“A man with leprosy came to Jesus”.
When we read the Gospel stories it is tempting to gloss over the diagnosis of leprosy with a shrug and to give it no more thought. However in New Testament times there was no disease regarded with more horror than leprosy.
Those who had leprosy developed tumours which ulcerated and emitted a foul discharge. The nerve ends of the limbs were affected and this led to a loss of all sensation. Tendons contracted and hands and feet became like useless claws. Eventually the sufferer would lose their limbs, feet legs hands noses would drop off and the victim became utterly repulsive to themselves and to everyone else. The term leprosy also included other skin diseases and any such disease rendered the sufferer unclean. Therefore victims of what was described as leprosy were forced to live apart from the rest of the community and wherever they went they had to shout out loud “unclean, unclean.” A modern equivalent might well be the Ebola virus.
Lepers not only bore the physical pain of the disease but also the mental anguish of being banished and shunned. Worst of all was that in those days leprosy was incurable.
Here confronting one such victim of the disease we see a most revealing picture of the nature of Jesus and by definition of God also. Jesus does not drive the leper away as anyone else in the same situation might have done. Instead he responds to him with understanding and compassion.
“A man with leprosy came to Jesus and begged him on his knees,
“If you are willing you can make me clean.”
Earlier in the chapter we read that Jesus drove out evil spirits and demons and that he healed many who had various diseases. Today his gift for healing is taken to a whole new level. The man had leprosy. There was no known cure for leprosy in those days.
Jesus’ response to the man was inspiring. We read that
Jesus was filled with compassion.
He reached out his hand and touched the man.
By touching the man who is unclean, Jesus ran the risk of making himself ritually unclean also. However Jesus’ compassion for the man superseded his risk of personal defilement. He focuses on the man’s desperate need and says:
“I am willing “he said “Be clean!
Understanding that though the man might be healed of the disease he was not yet healed of the forces of social and religious prejudice against someone with leprosy he wisely sends the man away to the priest to offer sacrifices that the law of Moses demanded for him to be ritually cleansed. The sacrifices would be evidence to the priests and the people that the cure was real and that Jesus respected the Holy Laws of Moses.
So we learn from this passage that Jesus was compassionate, powerful, wise and that he had divine power since the Jews believed that only God could cure leprosy.
What strikes me about Jesus in this story is his spiritual discipline. He is grounded in his truth, in the love of God, in the divine wisdom of God and in his belief in the healing power that is vested in him. This gives him a confidence that is awe inspiring. We read:
“Jesus stayed outside in the lonely places, yet the people still came to him from everywhere.”
The challenge for you and me is that we have been called to be like Jesus. Our church has been commissioned to be his hands and feet in the world. When I examine my life I see that there are many ways in which I fail to measure up to that calling. How as we stand on the brink of another year of ministry can we grow into a church which is worthy of our calling?
Paul gives us some clues.
I have a pair of marathon runners in my family. They buy special shoes and gear, get up at the crack of dawn, run endless kilometres, eat special food, do stretch programmes daily, measure their heart rates and breathing rates and any other rate they can think of in order to prepare for the marathons they are to run. The marathon is a primary focus of their attention. I gather this is all very necessary if one is to succeed at finishing the marathon. Apparently you cannot just get up one morning put on your jogging gear and go. No you have to train for such an event, discipline your body and your mind punish your body even for its own good if you like. Paul was always fascinated by the picture of the athlete. He shares the metaphor of the intense training of the athlete with the church of Corinth because athletics was a big deal in Corinth. If he were writing to New Zealanders he may well have used the metaphor of the intense training of the All Blacks to make the point that there is no easy way to be a Christ follower. An athlete gets nowhere without self-discipline and training and so it is with the Christian faith walk.
The Christian life is counter intuitive.
It is easier to be prejudiced than tolerant, it is easier to be judgemental than compassionate, it is easier to be self- interested than to be self- less, it is easier to be comfortable than to be challenged, it is easier to be cautious than to be brave, it is easier to be silent than to speak the truth and all too often it is easier to hate than to love. The Christian life is a battle and a flabby soldier cannot win the battle; a slack trainer cannot win races and a lazy Christian cannot become more Christ like.
Just as a runner has a goal in mind to cross the finishing line to get a medal or a certificate that says you completed the race in good time, so the Christian journey has a goal. Paul calls it the crown of eternal life. The Christian walk has an aim and a purpose just as the marathon runner has an aim and a purpose and if we lose sight of that aim, if we do not intentionally train in order to achieve that aim we become aimless. It is a truism that to just go anywhere is the certain way to arrive nowhere.
So how do we train ourselves for the Christian journey?
1.Firstly we need to catch the vision and set our eyes on the prize. By that I mean we need to fully appreciate the worth of the goal that is the great appeal of Jesus. The goal of following him is life LIFE in all its abundance and fullness. Life today tomorrow and forever!
That is the crown , that is the prize.
- We need to know who we are following and in knowing who we are following we also need to know ourselves. We need to discipline ourselves to truly knowing who Jesus is in order to truly know who God is. We do this by following a training programme called the spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines can be described as those behaviors that augment our spiritual growth and enable us to grow to spiritual maturity. This process of spiritual growth and development begins to take place the moment a person encounters the risen Christ and comes to Him for salvation.
The foremost of the disciplines is that involving the Word of God and constitutes the reading, study, memorization, and meditation of Scripture.The second discipline is that of prayer. Our prayers are a spiritual communion with God through means of thanksgiving, adoration, supplication, petition, and confession. The wonderful thing about prayer is that God meets us where we are. He comes alongside us to lead us into a deeper, more real relationship with Him, not motivated by guilt, but driven by His love. Prayer changes us. Prayer changes lives.The third spiritual discipline is that of fasting. It’s about submitting to God, acknowledging that He is your source for everything and realizing that you don’t always have to give your body what it screams for.
The fourth spiritual discipline is that of gathering as the church community for worship and for support. We train together as a community.
The fifth spiritual discipline is giving. Giving of ourselves to others in ways that are sacrificial. This includes our time and our talents. Jesus models this sacrificial giving time after time culminating in his death on the cross.
For some of us the hardest thing is giving our hard earned money away. But it usually stems from this idea that it is ours. It’s not, it’s Gods. He gives it to us to manage, not to keep. If giving money and resources is difficult for you, this is a great time of year to engage in the spiritual discipline of giving.
As we move into lent both individually and as the church let us take on board the challenge Paul sets us to discipline ourselves that we might become worthy of our calling. As spiritual athletes let us embark on a training programme that will lead us into Christ likeness. Let us hold before us the life of Christ and may his life set our direction as we strive for the prize the crown that will last forever, the life that Christ promises, life in all its abundance and let us do so not in our own strength for we cannot cure ourselves but in the strength of the Holy Spirit. May the cry of the leper be our cry also “Jesus If you are willing you can make me clean.”
And may we ever discipline ourselves to embrace his unfailing response:
“I am willing “; “Be clean!