Summary: The escapted lions of the Baghdad Zoo are an example of the bondage we inhabit that we need Christ to free us from.

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During the U.S.-led Invasion of Baghdad in 2003 a pride of lions escaped the bomb damaged Baghdad Zoo and roamed the deserted streets of the city for three days. The keepers of the zoo had fled a few days before troops arrived, leaving the captive animals without food or water. Residents looted the zoo – taking many of the animals for food or to sell on the black market. After American soldiers took over the city, they assigned a unit to repair and take control of the zoo and somehow capture the lions.

Using large armored vehicles and the temptation of food, all but 3 of the lions were guided back into the repaired habitat. The remaining three, terrorized during the previous bombing, confused by the noisy tanks and hungry, would not be led and were killed by soldiers. With three days of freedom the lions could have gone anywhere, but instead the pride wandered no farther than 2 miles from the zoo – cruising the streets of Baghdad looking for some thing to eat. Years of captivity dulled their instinct, and extinguished their ability to comprehend the natural, wild world. Even though the escape had given them liberty – they were not truly free.

Our lectionary reading today is a popular story from the healing life of Christ. Ministers who don’t use the lectionary usually tell it when church attendance gets low or at Thanksgiving. But this story isn’t just about our need to come to Jesus and say, “thank you”. It’s about us and it reminds us that unless our relationship with Christ liberates our minds and restores our instincts as God’s children we will wander aimlessly even though we have been liberated.

Held In Captivity

The men of this story were on the outskirts of the city in an area known as the “valley of the lepers”. It’s interesting to note that the Greek word used here does not really mean leprosy. It is a word that means more like “unspecified skin disorder”. The people of that age could not always tell the difference between leprosy and other diseases and so anyone with a severe skin disease was thrown into the leprosy category and banished from the temple and the city. Because some folks just had a rash, eczema or severe acne – there was a set of laws that allowed priests to proclaim them healed if it cleared up and re-admit them into society.

Yet these men were captive to their disease. As long as physical evidence showed them to have a skin disorder (possibly leprosy) they were left in the valley to starve or eat what ever someone was willing to throw to them (or at them) and warn people to stay away. Their family, their jobs and their ability to worship were gone. Think of it -- every day they woke up, looked over their bodies and hoped:

Today was the day their skin cleared.

Today was the day they could have everything back.

Today was the day they could be with God.

Today was the day they would be free.

Then as the sun broke the horizon they saw the white patches on their arms, legs and reflected on each other’s downcast faces – the next 23 hours and fifty-seven minutes would just be the same old captivity to loneliness and hunger.

We are captive too, only our captivity is somewhat more sinister because we can’t see it on our skin. It lives in our hearts. We are captive to a world where success means material comfort which chains us to work addiction and starves our loved ones for our attention and wisdom. We are captive to a media obsessed manipulative culture where concepts like “fact”, “truth” and “dignity” don’t sell, aren’t used and we are starved for justice and peace. We are captive to fear that keeps us from honestly relating to others, learning from mentors, asking the hard questions or sharing God’s answers. We stare through the bars of our own inability and pray to God to feed us where we are.

Sometimes, we can even be captive in church. Like a spiritual zoo, we sit in our pew, go to our groups, wait to be fed, and hope the world can learn the Gospel from us as they encounter us in our cage Sunday morning. We create programs to bring people in to where we are -- instead of understanding ourselves as God’s children who were called to be sent out. There is a call to repentance in this passage of the Word. We all need to stand by the roadside as Christ passes by and pray with these lepers, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

Delivered to Destiny

Please don’t misunderstand – church is a good thing. It is the gathering of saints – the body of Christ where we learn and worship in community. Notice Jesus sent the lepers to the temple so the priest could proclaim them healed. But the temple didn’t heal them. Jesus did. Church is where we learn of how we can be healed and proclaim our healing and redemption – but church doesn’t heal us. Jesus does. We need to relate to Jesus. Sometimes in our captivity we forget the feeder while we enjoy the food.

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