When I was about 5 or 6, I used to hold “contests” between fire and water. I knew that generally, water puts out fire, but I also knew that if the fire was big enough and hot enough, it could evaporate water. I wanted to see where the threshold was, and so ran a little experiment. I got a five gallon bucket of water, and started by lighting a match and throwing it in. (Yes, my parents let me play with matches.)Naturally, the water conquered and the match fizzled out. Then I lit a crumpled up ball of newspaper, lit it on fire, and threw it in. It also fizzled out in the water. I tried this experiment in multiple ways, but was never able to get the fire to evaporate the water.
Many years later, I was working at a Bible camp in Montana, and got to try the experiment again, though this time it was unintentional. We had torn down a few old cabins, and put them in a huge pile for burning. The wood was old and dry, and I knew it would burn hot and fast. One morning, I was alone at the camp, and it was raining, so I decided it was a good day to burn the pile. I put on my rain coat, got a water hose ready (just in case), and lit the pile of wood. It was pretty wet from the rain, so I wondered if it was even going to light.
Oh, did it light! Within minutes, the flames were over thirty feet high. The rain wasn’t making a bit of difference. I began frantically spraying down the pile with the garden hose. However, the fire was so hot, I couldn’t get close enough to spray the fire. So I soaked myself down with the hose so I could get nearer. I completely dried out in a few minutes, and had to keep spraying myself. Then I noticed something worse. I was standing about 20-30 feet on one side of the fire. On the other side of the fire, also about 20 feet away, was the edge of the forest. Though I was steaming and close to igniting, my blood ran cold. I became quite scared. Was it possible the flames could ignite some of those trees? I stopped spraying the fire, and ran over to start spraying the forest, trying to keep the tree branches and bushes from igniting. As it turned out, it was good that I did this because by the end of the summer, all those branches and trees along the edge had died, being scorched from the heat of the flames.
After about two to three hours, I finally had the flames under control, down to about 10-15 feet high, and went to the tool shed to get a rake and a shovel. I was gone about two minutes, but when I came back, a board member had arrived at the camp and was frantically spraying down the fire. “How could you leave this fire unattended?” he shouted. “It’s almost out of control!” I smiled and thought to myself, You should have seen it three hours ago. I am just thankful the forest didn’t burn down and the whole Bible camp with it.
So which one wins? Fire or water? Sometimes, water beats fire, and sometimes, fire beats water. It all depends on the amount of water and the intensity of the flame. You’d think that generally, all the water of the oceans would be enough to put out any fire, but throw them on the sun, and they’d evaporate faster than a drop of water on a sizzling skillet.
Sin vs. Holiness
Now let me ask a different question. Which one wins: sinfulness or holiness? Most Christians (and religious people in general) seem to believe that sinfulness wins. So we insulate and protect ourselves from anything that might contaminate us. We discard old music, old clothes, and even old friends that might lead us back into old ways of living. We stay away from places where “sinners” hang out because we are afraid of their influence. We don’t want to be led astray.
But what does this say about how we view our holiness? We must think it’s quite weak to protect it like a flickering flame in a rainstorm. “Oh, I can’t go there. I can’t do that. I can’t be friends with him. I can’t talk to her. I don’t want to get contaminated.”
But look at Jesus. One day, as He walks through a town, a leper confront Him. Generally, people avoided lepers like the plague (literally). A Jewish Rabbi of that time even boasted that he threw rocks at lepers so they wouldn’t get near him. Why was this? Everybody was afraid of contamination. And it wasn’t just a physical disease they were afraid of. Lepers were viewed as a moral risk as well. But Jesus goes out of His way, it seems, to not just be near this leper, but to do something much more shocking — He touches the leper! In fact, the word “touched” in Luke 5:13 could also mean “take hold of, embrace.” It’s possible Jesus gave this man a full body hug.
This man probably hadn’t been touched in years, let alone hugged. But Jesus touched him. And in that action, Jesus cleansed him. The holiness of Jesus overwhelmed and defeated the impurity and uncleanness of leprosy.
So was Jesus “contaminated” by touching the man? I believe He was. I believe He intentionally became ritually contaminated. Why? For the sake of love and compassion. Was this a sinful impurity? No, Jesus never sinned. But never sinning and taking on the impurity of others are two different things. Later, on the cross, Jesus took the sin of the whole world on Himself. And what happened to all that sin? The sea of sin evaporated away upon the holiness of God’s sun. Rather than be infected by sin, sin is infected by the holiness of Jesus.
We, of course, are not God. In ourselves, we do not have such holiness. So in ourselves, it is true, we are like a drop of rain on a raging fire of sin. Yes, by ourselves, on our own, we must be careful to avoid sin, keep pure, and maintain holiness.
But thankfully, God has not left us on our own. Through Jesus, He has given us His own holiness. We are the righteousness of God, and nothing can touch it. We can go the darkest holes and worst places, and shine like cities on a hill. Greater is He that is in us, then he that is in the world. If we hang out with “sinners,” we will not be contaminated. Yes, we may sometimes stumble and fall, but the righteousness of God has already covered it all.
So go. Be with the lepers. Touch them. Laugh where the language is foul and the jokes are coarse. Breathe deeply of the smell of body sweat and stale beer. Dance to a different drummer when the strobe lights flash and the bodies writhe. Listen to the stories of pain, loss, fear, hurt, and anger after the red light turns off. Sit with the gun runners. Buy a coke for the pusher. Offer a light to the addicts.
And always remember what He said, “Do not be afraid, for I will make you fishers of men.”