Category Archives: Bible

The Time of Their Visitation

A Sermon for St. Francis Anglican Church, Portland, OR.
August 20, 2017
Tenth Sunday After Trinity
Luke 19:41-47

 

Today’s gospel recounts an event in the week before the Jewish Passover.  It’s hard to imagine the excitement that surrounded the Jewish festivals at the time of Jesus.  Jews from near and far would travel for days if not weeks to Jerusalem.  They would sing Psalms of longing, joy, and liberation as they walked on foot, and tell stories of what God had done for their people while they rested along the road.  The journey itself was part of the ritual, and the expectation grew with each step up towards Mount Zion and the center of the Jewish universe, the Temple.

All of these people were there to celebrate their ancestors’ liberation from slavery so many centuries ago.  But Passover points forwards to the heavenly banquet as well as backwards to the liberation from Egypt.  The crowds of people would no doubt have God’s promises on their minds as well – promises of God’s visitation: God would return to once again liberate Israel and judge her enemies.  A restored Davidic King, and a broken Roman yoke.

This was, to say the least, a charged atmosphere, a powder keg ready to go off at the slightest provocation.  And in this kind of atmosphere, actions often speak louder than words.  Right before this passage, Luke has described Jesus’ triumphal entry.  Jesus approaches Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to shouts of “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”  Jesus’ actions speak of the long awaited liberation, and that He was the long hoped for Messiah who would make it happen.  The crowds recognized this and rejoiced.

 

Yet, the mood shifts drastically as we come to today’s passage.  The boisterous praise gives way to weeping.  Jesus weeps over the very city that the crowds had thought He was coming to liberate.  Jesus proclaims that Jerusalem – which literally means “the city of peace” – is blind to what would bring them peace.  Because of their spiritual blindness, Jesus prophesies, they face their own impending destruction at the hands of their enemies.  Jesus prophesies that the Roman legions will surround Jerusalem, lay siege, and dash the city to the ground.

The reason for this fate is that Israel “did not know the time of [their] visitation.”  The “visitation of God” is a kind of shorthand for God’s coming to save Israel and to judge the nations.  The Passover celebrated the past visitation of God in Egypt and looked forward to God’s future visitation at the end of the age.  The crowds that lined the road rejoiced because they thought they would see Israel’s restoration with their own eyes.  Jesus flips the script, proclaiming that Israel will instead face judgment, as the surrounding nations once again plunder Jerusalem and destroy the Temple.

After Jesus’ words, there is no doubt a long, awkward pause filled with confusion.  Jesus is acting out the symbols of liberation, but speaking the language of judgment.  No doubt, the disciples and the crowds have hurt, puzzled looks on their faces and questions in their minds – what does Jesus mean?  Why are we, Israel, facing judgment?

Jesus proceeds to the Temple, the center of Jerusalem and the heart of the nation of Israel.  Jesus enters the Temple area and begins to throw out the traders who were selling animals and exchanging currency.  As He does so, He quotes Scripture – “’My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of robbers.’”

There are two main interpretations of this ruckus which we call the Temple Cleansing.  First, the more traditional interpretation sees Jesus as cleansing the Temple from the traders.  The idea is that the traders are exploiting the poor or otherwise interfering with proper Temple worship.  The problem with this view is that none of the Gospel accounts actually say that the traders are doing anything wrong.  The word for “robber” does not indicate a swindler or a price-gouger, but a violent bandit or guerilla fighter.  Also, money changers and animal merchants were a necessary part of the normal functioning of the Temple, and no other sources from the time accuse the traders of foul play.

The second interpretation, which I think better fits the evidence, is that the Temple Cleansing is a prophetic, symbolic action, in a similar way to how the Triumphal Entry was a symbolic action.  Jesus has just proclaimed that Jerusalem would be destroyed in judgment, and He acts out that prophecy in the Temple, the symbolic heart of Jerusalem.  His actions would disrupt the Temple sacrifices for long after He leaves the scene, as the traders scurry around to gather their animals, count their coins, and restore order.  Jesus disrupts the sacrifices in the Temple to symbolize the coming time when its sacrifices would cease for good when Israel is defeated.

