The Special Touch - Mark 1:40-45
They were pictures which shocked a nation. Hundreds, even thousands of emaciated individuals huddled together in refugee camps beneath the intense African sun. We saw children with bloated bellies, enlarged heads wholly disproportionate to the rest of their bodies, hobbling on matchstick legs; babies desperately trying to suckle from breasts long since withered and dried. And then there were the men, vacantly staring into infinity, faces wholly devoid of life and hope. The voice-over commentary by Michael Buerk simply gave the scenes brought into our living rooms an added poignancy of bleak desperation. Quite mercilessly we were confronted with fellow human beings consigned to a slow and lingering death. Ethiopia lay dying. They were pictures which shocked a nation all right, and which galvanised a nation. Live Aid, political outrage, humanitarian efforts were made on a scale almost unprecedented. All because of a picture.
But how do you picture the unpicturable? How do you photograph the invisible? That is, how do you portray sin and all the untold suffering and misery that occasions?
The Bible has a way. It is called leprosy which graphically illustrates sin. It is something with which we may not be all that familiar, but which the cultures in the ancient Near East new only too well and recoiled with profound horror. The worst form was, and still is, Hansens disease. It generally begins with pain in certain parts of the body followed by numbness. Soon, the skin, in such areas loses its colour with the spots becoming dirty and ulcerated. The skin, especially around the eyes and ears begins to bunch with deep furrows between the swellings. Fingers drop off or are absorbed, as are toes. The voice becomes grating and harsh as the bacillus attacks the larynx. But what is particularly unusual about Hansens disease is that unlike most other diseases which are feared because of their pain, this form of leprosy is feared because of its numbing effect. One of the worlds leading experts on HD is Paul Brand. And he has shown that in 99% of the cases, HD only numbs the extremities. The result is that the bodys natural early warning defences are knocked out. That is when the decay of organs, like hands begins. But in this way. In villages in Africa and Asia, HD sufferers have been known to reach directly into a charcoal fire to retrieve a dropped potato. Nothing in their body told them not to. Brand then began to formulate the theory that it was as an anaesthetic that leprosy destroyed. Daily routines grind away at HD sufferers hands and feet, because the early warning system doesnt work. So if a tendon is pulled, they simply learn to walk crooked. If a rat chewed off a finger in the night, the person would not discover it missing until the morning. HD - leprosy, slowly but surely kills by desensitisation. The sufferer is subject to a living and certain death.
It is a living death because of its highly contagious nature and in the past with no known cure, the leper would be isolated from his family and friends. In Israel the law in Leviticus laid down that no leper was to enter the temple or tabernacle, he was ceremonially unclean and had ring a bell shouting unclean wherever he went. Can you imagine the shame in all of that?. One ancient rabbi said When I see lepers I thrown stones at them lest they come near me.' Another said I would not so much as eat an egg that was purchased on a street where a leper had walked.' Social isolation, physical disfigurement and spiritual abandonment was all they would ever know. Can you imagine living like that?
Now do you see why lepers in ancient Israel were vivid object lessons in sin? - not that all leprosy was a result of specific sin - but that it illustrated its nature and effects. Like leprosy, sin infects the whole person, it is ugly, disfiguring, contaminating, alienating and incurable by man. And, we may now add, like leprosy, sin desensitises, so we find ourselves accepting and doing what at one time would have been unthinkable, as our consciences become hardened - the moral early warning system is shut down, and so we go from bad to worse.
And so not surprisingly one of the first encounters Jesus has in Marks Gospel is with a leper. Onto the stage of world history walks Jesus, the Son of God, as Mark tells us right at the beginning of his book. And straight away he begins by preaching, v15: The time has come. The Kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the good news.' All that the Old Testament looked forward to, Gods saving rule - his kingdom - had now arrived, because the King - Jesus had come. Something new was happening, God was acting to save people. And this man had probably heard this, that is why defying all convention he came to Jesus - v40. Now strictly speaking he shouldn't have done that. This man was not permitted to come near to anyone - but no one was going to stop him coming to Jesus.
So if you have not yet done so, turn with me to Mark 1: 40 as we look at this fascinating story under three headings.
First of all a desperate need.
