Epiphany 6B

February 06, 2012

  • The Lectionary Gospel

    Mark 1:40-45

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Comments and Observations

    This is a short passage and a short Lectionary selection in most every way but it’s ironic that the big event of the passage occupies less space than the aftermath.   In the next section of these sermon starters we’ll look at the aftermath but here we’ll zero in on the brief exchange that gets this little story rolling.

    In the Greek of Mark 1:41 Jesus’ reply to this leper is wonderfully brief but powerfully revealing.  Although in English we are forced to use a few more words, in Greek there are only two: Thelo.  Katharistheti.   The man said, “If you are willing,” and Jesus snappily replies, “Willing!”  The man said, “You can make me clean,” and Jesus says “Cleansed!”   And that’s all it took for this miracle to happen.

    It’s a curious exchange in some ways.  The man does not cry out for mercy the way some people do in the gospels.  He does not directly ask Jesus to heal him.  Indeed, his words to Jesus are neither plea nor question, neither imperative nor demand, but instead a simple conditional clause: If you are willing, you can heal.   It’s a simple statement of fact, an observation that could just as well have been spoken by some detached observer as by the person desperate for healing.   It’s similar to someone’s saying, “If you step on the gas pedal, the car will go faster.”  Yes, true enough.  A simple statement of “If . . . Then.”

    But, of course, in this case these words were spoken by a man with clear pleading in his voice and who was down on his knees in desperation even as he spoke so there was no missing the fact that this was no idle request or cool observation of facts.   It reminds me of the time Johnny Carson had a small marmoset crawl up to the top of his scalp during one of the Tonight Show broadcasts.   After the little critter had been up there for a little while Johnny said to the zoo official who had brought the animal, “OK, well, I guess you can remove him from there now if you want to.”  But the way Mr. Carson said it made it clear that this was not one option among many that he wanted to animal handler to consider—he wanted the marmoset out of his hair.   Now!

    “If you are willing . . .”   We know what the leper meant—he was hoping like crazy that Jesus would be willing.   Still, it’s a curious way to frame the issue.   Jesus’ swift and brief response is also interesting as he essentially seems to give a version of the exuberant response, “Ready, Willing, and Able, Sir!”  Yes, Jesus is willing.   He’s even eager.   And he is surely able.   If there is one thing the gospels make clear, it is that whenever someone approached Jesus for healing or cleansing or for most anything else, Jesus was indeed willing to extend his hand and bring some shalom back into chaotic and broken lives.

    In fact, there is a sense in which all the goodness of the Gospel is contained in that little Greek word Jesus employed: Thelo!  Willing!  There’s more grace tucked in there than we may at first appreciate.   Yes, God is willing to heal, to save.  That’s why God sent his only Son into the world in the first place.  Salvation is available.  The resources are there.  And God is willing—more than willing—to see the dream of our restoration realized.

    That’s good to know because on any given Sunday we preachers stand before lots of people in our congregations who have come to church wondering if God is willing to help them.  Is God there for them or not?  Is God on their side or not?  Of course, we cannot promise anyone instant healing or instant success.   Mark 1:40-45 shows us Jesus’ willingness eagerly and happily to heal this leper.   But as we all know, even though Jesus walked around his whole life long with that kind of willingness welling up within him, not everyone in Palestine was healed while Jesus was on the earth.  Not every leper was cleansed, not every blind person could see again just because Jesus passed through a given town or village, not every person who died during Jesus’ ministry got raised back up but only a few that we know of. 

    And we can no more know the whys and wherefores of all that in Jesus’ day than we can know just why even yet today some prayers for healing in the church appear to get answered and others appear to go unanswered.  Some cancer-stricken members of our congregations get better, others quickly die.  Some rocky marriages get put back together and some end in bitter divorces that scar all kinds of people in the community, starting with children.

    We know God is willing to heal and to restore but as when Jesus was here, for now that willingness does not automatically translate into a world shot through with nothing but shalom.   These are mysteries of faith the depths of which the church has never finished plumbing even all these centuries later.

    But what we can proclaim to everyone in our pews on a given Sunday morning—and what a passage like Mark 1 gives us opportunity to proclaim—is that God is willing, God is on our side, God is ready and available.  Even when we cannot know the ins and outs as to why specific people suffer in specific ways that are not always cured or healed on the spot, what we can know and so proclaim is that none of that separates us from the love of our God in Christ and also that none of that means God is anything less than willing to keep on working toward the complete restoration of all things—a goal that he will surely accomplish through Christ and in Christ.

    Mark 1 reminds us that when we look out over a congregation, we may well discern in the eyes of those staring up at us a question that trembles in the silence of all our hearts at one time or another: Willing?  Is God willing?   The good news of the gospel is to bring these people to the feet of Jesus whose compassion always conveys the same message: Willing!   Willing indeed!  And in God’s good time, we will be healed.

    Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address

    As noted in the first section of these sermon starters, it’s curious that the aftermath of the miracle takes up relatively more space here than the miracle itself, which takes place with great dispatch and is narrated in Mark’s typically spare style with a great economy of words.  Jesus speaks a scant two words to make the healing happen: Willing!   Cleansed!   But then he issues a stern warning to the man to keep this quiet and simply fulfill the letter of the Law to show himself as healed to the priests so that he could take up his proper place in the community.  The man does not do so and Jesus is thus hindered in even getting around much due to the clamor that soon accompanies him as word of his wonder-working power “goes viral” as we say today.

