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September 24 2023

Book: Luke

Scripture: Luke 5:12-16

This morning we will read a brief story from Luke chapter 5. This story is also found in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. That tells us this is a very important example from the life of Jesus, probably because it allows us to see the heart of God for even the most marginalized people in society.

12 While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”

13 And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him.

14 And he charged him to tell no one, but “go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”

15 But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities.

16 But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.

Verse 16 is not the main point of the story, but Luke includes this detail so that we might better understand Jesus. He needed to be alone with His Father. Behind the public ministry of Jesus was a prayerful dependence on His Father. Luke wants us to know that Jesus did none of this for attention. Now, let’s talk about the leper.

A leper was a person with a very contagious skin disease. People avoided them and lepers were supposed to avoid other people. They were usually forced to live in leper communities because no one else wanted them around.

And so, it was an act of faith for this man to run up to Jesus and kneel before him, especially with great crowds of people following Jesus. The crowds probably gasped and scattered back at the sight of this man. Most rabbis would have commanded the leper to leave immediately. But Jesus does not tell the man to leave. The man asks Jesus to heal him. Jesus reaches out and touches the man. And immediately, when Jesus speaks the man is clean. That’s the story.

Now, imagine being this person. No one wants you around. People walk a little further away from you than normal. They glance at you when you aren’t looking and then look away to avoid your eye contact. You have not felt human touch in a long time. No hugs. No kisses. No handshakes. No pats on the back. Just a lonely, painful existence with no hope it would get better. There was no cure for this condition.

But you’ve heard of a rabbi named Jesus who has the power to heal, and you hear that he is coming to town so you take a chance and put yourself in his path. And then Jesus reaches out and touches you – probably the first human touch you’ve felt in a long time.

Can you imagine what that must have felt like? And then in an instant you are healed. More than that – you are socially acceptable again. The priests will accept you back into worship. People won’t avoid you anymore. You can be human again!

That’s what Jesus can do. He can heal people, not just of their sickness but of everything wrong. He can give us our humanity back! He can make us acceptable and loved.

And Luke wants us to understand, once again, Jesus did not do this in order to be seen. He did it because he wanted to and because He could.

The Bible word for what Jesus demonstrates here is “compassion”. But it is important to see that compassion is more than just removing the condition. Jesus also removes the shame underneath the condition.

Shame is that deep feeling of inferiority – the feeling that you don’t belong.

And this is the kind of world we live in – a world where people take pride in making others feel rejected for things that they have no power to change. We have a long, violent history in this world of marginalizing people when we should have compassion.

And Jesus teaches us something about compassion. He removes the condition, but He also removes the shame. He tells this man to go to the temple and present himself as ceremonially clean. This was necessary for the man to be restored to community.

If you stop to think about the people in our communities who are struggling the most – physical illness or disability, mental illness, financial difficulties… underneath those obvious needs there are usually deeper issues. Broken relationships. Past abuse or trauma. Sometimes it may be the consequences of bad decisions, yes – that’s true. But very often they also deal with a deep sense of shame.

It’s this thought – not only that something is wrong, but that something is wrong with me. I’m the problem. I deserve this. And the world excels at reinforcing that shame. It kicks us when we’re down.

But we need to be careful when we consider the solution to this problem. The Bible doesn’t solve the problem of shame by telling us that there’s nothing wrong with us and that we should cheer up and act like nothing is wrong.

Instead, the Bible presses into the reality that something IS very wrong about our world. Something IS very wrong with us.

Jesus heals this man and then encourages him to take the necessary steps to resolve those broken relationships. Jesus knows that this man’s identity is tied to his community. He needed more than just physical healing. He needed people back in his life.

The kingdom of Jesus is not just about making us temporarily happy. It’s not just about fixing the surface problems or the physical problems that we usually focus on. More important to Jesus is our heart and our relationships and our future. He’s not interested in temporary relief. He’s interested in permanently restoring our broken world.

It’s also not just about individuals. Jesus intends to restore entire communities! Notice that Jesus wants this man to get back into community with the same people who were actively rejecting him! This is why Paul calls the Gospel a ministry of reconciliation. God with people AND people with people.

