One of the striking things about the book of Psalms is their extreme honesty. This is one of the ways they teach us to pray. So, for instance, I`ve counted at least fifteen places where we`re invited to join in with those who cry out to God: “How long?”
Verses like these preserve us from the spiritual equivalent of anaemia. This is faith with guts; with, as I say a depth of honesty. And it`s sometimes encouraging to think that it`s OK for us to pray like that. Because for many of us that`s how life feels. We look at the position we find ourselves in; want the Lord do something and it seems we`re just waiting and waiting. But someone recently asked me whether things could sometimes be the other way around? Doesn`t the Lord sometimes say to us “How long?”
What they were getting at was it can be quite salutary to think that whilst we`re busy shouting “How long?” at the Lord… by which we often mean `How long before he gets his act together to arrange the world according to our tastes`; that perhaps he has a right to say exactly the same thing to us. How long before you are going to `get it`? How long before you quit hedging your bets and finally throw in your lot with me?
This got me thinking and of course we don`t have to look very far to find examples of this. In Mark Chapter 9 Jesus is very pointedly frustrated with his disciples and says, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?” (Mark 9.19) Mark, of all the Gospel writers reveals a Christ who`s not afraid to say, “How Long?” To be sure, he never gives up on, let`s be honest, some really mixed up people but he`s is still prepared to let us know how exasperated he can be when folk really don`t get it. And if we want an example of this mix of belief and unbelief in the human heart…. And, as I say, the exasperation of Jesus, then the leper… about whom we heard in our Gospel reading this morning is a good place to start. (Mark 1.40-45
On the face of it of course, our first reaction to this man`s plight is one of compassion and immediately we`re encouraged to warm to him by the way he sends out three signals that he`s shall we say, on the right track with Jesus. Firstly, notice his obvious humility… he comes kneeling before Jesus. Being able to kneel is not of course an essential for salvation (for some of us the bones and tendons will no longer allow it!) but we get the point that he had a proper reverence for Christ. `In your heart sanctify Christ as Lord`, says St. Peter. (1 Peter 3.15) And such reverence is a good place to begin.
And then secondly he has a very clear confidence in Christ`s power. Quite categorically he says, “You can make me clean”. And then thirdly he knows that there`s more at stake than just his physical well-being. Being `made clean` was all about his integration into the people of God… being party to God`s promises and purposes. In other words he understands the deeper significance of what Jesus was about.
But having said all of that he`s still not quite there. The heart of the problem is the way he qualifies it all by saying: `“If you choose” you can make me clean`. We almost think….`And he was doing so well up until now`….. and it`s at this point that Jesus reacts to him. The text says that Jesus was “Moved with pity” or “Deeply moved” but the real sense of the word used here is much closer to anger; it means that Jesus was viscerally moved… or boiling in the guts. And this is where were invited to wonder what was going on.
Now, maybe Jesus was a bit cross at the way in which the man had been held at arms-length from the community of faith because of his illness. Perhaps Jesus is frustrated that the man doubted whether Jesus would WANT to make him clean? Perhaps he was dismayed that the man should be so unsure after all, in the end he gets a pretty unequivocal response, “I do choose. Be made clean!” But what really gives the game away is how the man responds to being healed. Christ is quite clear with him:
Notice: “After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ So, Jesus gives him a `stern` warning ……which tells us to begin with that he knew this chap was a bit wayward ……and he told him to go through the customs of the people …….but we get the sense that he sidestepped this. Mark simply says, “But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter”.
Now it would be churlish to criticise the man`s enthusiasm; if you`ve been healed of a life threatening illness you will be filled with relief and gratitude. But he let all of this get the better of him. In other words it meant that although he got what he wanted he missed the message in what Jesus had done for him…. the call to live a re-shaped and redirected life: a life of obedience. You see this is where it gets serious….. the consequence of his lack of obedience was a closing down of Christ`s ministry. “Jesus could no longer go into a town openly”.
It`s obvious really isn`t it? Whenever the graces of God are treated in this way; like some kind of `filling station`… where I get what I want and then move on (until the next time)… but don`t embrace a life of obedience and an ever deepening relationship with Christ, then I will diminish not enhance his mission. We don`t know whether this man ever met Jesus again. Certainly some good came out that meeting. Again, we can warm to his humility; his apparent confidence in Christ; the importance he placed on being part of the people of God. Here are some pretty important things to emulate.
But we can`t help noting the deep-seated ignorance of the heart of God. “If you choose…” seems to imply that he felt the Lord might need his arm twisting to be compassionate towards us. And again, perhaps most significantly there is his lack of obedience which did nothing to enhance Christ`s mission. Throughout all of this, as I say Christ seems to get quite steamed up. Not to the point where he refused to heal the man. He didn`t insist on waiting until the man was perfect before he healed him.
No, he responded to the man`s somewhat mixed up faith with incredible compassion and generosity; and I don`t know about you but I`m glad about that. But knowing that compassion and generosity makes it all the easier for me think that I ought to listen out for the ways in which he might also be getting a little steamed up with me: “How long?” “When will you get it?”
I think I find myself chastened by how this passage highlights my own limited understanding and appreciation of the wideness of God`s mercy. I think I`m also somewhat shamed by how my lack of an obedient life could effectively hinder Christ`s mission and cause others to misunderstand him. I wonder about you? Where do you think your blind spots might be?
A friend of mine once wisely said, “The grace of God swallows us whole”…. the often mixed up people that we are. That`s very true but I would add that this doesn`t stop him calling us to something more. We remain a work in progress. Why not speak with Jesus about where despite his love you may be frustrating him? How do you give him cause to say: “How long?” “When will you get it?”