A sermon delivered to my incarcerated brothers in the Kent County Jail
Here is the Gospel passage that I’d like for you to hear with me this morning.
“And when he came down from the mountain, large crowds followed him. And look! A man with a nasty skin disease came and was kneeling down before him, and he said, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you are able to make me clean.’
“And Jesus reached out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I am willing. Be clean!’ Immediately he was cleansed of his nasty skin disease. Then Jesus said to him, ‘See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’”
Now that reading starts off, “and when he came down from the mountain.” You might ask: who came down from what mountain?
Who came down? Jesus. How do I know? Well, I looked back at chapter 7, and chapter 6, and chapter 5. It’s Jesus.
What mountain? Matthew doesn’t tell us what mountain, which must mean we don’t need to know what mountain. It doesn’t matter what mountain. But Matthew does tell us it was a mountain. So maybe that does matter. Why?
Matthew 5 tells us that Jesus went up a mountain, and sat down, and taught. He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek.” And so on. We call those the beatitudes, which just means sayings about being blessed. And after that, he said: “You are the salt of the earth. . . . You are the light of the world.” He told his followers that what they do matters. Why? Because people out there will see them and give glory to the Father in heaven.
And after that he went on to say: “Don’t think I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.” He said: “You’ve heard, you shall not commit murder. But I tell you, if you even harbor hatred in your heart, you have committed murder.” He said: “You’re heard, you shall not commit adultery, but I tell you, if you even look at a woman and harbor lust in your heart, you are already guilty of adultery.” You might say he was laying down the law.
Mountain . . . law . . . Matthew expects us to remember something here. Matthew expects us to remember someone long ago who went up a mountain and handed out a law, the law. Matthew expects us to remember . . . Moses. That’s why he tells us Jesus went up a mountain. The mountaintop, spiritually speaking, is the place where you meet God and receive God’s revelation. So to understand our reading today about Jesus coming down from the mountain, we have to look back at Moses.
In the book of Exodus, Moses leads God’s people out of slavery in Egypt. They go into the wilderness of Sinai, and they camp in front of a mountain there, called Mount Sinai or Mount Horeb. Chapter 19 of Exodus tells what a terrifying scene it was on the day that Moses goes up the mountain. There’s thunder and lightning and a thick, dark cloud on the mountain. The people stand below trembling. Then the Lord comes down onto the mountain, and the ground shakes. The Lord summons Moses to the top of the mountain. And God gives Moses the Ten Commandments (chapter 20), and then lots of other laws.
We say “laws.” We could just as well say “instruction.” God does not give rules for the sake of giving rules. God does not say: here are some hoops. Jump through them! What God does is say: I’m the one who made you. I’m the one who called you together as a people. And you need some help knowing what to do and how to do it, how to live your lives, so I’m giving you this instruction, this law. This is not about bossing you around; this is helping you out. This is not putting shackles on you and putting you in bondage. God says, I love you, I have chosen you and now I am showing you how to live free. Do this and live!
So Moses receives all this from God—the Ten Commandments and lots more—and then finally, in Exodus 32, comes down the mountain carrying the tablets of the law. And as he comes down the mountain he starts to hear things. He hears music and commotion and carrying on. There’s a huge, wild party, a huge celebration. And what are they celebrating? They’re celebrating and worshiping a golden calf—an idol. They have made a substitute God!
We could say that’s shocking, or that’s stupid, but really you and I and pretty much the whole human race don’t have much room to talk, because if we’re honest we’ll have to admit that we’re pretty much in the same boat. We too have received the instruction, the law, or at least parts of it. We may even realize it’s for our good, that following it would make us free and good. And we have not followed it. Either through blatant, open actions, or else as Jesus points out through impulses and attitudes that we allow to fester and grow in our hearts, we have committed adultery and murder and theft. We have coveted and dishonored our parents. We may not have made a golden calf, but we have created idols of our own, things that we set up in that special place in our heart where only God should dwell, and we have celebrated and partied about it. When Moses came down that mountain and saw those people, he saw you and me. We were right there in that crowd.
Here’s how Moses responds. I’ll read a few verses, beginning with verse 25:
“When Moses saw that the people were running wild . . . he stood in the gate of the camp and said ‘Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me.’ And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. And he said to them, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth through the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.”’ The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day.”
Now, that’s hard! You won’t find this in the Bible story books we read to children. It’s a terrible scene, not uplifting but frightening. And the reason that it’s frightening is because it’s a picture of divine justice. In light of the holiness and righteousness of God, those 3,000 people got what they deserved.
We need to be clear: we are never told to imitate Moses and his violence. We must not. Nobody on this earth has a license to do that. Anyone on this earth who claims the right to slaughter people because they are not keeping God’s law is deluded—wrong and dangerous. So we cannot imitate Moses’ solution. But neither can we criticize him. He did as the Lord instructed in that particular time and that particular place. But it does not strike me as good news. What hope is there for me, I have to ask, if I have not followed God’s instruction? When Moses comes down from the mountain, I am found wanting, and I deserve judgment. And I’m not the only one.
Now we’re ready to get back to Matthew 8. Just as Moses went up the mountain and received the law, Jesus sat down on the mountain and proclaimed the law anew. He showed that it has to do not only with outward actions but also with inward desires and attitudes. He showed that I’m guilty of murder if all I have done is hate, that I’m guilty of adultery if all I have done is lust. And now here he comes down the mountain. Will he find me here when he comes down the mountain? And what will he say, and what will he do?
Get ready to hear the good news of the gospel. Get ready to hear a new ending to the old story. Get ready to hear an ending that is not about strict justice, blunt condemnation, and swiftly executed justice. Get ready to hear a word of grace.
