In all my years of ministry, it might be one of the hardest conversations that I’ve ever had with someone. A family member called me up early one morning (about 2 am) saying, “I think it’s my mother’s time.” After jumping in the shower so I could at least be presentable, I rushed the three or four blocks up the road with some sliced up whole wheat bread from our personal breadbox and some cranapple juice we had in the fridge so that I could administer “Methodist last rites” as requested by the person on the phone.
Walking into the living room felt like walking into a funeral home parlor. The mood was so somber that I guessed the person passing would be very young. A man approached me and led toward the stairs. I’d never seen him before in my life – to this day I don’t know how he got my phone number. “Mom never went to church that we know of” he said. “None of us do. We didn’t know who to call, but she started…. seeing things. She won’t drink, she won’t eat, and she started saying, ‘Just take me Jesus.’ I didn’t even know she thought twice about Jesus. So, we called you.”
Ever since that night, I have thought myself unbelievably lucky and blessed that, for whatever reason, this family reached out to me; a 23-year old, second year in solo ministry, new father and seminary student to attend at this woman’s bedside. For over a decade now, this one circumstance has shaped my understanding of the deep need and desire of individuals in their last days on earth.
Walking up the stairs of this house for the first and only time, the smell and the screaming were something terrible. I felt as if I had been transported into the middle of the film “The Exorcist” or something. What awaited me up there?
When I turned the corner, I saw her. Frail as could be, white as a sheet, curled up into a ball yet somehow sitting erect in her bed, wishing for death, and in absolute agony. As lovingly as I could muster, I walked towards her, placed a hand on her back and introduced myself, “I’m Pastor Nathan from the church down the street. Your family has called me here. They say you’ve seen Jesus and are ready to go.” She looked me in the eyes and said something I’ll never forget, “I saw HIM. He was standing there with my mother. I never knew He was real. I…. AM…. SO…. SCARED.” I looked at her with love and tears in my eyes and asked, “why are you scared if you think he’s here for you?” And the tears began to stream down her face as she entered into a coughing fit.
Her daughter, who was sitting near, said, “Well, mom has never believed. She always said she was an agnostic, but that’s probably because she didn’t want to just say she was an atheist. She always disliked Christians generally. She had me before she was married when it was socially unacceptable. She was married four times and had four divorces. She spent all her money quickly, and then in retirement had to move in with us. She doesn’t have a penny to her name and recently she was telling me that she didn’t think she was a very good person or mother. Now that she ‘saw’ something, she’s afraid of death.”
Who are the “Good” and the “Bad”?
This experience profoundly shaped how I understand the basic needs of most of us in this world, especially when it comes to the spiritual. Generally speaking, I think we fall into two categories as individuals.
- Either we believe we are good people and so something good must be waiting for us after this life
- Or We think we are not great people and we don’t think about what’s waiting for us or we don’t WANT to think about it.
The truth is, however, as we read the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament, we understand that while we might have all started out OK, something along the way has become fundamentally broken in us. Most self-thought “good people” tend to spend most of their lives actively fixing what is broken or ignoring the brokenness of the world believing that they won’t be impacted by it – leaving them whole and good.
When we read the New Testament, we see these attitudes strikingly on display. In the stories of Jesus, we see self-thought good people – Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, religious leaders – who talked about their religious piety and constantly criticized Jesus and the disciples for attending to the broken underbelly of the world. Their criticism was simple – if you’re a good, righteous, holy person then you can’t possibly associate with the broken, unholy, and unrighteous people.
Jesus and the Leper
In Leviticus 13:45-46, we get a glimpse of why the stories of Jesus and lepers, caused such a fuss among the religious elite,
“Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease, they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.”
Anyone who the priests considered to be “unclean,” were thought to have been made that way as a punishment from God. Therefore, when Jesus related to them, even reaching out and touching them, He was associating with them and crossing the boundary set up in the minds of “good people”. That is just something you didn’t do in the Middle Eastern, Judeo worldview of Jesus’ day. If people were broken, in ill health, and suffering it was because of something bad they had done – in other words, they were “bad people.” To be a “good person” one must not associate with them.
