This sermon was preached at the First Baptist Church of Benbrook on November 21, 2010
Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”(Luke 17.11-19)
Well, that’s the sanitized version, kind of the short form of the story. I mean there was much more to it than that. Let me tell you how it really went down.
It all started, at least for me, in the historic town of Shechem. In all of Palestine, this city was the one with the most colorful past dating al the way back to the days of Abraham. When God called Abraham to leave his homeland, the first place he stopped in Palestine was at the great tree of Moreh in the village of Shechem (Genesis 12.6-7). Jacob called Shechem his home, and set up an altar to Yahweh in the town which he called “Mighty is the God of Israel” (Genesis 33.18-20). When Joshua led the children of Israel into the land of promise, one of the first stops was the area around Shechem near Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim (Joshua 8.30-35). That’s right, Shechem and the people of God go way back. Being a key city, it was both a city of refuge (Joshua 20.7) and a Levitical city (Joshua 21.21). And when the 12 tribes of Israel divided into two nations after the death of Solomon, Shechem became the capital city of the Northern Kingdom. The people of who lived in Shechem have always considered themselves to be the spiritual descendants of Abraham, and Jacob, and Joshua, and hence true worshippers of Yahweh. During the days of Alexander the Great, the people of Shechem were given permission to build a temple on Mount Gerizim for the worship of Yahweh.
But, as you know, the people who lived in and around Jerusalem distanced themselves from the people of Shechem years ago. The Jews of Jerusalem considered themselves the “pure people of God,” and considered the temple on Mount Gerizim to be a “false temple.” In fact, in the year 128 BC, the Jewish leader John Hyrcanus led a band of soldiers to our holy mountain and destroyed the temple on Mount Gerizim, which forever sealed the eternal hatred between the arrogant Jews of southern Palestine and the people of God in Samaria. They think of us as second class citizens, but I am way too polite to tell you some of the words my people use to describe them. They want nothing to do with us, and I can assure you, that is fine with us. Let them worship in Jerusalem; we will worship Yahweh in the land of Jacob, on Mount Gerizim.
Sorry, I guessed I digressed just a little bit. I was talking about the joys of growing up in the historic city of Shechem. And all was going delightfully well. My father was a very successful rancher with a huge herds of sheep and goats, and of course, I grew up learning the trade. When I married my wife, my father gave me a portion of the family estate as my own. My family began to grow with the birth of two beautiful daughters and three handsome sons. Business was good, family was good, life was great. Until…
They really started as small sores on my forearms, nothing big. But when they didn’t go away, I started to worry. In fact, they began to spread. I hid them for the longest time, from my children and my precious wife, but when the sores began to spread up my neck and onto my face, I couldn’t hide them any longer. When I went out in public, I would wrap my face with cloth, which was not all that uncommon since people did that all of the time to protect their face from the blowing sand. But it was getting harder to hide.
And then I made the life altering mistake of going into the market in Shechem I was having some work done on my equipment by blacksmith in Shechem, and when I was loading up to leave for home, the cloth unwrapped from my face. And at just that moment, one of the priests from the temple on Mount Gerizim happened to pass me by. And right there, in the city square, he uttered the words that have forever changed my life: leprosy.
Contrary to what the arrogant Jews in Jerusalem might tell you, we Samaritans do worship Yahweh, and we do study the same books of Moses as they do. And our priests adhere to the teachings in the second book of Moses, what you people call “Leviticus,” just as closely as the priests in Jerusalem. Not that it worked out so well with me on this occasion.
The Law is fairly clear. One of the roles of the priest is to examine infectious skin diseases, commonly referred to as leprosy. If a person if suspected of having an infectious skin disease, they are placed in isolation for seven days. If the skin disease spreads after seven days and if the priest determines that the person does indeed have leprosy, then that person is to be pronounced unclean. And the result of being declared “unclean” by the community is that you are sentenced to spend the rest of your life living outside of the village (see Leviticus 13.46). If you do get anywhere near someone who might be clean, an unclean person has to call out “unclean, unclean” to warn the clean person. The only way you can be brought back into the life of the community is to be examined by the priest again, and to be declared “clean.” Until then, you are an outcast, sentenced to live alone for the rest of your life.
