God Can Restore Us If We Choose … Follow

[]Both of our lessons for today speak about restoration. The stories have a commonality in them that both people who are speaking are looking for restoration from leprosy. The first story is about Naaman, the commander of a great army. And he is seeking physical healing from the ailment of leprosy. Now, as said in the children's message, to have leprosy was more than just simply having a skin disease, as we might have ourselves, some kind of affliction or ailment. It meant more in those times because to have leprosy, or to be declared to be 'unclean,' meant that they had to separate themselves from society and from family, to keep a safe distance so as to not impose their disease or their uncleanness on someone else.

Naaman, the commander of the army, was not an Israelite so he did not fall under all the same rules as the people of Israel. But Naaman goes to the king of Israel because of what the Israelite girl, taken by the Arameans as a servant, had said. And the king, who doesn't know what to do, is distraught. The Prophet Elisha hears of the king's distress and calls for Naaman to come to him, "that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel." In this particular story, it's about God being not only the God of Israel, but the God of all, that the great Prophet Elisha would bring healing and restoration to Naaman, a non-Israelite.

Now, in the story about the leper going to Jesus, this man was seeking more than just healing from a skin affliction. This man was seeking restoration back into the community. This man was a person of Israel. And after Jesus healed him, he said, "Go and show yourself to the priests and make an offering or sacrifice as outlined in the laws of Moses." That signals to us that this person was an Israelite, different from Naaman, who was a non-Israelite. So this Israelite had all these things imposed on his life to be kept separated, being considered unclean, having to call out as he walked on one side of the road, "Unclean," if anyone tried to approach him. It was a terrible life of solitude and rejection. And yet this man who was seeking restoration was seeking not just physical healing, but restoration back into community.

And interestingly enough in this particular story, this man approaches Jesus with faith already in his heart whereas Naaman who went to go see Elisha didn't necessarily have faith and even rejected what Elisha said, "Go wash yourself in the Jordan seven times." "I mean, come on, we've got rivers in our own country; I could have done that." But his servants and the people who were with him in his party tell Naaman, "That's simple; go and do this." And the man must then have faith that this prophet and those who were encouraging him that he would find healing. The leper in the story for Jesus already has faith that Jesus can heal him. This man has a sense of understanding, and Mark's Gospel is putting this together, that Jesus embodies the power of the Holy Spirit and the authority of God to be able to offer this healing. And this leper in the story recognizes this and goes to Jesus and simply says, "If you choose, you could make me clean." So this man, unlike Naaman, already had faith and places the choice on Jesus to heal him where Naaman was the one who had to make the choice to have faith. And Jesus takes pity on the man and cures him of his leprosy, sending him on his way, giving him only an easy set of instructions or directions. "Go to the priests and show them and don't tell anyone else."

And as the story goes…and we're seeing this play out in Mark…Jesus gets 'outed' again. The man goes and tells everybody. He doesn't go straight to the Temple to be declared clean by the priests, which Jesus was deferring that authority for the priests to say, "You're clean for the community." Jesus deferred, but the man instead went and told everybody that Jesus had healed him, that he had been made clean. And what this does to Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is it makes it impossible for Jesus, again, to be in a town. And the Scripture tells us he has to then go and stay out of town. And then people still come to him from every quarter.

This is a continuation of the story from last week where Jesus was so overwhelmed by people coming to the house to be healed that he ran off to pray in the morning. And then when his disciples found him, he said, "Come on, let's go to the next town. I've come to preach the message." But there were people waiting, but they moved on. Jesus will find no place where he can rest, even though Jesus re-centered himself in prayer and re-envisioned what it was God was calling him to do and he moved on, this person, who had great faith and who was healed by Jesus, does exactly the opposite of what Jesus asks. And we're going to hear about a hard time for Jesus as the story continues to unfold in coming weeks.

