… to offer our praise and thanksgiving …

St Michael’s and St Barnabas 22nd April 2018

Readings – Luke 17:11-19; 1 Peter 2:4-12

Being a leper in first century Israel was a miserable existence. Whether or not you actually had leprosy was beside the point. Everyone could see you had a horrible disease and they did whatever they could to stay away from you. You had no friends, no family, nowhere you could call home. The only support you had was from your fellow lepers. You would stick together for survival, living on the very edge of society, shunned and barely existing, wondering where your next meal would come from.

And there was no point turning to the religious leaders for help. They told everyone you were under the judgement of God. You were in their eyes unclean, a threat to their ritual purity. If they saw you coming, they would definitely pass by on the other side of the road. You were a hazard to be avoided at all costs.

But for one band of lepers at least there was a glimmer of hope. They had heard about Jesus. Reports had reached them He had a particular heart for the outcast, the poor, the broken. And so they thought maybe, just maybe, He could help. Of course there was a risk Jesus might reject them. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had turned their backs on them. Yet they really had nothing to lose.

So when they heard Jesus was in the neighbourhood, the ten of them got together and approached – not too close, but just near enough that He could their appeal: Jesus, Master, have pity on us. Now we have no way of knowing what they expected Jesus to do. Perhaps they were hoping for an instant miracle – if so, they were sorely disappointed. Jesus’ response was not exactly rejection, but it certainly wasn’t anything dramatic: Go, show yourselves to the priests.

No doubt the lepers had been to the priests many times already. It was the job of the priest to examine a person’s skin and decide if he or she was unclean. And it was the priests who had already banished them from society. So you might well wonder why these ten lepers decided to do what Jesus said. But they heard His words, they obeyed, and they went.

And on the way something truly remarkable happened. Sores healed. Feeling returned to hands and feet. The lepers began to feel clean for the first time in years. By the time all ten of them reached the priests they were completely well. All of them were able to return to society, to families, to friends, to homes. It is hard to imagine just how much their lives were transformed at that point.

Now from that original band of ten lepers we don’t hear any more about nine of them. They walked away from Jesus and never came back. No doubt they had an amazing story and could tell of the difference He had made to their lives. But they had no desire to follow Him, no desire to have an ongoing relationship with Him.

Yet one leper did return. He recognised God at work and gave Himself to Jesus in praise and worship. As we read in verses 15 and 16 of our gospel: One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him – and he was a Samaritan. He saw that if Jesus was able to do all this then Jesus required his full and total devotion. No matter that Jesus was a Jew and he was a Samaritan. That kind of religious difference didn’t matter before the one who could restore even the most unclean person and make them new.

And I put to you that the reaction of this leper is important also for us this morning. Listen carefully to what Jesus says in verses 17-19: Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no-one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then He said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

Or as we could equally well translate it, “rise and go; your faith has saved you.” You see, this leper went beyond seeing Jesus as a passing miracle worker. He recognised Jesus as the one sent by God with the power to transform lives, and he put his trust in Him. And as a result, out of the original ten, he alone received salvation.

Now there are plenty of people who have stories of meeting with Jesus at a certain point in their life. Maybe they have a dramatic testimony of a healing, maybe they can tell of some answered prayer. But even though they’ve had such an encounter, they have since then walked away from Jesus. Why? Because they have never responded to Jesus with praise and thanksgiving, and offered their lives to Him. Sure, they’re grateful and they have a great story to tell. But they have not sought an ongoing relationship with Jesus, they have not come back to Him and joyfully put their trust in Him.

This morning we are coming to the second line of our opening words: We have come together in the name of Christ to offer our praise and thanksgiving. Praise and thanksgiving is not an optional extra for keen Christians or those who think life is wonderful. Praise and thanksgiving is a mark of our spiritual health. It means that we are grateful to what Jesus has done for us. It keeps our relationship with Him alive and healthy. It stops us from taking Him for granted, and only having a story of what He once did in our lives long ago.

Of course there is a good reason why often we do not praise God as we should. Let’s be honest – life can be hard. It can be full of tears and pain and heartache, if not for ourselves then for those we love and care about. And praise is often the last thing we feel like doing, let alone go and mingle with shiny, happy Christians who – or so it seems – can’t stop giving thanks to God.

But I want to put it you, as gently and sensitively as I can, that it is in the most difficult of times that we should unite in praise. Back in the Old Testament there was a king called Jehoshaphat. As he ordered the men of Israel to march out for war, he appointed singers to go out at the head of the army, praising the Lord and giving thanks for His enduring love. You can read all about it in 2 Chronicles 20, if you’re interested. Now, if I was marching off to war, probably the last thing I would want is someone telling me how great God is. But there was a method in Jehoshaphat’s madness. Praise, you see, isn’t primarily about how we feel. It’s about where we put our focus. It’s the way we remind ourselves that even at our lowest point, God is still God, His love endures forever, and in the end we will share in His victory.

In our first reading the apostle Peter is writing to groups of believers who were going through hard times. They had been scattered by persecution. They felt very much out of step with the world around them. They were often and unjustly accused of doing wrong, as verse 12 makes clear. And I am sure that for some of them praise and thanksgiving was the last thing that they wanted to do.

So how does Peter encourage them? He takes various Old Testament prophecies about a stone or a rock which might seem at first rather obscure and applies them to Jesus, to remind them that, no matter what happens, God’s plans and promises always come to fulfilment. Yes, it might be hard being a Christian. Yes, the future might seem uncertain, and the dangers overwhelming. But by holding onto God’s word these believers have a secure foundation for their life and a certain hope of what is yet to come.