In that instant in the blacksmith’s shop, I went from being considered a clean person to carrying the death sentence of an unclean person. Oh sure, I was free to go anywhere I wanted to go, as long as I was never near another person. One moment, I had a family, beautiful wife and five beautiful children. The next moment, I had none. One moment, I had a ranch and an income and plenty of food to eat and a nice house to live in. The next moment, I was living in abject poverty.
I spent the first few weeks just wandering around the wilderness outside of Shechem, hoping this skin disease would just go away. My family left me baskets of food for a while, but when it became obvious that the skin disease was not going away, the baskets of food just stopped appearing. At some point, after about six months, it hits me that I really din’t have a home anymore. I began to move further and further away from Shechem, trying to find a way to live off the land and to hunt wild animals.
I remember the first time I met another unclean person in the wilderness. When we saw each other, we both started yelling “unclean” until we realized that we were both unclean. We partnered up, hoping that it would be easier to survive as a team. And then our small group would run into other small groups of unclean people, and we would form little communities of unclean people.
We would wander through the wilderness areas looking for pieces of land to either grow some measure of crops or to hunt game. The groups were constantly changing. Whenever one person thought they might be getting better, they would immediately leave the group to get away from the disease. And new outcasts were always showing up to join the group. Eventually, no matter where we landed, the local “clean” people would end up running us off. They did not want a leper colony cropping up in their neck of the woods. And so we were constantly moving and looking for more and more isolated places to try to survive.
These groups were quite strange. The only thing we had in common was our skin disease. Regardless of all of the things that might have divided us before like our professions, our nationality, our socio-economic level, gender, or even religion, the common bond of leprosy was greater than all of that. There were no Jewish lepers, or Samaritan lepers, or Roman lepers, or rich lepers, or poor lepers. Nope. We were all just lepers. Misery does indeed love company.
Every so often, we would get rather bold, really out of desperation. Instead of avoiding the villages and towns, we would go into the cities to beg. What could they do, throw us out? If we got lucky, someone would have compassion on us and give us some food or clothing before the city leaders ran us out of town.
Which is where we found ourselves on that day along the border between Samaria and Galilee. By this time, I had completely given up hope that I would ever get rid of this dreaded skin disease. Shechem was far behind me, and I had wondered over 100 miles from what was left of my home. In a ploy of desperation, a small group of us wandered into the village hoping that someone might give us some food or clothing.
When we got to the village, there was no small commotion going on. It seems that some traveling preacher was in town, and the village was all in an uproar. One of the newcomers to our group told us about this “Jesus.” He said He was a miracle worker from Nazareth, and that some people were actually hoping that He might be the Messiah. He had quite a following, which we could see for ourselves. He told us that the Jewish leaders despised Him, which made me like Him all the more, a fellow outcast.
We decided when we got to the village that our best bet might be to see if this traveling teacher might help us out. Perhaps by making a big show in front of all the villagers, we might guilt his followers into showing us some mercy. So, when the moment was right, and we thought we could get His attention, we all cried out together, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us.”
Our plan didn’t work very well. He simply said, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” Like we hadn’t heard that before. Usually that meant, “Go show yourselves to the priests, and if they let you back into the community, then I will be willing to help you.” That was shorthand for, “Go away you sick, infested person.”
But hey, it wasn’t like we were above showing ourselves to the priests. Most of us had done this a hundred times, hoping that some priest would look at our skin disease and give a different opinion. Perhaps, the priest would say, “Oh, that’s not leprosy, come on back into the community.” It never happened that way. And after showing myself to the priest for about a hundred times, I had given up. I was not going to go through that humiliation again unless there was sure evidence that my leprosy was going away. But the others were willing to give it a try, so I tagged along.
As we were walking, something weird started to happen. I first noticed it be looking at the back of the neck of the guy walking in front of me, but as I looked around, the arms and legs and faces of my companions were all changing. The spots were gone. The white hairs were gone. In its place was normal looking skin. What we had been longing for for years was finally coming to pass. And then we started to get anxious. We had to find a priest right now, immediately, before the spots came back. If we could just find a priest who would declare us to be clean, then we might just get our lives back. I was already calculating how long it would take to walk back to Shechem.
