Grace and gratitude - Luke 17:11-19
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Well, as I’m sure you know, today is the 200th anniversary of Wilberforce’s bill that abolished the slave trade throughout the British Empire. But when he was younger, it was a different story. As a boy Wilberforce had the privilege of hearing the Gospel, but it passed him by. As a student in Cambridge, he was the life and soul of the party. And like some students today, he was bright enough to wing it and get a degree with little work. He’d rather spend his time and money on the good life. He would’ve felt very at home on Beverley Road on a Friday night. He wasn’t a Hitler; he was an ordinary law-abiding young man, just like lots of normal young people today.
But after university, Wilberforce did start to reflect on Christianity. And before he even became a Christian, he wrote this in his diary: “the deep guilt and deep ingratitude of my past life forced itself upon me in the strongest colours and I condemned myself for having wasted precious time, and opportunities and talents”.
Wilberforce was someone who came to realise that he’d been living an ungrateful life. A life of ingratitude for the amazing gifts God had given him.
And that’s exactly the issue being addressed in that reading we had from Luke’s Gospel. So pl turn back to Lk 19 on p1051 and look with me a v11:
11Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus travelled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy[a]met him. They stood at a distance
So we’ve got 10 men who’ve got leprosy. And leprosy’s caused by a bacterial infection. The infection causes sore patches on the skin and leads to loss of feeling at nerve endings. Indirectly, it can lead to loss of fingers, toes or even whole limbs. And what’s worse is that it’s highly contagious. Like a cold, it can be spread by coughing and sneezing. Today, it’s entirely curable and so in the West it’s unheard of. But globally, there are still 300,000 new cases a year: that’s about 800 day. And just like AIDS, both today and back in Bible times, leprosy come with social stigmatism. If you’ve got leprosy, you’re an outcast.
Indeed, the OT was clear that people with leprosy should be segregated from other people. Lev 13 tells us that those suspected of having the disease were to be examined by a priest. And if it was leprosy, then they’d be pronounced “unclean”.
And this is what led to leper colonies. Places where outcaste
lepers could live together, at a distance from the rest of the community.
And that’s why in v12 these 10 lepers stood at a distance. They wanted
to meet Jesus, but there weren't allowed to come near.
“They stood at a distance and shouted out: Jesus Master: have pity on us”
What did they want from Jesus? Well even in the leper colonies, the grapevine worked. These 10 men had heard all about Jesus. They’d heard about his miracles. They’d heard about him casting out demons, healing the sick and even raising the dead. And they may have heard about him healing the leper back in chapter 5. The issue wasn’t: could Jesus heal these 10 lepers, but would he?
Jesus, Master, have pity on us. What did they want from Jesus? Well to be healed of course. And not just physically healed. They wanted to be healed socially . Declared ceremony clean so they could come back and live in the community. Back with their clean and healthy friends and family. Away from the festering outcasts in the leper colony.
Literally the word pity is mercy: Jesus, have mercy on us. They may have wanted healing from their leprosy. But what they needed was a deeper cleansing. Like lots of OT law, the rules about leprosy were meant to be a giant visual aid. A giant visual aid pointing to something bigger. And that something was sin. It’s not that leper were necessarily more sinful than anyone else. No sickness, disease and even death in our world are a result of sin in general. Our world is a mess because of sin in general. And leprosy’s a picture of that sin.
Lev 14 makes this even clearer when says what was to happen when a person was cured of leprosy. They were to go back to the priest to be examined and declared healed. But then, the healed person was to sacrifice a guilt and a sin offering under the terms of the Old Covenant.
God is completely holy and he can’t stand to be near anything unholy; anything unclean. And that’s the issue being dealt with in the whole book of Leviticus: how can a holy God live among his sinful people. And the answer is only if there’s atonement. Only if there’s some form of sacrifice for sin; some way of averting God’s righteous wrath against His people’s sin.
And leprosy was a picture of being spiritually unclean before God. In God’s eyes, sin is like a festering disease. By his very nature; His holiness, God can’t stand it; he can’t be near it. As Isaiah tells us (59:2) “your sins have separated you from God”.
And so the point of the picture is this: We’re all spiritually sick lepers. And our sins have separated us from the utterly clean and holy God.
Let me tell you about John Stott, who was for many years the rector of a famous church in London called All Souls Langham Place. He’s authored dozens of Bible commentaries and other Christian books as well as being an internationally known evangelical preacher. But there was a time before he became a Christian when he felt separated from God. He describes it like this:
“I can still remember my own perplexity when as a boy I said my prayers and tried to penetrate God’s presence. I couldn’t understand why God seemed shrouded in mists and I couldn’t get near him. He seemed remote and aloof.”
Maybe that’s how you feel. You try to pray to God, but there’s a glass ceiling in the way. Your prayers aren’t getting through. And the reason is: you’re spiritually sick. You’re a spiritual outcast.
