Sermon for Trinity 14
Jeremiah 17:13-14 + Galatians 5:16-24 + Luke 17:11-19
The Holy Spirit packs just about every aspect of the Christian life into today’s account of the healing of the Ten Lepers. Let’s dig right in and consider them one by one.
First, we see a great need. Ten men with leprosy, a debilitating skin disease that ate away at the flesh; a disease that ejected a person from his home, from his town, and caused him to be shunned and avoided by his countrymen, forced to live in a colony of sick people on the outskirts of the towns and villages.
Leprosy was a horrible disease, but in a way, it was a blessing, because it forced the leper to recognize his uncleanness, to deal with his need. He couldn’t pretend that everything was OK in his life. He couldn’t just live his life day to day and get fat on this world’s self-deception that life on earth is supposed to be easy and pleasant and happy. It’s not. In reality, life on this earth, for as beautiful as it can be at times, is still always infected with ugliness and disease and death. People with healthy bodies may buy into the deception that they are spiritually healthy, too, even as they’re rotting away on the inside from sin. But the leper—the leper’s every waking moment is a testimony to his great and desperate need.
Sin makes us needy before God—needy of His healing, the healing of forgiveness. But as mortals living in a world corrupted by sin, you have other needs, too. You need food and clothes and daily bread. You need help when the sins of other people cause you pain and grief. You need comfort in distress and in the face of sickness and death. You need guidance. You need support and strength as you bear the cross of persecution and affliction and temptation as one who bears the name of Christ in a world that hates Christ. A day—an hour!— does not go by when you are not needy of God’s help, as the lepers knew they were, and those times when you feel no need of God’s help are the times when you need it most.
Second in our Gospel, we see love—the love of Jesus, who is on His final, purposeful journey to Jerusalem to lay down His life out of love for the world that hated Him, and still does. We see the love of Jesus as He chooses not to just get to Jerusalem as fast as possible and get it all over with, but instead goes through these towns and villages of Samaria and Galilee, as our Gospel tells us, to preach to the people there, too, to heal their diseases and call them to repentance and faith in Him. What personal gain would He get for making these journeys? What had these people ever done for Him? Nothing. It was just love for His neighbor that made Him become the servant of all.
In the same way, God calls us to love our neighbor and to serve our neighbor, not in order to get something in return, but to walk as Jesus Himself walked. Part of that love is telling people the truth about their sin, whether their sin is homosexuality, as we see paraded in the news these days, or regular old adultery or men and women living together outside of marriage, or whether their sin is despising the preaching and teaching of God’s Word. Christian love is truthful and honest. It gives and doesn’t worry at all about receiving anything in return. It gives gladly, knowing full well that the one who loves will not always be loved back, and in most cases, will never even be thanked for it, as we at the end of our Gospel.
Third in our Gospel, we see faith—a great example of faith in the ten lepers, all of them. Their faith in Jesus came from hearing the word about Jesus, that He is kind and merciful and receives all who come to Him, even lepers, even sinners. So they went out to meet Jesus when they heard He was coming by. They offered Him nothing—just presented themselves before Him with their uncleanness, their disease, their unworthiness and their miserable condition. They stood there, confident that Jesus would hear and help, and they called out from a distance, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
What an excellent prayer! “Have mercy on us!” In fact, faith is prayer. Not just any kind of prayer. Lots of people babble things to God and think their babbling is praying. True prayer, like true faith, looks to God to be gracious and merciful, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Faith is the earnest plea for mercy, combined with the confidence that Jesus will have mercy. It is the confidence that His every Word is true, and His every promise, reliable.
That brings us to the fourth key element in the Christian life: mercy. The lepers pleaded, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” And Jesus did. See how His mercy was given. “Go,” He said, “show yourselves to the priest.” The priests in Israel were charged with examining someone who had had leprosy to see if he was cured yet or not. So, Jesus didn’t heal them on the spot of their leprosy. Instead, He gave them a word of hope, a word of promise, that by the time they walked to the priest in Jerusalem, they would be clean. In faith, the lepers sought mercy from Jesus, and in mercy, Jesus rewarded their faith. And they believed Him again, and started walking to the priest.
