Lent #3: Abundance of Gratitude
Updated: Sep 9, 2020
Psalm 89:1-2, 19-28
We have been talking about abundance this Lent, which seems odd since during Lent we usually give up something. We have talked about how during Lent, we focus on turning to Jesus. We either give up something that prevents us from turning to Jesus, or we add something to our lives that helps us turn to Jesus. Today, I want us to think about living with an abundance of gratitude. To live with abundant gratitude, requires a shift in thinking. Sometimes we have to give something up for that shift to happen, and sometimes we have to add something to our lives for that shift to take place. Part of turning to Jesus is learning how to see God at work in our lives and in the lives of those around us. When we start to recognize that we can’t help but be full of gratitude, to have gratitude in abundance.
We are going back in time a bit in the Gospel of Matthew this morning because I want us to look more closely at the things that Jesus was doing in the lives of real people.
Our passage this morning comes right after Jesus finishes the Sermon on the Mount. There is a pattern in Matthew’s Gospel. The Sermon on the Mount is book-ended by Jesus healing people. Before the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is healing people in the crowds, and we read this morning that when he comes down from the Mount, he heals people. We saw this pattern also when he fed the 5,000 and walked on water. That passage is also book-ended by healings. Jesus first has compassion on the crowds and heals them. Then after the feeding of the 5,000 and the walking on the water, he healed people in the crowds again. And we talked about how this is what the Son of God does. He comes down into our lives, into the brokenness, into the illness, into the grief and heals us. Sometimes with a physical healing, but often with a healing of the heart through God’s love and grace and peace which surpasses understanding.
Today I want to look at this passage in Matthew 8 because Matthew gives us some details about what some of those healings were like. It’s important to remember that it was expected that when Messiah came there would be healings. It’s important also to remember Matthew’s audience. The people that the Gospel of Matthew was written for were Jews who followed Jesus. In any society, there are always different levels of privilege. In that society, the people with the most privilege, the highest in society, were rich Jewish men who were healthy. People assumed, without even really thinking about it, that the Messiah, Jesus, would come for those privileged people. Because they weren’t women, they weren’t unclean, they weren’t Gentiles, they weren’t poor. We have to remember that Matthew wants to teach his audience who Jesus is. God’s character is revealed in Jesus, the Son of God.
Keeping in mind the expectations of who the Messiah (who Jesus) would come for, and that Matthew wants to teach us something about God’s character, revealed in Jesus, who is it that Jesus heals in Matthew 8? In verses 2-3 it is a leper, someone with a skin disease (leprosy in the Bible refers to a lot of skin diseases). People with skin diseases that were identified as leprosy in those days were required to live outside of the community and call out in a loud voice, “Unclean! Unclean!” so that no one else would be contaminated. They were very socially isolated outcasts.
Who else does Jesus heal? In verse 5-6, it’s a Gentile servant (a centurion was a Gentile soldier; the centurion asks for healing for his servant). In verse 14 it’s a woman. And then in verse 16 it is people who were possessed with demons. None of those people had privilege in Jewish society back then. They did not have a voice. They were all outcasts or less-than in some way or another. So, what do we learn about who Jesus is, who God is, from this passage?
We learn that God comes not only for who we would expect God to come for, but also for outcasts, for people with no voice, for those on the fringes of society. The fact that we are all part of the family of God is a reflection of that. Most of us do not have Jewish origins. Most of us have Gentile origins. Jesus came not only for the Jews, but also for the outcast Gentiles so that we are also part of the family of God. I am so grateful that our Holy God comes down into our own lives, into our brokenness, in whatever forms it takes, and brings healing and wholeness. We are not alone. We are loved, even though we are not who the Jews of the ancient world expected Jesus to come for. This should fill us with gratitude. And inspire us to try to see others the way that God sees them.
This is very important for us to remember when we find ourselves in a position of privilege in our own society. It’s important to remember that Jesus also comes for the outcasts of our own society, for people who don’t have privilege, people who we might consider enemies, who we might want to reject, people who have no voice. The details that Matthew includes about who Jesus heals reminds us that Jesus also comes for the outcasts of all time. As Jesus followers we should never let our own privilege in our society blind us to God’s love for outcasts, sinners, enemies, and rejects, for people who have no voice. In Jesus, our Holy God left heaven and went right into the brokenness of humanity. As a human, he entered into the lives of people he wasn’t expected to even acknowledge. The Holy came down into the mortal world and brought healing and wholeness to people who other people considered to be unworthy to be in God’s presence.
