It is always a little unnerving to come out of the office of the Dentist after you have had some work done. Sometimes your mouth and jaw have no feeling and you find yourself drooling when you drink something. You might even talk funny because you have no control and no sensation. For a period, feeling is gone.
Sometimes we can become emotionally numb. The hurts of life become so sharp or relentless that our feelings short-circuit and we feel nothing. Some people are spiritually numb. They may have had a close relationship with God once, but they have been disappointed by people who called themselves Christians or they have witnessed the pettiness that often takes over in churches and they grow spiritually calloused. Other people have gone through such a period of hardship that they have concluded that God hates them. As a result, the fire of spiritual life has all but gone out.
This morning we are going to read the story of a man who was given a devastating diagnosis. His prognosis was grim, his isolation was great, and he may literally have been numb all over his body. This man met Jesus and his life was changed. Through his story, our lives can be changed and we too may learn what it means to feel hope even when the situation seems hopeless.
Jesus was in an unnamed town when a man came along who we are told was “covered with leprosy”. That doesn’t mean much to most of us because we don’t understand what leprosy is. When the Bible uses the term leprosy it covers a whole host of infectious skin diseases. One of the worst of these we call leprosy (or Hansen’s disease) today.
Hansen’s disease is a deadening of the nerve endings so that you can no longer feel anything. The idea of not feeling pain sounds good until you realize that pain is actually a gift from God to warn us of damage or danger. When you touch a hot stove you feel pain so you pull your hand back. A leper might touch a hot stove and not notice that his hand was burning and blistering. A normal person would know when there was a rock in their shoe, but not the person with Hansen’s disease. We know when we are using water that is too hot or when we are gripping a tool too tightly. The leper did not have these feelings and could easily abuse their limbs to the point where they would become infected, traumatized and extremities could eventually become stump-like. There are stories of rats chewing off the fingers of a leper without the leper knowing it.
The Bible had very specific rules for those with leprosy (which, as I said, included many different skin diseases.)
45 “The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ 46 As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp. [Lev. 13:45-46]
Leper colonies formed because lepers were placed in isolation. At the time of Jesus lepers were forced to beg because they could not work. If a leper even stuck his head inside a house, the home was pronounced unclean. The Jewish law said
Lepers had to remain at least 100 cubits away if they were upwind (that’s 50 yards!), and four cubits (about 6 feet) if downwind. Josephus, the Jewish historian, summed it up by saying that lepers were treated “as if they were, in effect, dead men”—dead men walking[i]
J. Vernon McGee draws a vivid picture
We are not told how the man discovered that he had leprosy, but it could have happened in the following manner. One day he came in from plowing and said to his wife, “I have a little sore on the palm of my hand. It bothers me when I am plowing. Could you put some medicine on it and wrap it for me?” His wife bandaged his hand, but the next day the sore was worse. In a few days they both became alarmed. His wife said, “You should go to the priest.” He went to the priest who put him in isolation for fourteen days. When he was brought out the priest looked him over and found the leprosy had spread. The priest told him he was a leper. The heartbroken man said to the priest “Let me go to my wife and children and tell them goodbye.” The priest replied, “You cannot tell them goodbye. You will never be able to take your lovely wife in your arms again. You will never be able to put your arms around those precious children of yours.” The man went off, alone. His family brought his food to a certain place and then withdrew when he came to get it. In the distance he could see his wife and observe his children growing day by day.[ii]
Even though we don’t know all the details, we can conclude that the man who came to Jesus was isolated and felt cast aside by the rest of the world. It would be similar to someone who had been diagnosed with AIDS today. As soon as the diagnosis becomes public, people start pulling away.
In face, many people feel isolation. Those who have various handicaps know what it is like to be ostracized. The unemployed, the less educated, unmarried moms, those who are terminally ill, the divorced, those who have spent time in jail, and even those whose skin color is different from those around them know what it is like to be isolated and often without hope.
This leper saw Jesus and he came toward him. Imagine how the crowd parted as he came near crying “Unclean! Unclean!” When he reached Jesus the man fell to the ground and with his face to the ground said (the Greek text indicates that he said this over and over), “Lord, if you are willing you can make me clean.”
