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The Healing Touch of Christ Our Lord
by John Keble
Sermon XLVI in Volume II of Sermons of the Christian Year
S. Matt. viii 3.
"And Jesus put forth His hand, and touched him,
saying, I will, be thou clean, and immediately his
leprosy was cleansed.
Still it is Epiphany, my brethren, and again the Church tells us of a special manifestation of the Lord Jesus, God made Man to redeem and save us.  Last Sunday you heard how He changes all good things for the better:  the Law for the Gospel, earth for Heaven.  Now you have heard, how He changes the worst of evils for the greatest good.  To change water into wine, our earthly good things into heavenly, the law into the Gospel, that indeed was an astonishing miracle: but to change and renew man's nature, utterly poisoned and corrupted by sin, back again into the Image of God; that, as you perceive at once, was a still greater wonder, a work of more amazing mercy; and of this work, my brethren, our Lord gave a token, as often as He cleansed any of the lepers who then abounded among the Jews.  And the first instance, related in the Gospels, of His cleansing of any leper is that which is related in the Gospel for today. 

Our Lord was in one of the cities of Galilee, in His first progress through that country, the first year of His ministry; "and behold there came a leper."  It was a very bad case, "a man full of lepresy." [Lk 5:12] He was in the very greatest of distress, he besought our Lord, and kneeled down to Him, and fell upon his face; and this was his prayer; though in words it was not a prayer - "Lord, if Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean."  In sound, as you perceive, it was no prayer; it was merely a confession of faith, faith in the power of our Lord Jesus Christ to cleanse him.  But here a man may ask two questions.  If the leper so earnestly longed for cleansing, as he plainly did by the whole of his behaviour, why did he not at once ask for it in so many words?  Why did he not distinctly say, "Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed;" "cleanse me and I shall be clean?"  [Jer 42:14]  It was no want of faith in Christ's power, for his word is "If Thou wilt, Thou canst."  It must have been, because his heart told him, it was but too likely that our Lord might not have the Will to cleanse him.  Here then comes in the other question, Why should he doubt our Saviour's Will?  For he knew by what he heard, perhaps by what he saw, how good Jesus of Nazareth was, how He went about doing good, and "healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people."  [Mt 4:23]  Why should He not heal this leper, as well as Peter's wife's mother, or the nobleman's son, or the man possessed with a devil in the synagogue of Capernaum, or any others whom the leper might likely enough have heard of?  Well, the reason perhaps might be this.  It does not appear, as if our Lord had as yet healed any leper; this poor man is the first mentioned, as coming to Him under that particular distemper. 

Now there is no doubt, that the children of Israel considered leprosy as an especial punishment of sin, more than they did most other diseases: and it would seem from the Old Testament, from the case of Miriam the sister of Moses, and of king Uzziah, that there was enough to lead their thoughts that way.  We may well believe therefore that this poor man regarded his leprosy as a just judgement for the sins, of which his conscience was afraid; and went about so humbled and ashamed, that he hardly dared pray for deliverance; the rather if, as is very likely, he had heard something of the high and heavenly commandments, which Christ had been uttering on the Mount, with all authority.  The very echo of that Voice might have brought him down prostrate on the knees of his heart, as it has thousands of sinners since; thinking, "If the law is so holy, whatever shall I do, who am nothing but sin all over?"  Moreover he might think to himself (for so the Jews commonly thought, and perhaps this also was true in their days), that there was no healing of leprosy except by a miracle; by the immediate act of God Almighty Himself; and this again would make his request seem bolder; and altogether, not in unbelief but in humility, he might naturally not feel sure, whether He Who can cure all, would see fit to make him clean; and so, instead of praying, he merely casts himself down, and says, "If Thou wilt, Thou canst."  Not another word does he add. 

