Monday, July 1, 2019

The Little Birds of God

A leper approached Jesus one day to everyone's surprise. The man had no business being in the crowd since lepers were banished from polite society. Dr. Luke described the man as "full of leprosy," a medical term for an aggravated, advanced case of the disease. He was all lesions and stumps, discolored and disfigured, shocking in his ugliness, a gross caricature of what a man was intended to be.

Lepers were hopeless back then. There was no cure for their condition. If they contracted the disease they were given a death sentence. They wore sackcloth and ashes, the emblems of perpetual mourning, and lived out their tortured, lonely lives in isolation--"cut off from land of the living."

Of all diseases, leprosy is the only one singled out by the Law and Prophets and linked with sin. It's not that leprosy was itself sinful or that sin necessarily led to leprosy. Rather the disease was thought of as a symbol of sin, sin come to the surface. If you could see sin, it was thought, it would look like leprosy.

Furthermore, the end of leprosy is like the end of sin: there is no earthly cure. Sinners like lepers are the walking dead: "myself, my sepulcher, a moving grave," John Milton said.

Leprosy was dirty business that required "cleansing." No other cure would do. But that's what Jesus was about--healing the sick, raising the dead and cleansing lepers.

This leper lingered on the outskirts of the crowd waiting for an opportunity to approach the Lord—not too close lest he offend and be rejected again. And then he made his request: "If you will," he said, "you can make me clean." It's the first instance of a plain request for healing, touching and profound in its simplicity.

Jesus was "moved with compassion." Sick and troubled people normally elicit sympathy from others, but not lepers. They're repulsive in every way—"disease-ridden men with moldy breath,/unwashed men with the ways of death…" 

Nevertheless, Jesus reached out to this desperate man, drew him in and hugged him. "Hugged" is precisely the right word. "Touched" is much too tame.

Did our Lord need to hug this man. You bet your life he did. It meant everything in the world to the leper. It was what "daughter" was to the unclean woman with the hemorrhage, what "neither do I condemn you" was to woman caught in adultery. No one else could or would have hugged this shockingly ugly, disease-ridden man. Only Jesus.

Then Jesus spoke the word "Be clean" and "immediately the leprosy left him." No hokus pocus, no mumbo jumbo, just "Be clean" and the leper was clothed in the flesh of a child, an entirely new beginning.

Jesus then sent the man off to the temple to show himself to the priest and "make the prescribed offering" for his cleansing. And here's where the story gets even better.

If the man obeyed (and I assume he did) the priest would most likely have drawn a blank and paged through his Law book to locate the proper procedure. In all of Israel's history no one had ever invoked this portion of the Law. When he found the place where the ritual was written he would have read these instructions, there in the book for 1400 years awaiting this very time.

These are the regulations for the diseased person at the time of his ceremonial cleansing, when he is brought to the priest: The priest is to go outside the camp and examine him. If the person has been healed of his infectious skin disease, the priest shall order that two live clean birds and some cedar wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop be brought for the one to be cleansed. Then the priest shall order that one of the birds be killed over fresh water in a clay pot. He is then to take the live bird and dip it, together with the cedar wood, the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, into the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water. Seven times he shall sprinkle the one to be cleansed of the infectious disease and pronounce him clean. Then he is to release the live bird in the open fields (Leviticus 14:1-7).

The instructions were clear: the priest was to go outside the camp to the leper, examine him and declare him clean. Then he was to take two live birds in hand: one to be sacrificed, its blood poured out into an earthen bowl; the other to be bound into a bundle with a piece of cedar and a sprig of sage wrapped together with scarlet string. He was then to dip the living bird in the blood in the vessel, sprinkle the blood seven times on the one cleansed from leprosy, untie the little bird and set it free.

The first bird represents our Savior, washed and pure, then slain in the earthen vessel of his humanity, his blood poured out to take away our sin. He's the only one who could do it. "He himself," Peter insists, "bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed" (1 Peter 2:24).

The second bird represents you and me, immobilized and frustrated by our guilt, our hearts beating for freedom like the wings of that frantic little bird, straining against the strings that bound it.

The little bird was powerless to free itself until it was dipped in the blood of the substitute and then set free, free from the entanglements of past failure and guilt, free to fly away home to God.

You may remember Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, a book about a little seagull that could, an earnest little bird that broke every restraint all by himself and grunted his way up to God.

Bach's bird looked good on paper. People bought the book in more ways than one. But self-effort never works no matter how hard we try. Not in real life. No one can take flight from their own sin and guilt and get free. There are too many strings attached.

God's little birds show us the way. It's the only way to fly.

David Roper

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