One of the interesting things I noticed about many places in the Holy Land is that cities don’t gradually get smaller and become towns and villages, they often just stop and open up into vast areas of wilderness. This was especially true in Jerusalem and was quite startling.
|Jerusalem – Looking at the Old City from the Mount of Olives|
Jerusalem is large urban city of ¾ of a million people and there are smaller towns like Bethlehem that are really part of the urban sprawl, but as you drive out of the city you can almost draw a line between city and wilderness.
|Just outside Jerusalem
the wilderness you see here extended for miles.
Cities would end and vast wilderness areas would begin.
|Tiberias – you can see the city on the right and how quickly
it turns into rugged, undeveloped mountians.
While in Jesus day the cities would not have been as large, the wilderness was still very close by and many people lived on the margins in the wilderness.
One group of people forced out of villages to live in the wilderness were lepers. Leprosy in the Bible covered all kinds of skin diseases but the most serious would be what we call Hansen’s disease. While the disease attacks the skin, leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, is not primarily a skin disease, it is a disease that attacks the nervous system. The real tragedy with leprosy is that it does not kill a person but lingers in the body and slowly breaks down tissue and nerve endings leading to deformity. Leprosy was not only a horrible disease for those who had it but because it was highly contagious those who contracted the disease were forced out of their homes and cities to live on the outskirts of society. They lived in the wilderness to fend for themselves or in colonies with other lepers.
As I thought about what a leper colony might look like I thought about the Bedouin communities we saw in the wilderness between Jerusalem and Jericho. These communities really look like they are miles from anyone and anything, but some were just a few miles from Jerusalem, and it was this kind of community that awaited for those who got leprosy. They would be cast out of society where the disease would slowly eat away at their hands, feet, ears and face.
The only way a leper could re-enter society was to have the priest declare them to be clean and this was a lengthy process that involved ceremonial washing, shaving off all your hair and the sacrifice of doves and lambs over a period of a few weeks. The process is found in Leviticus 14 and it is pretty interesting to read and while it is a complex process, it makes sense if you remember what was going on with Israel at this time. Israel was travelling through the wilderness where disease could spread quickly. They had to take seriously things like mold and mildew and the spread of disease in order to keep the people healthy. This is why so many of the laws of the Old Testament have to do with health and hygiene. God was trying to keep his people healthy, strong and alive as they traveled through the wilderness and settled into a new land.
So as Jesus approaches Jerusalem he is travelling through some barren areas and on the outskirts of a village 10 lepers keep their distance, as they are supposed to, and cry out to Jesus for help. Now in all of the other miracles we have looked at, Jesus healed instantly. When the woman grabbed hold of the tassels on Jesus’ garment, she was healed. When Jesus spoke the word, the Canaanite woman’s daughter was healed. Jesus often just said the word and it was done, but here Jesus offers healing in a different way. It says he told the lepers to go and show themselves to the priest and as they went, they were healed. They were not healed instantly – they were healed as they followed Jesus’ instructions.
In this miracle, Jesus calls for an act of faith before the healing comes. Sending the lepers to the priest was needed for them to be considered clean, but when they started out their skin wasn’t any different. They may have even wondered why they were going to the priest because nothing had changed, they weren’t healed so what was the priest going to do, but they went anyway because they believed that Jesus had the power to do something. They trusted him and acted as if they were going to be healed.
God’s power often comes to us when we walk in faith trusting Jesus to do something good in us and through us. We may not see the full picture when we take the first step, or the second step, or the third step, but when we keep going because we trust God, he will guide us, help us and fill us with power. I wonder how many steps it took before the lepers noticed anything different in their arms and legs and faces. I wonder who noticed it first and if they stopped and checked each other out. What an amazing moment that must have been for all of them when they saw the healing in themselves and the others. We can get to this moment of transformation ourselves but only if we will first step out in faith trusting Jesus.
While all 10 lepers were healed, it says that only one returned to Jesus to say thank you and he was a Samaritan. It’s important to understand what a radical thing this is. Samaritans were hated by the Jews. They believed them to be heretics and false teachers. The history of the Samaritans goes back to the time when Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BC. While many people were led away into captivity at that time, some Jews remained in the area and they intermarried with the people that the Assyrians brought in to keep the land settled and productive. When the Jews who had gone into captivity returned home, they saw the people who remained and claimed to be the people of Israel and descendants of Abraham as a type of mixed race outsiders.
