Now is as good a time as any for me to say “thank you” again to the members of Emmanuel for the kind gift you gave me after the service last Sunday. That was really an unexpected treat. Somebody said something about it being clergy appreciation day, and to be honest, I didn’t know such a day existed, but sure enough, I looked it up at Hallmark.com, and yep, October 10th – clergy appreciation day. You know, I hope, that I don’t expect you, God’s people, to ever honor clergy appreciation day. To have you here, gathered around God’s Word and Sacrament, to have your prayers for the ministry you’ve called me to do, to have your goodwill and your charitable disposition, especially when your pastor messes up – all of that means more than a hundred Hallmark cards or gifts. But the gifts are appreciated.
You have to understand, no faithful pastor enters the ministry to be thanked by anyone. Jesus certainly didn’t come down to earth to be thanked – and he wasn’t disappointed. People rarely thanked him. Just look at the Ten Lepers from our Gospel today. 90% took his gift of healing and just kept right on walking. Only 10% returned to give him thanks.
Giving thanks is part of the story, but not the heart of the story. At the heart of this story is not proper manners or politeness. At the heart of this story is salvation. Deliverance. And a question: what do you look to Jesus to save you, to deliver you from? To help you with? What’s your real problem? You see, the bigger your problem, the bigger the deliverance that’s required. The bigger the deliverance, the greater the thanksgiving will be.
What was the real problem of those Ten Lepers? What prompted them to cry out to Jesus, “Lord, have mercy!” There were really three problems that a leper faced back then. First, the debilitating skin condition itself. Then, there was the extreme isolation they faced – they weren’t allowed to enter the cities or live with their families or touch any “clean” person. They had to live in a little leper colony all by themselves and rely on people’s charity to survive.
But the third problem a leper faced wasn’t quite so obvious. The third problem a leper faced was much deeper than a skin problem, even deeper than the problem of being isolated from people. The external bodily corruption of leprosy, the social isolation that it caused – those were in-your-face, hard core reminders of the corruption of the soul caused by sin and the isolation that it caused – the isolation from God.
So, you see, the deepest problem a leper faced wasn’t unique to lepers at all. It’s the same problem that all people share by nature. Lepers were not more sinful than physically “clean” people. The Bible says that we are all by nature “unclean.” Why did God allow some people to suffer physical leprosy to symbolize all people’s spiritual leprosy? I don’t know. He’s God. Whatever he does is right. The fact that any human being could question his ways in the first place shows just how deep our spiritual uncleanness goes, as if we get to tell God what fair and unfair is.
But look at it this way. It was not God who wanted people to suffer as they do. It was the devil. It was not God who wanted people to sin against him and become totally corrupted on the inside. It was the devil. All the physical suffering that people face is the result of the sin that infects the world like cancer, like leprosy. As long as a person’s soul is infected by sin, there will always be bodily consequences – from sickness to suffering to death.
But no one wants to deal with that reality. Everyone wants to go about his or her life as if things are OK, as if people – at least some people – really aren’t that bad, as if things with God are really pretty good. Even death – the ultimate proof of sin – is treated like just part of the great circle of life.
And so sometimes, God allows painful, long and drawn out suffering – like leprosy was – as a constant and inescapable reminder to human beings: you have a problem, a problem that runs so deep you don’t even recognize it anymore, a sickness that has no corrupted your soul that you don’t even know what cleanness looks like anymore.
That was the real purpose that leprosy was meant to accomplish – to show the world in horrible but accurate picture language how desperate man’s situation is before a holy God. That’s also why, by the way, it was the priest’s responsibility to evaluate whether a leper had indeed been cleansed from his leprosy – not a doctor, not a nurse, but a priest – to remind the people that the leprosy of some represented the spiritual sickness of all.
The bigger the problem, the bigger the deliverance that’s required.
Now, when the ten lepers called out to Master Jesus for mercy, nine out of the ten were looking for deliverance from problems #1 and #2 – physical pain and social isolation. And when Jesus told them to go show themselves to the priest and they realized, on their way, that they had been cleansed, they were certainly happy. They were probably even thankful in their hearts to Jesus, but now it’s time to get on with life! Get to the priest! Get a clean bill of health so you can return to your family, to your earthly life. I mean, how many of you drive over to the surgeon’s office after he’s performed a successful surgery and saved your life to fall down at his feet and praise him? Maybe you have. Most people don’t.
One of those ten lepers recognized what his physical cleansing really meant. Not just problems #1 and #2 taken care of, but especially problem #3. If physical corruption is the consequence of spiritual corruption, then what does it mean when Jesus takes away the physical corruption? It means that Jesus has cleansed you on the inside, too.
That doesn’t mean that that leper’s soul itself was cleansed. He remained just as sinful as he had always been. But it means that Jesus had cleansed his relationship with God, cleansed his status before God. Because of Jesus, he was no longer an outcast, but a son of his heavenly Father. Through Jesus, he was no longer stained by sin and guilt before God, but washed and made acceptable to God again.
How can you tell that that one leper was thanking Jesus for more than just physical healing? Because the bigger the deliverance, the greater the thanksgiving will be.
See, giving thanks to God, that’s not a command that must be obeyed in order to be delivered from sin. It’s the fruit of forgiveness, the natural fruit of faith in Christ for forgiveness. The nine lepers may well have had faith in Jesus for physical healing. But the fruit of faith displayed by this one leper shows that he had faith in Jesus for every kind of healing.
When that leper wanted to give glory to God for his healing, where did he go? I mean, God’s everywhere, right? He could have just looked up to heaven or closed his eyes and said, “Thank you, God!” But when that leper needed mercy from God, he went to a place. And when he wanted to give thanks to God for his mercy, he went to place – to the feet of Jesus and gave thanks to him. Whether or not he fully understood that Jesus himself is the eternal God, the Son of God the Father – what’s clear is that this leper certainly understood that Jesus is God’s chosen representative to mankind – that if you want to go to God, you go to where Jesus is, plain and simple.
And Jesus affirmed his faith. He said, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” Literally, “Rise and go; your faith has saved you.” Faith in Jesus saves in every way – body and soul.
Remember, though. Even that one leper who was healed of his leprosy – his healing was just a sign, not the complete fulfillment. His body was healed of leprosy, but it wasn’t healed of its eventual death.
When Jesus walked the earth, he performed these miracles for three short years, taking away people’s physical maladies to show that he is also the one who takes away our spiritual malady – our separation from God caused by sin. He went to the cross and died to make full payment for sin. He was raised to life because in him all sinners are justified before God. His resurrection from the dead was the first complete and eternal physical healing of a human body.
So go to Jesus for help with your biggest problem, with your sin and condemnation problem. And trust in him to help you with that. Trust in him for an innocent verdict in God’s courtroom, for peace with God that begins right here, right now, through faith in him. Trust in his Means of Grace – his promise of forgiveness in baptism and in the word of the gospel and in the Sacrament of the Altar. Trust that even now he includes even your physical problems in his working all things together for your good. And know that in good time, when he returns, he’ll erase all your physical problems, too, just as he has risen from death and lives and rules eternally.
What do you look to Jesus to save you, to deliver you from? If you realize that your biggest problem is sin, and if you trust that Christ has taken care of that problem for you, then you don’t need Hallmark or me or anyone else to remind you to give thanks to him. Every day of your life will be spent being the one leper who returned to give thanks. Every day of your life will be spent serving the one who is God’s mercy to you. Because the bigger the deliverance, the bigger the thanksgiving will be. Amen.