Have things changed at all in our day? Don’t we still have a strong cultural current that says if someone is suffering it’s because they don’t work hard enough; if someone suffers from a mental illness it is because they are thinking wrong; diseases and even plagues are judgments from God? Certainly, we understand this view, even if many of us don’t subscribe to it in whole or in part. Yet the woman I met that night in the bed felt her death would be painful and she was awaiting her punishment, not because she cast herself in such a bad light, but because she had been told that everything she did was wrong. Yet at the last, as she was catching glimpses of the truth of Jesus, she wanted something different for herself. She wanted to be able to reach out and touch him. She wanted to be able to be with Him and NOT be afraid of Him. Is the scripture below so very different?
When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” (Matthew 8:1-4)
This person came to Jesus as “unclean, unclean,” and approached Jesus through a crowd just as Jesus had come down from the mountaintop to teach the crowd and disciples about the shape and character of His ministry and what His disciples should do. This person could have suffered from any number of skin diseases because back then leprosy wasn’t exclusively what we think of it, in fact it may have been merely a case of psoriasis. This person had been confined to the underbelly of society. Is he so different from any of us? If we understand the fundamental truth that none of us are “good people” and we are all in need of a savior to do what we cannot do for ourselves, then can we not see ourselves in this man? And is this man not even further along than many of us because he recognizes his own need?
Jesus’ Earthly Ministry to the Broken
I’ve built this up long enough, let me share with you what this scripture passage is really all about and why it matters. We have here in these four verses, an entire shorthand for the Scriptures and the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. It begins with Jesus coming down from the mountain. The wording here parallels Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai after receiving the commandments directly from God. It also intentionally recalls God, in Jesus, coming down to earth and encountering the brokenness of humanity as typified in this leper.
God in Jesus had come to earth not to go to those who think of themselves as “good people” but to be with those who were ostracized, marginalized, felt penalized, and had been victimized by the brokenness and fallenness of this world. Jesus didn’t spend much time healing or ministering with the Herods, the Pilates, the Ceasars, the Pharisees, of this world. Only when people approach HIM with an acknowledgement of their own brokenness, of our own brokenness, can Jesus truly get to work. And this man, this leper did exactly that.
God, in Jesus, came down to this world to be in ministry and mission to the broken and acknowledging needy of this place. This leper approached him and cried out, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” Now, imagine that scene. This leper, this outcast, this less than a person in many people’s eyes, approached Jesus, through the crowd of “good people” coming down off the mountain with Jesus. Imagine how that sea of humanity might have parted in front of him as all of those “good people” got out of his way, casting a wide berth so that whatever punishment of God had fallen on this man would not fall on them. And he approached Jesus with something that looked a bit like faith, did he not? He didn’t approach Jesus with a question, “can you heal me?” or even “would you consider it?” He didn’t approach Jesus with a doubt, “I heard you might be able to do something.” NO, he approaches with what looks like a confession, “if you choose, you CAN make me clean.” It was a bold statement from someone we never hear from again in the story. It was a bold statement about who Jesus is – to this man, Jesus is Lord. The Lord who CAN do something. The Lord who at the strength of His word or grace of His hand can reach out and effect the situation.
The Living Dead
Did you know that lepers were known in the Bible as “living dead?” In 2 Kings in the story of the healing of Naaman the leper, we read that the king of Israel declared that all humanity is powerless over leprosy and that to heal Naaman would be like “[bringing him] back to life?” Yes, lepers were the walking dead, and here was the walking dead crying out to Jesus for what? For healing? Or for life? This one who the world considered dead cried out to Jesus not just for a skin healing, but to be raised to life! And the way it’s phrased, “if you choose, you can make me clean” is an early confession that points to the Easter truth that Jesus is the Lord of life and death! Jesus, yes, this Jesus, CAN bring the dead to life – but it only works for those who know they need it. In this man’s quest for healing and resurrection, he had placed the entire onus of this healing, restoration, and resurrection not in his own power and will, but in the hands of Jesus.