The people who remained in Israel did worshiped God, but they did it on Mt. Gerazin because they believed that was the mountain where God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. The rest of the Jewish people considered Mt. Moriah (which today is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem)
|The Temple Mount is the in the center, just beyond the walls|
to be the place where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac, and this disagreement divided the people and led the Jews who returned to Israel to consider the Samaritans as not only impure but heretics for teaching that you could worship God somewhere other than in Jerusalem. So there is deep division and hatred among these two groups of people. Even though they are still actually brothers and sisters, there is deep resentment and anger. But one of the leper’s Jesus healed was a Samaritan and the only one to say thank you was a Samaritan and so Jesus holds him as an example of what it means to be faithful.
This would have been difficult for the disciples and many of the followers of Jesus to understand and accept because they didn’t believe there was any way that God could love the Samaritans. These people were not just considered outsiders, they were considered outside the boundaries of God’s grace and blessing. These were people that no one in Israel thought deserved to be cared for or helped and yet here is Jesus caring for them. One of the common themes we have seen in these miracles is that the power and love of God is for everyone and we need to embrace this message as well.
Today it is still too easy for us to see some people as being beyond the grace and love of God. We are quick to judge others and believe that God’s grace simply cannot reach or should not reach those who live differently that we do. This is always a dangerous attitude because Jesus shows us over and over again that his love and grace and God’s power to save is for everyone. God is not just here for us, God is here for and loves everyone. We may struggle with how people chose to live their lives, we may even think that some people, nations and religions as beyond the ability of God to care for – but this story shows us that God really does love all and offers salvation to all.
It is salvation that Jesus offers this leper and not just healing. When he came back to thank Jesus, Jesus said to him, Rise and go, your faith has made you well and that word well means saved. Jesus didn’t just heal this man, he said, you are saved. Jesus offered him the grace of God which brings the fullness of God’s life and this is what God still offers to everyone. God offers us salvation today – you and I. We might feel far from God and even like an outsider and beyond God’s reach, but God’s love does extend to us and it forgives us and saves us if we are willing to come to Jesus. Jesus not only offers salvation to us, he offers it to all people which means we also need to extend our hand and help and heart to all people. We cannot look at anyone as being beyond the reach of God’s grace and love.
So now let’s look at what sets this Samaritan leper apart from all the others – he turned back to say thank you.
I love this painting of the miracle because it shows us that turning back begins by doing one simple thing first – we stop. Notice that this man isn’t running back to Jesus yet. He has just stopped. While the others are continuing on, he has stopped to look at his hands and the healing that is taking place. He is thinking about what is happening to him and who made it happen. He has simply stopped to consider all that is going on and that is the first step in giving thanks – we stop. Gratitude requires us to stop long enough to notice what is going on in our lives and think about who has helped bring these good things about.
One of the things we all struggle with today is being so busy that we fail to stop and reflect. We fill each moment with some activity or diversion and when we get to the end of the day we fall into bed exhausted until the alarm goes off and we rush into the next day to start all over again. Even our weekends aren’t times of rest and reflection, they are just as full as the work days and so we have lost the ability to reflect on all that is going on in our lives and who has brought us all those good things and valuable opportunities.
Since being thankful isn’t something that is going to come naturally to us, we have to make it a habit and pattern of our lives and the first step is to stop and reflect. I would encourage you to stop every day this week and come up with a few things for which you can give thanks. It might be something little or it might be something big, but we need to begin the process of stopping long enough to reflect and see what is actually going on in our lives for which we can give thanks. Even if everything is falling apart – we need find that one thing for which we can give thanks.
I was talking to a friend this week who has recently gotten some upsetting news about a health condition and the medication it calls for will create more health problems and it has been a troubling and stressful time, but during the course of our conversation she got quiet and said, I need to find something positive that is going on to share with you. I thought to myself – YES. That is what it looks like to be thankful. We have to stop, get quiet and consider all that is going on and find that one thing for we can say, thank you God. She did find something to be thankful for and shared it with me and the course of our conversation changed. It became more hopeful. God was making her well – giving her life.
One of the things that is interesting about giving thanks in Jesus’ day is that many people didn’t do it the way we do. People wouldn’t say thank you as much as they would find ways to repay people for the kindness later on. So the other 9 lepers who were healed and did not return to Jesus may not have been rude and arrogant, they may have just been thinking that they would repay Jesus at some point in the future, but the leper who did return understood two important things.
First, he understood that he might never get the chance to return to Jesus. Jesus was passing through so he may not have the opportunity to repay Jesus in the future so he needed to do something right then and there. We always think we will get another chance or another opportunity to say thank you or to set our lives right or to turn our lives around, or come to Jesus, but we may not so we need to make the most of the moments we have today.
