Monday, February 16, 2009

Sermon on Mark 1:40-45 for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, "I am Willing; Be Clean!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is from Mark 1, the Gospel reading. Last week we saw how the weight of Jesus presence drew the crowds to Him. Today’s reading has a man cleansed from leprosy spreading the news all around, with the result that Jesus couldn’t openly enter a town to preach anymore, but had to carry on His mission outside in desert places. In any case, we’ll look more closely at the cleansing of the leper, and consider how Christ has made us clean as well. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

How does the case of the man with leprosy apply to us today? None of us have leprosy, and in recent times this debilitating and dreadful disease has been able to be treated with much success. And we don’t live under the formal system of laws of cleanliness and purity that ancient Israel had. There were precise regulations to follow about how long a person had to wait after they were cleansed, about what sacrifices and offerings Moses commanded them to make to the priests, when they could move back in their house, etc. Even though our society today doesn’t have organized rituals and laws about cleanliness, or necessarily even use the terms “clean” and “unclean” much in a personal sense, those categories still seem to operate in our mind. Except we use the vocabulary of germs, dirt, antiseptic and sterile.

We still draw those kinds of distinctions, even if they aren’t part of a formal system of “purity laws,” like in ancient Israel. But I’m talking about more than just concerns about hygiene. Sometimes it does take the form of looking down on those who don’t match up to our standards of hygiene; but perhaps more often it takes a different form. Like making human distinctions between those who work in an occupation that seems beneath us, as common labor, who talk or act differently, have a lower level of education, or whatever. God’s distinctions of clean and unclean are based on His holiness and defined through His Word. Human try to make distinctions based on personalities, “family, race, caste, class, or nation;” yet none of these define what is clean. In Hinduism, you are clean or unclean by virtue of which caste of society you are born in. If you’re born beneath the lowest caste, in the category of the “untouchables” you're forever cursed to be unclean, regardless of what hopes, aspirations, or abilities you have. But in Christianity, you aren’t classified or found clean or unclean on the basis of your abilities, talents, health, strength, etc, nor on the basis of what sins you have committed in your past.

God has said that we aren’t to call anything impure, that God has made clean (Acts 10:15). The same applies to how we treat a repentant and restored sinner. That we wouldn’t treat such a person as “unclean.” It’s one thing if we’re openly and willfully continuing in those sins, in a way that despises God’s law or claims no need for His forgiveness—then our sin must be called to account, as Jesus said, “Go and sin no more.” Instead, if we’ve left sin behind, turned away from it and Christ has spoken us clean, then no one should hold that sin against us or call us unclean. When we’ve been forgiven, God has separated us from our sins as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12).

Think for a moment, however, about what it means to be “unclean.” When something is unclean, we usually mean that it had been pure, but now is contaminated or defiled by something else. Something foreign and dirty has mixed with it or gotten on it. And it doesn’t take much to make something unclean. 10 gallons of clean water would be made unclean and unfit for drinking if you put even a single drop of sewage in it. Sin (& false teaching) work in the same way. It is something foreign and unclean, and it contaminates and defiles us. This is why even after we’ve been forgiven, some sins leave us with the lingering feeling of uncleanness, or defilement. A regretful act of violence, or being the victim of some violence against yourself can leave a person feeling defiled or unclean. They may carry it around as a sense of shame or embarrassment, even long after they’ve received God’s forgiveness. Certain sins we’ve committed or experiences we’ve had, or sins others have committed against us may leave us feeling “dirty.” Maybe there are even unwholesome images we’ve allowed to enter our mind but can’t erase or forget. Or maybe we’ve accepted God’s forgiveness for ourselves, but others continue to lay a stigma on us.

So we come to Jesus like the man with leprosy, and in humility we beg, “If you are willing, you can make me clean!” We come as those defiled by sin, with scars and deep wounds on our hearts and mind, with pain that we are longing to surrender to Him, with shame and uncleanness—crying out to our Lord for cleansing. And how does our Lord receive us? How did our Lord receive the outcast leper, who was defiled and stigmatized, who was alienated from worship and from community by his leprosy? Christ’s answer, simple and full of compassion is this: “I am willing; be clean!” And when Christ makes us clean, He removes our uncleanness, our stigma, and our shame as well. He sends us away cleansed and forgiven, with a clean slate, washed and cleansed and holy. We no longer have to live as those marked by our sin, but can let His forgiveness permeate our lives and our conscience as well.