For Jesus, the Temple symbolizes Israel as a whole, just as it did for the prophet Jeremiah; Jeremiah had called the Temple a “den of robbers” because the Israel of his day had become corrupt, marked by injustice, oppression, and violence.  As Jesus has just prophesied, Israel still does not know the things that make for peace.  They have lost sight of their vocation to be the house of prayer for all nations, to be the light of the world, to be the embodiment of God’s justice.  Because of this, they will refuse to join Jesus’ movement of renewal, of true justice and peace, and instead will maneuver towards rebellion against Rome.

Jesus knew what the outcome of this rebellion would be.  Israel was expecting divine intervention to come to their aid, just as they did in Jeremiah’s day; surely God would act to save them from their enemies.  Just as in Jeremiah’s day, Jesus knew that God would not intervene to protect them.  By rejecting the Prince of Peace and choosing the path of rebellion, their fate would be sealed.  And so Jesus wept for the people He loved.

 

As we think through what this passage means for the church today, we should start with Jesus.  Jesus wept for the people He loved – the people who were confused, who rejected Him, who were placing themselves on the path to destruction.  Jesus was prophetic in the sense of predicting future events, in the sense of offering insightful criticism, but He was also prophetic in His love for the very people He was rebuking.

This is important to remember because by all accounts the church universal is struggling in its vocation.  The church is called to be one, and yet it is marked by schisms and discord.  The church is called to be holy, and, well, you don’t need me to tell you that we’re not doing so well with that either.  It’s easy to be critical in such an environment, and we do need good, healthy criticism to help us acknowledge that something is profoundly wrong.

But Jesus wept for the people He loved.  Now more than ever, we need a renewed sense of love for the wider church, including those parts from which we feel estranged.  We need a renewed sense of desire and longing for a church that lives up to its calling.  We need to take the small steps available to us that build towards that larger goal – to work towards unity in our own church and denomination, to work towards holiness in our own lives.

Most of all, what we need to do is pray.  Pray that the Holy Spirit may inspire the church universal to a renewed sense of vocation.  Pray that we may recognize how God has visited us in Christ.  Pray for vision of those small steps that are so easy to miss or ignore, that contribute to the larger unity and holiness of the church.

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And the Rock was Christ

A Sermon for St. Francis Anglican Church, Portland, OR.
August 13, 2017
Ninth Sunday After Trinity
Luke 
15:11-32; Corinthians 10:1-13

As the proverb goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  Humans are creatures of habit, and we tend to pick up the habits of those around us.  For most of us, this means that the wider culture, our friends, and, perhaps most of all, our families have a profound influence on our behaviors and our desires.

Most of us have probably heard a parent say in exasperation, “I don’t know where Johnny gets it from.”  Most of us have probably tried to hold back a smile, because little Johnny just lied, and that parent has the most unbelievable fishing stories.  Or Jane threw a temper tantrum, and that parent cannot drive across town without threatening all sorts of bodily harm to other drivers.

In the movie A Christmas Story, you’ll remember the scene where nine-year-old Ralphie helps his dad replace a flat tire, drops the lugnuts, and shouts a four letter word.  The parents are horrified, and wash out Ralphie’s mouth with soap, demanding to know which friend had taught him such a vulgar word.  Ralphie had of course learned the word from his dad.  Throughout the movie to this point, Ralphie’s dad has been constantly muttering curses.  Like father, like son.

In today’s epistle reading, Paul makes the same point to the Corinthian church.  But Paul does not talk about the idolatry and immorality of Corinth’s culture, or the Corinthian church’s outside friends, or their physical families.  Paul, a Jew, reminds the Corinthians, a group of Gentiles, about Israel’s desert wandering.  Paul claims that they are the Corinthians’ “fathers” as much as they are his.

For Paul, the church is the people of the new exodus, the people liberated through Christ’s death and resurrection.  Because of this, Jew and Gentile Christians are all spiritual descendants of Israel.  And in the same way that we learn about ourselves by observing our family’s habits, so Paul encourages the Corinthian church to learn from their fathers, the nation of Israel.  Paul encourages the church to read Israel’s story as their own family story.

If our story is Israel’s story, then our baptism, our liberation from the slavery of death, is Israel’s liberation from Egypt through the sea, their “baptism into Moses.”  Our nourishment from God through bread and wine is the manna and water that nourished Israel on its journey.  Paul even goes so far as to say that the rock the Israelites drank from was Christ.  This does not mean that we should ask ourselves whether Christ was igneous, metamorphic, or sedimentary.  Paul is helping us recognize that God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – has always been at work to reunite the larger human family, to gather us at one table, and to eat with us as His companions and friends.

