2/12/2012 sermon: God is very near us

Location: St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Burke, VA
Text: 2 Kings 5:1-14 and Mark 1:40-45
6Epiphany, Year B

God is very near us

When The Rev. Gary Goldacker told me that I would be preaching today, the first day of a four-month full-time internship I will be serving at St. Andrew’s, I was delighted. What could be a better way to begin anew where I spent last summer as your seminarian? So I rushed to the lectionary and read the Old Testament lesson, only to discover that the story is about a leper. … When I read the gospel lesson I discovered another leper!

I wrestled with these two lepers for awhile. And after they wrestled me into a listening mode, this is what they shared with me: God is very near us.

I came to this conclusion after seeing the preview for a new Disney movie due out soon called “Pirates! Band of Misfits.” The pirate captain in this movie is trying to win the much-coveted Pirate-of-the-Year Award. At one point the captain and his rag-tag crew board another ship to do what pirates do, only to discover that they were on a ship full of lepers—a floating leper colony. When one of the lepers raised his arm to explain this to the captain, the leper’s arm fell off. And at that point every single person in the very crowded movie theater laughed, including me.

The scene wasn’t funny, really. I laughed because there was a certain horror involved, realizing that the thing we take for granted, our body, can turn against us. Something vital, something big, can fall off. Our body can become damaged, or diseased, or merely get old, and then look or act in ways that we don’t recognize, act in ways that are not under our control any more.

There can be a certain fundamental feeling of betrayal that life should be this way. We have the gift of life, but seemingly only for a little while. We have the gift of health, most of us, but seemingly only for awhile. That life should seem to be this way can make us challenge God, in much the same way that the nameless leper challenged Jesus:

A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity—a pity tinged with anger—Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

Like the leper, we know that if God chooses, God can make us all clean. When we ask for God to heal us, God’s answer always is a surprising one. Whether or not we are healed physically in the way we desire, God’s answer is solidarity with us in our suffering. Sometimes healing miracles DO occur, for awhile, but even then they are about more than physical healing. Healing miracles remind us that God is very near us, at one with us.

Having two lepers to deal with today is no coincidence, by the way. Those who created our lectionary put these two stories together for a reason. The author of Mark’s gospel clearly knew about Naaman’s healing, and yet his telling of Jesus healing a leper is no lay-down match with the earlier story. There are three big differences,[i] but today I am only going to talk about one: the difference in physical presence—proximity—between the leper and the healer.

In our Old Testament lesson the prophet Elisha didn’t even meet Naaman in order to heal him. Elisha was inside his own house, and he sent a messenger to Naaman, who was standing outside his front door. This is very strange behavior.

[As an aside, do you remember what Elisha told Naaman to do? He had to wash in the Jordan River seven times. In Judaism seven is the number of “completion,” so Naaman had to wash until he was thoroughly cleansed. In Christianity washing in the Jordan River signifies baptism. Who here hasn’t washed in the Jordan seven times?] Now I’m not suggesting that Naaman wasn’t actually, physically healed. Naaman was in the water and he was cured of his disease. However, Elisha wasn’t anywhere near the river.

On the other hand, in our gospel lesson Jesus is physically present to the leper. In the New Testament there is NO standing at the door and knocking without being let in. The leper came to Jesus and knelt at his feet, and Jesus physically touched him, physically healed him. In fact, Jesus did more than heal the man of his leprosy. The man had asked Jesus to be clean, and Jesus cleansed the man through and through. [Who here hasn’t let Jesus wash you through and through?]

In both incidents a leper is healed of his disease, Naaman from afar and the anonymous leper from up-close-and-personal. Now there are many who would tell you at this point that the reason Elisha didn’t meet the leper was that he was scared of getting leprosy. I don’t see it that way. If Elisha could channel God’s healing power to Naaman, he wouldn’t have been worried about the disease. So I don’t believe Elisha was afraid of leprosy. NO. The point that Elisha was making is that God doesn’t have to be physically present with us to act on our behalf. God is always very near us! Elisha, the prophet, was just the conduit of God’s healing power, not the source of it. Yet Naaman’s healing is a powerful reminder that God is very near us, even if we cannot perceive God standing right here with us and that he is always healing us in ways that we don’t even expect or think to ask.

Mark knew that Jesus was more than a mere prophet. The whole thesis of his gospel, his whole premise, is that Jesus is the Son of God.[ii] Mark makes it very, very clear that he didn’t think that Jesus was a mere prophet. He knew that Jesus was God incarnate, God made flesh, God come to be one with us.

Therefore, Mark was saying something profound in HIS telling of a leper-being-healed story. In our gospel lesson today the claim is that in Christ Jesus, God is physically present with us. And not only is he physically present, he desires our healing.

A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity—a pity tinged with anger—Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

Moved with pity for the leper, moved with anger at the very existence of disease, Jesus healed this leper. And by his action we know that God is right here with us, at one with us, in solidarity with us in our suffering.

The great Lutheran preacher Edward Markquart once observed that every single one of us at some point in our lives will pray the same prayer as the leper did in today’s gospel lesson. At some point in our lives we will pray, “If you choose, you can make me clean,” either on our own behalf or on behalf of a person we love. I wonder, as we pray this prayer for healing, if we can possibly recognize just how much God is with us? God DID choose health and total cleansing for these lepers, and God created the means of our ultimate healing, not just in this life, but for the rest of eternity. We have the gift of life—and we have it forever, if we can but perceive it. We have the gift of health—whatever our leprous condition today, if we allow Jesus to make us whole.

Moved with pity—a pity tinged with anger—Jesus stretched out his hand and touched us all, and he says to us today, “I do choose. Be made clean!


[i] First, there is a difference in physical presence—proximity—between the leper and the healer. Elisha healed from afar, but Jesus was physically present to the leper. Second, there is a big difference in attitude on the part of the person who was healed. Naaman was rather arrogant, while the anonymous leper in today’s gospel was challenging, yet humble. Finally, there’s a big difference in each of the two stories in who shares the Good News. In the first lesson it was a servant of Israel who told Naaman about God’s healing power. In the gospel lesson it was the healed man himself who simply could not contain the joy of his salvation.

[ii] Mark affirms that Jesus is “Son of God” in the opening verse in his gospel (Mk. 1:1), and very near the end a Roman Centurion who was present at Jesus’ Crucifixion declares the same (Mk. 15:39. In the form of a voice from heaven God himself declares that Jesus is God’s Son, not once but twice (see Mark 1:11 at Jesus’ baptism, and Mark 9:7 at Jesus’ Transfiguration ). And just in case we missed the point, in the very middle of his gospel Mark tells the story of Jesus asking his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And when they named a variety of prophets Jesus pointedly asked his question a more personal way, “Who do you say that I am?” eliciting Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah (Mk. 8:27-30).

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