SERMON FOR THE 14TH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY, 9-22-2019
LUTHER MEMORIAL CHAPEL, SHOREWOOD, WI
Rev. Michael Larson
This morning ten lepers cry out from a distance. They pray, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Their flesh was rotting away. They had a horrible disease. That leprosy had cut them off from the synagogue. Separated them from their own families, their village and life in the community. Those lepers had to cover their faces. And if anyone passed it was required that they shout a warning, yelling, “unclean, unclean.”
On Sunday mornings when we come into God’s presence we say the same thing: “Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean.” In the confession of sins at the beginning of the Divine Service we confess and acknowledge that we too are unclean. Unclean? What does that mean? Well, that’s exactly what sin does to us. It renders us unclean, separated and unfit for the kingdom of God.
As we anticipate October, the month where we celebrate the Lutheran Reformation, it’s important that we understand the that the teaching of Christ, grace alone, and faith alone hinges on how we think about what sin is. You see, underlying the 16th-century theological debate was really the question of sin. What is it? How severe of a problem is it? The Reformation was also about getting back to the Biblical definition of sin, and diagnosing the illness that plagues us all in an honest way. You see, Luther accused theologians of his day of not coming to terms with the full truth about the terrible reality of sin and therefore not knowing anything of Christ. The Roman Church and the enthusiasts on the other side were too rosy, too optimistic about what sinful man could do and accomplish and be. Luther would write, “We cannot make sin great enough and we cannot highly enough exalt the glory of grace.”
You see, sin is much more than thinking, saying, and doing things that are wrong. Our Lutheran fathers spoke of sin as a terminal disease. We are conceived and born in sin. Our nature is corrupted. We are full of evil lusts and inclinations from birth. St. Paul wrote that no good thing dwells within us, that is, in our flesh. It also means the absence of true faith and love and trust toward God in our hearts.
If you go to the cancer doctor and you’ve really got a problem, you don’t want him to lie to you. You don’t want him to say you’ve got a case of the common cold. You say, “doctor, tell me the truth. How bad is it?”
Well, it’s bad because the law shows us our sin. Shows us to be the spiritual lepers that we are. And the problem is more than just skin deep. You heard it this morning from St. Paul in our epistle: sexual immorality, impurity, idolatry, anger, envy, drunkenness and things like these. “I warn you,” writes St. Paul, “as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Got any experience with those? Well, then, according to God’s own Word, you are rendered unclean, unfit, unworthy for the Kingdom of God. For all the dressing up we do – the preening, the posturing, and making ourselves look pretty good, before God we’re not fooling anybody. We are the ones who should cry out “unclean, unclean.”
But look at the hope and comfort we have this morning. Because those lepers are not just confessing their sin, they’re confessing the Gospel: “Jesus, master, have mercy on us!” That is the cry of faith. A prayer of faith that we pray every time we gather here, in the worship of the church, for mercy and healing. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. It’s the first great hymn of the Divine Service. It gets to the heart of things and teaches us what true Christian worship is all about! Sinners crying out to the Lord for mercy. Sinners who know and believe that they are unclean, unfit, and unworthy of the kingdom of God. But the Christian cries out believing in God’s Word of grace. Believing that Christ will not turn us away.
Now look at what our Lord says to those lepers: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Sure, this was the process of certification and reintegration in the community for a leper who was healed. But Jesus intends to show something more. Go show yourselves to the priests means go to the place of sacrifice. Go to the temple. Go to the place where there is shedding of blood and cleansing atonement. Go to the place where you can be welcomed and cleansed. And as they went they were cleansed. Their skin healed and restored.
Now, one of those ten lepers likely didn’t make it to the temple. Because when he saw that he was healed, he got it. He understood that the place of God’s presence had shifted from the temple of Jerusalem to the very body of Jesus! He is the place of worship. When Jesus instructed the lepers to go show themselves to the priest, the Samaritan got that too. Because he turned around. He did in fact show himself to the priest, the High Priest, Jesus, God in human flesh. And he worshipped Him.
Do you see what happened? The leper, who was an outcast, comes to Jesus so that he might be cleansed. Jesus heals him and restores his flesh like that of a child. He is cleansed, forgiven, and restored to a community. He has a new life.
But this miracle of Jesus, this cleansing, is no magic trick. Read the Gospels. Where do you so often find Jesus? He’s alone. He’s out in desolate places. He becomes an outcast. The leper and the Christ have traded places: the outsider is brought in as the Chosen One is cast out.
Meditate on Jesus’ passion, and ponder our Lord – the leper. Listen to the prophet Isaiah who preached of Him.
“His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance. He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; as one from whom men hide their faces.”
This is how sinners enter the family of God. Because the Son was forsaken by His Father, we can join the household of God. For us to be made made clean, Christ had to be reckoned unclean for our sakes. Jesus didn’t overlook uncleanness; He conquered it. And He didn’t just conquer it; He traded places with it. All for you, that you would be declared cleansed, forgiven, and restored to the holy family of Christ’s church. And so rise in perfect health and wholeness on the day of the resurrection of all flesh.
This morning this leper teaches us about Christian worship. The leper gives thanks to Jesus. The Greek word here is eucharist, another word Christians use for the Lord’s Supper. What’s the connection between giving thanks and the Lord’s Supper? Listen to Psalm 116. “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? I will offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving and will call on the name of the Lord. I will take the cup of salvation and will call on the name of the Lord.”
Did you catch that? How do you thank the Lord for His kindness? How do you express your gratitude for Him and all He’s done? How do you give God thanks? Well, you take the cup of salvation. You press your lips to the chalice with His forgiving blood. How do you thank God? Well, you receive more from His Son, Jesus. More forgiveness. More grace. You recognize Jesus, the merciful one, is in your midst. And like that leper, keep coming back for more. In the name of Jesus. Amen.