Preached on 21 November 2010 at St James Church, Bolton, Bradford
Luke 5.12-16; James 5.13-20
Tell me – what comes straight to mind when I say the words “Charlton Heston” and “chariot race”? Ben Hur. Yes. How many of you can recall seeing the film or reading the book? Quite a lot … most of you in fact. So you might remember the story. Ben Hur is a Jewish nobleman who is betrayed by his Roman friend Messala and sold into slavery. But can you remember what happens to his mother and sister who remain in Jerusalem? Yes … they contract leprosy. Well the story is set in the time of Jesus and here’s how Lew Wallace who wrote it explains what it meant to be a leper in those days:
“To be a leper was to be treated as dead – to be excluded from the city as a corpse; to be spoken to by the best beloved and most loving only at a distance; to dwell with none but lepers; to be utterly unprivileged; to go about in rent garments and with covered mouth, except when crying, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ To find home in the wilderness or in abandoned tombs; to become a materialised spectre; to be at all times less a living offence to others than breathing torment to self; afraid to die, yet without hope except in death.”
And such was the man in this morning’s reading from Luke’s gospel. His story is also told in Matthew’s gospel , and Mark’s – an indication of how important and significant his story is; but it is only from Luke, who was, you remember, a medical doctor, that we discover that the man in the story was “full of leprosy.” In other words his condition was not just eczema or some flakiness or discolouration of the skin; it was what we now know as Hansen’s disease, the real thing, leprosy in its very advanced stages.
Lew Wallace tells us just what that meant, as Ben Hur’s mother and sister became “full of leprosy”:
“The disease spread, after a while bleaching their heads white, eating holes in their lips and eyelids, and covering their bodies with scales; then it fell to their throats, shrilling their voices, and to their joints, hardening the tissues and cartilages – slowly, and past remedy, affecting their lungs and arteries and bones, at each advance making the sufferers more and more loathsome …”
That is a picture of the man in our story. We don’t know his name but let’s call him Tarsrach – which is actually the Hebrew word for leprosy and which, appropriately, means “scourge”.
At the start of his story we find that Tarsrach is breaking all the rules. Jesus, we are told, is in “one of the cities” of Galilee. It might have been Tiberias or Magdala, Cana or Capernaum or Bethsaida – we don’t know. But what we do know is that, though Jesus had every right to be in whichever city it was, Tarsrach had not. As I’ve already indicated, the Law dictated that a leper must live his or her life “alone, outside the camp” – Leviticus 13.46 – which, in settled Jewish society, meant beyond the margins of human habitation, outside the city walls.
So can you imagine the shrieks of horror that greeted this stinking, maimed, wild, ragged corpse of a man as he dragged himself past the first houses at the edge of town? Can you see the horrified mothers dashing out to snatch their kids from the road in front of him and carrying them inside for safety? Maybe one or more of the townsmen dares to confront him. “Oi … you … vermin. Clear off. Get back to where you’ve come from.”
But Tarsrach is not going back anywhere, and as he continues to shuffle forward, even the men-folk retreat to a safe distance. Perhaps they try to stone him … the Law permits them to do that … but stones don’t bother Tarsrach. He can’t feel them anyway. And he already has so many open wounds and sores that a few more won’t make any difference. Tarsrach is going to see Jesus. And nothing and nobody is going to stop him.
But why is going to see Jesus?
Well, not perhaps for the reason you might think. It’s often said that this leper must somehow have heard that this new young rabbi, Jesus was in town and that he had extraordinary healing powers; so he, the leper, had decided to go and ask Jesus to heal him just as, according to the rumours that had reached him, he’d healed so many others. Sounds plausible, doesn’t it? But that wasn’t it. Not really.
You see, Jesus had never healed a leper before and no one – especially not a leper himself – would ever expect him to do so. It was set in stone that not even people with special gifts of healing could heal leprosy. It was a matter of record that, since the giving of the law 15 centuries earlier, there had not been a single instance of any Jew being healed of leprosy. Under the Law a leper was certified as such by the priests and could only be certified clean by the priests … but that had never happened. Never. And according to the rabbis, it never could or would. Why? Because leprosy, in their understanding, you see, was not just any old disease; oh no. It was a disease tailor-made by God to be inflicted on certain human beings as a sign of his divine displeasure or wrath. It was indeed a scourge, a “tarsrach”. God’s whip.
