TITLE: Popular Problems SCRIPTURE: Mark 1:40-45
I didn't experience the Great Depression, but I heard the stories. The Depression was terrible -- soul killing -- men without jobs -- families without incomes -- foreclosures. Families stood by helplessly as their farm equipment and furniture was auctioned off.
Some men hit the road -- rode the rails -- hitchhiked on railroad boxcars -- going somewhere -- trying to find a better place. People called them bums or hoboes. They would knock on people's doors asking for food. Some people never turned them away. Others refused to open the door.
I am told that the bums would mark your fence or tree if you gave them food. It was their way of telling comrades, "This is a friendly house. They'll give you something to eat."
I like to think that I would be the kind of person who would get one of those marks on my fence -- the kind of person who would feed the hungry. Such a mark would be a badge of honor. The problem, of course, is that a mark like that would bring lots of people to my door looking for a handout. I would get pretty tired of it.
I read about a little church that gave out brown bags of goodies to people who asked for something to eat. The secretary asked the pastor about it. She said that they were giving away lots and lots of brown bags. Not only was it costly, but she was often there alone and was uneasy about so many homeless people hanging around.
The pastor checked the brown bags. They were full of sugary things -- cookies -- a granola bar -- juice -- that sort of thing. He said, "It's no wonder that we get so much traffic -- handing out bags of candy like this." The secretary said, "I didn't know there was candy in those bags."
So they got rid of the sugar and substituted a can of pasta and an apple. The secretary asked, "What about something to drink?" I suggested that she buy paper cups and direct people to the water fountain. The pastor said he felt like Scrooge, taking away the candy, but it cut down the traffic. He didn't really feel all that bad, though, because we were giving people better food. It just wasn't popular food.
Sometimes popular can be a problem. Jesus had a popularity problem. When people found out that he could heal the sick, they came in droves. Jesus didn't mind healing sick people, but he had other things to do and not much time.
Our Gospel lesson today tells of a leper coming to Jesus to be healed. Just before that, in the story that we dealt with last week, Jesus attracted lots of attention in Capernaum. People came in droves to be healed, but Jesus went to a quiet place to pray. His disciples were upset with him for leaving the crowds alone, and tried to get him to go back into Capernaum. Jesus, though, was having none of it. He said:
"Let us go on to the neighboring towns,
so that I may proclaim the message there also;
for that is what I came out to do" (Mark 1:38).
"FOR THAT IS WHAT I CAME OUT TO DO!" Jesus had important work to do, and the crowds were getting in the way. He had come to preach, but the people wanted only healing.
"FOR THAT IS WHAT I CAME OUT TO DO!" Jesus had come to establish the kingdom of God, but people were taking up all his time with lesser things. Time was slipping away, and he needed to be about his Father's business.
It was into that tension that the leper came to Jesus asking for healing -- begging -- pleading for healing.
You can certainly understand the leper's point. His disease had ruined his life. It was eating away at his body. He could no longer live among other people. He couldn't support his family. He could hardly beg enough food to get him through the day. "Please, Jesus, help me! Please, Jesus, heal me! I beg you, Jesus, give me back my life!"
Mark says that Jesus was moved to pity. Of course, he was moved to pity. Who wouldn't pity a leper -- one of the living dead?
But maybe Jesus wasn't moved to pity. Some Biblical manuscripts say that he was moved to pity, but others say that he was angry. Which was it?
When scholars try to figure out answers to questions like that, they follow certain principles. One principle is to favor the more difficult reading. The reason is simple. A monk copying a manuscript that said Jesus was angry would be tempted to correct it and say that he was moved to pity. Nobody would be tempted to change it the other way. So following that principle, perhaps Jesus was angry.
Also, in the original Greek, there are two other angry-sounding words. Both of them come after Jesus heals the leper:
-- Mark tells us that Jesus "sternly warned" the leper not to say anything (v. 43). In the Greek, the word for "sternly warned" is an angry kind of word.
-- And then Mark tells us that Jesus "sent him away" (v. 43). The Greek word for "sent him away" is very strong. It means that Jesus drove the man out.
