Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sermon: 6 Epiphany (15 February 2009)

Sermon: 6 Epiphany (15 February 2009)
(2 Kings 5:1-14/Psalm 30/1 Corinthians 9:24-27/Mark 1:40-45)
The Leper and the Kingdom

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

When the church is bold to pray as Christ our Savior taught us, we ask God to establish his kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. What would it look like? I wonder, if we were truly bold enough to mean the prayer and God knew us ready for him boldly to answer it. Kingdom come: what will it be?

There are hints, of course – poetic descriptions throughout the prophets – incomparably expressed by Isaiah.

For there shall be a new heaven and a new earth, and they shall not remember the former things, nor shall these things come into their heart. But they shall find gladness and exceeding joy in her, for behold, I will make Jerusalem an exceeding joy, and My people gladness. I will rejoice exceedingly in Jerusalem, and I will be glad in My people. There shall no longer be heard in her a voice of weeping, nor a voice of crying. There shall not be the untimely death of a child there, nor shall there be an old man who does not fulfill his time. For a young man shall be a hundred years old, but a sinner who dies at a hundred years old shall be cursed. They shall build houses and dwell in them; and they shall plant vineyards and eat their produce. But they shall not build, and others inhabit; and they shall not plant, and others eat (Is 65:17-22a, NKJV).

The wolf shall feed with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf, the bull, and the lion shall feed together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze together, and their young ones shall lie down together. The lion and the ox shall eat straw together. The nursing child shall play by the hole of asps, and the weaned child shall put his hand in the den of asps. They shall not hurt nor be able to destroy anyone on My holy mountain, for the whole world shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as much water covers the seas (Is 11:6-9, NKJV).

Isaiah, through whom the Spirit uttered these words, viewed the coming kingdom as a renewal of creation and covenant, and as an end of exile for God’s people: the Adamic curse lifted – fruitful earth; harmonious relations between man and beast; long, prosperous lives – the repatriation of Judah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the righteousness of God covering the earth as the waters cover the sea.

Saint John, exiled on Patmos at the close of the first Christian century, had a similar vision, though more universal in scope.

It begins with judgment.

The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire (Rev 20:10, 14-15, NKJV).

It begins with judgment, but it ends with blessing.

Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away (Rev 21:1-4, NKJV).

God with man, man with God, humanity drawn into the divine life, Satan bound eternally, death finally and fully vanquished, sorrow and pain and crying but dim memories: this is kingdom come. This is what it will look like. This is what it will be when God answers our boldest prayer: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

This is the kingdom of God writ large, fully present, fully realized throughout all new creation – the kingdom of God dawning on the last, great day, as it surely will – the kingdom of God of the prophets and seers. In the Gospels, though, we glimpse another vision of the kingdom – smaller, more localized – a sign pointing toward the fullness of the kingdom to come. This Gospel vision is no less the kingdom for being limited in space and time and scope: God is there with man, and man with God. Humanity is drawn into the divine life. Satan is bound and cast down and cast out. The dead are raised to new life. Sorrow and pain and crying are replaced with joy and health and laughter. And this Gospel kingdom is present wherever we find Jesus. Mark takes great pains to make that clear.

Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:14-15, NKJV).

The kingdom of God is here: this is the beginning and heart of Jesus’ gospel proclamation. Wherever Jesus is, there, too, is the kingdom of God. So, what does that look like – the kingdom of God writ small in the towns and villages of Galilee, among the Samaritans, in the temple courts, on Calvary? It looks like men called from the ordinariness of life – from the mundane, economic affairs of boats and nets and fish – called from that to the grand adventure of life in the Spirit, to mission, to abundant and eternal life (cf Mk 1:16-20). It looks like authority – authority in the words and prophetic actions of a carpenter turned rabbi, an unlettered, uncultured Nazarene who bests the learned scribes (cf Mk 1:21-22). It looks like demons – Satan’s minions – bound and cast out with just a word (cf Mk 1:23-28). It looks like an entire city gathered at the door of a simple home in Capernaum – a multitude of deaf and blind and lame, leaving that door hearing and seeing and dancing because God-With-Us spoke a word or offered a touch. And it looks like a leper – a lost soul – in desperate hope falling on his knees in the dust before Jesus.

Now a leper came to Him, imploring Him, kneeling down to Him and saying to Him, “If you are willing, You can make me clean” (Mk 1:40, NKJV).

What would the kingdom of God look like to this leper? Make me clean. In the kingdom of God, I will be clean.

As pitiable a cry as any in Israel is the cry of this leper. To the Jew, leprosy was not just a disease of the flesh, a disfigurement of the body; it was a disease of the spirit, a disfigurement of the soul. Leprosy and sin were synonymous. When Aaron and Miriam murmured against their brother Moses, challenging his leadership and his call from God,

The anger of the LORD burned against them, and he left them. When the cloud lifted from above the Tent, there stood Miriam – leprous, like snow. Aaron turned toward her and saw that she had leprosy; and he said to Moses, “Please, my lord, do not hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed. Do not let her be like a stillborn infant coming from its mother’s womb with its flesh half eaten away” (Num 12:9-12, NIV).

