A Sermon on the Ten Lepers

On Trinity XIV
Luke 17:11-19

We hear today of our blessed Lord Jesus healing ten lepers between Samaria and Galilee on His way to Jerusalem where He would give His life as a ransom for many and forgive the sins of the whole world by the shedding of His blood and by the death of His body. Inside Jerusalem, that holy city, or rather, just outside it’s gates where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, the blessed Lord of glory, that child of Mary, the man of God, would undo the curse of the man of earth, that first patron of sinners, and by His obedience bring light and life to all mankind. And outside the holy city His blood would make all things holy and usher in the kingdom of God on earth.

But first He is met in the in-between, somewhere in the wilderness, outside the holy city were there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, He is met by ten lepers who are crying out to Him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” What is it they want? They want to be cleansed of their leprosy. They want their flesh restored. Why? So that they might live! A leper was not simply on his way to the grave, a leper was in the grave. He was the walking dead: cut off from family and friends, often sent to live out in the wilderness such as between Samaria and Galilee; under threat of immediate death should he wander to close to a city of the clean. A leper must cry out night and day to any who might draw too near, “Unclean! Unclean!”

But to the One that drew near that day they forsook their usual cry of warning and self-abasement and rather cried out in prayer, “Master, have mercy!” And the Merciful Samaritan does what He came to do: He has mercy. “Go and show yourself to the priests.” This was what one did when one was cured of leprosy and other diseases of the flesh. They would go and show themselves to the priest on duty. And the priest, being the man that separated the clean from the unclean, would declare the leper either clean, welcoming the dead back to the land of the living; or pronounce death and declare him unclean, sending him back to the in-between where the living dead roamed.

“Go show yourselves to the priests.” It was a word of healing. Not for the one who would return to worship the Lord, but to all ten. For that is the boundlessness of the Lord’s mercy: it is for all, even the ungrateful and wicked. Even for those that know not where their good comes from. The Lord is merciful.

But what of this exchange between the living dead and the one that gives true life? Our diseases are not usually so healed. Our troubles are not usually dealt with, with such finality. Like leeches sucking us dry, our diseases and troubles cling to us with great tenacity even though we are here crying out with the walking dead, “Lord, have mercy upon us! Christ, have mercy upon us! Lord, have mercy upon us!”

Well it is simply this: it is not the healing that is the act of mercy, but the receiving. And the receiving doesn’t happen when that one faithful though foreign ex-leper returns, but rather when he with his fellow nine cry out for mercy in the first place.

In other words, the Lord is not merciful to you when He heals your diseases and cures your cares and washes away your troubles. The Lord is merciful when He receives you. For He receives and eats with sinners. The healing, the restoration, is the product of being in the presence of the Healer and Restorer. It is a given. There is no question just as there was no question on the lips of those ten lepers when the Lord said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” They did not ask if they had been healed, but heard the word of Him who heals and saves and by His word they believed. For if the faith of the one made him well, then did not the faith of the nine do the same? Since it says that as they went they were cleansed (v.14).

So on that final Day, there will be no lepers or sinners, for the Lamb of God has taken away the sin of the world. He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brings us peace, and by His stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5) Healing is a done deal. It is finished.

What there will be on that last and final Day are the nine that do not return to give thanks to God and fall at the feet of Jesus and worship Him. To them He will say, “Were there not ten? Where are the nine?” Or to say it another way, “Depart from me; I never knew you.” But this foreigner, the Samaritan, a Gentile sinner, him I know. He has fallen at my feet and worshiped me, thanking God for salvation and healing and restoration. He will go his way, which is the way of life, for his faith has saved him.

I can’t help but wonder if part of the thanksgiving offered by that ex-leper wasn’t thanksgiving for leprosy in the first place. For were it not for that death-ridden disease that so cut him off from the living, he would not have cried out for or been granted such mercy as to be received by Christ. If it was not part of his thanksgiving then well it should have been, for we rejoice in our suffering as the apostle writes. For when we are weak – such as one infected with leprosy with one foot in the grave – then He is strong, able to lift us out of the grave since He Himself has conquered the grave.

Count it all joy, my children, when you face trials of many kinds, and do not consider it strange. For these trials and troubles drive you to prayer and to the Christ who answers prayer. They drive you to call out to the Lord, “Master, have mercy on us!” And behold, the Master has had mercy. He has received you, for here you are at His footstool, worshiping at His feet. Here you are receiving His blessing and His word of healing for the body and the soul; His word of life and resurrection. Here we, the walking-dead, are received by the High Priest who declares us clean and leads us in the way of life, into the holy city from above, the heavenly Jerusalem.

Go your way, your faith has saved you.

