6th Sunday after Epiphany
Grace, mercy, and peace be yours from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, Whistling Straits is a fairly prestigious golf course in Wisconsin. It’s located north of Sheboygan and right next to Lake Michigan. It’s a beautiful course and has some very scenic outlooks over Lake Michigan. And if you’d like to golf there you’d better be planning on spending at least several hundred dollars. Well, about a year and a half ago the course was the location of one of the stops of the PGA tour. It was well over a year in advance that the course began planning and making preparations for this prestigious event. Well, it so happened that the course contracted with the company that I was working for to provide the cleaning for the couple hundred portable restrooms for the several day event. One of my jobs was to drive about an 8 ton truck out on to the course to clean out a few on the course. This wasn’t the place and I wasn’t in the vehicle that could simply be driven all over the greens. Trying to follow a golf cart path with a truck that size was not an easy thing! I had to be very careful to try to stay on the road so that I wouldn’t mess up the grass or the lawn with the truck a little overturn one way or the other could have made a mess. I also remember at one place there was a bridge over a small creek and although it was a wood bridge I was assured the bridge could handle my truck. But I was more concerned with the fact that the bridge was made for a golf cart and my truck had about 6 inches or a foot of room to spare on either side, with no guard rails. A little turn to the left or the right could’ve been a disaster! When driving on a road there are usually two wrong ditches you can fall into- one on one side and one on the other. It’s very important to stay on the road!
In our lives it is often the case that there are two dangerous ditches on either side of us that we don’t want to fall into. Last Sunday we talked about how God uses suffering and hardships to actually draw us closer to Him and help us to rely on Him and teach us to pray to Him. Today we’re going to look a little more closely at God’s answers to our prayers. As with many things there are 2 dangerous ditches we can fall into. When we are faced with some ordeal of hardship on one side of the road is falling into despair should God choose not to answer our prayers the way we wanted him to or not in our timetable. In this ditch we’re tempted to throw in the towel and give up on God and think that God has abandoned us and doesn’t care about us. Yet, there exists on the other side of the road another dangerous ditch. We fall into this ditch if when God answers our prayers in the manner we asked, then we are tempted to get so caught up in the gifts of God that we forget about Him and forget who it is that gave them to us.
We get some glimpses of these two ditches in our text. Jesus is currently on a preaching tour around Galilee in the northern region of Israel. While he was going about “a man with leprosy came to him.” Now it’s important to understand something about having leprosy (or any skin disease for that matter). A person who had a skin disease like leprosy (the word for leprosy can include many diseases and not just what is called today “Hansen’s disease”) was in a very sorry state. Some have described this disease as including skin sores – whitish scabs would appear and spread over the body and eventually consume the bones, it would eat away at the flesh causing nerve damage, muscle weakness, it would be accompanied by a violent fever, sleeplessness and nightmares, etc. In a very real way the person with leprosy would be experiencing death while still alive. Not only was there the physical pain of having such a disease but also what was required of people who had it. Apparently this disease was very contagious. The Old Testament law required people who had such a skin disease to actually live outside of the city and away from people. They were not allowed to have any sort of contact with people who did not have the disease. They were to live by themselves with disheveled hair, clothes torn apart and wearing mourner’s clothes covering half their face. If anyone without the disease were to walk near them they were to throw their hands in the air and yell, “Unclean, unclean!” So that you would stay away from them and not become unclean yourself. There are actually documents indicating how Rabbis during this time would brag about how they had never been within so many feet of a leper (you didn’t even want to be downwind of one) and others would brag about how they would throw rocks at them to make sure they didn’t come too close.
Now imagine being this leper. Not only are you suffering a painful disease of which there is no cure, but you also have to live without being able to even associate with your family, your friends, and the majority of people! And if that were not it…you were unclean and couldn’t worship and many falsely believed that contracting the disease was a punishment for having committed some heinous sin in your life. The Hebrew word for “leprosy” actually means something like “scourge”- leprosy was viewed as a scourge from God Himself. So very likely this disease of leprosy could negatively affect someone physically, socially, emotionally, and even spiritually. This leper was indeed suffering miserably, perhaps in ways much greater than you or I have suffered, and yet notice that he doesn’t fall into the dangerous ditch of despair. He doesn’t throw in the towel, give up on life, give up on God, give up on church, give up on religion, give up his faith, and give in. He goes to Jesus; takes his problem to Jesus.
Falling on his knees before Jesus he begs him, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” What a beautiful little prayer! First, he falls on his knees in humility, he’s not going to stand over Jesus and tell Jesus what he should or should not be doing. He also shows his trust in the Lord’s almighty power to help him and he trusts in Jesus’ divine mercy to come to his aid. All the while he submits himself to the will of the Almighty. He prays, “If you are willing.” Implied in that short prayer is the possibility that it may not be Jesus’ will to heal him or answer his prayer the way he is asking it. Perhaps he couldn’t quite bring himself to say the other part, “If, however, you don’t want to, I will gladly bear the burden of this leprosy around my neck for the rest of my life.” But whatever the answer is he is ready to accept the divine will of the Almighty God.