Mercy is God’s desire to help needy people. It can’t be bought. It can’t be earned. God’s mercy is inspired only by man’s wretchedness, and that’s a good thing for us sinners. But the most important mercy we need from God is not the cleansing of our bodies, but the cleansing of our record of sin, and that’s mercy that God always promises to show to the one who seeks it from Jesus. The mercy of sins forgiven, for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Christ, is guaranteed to all who believe, and is given in Holy Baptism and in the Holy Supper. The mercy of eternal life and resurrection from death and glory in the Paradise of God is guaranteed to all who believe in Christ, and is given at the end of our earthly life.
The mercy of God’s fatherly, divine goodness and providence is also guaranteed to believers during this life. But that mercy looks different for different people, as our Father determines. It doesn’t always include riches or the healing of sickness or the prevention of tragedy. On the contrary, sometimes God’s mercy includes earthly poverty, bodily sickness, and even death. To our flesh, it doesn’t look like mercy. But to our flesh, neither did the crucifixion of the Son of God. And yet we know by faith that the cross is the surest sign of God’s mercy and fatherly love and goodness.
A fifth aspect of the Christian life is locating God. Where is God when you need Him? Where is God when you want to thank and praise Him? Where is God present to help you and give you His grace? The answer is not “everywhere!” The answer is, in the Person of Jesus Christ. The ten lepers were cleansed of their leprosy as they walked along the path. And when that one (former) leper realized it, he returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks. That’s the NKJV, which we’ve been using for some time now, and it’s so much better than the NIV. The NIV says, “came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet.” But the Greek and the NKJV don’t have the word “Jesus’.” It makes it much clearer for us: the Samaritan glorified God and fell down on his face at “His” feet, giving “Him” thanks. God is located for us in the Person of Jesus. The leper wanted help from God? He went to Jesus. The leper wanted to give thanks to God? He didn’t look up to heaven. He returned to where Jesus was and gave Him thanks.
God is located for us in the Person of Jesus, with all His mercy and grace. Jesus is located for us in the preaching of the Word of God and in the administration of the Sacraments, where He promises to help and heal and guide and strengthen you until your dying day, until He returns in glory.
And our response is the response of that one leper, the Samaritan. We return over and over again to Jesus to give Him thanks, which is a sixth aspect of the Christian life. But not all the cleansed lepers continued to locate God in Jesus. Not all ten returned to Jesus to give thanks to God, and that should give us pause. It’s a sobering warning, a demonstration of the truth that many who once believe in Jesus fall away. Their temporal need is fulfilled, and so they forget that they are still needy. They take God’s love for granted and their love for their neighbor grows cold. Their faith withers. They forget about Jesus, or marginalize Him as they go off and get on with their earthly life. Mercy is off their mind. They stop locating God in Jesus; they stop looking for Jesus in the Means of Grace. Nine out of ten lepers ended up this way. “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
But to that one, to that foreigner, that Samaritan who fell down at God’s feet, the Word of God was sweet: “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” As I have pointed out before, a better translation would be, “Your faith has saved you.” Salvation through faith is the seventh and final aspect of the Christian life portrayed in our Gospel today. Why? Why does faith save? Because the leper’s faith was a good work? No, but because, in faith, the leper clung to God and to God’s mercy in Christ, and that means salvation every time, for every one. Faith makes you well, because faith means looking to Christ for mercy, and mercy is always there with Him to be found.
Now, think about this as we conclude the sermon for today. All seven of these aspects of the Christian life are not only packed into the Gospel of the healing of the Ten Lepers. They’re also packed into each and every Sunday in our Divine Service. Here needy people come, with needs of body and soul, with needs caused by sin and caused by the cross. Here God’s love is on display as He invites you to come to Him for help and as He teaches you to love one another. Here you come to Him in faith, praying for and seeking His mercy for the sake of Christ Jesus our Lord. Here He has mercy on you and forgives you your sins. Here, in this ministry of Word and Sacrament, God locates Himself for you, and gives you His own body and blood in bread and wine. And you have come here to find God, not only to plead for mercy, but also to give Him thanks for the mercy He has shown. Here God Himself speaks to you life and salvation. “Your faith has saved you.” As you study the back of your service folder today and review the purposes of the Divine Service, remember the Ten Lepers, and remember why you come here and keep coming here each week, to receive God’s help in your every need, to not be like the nine lepers who went away from Jesus, but to remain faithful until death, so that you, like the one leper, may give eternal thanks and praise to God for saving you, too. Amen.