14 February 2016

Sermon – “He Stretched Out His Hand” (Mark 1:40-45)

Allow me to begin by saying what a great privilege it is for me to occupy this pulpit this morning, and to express my gratitude to your presbyter, the Rev. Immanuel Devakadatcham, for his gracious willingness to allow me to share God’s word with you today. I have long held the Church of South India in great admiration. In 1947 you embarked on a journey that to this day is very nearly unique in the world, bringing together Christians from four different traditions into a common worship and witness to Jesus Christ as Lord. The church in my part of the world has much to learn from you.
Our Bible readings for this morning are gathered under the theme “Being with Outcasts and Marginalized”. In the Old Testament Mordecai approaches Queen Esther with the dire circumstances of his people the Jews, who are threatened with extermination, and Esther risks her life to save them. In Psalm 43 the singer comes into the presence of God oppressed by his enemies, in loneliness and near despair. He knows that God alone is his refuge, his joy and his praise, and that God will help him. In Acts 15, Barnabas and Paul share with their fellow believers in Jerusalem the wonderful ways in which they saw God drawing people from all nations (and not just the Jews) into his saving grace.
However, it is upon the Gospel reading that I would like us to focus our attention for the next few minutes this morning. We are in the final verses of the first chapter of Mark, which has to be one of the fastest-paced chapters in the Bible. In the space of thirty-nine verses, Mark has told us about the ministry of John the Baptist; of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan; of Jesus’ calling of his first disciples by the Sea of Galilee; of Jesus’ intervening in an outbreak by a man inhabited by an evil spirit in the synagogue; of Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law; of an evening when dozens, if not hundreds, of the sick and the demon-possessed came to Jesus for healing; and finally of Jesus getting up early in the morning, before the sun had risen, to spend time alone with his heavenly Father and then going on to teach and to heal in the neighbouring villages.
It almost leaves us breathless. And now, as though things were not busy enough already, a man suffering from leprosy approaches him, falls on his knees before him and pleads to him with the words, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”

Jesus’ power

On our way here from Bangalore we passed by Vellore. Although I have never been there, Vellore means a great deal to me because early in my Christian life I was introduced to a little book by Dorothy Clarke Wilson called Ten Fingers For God. In it she recounts the story of Dr Paul Brand, an orthopaedic surgeon practising in Vellore, who did pioneering research into leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, and the rehabilitation of leprosy patients.
In one of his own books Brand recounted a frightening occasion in his own life when a patch of his heel began to lose sensation he suspected that he had contracted the disease. This is what he wrote:
A dread fear worse than nausea gripped my stomach. After seven years of working with leprosy patients, had it finally happened? Was I now to be a patient myself?
My mind roiled. I would have to separate myself from my family, of course—children of patients were the most susceptible group. Perhaps I should stay in England. But what if word somehow leaked out? I could envision the headlines. And what would happen to my leprosy work? How many would now risk becoming social outcasts to help unfortunate victims?
I lay on my bed all night, fully clothed except for shoes and socks, sweating and breathing heavily from tension. Scenes flickered through my mind—poignant reminders of what I would lose as a leprosy patient.
Although I knew that sulfone drugs would probably arrest the disease quite quickly, I could not avoid imagining the disease spreading across my face, over my feet, and to my fingers.
I would no longer feel the pleasing softness of petting a dog, or the flutter of a June beetle cupped in my hands, or the prenatal stirrings of a caterpillar throbbing ominously against a rough cocoon. Feathers, frogs, flowers, wool—touch sensations filled my world.
When the next morning arrived, he was relieved to find that sensation had returned to his foot. The loss, it appeared, had been due to confinement on a long train journey over a number of hours. “I laughed aloud,” he recalls, “and shook my head at the foolishness of the night before.”[1]
For those who suffer from this dreadful disease either in our own day or in biblical times, leprosy was no laughing matter. Its victims were required to live apart from the rest of society. They had to worn tattered clothes, to leave their hair unkempt and dishevelled, and to cry aloud, “Unclean! Unclean!” whenever they came within hearing distance of another human being (Leviticus 13:45,46).
Now I want you to try to imagine three things. First, can you imagine the courage it must have taken for that man to do as he did? He knew that his act would meet with disapproval, perhaps even punishment. I don’t know what the penalty was when a leper disobeyed the law, but I can only imagine it was severe. I can’t imagine that he bounded up to Jesus, but that his faith was mixed with a good measure of hesitancy and of fear.
Secondly, can you imagine the chill that must have gone through the disciples’ hearts as this man came right up to Jesus? He was defying all the laws and conventions and precautions of hundreds, if not thousands, of years. He was putting them all at a terrible risk. Yet what do we find Jesus doing? Recoiling in horror? Scolding the man for disobeying the law? No. Jesus does the unthinkable. He reaches out his hand and touches the man.
Now, can you imagine how the man felt at that moment? He had not experienced the nearness, let alone the touch, of another human being, for weeks or months, perhaps years. Just to have someone touch him as Jesus did must have brought a new joy, a refreshment, a sense of hope, to his weary heart. Yet of course Jesus’ touch did far more than that. It was not just that the man’s heart was refreshed, his leprosy was cleansed. He was a new man and a whole new life lay before him.

