If

Text: Mark 1:40-45
Date: Epiphany VI + 02/15/09
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

“If you will.” “If you will,” said the leper who came to Jesus, kneeling before Him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Now does that sound like faith? It may sound like at least a little faith.

Jesus was known to more and more people as a holy man who could and would heal people and even cast out demons. So this man comes to Jesus. He doesn’t call Him “Lord” or even “Sir.” He doesn’t prostrate himself or worship Him but merely politely kneels. The first word out of his mouth is not a word of faith but of doubt. The first word out of his mouth is like that from the latest Met Life commercials seeking some sort of assurance or insurance “for the ifs in life.” “If.” “If you will.” “If it is somehow within your purpose or desire, Jesus, you can, you are able to heal me, to make me clean.” His first words question more than know and believe the will and purpose of Jesus’ presence and ministry. It is possible, the man supposes, that it is somehow NOT within Jesus’ will, purpose or desire (though He has healed and cleansed many) to heal and cleanse this particular leper. So, I guess, in a supposed at least halfway humility he allows for the possibility that Jesus just may reject him and his request. “If.” “If you will, you can make me clean.”

Now both St. Matthew and St. Luke include this incident in their gospels (Mt. 8:2-4; Lk. 5:12-14). But this is St. Mark’s record. And while all three accounts may appear nearly identical on the surface, St. Mark introduces what may be called a “more primitive” rendering. We will deal with the famous question of Mark’s short or long endings to his gospel when we come to celebrate Easter. But just like there are no small, unimportant questions concerning the short or long endings of chapter 16, so in our text today, in the very first chapter, right off the bat, there are not insignificant questions reflected, if not in the footnotes of your translation, at least in the footnotes or “critical apparatus” of the Greek text that has come down to us. And they are, more and more, being considered the more original and accurate readings written by Mark.

When, in most of our translations, we read in verse 41 that Jesus was “moved with pity” or “filled with compassion,” this may very well be a replacement for the original word that says Jesus was angry or moved with indignation. Do we have room for an angry Jesus? This seemed (and seems to some today) to offend those who tend to think of Jesus as always on an even keel, always in control, always kind and gentle and friendly and understanding and softly spoken. Oh, sure, there was the making of whips and driving out the moneychangers from the temple incident, but maybe even that we tend to ignore, write off or re-interpret as a less-than-violent event. Here, it is, after all, more likely that if early scribes actually changed a word here, it would be from the more difficult, more offensive and confusing “anger” word to the more predictable and acceptable “compassion” word rather than the other way around. Besides that, this better matches the rather harsh word in verse 43 where Jesus “sternly charges,” harangues, upbraids or complains to the man that he should go away, knowing that even though He will charge the man not to tell anyone, there’s no way he’s not going to tell anyone and the result is going to be as Mark reports in verse 45, that Jesus could “no longer openly enter a town” anymore. You see, in Mark’s gospel, chapter one ends and quickly brings us to the end of Jesus’ Galilean preaching tour and the beginning, with chapter two, of five accounts of controversy.

So if Jesus is more angry here than filled with compassion, what is it that is getting His goat? What’s making Him suddenly angry? Is it, as some presume, that Jesus is only angry at the ravages of sin, disease and death which take their toll upon the living? That is, after all, how I have always viewed our Lord’s weeping or bursting into tears at the grave of Lazarus as He sees the despair and deep mourning that death was causing among those who had gathered there. Here, however, I would rather go back to the leper’s initial question and that wavering, doubting, wondering word, “if,” “If you will, you can make me clean.”

I would rather suggest that Jesus is angry or indignant at the man’s doubt or seeming to question Jesus’ will, desire and purpose. For that is where we find ourselves so often. And we even say the same thing as when you hear in some prayers for the sick those words, quote, and, if it be Your will, to grant healing, end quote. Is health and wholeness, healing, life and resurrection ever not God’s will for all people? The Bible says, “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:31-33), “the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6), the very words of Christ, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10), “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40), and here, the plain words of Jesus, “I will.”

Still there is that “if” of doubt. In the middle of your pain, the solitude of your suffering, the darkness where there is only hope, how does faith hang in there? how do you not just give up? And whether its been days or months or even years really doesn’t change the fact that it’s one day at a time. For it seems it is only after time passes and we look back that faith can at all perceive the gracious will and the caring, healing hand of God that has brought us thus far in our journey. It is that faith that looks back as we used to describe it in the old hymn,

The Lord hath helped me hitherto
By His surpassing favor;
His mercies ev’ry morn were new,
His kindness did not waver.
God hitherto hath been my Guide,
Hath pleasures hitherto supplied,
And hitherto hath helped me.
And the hymn ends with the prayer, “Help me as Thou hast helped me!” (TLH 33:1, 3).

We will be tempted to doubt in the middle of our trials and troubles. At those times that we pour out our complaint to God, faith at least knows this: God can take it. For, in Christ, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). He knows what you are going through. He knows the weakness, the pain, the loneliness, even the fear and the doubt—“Eli, Eli, lama sabbachtani,” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).

So, I changed my mind. Maybe Jesus wasn’t angry at the man’s doubt after all when he came to Him with the word “if.” Maybe it was because of the sign and work greater than even His preaching and healing He came to accomplish, namely, the necessity of His death on the cross that agitated Him so, even right from the beginning. For you cannot rightly know Jesus or the depth of His gracious will apart from His cross.

The leper was cleansed. In his joy “he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news…and people were coming to Jesus from every quarter.” In the faith of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, that joy of deliverance is ours also, for, even better than the ability to look back and see God’s caring hand and presence, faith also looks forward to the certainty of healing in the resurrection, new bodies for old that awaits us. In that day it will be as I heard one of our seminary professors said it lately, in the day of resurrection, I’ll see my old friend Steve, and say to him, “Is that really you? Because the last time I saw you on earth you looked terrible, but now you’re beautiful, whole, new, eternal.”

For now we can sound like the leper before his cleansing for all the ifs in life. By faith in Christ, however, we can also join the leper in spreading the news:

The day of resurrection!
Earth, tell it out abroad,
The Passover of gladness,
The Passover of God.
From death to life eternal,
From sin’s dominion free,
Our Christ has brought us over
With hymns of victory.

No ifs, ands, or buts:

Now let the heav’ns be joyful,
Let earth its song begin,
Let all the world keep triumph
And all that is therein.
Let all things, seen and unseen,
Their notes of gladness blend;
For Christ the Lord has risen,

Our joy that has no end! [LSB 478:1, 3]