Stop here for a second. Think about what a remarkable and faith-filled statement this is. This leper was confident that Jesus had the power to make him well. He also had the faith to trust the Lord’s sovereignty. He knew the healing was up to Jesus. He didn’t demand. He made a statement. He came and presented himself to the only one who could heal him. This man knew when Jesus is present, even hopeless situations are not hopeless.
The man could have given up. He could have resigned himself to his death sentence and lived out what remained of his life. But he didn’t do this. By all earthly appearances there was nothing that could be done. However, Jesus brings hope even into the most hopeless of situations.
The leper knew two things that are the starting point for every one of us who long for hope. First he recognized that he had a problem that he could not fix. The leper could have argued that he deserved better. He could have complained about his circumstances. But he didn’t do these things. Instead he came to Jesus and said, “I am unclean, if you should so desire, you could remove my uncleanness.”
A sick person can’t be made well until they recognize that they are sick. We can deny our illness; we can argue that it is not fair; we can be angry. However, we cannot get help until we face the reality of our disease. Once we recognize our problem we will be ready to address that problem.
This is the way every one of us must come to Jesus. We can parade our supposed good works. We can offer our excuses and justifications for our actions. We can even rant and rail against God as if we could guilt Him into redeeming us. However, the fact is that we are sick. We are terminally sinful. There is nothing we can do to help ourselves.
The second thing the man did was turn to Jesus. Just as a sick person needs to turn to a specialist or one skilled in treating his illness, so we must turn to the one who alone can address our sin problem. Jesus alone has the prescription we need. His death on our behalf is like life-saving surgery for the soul. He alone can cure the sin-alienation we have with God. This leper turned to the only One who could help him.
What Jesus did next is staggering,
Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him.
Jesus reached out and touched the man! The Greek word indicates that Jesus may even have embraced the man. Remember, because the man had leprosy everyone had to stay away from him! Anyone who touched this man became unclean himself. Jesus could have simply spoken to the man but he chose instead to touch him. This was a deliberate act designed to convey the love of God to one who had felt abandoned. Jesus literally entered into his world.
This man had been deprived of kissing his wife, holding his children, slapping friends on the back, shaking the hands of a stranger, and even hugging a grieving friend, Jesus touched him and said, “I am willing”, and then he used just one Greek word and the infection was gone! The deformed parts of his body were restored. Sores were healed. Discomfort was eliminated . . . the man was whole again!
When Jesus came to earth in Bethlehem Jesus entered our world. In a sense the Lord embraced us. As Jesus reached out and healed the diseased leper, He has also reached out to us.
After the man was healed (I’m betting the man either fell into Jesus’ arms in joy or he fell to his face in reverence) Jesus said,
“Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”
Jesus told the man to go through the elaborate process to verify that he had been healed. He had to be examined by the priest and then go through a series of washings and offerings for a period of 8 days. Jesus said he needed to do this “as a testimony to them.” The “them” were the priests and teachers of the Law.
By going to the priests the man was testifying to several things: first, the priest would verify that the man was truly healed. Second, by obeying the Law it would testify that Jesus did not oppose the Law (as some were claiming). Third, this great healing testified to the religious leaders that Jesus was someone very unique from God.
The change was dramatic and immediate. This man had gotten his life back. Soon he would be declared clean by the priest and he could return to his family, friends, and life as a normal person. When hope and life are given back to one who is hopeless, that person cannot help but tell others. The man couldn’t help himself. His life had been changed by the Lord. When such a great thing happens, you have to tell people!
This raises a question: In light of what Christ has done for us, why is it that we are so reluctant to tell others about Jesus? It would seem it is either because we have not realized the depth of our own sinfulness or we have not grasped the greatness of God’s gift to us. If we “get it” we can’t help but tell others.
As followers of Christ what should we be learning? First and foremost we are reminded of the great point that even when things feel hopeless, Jesus can change everything. He is the Lord of life, the Creator of the Universe; he has counted the very hairs of our heads. He can bring good from evil. He can turn darkness into light.