Matthew tells us: when Jesus came down the mountain, a man with a nasty skin disease came up to him. Matthew calls him a leper, but it’s not necessarily the same disease that’s called leprosy in modern times. Matthew is once again expecting us to recall something from the books of Moses. He’s expecting us to remember that in Leviticus 13, there are procedures for people to follow if they get swellings or eruptions or spots on their skin. They have to go show themselves to the priest. The priest cannot heal them! The priest simply inspects them. Then there’s a waiting period of a week. If they get better, then the priest pronounces them clean. But if they get worse, the priest must pronounce them unclean. Leviticus goes on to say:
“The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his 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.”
In ancient Israel, ritual uncleanness and sinfulness were two different things. But they were in some ways related, and both were bad. When Matthew tells us a leper met Jesus when he came down from the mountain, he wants us to understand that this was a person who was cut off from the people of God. This is a person who, measured up against the requirements of the law, falls short in a very obvious way, falls down flat. Some of the people around him surely assumed that his skin disease was a punishment for sin. But Matthew tells us: God’s response is not automatic condemnation and instant punishment. God’s response is not to set the Levites after us with a sword.
God’s response comes in sending Jesus. Jesus does not tell those who fall short of the law’s requirements that it’s OK, because the law doesn’t matter. Jesus has just stood on the top of the mountain and said: the law does matter, and the law is even more demanding than you thought it was! But Jesus then walks down from the mountain, and meets the person who the law says is nasty, unclean. Jesus reaches out and touches that person, and says what the Levitical priest was unable to say: “I will make you clean.”
This person with the nasty skin disease is not someone long ago that you have never seen and never will see. This leper has been seen many times since that day. This leper has walked the earth in every generation, has walked across every inhabited continent. The leper has been seen here in Michigan this year. In fact, the leper is here in the Kent County Jail right now. I’m not talking about some skin disease. I’m talking about someone who has known what it means to be cut off from God and God’s people by a failure to measure up to God’s holy requirements, someone who has had to look at himself and say, “Unclean, unclean,” someone who has had to live alone, outside the camp. But this person is also someone who has known the healing touch of Jesus, who has heard the voice of Jesus say: I am willing; now you’re clean. The leper is standing here talking to you. The leper is me! The leper is friend here with the guitar. The leper might be the man sitting next to you. The leper might be . . . you.
How can I be the leper—the leper that Jesus make clean? How can you be that leper? Matthew shows us the way. He shows us very quickly, but there are seven steps.
1. The leper came up to Jesus. That’s the first step. Don’t turn the other way when Jesus comes along. Don’t walk away. Walk right up to meet him.
2. The leper knelt down in front of Jesus. He reverenced Jesus. Jesus offers to be our savior, and he tells those who come to him: I will be your friend; I will be your brother; I will lift you up, I will set you on high places, and I will be the friend that is closer than a brother. But here’s how it starts: the leper knelt down.
3. The leper believed in Jesus. He trusted that Jesus could cleanse him. He did not believe that he was automatically cleansed just because Jesus existed, or just because Jesus walked through the neighborhood. He stepped out right in front of Jesus and knelt down and said: if you are willing, you can make me clean. Which also means that the leper knew he was unclean.
4. The leper called Jesus “Lord.” What did he mean by that? The word could just mean something like “sir.” It could just be a sign of respect. That’s a minimum. That might be enough. Maybe that’s what the leper meant. But that same word also means “Lord” in the sense that God is Lord. I think the leper realized at some level that in kneeling down before Jesus he was kneeling down before his maker, his savior, his God.
5. Jesus reached out his hand and touched the leper. He didn’t just stand there looking at him. He didn’t just say something to him. He reached out his hand and touched him. The Greek word here is not a quick little touch with the tip of one finger. He lays his whole hand on the leper and makes solid contact. Maybe he grasps his arm for a moment. If you kneel down before Jesus and call him Lord, you have got to be ready for him to invade your personal space and take hold of you.
6. Jesus says: I am willing! Don’t be afraid that if you kneel down in front of Jesus he might just turn and walk away. Jesus was willing then. He is willing now. He will say: I am willing. Be clean! And you will be clean.
7. Jesus told the leper: Now don’t you say anything to anybody. You go show yourself to the priest. In Leviticus, the priest is the one who is going to look at the leper, look closely and carefully at the skin that was all splotched and broken out and peeling off, and see whether it was cured. Jesus says: Don’t you jump up from hear right now and start running around blabbing to everyone how Jesus made you clean. First you go present yourself for examination, and you let him pronounce you clean. When other people can look at your life and see that it has changed, that Jesus has made you clean—then you’ll have a story to tell.
Seven steps to forgiveness and healing.
Jesus invites everyone here to be the leper, to take those seven steps.
Jesus did not stand up on that mountain to give a lesson in ancient history. Jesus did not come back down the mountain just to reach some guy that died two thousand years ago. For that matter, Jesus did not come to walk this earth only for people that died on the other side of the world two thousand years ago. And he didn’t climb that last mountain, Mount Calvary, for people you’ve never seen and don’t know anything about. He did not submit to the punishments he received only for them. He did not die on the cross for strangers and leave us to hear about it from a distance. He did those things for me. He did those things for you. He did those things for the whole world.
Matthew tells us huge crowds gathered to hear Jesus teach. That day when he taught on the mountaintop and then walked down to where everybody lives every day, large crowds followed along, and watched, and listened.
And out of that crowd stepped one leper. That leper knelt down unclean, and he stood up clean.
Jesus can still do that today.