I’ve got to confess to you, if you haven’t known it already, I am a mere child. I never get tired of that thing. I never get tired of Kirt and Jill’s hat presentation. It is the most fun thing! I could watch it again. And we just always get the short version. I’d like to see the long version one time! Makes me think of Sebastian’s great horned helmet. He’s got a great horned helmet with horns out the side. I’d love to preach in that thing one night! Y’all might listen to me if I had this great big horned helmet on my head!
Let me get you to turn to Luke chapter 17. We want to look at verses 11 to 19 - the exchange and the healing of the ten lepers. Let me offer a couple of words of introduction first before I pray and we read. Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem; He's on His way to Jerusalem for His crucifixion. This is Luke's travel narrative and it begins in chapter 9 verse 51 and it ends, the travel narrative ends, with Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem around verse 28 of chapter 19. That's about ten chapters of Luke's twenty-four chapter total in his gospel, devoted to that transit between Galilee and Jerusalem, at the end of which is Jesus' passion, death, resurrection, and ascension. Much of what Luke reports in these ten chapters - if we can kind of think of this as Luke by the numbers - most of what Luke reports in these ten chapters relates to Jesus' teaching and Luke gives very little attention to action on Jesus' part. There are five things that I call "action incidents" in these ten chapters, with the rest of the recorded material really relating to Jesus' teaching and parables.
By way of contrast, to kind of help you get a feel for the importance of that, Jesus begins in Luke’s gospel, the record of Jesus’ public ministry begins in chapter 4 and from chapters 4 to 9, Luke relates fifteen “action incidents” - healings, deliverances, people being raised from the dead. That tells us that the burden of Luke’s message shifts from what Jesus does to what He says the closer he takes us to the cross.
Now the passage I’ve chosen and am about to read here in a moment is one of those five “action incidents” in this part of Luke’s gospel. And I think this “action incident,” this piece of the narrative, tells us some things pretty important. It talks to us about really three things. It talks to us about prayer. We learn some things about prayer. We learn something about obedience here. And we learn something about thankfulness. So with that in mind, let me pray and let’s read the passage and begin to talk about Jesus and the ten lepers. Let’s pray.
Father, open our hearts. Open our minds to Your Word. Help us lay aside all the things that would gallop through our brains in these few minutes and help us give our hearts and souls and all our attention to You because these words are life. So bless our time in Your Word. And we give You thanks, Father, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Verse 11, Luke chapter 17:
"On the way to Jerusalem, he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.' When he saw them he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.' And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, ‘Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?' And he said to him, ‘Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.'"
The grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of our God stands forever.
Prayer, obedience, and thankfulness - three things that I believe this piece of Luke’s narrative teaches us. Let’s talk about prayer, or how earnestly we call for help when we feel the need of it. On His way to Jerusalem, here’s Jesus in the border country between Samaria and Galilee, perhaps the lines are a little bit fuzzy. That’s why you have a group of Jewish lepers with a Samaritan mixed there. You know that Jews and Samaritans don’t do that much. They don’t come together. They don’t share. And yet here they are in the border territory; you find a mixed group of Jews and at least a Samaritan there. Jesus enters this village, His attention is attracted to these ten lepers, and they’re standing at a distance and they’re crying out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” There’s some measure of faith here. They ask, first of all; they ask Jesus to have mercy on them. They call Him “Master” which is a title of honor. And when, as the narrative progresses, Jesus tells them to go to the priests, they do, even though as they go they’ve still got leprosy. As they begin that journey, they’ve still got leprosy. They don’t ask questions; they do what Jesus tells them to do.