We have already seen how utterly despairing leprosy is. Just like sin it is devastating. And aware of his need this man searches out Jesus. And notice how he comes to Jesus. First of all, he comes with confidence. He came to him without fear of being driven away by stones as with that rabbi mentioned earlier. He didnt shout from a distance, he came up close without hesitation or shame. Secondly, he came with humility, he begged him on his knees saying If you are willing.' He doesnt come with his head held high, steeped in moral respectability thinking, as some do today, they are doing God a favour by deigning to come to church at all, he gets on his knees, covered in soars, a beggar. Neither is there any demand, if you are a God of love make me well, - naming it and claiming it - he knows no one owes him anything, least of all God - so his is a simple request If you are willing.' In the third place he comes with faith; you can make me clean.' He was somehow aware that Jesus while under no obligation to heal him, he certainly knew he had every power to do so if he wished. And that is faith, not twisting Gods arm, but submitting to his will. And notice that he asks for cleansing rather than healing, because it is this ritual defilement as much as the debilitating disease itself which is his greatest burden. You see, this is a Jew, one of the chosen people, a recipient of the promises of God, which from all the nations had the privilege of coming into the presence of God in shear unadulterated worship. But because of his condition, all of that was closed to him. To be estranged from family and friends is one thing, to be effectively cut off from God is another. Not to know the touch of a human being may be unthinkable, not to know the loving touch of God is unbearable. For this man, life was literally a living hell.
Now it may well be that you are here this morning and the one big question in your mind is this: will God accept me? You already feel battered and bruised from lifes rejections - parents who have failed you, a spouse who has left you, children who abuse you, an employer who does not appreciate you. What is more you are only too aware of the moral failures in your own life, of that sin which seems to hold you in its grip and make your life a misery. And so, understandably you wonder: is there anyone to whom I can turn, who will understand, who will listen and help? Well, yes there is. Take a leaf out of this mans book and come directly to Jesus in your heart, kneeling in prayer. He has never turned anyone away yet and he wont turn you away either.
Which brings us to a divine response: v41 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 The word translated in the NIV as compassion is probably not original. Many of the older manuscripts have another word in the Greek which means being angry (orgistheis). When confronted with this poor wretch of a man, what is it that draws from Jesus a deep sense of outrage ? Surely, it is the evil which has intruded into his Fathers good creation giving rise to this terrible spectacle kneeling before him. What is more, if all suffering is an expression of the fallen world, and our rebellion which gave rise to it in the first place, and leprosy is in some way a graphic illustration of it, then here we have an instance of divine anger towards sin and all that spoils and mars that which is good. God is not indifferent to sin and evil, he is angry with it. It is foul and repulsive and offends him deeply, as we see here.
But if Jesus responds in anger, he also responds in love, notice he actually touches the man. Now presumably Jesus didnt have to do that. Elsewhere he heals people just by a word of command. What is more, as a Jew he was expressly forbidden to touch a leper, because by doing so he became ceremonially unclean - a religious outcast. So why do it? Well, what we have here is a miniature enactment of what Christ came to earth to do for all of us. Normally, for a man to touch a leper was contagious, signing his own death warrant, but this is no normal man. Here is someone of such purity that he is able to absorb all moral pollution and defilement without himself becoming defiled. Jesus doesnt just stretch out his hand to us, he comes down from heaven to us in order to rescue us, walking through this sin soaked world without getting a single stain upon himself. But there was one day, when Jesus didnt simply touch the leper, he became the leper as he hung on a cross to absorb all the moral filth of the world into his pure and sinless body. That is when he became the greatest outcast of all, so defiled as our sin was laid upon him that he became estranged not only from other people as they spat at him and mocked him as unclean, but cut off from God as he bore our punishment in our place. How does the prophet Isaiah put in? he was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering, like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised and we esteemed him not.' And just as we see here, that as the leper received his touch in simple faith, something of Christs cleanness was transferred to him, so as we put our trust in Christ, his righteousness is transferred to us, so that we can come before God as those who are accepted and loved. Now that is what I call a cure and only God can do it.
You see, in spite of what some would tell us, Gods anger and love are not in opposition to each other. Jesus was angry with sin and its effects and did something about it, he cleansed the leper immediately. So on the cross Gods anger towards sin and love towards the sinner meet perfectly with God in his own Son dealing with the disease of sin, condemning it and freeing all those who like this leper come to him.
