Sunday, January 31, 2010

I am Willing, Be Clean

Luke 5:12-16

To clean up, you need to get dirty.

I'll never forget my first day on the job as a janitor. I was a college student needing a little extra money and found a part time job helping to clean the residence halls. It was a warm sunny day and I was honestly in a good mood. I met the full time guy that was in charge of the building where I would be working, and he handed me a snow shovel.

Did I mention it was warm outside?

It turns out that we needed to empty the garbage rooms. Normally this would be a relatively easy task. Each room contains large bins that are wheeled out and tipped into the compactor. One can usually dispose of all the trash while minimizing any actual contact with the waste. However we had just finished a three day weekend and the bins had overflowed to such a degree that we had to literally dig a way out with them. We then refilled each bin twice with what was left on the floor.

By the time the day was done, I stunk of the refuse of college freshman. Not my best day.

We've all had our share of dirty jobs, and I'm sure if I asked around there are plenty of people that can come up with much better stories than me. My point is that to clean a mess of any significance, we often have to become immersed in the mess ourselves and in the end, we get dirty.

In my reading this week, Jesus came across a dirty person. Luke 5:12 tells us that this man was a leper, which meant he was dirty on multiple levels. He was dirty physically; leprosy is a disease that makes itself obvious, covering the body with sores and legions. Every time this man looked at his skin he would have been reminded of what was wrong with him.

He was dirty culturally. A disease that manifests on the skin cannot easily be hidden and he would have been shunned by his former friends and neighbors. Beyond that he was legally obligated to remove himself from society. If he were to encounter anyone he was to cover his face and shout "Unclean!" so people would know to stay away.

Finally he was dirty spiritually. Such a disease made him unclean according the laws of Moses. He was prohibited from participating in any religious activity. He could not go near the temple to worship. He could not present sacrifices. He was effectively cut off from God.

When we consider the context, the actions of this leper are downright shocking. He approached a Rabbi that was gaining respect in the community when he was obligated to avoid Him. Furthermore he had the audacity to actually ask this man for something!

"Lord, if you will, you can make me clean."

The proper response would have been for Jesus to turn his back on this man and abandon him before He himself became infected.

However that is not what Jesus does.

Jesus stretches out His hand and actually touches this physically, culturally, and spiritually dead man. He then speaks the words that this man will never forget.

"I will, be clean."

When Jesus touches this man an amazing thing happens. Not only does Jesus not become impure, but the man becomes clean. His skin is brand new. He is free to love his friends and family without the risk of defiling them. He can return to the temple, and present himself before the Lord.

Like this man, we are unclean. Our disease may not be as visible to the world as leprosy, but when we present ourselves to a holy God our impurity becomes evident. Our sin often damages us physically, destroys us culturally, and completely cuts us off from God. We have no more right to approach God than this man covered with rotting flesh.

However in Jesus God has stretched His hand out to us. Jesus entered our world, our mess, a situation far more out of control than that trash room in the dorm. Despite being immersed in this mess Jesus remained pure. Not only did He remain pure but by taking the consequence of our sin upon Himself He made us clean.

Now He invites us to receive the forgiveness that we never deserved, but He won for us anyway. We no longer need to fear our physical death. We are free to love as Jesus loved, not out of obligation, but out of thankfulness. We are free to approach our loving heavenly Father as the dear children He has always intended us to be.

God is willing, be clean.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Spit in the Face

"I fought for them, and they spat in my face."

The other day I saw a TV show that mentioned some of the Vietnam protest movements of the 1960s. I was reminded of how I grew up with a very different perspective of these movements than many people my age. Many portrayals paint them as idealistic crusaders trying to bring about a better world. I look at the events as an adult and I believe many of them were, however that has never been my first reaction when I see such stories.

I am the son of a Vietnam veteran who came home and became a police officer. At an early age I learned about the reception my father received upon his return. So as a boy growing up whenever I learned about the protestors, they weren't heroes to me.

They were the people who called my dad a baby killer and spat in his face.

Before I go forward know that I am not out to make a political statement, so stick with me…

I have often tried to understand just what my dad has felt all these years. Political opinions aside, he went to a foreign country with an attitude of genuine service and responsibility, underwent unimaginable hardships (we recently caught a shot of him on a History Channel documentary carrying a dead comrade) and returned home to be hated by the very people he had served.

As I read from the Gospel of Luke this week I was reminded of my father's story. After His baptism, Jesus proceeded into the desert where he engaged in an intense spiritual battle with Satan himself. In many ways the original temptation of the first humans is repeated, except this time the Son of God is standing in the place of humanity, resisting the temptation completely and fighting the powers of this world on our behalf. From here he proceeds to Galilee, where His reputation grew. Then He went to Nazareth, His home town, full of the people He has come to save. They reject Him, mock Him, and get ready to throw Him off a cliff.

I have to make a disclaimer here. I am in no way equating my father with Christ, or putting him anywhere close. If I were to do so both of us would have to visit the Emergency Room to have his boot surgically removed from my hindquarters.

The comparison I make is that as I read this, I felt the same disgust for the people of Nazareth as I felt for the people that called my dad a baby killer. Jesus was serving them, fighting for them, and preparing to die for them, and they were completely blind to what was happening.

He was their one hope, and they wanted to kill Him. What was wrong with these people?

However as I read honestly I have to ask the question, are we so different?

If we look closely at the text, we notice that the people were not immediately angry at Jesus. In fact, in Luke 4:22 it records that "all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from His mouth." So what made them so angry? It was what Jesus said next.

And he said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Physician, heal yourself.' What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well." And he said, "Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown." But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.
And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian."

At this point they are suddenly ready to kill Him. Why?

There are a few things here that we can easily miss if we don't read carefully. First from Jesus' initial comment about Capernaum, we can see that miracles seem to have been happening in other towns, but not in Nazareth. This is verified by Mark's account of the visit to Nazareth. What makes the whole thing a little ironic is that they are rejecting Jesus' essential message from Luke 4:18-19 and then asking for more miracles as if Jesus is a traveling magician.

The second thing we see in Jesus' words is that He mentions two events from the Old Testament, Elijah helping Zerephath, and Elisha healing Naaman. The reason this is so significant is that both Zerepath and Naaman were Gentiles (non-Jews). In the minds of these people at Nazareth, the Messiah was coming for the Jewish people and the Jewish people only. No Messiah of theirs would ever be interested in helping some filthy foreigners.

So often we consider the Gospel, that Jesus defeated death and the Devil by substituting His life for our life, and then say "Ok that's great, now when will He get me that promotion at work?" We may not always be so vocal about our hate for other people but do a great job of ignoring the ones that bother us and refusing to serve them. Are we any different than the people of Nazareth?

Every time we turn our backs on people we don't like, every time we become flippant about Jesus' sacrifice on the cross and demand that God do miracles on our own terms, we show ourselves to be just like the people of Nazareth.

We spit in the face of Jesus.

As I look honestly at my life, I realize that I am a man of Nazareth. I thank God that Jesus is a much better man than me. Jesus loves me and you so much that He gave up His life to forgive the very sins that I am talking about. He stood as our substitute in life, facing and defeating the temptations that destroy us. He hung on the cross as our substitute in death, accepting the punishment that should have condemned us.

We spit in His face, and He saves us anyway.