A Vanishing Act That Would Put Houdini to Shame: A Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

Disappearing Act

Sermon audio here.

Our Lord’s healed ten lepers. Nine went on their way, but one turned back and fell at Jesus’ feet, giving thanks. Now under ordinary circumstances, this would be a very odd way of saying thank you. Usually a smile or a card will do just fine. But when you’re face to face with Christ, this calls for an act of worship.

Incidentally, this is where things like kneeling, genuflecting, and even the sign of the cross come from: we worship not only with our hearts and voices, but even with our bodies.

So Jesus says, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” As Scripture says, “Pray without ceasing; give thanks to God in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”[i]

All ten should have given thanks whether they were healed or not. But now they’ve been blessed with one of the greatest things that would ever happen to them, and still nothing. We can understand our Lord’s frustration: “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?”

On the other hand, which of us has always remembered to thank God for every good thing He’s ever given us? We’re no different from the nine. And if we can’t even remember to thank God when He gives us good things, how much less so when He sends cross and trial? I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually feel like thanking God after I receive bad news.

But we should. We should receive all things from God’s hand with thanksgiving: our sorrows as well as our joys, health and sickness, riches and poverty—He intends it all for your good.

Listen to any interview with a paraplegic athlete, and almost without fail, they say their paralysis was the best thing that ever happened to them, that it changed their lives for the better. And then you hear the stories of those who won the lotto and it ruined their life. The fact is, God intends it all for your good, painful as well as pleasant.

When life isn’t going according to plan, know that the Lord has better plans for you.[ii] When your earthly wealth fails, know that Christ has laid up for you treasures in heaven.[iii] When death comes for you, know that the love of Christ is undying.[iv]

Jesus could have left the lepers in their leprosy, and He certainly doesn’t always give you what you ask for. That’s no reason not to give thanks. God will either give you what you want or He will give you something better. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll enjoy it, but He works all things for your good, especially suffering.

When times are bad, we can act as if everything were terrible—as if God had never done anything good for us. Luther said,

“If God were to take one of my eyes, break one of my legs, cause one of my arms to be lopped off, [if He] were to send me a sickness for eight days so that I could not work for a half year, what a crying and complaining would arise!  At the same time, I would fail to remember that I have enjoyed [good health]… for twenty years. And though He were to take an eye, at least the other members are sound. Thus His punishments [do not even begin to compare to His bountiful goodness].”[v]

The lepers show us that God works all things to our good, even terrible diseases like theirs. Their leprosy was what drove them to Christ, much as Job’s suffering did for him. It can be difficult to see anything positive in suffering, but St. Paul says, suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; and character hope.[vi]

Remember, faith is the evidence of things not seen. That doesn’t just mean believing in Jesus, whom you can’t see. It also means seeing something in your suffering that you would have never seen otherwise: God’s love.

Seeing suffering as a sign of God’s love—now that takes faith. But unless He’s a liar, God has intended everything that’s ever happened to you as a blessing, especially suffering.[vii]

This is why St. Paul calls the Gospel a scandal.[viii] The idea that God uses suffering to accomplish His good and gracious will is offensive. But that’s exactly how God works, and the cross silences every objection. What could have seemed like a greater evil? The innocent Son of God, bleeding and dying for the guilty? But that’s how God works. The cross is a scandal because it testifies to the fact that God accomplishes His greatest good in the midst of evil.

We have this bad habit of talking about things not going well. As we learn from the 3rd Petition, the good and gracious will of God is always done. This means things are always going well. The problem is we don’t always like God’s will. When that happens, repent. What God ordains is always good.

Luther said,

“[Christians know that]… sin, death, misfortune, and physical and spiritual evils work for the good of God’s chosen ones. Likewise, they know that God is nearest to them when He seems to be furthest away. He is the most merciful and truly a Savior when He seems to be angry and punishing them. They know that they have eternal righteousness when they are feeling the terrors of sin and death the most. With hope, they look for eternal righteousness as their certain possession laid aside for them in heaven. They are lords over all things when they are the poorest, as St. Paul says, “We have nothing although we possess everything,” (2 Cor. 6:10).[ix]

Of course, we’re most likely to turn to God’s Word in times of crisis. Like the lepers, we’re quick to cry out to God in times of need, but then once things get back to normal, our prayer life does a vanishing act that would put Houdini to shame.

