Happy Thanksgiving! I thank the Lord for this opportunity to minister the Word of God this morning with you all. This holiday season I have been thinking about what does it mean to be thankful biblically. It is so easy to get lost with all of the shopping, busyness and celebrating that we can easily forget why we have these holidays in the first place.
Come to think of it, I see a lot of people thanking God. I hear the athlete, upon winning a championship, thank God for helping his team win (though I really wonder if God is picking his team and his side?). I see a mother, waiting by the door for her child to come home and when he/she returns, she cries, “thank God!” Or I hear a dad, when his child receives a gift from someone nudging the child with a, “What do you say?” to which the child mumbles, “thank you.”
To be honest, though most of us have “thanksgiving faces,” do we really have a “thanksgiving” heart? If there was a machine that could gage the times when we are grateful and compared to the times when we are grumbling, I wonder if we would be surprised to find that we are more whiners than worshippers? Today I want to look at a familiar story in Scripture in Luke 17:11-19 where we see how Jesus feels about people who are truly thankful. Did you know Jesus is taking note of how full or how empty our heart is of gratitude? What does it mean for believers of Jesus Christ to be true “thanks-givers”? First of all:
I. True thanks-givers remember their utmost desperation for Christ (vv. 11-13).
The story begins with Jesus traveling. Soon He will have reached Jerusalem, where He will die. In our story, He is near Samaria. Now the Jews hated the Samaritans because they were a mixed breed (John 4:9). Jesus enters an unknown village, where from a distance ten lepers, aware of Jesus’ reputation for healing, see and attempting at getting Him to notice them.
Leprosy is a disease of a slow lingering death. Let me give you a brief description. Commentator William Barclay notes that it might begin with little nodules, which go on to become ulcers. The ulcers develop a foul discharge. Soon the eyebrows fall out; the eyes become staring; the vocal chords become ulcerated, and the voice becomes hoarse, and the breath wheezes…Slowly the sufferer becomes a mass of ulcerated growths. It ends in mental decay, coma and ultimately death. A very scary disease!
Leprosy might begin with the loss of all sensation in some part of the body; the nerves are affected; the muscles waste away; the tendons contract until the hands are like claws. There follows ulceration of the hands and feet. Then comes the progressive loss of fingers and toes, until in the end a whole hand or a whole foot may drop off. So if a rat gnaws off a leper’s fingers overnight, the victim might not realize it until the morning. The duration of that kind of leprosy is anything from twenty to thirty years.
To make matters worse, once one was diagnosed with leprosy, they were completely banished from society. If a leper entered your house, the house was declared unclean. They were not allowed near people (this is why they “stood at a distance” here). They would not have the simple joys of life. No wedding invitations. No children to hold. Never being smiled at. Never greeted on the street. No singing hymns with believers. No having a meal with a family. They were miserable people without hope.
So you can imagine when they heard that a rabbi/healer was around that they all gathered together and with a raspy voice cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” They were desperate. Nothing else mattered. None of them thought, “My leprosy is not that bad.” They knew they were nothing. They needed to get to Jesus! Beloved, anything in life that shows us our need for God is a blessing, no matter what shape or form it is.
I would commend to you today that such a desperate heart will always be noticed by Jesus. There is nothing that stops the music of Heaven like a soul that desperately wants Jesus. Jesus stops everything for the One who stops to cry to Him in desperation. When I was 12 years old, my father was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. He was bedridden. His joints were the size of golf balls. The doctors gave up hope on him. Even his Jewish doctor told him, “Why don’t you try praying?” We were church going Christians, but we did not know Jesus (that can happen you know right?). But this sickness drove us to our knees. When all other ways were closed, in desperation, we cried in the only direction that was open…the way up. I understood desperation then. I also understand divine response to utter desperation as I saw my father getting better through the power of prayer. You would not believe the thanksgiving that went on in our house!
It was a miracle. However, we wondered if this God who healed my dad could do even a greater miracle. Could he forgive us of our sin? Could he wash our heart? Could we bring peace to our heart and home? So that began the journey of desperation for my family. I am standing here to tell you that Jesus noticed us and was moved with compassion on us. He did the greater miracle of bringing us to saving faith in Him together as a family during the summer of 1995. Praise Him!
But now 15 years later, after some experience and education, I am realizing that I am not desperate as I used to be. I struggle with feelings of entitlement. I have thoughts like: “I deserve Jesus to pay attention to me. Look at all that I have done for Him!” Or “I went to seminary. I know a lot!” Or “I have done a lot of ministry. I have such great experience!” We can get used to being a follower of Christ. How many of you have ever gone to Niagara Falls? It is such an amazing, wonderful work of God. It is also very loud. You really start to have an awe of God’s power and majesty when you stand there. But if you ask the people who live near Niagra about how great it is to live there, they will probably tell you, “I don’t hear the water anymore. I’ve gotten used to it.” It reminded of me what Thoreau once said that if the stars only come out once a year, we will all stop everything to go out and look at them. But we have gotten used to the stars. We have lost the wonder.
