“Do you trust me?”
That’s the question you find Jesus asking you as you read Matthew’s gospel.
The loyalty Jesus asks for is extraordinary. When he asks us to follow him, he asks us to give him everything.
This story comes directly after the Sermon on the Mount. People who have never read the Sermon on the Mount say they love it, some wonderful teaching. When we finished working through it, just over a year ago, it left us quite breathless. Jesus asks for our total loyalty. He asks us to base our whole life around him and his teaching. He might ask us to change our behaviour, our loves, our habits, our preferences, our attitudes, and he expects us to do so. You write him the cheque to your life, and you don’t get any change.
All of which makes us ask: Do we trust him? If Jesus asks this much of us, is he reliable enough to shoulder the weight of such demands?
If you go to a pound shop, you wonder if the thing you’re buying will work. But you don’t think too long. It’s a pound. If you buy a second-hand car, you might pay £79 for someone to look over it and research it’s background. You’re spending 8 grand now. Better be sure. If you buy a house, you’d pay anywhere from £500 up for a survey. Now you’re investing a quarter of a million.
Jesus asks for everything. So can we trust him? How do you do your due diligence?
To answer that, Matthew moves on. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, verse 28 of chapter 7, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.
Yes his teaching had authority. Matthew now wants to show us that his actions have authority too. We can trust the man.
Matthew’s first exhibit is Jesus meeting a man with leprosy.
This is not the same illness we know today as leprosy. It was a catch-all term for a wide range of skin diseases, possibly including modern leprosy.
This was a dramatic and emotional illness for Matthew to choose first. It was much more than a disease.
If you had leprosy, the Old Testament law pronounced you unclean. That’s unclean before God. This particular illness was a visual aid of the fact that our hearts are not right with God. We are rebels to the core of our being, and so we’re not fit to stand in the presence of a pure and holy God. And the family of illnesses known as leprosy was how God chose to teach us that lesson.
It gets worse. Leprosy spread by touch. Not so much the illness, although that may have been contagious. But the defilement. If you were unclean, and you touched someone else, they became unclean too. If you sat on a chair they’d sat on, you became unclean.
So lepers were not only cut off from God. They had to make sure they couldn’t come into contact with anyone. They had to live apart, far away from any town or village, all alone, wearing distinctive and embarrassing clothing, so that nobody accidentally defiled themselves by talking to them, bumping into them, or touching something they’d used themselves.
They were outcasts. They were lonely.
Some of you know the fear of having tests and then going to see the doctor for the result. What will it turn out to be? Certain illnesses you dread. In those days, the diagnosis you really dreaded was leprosy. Shut off from the presence of God. Shut out from any human company.
This is the illness Matthew records Jesus meeting first. Leprosy.
And so Jesus meets a man with leprosy. It’s such a simple story.
A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’ Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said, ‘Be clean!’. Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.
The leper is healed of his illness. But more than that, he’s cleansed.
As you read through the gospels, look carefully at the language used. People with other illnesses are healed. Lepers are always cleansed.
Normally, if a clean person touches an unclean person, they catch the uncleanness. Here we get the wonderful reverse. Jesus touches the leper. He’s breaking every taboo in the book. But instead of Jesus contracting the leper’s uncleanness, Jesus passes his cleanness to the leper. The leper is not just healed. He’s cleansed. Cleansed.
And second, he’s reintegrated.
It’s not enough for the man’s leprosy to go. People must know. His friends need to know they can have him round for a meal. The pub landlord needs to know he can serve him a pint. The crowds shopping in the sales need to know not to run away screaming. But how are they to know?
He’s not to tell them. Verse 4: See that you don’t tell anyone.
Just imagine that. Imagine you’ve got engaged, but you’re not allowed to tell a soul. You’ve got a fantastic job offer, but it’s confidential for two weeks. You’ve had an illness that means you’ve had no human contact for years, and now you’re better. You want to shout it from the rooftops.
No, he’s not to tell anyone. Instead, go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them. Here’s how people will know. He is to offer the sacrifices required by the law of Moses. That will be a testimony to them.