You may have noticed the curious way that Paul words this in verse 4 – “For they drank from the spiritual rock which followed them.”  Paul here is drawing from an ancient Jewish tradition.  Rabbis saw that God provides Israel water from a rock right after being freed from Egypt in Exodus 17 and also much later in Numbers 20.  And both times they name the place Meribah. “Obviously,” the old rabbis thought, “this must be the same rock if it has the same name.  Which means – of course! – that this rock must have rolled alongside Israel through the desert.”  Hence, “the rock which followed them.”

As God provided water and spiritual reassurance to Israel through that rock, so God provides for us through Christ.  But, despite the baptism through the sea, despite the spiritual food and spiritual drink, Israel rebelled against God and found themselves under judgment.  Israel desired evil, committed idolatry and immorality, tested the Lord, and grumbled, and they faced the consequences.

The people of the first exodus learned God’s power as He freed them from Egypt, but they did not entirely learn what it meant that the living God was now dwelling in their midst.  As the people of the new exodus, who have the Spirit dwelling inside us, how much more are we called to live in a way that reflects God’s holiness.

As Paul says, we are those “upon whom the end of the ages has come.”  We bear witness to the new age that Christ’s death and resurrection has inaugurated, and even now experience a foretaste of God’s kingdom when we gather for our spiritual food and spiritual drink.  At the same time, the old, dying age continues on with frustratingly little change.  Like Israel, we too must continue to face the trials and temptations of living in the old, dying age – and we too are prone to wander.

After this fairly dark, demanding passage, Paul offers us comfort in the last verse – “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”  The words translated “temptation” and “tempted” in verse 13 mean either to tempt to do wrong, or to put through a trial, to test the character or integrity of someone or something.  There is some overlap here – a trial would not test our personal character unless we were tempted to give up.  Israel’s hunger tested their patience and faith, tempting them to grumble.

Paul’s words, then, apply as much to enduring illness and adversity as to resisting the urge to commit idolatry, lie, cheat, or steal.  We are not tempted or tested beyond our strength.  Not because of our great strength, but because of God’s provision; God is faithful.  In the words of a modern theologian, “God has given his people everything they need to worship him, to be his friends, and to eat with him.”*

That we are given “everything we need” does not mean everything we want.  Those “upon whom the end of the ages has come” will not always live lives free from suffering, free from adversity, free from injustice.  In fact, we are promised the opposite while the new and old ages continue to overlap.  We will encounter trials and temptations, and we will often feel overwhelmed, pushed to the brink.  But we have been given what we need to faithfully endure whatever comes our way.

He has given us Baptism into Christ, He has given us the spiritual food and spiritual drink of the Eucharist, and He has given us His Spirit to guide us.  We can be faithful because God Himself is faithful.  God Himself is in our midst as He was in the midst of Israel.

 

*Sam Wells, God’s Companions: Reimagining Christian Ethics.

Share Your Faith as You Can, Not as You Can’t

A Sermon for St. Francis Anglican Church, Portland, OR.
July 16, 2017
Fifth Sunday After Trinity
Luke 5:1-11; 1 Peter 3:8-15

I imagine most of us have been there at one point in our lives.  We are eating dinner with family or a group of coworkers, and our faith comes up – maybe it’s an offensive comment, maybe it’s as simple as the question, “What are you doing Sunday?” – and we immediately feel uncomfortable.  We’re anxious, we start to sweat, our mind goes blank.  We’re uncomfortable in part because we believe that God matters – in our lives as individuals and in the life of the world as a whole – and so we want others to see that God matters too.

And since we believe that God matters in our lives, we are also uncomfortable because we feel that we are somehow on the line.  If someone rejects our faith, we feel that they are in some way rejecting us too.  Even if you haven’t forsaken all possessions or taken a vow to live in a monastery, if you are at all committed to Christ, then this isn’t an abstract discussion; you are personally invested – something of your intelligence, your integrity, your sense of personal meaning is on the line.

We are uncomfortable, and so we pause to gather ourselves.  We scratch our face, avoid eye contact, and mumble a quick reply hoping someone will change the subject.  We walk away thinking of what we should have said.  Later on, still thinking about the conversation, we wish we were more prepared, maybe even feeling a little guilty.