Desire for Attention
Now let's talk a little bit about the lepers themselves. What are they doing? They're outside the village, they're standing at a distance, and they're signaling Jesus and they're yelling out to Him. They're yelling a prayer to Him. "Have mercy on us!" They're obeying the laws isolation commands. The law prohibits them from going into the village; it prohibits them from having close physical contact with other people lest they spread their leprosy. These men would have deeply felt their deplorable state. It doesn't tell us how long they've been leprous. He doesn't tell us how bad their condition is. They would feel that their state is deplorable in part because they're isolated from those that love them. They feel forsaken, abandoned, rejected, even though their loved ones are deeply aware of their need yet they cannot get to them. They cannot have any kind of exchange with them. All of that compounds to cause them to know their hopelessness. There's a hopelessness to their condition. No doubt they've prayed and they continue to pray for relief and healing, and when Jesus comes, they cry out even more earnestly. Here's their chance. Here's their chance for healing. Here's their opportunity to be made whole. They're going to do all they can to attract His attention and appeal to His mercy. There's a confidence there on their part that He can if He will. And so there's a deep desire for them to have His attention and to have His helpful attention, not just His curiosity but His helpful attention.
Here’s a question. Here’s a question for us. How is it that we, the people of God, can be prayerless? How can we be prayerless? Or even worse perhaps, how is it that when we pray, our prayers can be so cold and so indifferent? I don’t believe if we saw this scene played out for us, I don’t believe there’s anybody in this room who would say that there was a note of coldness or indifference or apathy in the way these men prayed. They prayed as if their lives depend upon it, because they do. They do depend upon it. If we find ourselves and as we find ourselves, because I think from time to time we all end up with prayerless hearts or prayers that are cold, indifferent, apathetic, aloof from the Lord, could it be that we’ve lost the sight of our true sense of need? Could it be that we’re not believing and not recognizing that we are as weak and helpless as we are? Could it be that we’ve lost sight of the fact, and we lose sight of the fact from time to time, that our families are as needy as they are, that our spouse is as hurt and is as lost at times as he or she might be, that our city is so badly broken? Do we lose sight of that? Does something cause those realizations to bump from our radar and we lose sight of how truly needy, weak and helpless we are and our loved ones are? And so our prayers are indifferent and unmoved as we call out for mercy and grace. These men are not indifferent; they’re not unmoved. They cling to the presence of Jesus. Their contact, their, as it were, their brushing contact with Jesus as though their life depends on it because it does! Do we recognize that? Do we recognize our need, the need of our hearts to cling to Jesus? Our life depends on Him. Our future depends on Him. Our health depends on Him. Our marriages, our families depend upon Him. I think if we see that, if we grab that, it warms up our prayers and moves us, moves us off a prayerless state as we sometimes float or drift into it, into a prayerful state.
J.C. Ryle says this: “If saints could only see their souls as the ten afflicted lepers see their bodies, they would pray far better than they do.” That’s a good guide for us. If we could see our souls as these men see their bodies, as they face the prospect of losing extremities and becoming hopelessly deformed, if we could see our souls as needy and as broken, as graceless at times as these men see their bodies, we perhaps would pray better than we do.
Well if the passage teaches us something about prayer, it also teaches us something about obedience and particularly how help meets us in the pathway of obedience. Note what Jesus does here as He engages with these ten lepers. He doesn't touch them. We see Jesus touching lepers in other events. He doesn't even approach them apparently. He doesn't come any closer to them apparently. He didn't command their leprosy to depart. He never addresses their leprosy. He doesn't offer anything they must do - any kind of medication. As He does with one blind man, He doesn't spit on the ground and apply it to anything. He doesn't do that. He doesn't even address their condition. He simply says, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." Now Jesus is invoking what is the requirement in Leviticus 14 for someone who is leprous. If somebody is leprous and they believe they might be done with the leprosy, they go and show themselves to the priest. It's the priest who is called upon and called by God to judge, to determine if their skin condition, their contagious, leprous condition is still present. And if not, they're free to return to family life and village life. It's the priests' responsibility to do that, and that's all in Leviticus chapter 14.
And that’s what Jesus is doing. He says, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they go, they’re still leprous. We just need to let that sink in for us just a moment. They turn to find the priests as cruddy and consumed and broken with leprosy as when they got up that morning. It hadn’t left. There’s no prospect, no reasonable prospect that it’s going to go anywhere. But what did Jesus say? Jesus said, “Go find the priest and show yourselves to the priest.” That, apparently, is enough for them. Jesus said, “Do this,” and so we’ll do it. And as they went, they were cleansed. They had their healing as they obeyed. There was faith for a plea to Jesus, there was faith for recognizing Him as Master, there was faith for a simple, childlike obedience.
