St Barnabas and St Michael’s 29th July 2012
Reading – Luke 5:12-16
So here it is. After seven years of planning and preparation, the Olympic Games 2012 have finally begun. Already events such as handball and tennis have started, and soon we shall see the stars of track and field compete here in London. It’s hard not to be excited by the sheer thrill of the competition, to cheer on the athletes as they strive for a medal, and to watch amazed as personal bests and world records are broken. As far as I am concerned, the Olympics really does live up to the billing, “The greatest show on earth”.
Not being an athlete myself, I can barely begin to imagine the pressure on those taking part. The years of intensive training, the sacrifice of time, even the battles with injury – all to make sure you are ready for the one big moment in your life. It is perhaps not too surprising that in the past a very small number of athletes have resorted to illegal methods to boost their performance. Does anyone remember Ben Johnson? He was the Canadian sprinter who won gold medals at the Seoul Olympics. At the time his world records attracted universal astonishment. Only later did it become clear he had been using banned substances. He was stripped of his medals and his glory, and since then his life has been a series of failed comebacks and relative obscurity.
Hopefully that kind of cheating is no longer possible today, and we will all remember these Olympics for all the right reasons. But I guess that even so there will be one or two people who will be tempted to try and boost their results. In the short-term they may get away with it, but in the long-term they will only end up harming themselves and letting down those around them.
And this leads me on to the first reading this morning, the one about King David about Bathsheba. Because this too is a true-life story of someone who does something wrong. Again like the cheating athlete it looks at first as if he gets away with it. But in the long-term his affair only had a disastrous effect on himself and those around them.
And it all started with a look. Here is King David back home in Jerusalem, living a life of leisure. He probably should have been out fighting with his armies. But he wasn’t and there’s no surer way of falling into temptation than having too much time on your hands. One evening he is on his roof and he sees something. Or rather someone, a beautiful woman called Bathsheba. Maybe one look was OK. But David looked and looked again. He liked what he saw, one thing led to another and in the end Bathsheba ends up pregnant.
This is a bit of a problem because Bathsheba is already married. In fact her husband is one of David’s choice fighting men, Uriah, who’s doing the dirty work out on the battlefield. But David has already worked out what to do. He’ll bring Uriah back from the front and tell him to go home to Bathsheba. That way Bathsheba’s pregnancy can be explained away – even if her dates might be slightly wrong. But Uriah is a true professional. No matter how hard David tries, Uriah just won’t go home. Out of loyalty to his soldiers he sleeps outside in the city gate. In the end David sees his plan won’t work. So he arranges for Uriah to be killed in the heat of battle. It’s the only way he can see of dealing with the consequences of his actions.
It’s a brilliant, but shocking story which shows what Christians call the power of sin. One little look produced desire, desire produced adultery, adultery produced pregnancy, pregnancy produced deceit, deceit produced murder. The story line wouldn’t be out of place in East Enders today.
We’ll come back to King David again later. But let’s go forward for a moment to our second reading, from Luke’s gospel. It’s a short but powerful meeting between Jesus and a leper. Whether or not this leper actually had leprosy is a matter of debate. Certainly he had some kind of dreaded skin disease that branded him as an outcast, someone not to be seen in polite society. You can almost imagine the crowd’s reaction as this man covered in sores and blisters bursts forward and falls at Jesus’ feet, saying: Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean. Surely, they must have thought, if this Jesus was a respectable person, if He really was a holy man, He would have nothing to do with this leper. He would walk round him, or ignore him, or tell him to go away.
But Jesus does something truly remarkable. He actually reaches out his hand and touches the man. That was something unheard of in those days. Back then, it was thought that if you touched a leper you yourself became unclean. You became contaminated for a certain number of days, and you had to undergo ritual purification afterwards.
However Jesus had a different view of what it meant to be clean and to be unclean. In the gospel of Mark, chapter 7:20-23, he says these words: What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean’. For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean’.
That was a revolutionary new kind of teaching, and actually it’s one we still need to hear today. Because if you look around, it doesn’t too much effort to see that in many ways people are still judged on their looks. For example, we have a cosmetic industry worth billions that aims at the one single goal of removing any possible blemish, be it a spot or a wrinkle or any other kind of defect. It is the glossy models with perfect skin that adorn the covers of our magazines and fill our television screens. The clear message is that if you want to get ahead in life you have to look like them, you have to use their products, you have to take on their image.
