When we lived in Brookfield, IL, which is inner suburban Chicago, I don’t remember ever seeing any wildlife in our neighborhood. Of course, that’s not surprising. After all there was nothing in the area except village after village – suburb after suburb. You drove through one continuous city, and apart from the signs marking each village you would never really know that you had left one and entered another.
On the other hand, Marion is very different. Here if you live near the edge of the city as we do, you are living near the countryside. There are fields, woods and some farmland. And there is a lot of wildlife out there. I thought about this a couple times recently when I have been driving Abigail home from basketball in the evening. Several times as we drove into our neighborhood we saw a number of deer standing in a front yard. On one occasion I slowed down and surprisingly the deer didn’t move at all. We were probably ten feet away from the deer who just stood there looking at us.
Now I enjoy seeing the deer. They are pretty and graceful animals. It has been fascinating to see an occasional fox. But I don’t like it when one particular animal shows up in our neighborhood. And that animal is a skunk. There have been quite a few of them recently. With their black and white stripe they are hard to miss. And very often, you don’t even have to see them in order to know that they are around. The scent they spray is powerful and unmistakable.
It smells bad when you just sniff it in the air. Our dog Baylor basically lives in the house, and yet somehow in the brief time she goes outside she has managed to get sprayed on multiple occasions. You would think that one experience of a full blast of skunk odor would have taught her … but apparently not. I don’t like it when I see a skunk show up around our house, because unlike Baylor I know for sure that one of the last things in life I want to experience is to get sprayed by one of these annoying creatures.
The crowds around Jesus probably had a similar feeling when they saw the leper show up in our Gospel lesson. This was not someone you wanted to see, and it certainly was not someone you wanted to come anywhere near you. The term “leper” in the Bible describes a person with some kind of skin condition that was easily noticeable. However, it seems unlikely that it refers to what the modern world has called “leprosy” – a condition known as Hansen’s Disease.
Leviticus chapters thirteen and fourteen describe how leprosy made a person unclean in the ritual system of the Torah. As such, it cut those afflicted off from fellowship with the rest of the people. Leviticus thirteen provided the instruction: “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
The leper had to do this because contact with another individual made that person unclean too. Leviticus says that when a person knows that they have touched human uncleanness, they must sacrifice a lamb or a goat in order to make atonement. If a leper showed up and touched you, your whole day was messed up. Forget about what you were going to do. Now you had to undertake a significant effort and expense in order to return your life to normality.
This is the reason that our text says, “And behold! A leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” In the previous three chapters Jesus has been on the mountain teaching. Now he has come down the mountain and we are told that great crowds followed him. Then suddenly a leper approaches Jesus. The one who is supposed to stay away; the one you don’t want anywhere near you came up to Jesus and began to bow before him.
The leper bowed down, and said something remarkable: “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” There are three things to notice here. First, the leper called Jesus “Lord” and so we know he approached Jesus in faith because in Matthew’s Gospel only those who have faith use this title to address Jesus. Second, the man’s request is built on the assumption that Jesus does have the authority and power to cleanse him. And third, the man doesn’t make a direct request. Instead, even in his request he submits before Jesus as he says, “If you will.”
The leper knew that he had a problem, and so he came to Jesus for help. Like the leper, you have a problem. The thing is, you often want to deceive yourself into thinking that it’s really not there, or that it’s really no big deal. Sure you say harsh, cutting and angry words to others – but they say them to you as well. Sure you worry about how to pay for that lifestyle that you simply must have – but so does everyone else. Sure you may indulge in the use of some pornography – but it’s only soft porn; it’s not any of that really bad stuff.
In these and a host of other ways, you sin in your thoughts, your words and your deeds. You can try to rationalize it. But that won’t do you any good when you are dealing with the holy God. “Pretty good” doesn’t cut it. And deep down, you know it. You know the nagging sense, after the fact, that you failed; that you have not been what God wants you to be.
The leper came to Jesus because of the way the fallen world had afflicted his life. He approached in faith and humility as he said, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And then as the Lord who brings salvation, Jesus acted. He did the unexpected. He touched the leper. Jesus did the thing that normally would make him unclean. Yet instead, his touch overcame the uncleanness. It overcame the leprosy. We hear in our text, “And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.”
Jesus began his ministry with the words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven stands near.’” Then shortly after this we receive a summary statement of what his ministry looked like when we are told, “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.”
Jesus preached and he healed. And in both his authority was revealed. That’s what the verses right before our text say as we hear: “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” And that’s what the second half of our Gospel lesson says as the centurion believes that Jesus has the authority simply to say the word and heal his servant.
Jesus has authority because he brings the kingdom of God – the reign of God that is present in his ministry. But there is something very important to recognize about this authority. He hasn’t come to use this authority for himself. Instead he seeks out those in need – those who struggle with sin and all of the ways it has impacted the world. In the next chapter when Jesus calls Matthew, the Pharisees will complain that our Lord eats with tax collectors and sinners. He will respond to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Jesus brought the saving and powerful reign of God. And he came to serve you, a sinner. Our Lord said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” He brought God’s saving reign by dying on the cross as the ransom for you – as the One who received God’s judgment against your sins. And then he brought the reign of God by rising from the dead and beginning the resurrection of the Last Day – the resurrection that will one day be yours.
And now, he continues to bring God’s reign to you. He continues to come and serve you. In fact, that is the reason we call what is going on this morning the “Divine Service.” Here our Lord comes and serves us with his gifts of the Means of Grace as he gives us forgiveness, life and salvation.
In our text today, Jesus does the unexpected. He reaches out and touches the leper with a power that healed the leprosy and drove away the uncleanness. In a few moments, our Lord will touch you. In the Sacrament of the Altar he will touch your mouth with his true body and blood. He will touch you with the power to forgive all of your sins because it is his true body and blood, given and shed for you on the cross.
Our Lord will send you home today after embracing you with forgiveness in a variety of ways: in Holy Absolution; in the reading of the Scriptures; in the proclamation of the sermon; and in the Sacrament of the Altar. You will once again have received the saving reign of God. Through these means the Holy Spirit strengthens you in the faith and nourishes the new man.
He does this so that you can once again take up the struggle against sin. He does this so that you can forgive and pray for the person who has wronged you. He does this so that you can give thanks for all the blessings God does give to you, even as you trust in him to provide the things that he thinks you need. He does this so that you can take the practical steps needed to avoid pornography; so that single Christians can wait to make us of sexuality in marriage; so that married Christians can rejoice in this gift of God with their spouse.
It is an ongoing struggle. Through the work of the Spirit you will be able to do these things. And we also know that there will be times when we fail. And so next Sunday we will return here again. We will give thanks for all of the ways that we have seen Christ at work in our life. And where the old man he raised his head we will repent. We will return to Jesus Christ and say, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And in the assurance of the Gospel we know that once against he will touch us through the Means of Grace as he forgives all our sins.