For the Birds?

Luke 17:11-19

Pastoral Prayer: Lord God maker of heaven and earth, just as you brought life out of the face of the deep, you create life out of death. We gather this morning to remember that your work of grace is an ongoing re-creation of life out of death over and over again . . . even ours. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.

George W. Truett served as pastor of the First Baptist Church, Dallas, TX from 1897-1944. He died in 1944 at the age of 77 having served FBC, Dallas for 47 years. The seminary at Baylor University is named after Truett. Truett-McConnell College in Georgia and Truett hospital at Baylor Hospital in Dallas are among his other namesakes. During those 47 years Truett taught a view of the end times, eschatology, described as Postmillennial. He would not have been considered a supporter of the view encountered in the Left Behind genre. 

After Truett died, W. A. Criswell became the pastor of the First Baptist Church, Dallas, TX, the year Truett died. He served as pastor for 56 years until 1990. A college in Dallas bears his name. He would likely be considered the pastor of the first megachurch. During his time at First Baptist Church, Dallas, Criswell taught a view of the end times, eschatology, described as Premillennial. You would have surely heard him talking about being Left Behind.

Two pastors serving the same church for about 100 years read the same Bible. When it came to the subject of the way God fulfills the promise of his Kingdom these two men saw those events in two distinctly different ways after reading the same Bible. After 25 years here at Snow Hill and having taught Revelation or preached through Revelation about three times, I tried my best to respect the different perspectives of those in attendance while not seeing either George Truett or W.A. Criswell as having the best understanding of what we call the end times. Despite my careful responses that did not mean that at least a couple of families decided the matter so important they left the church.

The Gospel is not primarily a story about being Left Behind. It is instead the story of God’s rescue of humanity from the Powers of Sin and Death in Jesus, the Christ. In fact, at no point in the history of the Church from the first century was any view of the end times elevated to the point of inclusion in the Creeds of the Church. Not once.

But in my coming of age in the Southern Baptist Convention, the matter of how one read Revelation became a signal as to just how conservative a person was in reading that same Bible. It was like hanging out a banner. It this practice that David Fitch has in mind when he suggests that the Bible is often used as a tool of the church that alters its mission of reconciliation and de-forms the church into an enemy-making machine.

“It’s the real thing.”

Think of it like Coca-Cola. Since the 1940’s the soft drink developed in the late 1880’s sought to distinguish itself by using “the real thing” in painted signs and advertising. In the late 1960’s when young people were looking for authenticity, “It’s the real thing,” became the slogan carrying the soft drink into the 1970’s. Over time, the formula for Coca-Cola has accommodated the influences of the market. When concern grew over the amount of sugar in soft drinks, you could find a Diet Coke. As awareness of the amount of caffeine in our diets needed moderation you could find a Caffeine Free Diet Coke. Once a temperance drink created to help John Pemberton overcome his addiction to morphine, the drink that was sold as an over the counter medicine could barely be recognizable in the form of a Caffeine Free Diet Coke found today.

Once you lose the core, celebrating its replacement is to exchange the real for something else.

When we miss that the Bible is God’s self-revelation to us culminating in the story of Jesus, the Christ, come to rescue us from the Powers of Sin and Death, we may be celebrating something, but it will be an exchange from the real thing – the Gospel.

What does all this have to do with Luke, Lepers and Birds?

Here we have a familiar story. Often the stories become too familiar. That is, we have read them and drawn out what we think is the most important feature and move on. Then, every time we hear the story our minds go on auto-pilot often missing what is right there on the page that is even more important than remembering to return and give thanks. Instead of understanding this event as another way to talk about new life, new creation or the Gospel of Grace, we default to the way we hear the story as children. We teach this story as a morality tale. Our children learn that it is important to say, “Thank you.” And, while it is important to give thanks, the features of the story from Luke read just a bit ago holds far more for us that simply a morality tale it is a creation story, it is a story of life out of death.

Jesus travels the borderlands. Luke describes Jesus moving toward Jerusalem again. Yet, passing between Galilee and Samaria would have Jesus moving from West to East before going south. This is the borderlands. One never knows who will be encountered in those spaces. It seems Jesus did not have trouble with borders. He did not have trouble crossing them. He did not fear being in places considered off-limits for Jews. 

Enemy making is demonstrated when we make rules that make of other people other than like us, other than human. Rules were created to keep Jews from Samaritans. Pure bred people have nothing to do with half-breeds, or so the logic goes. Something about the inherent history of a people makes them off-limits for consideration as really human. For the Jews, the danger is the risk of being unclean for being near “those people.” A widely used Jewish proverb stated that “a piece of bread given by a Samaritan is more unclean than a swine’s flesh.” No love lost between these two neighbors. 

