The Sixth Sunday After the Epiphany
February 14-15, 2009
Text: Mark 1:40-45
Dear Friends in Christ,
Are you wearing clean underwear? Did your mother ever ask you that? Or did you ever ask your children if they were wearing clean underwear? What’s the old mother’s line - if you’re ever in an accident, I pray to God that you’re wearing clean underwear. As Bill Cosby noted, if he was in an accident, his underwear would not be clean any more. As you realize the car is about to hit a brick wall at a high rate of speed, first you say it, then you do it. No more clean underwear. But somehow, this logic never seemed to work on our mothers. But there are times when it’s important to be clean. If you’re going out on a date, you wash up, put on nice clothes and so forth. You might even put on a suit and tie or for the girls, a nice dress. I am convinced that if girls understood how guys see them, they’d wear a lot more dresses. There is almost a ritual quality to preparing for a date. Of course if I had daughters, the ritual would include a chastity belt, but that’s another story. You want to impress the other person. You don’t want to look like a slob. And if a person thinks so little of you that they won’t dress up, at least a little bit, will there be a second date?
What does it mean to be clean? Is it just a custom? In America, we like clean people? Or is there more to this? The old Puritans coined the phrase, cleanliness is next to godliness. Where did they get that idea? What might have influenced them in that direction? While the Bible never uses the phrase, cleanliness is next to godliness, it does have some basis in the Bible. The image of being washed clean is a frequent image throughout Scripture. Priests were required to wash before entering the temple. Before the Day of Atonement, when the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies, he had to take a special bath. Nor were all the washings done by the Jews actual washings. Some were just ritual washings. If a Jew bought a camel from an Arab trader, before he would used it, he would sprinkle water on it in a symbolic washing. They would do likewise with household goods like cooking vessels. It was even common at the time of Christ, for converts to Judaism undergo a ritual washing. This was to symbolize that the taint of foreign gods was washed away. The Greek word for this is Baptidzo, from which we get the English word Baptize.
But there was one thing that every Jew feared - leprosy. Now, leprosy, as they used the word, was much broader than our use today. We think of one specific disease, which is caused by a bacterial respiratory infection. But in those days, any form of skin ailment was considered leprosy. So any type of rash of scaling of the skin. Now, all these things put together would not be all that common. In terms of classic leprosy, 95% of the population is immune to the bacteria that cause it. So why were people so paranoid about these diseases? Because they made one ritually unclean. They could not go into the temple. They could not go into the synagogue. In short they could not worship God. They were not allowed into God’s presence.
This now takes us into one of modern America’s pet heresies. God is everywhere, I can worship God wherever. All that matters is me and Jesus. To put it bluntly, that is just so much male cow manure. God being everywhere is about as useful to me as God being nowhere. If I have business with the court, I don’t flag down the judge at a barbeque or at his fishing shanty. I go to where the court is in session. That’s where I have access to the court. So the question is not where God is present. It’s where I have access to God. It’s where I can transact business with God. Consider the world at the time of the flood. God established one way, and one way only, through which He would deal graciously with man. That was the ark which He had instructed Noah to build. Sadly, only eight people took advantage of the gift God had given them. God was still present with the people who were drowning in the flood waters. But they had no access to Him. Likewise, leprosy, denied one access to God. So it was catastrophic. It placed one outside of God’s people. In essence, it placed one outside the ark.
A man came up to Christ and asked to be cleansed of His leprosy. Christ touches the man and heals Him. Christ takes this man’s uncleaness and places it upon Himself. He then instructs the man to go show himself to the priest? Why? So that He can be declared ritually clean. So that He can again take his place in the worshiping community. Christ gives the man a puzzling instruction - he is not to tell others who had healed him. Many speculated that Christ was already getting too much publicity and was trying to keep a lid on things. But this misses the point. If the man stopped and told others about Christ, he would delay his reentry into the worshiping community. We know, of course, that the man could not help himself. He was compelled to tell others what had happened. We can hardly blame the man.
Today, we still have a form of leprosy among us. We call this sin. No sinner can stand before our Holy God. To be a sinner before God is be dead. Consider the reaction of the prophet Isaiah to seeing God: “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple... And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’” (Is. 6:1,5) Further, it is no cure to say, don’t sin or stop sinning. Sin is the very nature of man. Human beings cannot stop sinning. So like the leper, we must be made ritually clean. We must be made to be sinless before God. Christ must touch us and take our uncleaness from us and place it upon Himself. He does that in Holy Baptism. At the font, Christ washes us clean. And what gives the font this power? You might give the catechism answer - the words and promises of God. That is true, but let’s look a little deeper this evening/morning. What gives baptism the power to wash us clean - to make us acceptable in God’s sight? The cross. In Baptism, Christ takes our leprosy of sin upon Himself, and in the cross Christ pays the price of that sin in our place. So when we come before God, according our baptism, we are ritually clean. We are clean before the throne of heaven. This is why we begin our services by invoking the very name placed upon us in our Baptism - in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We are reminding God and ourselves that we come into His presence as those baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That makes us clean.
Christ cleansed a leper. This is not just a flashing of divine power. It is again a miracle that points directly to Christ’s mission. He is making this man ritually clean, so that He can rejoin the worshiping community - so that he can have access to God’s throne of grace. In baptism Christ extends this cleansing to us also. He touches us and makes us clean. He gives us a place in His holy courts. He gives us access to God in a place where He has promised not to deal with us according to our sins, but according the cross of Jesus Christ. That is what it means to be truly clean.