And that’s hard for us to take in isn't it? Because by nature, we think that we’re basically OK. We might have a few spots on our skin, but nothing a bit of Clearasil won’t cure. Basically we’re OK, and overall, our good deeds certainly outweigh the couple of shortcomings we might have; those facial spots we try and cover up.
But Jesus says No. We’re all spiritually sick. V sick. We’re all got a disease that goes to the very core of our being. And it’s much worse than leprosy. It’s called sin. Rebellion against the God who made you and gave you every good thing you have. And you’ll never understand God’s good gift, you’ll never be grateful to God, if you don’t accept that you’re a spiritually sick leper; a festering uncleanness in God’s sight
And that brings us to the second main point: Jesus came to heal and save the spiritually sick. Jesus came to heal and save the spiritually sick.
Look with me at v14:
14When he saw them, he said, "Go, show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were cleansed.
They were cleansed. And the first thing to note is that Jesus has got the power to heal. Yes Jesus can and does heal today. Jesus has compassion on the sick and needy. But in the Gospels, Jesus did heal all the sick. And when he did, there was always a deeper point. We need to see through the healing to what Jesus is teaching us. Look at v14 again:
14When he saw them, he said, "Go, show yourselves to the priests."
He’s pointing us back to the OT. Back to that picture of sin that needs to be cleaned up. Jesus hasn’t healed them at this point. It’s only as they respond to Jesus and went off to see the priest that they were cleansed. He’s laying down a challenge. A test of faith if you like: yes I can heal you, and heal you all: but will you trust my word, says Jesus. Yes I will heal you - on the way to see the priest. But you’ve got to trust me; off you go, and on the way you’ll be healed. Bye bye.
If they hadn’t trusted in J's word, then they wouldn’t have been healed. But they did, so they were. But there’s more. Remember what would’ve happened when those 10 lepers found the priest. They would have been examined; declared clean; and then sacrifice their guilt and sin offerings to make atonement for their sin; the sin pictured in their leprosy.
But the animal sacrifices in the OT were only a picture as well. A pointer to something better. A pointer to the New covenant. The NT that is. And all through the second half of Luke’s Gospel, we see that Jesus is on a Journey. Look at v11 again: “Now on his way to Jerusalem”. It’s a phrase that pops up again and again. Jesus was man with a mission. A mission to get to Jerusalem. But what was he going to do when he got there? Well flip over to 18:31:
31Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. 33On the third day he will rise again."
Jesus was on a mission to the Cross. Jesus is the reality the OT simply pointed to. And on the cross, Jesus was acting as the priest and the sacrifice. He was the one producing the sacrifice; the sacrifice that would atone for His people’s sins. But he didn’t sacrifice an animal. No he sacrificed himself. That was Jesus’s mission. To sacrifice himself on the cross that first Good Friday. Why? So that spiritually sick people like you and me could be saved. Saved from the righteous wrath our sins deserved. Jesus not only heals the physically sick; he’s got a bigger agenda. Jesus came to heal and save the spiritually sick.
Which brings us to the 3 main point of the passage in v15-19. A saved heart is a thankful heart. A saved heart is a thankful heart. Look with me at v15:
15One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16He threw himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him
One of those lepers knew that God had healed him. He praised God in a loud voice. He may not have understood everything about Jesus, but he also knew that Jesus had been the agent of God’s healing, so he thanked Jesus as well as praising God.
And that’s a good model for us when we received good things from the Lord, but through other people. We thank and praise the Lord, but we also give thanks to the one through whom the Lord has blessed us. When was the last time you thanked someone who had helped you in some way?
Because in v17 Jesus commends this Samaritan leper who came back to say thank you. And at the same time, he rebukes the others who didn’t. When you remember what a state they were in; suffering from that terrible disease; socially cut off; and spiritually cut off; remember that they’d cried out for Jesus to have mercy on them. And he did. And they didn’t even say thank you. It’s astonishing isn’t it?
Let me tell you about Andrew Carnegie. He was a 19C American businessman who founded the Carnegie Steel company which later became the famous US Steel company. And so Carnegie became America’s richest man; the Bill Gates of his day. When he died in 1919, not surprisingly, everyone wanted to know what was in his will. And like most rich people, he left money to his family. And one of his more distant relatives received $1mn. In today’s money, that’s about £15mn. How would you feel if you inherited £15mn? But when this Carnegie relative was told about his inheritance, he cursed Carnegie for being so mean; that’s right: he cursed the man who’d left him £15mn. Why? Because in his will, Carnegie gave away $365mn to various charities; and there was only 1 measly million for this long lost relative. Curse the stingy old man. How dare he cut me off like that – he said.
The ingratitude’s staggering isn’t it? But that’s what Jesus is saying those other 9 lepers are like. Like Carnegie’s relative, they’d been given a totally underserved gift. A gift worth even more than £15mn. A gift which would have changed their lives. But they displayed staggering ingratitude. It’s not that they cursed Jesus for what he hadn’t given them. You know: thanks for the healing, but where’s the Porsche and the 5 bedroom house? No the point is that they were so ungrateful for what they’d been given they forgot to say thank you.
