Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, September 1st, Year of Our + Lord 2013
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
The Who, Where and How of Worship - Luke 17:11-19
Jack and Dan always know to whom to give thanks. We human beings often struggle mightily to rightly understand worship, but not my dogs. They get it. 1st, they give thanks to whomever feeds them. 2nd, they give thanks to whomever walks them. 3rd, they give thanks to whomever pets and grooms them. They are not picky. Whoever feeds, whoever walks, whoever pets, to that person Jack and Dan go, giving thanks and rejoicing, barking their praises, wagging their tails off.
I don’t think the Nine Lepers who failed to return to give thanks to Jesus were unthankful. How could they not be overjoyed and filled with praise, when, as they walked to show themselves to the priests, they were cleansed of the horrible sores that covered their bodies? One moment in chronic agony, the next, clean, whole, free to re-enter society. Whoo-hooo! Of course they were thankful. They were even trying to worship rightly, according to the Old Testament, ceremonial Law, heading off to show themselves to the priests, to be certified clean. What they don’t know is the new Who and Where of thanksgiving and worship. What they don’t understand is that, when Jesus became a human being, when He was conceived and born of the Virgin Mary, everything about thanksgiving, praise and worship changed, for Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law, and the Temple.
Before the Incarnation, before God became a man, first an embryo, then a newborn, then growing into manhood, before Jesus did all that, thanksgiving, praise and worship were all properly aimed toward Jerusalem, toward the Temple, that house for God where, through walls and curtains, smoke and priestly sacrifice, the LORD God made Himself partially accessible to His people, to all people, actually, any who would come.
For the safety of the pilgrims, areas were separated off into levels of access: the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest went, and only once a year, then the Holy Place, where only priests entered to offer the daily sacrifices and prayers, the court for Jewish men, and another for the women, and a court for the nations, for the gentiles, those non-Jews who had heard of the LORD God and believed, at least enough to come and show up, getting as close as they could, to pray, praise, and give thanks. All those walls of separation were necessary because God is Holy. God is the Destruction of sin, and people are sinful. So giving thanks was dangerous, since it entails sinners coming into close proximity with the Holy, Holy, Holy LORD. Worship required regulation and protective barriers, to keep God’s Holiness from destroying the sinners He wanted to bless.
But after Jesus came, all the rules for thanksgiving, praise and worship changed, because Jesus, God in the flesh, came to fulfill the law in our place, and to take all our sin from us, all sin, from every person, taking it all to His Cross, where He suffered in the place of all mankind. Christ died and rose to destroy the power of sin and death, that is, to destroy their power to separate us from God and condemn us to eternal leprosy of body and soul. And now, Jesus has made a new place, and a new way for worship.
This is what, by God’s grace, the Samaritan leper already understood: sinners properly and safely worship God in the person of Christ. We can now approach God without fear, through the flesh of Jesus. So the Samaritan returned to Jesus, praising loudly, and fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks. Receiving great blessing from Jesus, he thanks and praises Him as God, because Jesus is God, come to save sinners, come to heal lepers eternally, come to give new life to dying men, women and children.
But the Nine didn’t get it. God in Christ had done a great miracle for them also, healing their leprosy, and showing them that a new day had dawned, a day of worshiping God in the flesh of Christ. But they didn’t get it. They hurried off, blessed by God, but trying to find Him through the Old Testament laws of worship, which were passing away. They didn’t understand that access to God comes now by gathering around Jesus.
Judging by the attendance rates at Christian Churches today, most people still don’t get it. I don’t just mean today, on Labor Day Weekend, I mean every day. God showers blessings down on people today, and every day. Do our churches overflow with people giving thanks? Are the people of God demanding more and more services, that they may give thanks each day for His rich bounty? Are we even filling the pews one day a week?
