I’m going to “throw some names out to you. Alfred Landon, James Cox, John Davis, Charles Hughes, Alton Parker.”1 There are probably some history buffs out there who know these names. Let me give you a clue: this is a presidential election year. These guys have the unfortunate fate of going down in history for losing. Parker lost to Teddy Roosevelt, which should carry no shame. Hughes lost to Woodrow Wilson, narrowly; Alf Landon lost in a landslide to F.D.R.; Cox lost to Harding in 1920; Davis lost to Coolidge in 1924, a loss, given the benefit of hindsight, he probably didn’t regret. Each one of these guys was phenomenally successful by almost any standard, but they all lost the big one, so they’ve been all but forgotten. Sometimes you can be remembered for losing terribly; the Super Bowl last weekend reminded me of Marv Levy, the former coach of one of the best football teams ever, the 1990-1993 Buffalo Bills, who had the misfortune of losing four Super Bowls in a row. At least Marv is given credit for getting there four years in a row. I bet Bill Belicheck is starting to know how Marv feels.
But as many American Presidents and perhaps many Super Bowl winners will tell you, being successful, winning the big one, is a two-edged sword. St. Mark tells us a little about that today. Jesus was apparently just hanging out one day when He was found by a leper, who is amongst the first in the Gospel accounts to address Jesus as if Jesus is royalty. We’ve all seen movies, right, when the lowly commoner goes before a king and says something like “O king, if it pleases the king.” Well, that’s kind of what this leper does to Jesus; he doesn’t engage Jesus like they are on a level playing field. “If you are willing,” the leper says, “you can make me clean.” He doesn’t “directly ask Jesus to heal him. Indeed, his words to Jesus are neither plea nor question, neither imperative nor demand but instead a simple conditional clause: If you are willing, you can heal…But, of course, in this case these words were spoken by a man with clear pleading in his voice and who was down on his knees in desperation even as he spoke so there was no missing the fact that this was no idle request or cool observation of facts. It reminds me of the time Johnny Carson had a small marmoset crawl up to the top of his scalp during one of the Tonight Show broadcasts. After the little critter had been up there for a little while Johnny said to the zoo official who had brought the animal, “OK, well, I guess you can remove him from there now if you want to.” But the way Mr. Carson said it made it clear that this was not one option among many that he wanted to animal handler to consider—he wanted the marmoset out of his hair. Now!2
If you are willing. The subject of what God wills for us is one that many if not most of us struggle with. It seems that too often God is not willing; not willing to heal our very specific infirmities, to make that new job appear, not willing to grant us the success that we are certain we deserve. We know what is best for us, right? Why isn’t God willing to just give us what we want?
“If you are willing,” the leper said to Jesus, “you can make me clean.” In the original text from Mark, Jesus only said two words back to the leper: “Willing,” Jesus said; “Cleansed.” That’s all it took, of course; the words of the Word made flesh are sufficient in all cases. Jesus was indeed willing, but His willingness, His compassion, His, um, success in healing the leper didn’t do Jesus any favors. “Don’t tell anyone about this, how it went down,” Jesus told the leper, not adding but meaning “And by no means tell anyone about me.” But it didn’t work out that way.
By the next morning the name ‘Jesus’ was on everyone’s lips. A certain fame was thrust upon Him; expectations were thrust upon Him, as well as all the sick, all the possessed, every seeker of salvation from the ills of the world. A rich man might have built walls and bought a dog, but Jesus wasn’t that type. Jesus was, by all accounts, a successful rabbi, a potential king of the Jews.
He died for it. He died because He was willing, willing to cleanse the leper, willing to cast out the demons; He died because He willed life for us. Life. The Lord does not grant us the things we think we need, and in so doing often saves us from ourselves. We won’t always be healed physically, we might not be as successful as we want to be; not everyone will like us and not all of our wishes will be granted. But that’s not because the Lord isn’t willing to hear us, but because He is willing to give us more than we can either ask or imagine, He is willing to give us Himself.
1Scott Hoezee, This Week