Be Clean!

Reading: Mark 1.40-45
It is amazing how bridal parties turn up for wedding rehearsals - shorts, jeans, hair dishevelled, hands still grimy from a day's work, thongs or barefoot… Then on the big day everything is spick and span. The hairdressers have done wonders for men as well as women. The clothes are immaculate. They have "scrubbed up" well. Sometimes, joking, I have said to the 'groom, "You had better introduce me. I don't think these are the same fellows who were here for the rehearsal!"

But occasionally not all can be transformed. One day before a rehearsal, the bridegroom - a glazier - had been carrying a sheet of glass to the bin when it snapped and badly gashed his right arm. He was in considerable pain, couldn't drive his car, could sign his name only with difficulty… Should we defer the wedding? No way! Arm bandaged, pain-killers administered, the wedding went ahead.

You will have heard the "prayer for serenity" - "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." That prayer has offered practical help to many people. There are situations in which it is so appropriate - as for the two very different wedding situations I have described.

And yet… I have never been entirely happy with it. It rightly seeks God's help in my personal reaction and response to my circumstances - my need for serenity, courage and wisdom. But it doesn't affirm or seek what God alone is able to do over and above what I may certainly need to do or even through the limited actions he may call on me to do.

The Leper

A man with leprosy came to Jesus and begged him on his knees, "If you are willing, you can make me clean" (Mk 1.40).

There were a number of diseases grouped under the general heading of "leprosy" - which is why the Good News Bible simply refers to "a dreaded skin disease."

By modern medical definition, "leprosy" refers to infection by Mycobacterium leprae - a bacillus identified by the Norwegian doctor, Gerhard Hansen in 1873, hence the modern name "Hansen's Disease". The Hebrew word used in Lev. 13.3 (tsara'ath), however, is not nearly as precise. The N.I.V. simply translates "it is an infectious skin disease." The New Bible Dictionary comments that this "is primarily a word describing ritualistic uncleanness or defilement characterised by the presence of coloured patches. The same word was used to describe human skin disease (Lev. 13.1-46), discolouration of wool, leather, linen (vv. 47-59), and even the walls of houses (14.33-57), thus indicating that tsara'ath cannot have been (but it might possibly have included) true leprosy."

Leprosy itself is regarded as the least catching of all infectious diseases and takes anything from two to ten years from initial contact to onset of the disease. Since the late 1940's, antibiotic drugs have been developed which cure leprosy. Mild cases need treatment with two drugs for six months. More severe cases take treatment with three drugs for twelve months. Leprosy attacks the nervous system and causes, not just paralysis, but loss of sensation. "Loss of sensation in hands, feet and eyes means that everyday activities are fraught with danger - burns go unrecognised, wounds unattended, stones in shoes and grit in the eyes are both undetected and untreated. The end result can be loss of sight, fingers and feet" ("What is leprosy?").

Lev. 13.45-46 directs that "the person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, 'Unclean! Unclean!' As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp."

With our modern knowledge and treatment of leprosy, that seems rather a harsh way of dealing with the sick. However, in an era when there was no treatment, a slow-moving disease which would lead to eventual disfigurement and death was to be feared. There was no other way to slow the spread of the disease.

The Appeal

A man with leprosy came to Jesus and begged him on his knees, "If you are willing, you can make me clean."

He is going beyond that prayer of serenity. He isn't asking for "serenity to accept the things I cannot change." For years this disease has been coming on. Isolated from family and society, he has known only the company of fellow-sufferers.

Rarely, someone has gone into remission and presented himself to the priest for the tests which may show that the disease is no longer active and the sacrifices that will certify to the public that he is "safe" to re-enter society. But in almost every case the disease has advanced, the disfigurements multiplied - carried till death.

So this sufferer is asking for what he knows is impossible for him. But he is doing the one thing possible - asking the help of the one who "can make me clean."

Ray Stedman comments on this passage, "I think this indicates something of an awareness on the leper's part of a divine purpose there may have been in his affliction. It may, perhaps, be difficult for some of us to handle the concept, but the Scriptures are very clear that sometimes God wills us to be sick. Not that this is the expression of his ultimate desire for people, but that, given the circumstances in which we now live and the fallen nature of humanity, there are times when God wills for his children to pass through physical affliction. You see numerous example of this in the Scriptures. Paul came before the Lord and asked three times for the removal of a physical 'thorn in the flesh'. Finally the answer came, 'My grace is sufficient for you' (2 Cor 12.7,9). Paul understood that God wanted him to put up with it, learn how to handle it by the grace of God. So it is clear that it is not the teaching of Scripture that everybody must be healed" ("The Healer of Hurts", 1974).

This man isn't "claiming his healing", nor demanding healing. In fact, he comes on his knees, begging to be healed.

The Healing

Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured (Mk 1.41-42).

Jesus was deeply moved in his inner being. He truly cared about and truly loved this man. But notice how his compassion at once moved into action. All his Jewish training would have said, "Stay away from this man! Don't go any where near him! Definitely don't touch him!" For his part the man was supposed to keep his distance and cover his mouth while he called out the warning, "Unclean! Unclean!" And if perchance one came in closer contact with a leper, the instinct was to step back.

But Jesus reached out his hand and touched him - "I am willing. Be clean!"

This account challenges us at two levels. So far as I am aware, no one present here this morning is suffering from Hansen's Disease. Yet I suspect that each one of us has some element in our life - whether physical, emotional or spiritual - which is beyond us - seemingly beyond all human help - and unyielding. Have you acknowledged that need and come to the master Physician for help? Sometimes he will deliver us from the situation. At other times he offers a special measure of his grace to live within the situation. He is always willing what is best for us - if we will only acknowledge our need and come to him.

But I find myself also challenged at another level. Jesus wasn't repulsed by what he saw. He was deeply moved, moved with compassion - and moved into action. Would that have been my response? Is it my response to obvious human need? And is it yours?

The one who said, "I am willing. Be clean!" is depending on our eyes to see, our ears to hear, our hands to touch with his grace - in healing, restoring, cleansing.

© Peter J. Blackburn, Home Hill Uniting Church, 13 February 2000
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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