God-pleasing Worship Begins and Ends with Mercy
"Jesus Heals Ten Lepers" by James Tissot
The text for today is our Gospel, Luke 17:11-19, which has already been read.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
Jesus is continuing His journey to Jerusalem, traveling along the border between Galilee and Samaria. Just as He is about to enter into a village, ten leprous men come out to meet Him. Observing the strict rule concerning infection, they do not come all the way to Christ, but stand at a distance, crying out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
Some translations have the word, “pity,” rather than “mercy.” But mercy is a better word. In a recent Bible study, we discussed the difference between mercy and pity. We decided “pity is feeling sorry for someone; while mercy is actually doing something about it.” That’s why it is more accurate to say the lepers ask Jesus for mercy, rather than merely pity. They know that not only will Jesus empathize with their plight, but He also has the power to do something about it.
But why should He? What is it about them that should move Jesus to help them? Is it their ethnic heritage? It seems a terrible question even to pose in our day and age, but this event took place almost 2,000 years ago, in the area where Galileans and Samaritans went out of their way to avoid one another. It was a popular notion that a Jewish Messiah would come only to save the Jews. If that’s the case, why should Jesus help these lepers if at least one of them is a Samaritan?
Is it because they’ve got a lot to offer in return? Hardly. They’ve got nothing. They’re outside the village, literally rotting away and waiting to die. They’ve got no satchel of money, no vacation home to use, nothing to attract Jesus’ help or offer anything in return.
Is it because they’ve got a huge upside—that Jesus foresees all the good they will do in the future? Again, the answer is no. In fact, as the Son of God, Jesus already knows how ungrateful they’ll be—that only one of them will even bother to say thanks once He delivers them.
Is it because they are suffering worse than everybody else? No. I don’t know that they had a misery index for the time, but there are all sorts of people with all sorts of problems. Nor are these ten the only lepers around. They have it bad, but they haven’t earned God’s help by their suffering.
One more: Is it because they make the first move and cry out to Him for help? Some will tell you that’s so. They’ll say that the lepers name it and claim it—and that because they demand that Jesus help them, Jesus rewards their audacity. (And they add: If you only believe as much as they did, Jesus will give you whatever you want, too!) But that’s not the case, either.
We don’t have the back story, but can infer a few things from the text. Obviously, the lepers know about Jesus—at least, His mercy and healing. How could this be? Having no direct contact with the world outside of their colony, no opportunity to see Jesus’ healing ministry for themselves, somebody had to tell them. In other words, they’ve heard the Word. And what does the Word do? It gives faith. They only cry out to Jesus because He’s already given them faith in the first place. They didn’t make the first move—He did.
So what is it about these ten lepers that makes Jesus help them? Nothing. Absolutely nothing! Jesus doesn’t help them because of who they are… He helps them because of who He is!
“Who He is” is the Savior. He has come to deliver His people from sin and all of its wages. Sickness and death are consequences of sin—so are the isolation and loss that these men suffer. To demonstrate His power over sin and to deliver them, Jesus tells them, “Go and show yourself to the priests.”
There’s one reason why a leper would do that—it’s if he were healed and wanted to be readmitted to society. Thus Jesus heals them of their leprosy. His Word sets them free from the wages of sin. Thus Jesus hears their cries and is merciful. Not because of who they are, but because of who He is.
Jesus is more merciful than they know. For all but one, perhaps He’s more merciful than they want. Healing from leprosy is a fantastic miracle—they’re clean! They have their lives back! But Jesus has greater gifts to give. He’s still going to Jerusalem, headed to the cross to save them from eternal death and hell. Again, He’s not doing this because of who they are, but because of who He is.
Ten lepers had shown faith. Ten lepers had been healed. Ten lepers had received mercy. But only one feels the need of turning back and giving thanks to the Healer, the One who has shown him mercy. And when this man finds Jesus, he falls down on his face before Him, at His feet, signifying his willingness to be the Lord’s servant forever. And all the while his mouth pours forth words of thankfulness. He is worshiping Jesus! This is God-pleasing worship!
The incident makes a deep impression upon Jesus. In a bitter cry over the failure to return of the others, He says: “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
This question is a very important and serious one for all Christians. The gifts of God which we have received from Him through the means of grace during our whole life amount to far more than a cleansing from bodily leprosy. We have received, and are continually receiving, the riches of God’s unmerited love and mercy Sunday after Sunday, day by day. And yet we are often very lackadaisical about the gratitude which we owe to Him in thoughts, words, and deeds.
While our works and worship do not merit our salvation, they are an outward indicator of our faith. And so the Lord dismisses the Samaritan with the words: “Rise and go your way: your faith has made you well.”
So much for the ten lepers in our text. How about we lepers who are gathered here today? Yes, lepers—probably not physically, but certainly spiritually. We are poor, miserable sinners—beggars at best. Beware of every temptation that would have you think there’s something about you that makes God love you. God isn’t merciful to you because of who you are or what you do or some potential that He sees in you. This is not a particularly enjoyable truth; but it is the truth. And once you get past the broken pride, it’s actually a great comfort.
