The Gospel for Trinity 14 is the same as the Gospel for Thanksgiving, which is coming up in just a few weeks. How to distinguish between the two? Once again, the Lectionary helps us. The Epistle admonishes us to abstain from sin, and to strive after the fruits of the Spirit. The Collect reminds us that without the help and strength given to us by God through the Spirit, we only fall. Any good we do is because of the Spirit’s work through us, not our own strength. This is how that looked in sermon form this past Sunday in Wheatland (After the jump):
Jesus heals the ten lepers. Lepers were required by law to shout “unclean” if anyone came near them. Leprosy was a dreaded disease, with no cure. Only a slow and gruesome death came to someone with leprosy. So the lepers were isolated in colonies. Loved ones would leave food for them at a predetermined place, and then go away, before anyone could come and get the food. It didn’t matter how lofty your position in the world. Get leprosy, and you were done. Out of the house. Out of the family. Out of society. Into a leper colony, where you would wait to die.
Oddly, the law of Moses gave a procedure for those who had leprosy, but then were cured. It was probably one of the least used procedures in all the Levitical law. No one got better. Miracles were the only hope.
Last week we heard that Samaritans didn’t associate with Jews. Today a Samaritan is mixed in with this group of Jewish lepers. Leprosy was the great leveler. It made all equally unclean. Equally outcast. And so, the ten were a mixed lot. Heritage didn’t matter anymore. Politics, socioeconomics all disappeared for those lepers. All they had was each other, and lingering death.
And then, Jesus comes by. Even the most outcast of the outcast had heard of Jesus miracles. And suddenly, there was hope. Instead of the required, “Unclean! Unclean!” they shout, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Just as the church does today. Lord have mercy upon us. Christ have mercy upon us. Lord have mercy upon us.” It’s still our cry. Because we still have one – and only one – hope for salvation. Our Lord Jesus Christ, who went into death for those of us who were condemned to die for our sin – that is, all mankind. That’s why the church still cries out with those dying lepers, “Lord have mercy.” Because we desperately need the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So what does Jesus do for those lepers? He invokes that unused Law of Moses – go show yourselves to the priests. In other words, you will be cleansed. You just need the legal proof of being healed to rejoin society.
But there was more to it than the priest certifying that you could rejoin society. When they were unclean, they could not offer sacrifices in the temple, they could not go to pray. They could not participate in Passover. They could do none of the things laid out in the Law of Moses that made them distinctively God’s people. And the priests were the way back into being once again “The people of God.” The priests were the ones who certified that the men were cleansed, and so allowed them to rejoin God’s holy nation. It was a declaration that they were on the inside again – once again recipients of the grace and mercy of God – instead of on the outside looking in.
And so the men – with no evidence yet of change or improvement, head toward the priests. Their faith in Jesus word grabs hold of the promise, and off they go. And as they go, they are cleansed. They are made whole. They are cured. The death-curse is gone. Life has been restored by the one who created life.
In the prayer today, we prayed that we would be kept from all things hurtful – without God’s help and mercy, we can not but fall. Without his aid, we can only continue on in our sin. And so we pray that we would be given whatever is profitable for our salvation. A dangerous prayer to pray. “God, I know I have things I love in this world – some of them things I want to love more than you. Make sure that they do not become idols. Take them away if necessary, but don’t let me serve anyone or anything but you” We all have our idols. To say that there are no idols among even those in the church is to deny the sin that so easily entangles. Of course our sinful hearts produce idols. Oh, not little statues that we bow down to. If only it were so obvious and so easy to solve. No, we have our sinful pride in our own works, in our own station and status. We have greed and lust and envy just to name a few. It’s easy to get caught up in them, to get so caught up in them that we no longer want to hear and learn the word of God.
That’s why we must constantly be in the word of God and prayer. Why we must come again and again to His Holy Church to hear of the salvation given freely for Jesus sake to all those who repent of their sin, who believe on his name. We must keep feeding our faith with the Word and sacraments which Jesus gives. Otherwise, our faith will wither and die. Our sinful flesh never gives up. In this world we receive the gift of faith by the power of the Spirit. And the Spirit makes us holy. And now, the new man who daily comes forth and arises by that Spirit can make a beginning in our holiness of life – our every thought act and deed in accordance with the word and command of God. But in this life it is only ever a beginning. We are weak. We stumble and fall. And so we must rely constantly on the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, who forgives our sin, heals us, and restores us. And we must constantly return to the Word of God so that we do not lose our faith, so that the old Adam in us does not drown the new man in sin.
In the Gospel reading, a strange thing happens. Jesus tells the men to go to the priests. Strange enough on its own. But one turns back. He doesn’t continue on the way. He turns around and goes to Jesus. He recognized that something was wrong. He was on the wrong path. He was going to the priest to fulfill the Law. To be declared cleansed before God. But he realized that if he wanted to give thanks to God for the great mercy shown to him, he needed to go to Jesus, not the temple. That’s where God is. That is where we find God today. Jesus himself tells us, “No one comes to the Father but through me.” He is the Way, the truth and the life. We do not have access to God apart from Jesus. And we do not have access to Jesus apart from the means he has given: His holy word, his blessed sacraments.
We are tempted to go it alone. To wander off, reading the word of God on our own. But then we can not receive the gifts Jesus gives through his church: The Body and blood. The absolution. The mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren. It is tempting to try and do it our way – as if doing it our way is something to brag about at the end of our life. But it is not, never was, about us. It is about Jesus working salvation in your heart. About him living in and through you, as you hear and learn his word ever better, as you receive the gifts he offers through his church – forgiveness life and salvation.
The man turned back because he realized that he was on the wrong path. The author C. S. Lewis once said, “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.” The man knew he was not on the right path. The priests in the temple can not help him. So he returned to give thanks to God. He fell at Jesus feet, giving him thanks.
Luther suggests that Luke has it about right – one in ten people are properly thankful to God for his many blessings. That may be true. Our prayer today is that we would receive the gifts of God rightly, in humble obedience and in grateful thanksgiving for all he has given.