Second, the man probably thought, how can I ever repay Jesus for this? Again, look at him looking at his hands and looking back to Jesus, can’t you just hear him thinking, how can I ever repay him? He couldn’t, that’s the thing, so instead of even trying he simply returns to Jesus and doesn’t just say thank you but throws himself at Jesus feet, and praises God. He worships Jesus and gives him the only thing he can which is a heart full of love and appreciation. And honestly, that is what God wants the most from us, a heart full of love and appreciation. God doesn’t want all the things we can give him or things we can do for him, and he doesn’t want any meager attempts to repay him, what he wants is our hearts and lives devoted him. He wants us to worship him and allow that worship and love to shape our lives.
This miracle is an important one because it teaches us how to respond to God’s power. Like the lepers who went to see the priest before the healing came, we need to step out in faith and trust that God will work in our lives before the power and help comes. I can’t tell you how many times I have tried this and found God faithful. I agreed to lead a Bible Study in college and had no idea what I was doing, but God led me and provided someone to teach me as I went along. I traveled to Yellowstone NP without a clue as to what I was going to do or how I was going to be involved in ministry and while at times it was a struggle, God led me every step. The next year I worked in Rocky Mountain NP and while I just went to be a worker, I was suddenly told I was going to have preach. I had never preached in my life and wasn’t sure I could do it, but I said yes and then God gave me the power and ability to do it.
As a pastor I have found myself in situations where I felt completely unqualified, like my first funeral which was for a still born infant. I had no idea what to say or do, but as I moved forward – God led me and provided for me. You may not understand this, but most weeks as I think about preaching I feel completely unprepared for what I do, but I just take one step forward and trust that God will be there to provide.
What step of faith do you need to take today? Maybe it is just signing up to be part of serving our seniors, or working with our children or youth or going on the mission trip or walking into a new small group or Sunday School class. Many times we have to take the steps first and then allow God’s grace and power to help us.
So we need to respond by taking steps of faith and we need to respond by learning to say thank you. We can’t repay God for all he has given us and all that he has done for us and all that he continues to do us. We can’t repay God but we can say thanks and we do that by stopping long enough to notice all that God has done and is doing in our lives.
One last comment about gratitude, it draws us closer to God and closer to one another. This leper returned to Jesus and because he did he entered into a very different relationship with Jesus than the other nine. When we give thanks to God not only do we draw near to God but God draws near to us. God draws us closer to his heart and life and is willing to share more of who he is with us. That is what happened to this leper – Jesus gave him more.
Expressing our gratitude also draws us closer to one another. Saying thank you to people helps build, strengthen and even heal relationships. If you want a stronger marriage, learn to say thank you to your spouse. If you want a stronger connection with your children or parents – learn to say thank you for who they are and what they do and the joy they bring to life. If you want better relationships at work, in the church and community – find ways to express gratitude. It really does strengthen relationships and brings healing and wholeness and joy to life.
The next couple of weeks will provide for us some great opportunities to practice our gratitude toward Jesus. From Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday we will have a chance to hear all that Jesus has done for us and the power of God to heal us, forgive us and bring us victory over the sin and death. We can’t repay God for the gift of Jesus and we can’t repay Jesus for his suffering and death – but we can respond in faith and trust Jesus as we move forward, and we can respond with gratitude and find simple ways to say, thank you God.
The Miracles of Jesus – Healing the Lepers
1. Gratitude is often a practice that needs to be cultivated, so find 5 minutes each day to stop, reflect and find 5 things for which you are thankful. Keep a list and share with a spouse or friend. Post on facebook or twitter.
2. The gratitude and thanks God wants is a heart devoted to Him in worship and praise. Commit to worshiping Jesus during Holy Week by attending the Easter Cantata or worshipping with us on Maundy Thursday and/or Good Friday. Use these times to simply give your heart and life to Jesus.
3. Gratitude building stronger relationships. This week tell your spouse, parents, children, coworkers and friends how much you appreciate them.
4. The lepers stepped out in faith before the healing came. How is God calling you to step out in faith today?
• Joining (or leading) a Bible Study, Small Group, or Sunday School Class
• Serving our Seniors
• Mission trip to Oklahoma
• Working with Children and/or youth
• Helping a neighbor or friend
• Tithing, or a step up in the giving of your money and time to God
5. God’s grace is for ALL. Are there those you believe are beyond God’s love and grace? If you can name them, ask God to soften your heart so you can see them as He does.