Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
February 16, 2003
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
If we go by Markís account of the matter, Jesus had a problem. You see, in Markís Gospel, from which most of the Gospel readings are taken in the lectionary cycle this year, Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. In September we will come to the famous passage at Mark 8:27 in which Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ. It is the turning point of the whole Gospel. After that confession, everything starts to change. But thereís an odd thing about the Gospel of Mark. Although throughout the Gospel numerous people and spirits, including demons, recognize who Jesus is, although he heals many people in body and spirit, he is forever telling those who recognize him and those whom he heals not to say anything about it. With Markís Jesus itís always: "Shhhh. Keep it quiet. Donít tell anyone. Weíll just keep this between ourselves, OK?" In academic circles this is known as the "messianic secret" of Mark. Jesus is the Christ, but Markís Jesus doesnít want anyone to know it.
And that turned out to be a big problem for him. You see, nobody paid any attention to his pleas that they keep their mouths shut. Everyone kept running around Galilee blabbing to anyone who would listen that the Messiah has come, or at least that thereís this amazing rabbi and miracle worker who does the most wonderful, spectacular things.
We see this problem that Jesus had very clearly in this morningís Gospel story. It is one of the numerous healing stories in Mark. We are introduced to a "leper." Now, if youíve spent very much time in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, you know that every time the words leper or leprosy appear, thereís a footnote that says "the terms leper and leprosy can refer to several diseases." I suspect the editors of this translation thought they had to put in this note so many times to try to get away from the stigma that has for so long attached to the term leprosy. After a while, you just stop looking at the notes that always appear after these terms because they always say the same thing. In any event, the man in our story this morning had some kind of skin disease. That meant, according to the Holiness Code of the time, that he was "unclean," and anyone who touched him became "unclean." A good Jew wouldnít do it. His religion forbade it. Nonetheless, the man in our story pleaded with Jesus for mercy, for healing. He couldnít have had much hope that Jesus would actually do it. Itís a sure bet no one else had ever done much to help this unfortunate man at any other time in his life. Nonetheless, Jesus was "moved with pity." Jesus was moved by the manís plight and by his plea for help. And so he violated the religious code of his day and touched the man. Whereupon the man was healed.
Now, that could have been the end of the story. Mark has made his point about the Holiness Code and about Jesus as a healer. But for Mark it isnít the end of the story. Rather, the story continues with Jesus "sternly" warning the man and telling him not to say anything to anyone. He tells the man rather man to obey the very Holiness Code that Jesus had just broken in healing him by touch by going to the Temple and making the sacrifice that the Code required in cases where healing took place. But did the guy listen? No! I mean, Jesus had just healed this guy of a disease that made him a pariah in that society, that cut him off from all interaction with people, even from his friends and family. Indeed, in those days, uncleanness was understood to cut you off even from fellowship with God. Jesus had just done something for this man that no one was supposed to be able to do. Jesus had just given him a gift beyond value. And in return Jesus asked just one simple little thing, one itsy-bitsy little favor. Keep your mouth shut! I mean, is that too much to ask in return for such a blessing? You wouldnít think so. But did the guy do it? No! He couldnít keep his big trap shut! He "went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word...." I can just see him running through the village stopping everyone he saw: "Friend! The most wonderful thing has just happened! Jesus of Nazareth touched me and made me clean. He gave me my life back again. Praise be to God!" Some gratitude! Canít you just hear Jesus saying: "Well! Just see if I ever perform another miracle for you, you ungrateful little...." Well, OK. Maybe Jesus wouldnít have put it quite that way, but still....
