Sunday, February 12, 2012

Clean and Whole

Texts:    Leviticus 13:9-22; 45-46; Mark 1:40-45

    WHAT WOULD IT HAVE BEEN like to have been one of God's ancient chosen people?  As an Israelite you'd experience the overwhelming joy of knowing that the Creator God of heaven and earth was your God.  You'd enjoy the prosperity and blessing He'd bring you.  You'd be able to trust Him to fight your battles with foreign powers.  You could hear His very words from the mouth of His prophets.  No other nation had such blessings and privileges.  How wonderful it must have been!

    On the other hand, with all those privileges you'd have heavy responsibilities.  Or perhaps I should say, you had one great heavy responsibility:  As an ancient Israelite, from the time you were old enough to understand, it was up to you and to all of your fellow Hebrews to be a testimony to the nations.  Since the Lord God was your Father, all Israel together was the son of God on earth, and you were expected, as a nation and as individuals, to live up to the image and character of the Lord God Himself, that He might be glorified on earth and all nations be blessed through you. 

    God spelled out exactly how you were to reflect His image and glory, in the Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai.

    There were three parts to it:  the moral law, which defines how people everywhere should treat one another and themselves; the civil law, which laid down how Israel was to govern itself as a nation; and the ceremonial law, which dictated how the Israelites were to relate to God and glorify Him on this earth.  The ceremonial law went beyond how and Whom you worshipped.  In pretty much everything you did your life was to be a proclamation of the wholeness, purity, and integrity of the Lord.

    The creed of God's people Israel was this:

    Hear, O Israel: The Lord your God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).

The whole purpose of the ceremonial law was to present Israel to the world as a people who reflected the perfect oneness and unity of the Lord our God.  They were to be holy as He is holy.  Pure as He is pure.  Clean and whole as the Lord is clean and whole.

    So, no wearing clothes made out of more than one kind of  fiber.  No sowing your field with more than one kind of seed.  No plowing that field with two different kinds of animals under the yoke.  No violating the integrity of your skin by getting tattoos or cutting yourself as a sign of mourning for the dead. No eating of beasts that wouldn't be acceptable to God as a sacrifice.

    Why?  Because mixture and confusion was a sign of the sinful brokenness of this fallen world.  Your daily life had to stand against that and testify to the pure and undivided character of God.

    As an Israelite you might think, "I don't totally understand all this, but it's something I can try to do.  Just like I can do my best to avoid sin by keeping the moral law."

    But then you'd come to the commands set forth in our reading from Leviticus 13.  And read that if any of God's people should break out with a defiling skin disease, and the priest should determine that it is
chronic and spreading, then that person is to be ostracized from the community.  As it says in 13:45-46,

    Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!'  As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.

And possibly you'd think, "How is it my fault, or the fault of my family, if any of us should contract a disease like this?  I'd never choose to have running sores break out all over my body!  I'd never ask to have my skin go all flaky and scaly all over!  Why must I be separated from God's people?  Why must I cover my mouth as if I were mourning for the dead?"

    That'd be easy to answer if the Bible really was talking about leprosy, what today we call Hansen's disease.  True leprosy eventually eats the structure of your extremities away and it's terribly contagious.  You could understand why a Hansen's disease sufferer would be permanently quarantined.  But this isn't what is being described in Leviticus.  Archaeological evidence from the ancient Middle East shows that true leprosy wasn't prevalent there till the fifth century after Christ.  It occurred from time to time, and the ancient Greeks had a word for it, elephantiasis.  The word lepra or lepros, which we find in our Mark passage, refers to other sorts of diseases affecting the skin.  Same with the Hebrew word tsara'at, the term Moses used in Leviticus.  Here's where the 2011 updated version of the New International Version is a real improvement.  This word tsara'at doesn't necessarily mean a skin disease that is infectious, but it definitely signifies one that is defiling according to God's ceremonial law.

    So, what skin diseases could get you ostracized from the camp and later the towns of Israel?  Given the descriptions in Leviticus, it'd be conditions like favus, a disease prevalent in the Near East and northern Africa that affects the scalp.  Or chronic psoriasis.  Or eczema.  Yes, the same skin diseases some of you may have struggled with.  Talk about "The heartbreak of psoriasis"!  Not only would you be perpetually unclean, so that you were excluded from worshipping God at His Tabernacle, any undiseased person other than the priest who touched you would be rendered temporarily unclean, too.

    You'll notice in verses 12-13 of our Leviticus passage, that if a person's skin disease spreads so that he turns white all over, the priest can pronounce him clean.  It wasn't the disease itself that excluded a person from the presence of God, it was the visible confusion and unwholesomeness evident on his skin.  The Lord's people were to be holy, clean, and whole outside as well as in, inside as well as out.  They were to be visible models of the purity and wholeness of God, and an Israelite walking the streets with his skin red and white and flaking where he should be a nice even brown would testify instead to sin, degeneration, and death.

