To Heal. To Restore. (Sermon for January 5, 2020)

A week-and-a-half ago, on Christmas Eve, we celebrated Christ coming into the world as a baby… among a dispossessed people in an occupied land… to parents who were far from home and who couldn’t find a room for a night.

A week-and-a-half ago, on Christmas day, we were not here together, but each of us, in our own way, marked the paradox of Christmas: that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.

A week ago, we read about how Jesus—that baby in a manger, that child in ragged clothes, that king of kings—began his ministry: baptism and spirit, wilderness and temptation, calls to his first disciples and to us.

And this morning, we begin to see why Jesus is here… why Christ came into the world… why God laid aside glory and became one of us.

There’s a painting by Harry Anderson called Prince of Peace. It’s a painting of a giant white Jesus knocking on the Secretariat Building of the United Nations headquarters. 

It’s supposed to be a modern international-political reimagining of all of those paintings of Jesus knocking on a door. But every time I see it, I can’t help but imagine a 500-foot Jesus rampaging through Manhattan like Godzilla through Tokyo. And I know I’m not the only one.

And I know that sounds silly. But I am also intimately familiar with a monstrous Jesus.

There was a time in my life when there were a lot of people in my life who were worried about my soul. They knew how terrible I was, how sinful I was, how broken I was. And the image of Jesus that they gave me was an image of a cruel judge, ready to sentence me to the harshest of punishments for the slightest of infractions… unless I prayed the right prayer, and invited him into my heart, and signed on the dotted line… and believed the same things that they did in the same way that they did.

And there is a place for the Christ who judges between the sheep and the goats. It’s good to examine our lives, to take stock of the things we have thought and left unthought, said and left unsaid, done and left undone. It’s good to confess our sins… and hear the words of assurance… and believe the good news.

But I also know how easy it is, in our imaginations, to turn the Christ who judges—the Lord who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in love—into a monster who rampages through our lives… whose violence destroys our assurance… whose roars drown out of the good news.

And I also know how many people look at God as a God of nothing but judgement, and Christianity as nothing but a religion of judgement, and the church as nothing but a place of judgement. And not just judgement, but abusive judgement.

So it’s worth sitting on this: when Jesus began his ministry—after baptism and spirit, after wilderness and temptation, after calling to his first disciples and to us—he taught and he healed.

In this morning’s reading from the gospel according to Mark, we see Jesus doing just that.

Jesus goes to a synagogue and teaches. And Mark doesn’t tell us what he teaches, but whatever it is, an unclean spirit recognizes him. And Jesus rebukes and dismisses the unclean spirit… like it’s nothing.

Then he goes to Simon’s house, and meets Simon’s mother-in-law, who is sick with a fever. And Jesus takes her hand… and lifts her up… and dismisses her fever… like it’s nothing.

Then they bring to him everyone in the whole city who is sick or who has a demon. And he cures the people and casts out the demons… like it’s nothing.

Then he goes on a preaching tour. And Mark doesn’t tell us what he preaches, but he does tell us that Jesus casts out demons… like it’s nothing.

And then this man with leprosy comes to him. And there’s this… moment.

The man says to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” And our reading this morning, which is based on what the majority of reliable ancient manuscripts say, says that Jesus was moved by pity. But other ancient manuscripts say that he was moved by anger.

And whatever it was—whether it was pity, or anger, or pity-filled anger, or anger-tinged pity—Jesus chooses to heal him and make him clean. And Jesus says to him, “Go to the priests, and do the things you’re supposed to do after you’ve been cured of leprosy. But don’t, y’know… tell anyone about this.”

And the man goes out and tells… everyone. Because, c’mon, right?

And it would be easy to read these stories and just see miracles. It would be easy to read these stories and just see raw displays of power. But Christ could just as easily and just as miraculously have blown away the Roman legions; Christ could just as easily and just as powerfully have brought forth an army to destroy the unclean spirits.

These stories aren’t just about miracles; they aren’t just about power. They are about how Jesus uses  miracles; they are about how the God who laid aside glory and became one of us uses power.

Jesus is here to heal. Christ came into the world to restore.

We live in a world that is in desperate need of healing. 

We live in a world that is full of things that should move us to pity… and maybe so many things that should move us to pity that we’ve become numb to them. We live in a world that is full of things that should move us to anger… and maybe so many things that should move us to anger that we’ve become numb to them.

Over the course of 2019, I preached about gun violence, and climate change, and student debt, and white supremacy, and lack of healthcare access, and homophobia, and the way our nation treats refugees and asylum-seekers and immigrants. Among other things.

I am sure that I will preach about some of these things again in twenty-twenty. And, unless a lot of things change really fast, I’m sure that I will preach about some of these things again in twenty-twenty-one, and twenty-twenty-two, and every year.

I preach about those things because they move me to pity. I preach about those things because they move me to anger. We live in a world that is full of things that move me—and that move us all—to pity, and to anger, and to pity-filled anger, and to anger-filled pity.

And they’re not all the same things, but it’s easy for us to end up in the same place. Because when we are full of pity and anger and whatever, it is easy to fall into hopelessness and helplessness; to lament all of the things we cannot do.

And it is easy to turn to fantasies of violence and revenge; to pray for a monstrous Jesus to appear and rampage through the world, bringing greatness to the ones who we pity, and raining violence down upon the ones who we are angry at.

And in the midst of all of that, it’s worth sitting on this: when Jesus began his ministry, he healed. Jesus is here to heal. Christ came into the world to restore. 

And even in moments of pity… even in moments of anger… Christ chooses to make us clean and whole. Not because of who we are, but because of who he is.

A week-and-a-half ago, on Christmas Eve, we celebrated Christ coming into the world as a baby.

A week ago, we read about how Jesus—that baby in a manger, that child in ragged clothes, that king of kings—began his ministry: baptism and spirit, wilderness and temptation, calls to his first disciples and to us.

And this morning, we begin to see why Jesus is here: to heal and restore, to make clean and make whole.

That is the Christ who calls to us… that is the Jesus who asks us to follow him… the God who laid glory aside and came into the world as one of us… to heal the world.

So here’s the thing, and it’s a hard thing. This is not the time to wallow in hopelessness and helplessness; this is not the time to lament all of the things that we cannot do. Because Jesus is calling us to work, and there is work to do, and all of us can do something.

And the work that Jesus is calling us to is not the work of violence or revenge. It is not the work of denigrating others or lifting ourselves up. It is not the work of marginalizing others or imposing our desires on the world.

It is the work of letting Christ love us into health and wholeness. It is the work of loving others—friends and neighbors, strangers and enemies, even ourselves—into health and wholeness.

It is the work of healing the world. Tikkun Olam.

And we can do just that… because the one who calls us the work also empowers us to be his hands in the world. Thanks be to God!

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