Here’s a question for us. What are the simple commands that Jesus gives us? Just the simple, straightforward, no-nonsense commands. Well, read and do His Word. Pray. Believe. Give. Worship with others of God’s people. Go and make disciples of all nations. Those are straightforward, no-nonsense. And what do we do? What happens as we do them? We have His blessing. We have His blessing. We may not have ease. Let’s not equate His blessing with ease. We may not have ease, but we have His blessing even in the midst of woes. There is a nearness that He comes near to the crushed and broken, the crushed in spirit and the brokenhearted. Here’s near to us even in our woes. We are perhaps more conscious of His nearness in our woes than when there are no woes. But we have His blessing.
What if these ten lepers had stood there reasoning and disputing and doubting? They would never have their healing, would they? They would never have their healing. Their healing, the power of that healing word that came from Jesus, is what they experienced in the way of obedience. You know one of them was a Samaritan as we read the passage. Jesus saying to him, “Go and show yourself to the priest” might create something of a dilemma for him. “Which priest do I go to?” he might ask. “Do I go to the priest of my brand of Samaritan Judaism? We worship on Mount Gerizim. Or am I supposed to go to a priest that’s associated with the temple of Jerusalem?” He doesn’t quibble. He goes. He goes. He obeys.
You and I find blessing in Christ as we obey His simple commands. He draws near with power, and in this case healing power, as we pursue the pathway to obedience. Sometimes we tend to make things more complicated than they really are. And I know that life is nuanced and there is more gray than there is black and white; I know those things. But there really is straightforward obedience to straightforward commands. And in the pathway of that obedience, we find His blessing and we find His nearness there as well. Doug Kelly said one time, "We stumble over joy in the pathway of obedience." I think we can also say that we stumble over the blessing of God in the pathway of obedience - obedience to those straightforward, simple commands.
Prayer. Obedience. And thankfulness. This is the one that really kind of drew my attention to this narrative and the reason I wanted to choose this tonight, the last Lord’s Day Evening before the Thanksgiving holiday. I’m very big on preparation for Thanksgiving. I’m very big on that. I have belly-flopped my way through a lot of Thanksgiving celebrations. You know what I mean by that. You know, just kind of get up surprised, “I knew this day was coming but here we are! What in the world am I thankful for? I haven’t even put any thought into thankfulness!” That’s what I call a belly-flop into Thanksgiving. I don’t want to belly-flop into Thanksgiving. I don’t want you to belly-flop into Thanksgiving. I want us to have some time to prepare. I want to encourage you to be preparing even as I encourage my own heart to be rehearsing the goodnesses of God - not just for Thursday, but Thursday kind of prompts me, maybe it kind of prompts you, maybe it’s a kind of shot in the arm day for living a thankful life and living before God out of gratitude.
Thankfulness is Rare
And really what we kind of see right here, and I think this is important for all of us to hear, myself included - thankfulness is a rare thing. Ten lepers were healed. Only one turns back to give Jesus thanks. You can hear something in Jesus’ words here as He says, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was there no one found to return and give praise to God” - and there’s His true interest. Not, “Thank you, Jesus,” but “praise to God” - “Was there no one found to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Commentators say some interesting things about, use some interesting descriptors about that comment or that word from Jesus. Ryle talks about the solemness of that remark. Calvin talks about the reproachfulness of that remark; reproaching the nine, the nine Jewish lepers who were healed. Hendrickson talks about the grief of that remark. Grief at the hardness of heart at His own people. Alfred Edersheim wrote a great book - if you don’t have it you should get it, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah - pictures this scene. “He may have followed them,” he says, “with His eyes, as but a few steps on their road of faith, health overtook them and the grateful Samaritan with the loud voice of thanksgiving hastened back to His Healer. No longer did he remain afar off, but in humblest reverence fell on his face at the feet of whom He gave thanks. The Samaritan had received more than new health; he had found spiritual life and spiritual healing. He was a disciple.”
