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“Spread the News!”
Mark 1:40-45


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany—February 12, 2012

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

For the past several Sundays the Gospel Readings have focused on miracles that Jesus performed: driving out demons; healing St. Peter’s mother-in-law from a fever, and many other healings; and in today’s Gospel Reading, cleansing a man from leprosy.  There is an interesting comment included in the Gospel of John about the miracles of Jesus: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.”  So, we are told that the Gospel writers were selective about which miracles of our Lord they report.

Matthew in his Gospel gives us some idea of the immense number of miracles Jesus must have performed: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the Good News of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness. . .  Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet, and he healed them.”  So, it seems that only a fraction of the miracles Jesus performed are actually recorded in detail in the Gospels.

Why were the Gospel writers so selective about which miracles of our Lord they included?  In ancient times books were written on continuous scrolls, usually made out of papyrus, a paper produced from a reedy plant.  There was simply a practical limit to how long such a scroll could be.  The typical scroll on which ancient biographies were written was around 30 feet long, about from here over to our Baptistery.  Much beyond that and you would have to make the book two scrolls, which would double the cost, and make it much more cumbersome to use and to carry, and therefore more difficult to circulate widely.

Although the four Gospels which tell the life of Christ vary in length, it’s probably no accident that each one will fit onto one ancient scroll.  Because, if you really wanted something to spread and become well-known, practically speaking, it had to be limited to one scroll.  John in his Gospel probably alludes to this when tells us why the Gospel writers found it necessary to be selective in what they reported: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose not even the whole world would have room for the books that would be written.”

Because the Gospel writers were selective about which miracles of our Lord they report, when a particular miracle is included, especially in more than one Gospel, that makes us ask, “Why?”  The healing of a man with leprosy recorded in today’s Gospel Reading from Mark also occurs in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Out of all the healing miracles Jesus performed, why is this particular miracle included by three out of the four Gospel writers?

“A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean.’”  In the ancient world leprosy was considered the worst possible disease, because it was a slow, painful, living death.  And, because it was highly contagious, until recently those afflicted with leprosy usually were forced to isolate themselves from their families and society for the rest of their lives, in lepers’ colonies, perhaps the most famous on a remote island in Hawaii.  It seems Naaman in today’s Old Testament Reading was an exception to this usual enforced isolation, probably because he was such a valuable general.

Only very recently, with the advent of modern antibiotics, could this dread disease be successfully treated.  Before that for thousands of years leprosy had been considered the worst of diseases, a completely incurable affliction of living death.  That’s why in today’s Old Testament Reading when the king of Israel thinks he is being asked to cure Naaman’s leprosy he tears his robes in despair and cries out, “Am I God?”  And that is also why this particular miracle is included in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Because, the astounding power Jesus possessed to cure even leprosy demonstrates in the most dramatic way that he is God. 

“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!’”  This miraculous healing of the man with leprosy also has a deep symbolic significance for all of us.  For, like him, we also come to Jesus to be cleansed, spiritually cleansed, as the hymn we just sang puts it, “From infection and uncleanness, from the leprosy of sin.”

All of us were born with the spiritual infection of sin, as David says in Psalm 51, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”  Humanity over the millennia has devised many different spiritual regimens and treatments that are supposed to cure us of our sin sickness.  But, there is nothing we can do that has the power to cleanse our souls.   Like the lepers who were isolated from their families because of their bodily uncleanness, because of the spiritual leprosy of sin infecting our souls we all deserve to be isolated in hell from our heavenly Father for all eternity.

I suppose the hardest part of being a doctor must be when you have to give people the bad news of a terminal diagnosis.  St. Paul gives us the bad news in Ephesians: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins.”  That’s what the man afflicted with leprosy symbolizes.  Like the horrible disease he suffered in his body, we are all by nature spiritually afflicted with a “living death,” dead in our transgressions and sins.

