According to the book of Leviticus, “The person who has a leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of their head be disheveled. And he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘unclean, unclean!’
He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone, his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
So, if you got leprosy, or really any other skin disease, not only did you have to move outside the city, by yourself, but if anyone did approach, you would have to yell out, “unclean, unclean!” to warn them who you were.
And I know that sounds harsh, like really harsh, but it made sense in a world that knew nothing about germs or bacteria or even the value of hand washing! What they knew was that these things could kill you.
Maybe they wouldn’t, but they might. And in a world where life was precarious enough already, just in day to day living, for the good of everyone, out you go! If it clears up, let the priest know. Otherwise, be gone!
Can you imagine how lonely that would have been? Not only are you sick, facing an uncertain future, you’re doing it all alone. Cut off from family and friends and community.
And the icing on the cake was that anyone who came near you, or touched you, would be labeled “unclean”, too.
And the only way to be able to return home was to get checked out by the priest, the only one who had the power to change your status from “unclean” back to “clean.” From “not welcome” to “welcome.”
Now, before we go any farther, it might be helpful to distinguish the difference between a “disease” and an “illness”.
I know we use those things the same way most of the time, but there is a bit of difference, especially when we’re thinking about what’s going on in the bible.
See, the “disease” is the thing that’s actually making you sick. “Illness” is what it does to your life.
You may have cancer, but feel totally fine. On the flipside, you might be a long-time sober recovering alcoholic and still be ostracized and held under suspicion.
Leprosy, as a “disease” is, in today’s world, a curable bacterial infection. But as an illness, it still cuts people off from community, marks them as something “other”, creates secrets and shame and stigma.
And we know how to cure it! Imagine how much more so it would have been in Jesus’ day. Leprosy, as a disease, might be a death sentence. Leprosy as an illness, definitely was.
And so you might understand the desperation of a man, a leper, who would dare to break the law and not only not warn people away, but actually approach Jesus, begging for help.
“If you choose, you can make me clean. You can take away this thing that is keeping me from life, from my family, from my community. If you choose, you have the power to let me go home!”
And Jesus does choose. He touched him, and the leprosy was gone. Just like that!
But then he does this weird little thing where he tells this man to keep his mouth shut, go straight to the priest, and get the “official” stamp of approval…Which is exactly the opposite of what he does.
Instead, he goes running into town, telling anyone and everyone who will listen what just happened. And I sort of envision Jesus just dropping his head and doing this sort of face-palm.
‘Cause Jesus has things to do! He just said, like 6 verses ago, that his job is to go to all these towns and proclaim the message of God’s Kingdom come near! That’s what he came to do!
And now that everyone knows that he touched a leper, he can’t go into town. At least not without causing a pretty big stink.
And eventually Jesus does do exactly that, but it’s still too early! It’s too early, he’s just getting started. But he touched a leper and now everyone knows and so he can’t go into town to do what he’s there to do.
“The word spread, so that Jesus could no longer go into town openly, but stayed out in the country.”
And it’s not that Jesus had contracted the disease of leprosy by touching this man. But in the eyes of the people, he had the illness.
Sometimes, illness doesn’t have anything to do with disease. Sometimes illness is something that others put on us.
Recovering addicts, former inmates, the physically or intellectually disabled.
There are so many people who are whole and healthy, who have an illness inflicted upon them. Sometimes physically, sometimes socially, but in one way or another, are held at an arm’s length from community.
When Jesus touched that leper, he didn’t contract leprosy. But he did take that illness upon himself. And with it, the stigma and suspicion and isolation.
When he touched that man, when he healed him and sent him home, Jesus traded places with him. The leper returned home, to community. Jesus left town, alone.
And it is a testament to the power of hope, or maybe just desperation, that people still came to him anyway.
You know, there are a lot of different ways we could read through the gospel of Mark this year. But one of the big ones, in my opinion, is reading Mark as the story of how Jesus trades places with us.
Of how Jesus slowly but surely enters into our lives, into the good and the bad and all the in between, until the only left between us and God is death. And so Jesus takes that on, too.
