Learning from the Lepers

Lost in London

Two Australian sailors came ashore in a boat in London. They decided to have a drink at a local pub and they found one, but it was a little distance from the dock.  While they were drinking and getting drunk, the unpredictable London weather struck. Fog descended, making it difficult for them to find their way back. As they staggered out of the bar, they got lost. The two men went along muttering to themselves, “We don’t know where we are”. After sometime, they heard the footsteps of a man walking towards them. As he emerged from the shadows, they saw that he was a highly decorated British naval officer. They asked him- “Do you know where we are?” The man looked at these two drunken men for a moment and said, “Do you know who I am?” The two men looked at one another and said to themselves- “We are really in trouble now. We don’t know where we are, and he doesn’t know who he is”. (from http://churchreawake.org/)

You know, sometimes it is difficult for us to recognize our predicament.  We don’t realize our condition or our need.  I think that is one of the reasons for many of our struggles.  Sometimes we are like those sailors, not necessarily drunk, but nonetheless staggering through the fog of our lives looking for something or someone who can help us.  Quite often we distract ourselves from our condition by burying ourselves with busyness, entertainment, technology, or relationships.  We comfort ourselves with an illusion of control and prop ourselves up with superficial things that do not address our real needs.

lepersThe Lepers

You probably know that those suffering from leprosy in Jesus’ day were considered unclean.  This meant that they were completely cut off from society.  They had to remain far away from others, they could not be with their families, they could not attend worship, they had to announce their presence by shouting “Leper”.  Not only did they face these social consequences, the disease itself was horrific- nerve damage, inability to feel pain, loss of limbs.  People avoided them out of fear of becoming a victim of the stigma, or contracting the disease themselves.

If you put yourself in their shoes, you can understand their loneliness and their desperation.  It’s safe to assume these lepers had heard of Jesus and believed that he could somehow, bring relief to the misery they experienced.

Let’s learn from them a bit.  I think they have some valuable lessons for us today.

Have Mercy On Us!

As Jesus enters this village ten lepers have gathered.  Most likely this occurred on the outskirts of the town, since the lepers would not have been allowed to live in town among the people.

So there on the edge of town, they wait.  Jesus approaches and when he is in earshot they cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Luke 17:13)

I want you to notice a couple of things here.  The first is that they were clear about their need.  They were keenly aware of their condition.

Are we?  To my knowledge we do not have a leprosy problem.  But we do have a host of other problems and challenges don’t we?  One Anglican writer noted that our major problem is that we do not have a good sense of the desperation of our need.  We are not truly alive to our own weakness and helplessness, and so we “do not cry fervently for mercy and grace.” (Ryle, Luke Vol 2, page 173)

We do not feel our spiritual disease.  We do not realize the depth of our lostness, the damage of sin, and the ways we deceive ourselves. Far too many of us fail to see that we are wandering through the fog of our life.  The Lepers knew their need.  Do we?

Unless and until we see clearly our great disease and our great need, Christianity will remain for us a thin veneer we simply paint over our unrepentant and unredeemed lives.

Once the Leper’s are clear about their need, they act on it. The second thing I want you to notice is that they gathered together and put themselves in proximity to Jesus.  They had a need, and they were convinced that Jesus could and would help them. Jesus was passing this way and they placed themselves in his path.

Do we?  Think about it.  Where do we meet with Jesus? Principally it is in the community of faith, the Church.  In our day and age it has become increasingly popular to shun church attendance.  We wouldn’t say that outright.  But the fact is that many people’s church attendance is second to almost everything else in their lives.

In his book Follow Me David Platt says, “To identify your life with the person of Christ is to join your life with the people of Christ.” (Platt, Follow Me, page 150

So if we understand our need, then our next step is to put ourselves in proximity to our Lord.  I understand that God is everywhere.  You may indeed have a sense of God on the golf course, at the game, or on the lake, but you will not be taught by His Word, or commune with Him the in Eucharist, or be strengthened by the fellowship of the faithful.  There is a uniqueness to His presence with the Church and in the sacraments, particularly Baptism and Eucharist, which were instituted and ordained by Christ himself.  He gave these sacraments for the very purpose of helping us draw near to him.  But it’s hard to draw close to someone if you won’t spend time with them.

Next, the Lepers put words to their feeling, to their desperation.  They cry out, “Have Mercy on Us!”   Has there ever been a more honest, more heart-wrenching cry than this?  When you understand your great need and come into the presence of our Great God this is the most appropriate and powerful prayer to pray.  There is no need for eloquent words. There is no need for many words –Just an honest plea.

I cannot tell you how good it would be for your soul to learn from these Lepers.

So here’s what we have learned so far.  1.) Our first step is realizing and admitting our lostness, loneliness, and need.  2.) We must place ourselves in proximity to the Lord, his sacraments, and his people and 3.) We call out to him in our need.

