Thanksgiving Day, 2016 – Luke 17:11-19
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +
There are moments, things in life, that just amuse me – that I find ironic and funny and yet also off. And one of those strange quirks is just how many churches, how many congregations don’t have service today on Thanksgiving. And then we get this Gospel lesson – “Where are the nine?” It just sort of stands out to me as ironic. And I’ll talk with guys, and the reasons are familiar – folks are traveling to see family, and there’s all the busy cooking to be done, and now there’s even shopping tonight to get ready for (although people tend to be embarrassed telling a pastor that). And all of this I understand – I’ll do all of it today too. But it does give background, insight into our text and also into the whole idea of thankfulness. This text is not “good people give thanks, bad people don’t, aren’t you glad you are a good person” – rather, it shows how easily we can be so absorbed by the blessings God has given us that we forget God, more or less.
“On the way to Jerusalem [Jesus] was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as He entered a village, He was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.’” As background – if you were a leper in the ancient world, you were banished from the cities. You had a contagious skin disease, and for everyone’s good, you had to go. You were consigned to a life of isolation and solitude – unless you banded together with a bunch of other lepers. It was horrific – you are banished and also sick, and sick in a somewhat gross and disgusting fashion. And so when Jesus comes, these folks call out to Him – have mercy. Heal us! Help us! Precisely what they ought to do.
And Jesus responds. “When He saw them, He said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priest.’ And as they went they were cleansed.” One of the things that always, always amazes on this text is that every leper starts walking to show themselves to the priest while they are still sick and full of leprosy. There is no better picture of what our lives are like, of what faith is, of what walking by faith and not by sight actually is. When they look down, they see nothing but sickness, yet Jesus has said, “Go” – and so they go. Go show yourself to the priest, show yourself to be healed – because that’s what you had to do to get back into the community. If the priest declared that you were clean, you could come home. And even as they see the sores still upon them – they go at Jesus’ word. Now, consider this. You see and know your own sin. You are a sinner – that’s just reality. And let’s face it, there are times when that reality, that truth, the horror of our own sin stands out and smacks us right between the eyes. But what has Christ Jesus said to you? You are baptized, and washed clean by Me. Peace be with you. Take and eat, take and drink, shed for you for the forgiveness of your sin. This is what He has declared… and yet, day in and day out, we see our sin. But at Christ’s word we believe, and we know that we are clean before the Father in heaven.
It’s a powerful depiction, a powerful image of faith. And it is true – “And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving thanks. Now, he was a Samaritan.” And they get healed. The word of the Lord rings true. And here we move to the crux of this text – only one returns and gives thanks. And so often here comes the finger wag – you better be thankful, unlike those lousy 9 lepers. But that’s not quite what Jesus would have us ponder. “Then Jesus answered, ‘Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Did you hear it? We don’t have Jesus condemning the nine – we don’t hear “And Jesus called down fire from heaven and smote those ungrateful jerks.” No, Jesus asks a question. Where are the nine? Why didn’t they return and give… praise. It’s really not even a question about thankfulness, but rather, praise.
I’m sure the 9 lepers were quite happy that they were healed. I’m sure they weren’t indifferent or shrugging things off. In fact, I’m sure they were quite enjoying the blessing that Jesus had given them. I know that if I were suddenly healed and able to see and hug and hold my wife and kids for the first time in months, in years, I’d be quite happy. Just as the folks who are traveling to see family or busily cooking or plotting out their shopping runs are delighting in blessings that God has given them. But here’s where the rubber meets the road. When you are focused on the blessings you have received, it can be easy to in your joy forget to where those blessings came from. We rejoice in family – but how often do we remember the words “What God has joined together… let not man put asunder.” We rejoice in our food – but how often do we remember that this is the daily bread that God has provided? How often do we say the common table prayer at record speed? And of course, even with the shopping and sales, how often do we pause and think, “Ah, yes, this is how God wondrously and fantastically has provided for me, how He has clothed me and sheltered me and supported me in ways that Solomon in all his splendor couldn’t have imagined?”
“Was no one found to return and give praise to God….” That is the question. It's not thanks, it's praise. To praise God is to declare what *He* has done, and so often we can view the things in our lives forgetting that they come from God. We can say “my family, my town, my church” – forgetting that they belong to God and He has give me to them in order to serve them. We can open up our wallet when paying for the turkey or that great sale and think about how hard we worked in the office, in the fields, and forget that it is God’s own bounty that has provided for us, that He has given us time, talent, and treasure, skills and opportunity. And again, this isn’t some holier-than-though finger wagging. When I go shopping, I generally don't, “Oh, look at how blessed I am” – I think, “Did I get everything on the list?” It is just the reality of being sinners in a sinful world that we are not always aware of what God has done, that these truths that we know are not always first and foremost in our mind. This is part of the reason why it is good to pause, to return to God in His Presence in His House and to offer up praise. Because here together we are pulled away from that rat race out there and made to think about God, made to praise Him together in our worship.
But more than just that. The key point of worship isn’t the praise we give. That isn’t the highlight, isn’t the focus. The text doesn’t end simply with Christ’s question about the 9. It continues. “And [Jesus] said to him, ‘Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.’” In the end,what’s the difference between the 1 and the 9? They all get to go on their way, they all get healed, they all get the physical blessings – indeed, they all had faith in what Christ Jesus had told them and received the benefits He promised! But the Samaritan gets to be in the presence of Jesus, gets to be in Christ Jesus’ presence and hear Jesus speak directly, personally, closely to Him. Before they had only heard Jesus at a distance – now this Samaritan hears, sees Jesus face to face as it were. And that is what Church is. The fellow who gruffly says, “Well, I can think about God while I’m fishing on Sunday morning – I can be thankful while I’m on the golf course” – they are right. You can. But it is here, in this service, where God is present for you, where God comes to you and blesses you directly. It is here where you hear His Word proclaimed, here where He comes to you in His Holy Supper, here where God Himself is Present for you. And that doesn’t happen golfing or fishing or shopping or cooking or in any of those other wonderful first article blessings. It is where two or three are gathered in His Name that He has promised to be – bringing love and mercy and forgiveness. Where He has promised to say to you, “see, you are made well, your sins are forgiven.” It is here were we are refreshed and prepared to rightly enjoy the blessings of both body and soul that He richly and freely provides for us.
Dear friends, God has been gracious to you, and this grace rests not upon you, not upon how great or how thankful you are. Rather, it rests upon His love, His steadfast love for you that endures forever. And He is faithful and just, and whenever you are gathered into His house, He will see that His love is proclaimed again to you – all thanks and praise be to Christ Jesus our Redeemer, who has gifted us with the Holy Spirit and restored us to the Father. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. + Amen.