Artwork: James Tissot, The Healing of Ten Lepers
Whenever you read a story from the Gospels, as we just did from the Gospel of Luke, you always need to ask: ‘Where do I fit into the story?’
I’m afraid, the answer for today’s Gospel is not very flattering: we are the ten lepers. Of course, we may not have that terrible skin disease, but in the Bible, leprosy is an image of the effect of sin. Leprosy made people in the Old Testament unclean. A leper could not go to the Temple and could not go home. So you were cut off from God and from your family and community. Our leprosy is our sin, yours and mine, which breaks our relationship with God and with one another, and makes us unclean. Just as leprosy caused the flesh to rot and fall apart, so too does our sin cause the wasting away and disintegration of who we are made to be.
Think about how sin impacts our human relationships and communities: lies and grudges, bickering and backbiting, selfishness and self-righteousness – fill in the blank with whatever sin is troubling your conscience this morning – whatever it is, it eats away at the very fabric of our created life, it makes us fall apart, and leaves its stain. And in a similar way, these and others sins cause disintegration in our relationship with God.
Throughout the New Testament, the lepers stand for sinners, and throughout the New Testament, Jesus has contact with them and heals and restores them. He touches the untouchable, he forgives sinners, he restores the fallen.
Of the ten who were cleansed in today’s Gospel, one of them turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at the feet of Jesus, giving Him thanks. That’s Luke 17 v. 15-16. Every part of that sentence is laden with meaning. It shows us four aspects of a restored relationship with God: Repentance, Praise, Humility and Gratitude.
First, he turned back. In our sin, we turn away from God. We must turn back to Him. That’s what repentance means.
Second, with a loud voice he glorified God. That is what we are created to do – not to exalt and glorify ourselves, but to praise and enjoy God our Creator.
Third, he fell down on his face at the feet of Jesus. Humility, humble submission to Jesus as Lord and Master.
Fourth, He gave thanks to Jesus. Gratitude. A life lived in thanksgiving for what Jesus has done for you.
Repentance, Praise, Humility and Gratitude. Those are the four necessary ingredients of a restored relationship with God, which also make for restored relationships with one another. Repentance, Praise, Humility and Gratitude.
Of those four, we see three of them on display in our Psalm today, Psalm 84. After that one leper repented, after he returned to give thanks to Jesus, I think we can imagine him saying the words of Psalm 84 to express his praise, humility and gratitude. So friends, I’d like us to imagine ourselves praying it together with him.
You’ll notice in the Psalm’s subtitle that it is called ‘a Psalm of the Sons of Korah.’ The Sons of Korah were temple singers, appointed by King David to lead the people in praising God with music.
Psalm 84 gives us a glimpse of the delight that the Sons of Korah found in this role. How lovely is your dwelling place * O LORD of hosts!
But we also get a sense of longing and homesickness. My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; So apparently this Son of Korah was separated from the Temple for whatever reasons and was remembering what it was like to be there. In that sense, he was like the leper, as unclean lepers were barred from Temple worship.
Friends, we can certainly relate to this, as those who have been mostly cut off from this lovely house of worship here at St. James for much of the past year and a half. The St. James choir – our own sons and daughters of Korah – have not been able to sing and lead worship here in this beautiful sanctuary as they normally would; and that has been hard, to say the least. We long for the day when we can all gather here again to sing God’s praises with one voice.
But though we may long for this sanctuary, we must remember that God does not ultimately dwell in a building made with hands, but in heaven and in the hearts of His faithful people. Both individually and collectively, we are God’s temple.
As Paul says, Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1 Corinthians 3:16) Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19–20)
So when the Psalmist exclaims, How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord, and expresses a longing to serve God there, for us, this is about serving one another in love.
Friends, do we see each other as temples where God dwells, a place where His Spirit abides? Because that’s who we really are. If we are given new eyes to see in this way, then we’ll be better able to do what Paul encourages us to do in today’s first reading from Galatians: Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.
In that passage from Galatians, Paul also speaks of the responsibility we each have to bear our own load. What he means is that God has given each of us a unique set of life circumstances, challenges, and gifts; and you are called simply to take care of your own. You will only have to answer for your own load, not how you’ve done in comparison to others. If, by the strength the Spirit supplies, you can first manage your own load, then with confidence and humility, you can help others to bear their burdens when called to do so.
The next part of Psalm 84, the middle section, is about bearing your own heavy load amid challenging circumstances.
Blessed are those whose strength is in you, * in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
During difficult times in your life, the hardships you go through are like a journey in your heart on an arduous road to Zion, God’s dwelling place. The way to God’s presence is not as lonely or trackless as it may seem, but well prepared and well frequented. For us, the Psalms themselves are such a highway.
As they go through the Valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; * the early rain also covers it with pools.
Baca refers to a tree or a shrub that grows in arid places, harsh conditions. So the Valley of Baca is a desert. In the Prayer Book version of this Psalm, the Valley of Baca is called the Vale of Misery: who going through the Vale of Misery use it for a well. This is the classic statement of a faith which dares to dig blessings out of hardships.
The early rains also cover it with pools. This refers, I think, to those moments of relief and refreshment God grants us during times of trial.
They go from strength to strength; * each one appears before God in Zion. Following God when He seems far off makes us stronger. Faith, hope and love grow with exercise.
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3–5 ESV)
For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favour and honour. * No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly. Those who walk uprightly are those who keep in step with the Spirit, as Paul says in our first reading from Galatians.
To keep in step with the Spirit is to walk your life’s journey in such a way that you are both led and empowered by the Holy Spirit (as opposed to your own self-will and self-direction). To live by the Spirit, to keep in step with the Spirit, means to live a life of repentance, praise, humility and gratitude – those four things we see from the thankful leper.
To keep in step with the Spirit means to walk in line behind our risen Lord Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. With His strength, you can bear your own load no matter how difficult the journey, and bear the burdens of others in love.