The more I study this story, the more I think that Jesus WAS angry. He was trying to do the work that he had come to do, but the crowds were distracting him. When he finally managed to escape the crowds, this leper appeared -- came begging -- begging on his knees -- pleading with Jesus to heal him. He was a pitiful creature -- and I think that Jesus was, indeed, moved to pity. But I think that he was also angry. He felt pity for this pitiful man, but anger at being distracted from the work that he had come to do.
Most people figured that lepers were hopeless. The only thing you could do with a leper was to force him to live out in the countryside where he wouldn't infect anyone else. Pretty soon he would die, and that would be that. Sad but true!
But Jesus knew that he could heal this man -- but he also knew that, if he did, word would get around and the crowds would be even more consuming -- more distracting.
So Jesus was angry -- not at the leper, but at the situation. On the one hand, he wanted to help this man. On the other hand, he wanted to get about the business for which he had come. He couldn't do both. He had to choose. He was torn. He must have wanted to scream with frustration.
But what Jesus did, of course, was to heal the man and to tell him to keep quiet about it. Fat chance! When this leper walks back into town, the people are going to be astonished -- and then they are going to come looking for Jesus. It's going to be deja vu all over again! Crowds everywhere!
We, Christ's church, have the same problem. We need to be doing a thousand things -- all the way from feeding the hungry to keeping the building in good repair. But we must not let those tasks -- all of which are important -- distract us from our primary task -- which is the same task that Jesus was focused on in our Gospel -- proclaiming the message (Mark 1:38) -- preaching the Gospel -- going into all the world to make disciples and to baptize and to teach (Matt. 28:19-20).
That mission needs to underlie everything that we do as a church. I proclaim the Good News about Jesus in my preaching, of course, but we also proclaim it when we sing hymns -- and come for baptism -- and partake of the Lord's Supper. We proclaim the Good News of Jesus when we teach our children the great stories of the Bible -- all of which in some way point toward Jesus. We proclaim the Good News of Jesus when we invite our neighbor to church. We proclaim the Good News of Jesus when we gather together in Jesus' name for a church dinner. We proclaim the Good News of Jesus when we help the needy in Christ's name.
But we must be careful -- careful not to get so caught up in those thousand tasks that we forget our primary task -- proclaiming the Good News. Jesus was concerned about being distracted from his task of proclamation by the crowds. We must be careful when doing good works not to forget to lift up Christ's name.
I would like to close with a short story. A preacher started his children's sermon by telling the children, "I will say a word, and I want you to respond by saying the first word that comes to your mind. Are you ready?" The kids said "Yes," they were ready. The preacher said, "Frog!" A little boy shouted, "JESUS!" That totally confused the preacher. He said, "Johnny, why did you say Jesus when I said frog?" Johnny said, "Because I knew that you didn't call us up here to talk about frogs."
That little boy had it right! He knew what the church is all about. He knew that the preacher should be talking about Jesus. He knew that the church's first responsibility is to lift up the name of Jesus.
As we go about our many tasks, let us always stay focused on our primary task -- lifting up the name of Jesus -- going -- making disciples for Jesus -- baptizing -- and teaching about Jesus. As Christians and as a church, that is the most important work that we do.
He Touched Me UMH #367
I Love to Tell the Story UMH #156
Just as I Am, Without One Plea UMH #357
HYMN STORY: Just As I Am
Are you ever frustrated that you can't do more for Jesus? That you don't have anything special to offer?
Charlotte Elliott, the author of the hymn, "Just As I Am," certainly felt that way. She had been a brilliant and vivacious woman until an illness left her an invalid. Her situation left her quite depressed. She felt that she no longer had anything to offer -- nothing to give.
But a pastor, Dr. Caesar Malan, came to visit her. Noting her despair, he encouraged her to give Christ her life -- to come to Christ just as she was. That comment started a turnaround for her. While she remained an invalid, she began to search for ways to make her life meaningful.
And Dr. Malan's words stayed with her -- "Come to Christ just as you are." Several years later, she wrote this hymn, which has become a favorite around the world. While she wrote more than a hundred hymns, this one in particular has affected more lives than she ever could have imagined.
So if you ever wonder what you can do to make your life meaningful, just put it in Christ's hands and go where he leads. Christ has a way of using ordinary people to do extraordinary things.