This sermon was very moving for me, and I hope that came across when I preached it. The pitiable state of the lepers, the peerless depths of Christ’s mercy — what wonderful things to proclaim! A sermon like this could easily turn into a lecture on thankfulness, which would have two drawbacks: A), it would be a snooze, and 2), the way to lead someone to be grateful is not to describe gratitude for them. It’s to highlight their need, then extol the mercy that completely heals and saves. (In my opinion, anyway.) I’m sure this isn’t the last time I’ll preach on this text (I believe it also comes up as the Gospel for Thanksgiving Day), so maybe next time I’ll take a different approach. At any rate, hope you like the sermon — and God be praised for all His gifts!
11Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
14When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
15One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
17Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (luke 17:11-19 niv)
Frank had never expected to end up in the hospital. But on that winter night, as he was driving home from an insurance agents convention, his car hit a patch of black ice and spun out of control. He crossed over the center line and was broadsided by a car coming from the other direction. All Frank remembered was headlights flashing as he spun, then a great crash, then nothing. He didn’t remember how they used the Jaws of Life to get him out. He didn’t remember the ambulance ride or being admitted to the hospital. He woke up three days later, in a cast up to his hip – but alive. The surgeon, Dr. Jones, had to work for nine hours to rebuild his shattered leg, but he finally fixed it. Now, every year on the anniversary of his accident, Frank takes Dr. Jones out for a steak dinner. He swears he’ll never forget what Dr. Jones did for him.
Gratitude like that is hard to find. Most people don’t care enough to say thank you when someone helps them or gives them something. They don’t think to be grateful, even for a moment. Today in our gospel we meet ten people who were in need of serious help. They received it, but only one could be found to say thanks. Christ is our Great Physician of body and soul, and it’s to his Word that we turn today, for our comfort and instruction. Today we’ll see how Christ’s Mercy Cures All.
Jesus is still traveling toward Jerusalem, and as he travels he approaches a small village. He runs across a group of ten men who are calling out to him. They’re lepers. They stand far off from him, because they can’t get close to him. They were forbidden to, by the law of Moses. They couldn’t travel around freely. They couldn’t see their families or spend time with them. They couldn’t hold down a job. They couldn’t worship God in the temple. They couldn’t enjoy even the simplest or most fleeting human contact, because they couldn’t come close to anyone or be around them.
Nobody wanted to catch what these people had. It was disfiguring and it was disgusting. Nowadays we call it Hansen’s disease and it can be treated with antibiotics, but they didn’t have that. Leprosy ate away at your flesh while you were still alive. It started out as scabs and thick, rough patches on your skin. Gradually it caused your skin and your features to deform and become misshapen. You lost your hair, usually your nose and your lips, your fingers and toes, and ultimately you just fell apart. The disease would eat you up inside and out.These ten lepers have nothing. They are nothing. Nobody wants to be around them, they have no cure for their condition, and they have nothing to look forward to. They’re right to cry out to Jesus, because what else can they do? So they cry out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
We are not all that different from those lepers. We even use the same words they did. In the liturgy we sing the exact same words those lepers shouted. We sing, “Lord, have mercy! Christ have mercy! Lord, have mercy!” Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, kyrie eleison! When we sing those words, it’s not just a churchy way to respond. We’re not just acknowledging that the pastor said something. We sing those words because we need to. We have to. Our noses aren’t falling off of our faces, thankfully, but we’re in much the same position they were in. Our sins have made us that way. Our sins cut us off from those around us, and worse than that, they cut us off from God. Our sins estrange us from the people around us. They separate us. Anyone here can testify that sin, whether it’s done by you or to you, puts distance between people. Our sins estrange us from God because he is holy. They isolate us from him. They make God far away from us, remote, unable to be reached. Our sins disfigure us, cause us pain and misery, cripple us, and eventually they kill us. We can’t fix our sins on our own. We can’t cure them. We can’t remove them. We have nothing to offer God on our own. There’s nothing we can buy, nothing we can sell, nothing we can barter, that will fix our leprosy. We can’t even make God any promises, because he knows better than we do that they’ll probably end up being empty. So we cry out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” – because what else can we do?