As he says in verse 6 – quoting from Isaiah – See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame. This is Jesus that Peter’s talking about here, and he wants to assure us that no matter what lies before us, we can always have confidence in our Lord and Saviour. He is the one in whom all God’s promises have been fulfilled, and if we this morning want any proof of that, we only have to think of Easter Sunday and the empty tomb.

But there is more. Because although this Jesus is a solid and secure basis on which to build our lives this does not mean He cannot understand what we are going through. Verse 7 – this time quoting from a Psalm – the stone the builders rejected has become the capstone. You see, at the heart of the story of Jesus is pain, suffering, rejection and death on a cross. He was indeed a man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief, and He knows better than ourselves all that we go through.

Of course, for Jesus death was not the end of the story. The image of a capstone is that it is the most important stone used to complete a building. It contains the idea of being the head or the top of something, and for Peter’s hearers his words would have reminded them that Jesus was indeed raised and exalted by God to the highest position of honour and authority as the one who conquered even death itself.

And because Jesus is now reigning as the risen and exalted Lord, Peter wants his hearers and indeed us to understand that not only do we have a hope that is safe and secure, but also that those who persecute the church of Jesus Christ will one day come under judgement. As he goes on to say in verse 8, Jesus is to such people a stone that causes men to stumble, and a rock that makes them fall. Yes, the local councillors and the governors that seem to delight in persecuting Christians may seem to have all the power. But one day they will fall, and one day they will be held to account for all their sin against God, and their persecution of His church.

All of which means that even though in the world’s eyes the church may seem small, may seem weak, may seem ineffective, actually we can have confidence that God’s plans and purposes for us will never fail. Going back to verses 4 and 5: As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. You see, what is most important about the church is not how many or how few turn up on a Sunday, or how much or how little money we have in the bank, or how popular or unpopular we may be in the local community. What is most important about the church is the fact we are the work of God. God is taking each one of us and using us to build His kingdom here in this place. He has chosen to draw us together to build a community of those who call on His name and joyfully offer their lives to Him. And how do we know God’s plans and purposes for us will win through? Because we have a sure foundation in Jesus, because Jesus suffered and died for us, because Jesus is now reigning as head over all things and one day will come in judgement and in glory.

And that is why we come together in the name of Christ to offer our praise and thanksgiving. Verse 9: But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Now at this point I need to stop and ask you a question – when was the last time, if ever, you thought about St Michael’s and St Barnabas being a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation? But that is what we are. We have been chosen by God to be His people. We have been called to the service of the King of Kings as a royal priesthood. We have been set apart as a holy nation to honour the name of Jesus.

Now at this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you were telling me to get real. After all, we’re not exactly a bunch of world-beaters here this morning. Some of us may have been told our whole lives we’re not worth very much. We might perhaps struggle to read or write, or have many issues in our lives we don’t know how to overcome. It’s all very well talking about the church in such high-falutin’ terms, but that can’t really apply to us, can it? Not here, not in Stoke and Devonport?

Well, the thing we always need to remember about the church is it is nothing more and nothing less than a group of people who have been cleansed and saved by Jesus. The reality before God is that no matter our level of income or education or anything else we are in spiritual terms no better or no worse than those ten lepers who approached Jesus. And our worth and value in God’s sight comes not from how the world around sees us, but from whether we have offered ourselves to Jesus and joyfully put our trust in Him. If you know God has cleansed and saved you, then you have a place in His church. You are given a new identity in Christ. You are chosen by God and precious to Him. And no matter who you are, or where you’ve come from, you have a part to play in building His kingdom.

Or as Peter puts it in verse 10: Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. So I hope you can see by now, whoever you are, why praise and thanksgiving should be at the very heart of our life as a church. As I said earlier, it enables to keep our focus on God and maintains our spiritual health. It deepens our ongoing relationship with Jesus. It stops us from taking Him for granted, and only having a story of what He once did in our lives long ago.

So what does it mean for us to be a church full of praise and thanksgiving? Let me clear first of all what it does not mean. It does not mean that every service and every song will be full of extravagant celebration. Some of us among us are in pain and full of sorrow. Expecting everyone to join in and put on a false smile is cruel and unnatural. Our ministry here is to draw alongside you and to help you find strength and encouragement in the unchanging mercy and goodness of Jesus, our rock and cornerstone. Nor does it mean that we retreat into some kind of spiritual bubble where we forget the concerns and needs of the coming week, as we sing worship songs for an hour and a half and pretend everything is going fine.

No, the point and purpose of our praise and thanksgiving is not that we escape from the realities of life, but that we are equipped to face what lies ahead with the strength God gives us. Through our praise we can go out in confidence, like the army of Jehoshaphat, singing, “Give thanks to the Lord, for His love endures for ever” as we remind ourselves we are God’s people chosen and called to serve Him in this place.

And ultimately it is our praise that enables us to stand firm against the persecution and suffering of the world. Some translations start a new section at verse 11, but really Peter’s words just carry on at this point. Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. How do we do that? By focusing on Jesus, by realising that no matter how attractive temptations may seem, knowing and serving Jesus is always better.

And notice how this passage from 1 Peter ends in verse 12: Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. You see, ultimately the purpose of our praise is that others too, even those that wrongly accuse and judge us, might themselves come and offer themselves to Jesus and joyfully put their trust in Him. Because there is no stronger witness to the Christian faith than people who have a joy deeper than any sorrow, any suffering, any persecution, no more convincing proof that Jesus is alive and the head over all things than people who have learnt to praise Him in all circumstances.

So praise is indeed not an optional extra for keen Christians or for those whose life is wonderful. It is a powerful spiritual weapon that builds up the church and draws others to honour and glorify Jesus.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

That’s who we are right here at St Michael’s and St Barnabas. So let’s pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit to fill us afresh. Let’s praise the one who called us out of darkness into His wonderful light and let’s rejoice in His saving power. For His name’s sake. Amen.

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