As the other guys began to talk about going home and living inside a village for a change, it dawned on me that my condition was changing because of something this Jesus had said. And for just a moment, it hit me that something more was taking place here than just the healing of a skin disease, which was amazing in and of itself. But who is it after all, who can bring healing from a skin disease by just the power of their voice? This Jesus must have been more than just a teacher or a traveling preacher, but what I just didn’t know.
I left the rest of them on the road. They were going to the priests to show themselves clean, but I turned back to find out more about this Jesus. As I got close to Jesus, I kept asking anyone who would listen, “What do you know about this Jesus? Who is this guy?” I found one lady in the crowd who said to me, “We think He may be the Messiah.”
Messiah. That word instantly brought me back to a world that I had forgotten long ago, a world where we talked about worshipping Yahweh and taught our kids the books of Moses, a world where we talked about a coming Messiah, Deliverer, Savior.
This lady starting telling me about how she met this Jesus at a well outside of town. She said that He told her everything that she had ever done, down to how many times she had been married, and she was convinced that He was the Messiah. How could I argue? The pure skin of my arms and legs were almost glowing in the sunlight.
I left the woman behind and ran to the One who had healed me. I threw myself at His feet, praising God at the top of my lungs, and thanking Him for His grace and mercy and healing. This Jesus then placed His hands on my shoulders and lifted me up, and said to me, “Rise and go, your faith has made you well.”
“Rise and go” was easy enough to understand, but what did he mean that my faith had made me well? I thought my skin was already well.
It took a while for me to understand that my cleansing had taken away my physical illness, but Jesus was offering me something deeper and more meaningful. He was offering “wellness” for my soul. Even as I still struggle to know exactly what that means, I know it is linked to my faith, to my belief, to my acceptance in Him as the Messiah, the Deliverer, the Savior of the World.
I am often asked what it means to be thankful, and what made me more thankful than the other nine lepers on that day. I usually answer with the same four statements.
First, I understood that my gift had a Giver. All of us were cleansed on that day. All of us knew that we had been given a gift, and not just the gift of new skin. No, we had been given the gift of a new life. Reconciliation with our families was at least possible. We were invited back into the community. All of us were beginning a new life, but I was the only one that made the connection that this incredible gift had a Giver. It didn’t just drop down out of the sky, and I wasn’t just lucky enough to find it buried in the sand. No. Someone had given me this gift, and that Someone was Jesus. I think to be thankful is more than just knowing the value of the gifts in your possession but realizing that each of those gifts has a Giver. If not for the Giver, you would not have those gifts. Whether those gifts are your health or your family or your career, to be truly thankful is to acknowledge the One who gave you the gift.
Second, a thankful person is one who knows that the gift is a grace gift. That might be redundant, but what I mean to say is that I had done nothing to deserve the gift. None of us had. There was no reason that Jesus should have given any of us the gift of cleansing on that day. No reason at all. We were not “worthy lepers.” No, we were just common, ordinary, run of the mill lepers. And we were given a gift that we had done nothing to earn. People aren’t thankful when they think they deserve something, but when you get something and you know that you don’t deserve it, then that wells into gratitude.
Third, a thankful person is one who expresses that thankfulness. Is unexpressed gratitude really gratitude? The other nine might have been “thankful” in their heart, but if that gratitude goes unexpressed to the Giver, is it really thanksgiving. Thanksgiving means that you give thanks. If you ask me, praising God is nothing more than expressing thanksgiving to Him for all His gifts, for all that He has done. Whether you put those words to music or not, expressed thanksgiving is praise. As the Scripture says, “We enter His gates with thanksgiving in our hearts, we enter His courts with praise.” Thanksgiving, by its very definition, must be expressed to truly be thanksgiving.
Finally, a thankful person is one whose gratitude does not stop when the “thank you’s” are spoken. A thankful person must “rise and go” and walk in faith. When someone realizes that they have been given a gift by a Divine Giver, a gift they did not deserve, comes into the presence of the Giver to give praise and thanksgiving, that person cannot simply walk away unchanged. A thankful person lives differently for the rest of their life. Their life is forever marked by their encounter with the Giver. I did not receive a new toy from Jesus that I played with for a few weeks and then lost. I received a living gift from Jesus that impacts my every hour and every moment of my every day. I rose up to walk a new life on that day, and that is a thankful heart.
So, that is the “unsanitized version” of the story that was read to us this morning from the Word of God. And my that story lead us to be truly thankful people.