It’s no wonder that most Christians avoid sharing their faith – we feel intimidated, unprepared, and, ultimately, we just feel inadequate.  There is some truth to this feeling of inadequacy, and today’s Gospel lesson presents good news and bad news concerning that truth.  The bad news first: yes, we are inadequate, and we will never be able to adequately speak of God’s love in this life or sufficiently demonstrate His goodness in our actions.

The good news is that God does not seem overly concerned about our inadequacy.  He has decided to work through us anyway to share His love in word and deed.

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In Luke 5, Jesus has been travelling around Galilee – the lake of Gennesaret is another name for the Sea of Galilee – healing the sick and preaching the good news of the Kingdom.  It seems that Jesus has chosen to use an inlet on the sea as a natural amphitheater, but the crowds have grown.  So Jesus sees Simon Peter’s boat, and asks him to put out a little bit from shore in order to continue teaching as the crowds fill in.

Jesus sits in the boat and preaches: He “fishes for people” from Simon’s boat.  Not one to ignore a good, down-home metaphor, Jesus then asks Simon to put out a little further from shore and let down the literal nets.  Simon Peter answers with more than a little hesitation, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

It’s easy to forget that before the invention of nylon, fishing with nets occurred almost exclusively at night.  Otherwise, the fish can see the nets and avoid them.  In addition, fish tend to be more active at night and rest during the day.  So Simon Peter’s concern isn’t just that they had no luck before.  The ideal time for fishing had past with no results; what chance was there now?

Jesus may be familiar with woodworking, but He obviously doesn’t know the first thing about fishing, and He commands Simon, who is a professional fisherman, to give it one more shot after a long night.  No one feels great after working hard with nothing to show for it, and no “expert” likes getting advice from a novice.  Yet Simon lowers his nets in faith – despite the obvious, without much hope of success.

Simon Peter’s faith is rewarded.  Apparently a gigantic school of blind, insomniac fish happen to be passing by at just that moment – the nets are strained, their boat rocks, they signal wildly for another boat while they try to secure the nets, and even so the two boats almost capsize with the weight of the catch.  When it’s all said and done, Simon Peter, James, and John come away with hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars worth of fish.

As the flurry and excitement dies down, Simon Peter recognizes the significance of what happened: He falls down at Jesus’ knees,* and says “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”  Earlier in the passage, Simon referred to Jesus as “Master,” and now he calls Him “Lord.”  The word translated “Lord,” Kyrie – you may recognize this from the liturgy – has a special significance for Luke in his gospel.  It has been used 30 times in the first few chapters, and every time it has been used to refer either to the God of Israel or to Jesus.  Through the word “Lord,” Luke is trying to identify Jesus as the God of Israel come in the flesh.

So in Jesus’ command over creation, in the fact that even the fish obey Him, Peter recognizes the divine power at work in Jesus, and he responds appropriately – with an awareness of his own inadequacy, he asks Jesus to leave him.

Jesus does not leave him, but commands Simon Peter to follow Him to become a fisher of people.  This is not a self-help message.  Jesus does not say, “Follow these seven steps.”  Nor does He say, “Actually, Peter, you are holy enough.” This is not a message about trying harder and not giving up – “Third time’s the charm.”

This is a message about our own inadequacy, but God’s intention to work through us anyway.

 

We too, are called to follow and imitate Jesus, and following Jesus includes inviting others to experience God’s Kingdom.  It’s important not to rationalize this away because we’re uncomfortable.

At the same time, it’s necessary to clarify what sharing our faith means and what it doesn’t mean.  Often times, I think we get uncomfortable about sharing our faith because we have some ideal that we think we have to live up to.  We might think that we have to have all the answers, or have a charismatic, outgoing personality, and so we get caught up in our own limitations.  Or maybe we think sharing our faith always involves striking up deep, intimate conversations with strangers, or that it involves awkward confrontations and accusations of sin.

A wise, old Benedictine abbot always counseled people who struggled with prayer, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”  “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”  His point was that you have to start where you are, and not with some ideal of how you should pray.

I wonder if we can’t also say, “Share your faith as you can, not as you can’t.”  If you’re the kind of person who has a few close friends, sharing your faith will most likely happen in that context – probably not in one conversation, but spread out over a number of years.  If your workplace is hostile to the Christian faith, sharing your faith may mean simply being a person of integrity there.  If you like reading, join a book club at the local library.  If you have extra time, volunteer for a worthy cause.  If you are going through a difficult season in life, recognize that your faithful perseverance is itself a profound witness to God’s presence.  And most of all, no matter what, pray – for wisdom, for opportunity, and most of all, for the Holy Spirit to be at work.