And you can see where that sort of thinking would lead, can’t you? Even to seek healing would be to try and overturn the will of God. And to offer healing of leprosy would be to work against the divine discipline and frustrate the very purposes of God. Yet despite all that, Tarsrach, our Jewish leper, has broken out of his isolation and is on his way to Jesus, to seek the very healing that he should not be seeking and that neither should nor could be offered to him. How come? What was in Tarsrach’s head and heart as he shuffled down the dusty street to where his encounter with Jesus awaited him?
It can only have been the second thing that the rabbis taught about leprosy. The first was (as I’ve said) that “no Jewish leper can be cured of leprosy” but the second was “until Messiah comes; for when Messiah comes he will heal even Jewish lepers.”
For the rabbis, you see, there were two categories of miracle. There were miracles that anyone could perform if he were he empowered by God to do so. But then there were miracles that only the Messiah could and would perform when the day of his coming arrived. And there were only two of these. First, Messiah would raise the dead, but second, he would cleanse the leper. And that, by the way is why Jesus tells Tarsrach the leper, once he has been healed, to go and show himself to the priests “as a testimony to them”. A testimony of what? Of the fact that Jesus is who he says he is. That he really is the long-awaited Messiah.
And it is that belief that is driving Tarsrach to Jesus. He is not going to any old healer – there would be no point. He is going to the Messiah … the son of God, the King of kings. Which is why, according to Luke, when Tarsrach sees Jesus, “he falls on his face”. “He worships him” says Matthew. And he speaks these words, “Lord, if you want to, you can make me clean.”
And what is Jesus’ reply? “I want to. Be made clean.”
A wonderful, wonderful reply. But there is something even more wonderful that accompanies the reply. Jesus, “moved with compassion” according to Mark, “reached out his hand and touched him, saying ‘I want to. Be made clean.” When was the last time this man had felt the touch of another human being? Not since the time the leprosy had first appeared on his body, for at that point he literally became an untouchable. Someone who would inevitably contaminate anyone that came into even the most fleeting of contacts with him. But now Jesus touches him and far from Jesus being contaminated by the leprosy, the leprosy is banished and is gone.
OK, that’s the story; and I want us now to spend a little time exploring it together to see what we can learn from it about healing. But I think, first, that I need to comment of what we might call “the elephant in the living room.”
What do I mean? Well there are, I imagine, going to be some of you out there who are privately thinking “Neil? Talking about healing? That’s rich. He could do with a bit of it himself … and Yvonne … before he starts preaching about it to us. He has heart problems and goodness knows what else, and she has MS. What can he say that isn’t just talk-talk that has nothing to do with real life at all?”
Well, my answer to that is quite a lot! For my testimony is that without the direct and dynamic intervention of God over the years in bringing real healing to this body of mine, you would all have attended at least three funerals by now – and all of them mine!
I am, in fact, talking about healing this morning not because I’m interested in the theory but because I just love the practice … the reality. I rejoice in the plain truth that Jesus does still heal today – not only through medicine and surgery and the wonderful people in the medical profession – but directly, dynamically – just as he healed our leper, Tarsrach.
One of my own stories – and there are several but I’ll confine myself to just one this morning – has a clear and very important point of connection with the story of Tarsrach and it relates to something that happened to me in the summer of 2002. It was June and I had quite suddenly begun to experience breathing difficulties that were getting worse with every passing day. On the tenth of June things came to a head when I was wheezing so badly and was so exhausted that I found I couldn’t push the wheelie-bin back from the pavement into our drive. So I went up to Moorside Surgery to see Dr Sullivan … After giving me a long examination, he looked very troubled indeed. “I don’t want to shock you,” he said. “But it seems to me that you’re in the first stages of heart failure. You need to go to St Luke’s now – by taxi, don’t drive – and have an immediate chest X-ray. Then we’ll see where we go from there.”
