Christ the King, Palm Coast, FL ~ Pastor Jay Zahn ~ Luke 17:11-19 ~ Wed, November 27, 2019
“How you are doing?” a man asked a colleague. He was surprised by her response: “I’m grateful.” It wasn’t the answer he expected. Even more unexpected, “I’m grateful,” was her response whenever anyone asked her: “How are you doing?”
Her answer illuminates an important reality about gratitude. Gratitude runs deeper than merely an emotional response to earthly blessings. It flows from a heart that recognizes the One who gives every blessing and gives thanks for him. That truth is at the heart of tonight’s Gospel account of the ten lepers.
All ten of these men had some significant things in common. All ten men were very sick. Sick to death, you could honestly say. Leprosy was such a devastating disease at the time of Jesus. Spots would break out on the skin, often turning into sores or deformities and the loss of feeling in the hands and feet would result in people injuring themselves in terrible, debilitating ways. Lepers were labeled as “unclean.” If they wanted to travel to see family for Thanksgiving or Christmas, they couldn’t. It was worse than being quarantined to your room when you’re sick. You were cast out of town, and forced to dwell in isolation, in leper colonies quarantined away from the healthy. That’s what made this disease especially awful. It wasn’t the physical pain but the emotional that was the hardest to handle. This disease took everything away from you, not just your health, but also your family, friends, home, work, faith community and corporate worship. And there was no cure for it. Each of these lepers experienced all of these things.
They had something else in common too. They all have heard of Jesus and the kind of power he wields. They all believe he is capable of healing them. And when he comes their way, they all cry out to him for mercy. And Jesus answers their prayers, healing them of this dreaded disease, giving each of them a new lease on life.
But it’s at this point where the group experiences a significant divide. After they are healed, this single group of ten divides into two groups: the nine, and the one. The nine receive their healing from Jesus, and when they realize it, they hurry to the priest. Why? Because they’re thankful for this blessing. They really want to make the most of it. They can’t wait to get back to living the life they had before leprosy. To reunite with their dear families and close friends. They want to get busy using their health to help provide for their families and to bless their neighbors. Now that death no longer hung over them constantly like a pall on a casket, they were excited and eager to get on with the blessing of living! Who could blame them?
Jesus does. Not that he regrets blessing them with restored health. We need to be crystal clear about that. Jesus was more than happy to heal them and if he had to do it all over again, he wouldn’t hesitate to give what he gave to them all over again. But it’s hard not to notice the disappointment he expresses: “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?” He was asking His disciples—just as He asks us—about how these nine respond (more precisely: what is lacking) in their response to the gifts He had given.
I hear the echo of Jesus’ sentiment in Abraham Lincoln’s presidential proclamation, appointing the last Thursday in November as an annual day of National Thanksgiving. Listen to how he began that proclamation: “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”
Isn't that interesting? The stated reason that America originally established a National Day of Thanksgiving was to intentionally remind people to give thanks to God. And it’s the preposition “to” that grabs my attention on this Thanksgiving Eve. People all around our country will gather tomorrow and give thanks “for” many things, just as the nine lepers were thankful for their healing from leprosy. Jesus isn’t criticizing their lack of thankfulness for the blessing of healing. He’s critiquing their lack of thankfulness to the One who gave it! You see, Jesus knows the truth about thanksgiving. Here it is: true thanksgiving for things is always directed toward someone. Indeed, giving thanks makes little sense if that sense of gratitude is not directed outward, toward someone else, the someone who else is responsible for bestowing those blessings.
That’s precisely why Jesus asks: "Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?" (Luke 17:18). Can we take Jesus' question and apply it to ourselves, our own hearts? How far does our thankfulness extend? What does our gratitude focus on? Are we grateful only for the blessings? Or do these blessings soften our hearts with thanksgiving to the One who pours out these blessings upon us? Let me put it in more every day life terms: Do we ever get so wrapped up with enjoying what God gives: friends, family, career, entertainment, recreation, things, that we let these distract, even interfere, with enjoying the greatest gift of all, God himself? Think of it with these 10 men. All 10 were healed. 9 of them walked away from Jesus even as they received the gift of new health from Jesus. They were so caught up in their new health, they let it keep them away from returning to Jesus, to give him thanks for what he had done for them. They loved the gift but they showed a lack of love for the Giver! They let a lesser gift get in the way of the Greatest Gift!
The Samaritan, though, as soon as he recognized God’s gift of healing in his body, made an immediate one-eighty and returned to give thanks to God. Jesus, knowing this man’s heart, knew that this guy got it; he was thanking God-in-the-flesh for the undeserved goodness and mercy shown to him. The gift caused him to give thanks for the Giver! The miracle caused him to give thanks to Jesus, and thanking Jesus for more than just the earthly blessing. But actually thanking Jesus as an act of worship, glorifying Jesus for who he is: the Savior, the Son of God who came in flesh to give sinners forgiveness, faith, eternal life with God. Yes, this is what set this guy apart from the other nine. It’s not that he simply said thank you while the other nine did not. It runs deeper than that. What Jesus is calling attention to is this man’s faith, a faith that was thankful not only for the blessings of God but also for God himself, is what set him apart from those other guys.
This is why Martin Luther referred to gratitude as “the basic Christian attitude.” The heart of Christian faith is a heart that is thankful not only for the blessings God gives, but for God himself! It’s out of the attitude of gratitude for God who is that Christian faith grows and flourishes!
That’s the kind of faith that the Samaritan leper had. That kind of faith is the kind that Christ himself works in us. It does more than teach us to mind our manners in saying “thank you” when we’re supposed to. This is more than emotional gratitude for good things. Even atheists can experience that kind of thanksgiving. This is the kind of faith that gives thanks for God! That’s the kind of faith that is able to thank God not just for good earthly things, but also and even for difficulties and trials in our lives, trusting God’s promise to use those to make us stronger in our relationship with him. It’s the kind of faith that perseveres in thanksgiving, even under hardship, because we believe his ironclad guarantee that our hope in him will not disappoint. It’s the kind of faith that rejoices even when Jesus points out where we’ve been less than thankful to him, because where Jesus works repentance there he also bestows forgiveness, and where Jesus puts thanklessness to death within us, there he also raises up thankfulness that wells up from gratitude that He works deep within us. Faith like that doesn’t feel forced to say “thank you” to Jesus. It’s the kind of faith that moves us to want to do so and resists letting anything or anyone keeps us from doing so. That kind of faith makes us eager to do so, grateful for every opportunity to do so. Such faith makes us new people, people who live each moment in gratitude to Christ, even when those moments are simply about accomplishing the ordinary details of earthly life. It's the kind of faith that moves us to a lifestyle of gratitude from a heart of faith that has the Savior as its Source, Christ as its center, and God and his glory as its goal!
That’s what makes this kind of gratitude uniquely Christian. And it’s how this kind of gratitude actually helps us grow in our faith in Christ. So here’s what I have in mind to do: Each day between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I plan to share a biblical passage that highlights a quality or characteristic of our Savior via the CTK church blog. I’m inviting you to join me each day in reflecting on a different quality of God, what that quality means and how God uses that quality to bless you, and even reflecting on specific ways in which you’ve experienced blessings that flow out of this quality of God. I’m encouraging you to join me on this journey of growth in gratitude, not only for the blessings of God, but growth in gratitude for God himself! Daily opportunities to turn to Jesus for moments of worship as we thank him for being him because we too want to personally experience in growing measure what Jesus commended in the Samaritan leper when he said: “Rise and go, your faith has made you well.” Amen.