The point is to start where you are; to intentionally think through your opportunities and your personality, and not to let your inadequacy get in the way.  Chances are, that will still be challenging and uncomfortable.  But start where you are.  Share your faith as you can, not as you can’t.

 

 

*Tangential note – to my knowledge, there is no other example in Hebrew or Greek literature of someone falling at someone’s “knees.”  If someone was inventing this account or taking poetic license with details, they wouldn’t put “knees” but “feet.”  This detail, along with a few other markers, indicate that Luke’s account is likely based directly off of Peter’s own testimony of the miracle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Law of Christ

Paul instructs the church in Galatia, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the Law of Christ” (6:2).  Protestant commentators, especially from the Lutheran tradition, often see this as a tongue-in-cheek paradox, as if inbetween the lines Paul is saying, “So, if you’re wanting to be enslaved to a law, go ahead and do this ‘law,’ foolish Galatians.”  These Protestants contrast heavily the Law and the Gospel of faith without works – interpreted as without moral obligations.  And if this was the only reference to the Law of Christ, then this would make a certain amount of sense.  Paul elsewhere speaks of the Torah, or Mosaic Law, as something of a stopgap, holding things down until Christ appeared.  At best, the Torah plays in Paul’s thought the necessary role of setting the scene and developing characters so that Christ’s entrance onto the stage of history makes sense.

There are a number of references to a “law of Christ,” “law of liberty,” or similar in several strands of the New Testament (e.g. Gal. 6:2; 1 Cor. 9:28; Jam. 1:25, 2:8).  There’s enough similarity in contents that it’s very possible that a core of moral teachings for the New Covenant was recognized in the earliest Christian communities – a selection of Mosaic Laws recognized as still binding, the teaching of Christ (perhaps especially the group of sayings collected in the Sermon on the Mount), the example of Christ, and the Church’s experience of the Spirit’s work in their midst (Acts 10).

This makes sense especially given how the gospels portray Jesus.  In each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus spends significant time discussing ethical issues.  In Matthew especially, Jesus is the New Moses, giving a new Torah in the Sermon on the Mount.   A key part of Jesus’ ministry is to form a certain kind of community among His followers with distinctive communal practices.

The New Covenant has a new Law but not a new legalism – as with the Mosaic Law, our salvation does not depend on our performance but on God’s graceful provision.  But we are called to live out the Kingdom of God in the power of the Holy Spirit, to let our light shine before others that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven.

Mark 5:1-20

If what I’ve said in previous posts regarding Jewish expectations about the Kingdom of God at the time of Jesus are true – that they expected the Messiah to throw off the Roman yoke and finally establish the Kingdom of God – and if Jesus was fulfilling this hope, albeit in a surprising way, the natural question would then be, “Well, what about Rome?”

The beginning of the answer, I believe, can be found in Mark 5:1-20. Jesus and the disciples cross over the sea into Gentile territory. They encounter a man possessed by a demon, a demon named “Legion.” We usually think of demons as little ghosts which fly around and sometimes get inside people’s heads and make them do weird things. In the ancient world, however, the demonic realm was also seen as working behind what is sometimes called social or structural evil – the evil in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. To put it another way, when we think of demons, it might be better to think of something like racism in America rather than little ghosts; racism is a scourge bigger than any single person or group and often is working subtly at the subconscious level. The ancient world often believed that demons were at work behind nations, religions, and belief systems (Paul often talks about powers and authorities in this regard; Daniel 10:13 is another pertinent example). So when we see Jesus confronting the demon named Legion, we shouldn’t think that the demon is just being a smart aleck; Jesus is confronting the forces of evil that stand behind the evil of the Roman Legions and the several other foreign armies which have oppressed Israel over the centuries.

In fact, the entire passage is filled with military imagery. Besides the more obvious “Legion,” Jesus “gives permission,” the Greek word being a military command. The “herd” could be a double entendre; the word also could indicate a group of military recruits. The pigs “charged” into the sea. Even the sea could be seen as an allusion to the defeat of Egypt’s army at the Red Sea during the Exodus. And look at the big picture that emerges: the Messiah drives the Legion of pigs into the sea. How do you think that would sound to a first century zealot? This isn’t the decisive victory (the cross and resurrection will be), but Jesus wins the battle against the true enemy.