The Power of Obedience

The next major thing I think we learn from these lepers is the power of obedience.  Notice what happens in the next verse after they call out to Jesus.  Luke says, “When he [Jesus] saw them He said to them, “ ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went they were cleansed.” (Luke 17:14, ESV)

Did you notice when the healing took place?  As they went.  As they were obedient, they experienced the healing they desired.

Jesus’ command for them to go and show themselves to the priests would not have been uncommon.  After a healing it was expected that the priest would verify the healing and proclaim the person clean and able to rejoin the community.  This happens in various healings in Matthew, Mark and Luke.

In this passage however, they are asked to make a walk of faith.  When they talking with Jesus, they haven’t been healed.  It’s only when they are walking toward the priests to be declared clean do they receive the healing.  Do you see the tension here?  They have to do what Jesus asks in order to experience what Jesus provides.

Isn’t human nature to want this to work the other way?  Often we want to see God work and then we will follow him.  How many bargains have people made with God?  “If you’ll only do this, then I’ll do that.”  That’s not the way it works.

Think back to Israel’s entry into the Promised Land in Joshua 3.  After wandering in the wilderness for forty years, the time has finally come for the children of Israel to enter their land.  They are carrying the Ark of the Lord and they are given these instructions by God:

And when the soles of the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off from flowing, and the waters coming down from above shall stand in one heap.” (Joshua 3:13, ESV)

When was the Jordan going to stop so the people could cross? When the soles of the feet of the priests rest in the water. God didn’t stop the water and then call them to step in.  He asked them to be obedient, and to trust him to act, and then they would see the miracle.  In his book The Circle Maker Mark Batterson makes the point this way.  He says, “Some people spend their entire lives on the eastern shore of the Jordan waiting for God to part the river while God waits for them to get their feet wet.” (The Circle Maker, page 118)

Obedience is often the missing piece in our lives.  How many people have their life of faith short-circuited by disobedience!

For most of us, it isn’t that we wonder what we should do, its that we don’t always feel motivated to do it.  We expect our feelings to lead us to obedience.  But seldom does that happen.  We have to learn that our faith shines brightest not in our intentions but in our obedience.  German martyr Deitrich Bonhoeffer, once said, “Faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.” (Quoted by Rick Warren http://pastorrick.com/devotional/english/show-your-faith-by-obedience)

Where can you be more obedient to the will of God?  In your worship?  In your private devotions? In your concern for your neighbor?  In your family? In your prayers for the world?  The possibilities are endless.  But do not miss the key of obedience.

Thankfulness

Finally, one leper in particular teaches us about thankfulness.  St. Luke says, “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and fell on his face at Jesus’ feet giving him thanks.”  And he receives praise from our Lord for his gratitude.

It’s so easy for us to neglect thankfulness.   In his book The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith tells this story:

“I once watched a child open her presents at a birthday party that all of her friends and their parents attended.  She especially wanted a certain gift that she did not get.  One by one she opened each package, and the child who gave it watched, smiling with anticipation, only to watch her snub her nose and push the package aside.  It was painfully embarrassing to all of us, especially to the birthday girl’s parents.  It was a startling example of ingratitude.  She was given gift after gift, and all she could think about was the one gift she wanted.  I later learned that the gift she wanted was neither precious nor valuable, but was inferior to many of the gifts she received.

As I drove home I thought about how spoiled and ungrateful that little girl was.  Then the Spirit whispered, “Are you so different?”  I thought about how often I focus on something I want God to do for me, and neglect the ten thousand things -often better things -He has already done.” (Smith, 68-9)

Here’s an exercise for you.  Go home today and start making of list of what you have to thank God for.  Go from the big things (I am alive, I have friends, I can see) to the small things (the color of a leaf, the ability to rest, the laughter of a child).  Turn anything and everything into a prayer of thanksgiving. You might be surprised how this exercise affects you.

Conclusion

There are a number of lessons in this passage for us.  I’ll review them:

1.) See Clearly. We need to see and comprehend our great spiritual poverty and need.

2.) Seek Him. We must put ourselves in proximity to Jesus- in community, and in habits such as prayer and scripture reading.

3.) Speak Up. We must give voice to our need as the Leper’s did.  “Lord, have mercy upon us!”  This shows our humility and desire for God’s intervention.

4.) Start Walking. We must begin walking in obedience.  Do what you know the Lord wants you to do.  Period.  Don’t wait for a feeling to move you.  As Nike says, “Just do it!”

5.) Show Gratitude.  Recognize and foster an awareness of the blessings you already have.

The Lepers may be a surprising source of spiritual wisdom, but there it is.  Their example contains some very important lessons for us.  Don’t miss them.  I believe their healing physically, speaks to the healing we all need spiritually.  Dare to follow their example, especially if you don’t know where you are, and life feels like a foggy night in London, far from home.  AMEN+

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