If you’ve got small children, you’ll know about this all too well. Parents spent a large part of their lives providing for their children. And in their immaturity, children don’t understand just how much is being done for them. They have to be constantly reminded to say thank you. On Mother’s Day, after giving his mum a present, one child asked his mum: so when’s children’s day. To which the response was: every day is children’s day. This young child hadn’t understood what mother’s day was all about: a day to say thank you for all that his mother did for him every day of the year. It’s not excusable, but we expect ingratitude in children. But when we see that level of ingratitude in adults, well that’s shocking isn’t it?
Look with me again at v18:
18Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?"
The one who came back we learnt in v15 was a Samarian. A non-Jew. Someone who wasn’t one of God’s old covenant people. Someone who was regarded as unclean and cut off from God’s grace. And the word Jesus uses for foreigner in v18 was the same word on the notice boards outside the Temple in Jerusalem; no foreigners past this point. Jews only. Only those who are clean enough to approach God’s symbolic presence in the Temple.
And the shocking implication is that the other 9 weren’t foreigners. They were Jews. They were part of God’s old covenant people. And it gets even more shocking in v19:
19Then [Jesus] said to him, "Rise and go; your faith has made you well."
Literally it’s your faith has ‘saved’ you. And again, the implication is that the other 9 weren’t saved. Not saved or healed in this deeper sense. Why? Because Jesus implies in v19 that their faith was inadequate. It’s not that they didn’t have faith in Jesus. Remember they’d all heard about Jesus. They’d all called out for him to have mercy on them. They’d all taken him at his word and gone off to see the priest. And so they’d all been cleansed of their leprosy.
But they’d missed the deeper point. They’d missed the point that their leprosy was a sign of their sin. And their cleansing was a sign of their need to be cleansed spiritually; saved from a fate worse than leprosy; a fate worse than death.
They had some faith in Jesus. They had the badge of church membership: they were Jews after all; the people of God. And they’d experienced Jesus’s grace; Jesus’s gracious cleansing of their leprosy. But their staggering ingratitude shows they’d missed the main point. They hadn’t understood just what a mess they were in. They didn’t understand that not only were they physical lepers; they were spiritually sick lepers as well.
Listen to some more words from John Stott describing himself before he became a Christian:
“I’d believed in Jesus all my life. … I’d regularly struggled to say my prayers…. I’d been baptised and, yes, confirmed as well. I went to church, read my Bible, had high ideals and tried to be good and to do good. But all the time, often without realising it, I was holding Christ at arm’s length and keeping him outside”
And the point is, that you can be in church all your life like John Stott and still miss the point. You can have all the right badges of church membership; you can sit under the best and clearest Bible teaching in the land and still think you can be good enough for God on your own. And just like those 9 Jewish lepers, it’s v dangerous. Because despite all those badges of church membership, despite all the privilege of being surrounded by God's grace in this world, your sin isn’t cleansed. And you’re still heading for a lost eternity.
How do you know that’s you? Well there are 2 tests from tonight’s passage; first you don’t accept that you’re a spiritually sick leper. You find that analogy of being like a festering leper in God’s sight rather repulsive. And secondly, you’re not thankful that Jesus has fully cleansed and saved you. You’re not thankful, because you’ve never really received the gift of forgiveness. And so, despite the badges of church membership, in reality you’re not living a life of gratitude to God.
After he became a Christian, Stott wrote that he was “profoundly grateful to God for enabling me to open the door”; open the door to saving faith in Jesus that is.
After he became a Christian, Wilberforce wrote that Jesus had “produced in me something of a settled peace of conscience. I devoted myself for whatever might be the term of my future life to the service of my God and saviour”.
And so the question is, do you have that settled peace of conscience? Do you have a grateful heart? And are you living a life of loving service to God in response to his amazing generosity in the Gospel. The gospel of free forgiveness. And if you don’t, but you want explore what that would mean, then come and talk to me at the end, I'd love to pray with you.
But if you already do, then let’s join with that Samaritan leper as we close by praising and thanking God. And let’s ask for God’s help as we seek to live grateful lives of loving service. Let’s pray.
Dear Heavenly Father, help each of us here this evening to accept your diagnosis, that we are all spiritually sick lepers, justly deserving to be banished from your clean and holy presence. And so we do thank you so much that Jesus died on the cross so that we could be cleaned up and made holy and righteous. Help us to remember what we were, why we are what we are, and to seek you Spirit’s help us prepare for living in your presence for ever in the new creation. For our eternal benefit, but your ultimate glory we pray. Amen.
Copyright information: The sermon texts are copyright and are available for personal use only. If you wish to use them in other ways, please contact us for permission.