II Kings 5: 1-14; Mark 1: 40-45
Good morning and grace and peace, on this Sunday, on some calendars known as the Sunday before the Feast of St. Valentine. Of Valentinus of Rome really nothing is known except his name and that he was called in some ancient martyrologies a presbyter , a priest, and that he was martyred with 14 other Christians on February 14 and buried on the Via Flaminia, North of Rome, probably in the year 269.
I’m sure there is a beautiful and inspiring story there of faith and witness, though all lost in the mists of time. Patron Saint these days of florists, jewelers, and chocolateers, mostly due to some very nice romantic tales imagined and passed along by writers and artists in the later Middle Ages and early Renaissance, but of course without any foundation in the life of the historical Valentine. Still, his name does rhyme with “be mine.”
And chocolate and flowers. Jewelry. You can’t go wrong.
In the more official calendar of the Church the banners of the season still announce: Epiphany! In these weeks between Christmastide and Ash Wednesday. First the Wise Men from the East, then in wider and wider circles. The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. What was in darkness is now flooded in light. What was hidden is made known. How the One born in the obscurity of the Bethlehem stable is revealed to all nations and peoples as Lord and Savior.
On the traditional Church Calendar as well, Sexagesima. The great Sixty Days. The good people of St. Andrew’s may be the last in all the Episcopal Church to find that title on their Sunday service leaflets, and I apologize for continuing year after year to inflict this eccentricity upon you. It’s not your fault. Seventy Days last week, Septuagesima, and next Sunday will be Quinquagesima, fifty Days, and leaning forward to the Great 40 Days of Lent. I also like old American cars and Audrey Hepburn and Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.
In any event, the Christmas Trees finally made their post-Candlemas exit from the Robison house this past week, and again a reminder that these Sundays are “Sundays Before Lent.” The great themes of Incarnation and Revelation continue, but we would, Six Sundays after the Epiphany, a week and a half before Ash Wednesday, find ourselves in this time of “pre-lent” turning from Manger to Cross, to consider the work of Christ. We celebrate his birth. And then, why he was born. For what. For whom. Doctrine of the Atonement, in the formal vocabulary of the Church. We have the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the Doctrine of the Atonement is the effort to give an account of what was accomplished in all that. For what purpose it happened. Why it all needed to take place. Reconciliation, forgiveness of sin, healing, renewal. And to remind ourselves in our usual state of denial that those are things we need. Not just nice additions to an otherwise comfortable life. Things we need.
“In his death he has destroyed death, and in his rising again has raised us to life.” --“That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” All the way back to that gospel reading we heard as we gathered in the flickering midnight candle light of Christmas Eve. “That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the children of God, even to them that believe on his name.”
As Dean pointed out for us in his sermon last Sunday, this gets us into uncomfortable territory. I was astonished when someone commented the other day that I might occasionally have some control issues. But that’s what we’re all running up against here. Outside our comfort zone. The exorcism in the synagogue at Capernaum. The healing of Simon Peter’s Mother-in-Law. And this morning the cleansing of the leper.
He speaks, and listening to his voice, new life the dead receive, the mournful broken hearts rejoice, the humble poor believe. Hear him, ye deaf; ye voiceless ones, your loosened tongues employ; ye blind behold, your Savior comes; and leap ye lame for joy!
What they said at Capernaum. We’ve known brilliant teachers before, great teachers, charismatic leaders, inspired prophets. But never anyone like this. Never anyone like this. This is something new.
The Syrian officer Naaman had a foretaste, as he finally got past his stubbornness and followed Elisha’s instructions and had his cleansing bath in the Jordan. And we have a foretaste as well, a hint, an anticipation, as we read that story. An anticipation of Jesus. Leaning forward.
What happens in this broken and diseased world of ours when God steps into the picture. Emmanuel. God with us.
A foretaste of the Atonement, as Naaman steps into the holy river, as the waters of the Jordan flow on down through every century, into every land. Into every baptismal font. Something very good. Better than we could have asked for. Better than the best we could ever have imagined. Healing. Mercy and forgiveness. Reconciliation. New Life. God with us.
It is very simply our testimony that this is true. All of it, the whole package. The message of Christmas in Bethlehem that is also the message of Good Friday and the Cross. That as we get past our stubbornness, and come into his presence, in Word and Sacrament, we can know what it is that he has done for us. It’s not in our hymnal, but I’ve found myself singing the old hymn. “I love to tell the story. ‘Twill be my theme in glory. To tell the old, old story, of Jesus and his love.”
Healing and renewal that is sometimes physical and sometimes emotional and of the mind and will; that however possessed by demons we and this world of ours may be, however unpresentable; that as broken as we are—there is healing and renewal in the fresh springs of his love. Ask Naaman. Ask the leper in Mark. Ask around. This is a true saying and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
It is, we might say, the opportunity of a lifetime. Naaman came down from Damascus with all his treasures—gold and silver and precious cloth. We bring what we have, we come as we are. The leper came to Jesus trusting, believing, and poured out his heart. For years and years he had been told and had known a reality that he was a hopeless case. And then somebody told him a story about Jesus.
It’s something I’m pretty sure St. Valentine the Presbyter of Rome must have known too, in that February all those years ago. A knowledge that cost him everything, but that was in the end victory and healing, grace and peace.
What was in darkness is now flooded in light. What was hidden is made known. How the One born in the obscurity of the Bethlehem stable is revealed to all nations and peoples as Lord and Savior.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.