That's very difficult in many ways. Samaritans and Jews, as I mentioned a little while ago - let me explore this a little bit further right now - there's bad blood there. The Samaritans, first of all, are not a pure Jewish blood; they're an ethnic mix of Israelites left from the Assyrian conquest of the northern territory of Israel, what we call the ten northern tribes and the colonists brought in by those Assyrians following their conquest of the area in about 722 BC. Prior to that, prior to 722 and this Assyrian conquest, there has still been plenty of tension between the Israelites in the south and the Israelites in the north because the tribes in the north had rejected and rebelled against the monarchy of the house of David when Rehoboam, David's grandson, was on the throne, the son of Solomon. And they split off to form their own nation not obedient to the worship of God at the temple in Jerusalem, not faithful to the priesthood of the line of Aaron, not faithful to the law, setting up shrines with images for worship that was clearly disavowed in the law and in the commandments. Not faithful to laws forbidding the inter-marrying with Gentiles, with their own version of the Pentateuch - that is, the first five books of the Old Testament - no recognition of the prophets of the histories or the wisdom literature as inspired. So there is a long history of tension between the Jews in the south and the Jews in the north before any ethnic mixing took place and there were any Samaritans in existence.
The ethnic mixing, the mixing of blood, the inter-marrying with foreigners just made everything worse. And now Jews refused to recognize any claims of spiritual equality or parity or brotherhood with the Samaritans. Remember what Jesus told the woman at the well? “You worship what you do not know. We worship what we know. For salvation is from the Jews.” The Samaritans wanted to claim a parity, wanted to claim a skin in that game of salvation to the world, and Jesus was saying, “You have nothing to do with that because you have forsaken the truth of God,” is what He was saying. “You’ve forsaken the truth of God.” And yet, it’s the foreigner who comes back to give thanks. The man with no background of faith. The man with no heritage of belief. The man with no redemptive history to teach him the mighty works of God for the sake of his people. The man with no natural claim on the promises of God and no birthright to them.
That’s who we were. That’s who we were. No natural claim to the promises of God and no birthright to them. We were those without God in the world. We were those not natural branches but wild olive shoots grafted into the tree. That’s us. That’s who we are. Peter describes us. Peter writing to a mixed church, a church of Jews and Gentiles in the northern areas of what’s now Turkey. He says in chapter 2 of his letter, verses 9 and 10, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” That’s who we are - people who were not a people, not related to God, people who had not received mercy. Jesus extended that to this Samaritan; He extended that to us as He called us to Himself, as He birthed a new life in us by the work of His Spirit; we trusted Him for the first time. That was not of our doing. This is not of this Samaritan’s doing. He is receiving the mercy of God. You and I receive the mercy of God with no birthright and no heritage in it because of the vast, rich, unbounded mercy of God.
It needs to make us thankful. It needs to make us thankful. Let's admit that we're more ready to pray than to praise, that we're more disposed to ask God for what we don't have than to thank Him for what we do have, let's remember our tendency is towards murmuring and complaining. John Calvin describes the nine as those who "swallow up God's favors without any feeling of piety." Think about that - gobbling up God's favors with no feeling of piety, no repaying God with the duty of gratitude. Let's admit those things. It can be true of us. And if we drift in that direction - or very much true of us. But let's pray, let's pray for a thankful spirit. We get there with a deeper sense of our own sin, guilt, undeserving, a deeper sense of our Samaritanhood, to say it that way. It's when we daily feel and know our debt to grace and remember that we deserve nothing but hell that we will be blessing and praising God and know Him as the Father of mercy. Thankfulness is a flower that never blooms so well except on the root of deep humility. Thankfulness is a flower that never blooms so well except on the root of deep humility. Let's prepare ourselves to be thankful, not just for Thursday, but let's prepare ourselves and drag ourselves into from time to time is what we have to do, drag ourselves into a thankful life.
Father, You are so good to Samaritans like us. You’ve been so rich in Your mercy towards us and so rich in Your deep kindness towards us. Open our eyes. We get so distracted, we get so bogged down in so many things, that we forget. And so we ask that You would help us remember. Go with us now. Go with us into the week ahead and guide, guard and keep up. Father, make our hearts soft towards gratitude as we walk with You in these days to come. Hear our prayer. We make it in Jesus’ name and for His sake, amen.
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