Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
Leprosy is a terrible disease. We hear about it regularly in the Bible. The disease begins with specks on the eyelids and on the palms, gradually spreading over the body, bleaching the hair white wherever they appear, crusting the affected parts with white scales, and causing terrible sores and swellings. From the skin the disease eats inward into the bones, rotting the whole body piecemeal. Wherever the leper went he was required to have his outer garment torn as a sign of deep grief, he was also required to shave his whole head and cover his head with his clothing, a sign of lamentation at death—his own death. Furthermore, he had to warn passersby of his condition by crying out “unclean, unclean!” wherever he went. He couldn’t greet anyone or receive a greeting, because in the middle east in the first century, you didn’t greet someone without embracing them, which would also make that person unclean. If you were blessed enough to have your leprosy go away, you didn’t just go home. You had to show yourself to the priest, who examined you and quarantined you for seven days, just to make sure you really were healed. On the eighth day you had to make offerings and sacrifices and be involved in a very lengthy and elaborate ritual to declare you clean and fit to return to society. Leprosy was no joking matter. (Easton’s Bible Dictionary; Leviticus 13-14)
Though leprosy is a real disease, it is an excellent representation of sin and spiritual corruption. It begins small, spreads gradually, and ends up in disfigurement and the corruption of the entire body and eventually death. Sin does the same thing. Sin corrupts, degrades, and defiles our inner nature and renders us unfit to enter the presence of a pure and holy God. Think of Paul’s far from exhaustive list in today’s Epistle. People involved in adultery, fornication, hatred, jealousy, outbursts of wrath, selfishness, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, and all other sins are not fit to inherit the Kingdom of God. People with spiritual leprosy—which includes all of us—are deserving of God’s righteous wrath. “The flesh lusts against the Spirit,” that is, the Holy Spirit who wants us to do the things of God, to put forth love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Our flesh does not want to do any of those things. It thinks only of itself and its own pleasure. Repent before your spiritual leprosy leads to its rightful end.
To show what that repentance looks like, St. Luke has recorded the miraculous healing of ten lepers. How Our Lord crosses paths with this band we do not know, but their belief is evident. They cry out “Jesus, Master, have mercy upon us!” You do the same thing. Daily by virtue of your Baptism you cry out to the Lord, “Forgive me! Have mercy!” Every time you gather here with deepest repentance you groan “I a poor, miserable sinner confess unto Thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended Thee. Forgive me! Have mercy!”
When the lepers begged for mercy Jesus gave it. He did not say “I forgive you” or “Be healed,” but declared them clean. “Go, show yourselves to the priests,” He tells them, a roundabout way of declaring them healed, since only people without leprosy could go to the priests. And then one obeyed perfectly. It isn’t that nine failed to return to give thanks. They did that, but they also didn’t make the same confession the one did. He went to the Chief Priest, Jesus Christ, the One for whom all the other priests were but shadows and previews. His actions confess Jesus as the only one to whom he could confess his sin and receive full and perfect forgiveness. He returns and shouts the praises of God and prostrates himself in worship of God-in-the-flesh. He didn’t disobey Jesus, but confessed Him as Christ, the Messiah, the One come from God to bring full healing in body and soul.
This is the same thing that happens to you every time you confess your sin. God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ, has mercy on you, forgives you all your sins, and restores your spiritual life to perfect health. He may not give you perfect healing in your body, but He gives you perfect healing where it matters most.
Levitical law required that the one healed of leprosy be sprinkled with the blood of the sacrificed animals. Now in the new covenant you are sprinkled with the Blood of the sacrificed Lamb of God in Holy Baptism. At the Font He declared you free of spiritual leprosy, free of every sin, and promised to heal you of your every sin until He calls you to Himself, preserving your coming in and your going out from that time forth and even forevermore.
He has given you His Holy Spirit who fights for you against the flesh and leads you to do those things that are pleasing to Him. At the Font when your Old Adam was drowned in those waters, Christ crucifying the flesh with its passions and desires, the Holy Spirit was made yours to bring forth His good fruits that help keep your flesh from its old ways and lusts. The Spirit is with you, fighting for you and within you. And in those times when your flesh rises up and wins, the same Spirit is with you to lead you back to Christ to make your confession of sin, to again hear His voice declare you free of sin, redeemed from sin and shame, reclaimed from chains and bonds and even eternal death.
But in this life, death is your hope. As morbid as it may sound, it is not. The death of this body is a good thing because, just like we sing in the Easter hymn, “Jesus lives and now is death but the gate of life immortal.” Because you are in Christ, you are promised a blessed end. The day will come when you will be free from sin, free from this evil flesh that wants nothing more than to give into every lust and sharp temptation, free from every evil thing you do that your New Man does not want to do. In Christ you will die, your soul will be carried to Him, and at the Last Day you will receive this body back, but perfected. One day you will know what it is to have a body that works perfectly, that doesn’t age or ache or contract disease, that works just as it did when God lovingly fashioned it with His own Hand and breathed His own breath into it. Then you will be with that Samaritan leper and all the fellow redeemed, glorifying God with a loud voice, worshipping at the feet of Jesus giving Him thanks for His great mercy that has no end.
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Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.