Now, let’s consider how Jesus does this. Jesus reached out and touched an “unclean” man. He chose to dirty himself with this man’s condition. We already know from Luke that Jesus did not need to touch this man to heal him. He’s already healed people with only His words. So, why does Jesus touch the leper?

It was more than a simple act of compassion. It represents the entire mission of Jesus. It shows us how God intended to solve the problem of shame.

This is important because popular culture gives a different answer. We’re told to recognize shame, to talk about it, and to be more vulnerable in our relationships. All of that is good advice. But it absolutely does not solve the core issue. It helps us cope with shame in healthier ways, but it does not erase the shame.

Every human on the planet feels shame because of sin. It becomes amplified when we feel alone or marginalized, but shame is a universal problem. Honesty and vulnerability and community – these things help with the feelings of shame because they bring us closer to how God designed us to behave. But they don’t really solve the problem.

The Gospel informs us that only God can permanently heal shame.

He did it by reaching down into the world, embracing us in our sinful condition, and nailing our shame to the cross.

Jesus heals people. But it’s not just about sickness. He also heals the shame underneath. He gives us the freedom to start living a life of acceptance and love, because He gives those things to us even when we don’t deserve it. He tells us that we are washed and righteous and welcome. He makes us family.

I wonder if you believe that Jesus is the answer to whatever sadness of heart you feel? Do you believe He is willing to accept you even when others are not? That He sees you and will take you in?

Faith in Jesus is not a self-righteous act. It is an act of desperation. It is knowing that you have nowhere else to go but believing that Jesus has the power to make you whole again.

Some of you have felt like this leper and you need to hear that Jesus can heal you. He can restore you. He can give you back your humanity. He can give you a community.

But there’s also a message here to the disciples of Jesus. We need to be the kind of community that welcomes people who are recovering from their shame. We don’t need to be like the crowds who backed away when they saw the leper.

We need the eyes of Jesus to look at people with compassion and embrace them as He did. We will only do that if we know ourselves to also be spiritual lepers and that God has been gracious to us.

As Christians, are we living a cleansed and grateful life? Do we believe that Jesus actually has the power to fix US? Do we even think that we need to be fixed?

If you ignore the hurting people in this world and you ignore the hurt that you have caused to other people, then you won’t think you need Jesus. You will just be better than all the dirty people out there who are beneath you. If you believe you are already clean by your own efforts then Jesus will never be that important to you.

But that’s not how followers of Jesus engage the world.

We’ve been studying early church history on Wednesday nights. The early church grew rapidly because it was radically different than any religion the world had ever experienced. By the grace of God, the followers of Jesus were different.

Christians had a reputation for serving the poor, not just the Christian poor – but all the poor. When plagues spread in ancient cities, the Christians were the ones who stayed and risked their own lives to care for the sick and bury the dead.

Listen to how one historian describes the early church:

“All in all, no more attractive religion has ever been presented to mankind. It offered itself without restriction to all individuals, classes, and nations; it was not limited to one people, like Judaism, nor to the freemen of one state, like the official cults of Greece and Rome. By making all men heirs of Christ’s victory over death, Christianity announced the basic equality of men, and made transiently trivial all differences of earthly degree. To the miserable, maimed, bereaved, disheartened, and humiliated it brought the new virtue of compassion, and an ennobling dignity; it gave them the inspiring figure, story, and ethic of Christ; it brightened their lives with the hope of the coming Kingdom, and of endless happiness beyond the grave. To even the greatest sinners it promised forgiveness, and their full acceptance into the community of the saved. To minds harassed with the insoluble problems of origin and destiny, evil and suffering, it brought a system of divinely revealed doctrine in which the simplest soul could find mental rest… Into the moral vacuum of a dying paganism, into the coldness of Stoicism and the corruption of Epicureanism, into a world sick of brutality, cruelty, oppression, and sexual chaos, into a pacified empire that seemed no longer to need the masculine virtues or the gods of war, it brought a new morality of brotherhood, kindliness, decency, and peace.”

This is the beautiful community – the church that God intends to build. It’s the community of Jesus. When Jesus begins to heal the shame of a person, He leads them into this community and never again will they be alone with their shame.

This is who we are supposed to be. This is how we are supposed to be known.

May God give us the grace to be a community of compassion… a place where lives are restored and shame is erased.