What great compassion Christ has! Jesus felt compassion as we were meant to feel it—as a true human emotion, moved out of concern for the afflicted. His compassion, like every other emotion Jesus expressed shows how we were truly meant to feel and act on them as perfect human beings. In His compassion, His love, even His righteous anger at hypocrisy or injustice, we see what it means to be truly human as God intended in perfection. In His compassion we see how we ought to feel compassion when a person is in need around us, and we’re able to help in some way—even if only by prayer. In His compassion He not only was willing to heal and cleanse the man with leprosy, but He actually touched him. Don’t underestimate the significance of Jesus’ human touch! No one would touch a leper. But by touching the man with leprosy, Jesus willingly became ritually unclean. He was willingly defiled and took the man’s uncleanness on Himself, so that the man might become clean and whole again.

Jesus willingly takes our uncleanness on Himself so that we can be clean. How did He take up the uncleanness of humanity? At the beginning of His public ministry Jesus, a clean and righteous man, underwent a sinner’s baptism, washed in our sins. Throughout His ministry He healed and touched the unclean; Jesus took upon Himself our infirmities and carried our sorrows to the cross (Is. 53). Through His death He made us clean. Our uncleanness, our stigma, our defilement of body, mind, and soul, everything unholy and unclean has been transferred to Him, for He became our sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and uncleanness. But the power of Jesus to cleanse wasn’t merely in His touch, but in His spoken Word: “Be Clean!”

What do you mean, “He speaks” and I am clean? How can just words do that? Not just words! The Word of God who calls light into existence—“Let there be light!”, the Word of God that calls forth dead Lazarus from the tomb—“Lazarus, come forth!”, the Word of God that says to a crippled man—“Your sins are forgiven, rise and walk!” This is the Word of God that is powerful to accomplish what it says, the Word that calls life and all things into existence, and does what it says. When Jesus says “be clean!” it isn’t wishful thinking, a hopeful blessing or warm sentiments—it’s the powerful word of God declaring you clean, and you are. It’s done!

The difficulty comes in actually believing in what God has accomplished for you and how Christ has cleansed you and made you whole. The shame, the images that stain our mind may linger—maybe we have the emotional or physical scars of our past—but we’ve trouble believing that Christ really has made us clean. That we’ve truly been given a new identity —the purity and holiness we’re given in baptism. What does Scripture say about baptism? Not that it is an external washing or cleansing of the body (like a bath), but that “Baptism…now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:21). How’s that! Baptism saves us as an appeal to God for a good conscience and it happens through the resurrection of Jesus. That clean conscience is yours through your baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection. By repentance in baptism we surrender our guilt, shame, uncleanness to Christ.
When Jesus cleanses us who are unclean, He makes us “fit for God’s holy presence. In Baptism he removes [our] impurity, like unclean clothing, and takes it on himself; then he gives [us] his purity and holiness as [our] new dress, so that [we] can clothe [our]selves in him.” We may come and worship God with a clear conscience, not in pride or arrogance toward those around us. Not in pride over having stripped ourselves or cleansed ourselves of sin. But rather in humble thankfulness and adoration to the One who has taken our impurity on Himself to crucify it on His cross and rise so that we may be given His purity and holiness to wear in our baptism.

The word of God continually works to cleanse and purify our mind and thoughts, and helps us to find healing and peace from our past. If our minds and lives are stained or defiled by sin, and we long to be clean again, like the man with leprosy—we come to Jesus, with the prayer: “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” And there’s no doubt that Jesus is willing! He does desire to make us clean, and He speaks us clean through His Word and through the cleansing of baptism! Christ continues to convey His cleansing power to us today through Word and Sacrament. His Word spoken, read, and preached to you, is just as effective to cleanse and restore you now as then, because it’s Christ’s own Word, and He’s willing and able to cleanse us. Jesus is willing to make that trade with us, to exchange our sin and guilt and shame for His righteousness, innocence, and holiness. The more we’re active in the Word—in worship, in Bible study, in private or family devotion—the more opportunity for it to work in our lives and cleanse our minds and consciences; purifying our thoughts of unclean things so that we instead set our minds on things above.

Then what remains for us as forgiven and cleansed sinners but to live joyfully and obediently with the knowledge that: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Do you desire to be that person whose sins are covered, against whom the Lord will not count sin? Then Christ says to you, “I am willing; be clean.” Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
1. What kind of uncleanness do you find or feel in your own life? What sin or shame do you carry that makes you unclean?
2. What posture do we take before Christ, to seek cleansing? Where does it put our trust?
3. Who have you considered unclean, though Christ has declared them clean? How has that changed how you treated them?
4. How did Christ show compassion? How is He the model of true human compassion? How does this change how we look at and treat those in question #3?
5. What is the power of Christ’s spoken Word? Examples? How does He bring it to us today?
6. In what ways did Jesus take on the uncleanness of the man with leprosy? In what way is our uncleanness given up to Him?
7. Where was our substitution finally accomplished? What benefits do we receive in exchange for our sin and uncleanness that was given to Christ?

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