Sunday, February 12, 2012

God The Unexpected

This text was constructed from the rough notes I used for a sermon preached at Beechworth and Yackandandah, Sunday 12th February, 2012.

Texts: 2 Kings 3:1-14; Mark 1:40-45

This week’s lectionary gives us not one, but TWO stories of lepers being healed.

It’s important to understand that ‘leprosy’ as understood, in biblical times, is likely to be different to the modern day Hansen’s Disease that we call leprosy. The term ‘leprosy’ was used in the Bible to describe what was likely to be a range of skin diseases, mostly quite contagious (whereas Hansen’s Disease isn’t very contagious at all).

People with leprosy were considered to be ritually unclean, and as such, were separated from the community. However, it’s interesting to note that leprosy was not incurable. There were detailed regulations and procedures in Israel’s Law about what people should do when cured of leprosy in order to be declared ritually clean and ready to take their place in the community once again. The presence of these instructions, by inference, indicates that people must have been healed- whether through conventional medicine of the day, through miraculous healing, or the disease just resolving of its own accord.

For people afflicted or affected by leprosy, they had to dwell outside the community, on the edge of society, and were required to keep their distance from other people. They had to call, “UNCLEAN!” whenever anyone approached them, as a warning for people to keep away. On the other hand, people were not allowed to touch a leper, as this would make them ritually unclean by association.

In our gospel reading, we see Jesus on a preaching tour around the region, and would have had a lot of people around him. So when this unnamed leper came right up to him, at best it was a cheeky thing to do, and at worst, a serious flouting of the Law by someone who should have known his place. Now we know that Jesus was a good Jew. He knew the Scriptures, and kept the Law and did all the things that a young Jewish man of his age and time would have done. We know this because we often read of him teaching in the Synagogue; so we knew he was actively involved in his religious faith and practices So when this guy came to Jesus, surprisingly Jesus didn’t chastise him for breaking the law, and tell him to go away. Jesus did something even more astonishing- he TOUCHED him- and he was healed!

It was as if Jesus was acknowledging, or demonstrating that his own holiness was greater and more powerful than the uncleanness of the leper. So, rather than Jesus being made unclean by virtue of touching the leper, the leper was made clean because of Jesus’ touch.

In Jesus’ day, lepers were the ultimate outcasts, and even today, the term ‘leper’ has infiltrated our own language, to describe people who are outcasts, and socially isolated. This leads to the question, “who are the ‘lepers’ in our society?”
Perhaps people with mental illness or intellectual disabilities who exhibit different, and ‘out there’ behaviours? Or maybe people suffering from diseases like HIV/AIDS? (As an aside, I remember reading some years ago, that AIDS patients have reported that one of the hardest things for them to cope with is the lack of human touch. It seems people are afraid to touch them for fear of being infected, and catching the disease, even though these days we know that HIV is not transmitted by casual touch like that.)

The Unexpected: Jesus reached out and touched the leper and he was healed.

Naaman’s healing also came from an unexpected source: an Israelite slave girl advised him to visit the prophet in Israel. Now Naaman was an important and influential man in his community, so we need to appreciate the many ironies of this fact. That Naaman, being who he was, should take notice of someone who was a GIRL (female AND young), and a SLAVE, and an ISRAELITE (captured during the last military victory Syria had over Israel). This girl is not the source from whom one would expect to obtain such significant advice.

The Unexpected: both the source of the advice, and that Naaman listened to, and followed it.
So Naaman went to Israel to seek healing. He took with him a letter from the king of Syria, addressed to the King of Israel, asking for him to heal Naaman. It seems that the King was so entrenched in his hierarchical understanding of how things worked, that he wasn’t able to envision anyone lesser than the best (ie the King) as being able to help such an important person as his general Naaman.

But like the people in the toilet cleaner ad on TV, the man spraying silly string under his arms instead of deodorant, and the woman using peanut butter instead of wax on her legs,
the king was the WRONG person for the job.

In those days, Israel must have been a bit like a country town with an effective bush telegraph, because Elisha heard about what was going on, and sent a message to the king that he would help Naaman, and to send him over, because Elisha was the RIGHT person for the job.

Naaman parked his big, shiny chariot, with lots of horsepower, out the front of Elisha’s house, expecting to be met by the prophet and have him conduct some big, impressive healing ritual.

The Unexpected:
- Elisha didn’t come in person (as would befit someone of Naaman’s VIP status), but sent a messenger,

- the simplicity - to the point of being insulting- of the instructions was also unexpected, however, eventually, Naaman was convinced to comply (he took advice from a servant AGAIN). “If the prophet had told you to do something complicated or difficult, you would have jumped at the chance and done it. So why not do this simple thing? There is no harm in at least trying.”

The Unexpected: Naaman’s leprosy was healed!

Our God is a God of surprises, of the unexpected. So often we are so busy looking for the difficult, hard or complicated paths to healing and wholeness, rather than the obvious, which is usually simple.

During the week I had a minor falling out with a close friend. I had done something, out of good intentions, wanting to be helpful, that had backfired, and my friend felt that I had stepped over the line, and done something inappropriate. I was hurt and angry at being misunderstood. In my head, I went over and over and over what I wanted to say in response to this.

I spent a lot of time and energy building a ‘case’ to justify and support my actions; pointing out what I saw as inconsistencies in my friend’s logic, and wanting to recite a litany of ‘evidence’ in my defense.

I stewed on all of this, determined to prove I was right, and my friend was wrong. I thought that it would make me feel better to name all this stuff and get it off my chest, but it didn’t. And in fact, I just got wound up tighter and tighter (at which point I cursed the fact that I was not in the habit of dealing with anger by punching something or slamming doors, rather than stewing internally).

On Friday, I had an epiphany (which is kind of appropriate, given the liturgical season we’re in), and realised that none of this would help. I realised that wanting and needing to BE RIGHT, to win an argument, never helps anyone, and that outlining a litany of hurts to my friend would not have been helpful to either of us. It would have just been a case of me venting my spleen for no real good.

I decided I needed to leave the complicated processes behind, and aim for something more simple; to let it go, and forgive my friend all the little things that had hurt me, and to seek forgiveness for my own part in this hiccough in our friendship. It’s easy to talk about letting go, but harder to do in practice, but I think I’m getting there.

And you know, when I made that decision to let things go, it felt like a great weight lifted from my chest at that moment.

So often when we think of healing (of all kinds, especially emotional or spiritual), we tend to naturally go for the complicated solution- the one that relies on our own strength or competence (like Naaman who wanted something complicated and impressive, a grand ritual). But God’s healing often comes in simple, unexpected ways, from simple and unexpected sources.

And this got me thinking, that’s what GRACE is all about. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God made it possible for us to receive healing from the worst kind of illness- sin. No complicated rituals, or performance indicators are required, there are no hoops to jump through. We just need to go for the simple option, to accept God’s grace, and let go of the complicated stuff that’s not helpful.