Moses prayed for her, but the Lord delayed her healing for seven days. For seven days she was unclean, banished from her people, sent outside the camp.

The story of Elisha and Naaman the Leper is cut short in this day’s Old Testament lesson. All faithful Jews knew its end.

15 And he returned to the man of God, he and all his aides, and came and stood before him; and he said, “Indeed, now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel; now therefore, please take a gift from your servant.” 16 But he said, “As the LORD lives, before whom I stand, I will receive nothing.” And he urged him to take it, but he refused. 17 So Naaman said, “Then, if not, please let your servant be given two mule-loads of earth; for your servant will no longer offer either burnt offering or sacrifice to other gods, but to the LORD. 18 Yet in this thing may the LORD pardon your servant: when my master goes into the temple of Rimmon to worship there, and he leans on my hand, and I bow down in the temple of Rimmon—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the LORD please pardon your servant in this thing.” 19 Then he said to him, “Go in peace.” So he departed from him a short distance.
20 But Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, said, “Look, my master has spared Naaman this Syrian, while not receiving from his hands what he brought; but as the LORD lives, I will run after him and take something from him.” 21 So Gehazi pursued Naaman. When Naaman saw him running after him, he got down from the chariot to meet him, and said, “Is all well?” 22 And he said, “All is well. My master has sent me, saying, ‘Indeed, just now two young men of the sons of the prophets have come to me from the mountains of Ephraim. Please give them a talent of silver and two changes of garments.’” 23 So Naaman said, “Please, take two talents.” And he urged him, and bound two talents of silver in two bags, with two changes of garments, and handed them to two of his servants; and they carried them on ahead of him. 24 When he came to the citadel, he took them from their hand, and stored them away in the house; then he let the men go, and they departed. 25 Now he went in and stood before his master. Elisha said to him, “Where did you go, Gehazi?” And he said, “Your servant did not go anywhere.” 26 Then he said to him, “Did not my heart go with you when the man turned back from his chariot to meet you? Is it time to receive money and to receive clothing, olive groves and vineyards, sheep and oxen, male and female servants? 27 Therefore the leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you and your descendants forever.” And he went out from his presence leprous, as white as snow (2 Ki 5:15-27, NKJV).

This leper in the dust before Jesus was, to the on-lookers and perhaps even to himself, an unclean sinner like Miriam and Gehazi, justly receiving in his body the judgment of God. And, like Miriam, he was banished from the community, forbidden to enter synagogue and temple, estranged from all human contact and exiled from the presence of God. Make me clean, he cried.

And Jesus did the unthinkable. Filled with compassion he stretched out his hand and touched the leper. How long had it been since the man had known either compassion or a human touch. And Jesus spoke the words – spoke them with authority – spoke the words the man longed to hear, “Be made clean!” And the leprosy left him and he was made clean and in that instant the kingdom of God struck earth like lightning and this once wretched man was made a citizen of that kingdom. His sins were forgiven, his body was healed, his exile was ended, and he was reconciled to man and God. And that is what the kingdom of God looks like writ small in the towns and villages of Galilee, but writ large in the human heart and soul.

The kingdom of God has come, for wherever Jesus is, there, too, is the kingdom of God. And surely we have his promise that he is even now among us, his promise that he will never abandon or forsake us, his promise that where two or more are gathered in his name he is in the midst of them. Jesus is here, and so, too, is the kingdom of God – not fully, not writ large across the new heavens and the new earth, but here nonetheless as a mustard seed planted in the ground, as leaven which a woman hid in three measures of meal until it was all leavened.

And so the question for us becomes, What does that look like – the kingdom of God writ small in our lives, our families, our businesses, our schools, our communities, our cities?

It looks like you and me in leper’s robes falling down before Christ and pleading “Make me clean.” For we are the lepers in the story – all of us, over and over again, in need of the compassion and healing and forgiveness that only Jesus can offer. The kingdom starts here, with the recognition of our estrangement from God and from one another, and with our repentance. Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand, Jesus said and still says. Only through repentance is that kingdom opened to us.

It looks like you and me with restored limbs and healthy skin accosting everyone we encounter with the good news of our restoration and the hope for their own. Though Jesus told the leper to tell no one, he simply could not keep the news to himself. How could he? Instead, “he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the matter, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter the city, but was outside in deserted places; and they came to Him from every direction” (Mk 1:45, NKJV). Would that our churches were so overrun by the lepers of the world that we could no longer hold services or meet in our overcrowded buildings for the sheer press of people seeking Jesus. It will only happen when healed lepers tell other lepers of a Christ who cleanses and makes whole broken men and women. I like to think that, even before returning to his family, the cleansed leper returned to the colony, broke down the gates, and led a crippled, festering, mass of broken humanity straight back to Jesus: Here they are, Jesus. Make them clean, too. That’s what the kingdom of God looks like.

What else does it look like? Well, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, with the witness of the Scriptures and the church, we will figure that out as we go. But this we do know: wherever the kingdom comes on earth as in heaven there will be repentance, forgiveness, healing, reconciliation – in the lives of men and women and families and communities and cities and states and nations until one day – on that last great day – the kingdom writ small becomes the kingdom writ large and all creation joins the hymn of praise to him who touched us and made us clean.


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