Jesus’ anger

In these six short verses (just under a hundred words in the original) Mark has given us an unforgettable picture of Jesus’ compassion and his power to heal. And I am quite certain that those who set out the Scripture readings did so because they want us to demonstrate the same love and compassion in our lives as Jesus showed to that leper—“being with outcasts and the marginalized”, as they put it. And of course India has had a towering example of that in the twentieth century in Mother Teresa.
Few of us will ever live up to the almost impossible example of that amazing woman. Yet almost every day there will be someone in our lives with a need, large or small, to whom we can reach out in compassion. Sometimes it will mean defying convention as Jesus did, or moving outside our comfort zones. Yet more often than not God is not calling us to heroic measures, but simply to open our eyes and our hearts to the needs of others, to offer a word of encouragement, to lend a listening ear even when we may not have time for it, to come alongside another person in their loneliness or grief.
Yet the story also leaves us with some lingering questions. Most English translations of this passage describe Jesus, when he looked at the man, as being moved with pity or moved with compassion. But there are some early gospel manuscripts that tell us that Jesus was moved not with pity but with anger when the man approached him—and most biblical scholars today would agree that that is the more likely text.
To add to that, when Jesus sends the man away, Mark tells us that “he sternly warned him”. The word Mark uses quite literally means “snorted”. We find it again in John’s gospel as Jesus stands outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus.
Why, we must ask then, would Jesus display such anger? Was he upset at the leper for doing as he did—for disobeying the law and putting other people at risk? I don’t think so. No, it seems more likely to me that Jesus was angry not at the man but at the disease that had ravaged his body, that had caused him to live a life of isolation and squalour.

Jesus’ cross

I know there are many people today who recoil at the notion of an angry God. Yet what kind of God would Jesus be if he were not angry at a disease that gnaws and cripples people and reduces them to the life of animals? And what kind of God would not be angry at the injustices that are happening at almost every moment in our world today, to the point where newspapers and television and the other media can only cover the smallest proportion of them, where people even hate and mutilate and kill in the very name of God?
In the midst of this we cry aloud with the leper, “Lord, if you choose, you can make us whole.” “Lord, stretch out your hand and touch this world. Cleanse it of the vile things that make it less than it should be, that cause tears and grief and pain and death, that gnaw away at our very souls.” And if we find ourselves praying like that, we will discover that there is a hand that stretches out to us and embraces us, and that it is a hand that has been pierced by nails.
On the cross Jesus has taken all the world’s wrongs, all its injustices and cruelties, all its evil and rebellion, into himself. As we read in Isaiah,
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)
If we are to be with the outcast and the marginalized (and if we are followers of Jesus there is no “if”) it will be because there is one who has first stretched out his hand to us. It will be because, poor and wretched and lonely, Jesus has touched us and we are being made new by his love. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). May that love not stop with us, but may we be its channels, reaching out in Jesus’ name to a lost and needy world.

[1]        Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, pages 108-110 (122,123?)