And what says the Blessed Jesus to this?  O my brethren, may the words sink deep into every one of our hearts, yours and mine, and every sinner on earth; and He cause us to hear them again and again, as often as our poor souls need it!  But then we must come to Him as the leper did, "trusting not in our own worthiness, but in His manifold and great mercies."  The words, as you know, are, "I will; be thou clean."  "I will," because the poor man had said, "If Thou wilt"  "Be thou clean;" because he had said, "Thou canst make me clean."  O Divine, Almighty words!  Who could have ventured to utter such, but He Who spake the like words, and the world was created, "Let there be light, and there was light?"  Did not the Angels standing by know the Voice, and wonder and adore?  And shall not we do the like, when, in a moment, we see the miserable disease cured, and the most foul cleansed, and he who, a few moments before, lay on the ground, in his own eyes and the eyes of his friends, a miserable and most impure outcast, when we see him lifted up in a moment by the touch and voice of the Great Physician, cured wonderfully, cured for ever, free to worship among God's people, and to return thanks in His House, his whole heart full of Christ, full of Him Who has wrought such a wonder on him, so that he cannot be silent, he must in some way tell every one, that it is Jesus that hath made him whole?  O my brethren, will you not praise God for this?  Yes indeed, you must; you cannot but praise Him unless you are altogether false, vain, hypocritical Christians, unless all your hope of Eternal life in our Lord Jesus Christ is come to be a mere dream.  For, my brethren, it is your own case, it is your own cure, that you have been hearing of.  You are, each one of you, this leper: and well it is for those who felt it in their very hearts, when the Church began speaking of him in the day's Gospel.  God grant that you may have said to yourselves, "That leper is I: his cure is God's mercy to me:" and that so you may have joined as earnestly as ever you could in the good words of joy and thanksgiving, with which, according to old custom, we acknowledge God's mercy in giving us His saving message by His own Son, and not by another; "Thanks be to God for His Gospel." 

But in this particular Gospel of the leper, there is one thing which I have not mentioned, of the greatest consequence to be known and remembered, since without it you will never rightly understand or value, either your own duty or God's mercy.  What is this sacred and most important thing?  It is this: that our Lord did not only speak to the leper, but touched him.  "Jesus put forth His hand and touched him, saying, I will: be thou clean."  Our Almighty Saviour can heal afar off, as well as near; as He Himself reminds us in the Prophet; "Am I a God at hand, saith the Lord, and not a God afar off?" [Jer 23:23] and in the very next wonder, which S. Matthew relates, He healed the Centurion's servant at a distance.  But it pleased Him to heal this leper, as indeed He seems to have wrought the more part of His miracles, by actual touch of His Blessed Body.  In the case of this leper, there might be this special reason for doing so, that lepers were unclean by the Law of Moses, and our Lord's Will was to do away with all such uncleanness.  And, again, it would be the deepest comfort to the poor man, coming to Christ, as he did, so very weary and heavy-laden, not only to hear His gracious Voice, but to feel His loving and powerful Hand laid upon him; which, in one moment, more than made up for all the sad and painful separation, which from time to time must have gone to his heart, ever since he had his leprosy. 

But besides, we are not to doubt, that there is a very deep Gospel meaning and mystery hid under those few words which to us sound so very plain.  "Jesus put forth His Hand and touched him."  His touching that leper, my brethren, was a sure token and example, that not without the spiritual Touch of His Blessed Body can the leprosy of sin be cured. 