There’s a difference. The Old Testament sacrifices were to cleanse you. Once your illness was gone, you needed sacrifices to make you clean again. But this man was already clean. Jesus had seen to that. But the sacrifices would mean that the priest would pronounce him clean. And that was the all-important step. Once he was pronounced clean, officially clean, the world can know. He can live his life again.
Cleansed, first. Reintegrated. That’s what Jesus does for this leper.
The Way It’s Done
And what’s impressive is the way he does it. He simply touches the leper. That’s it. Simple as that. One touch, and he’s healed and cleansed.
All that’s needed is for Jesus to want to do it. “If you are willing,” says the man. “I am willing,” says Jesus, “Be clean”.
It’s instant. There’s no need for any medicine. His appearance doesn’t gradually improve over a week or so. In the blink of an eye, he’s totally better. Not even the need for any sacrifices.
You see Jesus doesn’t only teach with authority. He has authority. He acts with authority. He heals with authority.
Can you Trust Him?
So now ask yourself the question we began with: Can you trust Jesus? Would you put your life in this man’s hands?
Here’s a man with the authority to cleanse, just by touching. It’s a power he still has today.
None of us is clean before God. Some of us feel that acutely. We feel dirty before God. Others of us are quite oblivious to the fact we’re unclean before him. But if God were to appear in this room, if Jesus were to come here – in all his risen glory – all of us would feel deeply inadequate.
Our biggest problems in life aren’t the physical ones. Some of us have deep physical struggles. Problems with our bodies, with our minds, that we can’t fix, that the doctors can’t cure. But those aren’t our biggest problems. They’re just symptoms that our hearts aren’t right with God.
In this simple story, we meet the Jesus who can cleanse us where we need it most. Who can cleanse our hearts. Who can make us clean on the inside, clean enough to stand before the pure and holy God.
There’s a face cleanser that carries the brand name, “Deep Clean”. I’m sorry, but any product that cleans your face is not giving you any kind of deep clean. It’s literally skin-deep.
But Jesus is the deep cleaner you get nowhere else. Simply with a word, with a touch, with a will.
Now ask: Is anything this man asks too much? Would you say yes to him, even before you knew what he’s going to ask?
If that doesn’t persuade you to trust him, he’s also a man who can reintegrate a total outcast back into society.
We all long, deep down, to be accepted. We hate being the odd one out, the odd-ball, the one who’s not picked for the team.
As you read of Jesus reintegrating the outcast, your mind might wander to other cultures, where whole castes of society are literally left on the rubbish heap. Actually, every community has people who feel a bit on a limb, like they don’t quite fit. Yes, even Kemsing.
In fact, in most churches there are people who feel their face doesn’t quite fit. If the people in the pew behind knew this that or the other, nobody would ever speak to me again. My lifestyle, my past, my background: Not quite what people are looking for.
Please don’t misunderstand. Jesus is not promising instant friendships. In fact, it’s often the reverse. Elsewhere he makes quite clear: When people decide to follow him, it often causes deep breaks in relationships we cherish dearly. The question is whether that’s too high a price to pay. Back to that question again.
We need the long-term view. Jesus came to put this broken world back together. That includes our relationships with one another. One day, Jesus will come back. When that happens, everyone who followed him will join him in a world where nobody is ever an outcast. Indeed, the only way to be an outcast then is not to have known the touch of Jesus, not to be one of his friends and followers.
Here’s a man who can reintegrate a total outcast back into society.
So now ask: Is anything he asks too much? If Jesus asks you to change your life, change your priorities, change your behaviour. If he asks you to live how he commands, not how you fancy or how the world expects: Is anything too much for him to ask?
As you read the Sermon on the Mount, the question you realise you’re being asked is: Do you trust me?
Give me everything, says Jesus. Now do you trust me enough to do that?
And then you watch him touchingly touch this leper. He’s cleansed. He’s reintegrated.
That’s who Jesus is.
Do you trust him?