Salvation Interrupted?

“Salvation Interrupted?”

a message by Dr. Bruce Havens

theme: Can You Relate?

Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.

February 25, 2018


Mark 1:40-45

40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’

41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’

42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

43After sternly warning him he sent him away at once,

44saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’

 45But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.


Just before our Scripture reading today, was the part we read a couple weeks ago when Jesus announced his intentions to go throughout Galilee sharing the good news that God’s reign was near.  But in this passage, which is the very next “scene” if you will, his plans are interrupted.  He meets a leper who asks to be healed.  Jesus heals him and tells him to go to the priests so that he can go back among people.  Jesus commands the healed man not to tell anyone about what Jesus had done, but instead of following instructions he goes about blabbing to everyone what Jesus did.  Now, says Mark, Jesus can’t go in to towns openly but has to stay out in the country.  So, all in all, this is a story of plans interrupted, perhaps even of salvation interrupted.

I suspect most of us can relate to having our plans interrupted.  We plan to accomplish a certain list of things on our “to do” list and an emergency comes up in the family so we have to drop everything and go to someone’s side.  Plans interrupted.  We plan to go to college, complete school, get a job, get married, have kids and live our lives.  But Dad loses his job, you can’t get enough money to go to college, you have to go to work in the mill or the factory, or the WalMart and plans are interrupted.  You plan to retire and move to a nice Caribbean island and relax.  Your son and daughter-in-law are killed in a car accident and there is no one else to take the grandkids.  You have to give up your plans and raise another family.  Plans interrupted.  Big or small, life is really all about plans and the interruptions that change them.  The old saying is “man plans and God laughs.”  Don’t know if that is true but it gets the point across about how plans change, right?  Can you relate?

On the surface this story might seem like an interruption of God’s plan to have Jesus announce the presence of God’s reign to towns all over Galilee.  But let’s look closer and see what the outcome was and what it might teach us about God’s plans and God’s way of working in our lives and in our world.

Now, let me begin by saying this is another case of me picking a passage and thinking it was going to lead to a sermon on one thing and when I began to really read and study the passage my plans changed.  Sermon interrupted!  But let me break down at least some and see if we can’t find the truth that God wants us to find here.  Here are just some of the issues we cannot ignore:

Lepers!  Well first off, Peter Woods, [thelisteninghermit.com/2012/02/06/warning-jesus-is-contagious,] reminds us “it is unlikely that the disease we call leprosy is the disease referred to in the biblical text.  The leprosy we know probably only came to the Middle East from India after bible times. In Bible times “leprosy” which literally means scaly or rough referred to any skin disease like psoriasis, acne, or boils. In a pre-scientific time, the fear of contagion would have made people reluctant to have contact with anything which may have caused them to suffer or even be excluded from society.  It may be useful for us to think of the words rough and scaly as referring to the people we cast out from our circles of acceptance and avoid contact with. I am sure most of us have rough and scaly relatives, right inside our families we would want to avoid contact with.”  He suggests we all make our “own two lists:  1. Rough and Scaly people I personally choose to avoid.  2. Rough and Scaly people that the church avoids.”  Let me interrupt that list with some other problems first and we’ll come back to that later.  Maybe.

The “leper” says to Jesus, “if you want to you can heal me.”  If you want to?  What is he suggesting?  Jesus doesn’t want to heal?  That’s bad enough, but the word translated as “pity” in the next verse, where it says Jesus was moved with “pity,” actually in other places the same word is translated as anger.  So are we covering for Jesus by saying “pity” instead of “angry?”  Not necessarily.  Some language experts suggest that this reflects Jesus frustration with a world where there is sickness and disease, for God intends all creation to be healed and healthy.  Others suggest it is frustration with a culture that did not know that this was not contagious and that we humans too often exclude people who are different, who are, what was that phrase – oh, “rough and scaly” – because we don’t know how to, or more honestly don’t want to include them in our community.  I would suggest he was angry with the fact that all this was an interruption in his plan of salvation.[1]   If salvation means a world where there is no illness, no suffering, no human prejudice against others for being different, then Jesus’ anger makes perfect sense.

