Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Healed or Saved. . . Gratitude or Faith

Sermon preached for Pentecost 18, Proper 23C, on Sunday, October 13, 2019.

    Typically this story of Jesus healing ten lepers is used to teach us the value of gratitude.  Who among us did not have a mother or father teach us to say “thank you” when someone did something nice to us or for us?  Because we are so often more content with moralisms than truth, we presume Jesus is being like mom or dad in teaching us to pay attention to the nice things God has done for us and to remember to be grateful.  I suppose you could a worse sermon than one urging you to be grateful for all that God has done to you or for you but that is not what this story is about.  We cannot get off the hook that easy.

    This story, like most of them, is not so much about gratitude as it is about faith.  Now we all know that in Greek the same word you translate “made well” can also be translated “saved” – it just depends on the context which one you use.  But here the translator has gotten it wrong.  Here Jesus is not contrasting one grateful from among the ten cleansed but ten who were cleansed and only one who was saved.  That which distinguishes the Samaritan from the other nine is not gratitude but faith.

    I am pretty sure the other nine were grateful.  After all, the curse of leprosy is not simply the disease itself – not the boils and scabs that mark the flesh or the skin turned white or the raw and festering flesh or the pain.  All of this is bad, terrible, but the worst curse of the leper is that he must bear this disease alone.  For the leper was marked as an outcast, cast out from family life, from work, and from worship.  The diseases that fall under the term leprosy are so highly contagious that the community wanted to make sure they did not get what you had.  So the Law of God made lepers outcasts to protect the rest of the community. The Law of Moses directed a priest who found a man to be a leper to mark the leper as unclean, to burn his clothing and possessions, and to live the rest of his life away from his family and all the people of the camp (Lev. 13:45-47).  As if this were not enough, the leper was also cut off from the Temple, from the sacrificial life of God’s people, and especially from the gift of forgiveness on the Day of Atonement.  Those nine who were healed surely knew what they had been given and were grateful at having their lives, their families, and their place among God’s people restored.  But saving faith is not simply gratitude. 

    The focus of saving faith is never on the one who is grateful or on his gratitude but on who it is who has saved them.  So the Samaritan, an unlikely candidate for saving faith, shows his faith in this.  He cannot go back to his old life, before the leprosy, but he must give and live out the praise of Him who has given Him this gracious gift.  Yes, he was grateful, but more than this, he acknowledged that Jesus was the Savior who had made him clean.  His life now belonged to Jesus, to the One who had redeemed him and saved him, and not to himself any longer.  That is faith.

    The whole thing began innocently enough.  The lepers asked for mercy, that is, for charity, for food, for money, for medicine, for something or anything to relieve some of the burden they carried because of their illness.  This is not unlike the folks who wait at the intersections of our community with their signs, hoping for a hand out.  These lepers had become united in their misery.  Even a Samaritan found refuge in the common wounds and judgment that left them lonely as well as wounded.  Together they were a rather pathetic sight.  The passers by would have found the sight pitiful.  Anything that they might have done would have been gratefully received.  But today their cry for mercy got a profoundly different response.

    When Jesus told them to go and show themselves to the priests, they all knew exactly what this meant.  They had received a mercy never known before.  Jesus had made them clean.  Just as the Law had judged them unclean, so only the Law could restore them to their families, to their lives, and to the worship of the Temple and so they had to have the blessing of the priest upon this miracle.  But what a small thing that was in comparison to what Jesus gave them.  They went because they had something to show the priest – the terrible disease had been healed.  They were heading back to Jerusalem and to the memory of a life that once seemed lost to them.  Of course they were grateful.  But saving faith and gratitude are not the same.

    This was a sign of the kingdom.  It was not simply compassion for a people who had fallen on hard times.  Jesus healed them so that the priests would know that God had come to deliver His people and so these priests would direct all the people in the Temple to Jesus.  That did not happen.  When Jesus asks “Where are the nine?” He is not asking for something He does not know.  Jesus knows where they are and what they were doing.  The sign of the kingdom is this occasion faith.  These nine were grateful, happy, relieved, and were made well but they missed out seeing this as a sign of the kingdom. They did not see that by this Jesus was revealing Himself as the great High Priest who would deliver a nation and a world from their uncleanness and death.  I am sure they told everyone who would listen that Jesus was a great prophet or rabbi but they did not see or realize that Jesus was the Messiah.

    The Samaritan got this.  He never got to the Temple.  He did not need to.  He saw the scabs heal, the swelling leave, the heathy flesh restored and when he saw that, he saw Jesus as the Temple and the High Priest that mattered most of all.  He did not go back for the verdict of the priests because he already had the verdict of the High Priest after the order of Melchizedek.  He went back to give this High Priest named Jesus the worship reserved for God alone.  He bowed down at the feet of Jesus.  In Hebrew the word for worship means to kneel, to prostrate yourself, to fall down before God.  In Greek it is the same: to fall down, to prostrate yourself, and to serve.  He returned to worship not the distant God but the God whom He had met in Christ and who had shown Him mercy.  The Samaritan went to the Keeper of the Law to be declared clean according to the Law.  Is that not what we do?

    We often fear that the reason people are not generous is because they are not grateful.  That is a mistake.  I know plenty of people who are effusively grateful for the good things they have known in life but they have no faith.  Gratitude does not make us into cheerful givers.  Only faith does.  This is not about being grateful but about saving faith, the gift of the Spirit in the word of Christ, who recognizes in Christ the true Temple and the High Priest, and who falls on the face before this Lord and this Lord alone.

    We come into the House of the Lord with the same plea as those lepers of old.  Sin is eating away at us body and soul.  Sin builds walls between husband and wife, parent and child, neighbor and friend, people and God.  Sin has made us outcasts and strangers to the God who made us and to the holy purpose for which we have been made.  Maybe we come only to find a moment of peace, a bit of relief, some quiet moment from the storms of life.  We ask for mercy but God gives us more than healing.  He gives us His one and only Son.  He dwells among us in flesh and blood to save us.  What we need is not simply gratitude but faith that trusts Christ alone and worships Him only. 

    Faith falls on its knees before Jesus.  Faith wants to be always in the presence of this Lord who suffers for the guilty and heals the wounded and saves those unworthy of His grace.  Faith wants to be generous because the treasure we have in Christ makes everything else small in comparison and if Christ cannot be taken from us, then we will not depart from Him either.  Faith rejoices not in the gift but in the Giver.  Faith hungers not simply for bread to satisfy for the moment but for the bread of life to feed us forever more.  Faith does not seek the peace that circumstance can provide, but the peace that passes understanding and comes only by faith, and only from Christ our Savior.  So do not simply be grateful, trust in the Lord, live in daily repentance, believe in His atoning work, and bow down before Him who alone is worthy.  Therein is the only healing and freedom worth having.  Amen.

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