Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
Leprosy is an ancient disease mentioned over forty times in the Bible. Until recently there was no cure. Leprosy was a death sentence – even though lepers often lived for many years after contracting the disease. The danger of leprosy was so great that God devoted an entire chapter of the book of Leviticus to dealing with the disease. God gave the priests detailed instructions for correctly diagnosing leprosy; therefore, anyone suspected of having it had to go to a priest for examination (Lev 13:2-3). And if a person was found to be leprous, there were clear instructions to follow: “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Lev 13:45-46). If the leper were a husband and father, his wife effectively became a widow and his children orphans. More than once God punished an evildoer by afflicting him or her with leprosy, so in Biblical times the disease took on a spiritual aspect, representing the uncleanness of sin and the deserved punishment of God.
Curiously, the book of Leviticus contains a second chapter on leprosy – explaining what to do when a leper is miraculously healed of this incurable disease. Think of that. For thousands of years, young priests were trained to follow a specific protocol in the event of a supernatural healing. I wonder how many of them complained, “When am I ever going to use this?” Probably never, because from the time of Moses until Christ, there’s only one recorded healing of a leper, and he was a foreigner. “There were many lepers in Israel,” Jesus said, “…and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian” (Lk 4:27). So here we have a whole chapter of the Bible preparing the priests to deal with a situation they would never encounter – until the coming of Christ. In retrospect we can see how God was setting the stage, thousands of years in advance, for Jesus: “This shall be the law of the leprous person for the day of his cleansing. He shall be brought to the priest…” (Lev 14:2) and on and on the chapter goes, prescribing certain sacrifices and cleansing rituals that occurred over an eight day process – including shaving the hair, beard, and eyebrows of the cleansed man, and sprinkling him with the blood of the sacrifice.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus encountered 10 lepers as he entered a village. Of course, the lepers weren’t in the village. They stood a great way off, as they were required to do, shouting, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (Lk 17:13). Jesus had healed at least one leper before, and apparently word had gotten out. These men didn’t understand who Jesus is, that he is God in the flesh, but they must have heard that he can heal lepers. But this time Jesus doesn’t touch them as he did the leper in Mark chapter 1. He doesn’t even say, “Be healed.” He simply says, “Go show yourselves to the priests” (Lk 17:14) and keeps walking. You can imagine that probably caused some confusion among the lepers. Show what to the priests? The open sores on our arms and legs? The oozing pustules on our faces? We haven’t been cured. We’re still lepers. Whatever Jesus had said was clearly contradicted by the ugly reality of disease and putrid flesh. And yet, they started on their way. This was an amazing act of faith, and Luke tells us that as they went they were cleansed.
In this story we see a picture of the Christian life. Jesus tells you that the leprosy of your sin has been made clean. He says that you are no longer a slave to the passions of the sinful flesh, that you are a dear child of God, and that you love to do the will of your Father. Jesus tells you that the Old Adam in you has been drowned in baptism and put to death by his cross. And yet when you look at your life, that’s not what you see. Instead you see the reality of sin plain as day. Not just your arms and legs and face – it’s worse. Every part of your life is tainted by sin. And the devil is quick to suggest that perhaps God’s promises are true for everyone else but not for you. You still have selfish and lustful thoughts. Even though you don’t want to, you often find yourself speaking unkindly to your spouse or children. Jesus says that your sins are forgiven, but you certainly don’t feel forgiven. When you look at the ugly corruption of sin that remains in your life, it seems that Jesus’ words are just that – words, and nothing has actually changed. You still have leprosy.
This is why, as long as we are in this world, we walk by faith not by sight. Faith, writes Martin Luther, is “a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times.” To be a Christian means to take Jesus at his word, to believe that his forgiveness is real, that his Body and his Blood are for you. “You are clean,” Jesus says, “through the Word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3).
Jesus told the lepers to go show themselves to the priest, and off they went to the temple to find a priest. The temple was the one place where people could encounter the physical presence of God on earth. The temple was where the Ark of the Covenant was kept, within the sacred room called the Holy of Holies. But there was one big problem for the Jewish people in Jesus’ time. Hundreds of years before, the beautiful temple of King Solomon had been destroyed and the Ark of the Covenant had been lost. The Jewish people rebuilt the temple. The priests went through all the motions, offering incense and sacrifices, trimming the candles… but they had no Ark – the Holy of Holies was empty. There was no presence of God. But off went the lepers anyway, to the place where they hoped to find God – all but one who had the double misfortune of being both a leper and a Samaritan. “When he saw that he was healed, he turned back, praising God with a loud voice, and fell at his feet” (Lk 17:15-16).
I imagine that this man was on his way to the temple, when he suddenly realized that he was going the wrong way. The true temple is where God is, and God wasn’t in that empty building. God was standing behind him. “He turned back, praising God with a loud voice, and fell at his feet.” This is what the text says: the man fell at his feet. Whose feet? His feet. “His” is a pronoun that refers back to… “God”. Praising God the man fell at his feet. And Jesus said, “Where are the other nine?” “They are all headed to the temple to find a priest, but the dwelling place of God, God with us, Emmanuel, is standing right here!” I’m sure the other lepers thought that Jesus was a great healer. But only the Samaritan recognized that Jesus was God Almighty, who created the universe with his words, God with human flesh, God become man. The Samaritan who had been a leper fell at the feet of God and worshiped. And Jesus said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has saved you.”
Many people run around, migrating from this church to that church, chasing after the latest move of the Spirit, hoping to encounter God, but you don’t need to do that. Like the leper, you have returned to where Jesus actually is. Where else would you go, but where he has promised to be. When you come forward today and bow before the Altar, you are confessing with your actions: “This is the place where God dwells. Here is the temple of the Most High, God among men. Here is the Body and Blood of my Savior, poured out for me.” And having received this precious gift in faith, our Lord will speak to you, just as he did to the leper, “Rise and go your way; your faith has saved you. Depart in peace. Your sins are forgiven.” Hear and believe these words, for they are the words of Christ and they are for you. Amen.