Heart-failure! I’d already had lots of arterial problems with my heart – major bypass surgery in 1993 and again in 2000. But now I was being told that the pump mechanism of my heart was packing up. Without delay, I went for the chest X-ray but then, as soon as I was back home, I rang David Swales (David, I should explain, for those of you who have only started coming here in the last year or so was our previous vicar). So I rang David and explained the situation. Would he come and pray with me? “Of course. Shall I bring others?” “Yes, please.”
So on 12 June, David and his wife Kim, and Mick and Anne – a couple who used to be part of St James – came to our house. I sat on a dining room chair in the middle of our lounge and they, together with Yvonne, stood around me and laid hands on me and prayed for my healing. And as they did so, I found myself identifying their hands by their touch … David’s, Yvonne’s, Mick’s, Kim’s, Anne’s … and then, in my head or heart, very clearly I heard these words: “And there is another hand laid on you.” And then immediately I experienced a great calm, and a clear conviction that I no longer needed to worry. Everything was going to be OK!
For all that, the symptoms didn’t leave; not immediately. On a previous occasion, in 1995, I had experienced dramatic, instant healing and deliverance, but not this time. For a while I continued to wheeze and feel exhausted, but not as much. Indeed, as soon as I’d had prayer, things began to improve. Then the improvement became more and more rapid. And after a few days the results of the X-ray came through; and there was nothing to see. Dr Sullivan was puzzled – both by the X-ray and by me – so he asked for an MRI scan; and that too showed nothing wrong. And by the time I had that scan, I was feeling fine again. Perfectly OK. Because something had happened, you see. Whatever the sceptics might say, however much any of you might want to question it, I know without a shadow of doubt that as David and the others prayed, Jesus had touched me and I had been healed!
Now, part of my brief this morning, in this sermon series on prayer, is to give some sort of an answer to the question “How should I pray for the healing of those who are sick?” And in the light of what I have just been saying, I believe I can do that in a word: Bring those who are sick into the presence of Jesus and simply ask him to touch them.”
That, after all, is the “model” that is given us in Scripture. It is what happened from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Luke 4.40. “When the sun was setting, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them.” I’m reminded of the old hymn that says: “He touched me, oh he touched me, And oh the joy that floods my soul! Something happened and now I know He touched me and made me whole.”
Yes he did, yes he does, yes he will. Many things have changed in the last 2000 years but not Jesus. He remains the same … yesterday, today and forever. As Henry Twell’s famous hymn puts it: “His touch has still its ancient power.”
Three years ago, Yvonne and I were sitting in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, gazing up at Michael Angelo’s great depiction of the creation of man. There is Adam reaching out to God and there is God reaching out to him and the finger of God touching him, bringing him to life. Well, I want to tell you that the hand of Jesus is the hand of God. When Jesus touched Tarsrach the leper in our story, it was the hand of God that touched him. On another occasion Jesus made that plain. His enemies were accusing him of being in league with the devil. No, he said, I’m driving out demons “by the finger of God.”
The hand of Jesus is the hand of God. It touched Tarsrach 2000 years ago and healed him of leprosy. It touched me in our front room in June 2002 and healed me of heart disease; and what I want you to know and to believe and to trust in and to act upon this morning is that the hand of God, the hand of Jesus, is ready to touch you too and those you bring to him here today.
The touch of Jesus. It is the one thing we all need, the one thing that we should all desire; and here is the reason why. That as Tarsrach had somehow come to recognise, Jesus is the King. The Lord of All. Jesus is the Son of Almighty God. In him dwelt all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. He is King of all worlds, sovereign over the entire universe. He is the Lord of time and eternity. His power is infinite. As the children’s hymn puts it, “There’s nothing that he cannot do.” And his love and compassion are equal to his power. What his love desires his power can and will accomplish. There is nothing – nothing whatsoever – in your life or mine or in the life of any other person in the whole wide world – that is remotely strong enough to withstand the touch of Jesus.