Christ calls us to give thanks to Him in all circumstances. Christ doesn’t call us to live by faith 1 hour a week and to be atheists the other 167. We live by faith, not lock it up until Sunday morning. To take God’s gifts for granted, to take the His blessings and run, is to be no different than an unbeliever.

To live by faith is to acknowledge how intimately involved God is in our lives—every day, every hour and every moment. That’s a scary thought to the Old Adam.

But it’s true, and the doctrine of vocation helps us to see God at work even in the most mundane and ordinary of circumstances. Not only should we thank God for richly and daily providing us with all that we need to support this body and life, we should also be conscious of the fact that Christ uses us as His hands and feet to do this providing. Jesus provides for your family, your friends, our church, and our community, and He does it through you. To each of these, you have a Christian duty.

Just because God doesn’t zap the pizza directly onto your plate from heaven doesn’t mean it’s any less from Him. He uses the farmer to grow the wheat and tomatoes, to milk the cows to make the cheese. He uses the chef to cook it and the delivery guy to bring us this heavenly manna. It’s all His work. This why we thank God for His bountiful goodness before we eat. The food is no less a gift from God because He used someone else to cook it and get it to you.

Christ identifies so closely with the neighbor whom you serve He goes so far as to say, “As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to Me.”[x] Hebrews says when you show hospitality, you may be entertaining angels without knowing it.[xi] And likewise, to ignore the needs of your family, friends, church, and community is to ignore Christ. Again, “as you have not done it to the least of these, you have not done it to Me.”[xii]

Most of us are pretty good at saying thank you when someone does something nice for us, but ultimately, the glory is God’s. He’s the one who provided for you and comforted you when you needed it. He just used your neighbor as His mask. He’s doing the same through you—so be holy in all your conduct.[xiii]

Ultimately, to fail to give thanks is a failure of stewardship. We want to take and give credit to each other, when, in fact, it’s all God’s stuff and it’s all God’s work. We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.

You may remember how after David murdered Uriah, he said something very odd: against you, and you only, have I sinned.[xiv] Now that would make sense had he spoken those words to Bathsheba, the widow of the man he’d just murdered. But no, he addressed those words to God. Against you, God, and you only, have I sinned.

But it’s true, and the fact that we could even question this shows just show how inclined we are to push God to the side and set up an idol in His place. Against Him, and Him only, have we sinned.

David speaks this way because it is ultimately God to Whom we are accountable. David, Uriah, Bathsheba—and everything else, for that matter—is God’s. And what David said about sin also applies to thanksgiving: to you, God, and you only, do I give thanks.

Now that isn’t to say we shouldn’t tip the delivery guy, but we should remember who’s giving the gifts and who’s delivering them. The messenger has his place, but God forbid we forget who he represents. The mother, the nurse, the mechanic, teacher, the emergency worker, the pastor—they’re all there to be the hands and feet of Christ, to provide for our different needs according to His will, as you do for your neighbor. And since God is a God of order, we don’t take it upon ourselves to redefine the duties of each according to our desires.

But the member is nothing without the Head, and the messenger is nothing apart from the Message, who Himself took on human flesh and died so that we might live in the assurance of God’s favor.

If we remember that, we won’t be so selfish and act like it’s all ours. God gives you everything you have, and He calls you to use it all—your lips, your hands, your heart, your feet, your time, your money, you name it—all to His glory.

As St. Paul says, the love of Christ controls us. He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for Him who for their sake died and was raised.[xv] To Him be glory forever.

Soli Deo Gloria

+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. Luke 17:11–19
The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, 2016
Zion, Summit
Immanuel, Hodgkins
Around the Word Bible Studies

[i] 1 Thessalonians 5:17–18

[ii] Jeremiah 29:11

[iii] 1 Peter 1:3–4

[iv] Song of Songs 8:6; 1 Corinthians 15

[v] Luther, as cited in Parrott, For the Faint of Heart, 23.

[vi] Romans 5:3–4

[vii] Romans 8:28

[viii] 1 Corinthians 1:18–31

[ix] Through Faith Alone (Aug 4).

[x] Matthew 25:40

[xi] Hebrews 13:2

[xii] Matthew 25:45

[xiii] 1 Peter 1:15

[xiv] Psalm 51:4

[xv] 2 Corinthians 5:14–15



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