Jesus enters even into our death. Until there is nothing left of our lives, no corner of our existence, where God has not gone and where God is not present.
The gospel of Mark is the story of Jesus taking on all of what is ours and giving us all of what is God’s. In today’s story, Jesus takes on isolation and loneliness and gives back community and home.
And throughout the story, we will see Jesus take on fear and anger and arrogance and pain. And give in return humility and healing and hope. All the way to the end, when Jesus takes on our very death, to give us life.
You know, Mark is not the most sophisticated gospel. Not the most “theologically lofty.” But Mark does show us a God who holds nothing back. Who would go to hell and back, just to make sure not a single one in lost.
In Jesus, we meet our God of love. Our God who takes on all of what is ours and offers back all of what is God’s.
In Jesus, we see the heart of God, broken open and poured out, not for glory or for power, but for you. For your life.
Not just any life for a death. For you he died. To you he gives life. All of your life for all of God’s life.
This is what he came to do.
Emperor Augustus was born in 63 BCE. He came to power when he was 37 and reigned as Emperor for 38 years, until he died at the age of 75 in the year 14.
He was known as one of history’s most effective rulers who ended decades of civil war in Rome and ushered in a new era of peace within the Roman empire that lasted for almost 200 years.
He created police and fire brigades, started a postal service, build temples, public baths, and arenas, and connected the empire with a brand new system of roads.
Our month of August is named after him and in his time, he was hailed as the “prince of peace”, the “son of the divine”, the “illustrious one”.
Emperor Augustus was very good for you…if you were Roman.
If you weren’t? Weeelllll….? Sorry. You lose.
Augustus was basically the Tom Brady of his day. If you’re on his side, he’s the best thing since sliced bread.
If you’re not, he’s your mortal enemy and a cheater and you hate him.
But for real, Augustus was pretty good to you. As long as you were Roman, complied with everything he wanted, and never complained about any of it.
Anyone outside of that little box, though, had a pretty tough go of it.
But isn’t that the way power works? Isn’t that the way power has always worked? It’s me against you and the stronger one wins.
Unless, of course, you agree with me. Then it’s me and you against all of them. And we’ll see who can get more people on their side.
And whoever that is, that’s the one who wins. That’s who gets to be in control and get their way.
Isn’t that the way power works? Emperor Augustus had power. He said “jump” and the empire said, “how high?” He said, “Go get registered,” and they said, “when should we show up?”
When you’re living under that kind of cloud, when the forces at work are so much bigger than you, when it seems like everything is so far beyond your control, the easiest thing to do is just give up.
To say nothing is ever going to change, and just accept that the best you can do is look after yourself and let everyone else figure out their own lives.
“Sorry, can’t help. No room left in here. Try out back.”
When you know you can’t win, you really only have 2 options. You can either give up and just realize you’re a loser. Or, you can play a different game.
Christmas, and the birth of Jesus, was God’s loud and giant declaration that it was time to start playing a new game.
This one we’ve been playing is not working. No one is actually winning anything.
And right in the face of the world’s most powerful emperor, God declares, “Your savior has arrived. Hope is here.”
But you’re not going to find it behind armies or strong men or political parties or national boundaries.
Hope doesn’t come from the winners of the world. Hope, real hope, is found among the other losers like us.
The peasants in the barn. The dirty shepherds in the fields.
Hope is found in the body of a little baby boy, born all those many years ago, in that tiny nothing town, to parents who weren’t important enough to get a real place to sleep.
Your savior has arrived! Your hope is here! God is with you!
Christmas was the start of something new. It was the start of God’s new Kingdom.
God’s Kingdom that doesn’t operate by force or might or certainty, but by love and grace and hope.
It’s a whole different kind of game. It’s a whole different kind of life. A life where there are no winner or losers. Only forgiven sinners, loved by God, called to love others.
At Christmas, we go back to the beginning. Back to the start. And we remember what God has done. And because of what God has done, all we don’t have to do.
We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to get it all right. We don’t have to win.
Because God has already done all of that. God has done it and we simply get to live lives of thanks.
God has done all that needs to be done, and all we are left with is grace. And mercy. And hope. And love.