But the topic for today, when I put these two messages together, or these two different stories, both about leprosy, was that overall they're about restoration. But they're also about faith and choice. And that should not miss us as Christians in our modern day because a lot of what we do, when it comes to who we are as spiritual beings, when it comes to who we are as Christians, is being people that have to 1) have faith; and 2) have to make choices. Now, Jesus has to choose to make this man clean. It's a very human choice that we could hear and very easy for us too. If someone came to us and said, "Heal me," and we had the ability to do it, I'm sure most of us would heal that person. Jesus is faced with a very human dilemma. Jesus, the one who we proclaim human and divine, is called upon in this way by someone who has great faith. And Jesus makes the choice to heal the man. Unfortunately, the man makes a bad choice not to honor what Jesus told him to do, and it negatively affects Jesus and his ministry in the Gospel of Mark.

But faith and choice are demonstrated clearly in that story just as it is in the story of Naaman in the time of ancient Israel. Naaman, after begrudgingly accepting what his servants and those in his entourage told him, chooses to go ahead and bathe himself in the Jordan seven times, and he is made clean. He did this begrudgingly, but he did it. He had just a little bit of faith, encouraged by the Israelite girl and from those who were with him. If Naaman, the commander of an army (who we expect possessed no faith, since he wasn't an Israelite) demonstrates only a little faith, and then makes a begrudgingly choice and becomes healed, what can we expect of us today? We have great faith, or at least we want to have great faith. And we make choices too. And in the midst of all of that, God is there, just as God was with the Prophet Elisha who brought healing to Naaman, and God was there with Jesus as he brought healing to the leper who came to him.

If we had to choose between the two stories, we might see ourselves, as modern-day Christians, more like the leper who went to Jesus having great faith that Jesus could heal him. Just as if Jesus were to walk in the doors today and we acknowledge that yes, this was Jesus, that we would expect Jesus could heal us too. We would also possess that great faith. But would we make the choice to go to him? As Naaman had to make the choice to follow what sounded like ridiculous directions to be healed, so we have to make choices for things too that sometimes may seem ridiculous. Or things that would go unspoken, like, "Why would I have to even think about making that choice," or, "Why are we even talking about making these decisions?" Yet when we live in the world of faith and spirituality, we are constantly confronted with questions and choices. They come from all different areas in our lives. They will come from expected and unexpected places. They will come at times when we don't want them to come, and other times when we feel more prepared. And for most of these things, we do make choices. We have to make those choices each and every time.

When we make these choices, do we ever look at them through the eyes of seeking restoration…restoration for ourselves, restoration for someone else, or restoration for our community? I'm not sure about all of you, but the fact that I've been taking vacation is partly because I need restoration. I know probably many of you feel like you need restoration in many ways, physical and spiritual restoration from weariness and being tired. But all of us who are here in church today, coming to worship God, in some way are seeking restoration in our lives as well. We may be seeking a deeper spiritual connection to God. We may be seeking healing, just as the leper in our story. We may be seeking restoration from things that we feel might have made us unclean in the eyes of God. And all of these things, and many more, are the restoration that we seek.

As a congregation, we are beginning to look at restoring our church. Not our building, but restoring the spiritual depth, vision, mission, and focus of our ministry. Restoration that begins in the heart and the soul and moves forward into the hands and feet of who we are as the church. That vision, or that restoration, is something we will be talking about in coming months, and even the coming years. As you remember, I called on us to be in a year of prayer for discernment about where God is calling us in this congregation. But that is a form of restoration, just as individually we are all seeking restoration for the things in our lives and restoration of our relationship with God.

And what we can take from this story of Jesus healing this man who came with faith is that God is there to give us that restoration if we make the choice to seek it out…God, who always gives. And when we look at these stories about Jesus, even though Jesus is tired and exhausted, Jesus still makes the choice to give. And I think it's a great example of what God has in mind for us, to be able to grant us that restoration. But we have to choose to be the ones on that path.

So as individuals, as we will soon be moving into the season of Lent, let that be a time when we start to focus our minds on restoration of ourselves…mind, body and spirit. Restoration of our spiritual being in the depths of who we are in our relationship to God and to each other and to the church. Let us recognize that that can only happen if we choose to make it happen. But the stories of Jesus remind us that God is there. God will guide us and God will restore us. Let us pray upon that. Let us feel that within the depths of who we are. And let us seek out restoration for our church, for ourselves, and for each other.

February 15, 2009

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