    It’s curious, though, that Jesus asks that the man go to the priests.   What’s that all about?  Why would Jesus care about such a thing?   Well, perhaps this is a place where the reminders we get from N.T. Wright about Jesus’ connection to Israel and to the Old Testament can help.  Jesus did not come to abolish all that had come before.  He himself said he had not come to end the Law and the Prophets—that is, essentially, the entire core of what we call the Old Testament—but to fulfill them.   Jesus was God’s Messiah and since he was himself God in the flesh, his return to Israel was the return of the King, long promised by Ezekiel and others. 

    Jesus had come to restore community where community had fractured, to restore a worshiping community for his Father.   The leper had been ostracized, banned from worship and from the community generally.   He could not properly worship God or serve God until he was restored to his people.   Now, you might think that as the incarnate Son of the Living God Jesus so far out-stripped the priests in importance that he’d not bother to tell anyone to follow the letter of the Law and have some priests give a stamp of approval.   Why could that possibly matter given what the Son of God had just done?    But that’s simply not the case.   Community matters.  Worship matters.  Jesus did not come to create a following that was free-wheeling and full of Lone Ranger types.  He came to restore fellowship, to restore a worshiping community.  It mattered that this healed leper do things right.

    There might be a lesson for us in both the fact that this was Jesus’ wish and in the fact that he did not follow through.   Because by doing what Jesus asked him not to do, people started latching on to Jesus for all the wrong reasons.  They wanted to get something from him, wanted to see some razzle-dazzle, wanted to be entertained.   But that was never the point nor the purpose of Jesus’ ministry or life.   He came to sacrifice himself finally to restore the very worshiping community of Israel—soon to include the entire world inside a New Israel—and people needed to stick with him for the long haul of his ministry (all the way to the cross) for that to become clear.

    When we selfishly pursue our own agendas, when we are more interested in ourselves than in the larger worshiping community that Jesus cherishes, we actually mess things up, we get out ahead of our Master, which is not the disciple’s role, of course.   Maybe we can hardly blame this leper for his enthusiasm and in the longest possible run, nothing deterred Jesus’ ministry trajectory, of course.  Still, when even the Savior who saves us by grace tells us that it’s still important also to follow the Law, we do well to listen. 

    Textual Points

    Mark’s description of Jesus’ going to “lonely” places in verse 45 invokes the same Greek word (here in adjective form) as was used in Mark 1:12 for “the wilderness/desert.” The Greek is eremos, and this isn’t the only place in Mark where there seems to be a theological wordplay going on as Mark contrasts “lonely” and deserted wastelands with the sudden appearance of abundance. In Mark 6:39 at the Feeding of the 5,000, Mark startles us readers when he describes how Jesus had the crowds be seated “on the GREEN grass.” Readers familiar with the N.T. know how seldom colors are included. So why would Mark make a point of saying the grass was green (an obvious point in any event)? Perhaps it’s because earlier in that same story Mark had again told us more than once that they were in an eremos place. But even in deserted wastelands of death, Jesus becomes a font of life. So also at the end of Mark 1: Jesus goes out to lonely and deserted places, the people follow him anyway, and life busts out all over even there.

    Illustration Idea

    Nothing succeeds in America like success, they say. We like winners and brush aside losers. Let me throw out some names for you: Alfred Landon, James Cox, John Davis, Charles Hughes, Alton Parker. Sound familiar? Probably not. Yet every one of them was so important and well thought of that at some point in the twentieth century each was a nominee for President of the United States. Millions voted for them, for a while their names were plastered all over the place. But then each one lost, of course, and in America, that's that.

    We are a people in love with power and success, and this surely is one area among many that the gospel needs to address in our particular cultural context. Not unlike the people in Jesus' own day, we are swift to seize on anything that looks powerful and dazzling. The bigger the congregation, the more faithful we assume. We equate success, as the world defines it, with the work of the Holy Spirit because we can scarcely wrap our minds around the possibility that there could ever be an outwardly "successful" church that might actually work against the fundamentals of the gospel. "They must be doing something right," we say to each other about successful restaurants, enterprising entrepreneurs, and also church leaders who sell millions of books and draw large throngs of people.

    And sometimes they are doing something right in the best sense. There are lots of people who are both faithful to Christ and who are successful in generating enthusiasm for the gospel through books that sell well, congregations that attract many members, and so on. Still, Jesus' desire to keep things quiet in Mark’s gospel—quiet enough so that people could follow him all the way to the cross–reminds us that whether or not we prove to be wildly popular, it is always a quiet and careful and humble apprehension of the gospel that is key. Jesus' own example of humble servanthood comes as a critique of our own overweening tendency to be enamored with all that is glitzy and eye-popping. We should be wary if the Jesus we worship fits too snugly into any cultural context on this earth.

    We could better be a little less successful, a little more quiet and "secretive" if that's what it takes to draw people down that long road of discipleship that eventually encounters a terrible cross. The apostle Paul eventually delighted to declare, "I have been crucified with Christ!" So it must be for us all. We need to be crucified with Christ. We must die to self, die to our desires for worldly success, die to our American identity, die to ego and pride, die to anything that hinders Jesus from instructing us in the full truth of his gospel. "I am the way," Jesus once said. "Nothing succeeds like success," we often say. In each of our lives, we must choose which of those sayings we want to adopt as our own.

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    2 Kings 5:1-14

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 30

    Author: Doug Bratt