Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Proverbs 4:10-23 | Galatians 5:16-24 | Luke 17:11-19

Text: Luke 17:11-19

A young man I know who just turned five said the other day, “We don’t give anything to God.  He gives everything to us.”  This warmed my Lutheran pastor heart to hear!  Out of the mouth of babes you have prepared praise!   Already wiser than Pelagius, Erasmus of Rotterdam, and John Wesley.   And this is true, when we are talking about repentance and justification.  As our Lord put it so succinctly, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God…unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3-5).

But to say that we don’t give God anything isn’t actually the case.   We actually do give God things, and this account in the Gospel demonstrates that.

A couple misconceptions should be cleared up first.  First of all, none of us can repay God for what He gives us.  Jesus, at the Pharisee’s house in Luke 14:12-14 says, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” This is to magnify what God has done to for us—that for which we can never repay Him!

The second is a point which Martin Luther made in His 1535 Galatians commentary.  It’s often paraphrased, “God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbor does.”[1]  Unlike the manmade religions that our sinful minds concoct, there is nothing we can offer to God.

Now, to what we do give to God.  This is something which you’re already familiar with.  Martin Luther wisely expressed this in the explanation to the First Article of the Creed.  After a fairly exhaustive list of all the good gifts from our Heavenly Father, the Catechism concludes: “…for all this, it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.”

The Samaritan leper exemplified this.  His response went above and beyond the Law (just like we heard last week).  If the two Gospel lessons are considered together, we can take home the message that our works of the Law can never promise favor with God and eternal life—only faith in the mercy shown in Jesus Christ can do that.  Then, recognizing the saving work God’s Son rightly breaks out in thanksgiving and praise!

Here are ten men who are cast out by the Law, excluded because of their sinful condition (not that we typically think of that aspect of diseases nowadays).  By faith, they cry out to Jesus for Him to heal them.  And the faith of all ten results in their healing.

But the faith of the Samaritan is more fully formed than the other nine.  This phrase was misapplied during the Reformation: “a faith formed in love” (see Apology, IV 100).  This was the papists’ way of saying that faith alone doesn’t save, but there also had to be love for the faith to save. But that’s clearly not the case, since all ten were healed, and the Lord at the end says, “Your faith has saved you.”  But the Samaritan is held up by Jesus to show a faith that has deeper roots, that is bearing fruit in acknowledging just how much the Lord has done.

So back to Luther’s explanation: “…for all this, it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.” This man does give something to God-in-the-flesh: Thanksgiving from a renewed heart that recognizes the undeserved goodness that He has received through the hands and mouth of Jesus.  It’s more than the polite manners our parents taught, that we should say thank you when we get a gift.  This goes back to the heart of how we were created to be in fellowship with God.  Thanksgiving is the natural response to realizing what generous and loving gifts God showers us with!

Think about how He has created you in all that wonder, how He daily provides for you even in perplexing times, how He protects you from danger, all that He has done so that He receives you as His child forever through the blood of Christ!  If the thanksgiving doesn’t just gush out, then perhaps the faith needs some increase.

What also flows from faith is the praise of God: “Hallelujah!” as the Psalms so often teach us to say. That is, when we realize what great gifts the Lord has given, it overflows into our lives.    Teaching our children to thank God, acknowledging our failures and rejoicing that the Lord forgives and heals us, wearing our faith on our sleeve (so to speak) or around our neck, and being ready to share with others why that cross is so beautiful.

A thriving faith also wants to serve God.  Think about another man whom the Lord healed, who had a legion of demons possessing and tormenting him.  The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.” (Luke 8:38-39) He naturally wanted to serve the Lord who had freed him from the demons and restored him to sane humanity.  So, Jesus sent him back to his home as a witness.

Our faith will likewise lead us to ask, “How can I serve the Lord?”  Rarely does this mean, pack up and go to the seminary or enroll in a church worker program (but obviously for some it does).  Rather, as Luther alluded to, we most often serve God by serving our neighbor.  Think about your vocations, the relationships God has given you and go and do that in His Name.  Listen to how St. Paul describes this as he speaks to the vocation of slaves:

22 Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” (Col. 3:22-24)

Imagine that! Their serving the Lord looked like being good slaves, because their faith taught them that while immediately, they were serving their master, but by faith they were in fact serving the Lord Christ!

Serving the Lord is also lived in light of the Judgement on the Last Day.  Remember, this is a judgment that is determined by faith, but consider how that faith is to be lived out:

37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matt. 25:37-40)

And finally faith renders obedience to God.  The Lord says, “Blessed…are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” and His instructions to the Church say, “teaching them to observe (keep) all that I have commanded you.” (Luke 11:28; Matt. 28:20)  That word “keep” is more than just “you told me to,” but a joyful and willing obedience. Faith treasures the Word of our Creator, our Savior, by which the Holy Spirit has wakened us and renewed us. 

So, to obey God is to strive to live your days doing what is pleasing to Him.  Your body is yours from God, so use it as a thankful steward and care for it as best you can.  Your income is a gift from God, so designate a portion of your income to support the Gospel.  Your spouse and children are gifts from God, so love your neighbor right in front of you.  Confess and do not deny Christ before men, and He will confess you before the Father in heaven.