To Heal or Not to Heal

We have heard again today how the Lord healed a man that was a deaf-mute. Someone, presumably the friends of the deaf-mute, brought the man to Jesus and pleaded with the Lord to lay His hands on the deaf-mute and heal him. One wonders where the faith of the Gentile centurion is who didn’t need Jesus to do anything, but only speak the word to heal his servant. So we see that the faith of these friends isn’t as strong or as faithful as the centurion’s since they thought Jesus needed to touch the deaf-mute in order to heal him. But this is a comfort to know that the Lord hears and answers the prayers of even those that are weak in faith. For it is not the strength of faith that matters but the presence of faith. Like a grain of salt contains all the properties of all the salt in the whole world, so a grain of faith contains all the properties of all the faith in the world.

Also, we don’t even know if the deaf-mute believed that Jesus could heal him. Like the paralytic whose friends brought him to Jesus in their faith, this deaf-mute was brought to Jesus by the faith of others. That’s a powerful word concerning faith. Your unbelieving friends and neighbors are blessed and receive the mercy of God by your faith. Not as though you are a wizard wielding magic spells, but because your faith is that the Lord heals the sick and raises the dead. Why wouldn’t you then pray to the Lord for your friend’s health and well-being? In fact, not praying for the health and well-being of your friends and neighbors is tantamount to unbelief. Not praying is unbelief.

But here we get into some deep water. We want to pray for the healing of others, but we’re afraid that we’ll be disappointed. We’re afraid that the Lord won’t heal them or fix their marriage or get them a job or do whatever it is we’re praying for. We’re afraid our sick or troubled friend or relative will be hardened against the Lord who could have healed them or solved their problems, but chose not to. What if the Lord had said to the friends of this deaf-mute, or to the friends of the paralytic, “No, I’m not going to heal your friend”? Or what if He’d said nothing at all, just walked away as though He hadn’t heard their prayer? How would that help the poor sick man’s faith? How would that bode for the faith of your friends and family, to receive no answer to our prayers? So we often opt out of prayer, or at best we say them silently and in private with more of an air of emotional desire than with the confidence of dear children asking their dear father.

Moreover, we are disillusioned by the fact that these people – the friends of the deaf-mute and of the paralytic – knew where Jesus was and could take their friends to see Him. We seem to have no such benefit. In fact, we are mostly raised with the idea that Jesus is in our hearts and with us wherever we go, which leads to the conclusion that Jesus goes with us. And if He’s with us and our prayers still seem to go unheard and unanswered, then this whole business of prayer and God answering prayers seems rather shaky and ill-suited to win converts and bring glory to the name of Christ.

We seem sort of left with two options: either prayers are really nothing more than Christian wishes and emotional outbursts; or, Jesus no longer heals the sick. Both of these conclusions are less than desirable, and we chaff against them, but we don’t know how to deal with them or answer them.

But if we would stop talking so much and listen to the Lord, we’d hear the answer and we would be profoundly confident in the Lord. This is what I mean. If we would stop talking so much about what Jesus can do or doesn’t do or might do or could do, and actually listen to what He has done, our confidence would not be in seemingly answered or unanswered prayer but our confidence would be in Jesus who is risen from the dead.

The Lord commanded this once-upon-a-time deaf-mute and those who brought him to say nothing of the healing to anyone. Don’t go share the good news, the Lord commands. Why? Because it’s only good news for the deaf-mute. It’s not good news for all deaf-mutes, except that it might get their hopes up. But then, Jesus didn’t heal all the deaf-mutes in the whole world, but only this one and perhaps a few others. And He doesn’t heal many now. So don’t put your confidence in the Jesus that can heal deaf-mutes or can remit cancer or can stave off Alzheimer’s or that can multiply bread and fish, and so forth. Of course He can do these things; He proved that time and again. But He just as often tells the recipients of His miracles to say nothing to anyone but to go home, or to go offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving, which is what you are doing here today. In fact, the only time the Lord tells someone to go and proclaim what He had done was the man from whom He cast out demons. That’s rather profound. The only person the Lord gives permission to go spread the good news was to a man who’d been possessed by and freed of demons. He tells this man to go and share with everyone what the Lord had done because that’s what the Lord comes to do: to cast out demons and unclean spirits and to establish and advance the kingdom of God by the Holy Spirit. The Lord has power over unclean spirits and drives them out and away from us.

Healings point to the resurrection, which is the restoration of all flesh when the elect of God will be free of all effects of sin and death. Our healing will come when we are raised from the dead. If you are healed today of your sickness or disease or deformity, give thanks to God in Christ, but don’t put your hope on it. Don’t pretend to honor Christ by talking about what He’s capable of doing or not doing, honor Him by listening to His Word and holding fast to the promise of eternal life. For our freedom from demons and unclean spirits comes now when the Holy Spirit makes us His dwelling place. Sicknesses come and go, and we may be healed of one today only to suffer another tomorrow. But the casting out of demons and the removal of unclean spirits happens now and continues for those that continue in the faith of Christ and His Church.

