IN HIS PRESENCE
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When He saw them He said, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And it happened that as they went, they were cleansed. Luke 17:14
THE story here isn’t about the bad behavior of the nine who gave no thanks, or even about the one who did, but rather it’s about Jesus. He is the central figure of the story, the Scriptures, our lives and our future. Without Him any talk of God is speculative, but with Christ, who cleansed us from the leprosy of our sins by His death on the cross, we too become part of the everlasting chorus. We too will be among those who fall on their faces as did the leper, and worship the Lamb at His heavenly throne without end, and there is no better place we could ever be than that.
There’s plenty to criticize about the nine, but whatever else we might say, they heard about Jesus, believed what they had heard and trusted that He could save them from a life that had become living hell. We don’t know if they just happened to be at the right place at the right time, or if they sought Jesus out, but it makes no difference because the Lord’s watchful eye sees the distress of His children, hears their pleas for mercy, and answers them all, and we are those children. Whatever else they did or didn’t do, the ten lepers believed in the power of Jesus and prayed the most important prayer a distressed soul can ever pray: “Jesus, Master, have mercy upon us.” It’s a prayer so important that the church enshrined it into her liturgy centuries ago so that God’s people could pray it together each time they gathered, so that they could bring their every petition large or small to Jesus who loves to answer prayer. Yet it’s not only a prayer for church, but one we take home with us as well; one we can pray at all times, and in all places, because there’s no end to our temporal and spiritual needs. Keep the leper’s prayer on your lips and in your heart always, and when you can think of no other thing to say, simply pray Lord have mercy, and know that He will always answer in the affirmative.
Now it’s possible that hearing the Lord’s question “where are the nine,” might lead us to become self-righteous or indignant, but that would be a mistake because we are the nine. We too have received the good gifts of God: health and salvation, daily bread, liberation from sin, death and the devil but we don’t count our blessings. Instead we complain about what we don’t have, lose patience, worry, anguish and forget to rely on our Great High Priest for all our needs. If songs and prayers of thanksgiving were not part of the Liturgy, how often would we give God our thanks and praise? Don’t answer the question, Beloved, because the answer isn’t pretty, but don't despair either. Only thank God that His church teaches us to pray, and learn from the negative example of the nine, and the positive example of the one to give God glory at all times and under all circumstances. It’ll benefit us more than the bitterness and envy we’re so accustomed to.
There’s a lot we could say about the one Samaritan who returned. He too, has much to teach us, not only his thankful heart, but also the fact that he recognized Jesus for who He was. Jesus told the ten to show themselves to the priests. This is what the Mosaic law commanded for lepers made clean, that a priest certify their cure, and that they offer the specified sacrifices in thanksgiving. Such an act entailed a trip to the Jerusalem Temple quite a distance away. The Temple was the place where God and man met, and where animals were sacrificed to atone for the sins that men had committed. It was a place of grace where animals died, so sinners could live. In that respect it looked forward to Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Ten were healed but only the Samaritan, a religious half-breed, a man whose people had been on the wrong side of the theological tracks for seven centuries; only he was astute enough to realize that Jesus is the fulfillment of all that Scripture promised. In that moment his theology became as pure as his flesh, and he understood that Jesus is the Temple of God. Jesus is the Victim and the Priest who forgives our sins, restores us to health and is worthy of our worship and thanksgiving.
Yes, Jesus is the central character in the story. He was on His way to Jerusalem to die, not for a political cause but a theological one. In accordance with God’s will, the treasured Savior gave His unblemished and holy flesh in exchange for the toxic assets of our sinful flesh. As lepers coming into contact with Jesus were made clean, so sinners, however many they be, or however many sins they bring to the Cross, are also purified and made whole, we are among those people.
As the Samaritan glorified, worshiped and praised Jesus we should do the same, not just with our hearts and minds, but with our bodies as well. As the Thankful Samaritan laid himself face down at the Lord’s feet, may we too learn reverence, which isn’t only a matter of the mind but of the body. Reverence is a much needed virtue in our boisterous world, where noise is everywhere and everything. It’s not just for psychological reasons that Christians practice it. We have another and better reason. Just as Jesus walked into an un-named town on the Galilee-Samaria border, He comes to Cleveland, Ohio, today and resides in the sanctuary of Christ Lutheran Church. He doesn’t just send His love or His regards. He doesn’t just say, “thinking of you” or “hope all is well.” Instead the resurrected and glorified Lord, whose true presence we are taught to discern in the Word and Sacraments is authentically with us, hearing and answering all our cries for mercy.
We show our reverence for Christ first with our faith. We believe all that He says about sin and its forgiveness. And faith is the highest form of worship a Christian can render, because it receives our Lord and His gifts of salvation. Such faith receives the forgiveness of sins and eternal life Jesus came to bring. Such faith is great because its object is great, the Lord Jesus Himself.
We also worship Him with our bodies, with slow, thoughtful, humble and quiet movements whenever we enter His courts, and with music, liturgy and prayers that recognize this Divine Guest for who He is, and that match the gifts that He gives. This is the chief purpose of the church’s ritual; to teach us reverence as we fall down at Jesus’ feet in thanksgiving and praise Him for sins forgiven and new life granted.
While we show reverence in our worship, we also show it each day of our lives. We do it by rejecting the works of the flesh, the ones St. Paul lists in Galatians chapter five; and by embracing the fruits of the Spirit with our bodies as well as with our minds. In these ways, by our faith, our knowledge, our reverence and our lives, we too properly glorify the God/Man Jesus who cleanses us from the leprosy of sin and gives us eternally grateful hearts. Amen.
~Rev. Dean Kavouras