Jesus doesn’t draw back in horror when he sees who’s calling to him. He doesn’t pretend he didn’t see them and hurry on. He doesn’t even promise them they’ll be healed or tell them what to do to be cured, as he sometimes did with other lepers. Instead his response is prompt and cheerful: “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” It’s not even a command so much as an invitation: trust me enough to do what I say, and see how it will turn out for you.
The lepers have to show themselves to the priests because again, the law of Moses commanded it. The priest would examine the leper and would give him a clean bill of health. This was the way that the leprous person could be certified as clean and fit to re-enter society again. Jesus’ telling the lepers to go to the priests shows that he never meant to abolish the law of Moses or disregard it. He always followed it, even though he didn’t have to. He came to fulfill it, and he did. He could have just ignored it because it didn’t apply to him, but he didn’t because he was obedient.
So the lepers decide to do what Jesus says, and suddenly they notice that at some point on the trip, they were cured, suddenly and miraculously. Their flesh was whole and sound. Their bodies were no longer eaten by the disease and falling apart. Jesus’ word of invitation had come true. It had given them what they had been promised. They were clean. Imagine the joy they must have had! Now they could have their lives back. Now they could do what they wanted again. They were freed from the awful disease.
Nine of the lepers keep going. They forget all about who cured them. One doesn’t forget. He comes running back to Jesus, singing and shouting and laughing and crying the whole way. He throws himself on the ground in front of Jesus. He praises God for what Jesus did for him. He thanks him over and over. He can’t help himself. There is no containing his joy and thankfulness.
We too have been healed. Christ had pity on us. When we could do nothing to please God or earn his favor, Christ still loved us. We were as lepers in his sight, but he has made us clean and whole and pure. Christ delights to show mercy to us. He loves to forgive and to help. Christ has set us free from the sin that infects us. Surely he has taken up our infirmities and carried our diseases! He has taken upon himself all of our sin, all of our shame, all the pain and the hopelessness of our corrupt natures, and he has paid for them at the cross. He himself became our sickness in our place, and we are made healthy and strong. He has cured the sin that infected us with his holy sacrifice on the cross. Through faith in his blood, sin, the poison in our blood, is taken away, counted as nothing, and one day he will finally drive all sin out of us, body and soul. He has become the source of eternal salvation for all who believe in him.
We are no longer doomed! We are free from sin’s control in our lives. We are no longer separated from God. Now we will live in our Father’s house forever. Christ has taken away everything that isolated us from God and from each other. He has given us dignity and strength to go on living. We will hold up our heads in the judgment, because there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Today, when we feel keenly how much we need Christ’s help and we want to be healed, Christ still gives us a prompt and a cheerful invitation. Instead of “Go show yourselves to the priest”, he says, “Take and eat; take and drink. This is my body and my blood, given for you.” His holy Sacrament is powerful medicine for our souls. It cures all our guilt, our shame, and our sinfulness. It leaves health and life and thanksgiving in its place. You come to his table weighed down with guilt, distracted by the cares of this world, severely weakened and sick with sin. Then you receive the heavenly remedy, the spiritual medicine, and you are healed. You are cured. You are whole, healthy, and strong again, just as your Lord has promised you. You are revived, fed and nourished, given the cure for the sin that plagues you. You are given the grace that strengthens your heart against sin.
Just as all that Samaritan could do was thank Jesus, so also the only thing we can do for God by receiving the Holy Communion is thank and praise him. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we thank Jesus for giving us such wonderful forgiveness and assurance of his love. We remember the great acts of love by which he has redeemed us. We come to Holy Communion and our faith that Jesus is really there and that he forgives all our sins is praise to God. Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. You offer him a sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise, just like that Samaritan leper did.
When Christ has given us such great blessings, thankfulness is very natural. It’s no chore, like writing thank-you notes when we were kids. Our mothers made us do it, even though we didn’t always see the point and frankly, we didn’t care. We’d rather have played with the toy or spent the money or used the gift, instead of taking time to say thanks. Now we’ve grown up, and we understand that saying thank you is important – especially with Jesus. He’s done so much for us, and he does still more for us every day. When we are emptiest, Christ fills us. When we are weakest and sickest, Christ heals us. When we are loneliest and saddest and most afraid, Christ comforts us and consoles us and cheers us. All we can give him is our thanks, when you think about it. He already has everything else. The only thing he wants from us is – thank you. So thank you, Jesus. Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you, Jesus, now and forever. Amen.