A few years ago I had a young man in my life whose name was Mark. Mark had been diagnosed with the HIV virus two years earlier and now was hospitalized with advanced AIDS. I had visited on a number of occasions, but this particular day Mark was especially weak and sick. After I had shared a prayer with him and prepared to leave, Mark looked up at me and with tears running down his face, asked, "Are you afraid to hold me for a while?" I do believe that was one of the most precious embraces of my life.
Lepers in Jesus' earthly day were to cry out, "Unclean, unclean!" And they were to stay away from the uncontaminated folks by living in the cemeteries, the catacombs. No one was to touch them.
Mark tells us about an encounter that Jesus had much like the moment I had with Mark. I'm reading from the New International Version of the Bible. "A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, 'If you are willing, you can make me clean.' Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. 'I am willing,' he said. 'Be clean.' Immediately the leprosy left the man and he was cured.
Oh, if I could have cured Mark, I would have been the happiest person alive that day. Can you even begin to imagine the joy that Jesus experienced when through the power of God he was able to touch and heal? My hands were full of compassion for Mark and I must wonder if holding him when even his family would not come near him was ultimately a form of healing. Compassion is a God-given emotion that evolves into spiritual healing even when we cannot make a person physically well. If I didn't believe that, ministry would lose its meaning for me and perhaps for you as well.
Imagine for me for a little while concerning people who need the healing in our day and time that Christ offers. I recently experienced the death of my dearest friend of 43 years. Her name was Joyce and she died of cancer that was incurable. I don't think I ever entertained the idea that she needed to be made clean as they did with lepers. Her illness was not a physically visible cancer; it was hidden inside her brain until it manifested itself in a grand mal seizure.
When Jesus walked the earth, it was the priest's job to pronounce a person stricken with leprosy as unclean. When my friend was diagnosed with a glio-blastome, it was my job to call her three children, now young adults, and tell them of their mother's illness. We were all on our knees praying, "Oh, God, if you are willing, make her well!" I don't believe for a moment that it was not God's will for my friend to be well and to live for many, many more years. She was only 56.
Dr. Leslie Weatherhead in his powerful book called "The Will of God" helped me to understand that God has three wills. The intentional will of God is that we live on this earth a full, happy, healthy life. That's what God intends when we are born. Life is a gift given by a loving creator to each one of us. The second will of God, as Dr. Weatherhead shared in his book, is the circumstantial will of God. We are created into a freedom of our own wills and the circumstances that surround us in our daily lives. If this were not so, we would be mere puppets on a string and God would be the great puppeteer manipulating us, protecting some from danger and killing others off in car accidents or natural disasters. But this is not how God acts. God gives us the freedom of choice so that our lives will have meaning and responsibility. We don't know what circumstances resulted in my friend having a brain tumor. We don't know why this man had leprosy. With God's help, with valid research, with medication and surgery, we are beginning to find answers for our modern-day symbolic leprosy called cancer. Weatherhead continues with the third will of God--the ultimate will. Ultimately, God's will will be done and, ultimately, the man with leprosy was made well. For those of us who believe in eternal life, we believe that Mark and my friend Joyce are now well again. Their bodies ceased to live as we experience earthly life, but their spirits are alive forever. Ultimately, God has had God's way.
"I am willing," Jesus responded to the leper. "Be well!"
Jesus was willing to run the risk of catching leprosy and of becoming ritually unclean himself in order to lift this man up and make him whole.
Bill Gaither wrote a wonderful song in 1963 entitled, "He Touched Me." Listen to the words:
Shackled by a heavy burden
neath a load of guilt and shame
then the hand of Jesus touched me
And now I am no longer the same.
Since I met this blessed Savior
Since he cleansed and made me whole
I will never cease to praise him
I'll shout it while eternity rolls.
I feel sure that Bill had this text in mind when he wrote that song, for as we continue with verse 43, Mark tells us:
"After Jesus had healed the man, he strictly warned him not to tell anyone what had happened. Just go and show yourself to the priest that you are well. Then take a gift to the temple as Moses commanded and everyone will know that you have been healed." People with leprosy had to be examined by a priest and told that they were well, that they were clean, before they could once again live a normal life in the Jewish community. The gift that Moses commanded was the sacrifice of some lambs together with flour mixed with olive oil.
But, bless his heart, he just couldn't stop celebrating! If he were alive today, I think he would sing the response to Gaither's song:
He touched me, O, he touched me,
And, O, the joy that floods my soul!