Then Jesus “was filled with compassion and reached out his hand and touched the man.” Jesus was literally “gut-wrenched” with compassion for this man. And did you catch it? He touched him!! It was totally unheard of for a Rabbi to touch a leper, but this isn’t just a Rabbi, it’s Jesus, the Son of God, the Almighty! Then Jesus said, ‘I am willing, be clean’ Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.” Immediately his paltry white skin returned to a healthy color, he was healed! Made whole! Cured! A simple word from Jesus healed an incurable disease- certainly this is no ordinary man, but truly the Son of God! Then Jesus sent him away with a strong warning not to talk to anyone but go straight to fulfill the requirements of someone who was healed of a disease. Why Jesus didn’t want him to tell anyone we’re not totally sure: Did he want him to first worship the Lord? Did he not want opposition from his enemies? Did he not want the man sharing the miracle without the Word and people see Jesus as simply a miracle worker? Finally we’re not 100% sure, but we do know that the man didn’t do what he was supposed to do. He disobeyed Jesus. He fell into the other ditch. He so focused on the answer Jesus’ gave his prayer that he forgot about what Jesus wanted. He now preferred his own will and wants over what Jesus wanted. We aren’t told he followed Jesus’ direction at all and as a result Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed in lonely places. Even though Jesus knew this man’s actions would hinder his work Jesus still granted his prayer. “Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.” Even in this man’s disobedience Jesus still worked it for good since people still came out to him and he preached the good news to them.
Are we guilty of this? Of falling into ditches? Are there times when we’ve prayed to the Lord about something and He doesn’t seem to answer the way we wanted him to? Or have we questioned God’s ways and wondered why He should be allowing this or that to happen to us? Have we doubted God’s wisdom in ruling things, doubted his love and mercy in dealing with us? If so then we’ve driven our lives into the dangerous ditch of despair. Then are there other times when God does answer our prayers and give us the things we ask for and then we forget about him. We long for something and when it comes we forget to thank the Lord who gave it to us, we begin to enjoy the gifts God gives and neglect the Giver! We find ourselves glued to the things God gives instead of Him! If we were to look back at the “tracks” of our life, what would we see? Would they be swerving from one ditch to the next? Or would they be following the road? If we’re honest with ourselves, each one of us has to admit the answer isn’t one we’re proud of.
“If you are willing”- This is the Christian’s approach to life- in every aspect to submit our will to his, to immerse ourselves with God’s will, to offer up our will to Him. God wants us to have the proper attitude to the things of this world. If God gives us health, wealth, good things, and joy our hearts remain focused on the Lord and are ready to give them up without questioning God if he should take them from us. If God should send us trouble, tribulation, trials, sicknesses, and need we again will keep our focus on the Lord and gladly endure all things until the end of our lives. Our will is shaky, waving, and unreliable, God’s will on the other hand is perfectly calm and reliable. When we immerse ourselves in God’s will we will have true peace of mind. We immerse our will in His will and trust that whatever God does in our lives is for our best and we look for God’s blessings.
Even though we are constantly prone to sin, constantly tempted to fall into one of two dangerous ditches in our lives, notice something else. We see in this a far greater miracle than a leper being cleansed or healed, there’s something else going on here. Notice what Jesus did? This leper came to him and Jesus didn’t repel him, turn away, throw rocks at him, or keep his distance…he touched him! There is an ailment or affliction far worse than leprosy that each one of us has living inside of us. This sickness will lead to death. Each one of us ought to be an outcast and shunned by the One who is clean and sinless and not like us. Yet the wonder upon wonders and miracle upon miracles is the fact that he didn’t do what he should have done, he didn’t turn his back on us and let us die in our sin. No, He chose to come to us, to live among us, to not shun us, to cure us. We see a small glimpse of Jesus’ compassion in this account yet the greater picture of His compassion is written all over his word. He didn’t think it too menial and degrading of a thing to be beaten and mocked and treated like an outcast himself and to die a miserable death, it wasn’t menial or degrading because of what He was doing, by His blood he cleansed the world of its sin, took upon himself the suffering of the world and paid for it in full. He picked us up and cleansed us from the mud and dirt of falling into the wrong ditches in our lives. With his death on the cross he washed us clean and made us His own. He doesn’t deal with us from far away, He deals closely with us, he washed you in your baptism, he touches you in a real way in His Supper, and he continually feeds you with His words of good news, of sins forgiven, of new life on earth, of a certain future life in heaven with Him. That’s what your Savior wills for you! Amen.