God has done it, and there is not a power in this world that can change it.
This is Christmas.
I don’t know if you know this or not, but Christmas was actually a showdown of epic proportions. Celestial proportions, even.
In this corner, we have Emperor Augustus! Ruler of the Roman Empire. The man who stopped civil war, consolidated power, brought 200 years(!) of peace to the empire,
built roads, created police and fire departments, shoot (!), we named a whole month after the guy!
The epitome of everything we look for in a hero…as long as you stay on his good side.
And in this corner, we have dirty shepherds, peasant parents, and a bunch of stinky farm animals, gathered around the helpless body of a newborn baby boy.
Place your bets, everyone! Place your bets! …
It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? That that’s the matchup? The power of the empire vs. the power of the Kingdom.
Might and armies and importance and certainty –
- weakness and love and humility and hope.
What are you banking on to actually make a difference? What are you counting on to save your own skin?
Let me take a moment and ruin the ending for you.
You are here. The Kingdom is here. The Empire is not.
And if we’re paying attention, that ought to make us pause a second. Because it’s no secret we are living in polarizing times. We are living in empire times.
Times when our lives are getting defined by what side we’re standing on. By how strong and mighty our leaders are. Scorecards are kept and wins and losses are tallies.
And, God help us, we sure do like to win, don’t we?
But in order for there to be winners, there have to be losers.
You will know an empire when you see it because empires always have winners and losers.
On the other hand, you will also know the Kingdom of God when you see it, because the kingdom is just filled to the brim with a whole bunch of losers.
People sitting in holes who can’t seem to stop digging.
People who judge and get angry. Hypocrites and narcissists. People afraid.
Afraid of our neighbor. Afraid of the future. Afraid of what this world is coming to!
Afraid of pain and loneliness. Afraid of our own irrelevance.
The Kingdom of God is made up of people such as these. People an awful lot like you and me.
And when you put the Kingdom up against the Empire, up against all those winners, it sure doesn’t look like much, does it? Who would take that bet?
But looks can be deceiving. Because the Kingdom is here. The Empire is not.
Jesus did not come to build a new empire, to create new categories of winners and losers, but to usher in the Kingdom. To begin God’s new way, that isn’t about who is best or strongest or smartest or fastest.
God’s new way that doesn’t depend on us being right or getting it right or picking the right side.
God knows, if it’s up to us, we’re always going to choose the empire.
But about realizing that in Jesus, God chooses us. God stands on our side. God stands with all the losers of the world and says, “Yep! You’re my people! You have nothing to prove. I know exactly who you are.
I know your struggles. I know your pain. I know your hope. I know your joy. I know exactly who you are.”
And in all of that, God says, “I am with you.”
In the Kingdom of God, there are only losers. Only people who are scared. Who are weak. Who are hurting. Who have been left behind.
And just when you think the bar can’t get any lower, God says, “No, no. You, too. Get in here, now.” And even when we can’t see it, God knows, this is just where we belong, too.
You know, it’s no secret that the celebration of Christmas has been almost completely taken over by things that have nothing to do with Christmas – presents, trees, Santa, family stress, holiday baking, parties, all of it!
And I’m not gonna stand up here and try and convince you that all that is bad. But what I will say is that it’s not surprising.
It’s not surprising that we have created all kinds of distractions, to draw our attention from our own need.
To be needy is to be weak! And no one wants to be weak! No one wants to need! But God knows, that’s where grace is. That’s where love is.
Not in the empire of winners and losers! But in the Kingdom of people who know they need one another. That know we need God!
God knows, that’s where grace is.
What we want is for God to show up like the hero! The winner who makes us all better and braver and stronger, just by association!
But God doesn’t show up as the winner. God shows up as weak. As helpless. As a baby. As the lowest and the weakest and says, “This is grace. Here is love. Don’t be afraid.”
In Jesus, God comes to us. To stand with us, in all our weakness and need.
And it might not look like much. Not compared to the empires of the world, but looks can be deceiving.
Because the Kingdom is here. Hope is alive.
Grace abounds! Love remains! God is with you!
So don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. This is Christmas.