This is what has happened to believers over time. We get used to the wonder. We are no longer amazed at our salvation. We forget how God has saved us. Our pride gets to us. Loved ones, never lose the wonder! Have you lost the wonder of your salvation? Scripture says that God opposes, which literally means, “goes to war against” the proud. But God cannot resist desperation and humility. Humble yourself today before Him. We don’t deserve anything except hell. Yet out of His grace, He reaches out His hand toward us. Reach out to Him in desperation. He is attracted to weakness and opposed to our delusions of strength. Secondly,
II. True thanks-givers are interested in the Giver, not just His gifts (vv.14-19)
Interestingly, Jesus simply looks at them and tells them to go to the priests. Did you notice that He doesn’t touch them? And we know Jesus is not afraid to touch lepers since he has done so in other accounts (Luke 5:13). And He doesn’t even say, “Be healed!” He tells them to go to the priests. The priests were the health inspectors. There would sometimes be an eight-day process to make sure the leper was truly healed. They would have to even offer sacrifices during this inspection. Finally, they would then be reunited with their families. But according to the law, lepers were supposed to go and show themselves to the priest after they were healed. Here, they were not healed yet and Jesus already tells them to go to the priest. Why is this?
I wonder if Jesus is testing their faith? Sometimes only when we take steps in obedience without seeing results will God work. Notice the text, “as they went they were cleansed.” This was a mass miracle. This would have been a sight to see! I don’t know if all of it happened instantaneously or all at once, but that doesn’t matter. Corpse-looking faces now have reemerged ears, noses, eyebrows, lashes, hairlines. Feet which were toeless, ulcerated stubs—were suddenly whole, breaking through their shrunken sandals. Fingers grew back. Barnacled skin became soft. What a loving gift stemming from the compassionate Christ!
As they were walking to the Temple or wherever the priests were, celebrating the new returned gift of life, one of them is so overtaken by emotion. He stops in his tracks. He is not content on simply taking the gift. Going to the Temple can wait. Reuniting with his family can wait. Religious observance can wait. But thanking Jesus cannot wait! His spiritual obligation took precedence over all other obligations. Not only does he want to thank Jesus, but he wanted to give himself to Jesus. Notice He is “thanking God with a loud voice.” The word “loud” is where we get our word “megaphone.” This was a really loud, megaphoned praise to God. No more raspy, squeaky, whispering voice. He has new vocal chords. Some of us who refuse to sing in church and sit like we are at a funeral can take lessons from this leper who cannot contain himself with joy!
Notice Jesus didn’t demand this praise, but this leper offers it freely. Jesus loves for you to offer praise freely. Ten men prayed, but only one praised. As he is laying himself at Jesus’ feet, he is declaring his gratitude and also giving all he has in surrender to Christ. See the core of true thanksgiving is humility. He is not simply thinking of God’s gifts, but thinking of God the Giver. God gives you His gifts in love not so that you will make idols of the gift, but truly fall in love with Him, the Giver!
Now here is the punch line. This guy was a Samaritan (v.16), implying that the rest were Jews. He is the last guy you would think would receive healing (especially in Jewish eyes), but the only one who truly has faith. Jesus expresses his sadness and disappointment. “Where are the nine?” He says.
I wonder if He looks out today at our churches and ask the same question. “Where are the ones whom I have given my gifts to? Where are the ones who are truly thankful for what I have done for them in their lives? Where are the ones who remember how bad a condition they were in before I delivered them?” Where are the nine? Why is it that when blessings come, people do not thank God yet when problems come, they are quick to blame God? We are quick to write our blessings in sand, but engrave our complaints in marble. I never understood that logic!
I am sure if you were a news reporter and caught up with the nine men and asked them why they never went back to Jesus to thank Him, I am guessing that they would all have excuses. One might say, “Well, I waited to see if the cure was real.” Another: “I was going to thank Jesus later.” Yet another: “I never really had leprosy. That was a wrong diagnosis.” Another: “The priest did it. Not Jesus.” Such is human nature. Thanklessness and ingratitude is such a horrible sin. Paul says in Romans that an ungrateful heart is fertile soil for all kinds of sins: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21).
Jesus rewards this one Samaritan leper with salvation when he says literally, “Your faith has saved you.” Ten lepers made physically whole, but only one made spiritually whole. Nine lepers still have leprous hearts. Only one has a clean heart, forgiven by Christ. Nine lepers, with the physical healing, will end in death. One leper has salvation, which will last forever.
I wonder if this story is a parable for us today. There are a lot of people, especially in churches, wanting to use God for His blessings. Give me healing. Give me food. Give me riches. Give me a good grade. Give me a spouse. Give me, give me, give me! A lot of give me’s, but no “forgive me!” Do you want God for His gifts or do you want God for God? Do you seek His hand or do you want His face? And if you want God for God, let me tell you then that God’s primary concern is that your leprous heart be cleansed. His desire is for you to fall at His feet, confess your sin and receive Him as Lord and Savior.
And if you have already done that, when is the last time you thanked God for your salvation? When is the last time you truly fell at the feet of Christ reminded again of how bad your sins were and how great His love was? True thanks-givers remember their utmost need for Christ and true thanks-givers are always interested not just for the gifts of God, but for a relationship with the Giver of every good and perfect gift. And what greater gift is there than the gift of salvation? Could we ever thank God enough for His indescribable gift of Himself? Could we ever sing songs worthy enough to describe His love for us sinners? Could we preach a sermon great enough to adequately thank God? No believers. We cannot. We are forever indebted for God’s greatest gift of salvation. As you take Communion now, do not mock God as you take it without carefully examining your heart. This should not be a ritual. We must confess our thanklessness, our idolatry and still, years later, of our need for Him. Then as we lay at His feet, cling to His cross and commit again, to walk with gratitude. Such a heart is irresistible to God.
The Gospel of Matthew : Volume. 2000 (W. Barclay, lecturer in the University of Glasgow, Ed.). The Daily study Bible series, Rev. ed. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
Hughes, R. K. (1998). Luke : That you may know the truth. Preaching the Word (170). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.