Your faith has saved you, and now let the Holy Spirit work on you to renew your whole life as an offering to God and in service to your neighbor, and in the end inherit eternal life.  In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

[1] Original quote: “Thus a man is a Christian in a total sense: inwardly through faith in the sight of God, who does not need our works; outwardly in the sight of men, who do not derive any benefit from faith but do derive benefit from works or from our love.” (Commentary on Galatians 5:6; LW 27:30)

God's Blessings Come Through the Cross (Luke 17:11-19)

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost + October 9, 2016
Text: Luke 17:11-19
Today’s Gospel tells us of one of the many healings which Jesus did.  The recipients were ten men of Jewish descent.  We know this because Jesus directs them to show themselves to the priest in Jerusalem.[1]   As people with a Jewish background, they were familiar with the spiritual significance of leprosy—that it made them unclean and therefore unfit to participate in the life of God’s people, much less be at the temple.[2]
But what if the ten men whom Jesus healed had been Greeks or Assyrians, who knew nothing about the God of Abraham?  Certainly we see healings happen today for those who know nothing or care nothing about the God who made heaven and earth.  Unbelievers receive the same kinds of bodily healing that Christians receive, at the hands of the same medical professionals.
Yet if you were to ask someone who’s not a Christian where their healing came from, they might credit the doctor, or medicine, or a breakthrough procedure.  The point is that God, who created them and preserved their life, gave them healing and they didn’t return in thanks to Him.
On the other hand, there are many who do see God’s hand in the good things we have on earth.  In America, our national motto is, “In God We Trust,”[3] and when our leaders address the nation after troubling times, they end with “God bless America!”  Speaking of that phrase, during World War II, Irving Berlin’s song, “God Bless America” became famous.
“God bless America, land that I love/ Stand beside her and guide her/ Through the night with the light from above”
Berlin praised God for watching over and guiding this country.  What’s interesting though, is that Irving Berlin was a Russian Jewish immigrant.  Yet, he penned a song that Jews, Christians, and even Muslims can sing without reservation.
Even the spiritual but not religious can give thanks to God for His temporal blessings.  But what we should look at is what makes the Samaritan unique so that Jesus praises His faith?
It’s a matter of knowing where the blessings really come from.  Ten lepers received the gift of cleansing, but on their way, one of them was given the understanding of faith.  Nine of them continued to the temple and the priest, but one turned around because the Holy Spirit gave Him insight to see something more.  He was given the bigger picture of why God showed him mercy.  It was because the One who healed Him was on His way to Jerusalem.
In Psalm 121, the people of God would sing, “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where does my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”  For God’s people of old, this meant the place where the Passover Lamb was sacrificed and where prayers and sin offerings were daily made for the people of Israel.  But the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to see that when Jesus climbed the hill of Golgotha, bearing His cross and carrying the sins of the world, He was the true Passover Lamb and all-sufficient sin offering which God made for sake of all people.
In the Law, it was commanded of lepers, “He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.”[4]  So it was for the ten lepers, but the Holy Spirit opened the one’s eyes to see that God accomplishing a more perfect cleansing in Jesus.   As the Apostle to the Hebrews wrote, “Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.”[5]  When God brought this to fulfillment it was the High Priest Himself who went outside the camp, whom God made to be sin who knew no sin—so that all who believe in Him might become clean, even the righteousness of God.[6]
So it is through Jesus Christ that God made peace with this sinful world.  It’s through the peace of the cross that God deals graciously with humanity.  The Lord says that His Father “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”[7]  It isn’t because we’re such faithful folks that God blesses America.  It isn’t because we deserve better medical care that He gave us skilled doctors.  It isn’t because one couple did something right that they have kids while another is barren.
God gives His blessings through the cross, so that all would come to know what sort of love He has for His creatures—every single person.  “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  “It was not because you were more in number than any other people…but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath He swore.” [8]  For those enlightened by Holy Spirit to know Christ, we are able to see how God gives His blessings even to the unthankful and the wicked.
That is also our source of comfort when the apparent blessings don’t come.  There were certainly more than ten lepers in all of Israel at that time, but Jesus didn’t relieve all of them.[9]  There were many who died on the same day as Lazarus of Bethany, but only he was restored to his family.  If we could only praise God at the times when it’s going well, we would have many silent hours, wondering what God is thinking.
Without the cross, we can’t be sure that we have a gracious God.  That’s because the only information we would have to go on is whether things are good or bad.  Unless we hear from the Word that the Lord loves us and that He is faithful to His promises, we might just fall into despair.  But Christ crucified and risen is the guarantee from God that not only gives us reason to glorify him for undeserved blessings today, and also a certain hope for all eternity.  As St. Paul writes, “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?”[10]   When our eyes are fixed on the One who went up to Jerusalem, we’re confident of God’s fatherly love and trust that He will provide and support us whatever this passing life brings.
So with our Samaritan brother in the faith, we give glory to God not just for the gifts He gives today, but even more for His beloved Son who offered up His life for the world.  In Christ, we will glorify God even beyond the grave.  Amen.
[1] Leviticus 13 details this under the Law of Moses.
[2] Leviticus 13:45-46
[3] Adopted in 1956, possibly in response to the political threat of Communism which had ties to atheism.
[4] Leviticus 13:46
[5] Hebrews 13:12
[6] See 2 Corinthians 5:21
[7] Matthew 5:45
[8] Romans 5:8, Deuteronomy 7:7-8
[9] See Luke 4:16-30
[10] Romans 8:32