Something happened and now I know
He touched me and made me whole.
Out of the cemetery and into life once more. Lord, I'm sorry, but I can't keep quiet.
Mark says in verse 45 the man talked about it so much and told so many people that Jesus could no longer go openly into a town. He had to stay away from the towns but people still came to him from everywhere.
We can understand historically why Jesus instructed him to tell no one. Just go and obey the law. Show yourself to the priest. Get a bill of clean health, then go, thank God and make a sacrifice of appreciation. Jesus was a Jew and he understood his Scriptures. This man is so happy he cannot keep from showing it, and in the process, Jesus' reputation as healer spreads to the point that he can't even move about in the towns.
The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary says: "On the one hand, Jesus demonstrates his respect for established tradition concerning purification of persons who have had scale diseases. On the other hand, the man's response shows that nothing should keep people from telling others about what Jesus has done for them."
I don't believe for a moment that it is God's will that people suffer. What kind of a God would give us life only to punish us with leprosy or cancer, or earthquakes? And if this life is not filled with meaning and a call to serve and to love our fellow human beings, and if this life is just a test to see if we can pass in order to go to heaven, then why would this great God who is like a father and mother to us send us here to run the risk of failing the exam. If this is the case, a loving God would have just created us all in heaven in the first place so we wouldn't run the risk of failure. Logic would lead you to that conclusion, don't you think?
But the truth that Jesus shares is made clear in the healing of this leper. I want you to be well; I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly. It is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom for, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you. God wants us to live a full and happy life on this earth--that's the gift, all wrapped up in the arms of a healer named Jesus Christ. But when the circumstances become such that physical life cannot continue on this earth, the hand of God touches us and in death God receives us back into his eternal will. This reality keeps me sane and in love with God.
When I have to turn loose of the physical presence of a Mark or my best friend, my parents, loved ones, all who have gone before me, I feel a deep sadness for people who do not know the peace and joy that comes with a touch of the hand of the Great Healer. How sad to think that any child of God lives in the places of the dead while they are yet alive. We will find a cure for AIDS. And, yes, even cancer! We will lift people up out of the circumstances of poverty and crime and war and extravagance and apathy, but we will only be able to heal our wounded souls by allowing the touch of Christ to come from our own risk-taking efforts to change the circumstances.
I remember a little poem from my childhood that began, "Christ has no hands but our hands to do his work today." This may sound simplistic at first, but it is deeply profound. Compassion is our job as Christians, to show mercy and to love justice will bring healing to our nation, to the world, and all the individuals living on this planet earth. Leprosy is not the problem it was when Jesus walked the earth. Thank God! But we are still so in need of healing.
One thing is crystal clear to me as I study the Bible. In the beginning God created all things and when God created human beings, God trusted us. God gave us dominion over all that God had created. Dominion, according to Webster's dictionary, means "supreme authority." We've not done so well in caring for all that God created and continues to create. The need for healing is still great in our human relationships, in our efforts to alleviate poverty, in our research for cures to human ills, in our efforts to stop pollution, in our search for answers to the problems of crime and war, but the fact remains, we are trusted by God to heal these problems.
In a few short weeks, we will enter the season of Lent and draw near to the Cross of Christ. I wrote a short poem for us to ponder as we move toward Lent in this year of our Lord, 2000.
It goes like this:
The skeptic stood at the foot of the cross and asked,
"What happens now to the work you've done?"
And Jesus whispered, "I've my disciples to carry on!"
"Well, what happens if they fail you, Son of Man?"
the skeptic sneered.
"I have no other plan," Jesus sighed,
And then he died.
We are his only plan for ridding the world of leprosy, the diseases of heart and mind and soul and body that keep us from being whole. And like the leper made well, we will need to tell everyone about this Savior who touches us and makes us whole!
Let us pray:
Gracious and loving God, we know that you did not give us life because you couldn't think of anything else to do. We know that this is not a test where we pass or fail. It's a gift, a gift to be lived to its fullest, a time upon this earth when we can be Christ to one another if we will run the risk of touching, if we will just run the risk of being the answer to our own prayers, if we will walk so in harmony with the Savior of the world that we will see all of those people who need to just be held for a while, that we will see all of those people who need our researching, our thoughtfulness, and our caring in everyday life. Help us to understand that the one who gave his life for us really had no other plan, we are it, and if we do not pick up our cross and daily follow him, then we will have to admit at the end of our life on this earth, we failed the one who never fails us. We pray this prayer in his name and for our sakes. Amen.