India and a rat sneaks into your hut and starts chewing on your toe, how do you know what’s happening if you can’t feel pain? In genuine Hansen’s Disease, this is what causes the sufferers to lose fingers and toes and to experience increasing disfigurement. It’s not that the disease itself rots the skin; it’s that the disease dulls the pain sensors and allows other things to attack without the sufferer knowing about it.

True Hansen’s Disease is not contagious; however, in the time of Jesus the word ‘leprosy’ wasn’t used only for this disease, but for many other skin conditions as well, some of them highly contagious. There is a great fear of these skin diseases in the Bible, and in the Old Testament book of Leviticus God’s people are given specific instructions about how to deal with them. A person who is believed to be developing one of these diseases is to be taken to the priest, who will act as a sort of medical examiner, inspecting the infection and doing some tests to discover the true nature of what is happening. If the priest decides that yes, this is indeed what the Good News Bible calls ‘a dreaded skin disease’, then drastic measures need to be taken to protect the rest of the community. Listen to Leviticus 13:45-46:
‘The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be dishevelled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean’. He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp’.

So there were enormous consequences when you had one of these dreaded skin diseases. Of course, the disease itself was bad enough, whether it was true leprosy as we understand it, or some other disfiguring and painful disease. But the physical suffering was only the beginning for these people. They were cut off from their communities and their families; they were unable to do their work; they had to live alone – or, increasingly, in colonies where they grouped together and tried to help each other. Everyone who saw them would be afraid of them and would try to keep as far away from them as possible. For some of them, it would have been decades since they had felt the touch of another human being.

But this was not the end of it yet. There was also in biblical times a strong theology of suffering being a punishment sent by God. If you obeyed God’s laws, then God would of course reward you by sending you health, prosperity, and general good fortune. On the other hand, if you were disobedient, God would respond by punishing you with illness, poverty and general bad luck. Of course, this idea has not completely died out in our own day. Often when people experience some awful tragedy, their instinctive cry to the heavens is, “What have I done to deserve this?” Note the worldview expressed by that question: God sends good or bad events as rewards or punishments for good or bad behaviour.

Notice the language that is used for the healing of the leper in this passage. In most cases where Jesus heals someone, the words used are ‘healed’ or ‘cured’ or ‘made whole’. But in most cases where he is healing a leper, the word used is ‘cleansed’ or ‘made clean’. This is not just because the disfigurement of the disease was seen as a sort of dirt that needed to be washed away; it’s also because in biblical times this disease was seen as making you ritually unclean. Ritual uncleanness had nothing at all to do with germs; what it meant was that the person was disqualified, for one reason or another, from entering the presence of God.

So – here we have a man who is suffering from a disease that has isolated him from all of human society, perhaps for decades. His culture has also told him that the reason he is suffering from this disease is because he’s a particularly vile form of sinner, and God is punishing him for his sin by sending this disease. You can understand, then, why he feels a little hesitant about approaching Jesus and asking for help. After all, whatever he thinks about Jesus, he must see him in some sense as God’s representative. But if Jesus represents the God who is punishing him by sending him this disease – well, Jesus might not be too eager to heal him after all.

Now, notice the three things that Jesus does in verse 41 in response to the man’s hesitation. First, we read that Jesus was ‘moved with pity’. Well, at least, that’s what the New Revised Standard Version says. But in fact there is a significant manuscript difference here. I should explain that we have literally thousands of manuscripts of the books of the New Testament, and the vast majority of them agree on the vast majority of the text. Every now and again, though, you’ll come across a difference, and translators have to figure out which variant they think represents what the document originally said. And in the case of this verse, a significant minority of early manuscripts say that Jesus was moved by anger or indignation, not pity or compassion. And so the NIV 2011 translates this passage: ‘Jesus was indignant’.