So don’t go talking about what Jesus can or might do or could do in regard to sicknesses of the body as if that’s the chief thing. Of course He can remedy them, and in His flesh He has remedied them. Rather, go and tell everyone that the Lord has given you His Holy Spirit, having driven out of you the unclean spirits that would have been your doom and destruction. Now you are filled with the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life who brings you to faith in Jesus who is raised from the dead. By the Holy Spirit you believe that your sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By the Holy Spirit you call God “Father”, praying in the Spirit of Jesus who has been given to you by the will of God who gives His Spirit to those that ask and grants them remission of sins and eternal life in Jesus.

For your end, O Christian, is not simply the restoration of the flesh in this life, but the goal to which you press is eternal life and the restoration of the flesh and the adoption as sons in the life to come.

Meditations on Sacrifice

ImageWe learn much about faith and sacrifice in the account of Cain and Abel, for we know from the Epistle to the Hebrews that “by faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts.” (Heb. 11:4)

But what was Abel’s faith? Did he just believe more strongly than Cain that God would accept his offering? What was it that Abel believed that made his sacrifice acceptable? Wasn’t it that he trust in the sermon of his father, Adam, that the Lord God would provide a savior who would crush the head of the serpent and so undo the curse of death brought into the world through sin? What other sort of faith is there? Lots of folks say they have faith, but what they mean is a pie-in-the-sky hope that things will get better or that God will love them or that God won’t punish them for their sins. For sinful humanity faith is often nothing more than strong desire for something hoped for. Godless faith is the antithesis of Godly faith. For godly faith isn’t a desire for something hoped for, godly faith is the assurance of what is promised, which then becomes that thing we long for. Faith is the conviction of things unseen, not the really strong desire for things unseen, but the conviction.

Faith, then, is not a wistful longing for what might be or what could be, but a firm footing on what is. So that Abel had a firm footing on what was promised: a savior. It was in this faith, believing God’s word preached by Adam, that Abel offered his offering. Which means that Abel had no notion that his offering was in fact his salvation, but offered the first-fruits in thanksgiving for the promises of God in the Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

On the other hand, Cain had no such faith in the promises of God but was faithless. He assumed that because he offered a sacrifice to God, God would be pleased with him and receive him. How like we are to Cain! We so often offer God our time or our money or our thoughts, thinking, “Now God, I’ve given you of my time and wallet when I could have done something else with both. Won’t you now bless me for this?” It is no different than the Pharisee praying in the temple, thinking that because he has not been a sinful as others and has offered prayers and tithes, that he is accepted by God. I tell you that Pharisee did not go home justified but condemned even as Cain was condemned.

For there are two types of sacrifice: the sacrifice of atonement and the sacrifice of thanksgiving. When we offer ourselves and what we have done or not done, what we have given and how much we have cared for and loved, as that which will please the Lord and make us acceptable to Him, then we are offering a sacrifice of atonement, thinking that by our will and actions we have so pleased God that He accepts us. We hear this all the time from people when they say such things as, “Well, I went to church, but life didn’t get any better!” They think to offer God their church going as a sacrifice that will make them acceptable to God so that He would receive and bless them.

But such sacrifices only draw the judgment of God. When we offer ourselves and actions and thoughts to God as that which will please Him to receive us, we are making ourselves and our actions and thoughts the measure of righteousness. But we are not righteous. There is nothing in us that is pleasing to God so that He will bless us or receive us in His kingdom. Offering such things calls Christ unnecessary. For if we have something by which we might please God and be received by Him, then what need is there of Christ?

But as it is, Christ is the only one that can offer Himself and His actions and will to God and be received by Him for such, for Christ is not born in sin and infected with the disease of sin. He alone is obedient to God and His obedience is offered to God as the sacrifice of atonement so that by His obedience the many are made righteous. When we believe this, we have true faith that is not hopeful of what might be but is confident in what is: that by Christ’s obedience even to death on a cross, we sinners are counted as righteous and forgiven our many trespasses and sins.

This faith, then, the faith of Abel, offers to God not sacrifices of atonement but the sacrifice of thanksgiving. We offer ourselves and our actions and thoughts not in order to be received by God but because Christ has been received by Him, and us through Christ. So when we give money or time or when we teach our children the faith or when we are kind to our neighbor, it is not so that God will look upon us and think, “What a good person he is, I will bless him and receive him,” but we do these things in thanksgiving to God in Christ for the salvation we have by His blood.

We, like Abel, still sacrifice. We still offer to God the firstfruits of our time and money. So the week begins not on Monday with secular work, but on the Lord’s Day with the Lord’s blessing and benediction. And our money is first given to God for the good and care of His ministers and for the poor before it is spent on ourselves. Not because by such things we become acceptable to God or are regarded by Him. But because by such things we show our thanksgiving to God for His promise of salvation in Christ. We offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving when we eat of His flesh and drink of His blood, and when we cry out, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

The Lord is merciful, thanks be to God!