For sin is a leprosy; a terrible leprosy, a leprosy, incurable by earthly physicians.  There is no question at all of it.  If you doubt it, my brethren, if any of you fancy himself, as he is in himself, not so very hideous and hateful in God's sight, let him think of the worst thing, he has every heard of any body's doing; the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament; the sins of those wretched persons, whom we have lately, alas! heard so much of in India; nay, and I will add too the sin of Judas Iscariot himself.  You do not surely doubt, that these sins left a leprous mark upon the souls of the doers of them.  Now our Lord has expressly told you, that the sin of Sodom was not so bad as your's, if you turn a deaf ear to Him.  "If the mighty works which were done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day."  [Mt 11:23]  Is not this Christ's word?  You know it is: you cannot deny it.  Well then, my poor brother or sister, whoever you are that for any reason set yourself against the good things of Christ, I must tell you plainly, you are at this moment a wretched leper in God's sight; your soul defiled with the same kind of miserable leprosy, as you yourself perceive in the wretched people of Sodom, or (still worse) in Judas Iscariot.  And as for those who have a little faith, and are trying to please Christ and save their souls, I need not tell them, for they know it too well already, that there is something in them, something very strong, which sets itself against salvation: and what is that, but the remainder of their original leprosy, the foul disease of the heart, which we have contracted one and all, from our father Adam? 

Let me put it to you in this way, my brethren.  We do not now how far Angels may be permitted to read the hearts of men: but I suppose there is no doubt that if an Angel were standing in this place, he would be able to discern much more truly and clearly than any man, to which of these two classes, each one of you belongs at this moment.  Every congregation may be divided in a way into the two sorts of people whom I have just described.  You are either careless about our Lord Jesus Christ, or you think at least, that you have in some measure turned to Him.  Now would he not say to both sorts, Remember your leprosy, be it entire or only partial: if you forget or neglect it, it will spread and corrupt, and become wholly incurable.  There is but one thing to be done with it; bring it to your Saviour, yes, bring it to our Lord Jesus Christ.  Wherever you are, you can do that.  For He, by His Church, by His Word, and His Spirit, still goeth about doing good.  In whatever city or village or open place you are, He is there also: His Power is present to cleanse you: but not, if you proudly pass by Him, or scornfully turn your back upon, or falsely apply to Him, with no real desire to be cleansed.  No, brethren, such as these must be content to be, where Naaman the Syrian would have been, if he had not "done according to the saying of the man of God."  But you, my brethren, will not be such: you will not ungratefully reject your loving Physician, Who is even now putting forth His Hand to touch you in all the filth of your sins, on Whose lips even now the blessed words are preparing to be spoken to you, "I will, be thou clean."  You will not come here, praising yourself in your heart.  What a thing it would have been, if the leper, lying on his face before our Lord, and saying those humble words with his mouth, had been considering in his secret soul, how much better he was doing than such another one, who perhaps might, in our Lord's sight, be just as fit to be healed by himself. 

Finally, the true penitent leper, he whom Christ is really about to heal, will do every thing according to the order of Christ.  He will remember that our Lord's cure of sin is wrought by Touch as well as by Word.  He does not merely say, "be though clean," but He puts forth His Hand and touches the sinner.  How does He touch him?  First by Holy Baptism, and this touch of Christ you all know and believe: you all learn it the very first thing in your catechism, By Baptism we are made "members of Christ," "members of His Body, of His Flesh, and of His Bones." [Eph 5:30]  And this touch of Christ you all acknowledge and believe.  You would think it a shocking and fearful thing, to die unbaptized yourself, or to suffer one of your little ones to die unbaptized.  And you are very right.  For Baptism is the first touch of Christ, and without it, in a regular way, there is no healing our spiritual leprosy, sin.  But why do you not go on with the same good thought, both for yourselves and for your children?  How is it that you do not perceive, that the continual Touch, the inward Touch of our Lord's Body in the Holy Eucharist, is as necessary as Spiritual Birth?  O consider this, ye that shrink from Holy Communion or encourage your children to do so.  You know not what harm you are doing to yourselves, and to those whom you love best.  Jesus Christ, God made Flesh, He is at hand to touch your very soul with the inward and spiritual Touch of His own Body and Blood.  In this one way He means to be All in all to you.  You are lying as helpless lepers before Him. He offers to touch you and to say, "I will, be thou clean."  God forbid that any of you should answer "I have no will, I do not care to be clean."  And yet this is really your answer, if you go on excusing yourselves, and trifling with His gracious offers.