I happen to think that this is probably what Mark originally wrote, and I’ll tell you why. I can well understand how some second century copyist might have been reading Mark’s Gospel, come to this passage, and thought, “That can’t be right! Jesus, moved by anger or indignation? Surely not!” And so he might have decided to put in the words ‘pity’ or ‘compassion’ instead. But if the original was ‘pity’ or ‘compassion’, why change it to ‘anger’? It makes no sense.

So if the NIV 2011 is correct, what is it that Jesus was indignant about? I’ll tell you: it was the theology that had told this man he was unloved by God and unworthy of entering into God’s presence. Jesus was angry that human beings had developed a religious system that prevented this man from coming to God for help. He was indignant that a man made in the image of God had been led to believe that the best thing for him to do would be to stay out of God’s way, because if he dared to draw close to God, all he could expect would be punishment and damnation, not healing and blessing. That’s what made Jesus indignant.

So – Jesus was indignant. The next thing we read is that Jesus ‘stretched out his hand and touched him’. Remember – this man had not been touched by another human being since he was diagnosed with his skin disease. Rather, he was used to seeing people shrink back from him in fear. Mark emphasises the action of Jesus in touching the man here; he doesn’t just say, ‘Jesus touched him’, but ‘Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him’. We can imagine the astonishment of the man as he watches Jesus stretching out his hand toward him. ‘No – it can’t be true – is he actually going to touch me – Oh my God – I can’t believe it!’ Imagine the comfort, and the healing power, in that touch of Jesus!

Thirdly, Jesus speaks a word of command, just as God spoke his word of power when the world was created. ‘“I do choose; be made clean”. Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean’. Not just healed, remember, but restored to relationship with God, with the community of faith, and with his family and friends.

So, what might this story be saying to us today? Two things.

First, perhaps you’re like my friend Jocelyn when she was going through the awful pain and found it impossible to reconcile with the idea of a God who loved her.

Listen carefully to this. Suffering is a mystery, somehow bound up with the invasion of God’s good creation by evil. But Jesus is indignant at any religious system that tells you that the suffering you’re going through is punishment sent by God. And he’s indignant when a religious system has the effect of keeping people away from God, and preventing them from coming to God to ask for help. The God we see in the face of Jesus Christ is a God who always works to alleviate human suffering; he doesn’t send it as a punishment. It may be true that since the time of Jesus our prayers for the alleviation of human suffering have not always been answered in the way we would have liked; this again is part of the mystery. But it should not cause us to doubt the basic desire of God to deliver us from evil, not to inflict it on us.

The second message of this story is to you and I as a Christian community. It’s our job to do what Jesus did in this passage: to stretch out our hands and touch people with the love of God – especially people who’ve been told they’re particularly vile examples of human sinfulness, or people who have been consigned to the margins of our society. I remember a family in Aklavik in the Northwest Territories who were almost all horrendous alcoholics; violence and petty crime were a regular feature of their lives, and the adult sons in the family were in and out of jail all the time. One day the corporal in charge of the RCMP detachment said to me, “I think you and Marci are the only people in Aklavik who haven’t given up on that family”. That was one of the biggest compliments I ever received.

So, to sum up, there are many things about human suffering that are too big for us to understand; I certainly don’t have all the answers about it. But there are a couple of things that we can be sure of.

First, the God we see in the face of Jesus is a God who loves us, who comes alongside us and shares our suffering, and who is working in his good time to deliver us from it, not to inflict more of it on us. In a broken and imperfect world, that final deliverance may not come to us until we see God face to face, but never doubt for a moment that it is God’s desire for us all.

Second, as God loves us and reaches out to us in our suffering, so we are to reach out to other human beings whose suffering has isolated them from God and from others. Philip Yancey wrote a book many of you have read, ‘Where is God When it Hurts?’ At one point in the book he said that he realised what that question often meant: ‘Where is the church when it hurts?’ One of the striking things about Jocelyn’s story, which I told at the beginning of this sermon, was the practical love shown to her by her church family when she needed it the most. Let’s pray that God will give us the compassion to love others in this way, so that they will never have to feel that they are suffering alone, but will always be aware that they are loved by God and by the people of God.

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