It’s important to examine ourselves to weed out any prejudices that we have that make us feel superior to other people in any way. We can even sit with this passage in meditative prayer, and imagine Jesus going to someone who we consider to be an outcast in the same way that he goes to the leper, the Gentile servant, the woman, and the demoniacs. Through this type of prayer, the Holy Spirit can transform us by the renewing of our minds so that we can see others the way that God sees them, with love, and reach out to them because of the abundance of gratitude that we have since God has reached out to us.
I want to talk in more detail about the leper to really bring this to life for you. As I said before, leprosy in the Bible referred to many different skin diseases. Leviticus 13:45-46 gives instructions for how a person with Leprosy should live. It says, “the person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall...cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
Lepers were literally outcasts. In addition to this, people thought that the reason people had leprosy was because they had sinned. When someone had leprosy, they were supposed to invite the priest to their house to find out what sin they had committed so they could find “out why God had punished that particular house with such a gruesome disease.”
Let’s see what happens when Jesus heals this leper, starting in verse 2, “and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’”
According to Susan Wessel in her book Passion and Compassion in Early Christianity, “Several aspects of the healing distinguished Jesus’ ministry from earlier ways of handling the disease. First, there was no mention of any sins the afflicted may have committed, only of his faith upon being healed. Second, in contrast to the fact-finding mission of the priest, Jesus has no interest in uncovering the circumstances surrounding the illness. Finally, contrary to the Levitical laws of ritual uncleanness, Jesus physically touched the leper in order to heal him, without being contaminated in the process.”
(All quotations about leprosy are taken from: Wessel, Susan. Passion and Compassion in Early Christianity. (Cambridge University Press: 2016) Pg. 32-33.)
The way that Jesus handled this healing shows that illness is not the result of sin. Jesus also both relieved the suffering of the leper, by healing him of the disease, and restored him to the community by sending him to the priest to show himself and to give the offering. Jesus shows us that God comes down and enters into our world, even touches what is unclean, in order to bring healing and wholeness again.
Part of that is Jesus instructing him to bring a gift as testimony to what God has done, according to Moses’ command. Now, Moses’ command for lepers was the most complex. When the priest had determined that a leper had been healed, the healed person was required to bring a male lamb and a log of oil, another male lamb, a 1-year-old ewe lamb, and 3/10 of an ephah mixed with oil. These offerings were called sacrifices and were to be given to God out of gratitude for God’s healing.
A sacrifice back then meant something different from what we mean when we say sacrifice. When we use the word, we mean that we give something up in order to get something in return. But when Leviticus was written, sacrifice meant to take something of value in this world and bring it into the presence of God. What was meant in the Levitical laws about sacrifices given out of gratitude for what God had done, meant giving back to God in the way that God has given to us. When a healing occurred, God came down and brought healing and wholeness into this world. The Levitical law was asking the people to take things of value in this world and give them up to God. The sacrifice was taking something of value and giving it to God, making it holy: God had come down so we give something that goes up.
We saw with Jesus that God came down into our mortal world to bring healing and wholeness into our brokenness, our sinfulness. Jesus still does that for us today. When God does that for us, we feel ... gratitude, an abundance of gratitude. What can we do with all of that gratitude? We don’t follow the laws of Leviticus anymore with the lambs and the logs of oil, but we do have things of value in this world that we can bring and give to God as a sacrifice, out of an abundance of gratitude. That’s what our tithes and our offerings are. We bring them to the church, we give them up to God, and God uses them for God’s mission here in this place. And so gratitude continues to abound. As we bring our offerings as sacrifices to be given up to God, God continues to come down to us, bringing healing and wholeness to us, and uses our tithes and offerings to bring healing and wholeness to the world through us.
Let us live lives of abundant gratitude. Let us learn to see God at work in our lives so that we can be filled with gratitude. Let us remember that God comes down into our world, into our brokenness to bring healing and wholeness. And not only for us, but also for the people in our society who have no voice. Out of gratitude for God’s goodness revealed in Jesus, let us bring sacrifices to the Lord, tithes and offerings that we can give up to God in thanks for God coming down to us. Let us serve God, following Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit on the mission that God has called us to here in this place. Let us live with an abundance of gratitude. Thanks be to God. Amen.
As we think about living lives of abundant gratitude and bringing our offerings as sacrifices to be given up to God in thanks, another way we can show our gratitude is by serving others as Christ has served us. Let us join our voices together to sing Hymn #635, Brother, sister, let me serve you.