So what about Rome? Mark’s answer is that Rome, as hard as it might have been for an ancient Jew to imagine, is not the real enemy. In fact, for the thousands of Jews hoping for – if not actually planning – armed rebellion, Rome is a distraction and, as Mark will show later, a deadly distraction at that.

Just as Jesus’ kingdom is a different sort of kingdom, so Jesus’ revolution is against a different sort of enemy. Jesus is targeting the very forces of evil behind Rome and every other evil empire. This isn’t to say that Jesus’ kingdom isn’t really a kingdom, or that it’s a “heavenly” kingdom in the sense of somewhere other than the material world marked by pain and injustice. It simply means that it operates differently than our normal expectations – a nonviolent revolution against the forces of evil at work in the world, a revolution establishing a kingdom that does not compete with the old, dying kingdoms of this age.

It’s important to add that the Kingdom of God will not be fully established until Jesus comes again. In the meantime, our influence on the larger society will come and go. We cannot point to anything or any group and say, without ambiguity, “There is the Kingdom of God.” But the church is called to live out, through the Spirit, the way of the coming Kingdom of God by being a community that turns the other cheek, gives to those who ask, rubs elbows with sinners and outcasts, forgives those who have wronged us, reconciles people to God and reconciles people to people. When we do so, we get a taste of the Kingdom of God. It’s a revolution that starts small and insignificant – one might even say like a mustard seed – but is not any less social or political for doing so.

Mark 1:40-45

[This is a sermon that ended up never being preached.  I’d tweak quite a bit if preaching this now – the focus of this passage is less on Rome, though I think the gist still applies to the opening chapters of Mark in general.]

I want you to imagine what it was like to be a leper in Jesus’ day. Imagine that you wake up one morning, and as you put on your clothes and get ready for work, you notice a few ashy spots on your skin. You’re afraid, but you tell yourself it’s nothing and that they’ll go away. A week passes and there are a few more spots. You’ve been trying to hide as many as you can, but they’re becoming harder and harder to conceal. People are starting to give you dirty looks as they pass you on the street. You try to keep it together and just keep moving, hoping it’ll run its course and the worry will be over.

Another week passes, and the priest comes to visit you. He says, “I’m sorry. I’ve tried to overlook it, but it’s obvious to everyone and people are concerned. You have leprosy; you are unclean.”   The priest then tells you what you already know – that you have to move outside of town, that you can no longer take part in the community festivals or the religious gatherings, and that you must shout out “unclean” whenever you do go about public places.

Years go by. Maybe decades. Even though you become used to the new routine, the pain of being “unclean,” of being ostracized, never goes away. Long before the disease takes your life, leprosy causes a social death – the shame and loneliness of being an outcast. You long not for your health as much as all the old relationships that you once enjoyed and took for granted.

 

This – or something very much like it – was the experience of the unnamed leper who approaches Jesus in today’s gospel reading. He has lived in a state of social death, ostracized, an outcast. But – he has heard rumors spreading through the many villages of Galilee like wildfire. Rumors of a prophet roaming the countryside, proclaiming, “The kingdom of God is near,” within earshot of Roman officials and their Jewish collaborators. Rumors of miraculous healings.

The leper, all but dead in the eyes of his community, sees a chance. This prophet Jesus is surely focused on bigger things – the kingdom of God – but maybe he’d be willing to spare a moment even for an unclean leper of no apparent consequence. He approaches Jesus and says, in v. 40, “If you will, you can make me clean.” The leper approaches with humility, kneeling to the ground, and confidence as well – his question is not if Jesus can heal him but if Jesus would help even a lowly, good-for-nothing leper. He’s heard the rumors of healings and he believes them.

Notice also that he doesn’t say, “you can heal me” or “you can take away this disease.” His concern is not with the disease so much as with being unclean, the social death. He died to the community when he was pronounced “unclean,” and he wants to be restored, to find new social life.

Jesus, in response to the man’s approach and request, is in v. 41 “moved by pity.” Some translations say here that Jesus is “angry,” which may be a little confusing. There is some debate among scholars as to which word the author of this gospel, Mark, wrote, with some translations favoring “pity” and others “angry,” but in my opinion, there is wider and earlier evidence for “moved by pity.” Jesus’ compassion is stirred by the toll this disease has taken on this man’s life.