Tarsrach, our leper, was right: “You CAN make me clean,” he told Jesus. And yes, this morning, he CAN make you clean, he can make you whole. There is nothing hurtful or harmful or evil or destructive in your life or the life of those you bring to Jesus that he cannot banish, remove, cleanse or heal.
The only question for Tarsrach was his willingness. “If you WILL, you CAN make me clean.” If you WILL …
Maybe that’s the big IF in our hearts as we come to Jesus ourselves and bring others to him. But where does that “if” come from? Is it the thing that made the Jews believe that leprosy could not be healed – the belief that sickness is sometimes heaven-sent? Yesterday I was trying to choose an Elvis gospel song for my mum’s funeral. She was a big fan of Elvis. And one of her favourites was “Known only to him”. But when I’d heard that song through, I couldn’t choose it because of the lie in one of its verses: the idea that Jesus lays illness on people as a cross to be borne by those he trusts enough to bear it well. And that really is a lie. You will not find it anywhere in the New Testament!
Do some of us actually believe that sickness may be God’s punishment for past sins? That seems to have been what was in Tarsrach’s mind as he came to Jesus. As I have said, leprosy was seen as a disease sent by God to punish people. But, by the very act of healing Tarsrach, Jesus gave the lie to that too; as he did on many other occasions. You see, Jesus knew for a certainty that sickness and disease of any kind is always and only ever the work of the evil one, the devil; and as John tells us in his first letter “The reason the Son of God appeared … the very reason Jesus came to earth – was to destroy the devil’s work.”
So when Tarsrach came to Jesus, Jesus saw in him not the outworking of the wrath of God but the work of the Evil One. God does not give person leprosy, God does not make a man blind, God does not give a woman cancer, God does not inflict the aged with Alzheimer’s. And to say he does is actually the worst kind of blasphemy. For it ascribes to God the works of the devil himself. As Jesus himself said: “It is the thief who comes to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” John 10:10. It is the devil, not God, who twists and bends and breaks and deforms and infects and pollutes and poisons … and it makes Jesus very, very angry.
In this story, most translations say that Jesus saw the leper and was “moved with compassion” and that is true to the Greek in a great number of early manuscripts; but there is one even earlier and probably more authoritative manuscript that has a similar but different word – a word that means “filled with anger” … “Filled with anger Jesus reached out his hand and touched him, saying ‘I want to. Be made clean.” Anger not at Tarsrach the Leper, but anger at the one who has given him leprosy, who has wreaked such misery on the earth and has inflicted such pain and suffering and anguish … anger at the devil. So that the response of Jesus when asked to undo this vile, cruel work of the devil in the poor leper standing before him was an unhesitating, unambiguous “I WILL”.
With Jesus it was always “I will” … never “I will not”. And it was in the faith of that and in the faith that Jesus had not changed and could not change … that his love and his power would remain ever constant, that Peter and Paul and all the rest of Jesus’ early followers went out ministering that touch of Jesus wherever it was needed. When Paul was shipwrecked on Malta, we are told that the governor of Malta’s father “was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. And when this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured.” Act 28:8-9.
And that, indeed, illustrates one of the ways in which any of us can receive the touch of Jesus today. By allowing other Christians to pray for us and lay their hands on us. Another way is to ask for anointing with oil. In our second reading, you’ll remember, James said: “Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. ”
But the important things on which to focus this morning are not the hands laid on us or the oil smeared on our forehead, but the hands behind the hands, the hands behind the anointing, the hands of Jesus – the hands of God. If you come forward this morning, come to Jesus not to us. Look to Jesus not to us. Look to him, like Tarsrach, as the Sovereign Lord to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given. Discern and welcome the touch of his hand upon you, not ours. And when you pray for others, do the same. Bring them to Jesus – and when you’ve got them there, ask him to touch them. And he will. He will touch you. He will touch them …
He touched me, oh he touched me,
And oh the joy that floods my soul!
Something happened and now I know:
He touched me and made me whole.