15 September 2020

Homily for Trinity 14

"Lepers Cleansed"

Luke 17:11-19

The ten lepers are us, and we are the ten lepers. They suffered from physical leprosy that ravaged their bodies. We and all people suffer from spiritual leprosy that ravages both body and soul. These ten lepers give us a picture of the human race infected with the leprosy of sin.

When we hear the term “leprosy,” we usually think of Hansen’s disease—a bacterial infection that can affect nerves, skin, and eyes and then lead to a loss of feeling and even paralysis. In the Bible, leprosy certainly included that, but it probably also included illnesses such as eczema—a skin rash—and dermatitis—scaly, flaking skin and itchiness.

Our sin is like leprosy in several respects:

  • Leprosy affects and destroys the whole body. Sin totally infects, affects and destroys our strength in both body and soul—nothing sound from head to toe.
  • Leprosy is a disease that spreads. So does sin, coming into the world through one man and spreading to us all. St. Paul calls it “the works of the flesh”—with all those nasty symptoms of “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger” and so on—all those symptoms that even present themselves in us.
  • Leprosy cannot be healed by man’s efforts. Today, treatments may prevent the disease from getting worse, but they cannot reverse the  damage. And remember the story of Naaman. He sought healing from the King of Israel, but the King of Israel cried out, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive?” (2 Kgs. 5:7). Sin absolutely cannot be healed by human means—not by doctors, paramedics, or politicians. After all, those “desires of the flesh are against the Spirit.”
  • Leprosy is a viral disease that spreads to others who are healthy. Modern medicine may quibble with just how it spreads. Sin itself does spread its contamination. Consider the many ways our fallen world infects us all in thought, word and deed to think, speak and act in ways that go against God’s Word, ways that lead us to distrust God and be unloving to our neighbor—“rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies and things like these.”
  • And leprosy, once it takes hold, eats its way more and more through the body. Likewise, sin. Because of this infection we all have, one sin leads to another, and that one easily to yet another. First, the desire; then the misdeed; then the excuse; then the cover-up; then the lie; and so on.

If it weren’t for our leprosy of sin, we would not need police officers, laws, penalties or rulings of law courts. If it weren’t for our leprosy of sin, we would not have to endure racial tensions, injustices, pandemics or destructive rioting.

In the Old Testament, God instructed His people on how to deal with lepers. Lepers had to separate themselves from everyone else because their diseases of infected, decaying, rotting flesh could infect others. When healthy people walked by, the lepers were supposed to warn them by crying out “Unclean!” When a person was infected with leprosy, he had to show himself to the priest. The priest would pronounce him unclean, and the person would have to quarantine in the leper colony outside the city. Social distancing, Bible-style!

When a leper was healed of his leprosy, he would again show himself to the priest, the priest would offer the appropriate sacrifices, and then pronounce him “clean.” In Leviticus 14, cleansing of lepers happened, first, by killing a bird in an earthen vessel over fresh, living water. Next, a live bird, a piece of cedarwood, and a scarlet yarn were dipped in that water mixed with blood. Then the priest, using the live bird wet with blood and water, would “sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease” (Lev. 14:7). As God said, “Thus the priest shall make atonement for [the leper], and he shall be clean” (Lev. 14:20).

So, let’s imitate the ten lepers as Jesus comes passing along between the Samaria and Galilee of our lives. Let’s lift up our voices and cry out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” And let’s listen to and heed Him when He bids us to show ourselves to the priest. No, not those priests at the Jerusalem temple, but Jesus, our great High Priest who has passed through the heavens (Heb. 2:14). “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 2:15).

How can we be healed and saved from our spiritual leprosy? Only by finding our way to Jesus, the sole physician for the soul. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 2:16). “Offered was He for greatest and for least, / Himself the victim and Himself the priest” (LSB 637:1). Not only is Jesus both victim and priest for you, He is also the dead bird and the living bird for you. He is the One who cleanses you “by the washing of water with [His] word, so that He might present [you] to Himself in splendor” (Eph. 5:26-27), cleansed of your leprosy of sin.

Actually, we don’t have to find our way to Him. He has found His way to us! Just as the ten lepers were cleansed before they found their way to the priests—not by their own reason or strength, nor by their decision or will—we are cleansed in the bath of our Baptism—not by our own reason, strength, decision or will. Our baptismal bath sprinkles us with the very blood and water that flowed from the side of Christ crucified. He is the One who was crucified outside the city. He is the One who comes by water and blood; not by the water only but by the water and the blood (1 Jn. 5:6).

Now let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the one cleansed leper who returned to Jesus. Let’s take our cue from him on how to live all of life in our Baptism. I’m sure the other nine former lepers were generically thankful as civic courtesy and politeness would dictate. But they went on to live their lives apart from Jesus. The Samaritan, however, “turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks.” He did more than just give thanks. He gave praise to God. He returned to the Giver of the gift of cleansing. He was not merely content to enjoy the gift; he wanted to enjoy and be with the Giver.

That’s living your baptismal life. Not just a generic thankfulness for a quick healing. Not just a slight nod and a mental note that something special happened a long time ago, but then getting back to “real life.” No, the baptismal life is about living all of life in Jesus, with Jesus, and in the presence of Jesus. Daily contrition and repentance. Drowning that Old Adam in you. Making him die with all sins and evil desires every day. And then—thank the Lord and sing His praise!—emerging and arising every day to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Your one-time baptismal cleansing becomes your daily hygiene routine—not a burdensome routine, but a joyful living in the blood and water that continually heals and cleanses.

We all wrestle with sin every day. That leprous disease keeps flaring up even in us who are cleansed by Jesus’ blood and water. We will keep wrestling with our leprous sin until Jesus returns on the Last Day. It’s not a matter of Jesus’ healing not fully doing its job. It has! It’s a matter of living in faith, continually receiving His cleansing, and thus praising Him as did the Samaritan.

Martin Luther confessed this in the face of those who deny that sin remains after Baptism. The fact that sin remains after Baptism undercuts every notion of perfectionism—that is, thinking you can be free of sin or attain a sin-free life this side of heaven. It also topples any notion of “once-saved-always-saved.” While the healing for that Samaritan and the other nine was instantaneous, Jesus chooses to heal us over the long-haul. The sin is forgiven, to be sure; Jesus’ healing, though, is ongoing. Here’s how Luther expressed it:

“This life…is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.” (“A Defense and Explanation of All Articles” [AE 32:24]).

So we return to Jesus yet again, at His Table. “Draw near and take the body of the Lord, / And drink the holy blood for you outpoured” (LSB 637:1). We return to receive the healing He gives. We return to give praise to Him.

“Let us praise the Word Incarnate,
Christ, who suffered in our place.
Jesus died and rose victorious
That we may know God by grace.
Let us sing for joy and gladness,
Seeing what our God has done;
Let us praise the true Redeemer,
Praise the One who makes us one” (LSB 849:3).


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