October 13, 2013 Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7 Luke 17: 11-19
Rev. Catherine Purves
We are neither lepers nor exiles. And maybe that’s the problem. Or perhaps the problem is that we don’t see any way to identify with lepers and exiles. Because we have never thought of ourselves collectively as a people gripped by an incurable disease or as strangers in a strange land. And the result of that may be that we will not have experienced the desperate desire to hope as only exiles hope. And we will not have felt the irrepressible need to rejoice as lepers (at least one leper) rejoiced when he was healed. But this failure of experience or imagination on our part may be denying us the possibility of a radical faith that recognizes both the genuine depth of our sin and the remarkable freedom that comes with forgiveness and restoration. Lepers and other exiles can understand this.
Lepers and exiles have this in common. They are both always out of place. They don’t fit in. They are outcasts, and they can really do nothing to help themselves. Their situation forces them to rely on God and to submit to his will.
Lepers are so tainted by their degenerative and contagious disease that not even their families will have anything to do with them. If they come near other people they must shout out, “Unclean, unclean” so that others will know to keep their distance. Full-blown leprosy is a dying-by-inches sort of disease. In the Bible, the term “leprosy” is used to describe a range of skin diseases, some being more serious than others. The fact that the ten lepers from our Scripture reading today were found on the outskirts of a village and did not try to approach Jesus implies that they were considered highly contagious. And their disease was serious enough that Jesus knew they must show themselves to a priest and be declared clean before they could rejoin society. They were gravely ill and, as a result, they were like exiles.
In our Old Testament reading, the prophet Jeremiah is writing a letter to the Jerusalem exiles who had been captured by Nebuchadnezzar’s army and taken off to Babylon. The text is clear that this exile was the result of their disobedience; it was a punishment inflicted by God. The letter begins, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” This terrible catastrophe followed generations of idolatry in which the images of false gods were displayed on the high places surrounding the city and even in the Temple itself. Wicked kings, false prophets, compromised priests, and a rebellious people showed no signs of repentance or any desire to live in covenant faithfulness. Sin was too deeply embedded, and a radical cleansing of the chosen people had to take place. The exiles were like lepers; their sin appeared to be incurable, and like lepers they then lost their home and were cast out from their own land.
Lepers and other exiles know that their situation is dire. Lepers might think that their debilitating disease was some sort of punishment for sin. The exiles had no doubt that God had finally rejected them because of their idolatry. For lepers and exiles this was worse than they ever imagined it could be. They were desperate and despairing. Psalm 137 describes the plight of the exiles. “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion…How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” And the lepers, seeing Jesus approaching their village, cried out to the only one who might be able to help them, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
Very sad, but what has that to do with us? We are not lepers or exiles. Or are we? How seriously do you take sin? I only ask because it seems to me that there is a lot of sin abroad these days. There is the debilitating, self-destructing kind of sin that afflicts individuals and that is akin to leprosy in its lethal potency. And there is sin of the cultural and corporate sort that destroys societies and nations, exiling them from God, when they reject God’s law and God’s will. Lepers and exiles know the depth of their need and that only God, only Christ, can restore health and wholeness to individuals who are dying by inches and to nations trapped in idolatry. Lepers and exiles know, but do we?
You would never hear a leper or an exile remark, as I have recently in our current governmental mess, “This too shall pass.” Neither the leper nor the exile would suggest, with respect to the sin that destroys you from the inside out, “It isn’t so bad.” Lepers and exiles see and know the extent of human suffering. They can’t ignore it, as many are doing today, because they are living it. Both the leper and the exile have stopped looking back to when things were better. Neither assumes that they will be able to get back to the golden age of health and prosperity; in truth, there never was a golden age.
Lepers and exiles realize how truly awful things are now, do we? They are well acquainted with pain and loss, and they even know that things could get worse, unlike those who find some comfort these days in denying that fact. Lepers and exiles are realists; they have to be; their lives are at stake. They have actually looked at the cards they have been dealt. You can’t fool lepers and exiles. They know the score. But do we know the score? Do we really recognize the power of personal and corporate sin? Are we ready to cry out to God? Are we prepared to do something about that sin? Because if we, who call ourselves Christians, will not, then who will?
Remarkably, the lepers and the exiles in our two Bible passages were not ultimately lost or abandoned. The lepers were cleansed; the exiles were promised a future. In both instances, God overcame the power of sin and death. Recognizing their insurmountable need, both the lepers and the exiles turned to God. Jesus gave the lepers a new life. God gave the exiles the power of his presence in a foreign land.
Both the lepers and the exiles were then told to get on with it. The lepers were to go show themselves to the priests so that they could begin their new lives. The exiles were told to hunker down and live faithfully, praying and working for the welfare of the strange land in which they found themselves. Sin, both personal and corporate, was overcome by the power of God. And at least one leper returned to give Jesus thanks and praise. And at least some of the exiles learned to sing the Lord’s song and to live faithful lives in a foreign land.
This gives us some reason to hope in the midst of our current national malaise. That’s in spite of the fact that, viewed through the eyes of lepers and exiles, we can hardly deny the depths of human sin or the current widespread rebellion against the law of God, epitomized in the love of neighbor. There is hope, but this serves as a subtle warning, as well.
The exiles were frankly surprised to find themselves in Babylon. It so confounded their sense of themselves as the chosen people. They never really expected there to be consequences to their idolatry, putting something other than God in God’s place. As exiles, they learned that there are consequences, and they were warned that they must serve God and God alone whether they found themselves in Babylon or in the hallowed city of Jerusalem. And they were to work to make that city, that land, a better place where God’s law was obeyed.
In the same way, we saw ten lepers healed by Jesus, an amazing act of grace in which all were given a new life. Nine of the lepers were Jews who seemed to take this remarkable blessing in stride without recognizing their need to praise and thank Jesus. Only one returned, and as Jesus ironically pointedly out, “He was a Samaritan.” The Samaritans were, in effect, exiles in their own land. A Samaritan leper would have been doubly ostracized. Yet, it was he, and not the Jewish lepers, who sought to acknowledge the great gift that Jesus had given him. And he alone among the lepers then received a greater gift through his new faith in Jesus, being healed both in body and in spirit.
The hope for lepers and exiles is real. It is a genuine hope that societal sin can be challenged and overcome and that individual sin can be cleansed. But it is a hope that also demands a response. The exiles must serve God alone while in exile. The lepers must return to give thanks to Jesus Christ, the source of their new life and wholeness. As we are living through these difficult days of a government shut-down, when the nation is flirting with a debt ceiling crisis, let us see these times through the perceptive eyes of lepers and exiles. We must acknowledge and confront the presence and power of individual and national sin. But let us also rejoice in the greater power of God in Jesus Christ. And let us commit ourselves to live boldly and faithfully, loving our neighbors, and serving our God through the new life and faith we have received from Jesus, because, surprisingly, we have a lot in common with lepers and exiles.