Unclean! Unclean!

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I’ll never forget when Mark told me he was HIV positive.  We were in a cafe in London and had just ordered all day breakfasts.  Many of us had tried to help him off the streets and off the drugs but he’d finally succumbed to a dirty needle.

He had quite a few scabs on his face that were red raw.  And some of them were bleeding.  As drops of blood formed on both cheeks, it was all I could do to croak, “Hey mate, you might want to mop up your blood.”

I managed half a mouthful of breakfast that day.

AIDS is more than a disease in our culture.  It’s not just a physical death-sentence.  Unfortunately it can be a social one too.  In the Old Testament there was one disease that, for the purposes of the law, was invested with massive social and spiritual consequences.  Leprosy.

As we’ve often said, the Old Testament law was a dramatization of spiritual truths.  The tabernacle, priests and sacrifices didn’t actually “do the trick” but they pointed to the future work of Christ.

In amongst all these laws were regulations about surface level realities.  So, for instance, walls that were infected with mildew were a big deal (Leviticus 14:35-57).  They were a sign of a creation that is deeply flawed.  Similarly, skin diseases were highlighted in the law not because the skin is more important than the rest of us.  In fact it’s the opposite.  The law concerns itself with external “uncleanness” as a sign of deeper issues within us.  The leper, with unclean skin, reminds us of ourselves with unclean hearts.

And so it is chilling to be reminded how our uncleanness deserves ostracism from God and man alike.  Here is what the priest was to declare about the leper:

He is a leprous man, he is unclean: the priest shall pronounce him utterly unclean; his plague is in his head. And the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and his head bare, and he shall put a covering upon his upper lip, and shall cry, Unclean, unclean. All the days wherein the plague shall be in him he shall be defiled; he is unclean: he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his habitation be.  (Leviticus 13:44-46)

This is what we deserve on a much deeper level.  Outer darkness and shame.  And just as with the leper, there is nothing we can do about it.

Yet there is hope for the leper.  There is nothing that the leper can do, but here are things that can happen to the leper for his cleansing.


the priest shall go forth out of the camp  (Leviticus 14:2)

Here is the beginning of it all.  The priest would meet the poor wretch in his wretchedness.

Secondly, sacrifices.  There is a ritual involving two birds (Leviticus 14:4-7): one bird is sacrificed, the other is sprinkled by the first bird’s blood, then released.  The leper is being taught that his freedom costs the blood of another.

Thirdly, the leper goes away for a week and shaves off every hair on his body.  He returns on the eight day looking like a newborn baby.  For truly he is born again.

This is a picture of our own spiritual cleansing.  Christ meets us in our depravity, dies for us, cleanses us with His blood and raises us in His resurrection to new life.

And when He met a leper in Mark chapter 1, Jesus was able to effect this reality in person:

And there came a leper to Jesus, beseeching him, and kneeling down to him, and saying unto him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.  And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean.  And as soon as he had spoken, immediately the leprosy departed from him, and he was cleansed. (Mark 1:40-43)

The Jews, I’m sure, feared that Jesus would have become unclean by contact with the leper.  But instead Jesus gives the man a good infection.  He is “moved with compassion” for the man’s plight, reaches out to touch him (unthinkable in Jesus’ day) and His cleanness passes over to the leper.

Let me take you back to my friend Mark.  Imagine the same scenario.  He confesses to this infectious and fearful disease.  But imagine the person opposite is not like me.  They don’t shrink back, they reach out.  Imagine them touching his face, getting their own hands bloody.  And imagine them healing the sores, cleansing the blood, curing the illness, restoring Him to health and wholeness.

This is what Jesus does to the leper.

It seems so effortless here.  But just as the freed bird was only released at the cost of blood, so the leper’s cleansing had a price tag attached.  Jesus had to die the death of the unclean.  He was strung up outside the city and accursed by all.  He became despised and rejected to bring the outcasts in.

But it’s not simply the lepers who benefit.  All who understand their spiritual uncleanness can run to Christ – our Priest and Sacrifice.  We can say “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”  And with that same heart-felt compassion, His response will be, “I am willing, be clean!”

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