A leper colony was a place of despair. It was a place of death. When a man was banished to the colony, it wasn’t for a period of time to recuperate and heal and then rejoin his family, it was a death sentence. There was no cure. It was only a matter of time before this ghastly disease ate away at his body parts, deadened his nerves, and finally killed him. Hopelessness was a constant companion.
One afternoon in the leper colony Jacob came running to the others – “Have you heard? Jesus is coming! Would he? Could he? What have we got to lose?” They agreed, they must go and see this Jesus they had heard so much about. All night they had laid awake, too excited to go to sleep, but fearful that once again their hopes had been lifted, only to be crushed beneath the awful weight of reality. What would they say? What would he do? Could they even dare hope? Thaddeus especially knew the terrible curse of being an outcast. Not only was he a leper, he was a Samaritan. There had been a vote when he came to the colony – it was a narrow margin, but they let him stay. The others tolerated him. His makeshift hut was on the edge of the colony – an outcast among outcasts.
The sleepless night ended. Dawn came. Ten of them began the walk back to the city from which they had been banished. They came to the outskirts of the little town where their families lay sleeping in homes they hadn’t seen in months. They wept together thinking about their wives and children from whom they had been separated by this terrible disease.
But this morning they had hope. Jesus was coming. They sat, they talked. Joseph was the worrier, “When will he come? Where should we wait? What if we miss him?” Reuben asked, “What’s the first thing you would do if you didn’t have leprosy?” They looked at each other, “Home” “My wife” “My children” “Yes, it’s been so long.” Thaddeus didn’t speak out, but he knew, he knew where he would go first.
The sun rose in the sky, the dew began to rise off the field and hang like a cloud over the landscape around them. They ate the few bites of hard, stale bread they had brought with them. And they waited. A few stragglers came down the road, and as they came near the men cried out, “Unclean, unclean!” and the travelers gave them a wide birth as they hurried on past them.
Suddenly, in the distance, they heard faint shouts of excitement; they squinted and saw dust rising up on the road as a huge crowd came toward them. Then they saw him, walking ahead of the mob of people all gathered around him, hoping for a chance to talk to him, touch him, have a moment of his attention. And they knew this was their only shot. They began shouting at the top of their lungs, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
Then Jesus stopped, right in front of them, the crowd hung back, but Jesus walked right up to them. They looked at him with eager expectation in their eyes. He looked at them through tears of compassion. “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” “But…” “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” The conversation was over -- they turned and started walking toward the town. “That didn’t go well – what does he expect – more humiliation – the priest will refuse to see us – oh, well, we tried.”
And then Thaddeus looked down. He shouted – “My hands, they’re normal!” They all looked down – they looked at each other – their skin was clear, their bodies restored -- no more leprosy! They began to run toward the town – to the priest, to their families! Then Thaddeus stopped – he watched the others race toward town – but he knew, and he turned and began to run back to Jesus, and fell at his feet and in tears he praised God, he thanked Jesus, for another chance to live.
And Jesus looked down, and asked the crowd, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Why has only one returned to praise God, and he a Samaritan?” And then he knelt and lifted the face of this man and said, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
Grace is an amazing thing. When we receive it it changes our lives. When it is withheld…
David Seamans, a Christian counselor, tells of a young woman he counseled who could never get on with her life – never could open up and love anyone unconditionally. She told him how, in growing up, she could never do anything that pleased her mother, couldn’t ever meet up to her mother’s expectations.
She took piano lessons and worked very hard for one recital and her turn came to play and she was flawless. Her teacher leaned over and whispered, “You were perfect.” She ran down the steps of the stage to go sit with her mother, who was silent for about ten minutes, and then leaned over and whispered loudly, “Your slip was showing the whole time.”
We’re on a treadmill. Most of us struggle all our lives trying to earn the approval of somebody – maybe a mother or father, an employer, a coach, a husband or wife. But no matter how hard we try it’s just never enough. We feel like a failure, we just can’t live up to other’s expectations for us.
