SCRIPTURE Mark 1:40-45 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 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.” 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.
MESSAGE “The Secret Messiah” Rev. James Renfrew
We’ll start with a simple questions: “Can you keep a secret?” (Some raise their hands, some don’t)
For about eight years I worked with an awesome group of teens in Rochester. They all came from families with huge problems, but they had great potential, and somehow we found each other in the youth group my little neighborhood church offered, and these kids stuck with it week after week. With little or no parental involvement in our church these kids found their way to church each Sunday and the youth group on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Most of them became church members, a few became teen elders, one became our Presbytery commissioner, and several went to the Presbyterian Youth Triennium. It was a great experience, and I got to spend so many hours with these kids that I really got to know everything about their thinking and behavior.
So when we got together after school one of the girls would always have a dramatic story to tell everyone, a story about someone that they all knew from school. And she would preface her story by saying “You can’t tell anyone about what I’m about to tell you. It’s a secret. Can you keep a secret?” And all of the other girls would solemnly nod their heads and promise not to tell a soul, “cross my heart and hope to die”.
And I know as surely that the sun would come up the next morning that not one of the girls in our group could keep that secret. By the next morning the whole world would know that secret. Each time the secret got passed on, the next girl would say, “You have to promise not to tell anyone …”, but of course every last one of them did.
So … can you keep a secret? Yes or no? I know, I know, it depends. If someone’s life or health is at serious risk you would tell.
So here’s the problem. On the one hand, everything we have ever known about Christian faith is that it is an evangelical faith, with an exciting story to tell the whole world. On the other hand we have these readings from Mark’s Gospel with Jesus telling his disciples to keep quiet about what they have seen. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is asking if we can keep a secret.
Here’s the problem. The Presbyterian Church is an evangelical church. We love to tell the story of Jesus, we love to hear good preaching, we love singing about Jesus in our hymns, we send out newsletters that tell about Jesus, teachers share the love of Jesus in our Sunday School with a new generation of Christians. We do everything we can to tell the Good News of Jesus Christ. That’s what being evangelical is all about: we’ve got a great story in our hearts, a story that needs to be told, and we love telling it.
But then we have this reading from Mark’s Gospel. Jesus heals the man with the terrible skin disease, and then he tells the man to keep quiet about it, don’t tell anyone, keep it secret, ssshhhh!
So what gives? How do we reconcile these two ideas – tell everybody and tell no one? Well I know the answer, but it’s a secret, so I can’t tell you!
Oh, come on, aren’t you going to be like those teenager friends of mine. “Please, please, please, Jim, tell us. We promise not to tell anyone else”. Yeah, right. But if you say “please, please, please, pretty please” then maybe I’ll tell you.
Now you could say that the instruction from Jesus to keep quiet made perfect sense in this particular case. The man had leprosy, and in curing him Jesus was damaging his own reputation. Let me tell you that in those days leprosy was one of the worst diseases imaginable. If you had it, if you had just a little rash, a blemish a pimple or a zit, you could be driven out of town because no one wanted to be anywhere near you. Even your own family would chase you way. And the best you could hope for was to live on the outskirts of town, hoping that a few nice people might leave you some left-over food scraps by the side of the road. But not only did Jesus allow a man with leprosy to approach him, Jesus actually touched him. That was just not done, it wasn’t allowed, and if someone saw you touch someone with leprosy you were considered to have the disease too.
If you touched a person with leprosy it made you automatically unclean, and you had to spend many days of going through endless rituals before you could be declared clean again. So by asking the man to keep quiet about being healed it’s possible that Jesus was simply trying to protect his ability to keep healing others. If he was quarantined, then no one could be helped.
The problem with this theory is that Jesus tells people to be quiet not just in this story, but in lots of places in Mark’s Gospel. In fact, some have seen so many mentions of keeping quiet that Mark has been called the “Secret Gospel”.
So why do you think that Jesus tells the cured man to keep it quiet? Why does he tell lots of people to keep it quiet? Here are some other explanations.
One reason is that Jesus liked one-on-one interactions with people, he wasn’t trying to run a modern media campaign. He was interested in doing the right thing, but he wasn’t in it for the publicity. You can see hints and clues that the large crowds were tiring to Jesus and the disciples. The crowds of people needing healing were endless. And Jesus was not interested in being seen just as a miracle worker. He was trying to teach people something about God. The healings got their attention, but many times it went no further than that. And Jesus wasn’t just interested in getting people’s attention, he wanted them to understand the whole story of his ministry, not just the surface. So he was trying to stifle the rumors and gossip that didn’t have it right, that didn’t really understand who he was and why he was doing it.
Another reason for keeping things quiet is that in Mark’s Gospel the story unfolds in such a way that “who Jesus is” is finally defined by the resurrection at the end of the story. It is in the crucifixion and resurrection that Jesus becomes the Christ, becomes the Messiah, not before. Any attempt to name Jesus as the Christ or Messiah was too pre-mature in the way Mark tells the story.
The timing of this request for silence is a good transition into the Lenten season, and the cycle of stories that will lead to the Cross. Are we following him because he can do healing, because he tells parables, or because he is so much more?
Sandra, Sarah, Roshanda, Charlene, Candi, Margaret, Alicia, Tina and Chrystal had trouble keeping a secret. I think Jesus knew his followers would have trouble keeping secrets, too. I think you’re going to tell, too. In fact, I hope you do!