Of course, Jesus is willing, and so Jesus heals the man by reaching out and touching him. Jesus often heals people through some sort of touch, but other times He heals at a distance, sometimes from miles away. Jesus did not have to touch this man in order to heal him, and Mark didn’t have to include this detail. Yet Mark not only includes this but emphasizes it – Jesus “stretched out His hand and touched him.” Sometimes you will hear people say that Jesus was breaking the law by touching an unclean man, but this is inaccurate: touching a leper would make him unclean, but being unclean isn’t necessarily breaking the law. And rather than Jesus becoming unclean by touching the leper, the leper becomes clean at Jesus’ holy touch.

This unnamed leper, who lives outside of town so that his disease won’t spread, who must shout “unclean” as he goes about in order to avoid even accidentally bumping into anyone else, finds healing in Jesus’ touch. This unnamed leper, who probably hasn’t been touched by anyone in months if not years, finds healing through physical contact. Can you think of a more meaningful way to reintroduce someone to society who has been told they cannot be touched?

 

It is, no doubt, a small gesture, and as meaningful as it may have been for the man, we could easily think: this is one leper and Jesus is, after all, preaching the kingdom of God. We may wonder if He shouldn’t be focusing on bigger things. He should be conscripting troops, hobnobbing with people of wealth and power, maneuvering for the revolution that He was promising by preaching another kingdom than Caesar’s kingdom. Why is Jesus stopping to heal a lowly, good-for-nothing leper when there are more pressing matters at hand? What kind of leader, what kind of Messiah, builds His kingdom with small but meaningful gestures? We can imagine the oppressed, over-taxed villagers around Jesus saying, “Drive those Roman imperial pigs into the sea, then heal all the lepers you want!”

But Jesus, as always, is horrible at managing the PR and logistics of a revolution, at least by our standards. One might at least expect Jesus to capitalize on this miraculous power, to send the healed and the witnesses out, proclaiming His miracles and the kingdom of God. Instead, in v. 43 Jesus sternly silences the man whom He cleansed and sends him away. He instructs the man to show himself to the priests and make the sacrificial offerings which the Law, the Torah, commands.

Jesus wants the healing, at least for now, to be kept a secret. But why? Doesn’t this go against what we’ve been taught as good, Bible-believing evangelicals? Why doesn’t Jesus seem to care more about “sharing Jesus?”

Jesus wants it kept a secret because He knows the people will misunderstand who He is and what He is about. The “Jesus” label can be stuck on anything; it is the real Jesus who is important. What good is “sharing Jesus” when the wrong “Jesus” is being shared?

Let me explain. The Jews at Jesus’ time longed for freedom – to throw off the chains of the Roman kingdom that ruled over them. They longed for freedom with an especial zeal because God had promised to establish His kingdom for them through a future leader, the Messiah. And God promised that the Messiah’s kingdom would encompass the whole world, and that it would usher in a time of peace among nations, healing of all diseases, and even the final defeat of death itself. The kingdom of God meant both freedom and blessing to an extent hardly imaginable; the kingdom of God would eliminate evil, the curses of sin; in short, the kingdom of God would bring life.

The Jews at Jesus’ time thought, understandably, that you cannot have the kingdom of God without the military defeat of this world’s kingdoms, specifically the Roman Empire. So when rumors that “the kingdom of God is near” spread around the villages, the images which floated along with them were of power, intrigue, and revolt – blood and iron. The people naturally hoped that this prophet may himself be the Messiah, the king and military leader who would lead the revolution and make all this happen.

Through Jesus, however, the life of the kingdom of God was breaking into the world without the military defeat of this world’s kingdoms. It was a revolution of a completely different sort; a revolution that did not seek to fight Rome with Rome’s weapons. In fact, it wasn’t a revolution against Rome at all; it was a revolution against a deeper enemy.

Since Jesus knew that He was preaching a different sort of revolution than what the people longed for, He wanted to keep some of His activity secret for now. He knew that if what He was preaching was true, conflict with the powers-that-be would be inevitable. The time would come for conflict – and, ultimately, death – but not yet. He wanted time to teach and live out what the kingdom of God was truly like, to teach and live out what it meant to live into the kingdom of God when the kingdoms of this world still seemed to be going strong.

But, as you can imagine, it’s hard to keep the kind of miracle that Jesus performed a secret, and the secret leaks out. The man who was cleansed disobeys and, v. 45, speaks openly, spreading the news to all and sundry. And all and sundry flock to Jesus, some hoping for healing, some hoping for a prophetic word, and some hoping for liberation and revolution.