Some of you may need to hear that message today.
- You may have a physical infirmity and have been told that there is nothing the Doctors can do. Jesus can change your circumstance with a word. I don’t know why everyone is not healed immediately like the leper, but I do know that He is able to do so. I don’t think it has so much to do with our sincerity as it does His sovereignty. God sometimes has a plan that we don’t understand. If you are in such a state I encourage you to turn to Him for help. Believe that God can heal you. Call for the elders of the church to pray over you. Then rest in God’s grace and wisdom.
- You may be facing a financial situation that seems hopeless. God has promised to supply your needs if you will trust Him. Do what God says: work at being content, live within your means, keep chiseling away at your debt, and trust God to provide what you truly need.
- You may be in a relationship that seems hopeless. You may have lost someone who is dear to you. If you truly look to the Lord rather than your own schemes you will find that He can rebuild even the most shattered relationship. He will help you forgive. If the relationship has ended, He will give you the strength to carry on. He can help you love again.
- You may face a work situation that seems hopeless. If you turn to Jesus, the Lord can change your circumstances or he will change your attitude within those circumstances. He may even open a door to a better opportunity.
- You may feel that you have nothing to offer the world. Perhaps you have even thought of taking your life because you are so miserable. Friend, things are not hopeless when you are a follower of Jesus. He can take even the worst situation and use it for His glory. Trust Him and let him use you. Watch and see what He can do through you. Give Him the shattered pieces of your life and watch Him carefully arrange those broken pieces, like one working on a piece of stained glass, into a work of art.
- You may feel your spiritual situation is hopeless because you have turned away from Him time and time again. You may think that you are “too far gone.” You are not too far gone. Jesus gave His life for your sin. He came to make you and me new again. If you will turn to Him He will make you into a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) It is not too late to return to the one who has loved you since the creation of the world.
The point is this: Nothing is hopeless when the Lord of life walks with you. Do not give up on Him! He will not give up on you. I encourage you to do something today. In the quiet of this moment declare your faith in Him. Tell the Lord that you trust Him even in the midst of the seemingly hopeless circumstances of your life. Go back to the Scriptures. Read His promises, do what He commands, rest in Him, wait on Him in prayer. Dare to truly trust Him and then watch and see what God will do.
Second, we should learn from the leper the proper approach for handling hopeless times.
1. Stop making excuses and take responsibility for your life. Face the reality that you are powerless to help yourself. Stop blaming other people or your situation. Acknowledge that YOU have a problem.
2. Take your eyes off of the problem and focus on Jesus. Every time you begin to be overwhelmed with life, remind yourself that you are not alone, the Lord of life stands at your side. When you feel there is nothing more you can do, remind yourself that God can do exceeding abundantly beyond what we ask or imagine.
3. Keep doing what God tells you. Throughout the course of every day we have to make same decision over and over: will I do things God’s way or my way. Work at trusting the One who died for you.
The third lesson is to remember that true love means looking past what you see on the surface. While Jesus was healing the leper I wonder what the crowd was doing and saying. Were they so distracted by the fact that Jesus touched the leper that they actually missed the miraculous healing? Were they so hardened that they could not feel the joy that entered this man’s life?
Where most people saw an unclean leper; Jesus saw a man with a heart of faith. Where others saw crazy people, Jesus saw people who needed to be delivered from demonic powers. Where others saw evil people; Jesus saw people who were in bondage and He worked to set them free.
If we are going to follow in His footsteps we must be willing to love those whom the world discards. If we are going to truly be His people and if this is truly His sanctuary, then this church must be a place where anyone and everyone is welcomed….truly welcomed. We must be those who look past the labels, the stories, and the outward appearances and see hurting people who need to be introduced to a loving Savior.
If we will do this, God can use us to help bring feeling and life back to those who thought life was hopeless. And God will change us! He will soften our hearts so that we can have compassion and can discover just what it feels like to truly love even as we are loved. In other words He will bring us back to life. He will replace our spiritual numbness with a new vitality and He will use us to show others that things are NEVER hopeless when Jesus is in the neighborhood.