A big part of the problem is that many people, including many of the Baptized, think they can give thanks to God any way they please. For that matter, for many, any god will do. Claiming that there is just One true God, and just One man through whom we sinners can approach Him is very taboo these days. Saying such things is very much incorrect in polite society. I mean, we don’t want to offend the Hindus, the Jews, the Moslems, or the Atheists. The Samaritan leper knew to worship God in the man Jesus. But out of a misguided desire to be nice at the cost of eternal truth, we all too often get the Who of worship –Jesus Christ alone – completely wrong.
Even when people get the Who right, even when we claim to be worshiping the Triune God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as revealed by Jesus, we still very often get the Where wrong. Because, after all, “I can worship God in nature.” “I can commune with the Lord on the lake.” Except no, you can’t. This isn’t to say you can’t be a Christian and go camping or to the lake or whatever. Nor am I saying we can’t look at nature and say a prayer of thanksgiving for this wonderful world we live in.
But real worship, the worship that matters, happens when, like the healed Samaritan, the believers in Christ gather around Him, to receive His blessings and give thanks, praising Him and worshiping Him. Through Jesus, we worship in the Spirit, and we worship the Father as well. Jesus, the Son of God who has become also the Son of Mary, was born to build a Church, that is, a gathering of people. Worship is a gathering around Jesus, and we can do this, because He promises to be wherever two or three or more gather in His Name. Jesus is the Who and the Where of worship.
Which just leaves the question: How? How does Jesus want us to worship? How has Jesus built His Church? From the Samaritan we have learned the Who of worship (Jesus Christ, who gives us the Holy Spirit and brings us to God the Father), and also the Where of worship (wherever Jesus is, there is the place for worship, and Jesus promises to be where His people gather in His Name). With the right Who and Where, we are definitely headed in a good direction. But once we’ve gathered around Jesus, How do we worship?
Again, the Samaritan leper shows us the way. In fact, the shape of the Divine Service can be seen in his story. The lepers start out confessing their sin problem. Standing at a distance, acknowledging their leprosy, they cry out: Jesus, Master, have mercy on us. Then Jesus speaks to them, declaring a Word of promise and blessing on their disease. After receiving His healing by the power of His Word, the Samaritan, the leper who believed in Jesus, approaches God, praising Him all the way, falling at His feet in thanksgiving. Then Jesus sends him away with the sweetest benediction – Rise and go your way, your faith has saved you. Notice that – Jesus says “your faith has saved you,” not healed you. The greater miracle, the point of this whole episode, is not healing from leprosy, but rather it is salvation from sin and eternal death, by faith in Jesus.
The How of worship is Divine Service, God through Christ coming to us sinners to serve us, to heal our souls and save us, to receive our praise, and then dismiss us for our daily lives, lived under His blessing, His benediction.
And so also we gather to confess, some of us like the lepers even standing at a distance, way in the back of the church. We gather, confessing our sin problem, not leprosy, but a thousand other manifestations of our sin, and the impact of sin, and our sinfulness, and the guilt we carry because of our sins. We cry out, in Confession, in Kyrie and Gloria – Jesus, Master, have mercy on us. And He does, speaking forgiveness and blessing to us through His Word, reminding us we have been washed clean from the leprosy of sin in our Baptism. And still today, because our sin causes us so much doubt, Jesus cleanses our souls again and again, in Absolution, in His Word put to song, in reading and in Sermon. Your sins are forgiven, in Jesus Christ.
Receiving His gift of forgiveness, we praise God and come to Jesus, kneeling before Him, meeting Jesus, face to hidden flesh at the Communion rail, performing the highest worship by receiving the Eucharist, which means the thanksgiving meal, the meal where Jesus gave thanks, for the privilege of saving sinners like you and me. Our highest worship is eating and drinking His Body and Blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of sins, eagerly receiving forgiveness again, and again, because our sin is just that bad, but Jesus is just that good.
Saved by faith in the flesh and blood Jesus, we hear His blessing, “Rise and go, your faith has saved you, the Lord is with you, the Lord smiles upon you, go in His Peace, Amen.