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Terrifying fear of the unknown…

January 15, 2015

Mark 1: 40-45                                    Thursday 15th January 2015

When I was a young police sergeant working at Kings Heath in the mid-1980s I witnessed something that made a tremendous impression on me for the rest of my life. Here’s what happened. I was in charge of looking after the cell block when a very aggressive young man was brought to the police station after having been arrested for fighting. At that time there was a terrifying new disease called AIDS. No-one then knew precisely what it was, but they knew it was very contagious and that people catching it would suffer a painful and lingering decline before inevitably succumbing and dying. There was no known cure, and how AIDS was spread was not known for sure; it was believed that it could even be caught by merely coming into contact with just a drop of saliva. The fact is, people were terrified of it. The unco-operative prisoner, covered in blood from his earlier fight, then to our horror shouted out that he had AIDS, and he threatened to bite and spit at anyone coming near him. This was very frightening stuff. A group of us cornered him, and we managed between us to grab his arms and legs, quickly getting him into a cell. Once isolated in a cell he continued to violently bang on the door, shrieking a torrent of blood-curdling threats against us.

Soon afterward a doctor arrived at the police station to examine the prisoner. I was very worried about the doctor’s safety and explained the circumstances. The doctor very calmly asked me to let him in to see the man. I was astonished. But the doctor was adamant. So I very gingerly unlocked the door and went in with the doctor. What happened next amazed me. The doctor calmly sat down on the bench and invited the man to sit down next to him. Then he asked him if it was true that he had AIDS. The man said yes. ‘OK’, said the doctor, ‘will you let me have a look at you to check you out?’. I couldn’t believe it. The doctor quietly, confidently, without a trace of fear, went about his work, right up close to the man, touching and prodding him. Touching him! Wow! I was really impressed at the way he did that. That doctor’s quiet compassion became a role model for me for the rest of my service.

The equivalent, I suppose today is the fear of the Ebola virus. Just as I was coming out to church this morning I heard a young man on the radio who has just been inoculated with a new vaccine. He was very nonchalant about it: ‘That’s all right. I might feel a bit under the weather, but that’s no big deal’. In fact he said the most frightening thing about it for him was coming in to talk on the radio! These people are heroes really, aren’t they. Those doctors and nurses and medical staff who are going out to Western Africa – wow! These people are saints. Some of them succumb to the disease; some of them we manage to get back. They might not realise it (that’s a good sign of a saint). We need to pray for those people. We need to pray for the people who are suffering; we need to pray for the people who are doing the research; pray for the doctors and nurses who are out there, and the people looking after them. Astonishing bravery. We really must respect those medical teams that work to alleviate the spread of the disease, and who treat Ebola victims. Regardless of how much training and care is taken, the risks are obvious. This is selfless, inspiring service to fellow human beings.

And the dreadful contagious disease faced by the ancient Jews was leprosy. And Jesus does a remarkable thing. He touches the man who has leprosy! That, incidentally, made Him unclean. It was forbidden. (So when we hear later that this man went away, and contrary to what Jesus had told him, was telling everyone about it – yes, that’s a bit of ‘tit-for-tat’. He has broken the rules, but so did Jesus. Sometimes you have to because circumstances demand it.)

Jesus touches a man who has leprosy, touches a man who has a skin disease! That’s astonishing. Truly astonishing. And after touching him we are told after touching him we are told that the leprosy left the man at once. A miracle.

Notice how Jesus was a good Jew – He sent the man off to see the priest. The priests were the people who certified people with skin diseases as not having leprosy…. I’ve got a rash on my face at the moment. Is that leprosy? I don’t know, I have to wait and find out. They were put into a sort of quarantine and then called back to see the priest, and then the priest would certify them either ‘clean’ or not.

In this story of Jesus curing the leper we are seeing yet another example of Jesus reaching out, deliberately meeting the poor, disadvantaged people who are shunned by others, and using His miraculous powers to bring that person back into mainstream society. Otherwise they would be totally excluded. Back into ‘communion’ with everyone else. He does this by reaching out and touching those who have faith in Him. That man had faith in Him: ‘You can cure me if you want.’ Faith – because no-one knew a cure for leprosy. What Jesus did was seen in those times almost as raising someone from the dead. Remarkable things.

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