Sermon on St. Luke 17:11-19
1 September 2013
“Go and show yourselves to the priests.” – St. Luke 17:14
It was the Mason-Dixon Line of its day, the division between Samaria in the North and Galilee in the South. Jesus was there, for He came for all people, and He encountered ten lepers. They stood back from Jesus, for they had to keep their distance from healthy people. And they prayed to Jesus, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy upon us!” And how did Jesus respond to these ten men, who suffered beyond anything you and I have ever known, and who were as good as dead? “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” I’d like to focus on this command this morning, for it contains much more than we can probably deduce from this one sentence. Building on Leviticus 14, here we see how lepers gradually re-entered the presence of the Lord in three places: the camp, the sanctuary, and the Divine Service.
The first part of the ritual in Leviticus 14 (see vss. 1-8) prepared the leper to leave the leper colony, the hospice of its days, and re-enter the camp, i.e., the general population. [Skim vss. 1-8.] What happened to nine lepers on their great day of salvation? They were brought to the priest, who met them outside the camp, probably wearing a hospital mask and those sterile, surgical gloves. If the lepers appeared to have been healed, then he took two birds, one to kill and one to set free. The live bird was dipped in blood and sprinkled seven times over the former leper. The leper was pronounced clean and the live bird was set free. Then the nine lepers were off to the laundromat for a much needed washing of their clothes. While their clothes were in the spin cycle, they enjoyed a shave and a shower. Then the nine former lepers were ready to live in the camp, but not yet inside their tent or anything else.
The ritual for re-entering the camp reminds us of Holy Baptism. We are born spiritual lepers, dead in trespasses and sins, cut off from God and His people, and bound to die a lonely death, unless we get help from above. But faithful parents brought us to the font shortly after we were born to be cleansed from the leprosy of sin. The two birds in Leviticus 14 remind us of death and life. The slaughtered bird is of course an image of the crucified Christ, who shed His blood for us. The bird set free is an image of the resurrection and new life, a reminder that God gives us life and gives it abundantly. The sevenfold sprinkling of the leper with blood, along with the washing of his body and his clothes, are an image of Holy Baptism, where we are sprinkled with water and washed in Jesus’ blood. Here, in this font, is healing for the leprosy of sin and restoration to God’s “camp,” this creation, as God intended it to be: a place of healing, wholeness, and life.
Go! Show yourselves and your children to the baptismal font! And as you journey to the font, God will show you what it means to stand before Him, wearing the white robe of Christ's own righteousness.
After entering the camp, the former leper was prepared to enter the sanctuary, the place of God’s presence. We read in v. 9, “And on the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair from his head, his beard, and his eyebrows. He shall shave off all his hair, and then he shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and he shall be clean.” Do you see how this is similar to what the leper did after his first inspection by the priest? You might wonder, as many have through the years, why the former lepers had to repeat their shave and haircut after seven days. Medically, one might say that it is necessary make sure the lab results are accurate. (One friend of mine who has skin cancer follows a similar ritual to make sure his dermatologist does not miss the slightest hint of cancer.) This may be part of the thinking in Leviticus. But even more so, what about the seven days? (Think like a Hebrew, not like an American.) What would the number seven mean to a Hebrew? Creation. God created this world in six days and rested on the seventh. And ever since Genesis 1 and 2, we still have a seven-day cycle to frame the work of God as Creator. So seven days says that God is ushering in a New Creation for these healed lepers, who could now enter the sanctuary and walk with God in newness of life.
The rite for entering the sanctuary reminds us of confession and absolution. Think about it: Lepers were initially declared clean to enter the camp or general population, but they affirmed the healing a week later. And so Holy Baptism counts for life. We do not re-baptize, as a group known as the “Anabaptists” (literally “re-baptizers”) once did. However, Luther reminds us that the Old Adam, who was drowned in Baptism, swims well. He continues to tempt us to sin and to become unholy before the Lord. And so we come to confession and absolution, not because there was something wrong with our Baptism, but because we have continued to sin and make ourselves spiritually dirty before the Lord. In the confession of sins, we crucify every impurity in our hearts by confessing them. And then we hear the words of spiritual cleanliness: “I forgive you all your sins.” That is to say, “I declare to you, in the stead and by the command of Jesus Christ, our Lord, that you stand before God with clean hands and a pure heart.”
Go! Show yourselves to your pastor for confession and absolution. And rejoice as you are once again declared to be clean before God.
After re-entering the camp and the sanctuary, the former leper was ready to participate in the Divine Service. [Skim vss. 10-20.] On the eighth day after his first inspection, the leper took two male lambs, along with other, non-bloody offerings. He approached the entrance of the Tabernacle with the priest. After the first sacrifice, blood was placed on the former leper: his right ear, his right hand, and the big toe of his right foot. Oil was placed on the same parts, anointing his body before the Lord. We then read three times (vss. 18, 19, and 20) that “the priest shall make atonement for [the former leper].” And the nine were clean, able to participate in the services of God’s house.
The re-entry to the Divine Service teaches us what it means to rightly participate in our own Divine Service. The two sacrificial lambs are an image of Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. But what about placing the blood on the leper’s ear, hand, and toe? This is a strong statement that the blood of the atonement is not just past tense. We do not just stand by and remember the cross, although we of course remember Jesus’ sacrifice. Even more so, the blood once shed on the cross must be given and applied to you and me. His blood has purified our ears, so we can hear the sure and certain promise, “This is my Body; this is my Blood.” His blood has cleansed our hands, so we can handle the Holy Things, viz. His true Body and Blood. His blood has cleansed our feet, so we can walk about His altar in innocence. And here we drink His blood, where there is the holiness of forgiveness and eternal salvation.
Go! Or better: Come! Come and receive what one liturgy calls “the holy things for the holy ones,” i.e., the holy Body and Blood of Christ for God’s holy people.
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Only one leper, a Samaritan, turned back after his healing to give thanks to God’s new Temple and Great High Priest, Jesus Christ. He teaches us that we are no longer under the Old Covenant, although the rituals in Leviticus paint a vivid picture of the work of Christ for us. The rituals to re-enter the camp, the sanctuary, and the Divine Service preach the good news that in Christ we are baptized, absolved, and fed. Yes, we are holy before the Lord. So we can go before God, even in the final judgment, and stand before Him with clean hands and a pure heart.
God grant it unto us for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Rev. Brian Hamer