    And it's true, no one would choose to look like that.  But when it comes down to it, none of us chose to be infected with the sin of Adam, either.  None of us woke up one day and said, "Hey, I think I'd like to be dead in trespasses and sins!"   We were born into this fallen condition-- but we can't claim innocence.  Because every day by our own sin we confirm that we go along with it.  Under God's covenant with Israel, psoriasis and other chronic defiling skin diseases were a sign of the inward, inborn sin of mankind breaking out and flaunting itself on the outside of a person.  They proclaimed the broken, unwholesome, unclean state of this world that sets itself against the purity and oneness of the Lord our God.

    It seems very hard and even unfair, the fate of the person with a defiling skin disease under the Old Covenant.  But in His holiness God had an eternal plan and purpose that would be fulfilled through the Law working in His people Israel, a plan that would more than justify the discomfort suffered by any human being on this earth, a plan that would bring restore all who were cast out and heal all who suffer from the mortal disease of sin. God called Israel to be His son on this earth, to grow up to reflect the integrity of His holiness.  We know from the Scriptures that the Jews failed miserably at this task.  We know from our own hearts that if we'd been in their position, we would have miserably failed, too.

    But at the right time there came a Man from Nazareth, a Man born of an ordinary woman of the house of David, of the people of Israel, yet conceived by the Holy Spirit and so born without sin.  From the very start of his gospel our writer St. Mark proclaims this Man Jesus to be the Son of God.  Jesus Christ will succeed where Israel failed.  He will be the One who truly reflects God's cleanliness and wholeness standing against a defiled and sin-broken world, and through Him the purpose of Israel will be fulfilled.  This Man Jesus was not merely whole and clean and holy in Himself, He had the power to impart wholeness, cleanliness, and purity to others who were in every sense filthy and defiled.

    And so in verses 40 through 45 of Mark chapter 1 we read how a man suffering from one of these defiling skin diseases, not necessarily leprosy, approaches Jesus, probably in the countryside outside one of the villages of Galilee.  He's heard about Jesus' power to heal, but he hasn't dared come into town and join the crowd waiting around Jesus' lodgings.  He falls to his scabby knees and begs, "If you are willing, you can make me clean."

    St. Mark writes that Jesus is filled with compassion.  It's not that Jesus feels sorry for the man because he is excluded from society and heals him so he can go back to his home and family.  No, Jesus feels for him from the heart because this sufferer is excluded from the household of God by the defilement of sin, and his skin disease is only a symptom of that estrangement.  Jesus replies, "I am willing."  He touches the man-- actually touches his loathsome flesh--and He declares, "Be clean!" and by the creative power of His word He makes it so.  By this mighty work of mercy Jesus shows that He is in His own flesh the One who is eternally whole and clean, the One Whom no contact with evil can defile, the One Who makes the broken whole and before Whom defilement flees.

    But until the New Covenant is sealed in His shed blood on the cross, the Old Covenant is still in effect.  So Jesus orders the cured man to go to the priest and offer the sacrifices Moses ordered for those who were cleansed of defiling skin diseases.  We can read about those sacrifices and the ritual of making them in Leviticus 14.  They were, as Jesus says, to serve as a testimony to all the people of what God had done in His mercy to make the broken whole and the impure clean.  But the healed man does not head for Jerusalem to make the prescribed offerings.  No,  throughout the countryside he spreads the news that God was at work in Jesus of Nazareth, that here was a Man who could touch a leper and cleanse him and not Himself be defiled.

    As Mark writes, this was fame Jesus wasn't seeking, and it made it impossible for Him to minister in the towns any more.  But it didn't matter: People streamed out into the wilderness to hear Him and be healed by Him, no matter were He might be.

    Brothers and sisters, for the ancient Jews skin diseases were only an outward sign of the sin that defiles us all from the heart.  If we appeared to each other the way our sin makes us appear to God, no horror movie special effects could depict the terrors we would see.  But Jesus Christ was and is the only-begotten Son of God who was willing to take the loathsomeness of our sins on Himself on the cross, even though for awhile it caused His Father to turn His face from Him.   He atoned for our sins and wiped them out totally so that we might be clean.  In the place of your old brokenness and defilement, Jesus Christ gives you His wholeness, His purity, His integrity.  And now when God turns His face towards you, He sees the glorious and holy face of Jesus Christ, the new Israel, His beloved Son who is the perfect image of the Father's righteous splendor.

    This promise is for you and your children and for all the Lord our God shall call.  If you have never trusted in Jesus Christ, repent and turn to Him now, and He will cleanse you from your sins and give you His righteousness.  If you have turned to Him in faith and are sealed to Him in baptism, keep relying on His saving health day by day.  The old earthly nature within us is still defiled and diseased, and it fights against the wholesome new heavenly nature Christ has put within us.  But day by day, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are becoming more and more conformed to the image of Christ.  More and more we are being revealed as citizens of the New Israel whom Jesus shed His blood to create.  Just like the Israelites under the Old Covenant, we New Covenant believers are called upon to reflect the wholeness and purity of God in the midst of a degenerate and defiled world.  But be encouraged: Jesus by His power has cleansed us, Jesus by His power will keep us, and Jesus by His power will present us clean and whole before the God who is His Father and our own.

    Now to him who has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation, be praise, honor, majesty, and power, now and forever more.  Amen.

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