Now I can tell you, those standing there and seeing this miracle would have been utterly dumbfounded. Can you imagine it? Seeing a deformed, shrivelled scaly sore covered derelict suddenly stand upright, with perfect arms and legs, his face smooth and unscarred, hair restored, voice normal and eyes bright. Well, I tell you plainly, Jesus affects the same today in people, because that is how we appear in Gods sight when we become a Christian. What is more, he begins to turning broken lives into whole lives. It doesnt mean that from then on life is plain sailing, any more than this mans life was to be free from problems, but the inner cleansing is real and the fresh start with Christ at the centre of your life is undeniable.
However, there is a dire warning - 43 - 44 Jesus sent him away at once - literally - threw him out - with a strong warning - literally deep indignation - growling - : See that you don't tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and off the sacrifices Moses commanded you for your cleansing as a testimony to them.' Now why should Jesus behave in this seemingly abrupt manner, almost, as it were, pushing the man out of his way? He orders the man in no uncertain terms not to tell anyone about what has happened, although it could hardly be kept a secret. What he is to do is to go to the priest and get a clean bill of health so that he can rejoin society. And this was to be a testimony to them, that is a witness to the unique, saving power of Jesus. Because I can tell you this, that priest would have had such certificates for the cure of leprosy gathering dust because by definition it wasnt curable. So again, let me ask, why such a brusque treatment? Well, I would want to suggest that the reason was because Jesus knew what the man was going to do. He knew he wasnt going to do as he was told and go off telling the whole world what a fantastic wonder worker Jesus was. And this was going to hamper Jesus mission as we see in v 45 As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in the lonely places (literally desert places).
Now Jesus made it quite clear what his priority was - preaching the Gospel, look back at v38. At the time when crowds had gathered for a great healing show, Jesus says Let us go somewhere else - to the nearby villages - so that I can preach there also.' But you see, by this mans single act of disobedience, however well intentioned, Jesus work of evangelism was severely curtailed, he found himself holed up in the desert, that is why he is so annoyed with the man. What the man hadnt grasped is that there were countless others who were in the same state as he was, spiritually, and they needed cleansing too - from their sin, and that only comes from hearing the Gospel. You see, unlike us Jesus is not interested in crowds. He never put on some spectacular road show to pull in the punters. In fact he never sought out people to heal - although he always responded to those who came to him. But he did seek out people to preach to.
Now this is so important in an age like ours when it comes to thinking about evangelism. Sometimes we hear that we have to put on something spectacular to gain a hearing, even perform miracles. This is the Jesus people will want to hear about, so we are told, lets have the mega - event. That is the worlds way of thinking, not Gods way. As we see here it can be more of a hindrance than a help, because people simply want Jesus as a quick fix genie, there for them, to give them a boost or whatever. Jesus will not be domesticated in that way. Jesus has never been interested in being portrayed as a wonder worker - never. Sure, he will meet human need as he finds it - healing the leper, and so should we, but he came to meet our greatest need, cleansing from sin and he will never allow himself to be detracted from that task. He refuses point blank to sacrifice the best for the good. And neither should we. The best is hearing the message of Gods saving love in his Son, the inner cleansing he offers at the cross and all the blessings which flow from that.
Imagine our reaction if each time we went down our street, into town, the university - all we could see were hundreds of men and women, boy and girls with leprosy. Wouldnt we want to do something about it? Would we dig into our pockets and set up a hospice for leprosy suffers. Of course we would. But if we could see people as God sees them, that is exactly what we would see - for without Christ people are afflicted with a disease far worse than leprosy - the disease of sin. And there is only one cure - the Gospel. And really, you know that is what Project Newland is all about - setting up a leprosy mission station if you like, so that people might come to experience this cure for themselves. Will, you join with me in sacrificially pledging for this vitally important work of spiritual cleansing for those friends and neighbours of ours. It is my earnest prayer that everyone linked to this church responds to this appeal and fills in this form, no matter how great or small, every amount counts. May Christs compassion flow through us to this needy, needy world, let the vision of Project Newland become a reality, so that many will be spiritually cleansed. Will you do that? Let us pray.
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