But Jesus is clear that the real problem is not how we look on the outside, but what’s going on in our heart. God doesn’t judge us according to the state of our skin, but according to the state of our soul. And when you begin to understand that, you begin to see that we all face a serious problem, namely that none of us is clean before God. No matter how good we might appear to other people, no matter how much we try to cover up our imperfections, we have a heart that tends to wrong thoughts, to wrong attitudes, to ugly sins and prejudices. And there is no cosmetic treatment out there to deal with this problem of the heart.
Not that religion is that much use either. Back in Jesus’ day there were many who thought you could deal with sin by living according to a strict set of rules, that if you try really hard to follow God’s commands and make sure you avoid anything that makes you unclean, somehow you will overcome the power of temptation and evil. But actually the power of sin is too strong for us to deal with on our own. An early follower of Jesus called Paul wrote these words: what I do is not thegoodIwanttodo; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. (Rom 7:19).
And if we’re honest with ourselves, those words of Paul chime in with our own experience. How many of us have made a New Year’s resolution only to break it within a matter of hours? Or promised ourselves that we would change some old habit only to slip back again a few weeks later? Man-made religion based on rules and regulations is no use against the problem of the heart Jesus identified. It may make us feel that we are doing slightly better than the next person or it may offer us comforting ceremonies when we fall short, but it cannot tackle the core issue that What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean’. To some extent, an athlete can decide whether or not to be clean when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs. But when it comes to our basic human nature, not one of us is clean before God. And neither covering up the problem nor tackling it by our own effort can ever work.
So what is the solution? Well, this is where we come back to Jesus’ encounter with the leper. Just stop for a moment and picture the scene. Here is a leper rushing through the crowds and falling at Jesus’ feet. There is a mutter and a commotion, as people let him through. Then a hushed silence falls as the leper begins to speak. Try to picture the whole scene in your mind’s eye, the sounds, the smells, the sights, as if you were really there. And as you do so, ask yourself one simple question: where are you in the story? Are you one of the crowds just looking on? Are you one of the teachers of the law shocked by the whole encounter? I know who I identify with – and it’s not with Jesus. I know that on the inside I am more like the leper than I care to admit, that there are things in my heart that make my unclean, that the only way I can approach Jesus is to fall on my knees and say as the leper said, Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.
What about you? If you this morning want to know the assurance of sins forgiven, that even the most sinful thought and temptation in your heart can be cleansed and dealt with, then you too need to come before Jesus humbly, aware of your one shortcomings, and willing to receive His mercy and His grace. Because the amazing good news is that when you do that you will find Jesus will reach out and touch your life. Not of course physically as He touched the leper but by the presence of His Holy Spirit filling your heart with His presence and His peace.
You see, those words Jesus spoke to the leper are in fact words that Jesus speaks to us today. “I am willing … be clean!” And when you realise that, you begin to see Jesus has the power to forgive anyone here this morning. He can even forgive you. All you have to do is come to Him, honestly, openly and confess your need of Him. It is really is as simple as that.
At the heart of our baptism service this morning is this question: Do you turn to Christ as your Lord and Saviour? Although it’s a question I am going ask directly of parents and godparents, really it’s a question all of us need to think about for ourselves. Despite what so many people think, baptism is not a religious ceremony. Nor is it about upholding tradition and performing an external ritual. The water in baptism is a sign that we want to be made clean by Jesus’ death on the cross for us and that we want our children to grow up knowing Jesus’ power to save and to forgive. It is a serious commitment before God who knows the secrets of all our hearts, who knows the secrets of your heart, yet only longs that you turn to Him in faith and trust.
Is that a step of commitment you are willing to make?
Let’s finish by returning to King David. When he was made aware of all that he had done wrong, he wrote a special poem called a psalm. It contains some of the most heartfelt and sincere prayer before God ever written. As I read some of his words now, why not echo them in your heart this morning as your own special prayer to Jesus, to make you clean, to forgive you, to make a fresh start. There really is no better thing that you can do today.
So let’s listen and pray:
(Read Psalm 51:1-12)
Lord, make me clean.
Not because I’m perfect
Not because I’m religious
But because Jesus died for me. Amen.