God Wouldn’t Want Someone Like Me
We have to this point the image of Jesus coming down from the mountain, God stepping out of heaven, into a world where many believe themselves to be good, but one person has come up to Jesus with the confession of His own brokenness and the confession that only Jesus, God, the Lord, has the power to save, if He wills. And I think back to that bedside and that conversation with that woman who had come to the end of her days and faced the realization of who she felt she had been and decided that she wanted a different ending to her story and, in the last moments, when she had come face to face with Jesus, didn’t know what to do. So, someone was called to step in and help her find the path. And her question for me was never going to be “how can I be saved” or “how can I have eternity”. It was always going to be the question that resonates deep inside of every single one of us, “Does God, does Jesus even want me???” The leper said, “if you choose.” This gave God, this gave Jesus who contained and assumed the power of God, the ability to choose this person’s fate. The question the leper was asking went like this, “I know you can, but do you even want me, Jesus?!” And isn’t this the question that burns in your heart? And isn’t this the question that burns in the heart of the world? And isn’t this the question that arises from those who are lost, and hungry, and hurting, and in need of healing, and broken? Isn’t this the question and the pain and agony of existence rolled into one that we hear repeated over and over, “God, do you even want me?” Or putting it in the negative which we hear too often, “God wouldn’t WANT someone like me!” And on this woman’s deathbed was her question and confession. “Why has Jesus come for me? What would he want with me? He wouldn’t CHOOSE me! He’s not here for me! Is he?”
Yet we have in this story of this nameless, faceless leper at the foot of the mountain making confession and plea to Jesus, the answer all of us wait to hear. The one that our hearts hope to receive. We have the words of Jesus and the response that the world groans and longs for each moment of each torturous hour, when Jesus reaches back out to the man and says, “I do choose. Be made clean!”
We hear these words echo down through the ages when we listen for them. We feel them in our hearts in a new and vibrant way if we wait for them and long for them. Wherever we are and whatever circumstance we find ourselves trapped in or victimized by, however sin has manifested itself in our lives, however we have experienced our separation from God or from others. WE, WE TOO, can hear these words spoken through this text to us, into our lives and hearts today, “I do choose!” We can shout these words of assurance that “I, yes, even I have been chosen by God”. We hear these words of Jesus echo throughout this scripture into eternity to each of us saying “I. Choose. You.”
Jesus Christ Chooses You
The words I shared with that woman whose family had called me to be there before she took her last breath were these from Ephesians 1:4 “God chose us to be in a relationship with Him even before He laid out plans for this world.” In a different translation “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world.” And it didn’t matter to God, to Jesus, that she had waited her whole life before realizing that she was included in God’s heart and in God’s plan; that Jesus was there for her; that she was loved by Him; that He did choose her.
And for the first time since she was a little child in her mother’s church, she received communion that evening with a little sliver of bread from my kitchen. As it rolled around in her mouth, she did her absolute best to choke down the cranapple juice that stood in for the blood of Christ, even though her body wanted to violently reject it – she wanted it for the first time. She wanted to make that confession. She wanted to say that prayer. And she laid there and said, “I do believe, Jesus. I know you can do something.” And she wretched and she wasted, but she was also overcome by – peace.
I can’t tell you that there was a physical miracle that occurred, and she returned to health and lived many more years. I can tell you peace came over her that night and after she passed away a week later, her family told me that the last week of her life was the most peaceful and joyful they had ever experienced with her. That the pain had gone, the violent thrashing had gone, and when her time came, she “went with Jesus with a smile.” I believe that her peace came from knowing that God and Jesus Christ chose her.
John Wesley had an experience we call the Aldersgate experience because it happened at a meeting on Aldersgate street. He wrote in his journal about that evening and the power it had over him and how it set the course for his ministry, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” We can hear this story time and time again, through the leper, through Wesley, in the course of our lives, and from this woman. Yet what matters is this – do you know? Do you know and believe and trust that yes, Jesus is saying “I. Choose You.”?
Written by Rev. Nathan W. Carlson