Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Mark 1:40 - 45 -- God's Power to Heal and Strengthen

Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come,
            We don’t know the name of the leper Jesus healed in this morning’s gospel reading, so we’ll give him one for the time being.  We’ll call him Samuel – a good biblical name.  He lived in pain; he felt his body slowly withering away.  He lived on the margins of society.  He had to beg to meet his daily needs.  There were nights when he didn’t have a shelter.  No one would touch him for fear of catching his disease.  But Jesus touched him and healed him.  Samuel would grow old and fall sick again later on, but for several years at least he would be able to work, to care for himself, to take an active part in life.  How Samuel rejoiced at his healing.
            Mark tells us that he went overboard.  Jesus wanted him to keep silent and visit the priests in Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice and testify to people who didn’t yet believe in Jesus that God is powerful and gracious and present among them in human form.  But Samuel couldn’t restrain himself; he overstepped the bounds the Lord had set for him and talked openly about the healing God had brought him.  The rapidly-spreading news created inconvenience for the Lord, though we can be sure that in the long run he made good use of Samuel’s testimony. 
            Naaman is another leper whom God healed.  How he, too, must have rejoiced.  “I know there is no God in all the earth except in Israel,” he confessed right after he was cured.  He looked ahead to a new life in the company of the Heavenly Father.  Human nature played a part in his story, too.  The narrative shows us the formal way rulers acted toward one another, the irrational, crippling fears the king of Israel suffered from, for he thought the Syrians were setting a trap for him, and we see Naaman’s injured pride, when the Lord failed to take advantage of the chance for an impressive ceremony and chose the simplest means to cure his terrible disease.
            To digress, for a moment, we know that when he reveals himself to us, God loves to act simply.  He’s never pushy or showy.  He is direct and down to earth.  He uses the simplest of means, for example, such as ordinary water and a few special words in the sacrament of baptism.  Life can be pretty complicated.  We may think of the telecommunications system, the food chain, or the complex economic problems that are vexing North America right now.  We may also think of the complicated relationships folks sometimes get involved in.  Adult minds are trained to deal with difficulties.  But when God comes to us, he usually works very simply.  We may not understand his methods, as we do not understand how a tree develops or how a baby’s body and mind grow to maturity.  But we don’t have to know the how’s and why’s.  God invites us to open our eyes and our hearts and accept simple things from his hand.  How refreshing that he breaks through complexities and comes to us by simple, powerful, restful, and unchanging means.
            Anyway, the healings in this morning’s readings are samples of God’s power and his determination to do good.  Jesus came to earth to conquer evil, and leprosy is one feature of a fallen world that is no stranger to evil.  Nothing could prevent Jesus from carrying out his mission of healing, not even the peculiarities  of human nature or our propensity for sin.  He cured Naaman despite his pride; he healed the leper Samuel even though he knew that Samuel would create inconvenience for him. 
            God’s grace never fails.  It works for us, too.  We sin.  We run from God.  We underestimate his gifts to us.  We are rude to him and think mostly of ourselves.  Even so, Jesus doesn’t withdraw his offer of help, salvation, and pardon.  He remains our friend and invites us to turn to him for restoration.  His love for us inspires us to do our best, and if we slip, God does not.  He is faithful and true.  He doesn’t take back his promises.  Our salvation and our daily walk with him depend on him, not our own feelings, which change many times in the course of a day, or on our own good works.  God says to us, “I declare that you are righteous for the sake of my son and the faith the Holy Spirit plants in your hearts.”  Our debt is paid.  We are free and whole in God’s eyes and in the eyes of the church.
            Now, a Lutheran thinker I consulted helped me understand a little better this morning’s Gospel text.  The leper I’m calling Samuel submitted himself in an act of great faith to the Lord’s wishes.  “If you are willing,” he said, “you can make me clean.”  Samuel made a distinction between God’s earthly gifts and his spiritual ones.  He knew he was asking for an earthly blessing, which God in his wisdom and his love might withhold, as he frequently does.  He doesn’t usually provide riches at our request.  He finds ways for us to receive our livelihoods bit by bit.  He doesn’t move us to a land where there is no snow and cold, but helps us to cope with the conditions we find ourselves in.  The same goes for our physical health.  Miracles can occur, but as a general rule, the Lord teaches us good sense and wise practices; he provides health care professionals and medications to help us.  He sends ways to reduce pain.  He strengthens us to cope with illness and other physical hardships.  He doesn’t take us away from the reality of daily life.  His beloved people experience what everyone experiences.  Physical suffering can refine us and bring us closer to the Lord.  We take on a portion of what he suffered for us.  Illness doesn’t mean that God has abandoned us. It means that he trusts that we can cope.  Samuel, whose soul the Lord filled with faith, understood this.
            Samuel also understood that spiritual blessings are a different matter altogether.  Heaven always freely grants gifts like pardon and peace, strength and consolation to the soul, since it is his will that these blessings be available to us at all times.  We don’t know how Samuel came to such great faith, but his case shows how Jesus’ teaching produces the most wonderful spiritual blessings.
            We also know that the same faith can be ours – endurance, hope for eternal life, trust that the Lord intends good for us.  God is gracious and powerful.  It’s a wonderful thing to know that our sins are forgiven and that no evil can crush our souls or shatter our faith.  No matter how bad the world can be, the Bible assures us, or how close illness is to us or how great our sins, these things do not prevail.  The victory belongs to God, who is good; he passes his goodness on to us.  Life is good and much good comes our way.  We trust, like the healed leper I’ve given the name Samuel, that if we listen to heaven’s will, this goodness will continue.  God will even make good of our missteps, in his own way and in his own time.
            My reading about this morning’s text brought another familiar Christian theme to mind: never give up on something worthwhile.  We want good things to come to us – health, friends, faith.  We want to do good with the talents God has given us.  We hope to be useful, to help others, to be joyful of heart.  It’s almost a rule of life, though, that opposition raises its head as soon as we reach for the good.  Obstacles appear out of nowhere.  Human nature gets in the way, either our own or somebody else’s.  We can get discouraged or settle for less than the best.  We can say that to make an extra effort is to strive in vain.  But God uses Na’aman and the leper Samuel to remind us that a lot of good comes from submission to God.  He is the source of everything; the source is good and it’s on our side.  The Lord will help us create the good things we hope for and even better things than we now imagine – for our families, for our work and leisure.  God plants in our hearts a desire for improvement and for his leadership.  We won’t give up on what’s good if we focus on Christ.  So often we want to do things on our own, for this is part of the secular way of life that surrounds us.  We can go part way by ourselves, but not nearly so far as the Lord wants to take us.  Every good gift comes from him.
            So we stick with our Lord and Savior, trusting that he will carry us along the way not just today but always.  What hopes he will pour into our hearts.  What strength he will give us.  What courage to keep on with good things and never to quit.  In his name we rejoice and give thanks.  AMEN.
The peace God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus.  AMEN.

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