Sermon - 13th October 2013
Healing in our dark places
Scripture - Luke 17:11-19
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Today’s reading can be split into three: a surprise encounter with Jesus, recognition of healing and one man’s grateful thanks.
As Christians and people who come to church for an hour each week, we are more than familiar with the Bible accounts of healing: that is miraculous healing. We sit and listen to sermons about Jesus’ miracles; however, we live in a world for the other 167 hours each week, a world in which there is little talk of miracles, except to dismiss, debunk and explain them away.
As we sat and waited for our service to begin, you may have noticed on the screen that the theme of today’s sermon is “Healing in our dark places”, and I am sure some of you will have had a thought about your own dark places and on-going struggles. The ten men would have been in a dark place, forced to live apart from their friends, family and community because of their disease. Not only did they have to cope with their illness, but also deal with the added burden of the psychological pain of being ostracised, finding and living off others’ good graces to survive, and live knowing that healing and recovery were very unlikely.
I would like to share some of my own darkness with you. I am almost 42, and for the last 20 plus years, I have suffered with depression and anxiety. Medication and therapy can and do help; some days and weeks are better than others; however, the darkness within can sometimes seem to overwhelm me, where I despair even of life itself.
So, to preach on a passage about miraculous healing is not at all easy; nevertheless, I hope and pray that through writing and delivering this sermon, that as my dark places have been challenged, you may also find something for you in your dark places.
Our passage begins by telling us that Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, where ultimately he would be arrested, tried, tortured and executed. He and His Disciples came to a village. We know from reading the Gospels that crowds often followed Jesus and news of His coming would have been an event anywhere, and certainly in a small village –a huge surprise that the most famous preacher, teacher, healer and prophet of His time was coming to visit! The long-promised Messiah was in their village!
So, who were the ten men? The passage tells us that they had leprosy, although the Greek word used in the text can refer to various skin-diseases. Back then, it was Jewish law that people with such diseases had to live apart from their families and communities. Today, ostracising sick people would be considered cruel; however, maybe we can have some sympathy in that the Law in Biblical times sought to protect the greater community from cross-infection. Just as today we might get the ‘all clear’ from a doctor regarding a disease, it was the job of the priests to decide whether a person was clear of a disease and thus eligible to return to the larger community.
Healing from leprosy or other skin-diseases is a recurring theme in the Bible as a whole: today’s set Old Testament reading is about Naaman the Syrian – an outsider to the Jewish community – who was healed by God, when as we are told “many in Israel” were suffering from leprosy. Why would God heal an outsider to the community and yet leave His own people Israel not healed?
We have dealt with the surprise encounter with Jesus, and the fact of the healing is dealt with very quickly in verse 14, so now we come to the grateful thanks by just one of the 10 men, a man we are told is a Samaritan.
We often hear about Samaritans in Bible readings, but perhaps we do not know anything about them, so here is a very brief history lesson. Samaria was an area north of Judea. The Samaritan religion is very close to Judaism and they claim they are descended from two of Jacob’s sons – Ephrahimand Manessah, two of the original 12 tribes of Israel. When the Jews were sent into exile in Babylon, the Samaritans remained in their homeland. The Samaritans claim that their form of Judaism is the true form, and the religion practised by the Jews is an amended form influenced by Babylonian religion. The Samaritans were once very numerous, but a brutal repression in the 6th Century and forced conversion to Islam means that they have almost died out. In an Israeli census in 2012, there were just 751 remaining Samaritans. For Samaritans, their Holy Place is Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem.
Once again, the Gospel writer singles out an outsider, because of how this man chose to respond to the healing. I am sure we have all had the experience of doing something for somebody and their thanks has not been forthcoming. Let us reflect on how this man responded: he came back to Jesus; he praised God for his healing; he threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked Jesus. The word used in the reading for “thanked” is the same word used by Jesus at the Last Supper when He thanked God for the bread and the wine.
“He threw himself at Jesus’ feet.” Now that is a very emotional response. Have you ever thrown yourself at someone’s feet in thanks? I know, I haven’t. This outsider, this Samaritan, acknowledged Jesus for who He truly is: the Son of the Living God and responded accordingly.
We are very “British” and do not like to show our emotions. Even kneeling in church has gone out of fashion. I have a lodger in my house, and perhaps unusually for a gay man, he loves football: but something occurred to me about football: the high emotion expressed by both players and fans at their team’s success – with group hugs, sliding across the pitch on their knees, cheers, laughter and song – where is our unrestrained response to the Living God, the One who brings us more than a goal: He brings us Salvation and Eternal Life?
Jesus’ final words to the man are these: “Get up and go; your faith has made you well.” The original Greek could also be translated as “your faith has saved you.” So, for this man, the Samaritan, not only did he receive physical healing from his skin disease, he also received the gift of Salvation. Salvation – the gift of eternal life – this is the greater gift.
The man was healed in both body and in soul. So, what of the other nine? This is a valid question: indeed, Jesus also asked this question. The Bible is silent on them, but I did find a reflection called “The Causes of Ingratitude”, written by the founding minister of the Congregationalist Redland Park Church in Bristol in the late 19th Century by the name of Urijah Thomas (d. 1901). This church is now part of the United Reformed Church. Rev Thomas reflected on what caused the ingratitude in the other nine – and maybe cause ingratitude in us; indeed, they may be the dark places within us.
Callous – the man was indifferent to his misery and even when healed, he remained indifferent. For him nothing has changed, and nothing will.
Thoughtless – the man really didn’t give his healing a second thought, nor did think about the consequences of his words and actions.
Proud – after all, he was a good man: he deserved to be healed, why did he need to thank anybody?
Envious – he may well be healed, but he is still outcast in society and would have to make a new start, envious of the security and status others have.
Cowardly –he fears the association with Jesus, after all the authorities hate Jesus; he doesn’t want to go back and be associated with Jesus.
Calculating – he considers himself worthy of receiving this gift of healing and use this to his advantage, maybe living off the story.
Worldly – now he’s healed he can do all the things he couldn’t do before: business or pleasure.
Gregarious – a man of no independence. He would have gone and said thank you if the others had. He has nothing of his own.
Procrastinating – he will say thank you later, or tomorrow, by which time Jesus will have gone.
I hope that this reflection on the other nine men has helped you gain some insight into your dark places. For me, I recognise “callous” – I am numb to 20 plus years of depression. It feels like it has always been like this and always will be.
I also recognise “thoughtless”: sometimes, I am so wrapped up in my own misery, I fail to see the pain and need in others.
I recognise “envious”: I am a good man, I stick to the rules, I work hard, I try to be kind; but I am envious of others whose lives seem happier, more complete.
And I am “procrastinating”: anything which challenges me to leave my dark places, I will try and put off.
For these ten men, their encounter with Jesus was a simple, yet life-changing one, and for one of them, his second encounter with Jesus brought not only healing, but also Salvation. In the context of healing, I do not understand why I have this depression, in the same way you might not understand why you have your dark places; however, from behind the mystery of our dark places comes a Light, a Light who will banish any darkness: His name is Jesus.
That statement may sound glib, and to be honest, it does not sit easily with me either; however, this I have come to realise: In faith, we ask; and, in faith, God will respond: God will respond through medical science; God will respond through divine miracle; or God will respond through silence and in mystery.