Psalm 51:13–19; Leviticus 14:19–57; Mark 5:1–20

Writing this morning from the Monterey Plaza Hotel looking out over the water…

Psalm 51:13–19: Having asked for a pure heart and a renewed spirit, David now pleads, “Do not fling me from Your presence,/ and Your holy spirit take not from me.” (13) Here we see two aspects of the Trinity quite clearly; proof that the Holy Spirit was not an invention of the New Testament. The Holy Spirit that Jesus promised, and which appeared on Pentecost, has been here along.

Our poet, speaking as David, goes on to ask for a renewal of his entire being: “Give me back the gladness of Your rescue/ and with a noble spirit sustain me.” (14) With his own joy and spirit restored, he is now able to witness to those who have drifted away from God: “Let me teach transgressors Your ways,/ and offenders  will come back to you.” (15) For me, this is the essence of Christian witness: a personal joy and spirit that speaks far more eloquently than sermons, songs, or altar calls.

Our poet’s David knows he is in an extremely rough situation, perhaps referring to the time when Saul was pursuing him: “Save me from bloodshed, O God,/ God of my rescue.” (16). The challenge here for us when we find ourselves in difficult circumstances is to remember that God is a rescuing God if we but call out to him.

And when God has rescued and restored us, we come, as always, to worship: “Let my tongue sing out Your bounty./ O master, open my lips,/ that my mouth may tell Your praise.” (17)

In perhaps one of the most radical verses in the Old testament, our poet realizes that the entire temple and sacrificial is but a simulacrum—a play act—of the real relationship that God really desires: “For You desire not that I should give sacrifice,/ burnt-offering You greet not with pleasure.” (18) The relationship between Creator and creature that God seeks is far superior. It is a relationship of the heart and a contrite spirit: “God’s sacrifices—a broken spirit. / A broken, crushed heart God spurns not.” (19) We come to God in abject humility, not is empty religiosity.

Leviticus 14:19–57:

We are deep into the details of the sacrificial system that our psalmist, speaking as David, spurns. As we’ve observed before, diseases of the skin must have been prevalent for the authors to spend all this detail on how the formerly leprous person is restored through sacrifice into full relationship with the community at large.

Attention then turns to the dwelling of the person with leprosy. One of the clues that these comprehensive instructions were written long after the desert wanderings is the fact that “houses” appear to be permanent dwellings, not the tents we would expect. When the homeowner comes to the priest and says, “There seems to me to be some sort of disease in my house.” (35) the priest conducts the usual examination to see if “the disease is in the walls of the house with greenish or reddish spots” (37).

If the house appears still to be contaminated after seven days, then “the priest shall command that the stones in which the disease appears be taken out and thrown into an unclean place outside the city.” (40) Plaster is also removed and dumped outside the city. If resetting stones and replastering don’t work, and the disease remains, the priest “shall have the house torn down, its stones and timber and all the plaster of the house, and taken outside the city to an unclean place.” (45) Pretty drastic action, but as always, the health of the community trumps the individual. Further hygienic cautions are required, and “and all who sleep in the house shall wash their clothes; and all who eat in the house shall wash their clothes.” (47)

In the happy circumstance where the priest inspects the house and finds it to be clean, then the same sacrifice—two birds, with cedarwood and crimson yarn and hyssop, (49)—as for the formerly leprous person is conducted, although this time the object of cleansing is the house.

The authors conclude this seemingly endless set of instructions that deal with persons, clothing, and houses affected by skin disease by summarizing, “This is the ritual for any leprous disease: for an itch, for leprous diseases in clothing and houses.” (54) This section, indeed, all of Leviticus, provides ample proof that the Bible is not simply a Holy Spirit-inspired book, it is also a set of comprehensive instructions to maintain the health of the community. We can be grateful for modern science that has given us less drastic ways in which to deal with communicable disease, but we cannot criticize the sophistication of ancient rules that helped preserve Israel while tribes around them have simply disappeared.

Mark 5:1–20: We come to the famous story of Jesus healing the Gerasene demoniac. This man is clearly suffering a severe form of mental illness: “no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces.” (3, 4) In a culture where disease was seen as a strictly physical manifestation (See Leviticus above), the ravings of the lunatic were seen as straightforward demon possession. 

But then Mark makes a pretty convincing case that something beyond mental illness is going on here as he records the dialog between Jesus and the demon speaking through the man. Mark makes it clear that the demon recognizes Jesus as being much more than merely human, but that he has power not only on earth but over the “powers and principalities.” Inasmuch as Mark does not recount the story of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, it is here that he gives us a clear picture of Jesus as God, as the demon shouts, “at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” (7) Jesus does not explicitly cast out the demon but exercises his power by allowing the demon to transfer itself into two thousand (!) pigs, who immediately “rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.” (13) To a Jewish audience, the fact that these are pigs further emphasizes the uncleanness, indeed the evil, of demonic reality.

The demoniac is now in his right mind, but the pig owners are pretty upset and demand that Jesus leave Gerasene. The healed man begs permission to join up with Jesus, but Jesus refuses and tells him to become a witness in his own town: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” (19) Which is exactly what the man does and “he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.” (20).

I think it is this final scene between Jesus and the man that is the key lesson here. Mark is telling his readers—and us—that we are effective witnesses in our own places. Not everyone is called to become a missionary to a foreign land. Nor is everyone called to enter religious service. Most of us are called by Jesus to live and testify to his power right where we are.

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