But, Paul continues in Ephesians announcing the Good News of God’s miracle cure for our sin-sick souls: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”  The same Jesus who has power to cure even leprosy has power to cleanse and cure and heal your soul.  The Apostle John puts it this way: “The blood of Jesus Christ [God’s] Son cleanses us from every sin. . .  He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”

“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 him and he was cured.”  Notice that Jesus both speaks to the man and touches him and he is cured.  In the same way, Jesus still speaks to you and he still physically touches you to cleanse you from the leprosy of sin.

Like a doctor announcing a miracle cure, the Great Physician speaks to you in his Word, the Holy Bible, proclaiming the Good News that your sinful soul is cured, on account of his suffering, death, and resurrection.  Paul puts it this way in Colossians: “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things . . . by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. . . Once you were alienated from God . . .  But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body, through death, to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”  Like the man miraculously healed of leprosy, so that his skin was pure and clean, the Good News is that on account of Christ’s blood shed on the cross you are holy in God’s sight, without blemish.

Jesus not only speaks to you in his Word, but just as he cleansed the man with leprosy by speaking to him and touching him, in the Sacraments Jesus still physically touches you, cleansing you from the leprosy of sin.

The washing of Naaman in today’s Old Testament Reading prefigures the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.  The early church father Irenaeus commented: “It was not without meaning for us that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified by being baptized.  This served as a sign to us.  For, we are lepers in sin, who are made clean from our old transgressions in Holy Baptism, being spiritually born again by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord.” 

Paul says in today’s Epistle Reading, “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”  Through Holy Baptism your sins are washed away, your soul is cleansed and made pure, without blemish, worthy of heaven.  Just as Jesus cleansed the man with leprosy by touching him, Jesus still physically touches you in Holy Baptism, cleansing you from the leprosy of sin.

Just as Jesus reached out his hand to touch the man sick with leprosy, and he was healed, today in Holy Communion you will reach out your hands and your lips to physically touch Jesus, and be healed of your sin: “Take, eat, this is my body . . .  which is given for you . . .  Drink of it, all of you; this . . . is . . . my blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”  In the Sacrament of Holy Communion, the Great Physician is dispensing medicine for your soul, to heal you from the leprosy of sin.

“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 him and he was cured.”  Out of all the healing miracles Jesus performed, why is this particular miracle included by Matthew, Mark, and Luke?  Because this miraculous healing of the man with leprosy has a deep symbolic significance for all of us.  You are like the man with leprosy, coming to Jesus to receive his Word, to feel his healing touch in the Sacraments, and just like him to be spiritually cleansed, “from the leprosy of sin.”

But, there is also one big difference between this man’s story and yours: “Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: ‘See that you don’t tell this to anyone.’”  Why would Jesus sternly warn this man, wonderfully healed of the worst and most incurable of diseases, not to tell anyone? 

Jesus wasn’t playing the game of reverse psychology, trying to actually encourage the man to tell by instructing him not to.  For, today’s Gospel Reading goes on to explain the reason why Jesus really did not want the man to tell anyone: “Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places.  Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.”

Just before today’s Gospel Reading, Jesus says to the disciples, “Let us go into the next towns so I can preach there also, for that is why I have come.”  But, now Jesus’ main ministry, of preaching and teaching God’s Word, is being overwhelmed by the immense crowds of those seeking healing, to the point where he can no longer even enter a town openly, but must stay outside in lonely places.  That is why Jesus warns the man healed of leprosy not to tell anyone.

The big difference between his healing and yours is that this prohibition is no longer in place.  In fact, Jesus now commands the opposite: “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in [my] name to all nations”; “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

So, the big difference is that unlike the man miraculously cleansed of leprosy, Jesus does not want you to keep it to yourself.  He wants you to share the Good News of your miraculous cleansing, your miraculous healing “from the leprosy of sin.” He wants you to invite others to also be healed and receive from Jesus this same cleansing.   “He went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news.”  Like the man healed of leprosy, go and tell, spread the Good News!

Amen.

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