 

Throughout the gospel of Mark, all of the people, including even Jesus’ disciples, misunderstood Jesus because what God was accomplishing through Jesus was so different than what they expected. The kingdom of God is not a kingdom which is established through blood and iron, at least not the blood of soldiers and enemies. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the peace, wholeness, and life of the eternal kingdom of God enters into this world even as the old kingdoms – Rome, Israel, America – go about their business as normal. Jesus has already won the victory, so there’s no point in the blood and iron of ordinary revolutions.

The fight is over, the victory is won; we’re just slow on the uptake.

To see what the kingdom of God is like, we cannot think of how kingdoms and nations normally operate. Instead we have to listen to Jesus and look at what He did. We get a good picture of what the kingdom of God is like by looking at the healing of this unnamed leper.

The kingdom of God is not “above” this leper in the sense of being some airy, fluffy, “spiritual” kingdom. After all, the kingdom of God shows itself in the healing of this leper’s physical body. Nor is the kingdom of God “above” this lowly, good-for-nothing leper, in the realm of wealth and power, big business and big politics. We completely miss the point if we only talk about how nice Jesus was to take a break from His kingdom work to heal this leper. This is not a break; this is the kingdom of God breaking into the world.

The kingdom of God comes through the raising up of the poor and lowly, through the reaching out to the outcast, through the healing of the sick, through the forgiving and reconciling of enemies, through even small but meaningful gestures like touching a leper to bring healing.

 

In short, the healing of the leper shows us that the kingdom of God is breaking into the world, in part, through Jesus’ small, meaningful gesture of touching a leper to heal him.

Jesus heals the leper with a touch, an act of intimate care. The gesture of touching this leper is meaningful for the man because, as a leper, physical contact with the clean and healthy was forbidden. Jesus’ touch was a symbol of the life being miraculously restored to this previously diseased, untouchable man. As such, the act was also a symbol of the redeeming, restoring life miraculously breaking into the whole world. Into the whole world, but starting small. Like a small seed that grows and spreads out into a big tree, like a little yeast which gets kneaded into a lump of dough.

The church witnesses to Jesus and His kingdom by proclaiming who Jesus is and what He has accomplished, and also by living like Jesus did. Sometimes this may be dramatic miracles and wonders, or loud protests of injustice, but for most of us, most of the time, our witness will be through small, meaningful gestures, gestures which symbolically point to the new life breaking into the world through Jesus and His church.

 

Two of my spiritual heroes are Chris and Phileena Hueurtz, the founders of Word Made Flesh, a missions organization. On the one hand, the work of Chris and Phileena and others at WMF is a pretty large gesture, moving from America and other wealthy countries to some of the poorest slums and most desperate red-light districts in the world, but don’t let that distract you. Their purpose is not to end global poverty or injustice, or any other impossibly big ideas, though they do speak out against these evils. Their purpose is, first of all, to be present in these slums, because being present opens up opportunities to be moved by pity and to make small, meaningful gestures like touching the untouchable to heal.

I’ll share one story. There is a WMF team in Bangkok’s red-light district. Although they cannot end human trafficking or child prostitution, the team members try to do what they can, first by being present and forming friendships. Sometimes they are able to help men, women, and children to get out. Most of the time, they cannot; they can only be a voice of love and concern and value.

One night, a team member saw a friend, a young boy, forced to work at a club in the red-light district. The boy was forced to dance outside the door in women’s clothing to attract customers inside. After the dance was over, humiliated and trapped, the boy began crying in a corner. The team member went over, put an arm around the boy, and cried too.

One could easily point out that this act has done nothing to solve the problem of the exploitation of children. One could argue that it hasn’t really accomplished anything at all – and there is some truth to it: the boy is still trapped. For those with eyes to see, however, the act reflects, in however small a way, the kingdom of God breaking into the world. To a boy told that his only worth is what he can earn this club, the act communicates that this is not right, that he is not alone in his suffering, and that his life has value beyond its market price.

God may be calling you across the world, across town, across the street, or to stay right where you are – I don’t presume to know. Wherever you are, wherever you may end up, opportunities to witness to the new life of God’s kingdom will appear. Don’t miss them because their small. Remember that the kingdom of God can break into this world even through small acts of mercy, even through small gestures of care and concern.

 

Go now and proclaim what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is proclaimed to the poor.