None of us like to be characterized by our besetting sin. But, give us a chance to make the sin of another human being their defining identity and you bet we will. And it works better if we can use the Bible to support our antagonisms toward others, we feel divinely justified. 

Using the Bible as an antagonistic tool is contrary to the story of God become flesh, to dwell with a people whose very living brings death therefore exposing the God-Man to what is unclean — all of us. So while we do not all have leprosy, we all participate in a way of life that is held in the grips of the Powers of Sin and Death. Our deathly living would, by nature of the laws, make Jesus unclean were he to come too close, even touching us or being touched by us.

Jesus declares the unclean clean. The Gospel is an announcement to be made, not a sales pitch to be given. When Jesus approached the village the small leper colony called out to Jesus from a distance. Quarantined from the community, they were cut off socially and religiously. Our modern translations rightly render this condition a skin disease. There were certain conditions that set apart this sort of skin disease that left marked a person unclean. Designating a person unclean as a result of a skin disease was not a punishment for contracting a disease over which they had no control. The priest inspected the skin to determine if in fact it was of the variety that would jeopardize the group. If it was, the bad news was given. 

Notice that Jesus shouts his response to the request of the lepers that they go show themselves to the priest. As they were going to the priest, they were cleansed. The announcement to go show themselves to the priest was a way of saying, “Good News! You are clean.” There would be no reason to show themselves to the priest had there been no indication they had become clean. Jesus did not have to sell them on the idea. He announced gave birth to their hope that by the time they got to the priest they would be rescued from the isolation and loneliness associated with quarantined living. Good News! 

Even more, when Jesus said to the lone returning former leper, he said, “Go your way.” If we are not careful we miss the shift in instructions. Initially, Jesus tells them to show themselves to the priest. Take some time this afternoon and read Leviticus 14. There you will discover the tedious process to be declared clean and then the requirement to re-enter the village re-established as socially and religiously acceptable. 

They heard the Good News! It is our Good News. It is the Good News to the world. God himself has made us clean and announced us as clean in Christ. 

This is new that makes us alive. 

Luke holds out one detail to heighten the story. I know. You already knew that the one who returned was a Samaritan. Disease tends to strip away any other marker. When we all have the same illness it removes the barrier between us. It is when somehow we think ourselves more worthy than others. The enemy making machine highlights our differences. When we play to the enemy making machine we are actually living from the position of self-righteousness, not out for the gift of our righteousness in Christ.

Jews and Samaritans read the same Torah – the same Bible. But, they had different temples and different priests. We see this in John 4 and the story of Jesus and the Woman at the Well. Reminiscent of that exchange, Jesus tells this group, likely consisting of Jews and Samaritans, at least we know one of the lepers was a Samaritan, “go show yourselves to the priest.”

Whose priest? Which one? The Jewish priest or the Samaritan priest. Upon seeing that this foreigner returned to give Jesus praise, the only time where Jesus is the focus of praise and no God, Jesus tells the lone leper to go his own way. Never mind the priest, I have declared you clean. Jesus was the High Priest that both cleansed and announced the person whole.

And this brings us to the birds.

Too often modern readers apply current sensibilities to ancient texts. This is another way the Bible becomes an antagonism when we read the Text out of its context and time.

When a person was healed or their skin disease ran its course, he or she would show themselves to the priest. Once the priest determined the disease was gone he was to take two birds, cedar wood, crimson yarn and hyssop for a ritual that declared the person alive, clean, who was once dead to the community socially and religiously.

To our ears this sounds odd. But, read from this direction, that is seeing Jesus through the lens of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, we see that all along, God was in the business of new creation, of making the dead alive.

One bird was killed. Its blood was mixed with living water. The cedarwood, crimson yarn and hyssop were dipped into the blood mixed with water and sprinkled on the living bird. The living bird was then sent away. For those in that day, and with we who have ears to hear, this demonstrated that God cleanses taking away what brings death and declaring new life. Add the time frame for this ritual cleansing and one would immediately see a call back to Genesis 1. God’s Spirit hovered over the face of the deep and out of the chaos God brought order and life. Out of a life defined by sickness, disease, the once socially and religiously dead leper was made alive to the community once again.

Surely we see that the Bible has always, and is always about the story of God’s grace toward we who are all dead and made alive in Christ.

I generally take a manuscript with me to preach each week. However, the preached message is often a bit different than what you will find here. You may listen to the preached sermon here.

About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.