I hope we are all pretty clear that God does not intend suffering, or punish us for sin by causing disease, by having someone kill innocent children in a school, or any of the other oversimplistic “cause-and-effect” answers we are tempted to give in the face of suffering.  I am often moved to anger – maybe without as much pity or compassion as Jesus – at some of the things “Christians” say and do in the name of Jesus to justify their own beliefs.  I was particularly sickened by the report that a church in Pennsylvania is encouraging all its members who have semi-automatic or other weapons to bring them to church for a blessing this Sunday because they believe that when Jesus comes back he is going to kill everyone who doesn’t believe in him [ which means believe in him the way this particular group of – if you will forgive my unchristian description:  “wacknuts” believes ] with just such weapons!  I have to confess further that stories like this make me consider never calling myself a “Christian” again so as not to be associated with such persons who claim that title for themselves.  But that is an evangelism issue and we haven’t gotten to that part of the passage yet.  So while I digress I haven’t digressed far.  Maybe those folks would make my “rough and scaly” list of people I don’t want in my church.  I may have to go pray and repent some more.

So now we come to the “say nothing to anyone and go show yourselves to the priests” part of the passage and there are two problems here.  Let’s take the last one first.  Why did Jesus tell the man to go show himself to the priests?  Some would say it was to fulfill the required religious practices for a healed “leper” to be allowed back into the community.  Some say it was to “stick it to the religious leaders” for choosing to exclude some people who were not really dangerous or infectious.  But that ignores the fact that they did not have the science to understand contagious versus noncontagious diseases.

One writer suggests the purpose of having the leper to show himself to the priests effectively made the former leper “a witness on behalf of Jesus that the old order has been overturned and the new one announced by Jesus has begun.[2]  This new order that Jesus announces, that he represents and even inaugurates, is the one translated as “the Kingdom of God,” what I have referred to as “the reign of God.”  Of course the problem with this is that we all can look around and say, “why has it still not been fulfilled?  Why are things still so messed up?”

By that question we mean, why is there still sickness, suffering, death, and evil?  And what we really mean is why doesn’t God wave the magic wand and solve all our problems?  Of course our traditional answer to this is that we humans have free will, we are not puppets for God to manipulate and so the saying is true, when we complain to God about the way things are and ask “what are you waiting for, God?”  God responds by asking us “what are YOU waiting for?”

In other words, a lot of the things we want God to solve are very much in our hands but we have not believed in God’s way enough to do what God wants done.  Worse, we have believed the very opposite of what God wants and done that instead –  reference my previous illustration of the church blessing weapons.  The challenge of doing this is even illustrated in this passage.  The leper, charged by Jesus not to tell anyone that Jesus has touched him and healed him, tells everyone so Jesus’ plan to go into the cities and towns and “evangelize,” that is share the good news that God’s reign is near, is interrupted.  Salvation is interrupted.  Jesus can’t go into the towns and cities anymore because the leper ratted him out, he snitched, he gave him up.

What’s interesting is that Mark shows us even our own prejudices, ignorances and false beliefs can’t keep people from coming to Jesus. He says they were coming out to him from everywhere!  They knew the real deal when they heard about it.  The fact that he had touched a leper didn’t keep them from wanting him to touch them and to change their reality and to change the world in which they lived.  The so-called “evangelical” churches believe that the only thing that matters is the salvation of the soul.  Many of them want the world, creation itself, to be destroyed.  They think that is Biblical and the destruction of this world by nuclear weapons or anything else will bring them to heaven faster so, “Get it on!”

I believe this is too limited an understanding of salvation.  I believe the good news of God’s reign that Jesus Christ brought was one that reached far beyond the individual to the whole of human society and the whole of creation.  Yes, Christ cares about our souls, but our souls are housed in bodies and our bodies need healing.  And our bodies are meant to be housed, not homeless, and our homes aren’t meant to be in neighborhoods where “snitches get stitches” if someone shoots a child and no one will say who did it.  And our neighborhoods aren’t meant to be made up of cities where half the children can’t read well enough to function in society and become the full, blessed children of God they were meant to be.  And our cities and nations weren’t meant to be torn apart by violence and hatred and fear.  God’s reign is one where the status quo cannot be the status quo.  God’s reign is one where the whole creation is saved.  If we only save souls it is salvation interrupted.  It is salvation corrupted and curtailed and God won’t settle for that.  And God won’t let salvation be interrupted forever.

It is time for the church to stop the interruption of salvation and show the world that it is as committed to the salvation of all of creation, not just souls, but bodies and souls and cities and nations.  When people see that the church is really aligned with the good news of Jesus Christ they too will “come to us from every quarter.” They will see that what we believe and what we live are consistent with the Savior they know they need.  God is asking us, “what are you waiting for?”  AMEN.

[1] Sarah Henrich, workingpreacher.org, 2/12/12.

 

[2] Michael A. Turton’s Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark,michaelturton.com,