And you know, sometimes we feel that way about God. No matter how much I do, regardless of how often I come to church, or how much I give, it’s just not enough. How could I ever live up to God’s expectations? We’re on a religious treadmill – and we’re jogging along, going nowhere and getting tired. And every time we hear another sermon on commitment or evangelism or holiness it just turns the treadmill up another setting. Have you ever felt like that?
If you have, you’re not alone. I see the exhaustion in people’s faces. They constantly worry about going to hell. “Have I done enough?” “Will I have time for one last prayer before I die?” “Where do I stand on God’s grading curve?”
And even though they’re exhausted they don’t dare slow down or get off the treadmill. So instead they seek to pay God off – through church attendance, good deeds, nonstop involvement. And when some preacher says something about resting securely in the love of God, they think – “You’ve got to be kidding! I don’t have time to rest! I’m already too far behind.” And so their lives, instead of creating a sense of security and trust and peace with God are filled with guilt and anger and low self-esteem, and they can never forgive themselves for falling short and messing up because they can’t see how God possibly could.
What got us on the treadmill in the first place?
Some of us were born on it. We were raised in a family, in a church that demanded we toe the line and follow the rules. We had parents who set up unattainable standards and were never pleased with less that straight A’s and first chair and starting team. And affection was withheld as a means of punishment and guilt was used as a means of control. (One 30-something woman said she felt like she had been on a lifelong guilt trip, with her mother as the travel agent.) And it was communicated that God would never be pleased until we had fulfilled our obligations and were perfect as He is perfect. His love was conditional.
Some of us actually put it on our resume. (How do you find time to do all that?) Our lives revolve around being busy for the Lord. We’ve heard about grace and we think, “Who needs that? That’s for slackers. I do enough that God is going to owe me.” We’re going to get salvation the old fashioned way, we’ll earn it. It reminds me of the story of the man who knew he was in trouble when found himself in line at the judgment seat of God, and just ahead of him was Mother Theresa. She approaches the throne and the man hears God say, “Theresa, I’ll have to say I’m really disappointed – I expected more from you.”
In the back of our minds, regardless of how busy we are, we know it’s not enough. The debit page on our ledger is a whole lot fuller than our credit page.
The apostle Paul was a veteran of the treadmill. Before that fateful day on the road to Damascus, he had lived his life earning God’s favor. Listen to his resume – Phil. 3:4-6 “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.”
Paul had it together. But his encounter with Jesus changed all that – Phil 3:7-9 “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”
Let me let you in on a secret – the gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t called gospel for nothing (gospel = good news). And the good news is that we can get off of the treadmill – that God doesn’t grade on the curve – that God’s love isn’t conditional on your getting your act together and earning your salvation.
Listen to Paul, the old veteran of the treadmill, himself: Rom. 5:6-8 “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God loved us long before we ever thought of loving him. Jesus died for us, not when we finally deserved it, but when we were still sinners.
In fact, listen to Paul’s definition of grace –
Eph. 2:8-9 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Titus 3:5-7 “…he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”
His definition? It is the gift of God – poured out on us generously – not earned, not deserved.
Paul understood what was so amazing about grace – 1 Cor. 15:9-10 “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” And there came a time in Paul’s life when he was struggling with life and frustrated with God, and he wasn’t strong and he wasn’t in control, and it was at that point that God spoke to him and said, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me” (2 Cor. 12:9).
I’ll tell you what’s so amazing about grace. God’s grace takes us right where we are, but he doesn’t leave us where we’re at. God loves us so much that he looks at our lives consumed with sin – spiritual leprosy – and he says, “My son for your sin” and he makes us whole again.
What is your response? I hope it’s like the one leper who realizes the enormity of the gift that has been given, and comes running back to the feet of Jesus. Where else would we rather be than at the feet of Jesus?
Posted on Sun, November 21, 2010
by John Roberts