See, if God was merciful to you because of you, you could never be sure you’d done enough to earn His mercy. You could never be sure that you were American enough or Lutheran enough. You could never be sure that you had enough talent to get His attention, or that you’d been committed enough to keep it. Worse yet, you could never be sure that you had suffered enough, or that you believed enough for the Lord to be merciful to you.
Such doubts may be far away from you now, but they are the poisonous fruit of assuming that God is merciful because of you. Right now, those assumptions work to blight your faith, to make you overconfident of your own self-righteousness, to get you to seize glory that belongs rightfully only to Christ. But when troubles and trials come those doubts will hound you. When death draws near, those doubts will terrorize you. The times that you most realize you need God’s mercy will be the times you also know you least deserve it. That is why it is a blessing to confess the truth now: we don’t deserve the Lord’s mercy.
This mercy is given to us solely out of the mercy of the Master. And He gives it to us in what is for many minds a most unexpected place… in worship. This mercy comes to us as we gather for worship. You see, the highest form of worship is in receiving the mercy and forgiveness of God.
And that, my dear friends, is one of the great blessings of the liturgy that we have inherited from our spiritual fathers through our mother, the Church!
Have you ever noticed how frequently the word “mercy” surfaces in our liturgy? In the confessional prayer, we implore: “O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto Thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended Thee and justly deserved Thy temporal and eternal punishment. But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray Thee of Thy boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.” Jesus responds with mercy, cleansing us with forgiveness through His called and ordained servant.
The Kyrie is an extended prayer for mercy: “Lord have mercy upon us. Christ have mercy upon us. Lord have mercy upon us.”
In the Gloria in Excelsis we pray for mercy: “O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. Thou that takest away the sin of the world, receive our prayer. Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father, have mercy upon us.”
In the Agnus Dei we plead for mercy as we come to eat and drink of the Lord’s body and blood given and shed for us sinners: “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.”
Then, having received these blessings in the bread and wine through faith we will speak of this mercy in The Thanksgiving: “O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good. And His mercy endureth forever.”
Mercy is the way that God works. To the people of Israel , He declared Himself: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). So, Israel would appeal to the sure mercy of the Lord in prayer and supplication, as we see in many of the Psalms.
In the New Testament, Jesus is shown as the merciful King who comes to save, so a Canaanite woman calls out to Him for mercy (Matthew 15:22), as does a blind beggar (Mark 10:17), and the ten lepers in our text (Luke 17:13). St. Peter tells us that it is by God’s fatherly mercy that we have been born anew to a living hope, through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (1 Peter 1:3).
All of Scripture declares: God is merciful, and He bestows mercy on sinners. God gives and we receive. That is the pattern of the worship service. That is the pattern of our daily Christian life.
Martin Luther scribbled a note that was found in his pocket upon his death on February 18, 1546. It read, in part, that we are all beggars before God. Indeed, we are all beggars before God. We are all unclean lepers who do not deserve His love and mercy. We do not deserve to even come into His presence and bow at His feet. But the God in whose presence we stand is the Lord who delights in showing and doing mercy.
We hear it in His merciful words that withhold from us punishment that our sin merits and, instead, bestows pardon and peace. In His mercy, God has saved us and given us a new identity as His chosen people, a royal priesthood, people who have received mercy.
God’s mercy in Christ Jesus is also the source of our vocation, our calling in life. We are called by His mercy, from unbelief to faith, from darkness to light, from death to life. Faith alone receives God’s mercy. Love hands on the mercy that faith receives. Those who receive mercy now show mercy.
Having been cleansed and forgiven of our sins, we don’t need to go to the priest. We’ve already been in the presence of God. We’ve already praised Him and thanked Him and worshiped Him. So He sends us out to serve: “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” Go out and live your lives, showing mercy in your daily vocation, the various callings that God has given you.
We see this movement of mercy illustrated in the post-communion collect: “We give thanks to Thee, Almighty God, that Thou hast refreshed us through this salutary gift; and we beseech Thee that of Thy mercy Thou wouldst strengthen us through the same in faith toward Thee and in fervent love toward one another.
This collect reminds us that a Christian does not live in himself, but in Christ and his neighbor. While our old sinful nature was curved in on ourselves, thinking only of our own needs and wants, our new man lives outside of ourselves, in Christ through faith and in our neighbor through love. Faith is active in love and so takes on flesh and blood in service to our neighbor, just as Christ became incarnate not to be served, but to give Himself in service to the world.
That’s why the post-communion collect has such a pivotal place in the liturgy. It is the hinge that connects God’s service to us in the sacrament with our service to our neighbor in the world. We are called by the mercy of God to saving faith, and that same mercy is now channeled through us to our neighbor. Having received God’s mercy, we now are freed to live mercifully toward one another, bearing the burdens of the weak and needy, feeding the hungry, and bringing hope to the hopeless—for in serving them we are serving Christ.
Mercy moves full circle from Christ to us and from us back to Him as He hides behind the mask of our neighbor to receive our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. From start to finish, it is the mercy of God. Indeed, all God-pleasing worship begins and ends with mercy.
So, as Jesus said to the former leper, I now say to you: “Rise and go your way: your faith has made you well.” You are forgiven of all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Now may the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.