Well, what are we to make of this quirk of Markís Gospel that although Jesus is forever telling people whom he has literally touched and healed not to tell anyone about it, they always do? I think Mark had a bigger point in mind here than just to say that people didnít listen to Jesus. Stories like this one raise for me the question of why these people whom Jesus has touched and healed could not keep quiet about it. What happens to a person when Jesus touches his or her life? What happens, or what can happen at least, is illustrated very well by this little story. What happened to this man? So much more than being healed of a disease as we understand healing. He was healed of the disease to be sure. Beyond that, he was restored to cleanliness. Now, itís hard for us to understand what that meant in those times. It meant he was restored to community, restored to his society, his friends, his family. It meant he was restored to good standing with his faith community. But it mean even more than that. It meant that God had touched his life and turned it around. It meant that this man was restored to right relationship with God by Jesusí healing touch. Itís hard to imagine anything more profound, more transformative, more salvific.
And when youíve been given a gift that great, how can you keep it to yourself? I suspect weíve all had experiences of having received some sort of good news that we just canít wait to tell our relatives, our friends, indeed even strangers. Anyone, in fact, whoíll listen. Our sweetheart said yes when we proposed. We got into the university we wanted. We got that perfect job weíd applied for. We just got our first grandchild. When weíre brimming over with good news, it just comes pouring out of us. We canít keep it inside. If we try, we feel like weíre going to burst. I suspect this man that Jesus healed didnít even hear Jesus when he said donít tell anyone. His good news was so overwhelmingly good that he just couldnít hear the "keep quiet about it" part. And so he went running around proclaiming his good news far and wide.
Well, thatís nice for him. But what does it have to do with us? It has, I think, a great deal to do with us. In the Gospel of Mark, the people whose lives Jesus touched ignored the messianic secret. They talked. They proclaimed the good news. Among us mainline, liberal Christians, however, the messianic secret is alive and well. Jesus has touched our lives. At least, I know he has touched mine. I wouldnít be up here preaching the Gospel if he hadnít. I know he has touched many of your lives. Some of you have told me about the ways in which he has. Many of us have had our individual experiences of being healed, of being lifted up, of being made whole by Jesusí presence in our lives. Beyond that, the central message of the faith we profess is that Jesus Christ, through his life, ministry, death, and resurrection has restored us to right relationship with God. He has removed the uncleanness of our trespasses and spanned the chasm that otherwise would separate us from God. Thatís precisely what Jesus did for the man with leprosy in our story this morning. And that man couldnít keep his mouth shut about it.
Now, you may be saying, that just makes us more faithful because Jesus told the man, and therefore presumably us, to shut up about it. He didnít. We do. So weíre the ones doing what Jesus wants. Wrong! Thatís wrong because hereís the thing about Markís messianic secret. Iím sure youíve been wondering why, in Mark, Jesus keeps telling people and spirits to shut up about who he is. I think the reason is that, again for Mark, the true meaning of what it means for Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah, can only be seen and understood after Jesusí Crucifixion and Resurrection, not before those events have happened. The reason Jesus doesnít want people to know he is the Christ during his earthly ministry is that until people see that being the Christ really means dying, being crucified, out of faithfulness to God, there is no way people can understand what it means to say that he is the Christ.
The man with leprosy in our story this morning didnít know what it meant to say that Jesus is the Messiah. So he, according to Mark, should have kept quiet despite his very human desire to share his good news with everyone he met. We, however, live after Jesusí death and resurrection. We know what it meant for him to be the Messiah. So we have no excuse. Jesusí injunction to shut up about him that appears so frequently in Mark doesnít apply to us. We are free to blab the good news to everyone we meet.
And so, my friends, I have a challenge for us all this morning. If Jesus has touched your life at some time, in some way, or if this church, which is part of the Body of Christ, has touched your life at some time, in some way, that made a difference to you, that turned your life around, or that at least in some way made or makes your life better, tell somebody about it. It doesnít matter who-a friend, a relative, a neighbor, a total stranger if thatís more comfortable. Do it this week. Then do it again next week. Get used to doing it. We have such good news to share in this church, the Good News of the Gospel and the good news of this wonderful community and its open, seeking, welcoming approach to the Christian faith. We need to get used to sharing it. Jesus Christ has healed us. How, then, can we keep from singing?