One Thanksgiving a family was seated around their table, admiring the annual holiday bird. The 5-year-old was given the honor of expressing thanks for the turkey, he began by saying that although he had not tasted it he knew it would be good. Then he continued his prayer with a line of credits, thanking his mother for cooking the turkey and his father for buying the turkey. And then a whole multitude of benefactors for this wonderful turkey.
He said, "I thank you for the checker at the grocery store who checked out the turkey. I thank you for the grocery store people who put it on the shelf. I thank you for the farmer who made it fat. I thank you for the man who made the feed. I thank you for those who brought the turkey to the store." He traced the turkey all the way from its origin to his plate. And then at the end he solemnly looked around and said "Did I leave anybody out?"
His 2-year-older sister whispered, "God." Solemnly and without being flustered at all, the 5-year-old said, "I was about to get around to him."
And isn't that the question for us this morning – Will we ever get around to God?
Luke 17:11-19 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
In this one short story, Jesus sweeps across the centuries of Jewish history and focuses our attention on the one characteristic of God’s people that is so hideous and unsightly that we cannot ignore it.
Hosea wrote, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt… I cared for you in the desert… When I fed you you were satisfied; when you were satisfied you became proud; then you forgot me” (13:4-6).
Isaiah writes, "I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner's manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (1:2-3).
Through Ezekiel (ch. 16), the Lord tells how he found Israel, like an unwanted newborn baby, discarded out in the field. He took pity on her and rescued her. He washed her and clothed her in the finest garments and jewelry and fed her with the finest food and watched her grow in beauty. He wanted to make her his bride, but she became a prostitute and sold herself to every god that came along, and offered them the fine food and the children he had given her as sacrifices to them. “Because you did not remember…”
In Luke 17, ten men had been given a death sentence.
Leprosy was a slow, and tortuous road to death, as a person was first separated from his family and friends and community and banished to a leper colony, and then watched his body deteriorate as this vicious communicable skin disease attacked his body extremities and damaged his nerves, leaving him a mass of sores and ulcers and stumps. It was one of the most feared diseases of Jesus’ day. Each one of them remembered the day the rash had first appeared, his skin started to turn ashen and he went to the priest and the priest had raised his hands and cried out, “Unclean, unclean!” and from that moment on, life was only about death.
A leper colony was a place of despair. It was a place of death. When a man was banished to the colony, it wasn’t for a period of time to recuperate and heal and then rejoin his family, it was a death sentence. There was no cure. It was only a matter of time before this ghastly disease ate away at his body parts, deadened his nerves, and finally killed him. Hopelessness was a constant companion.
And then one afternoon Jacob had come running into the village – “Have you heard? Jesus is coming! Would he? Could he? What have we got to lose?” They agreed, they must go and see this Jesus they had heard so much about. All night they had laid awake, too excited to go to sleep, but fearful that once again their hopes had been lifted, only to be crushed beneath the awful weight of reality. What would they say? What would he do? Could they even dare hope? Thaddeus especially knew the terrible curse of being an outcast. Not only was he a leper, he was a Samaritan. There had been a vote when he came to the colony – it was a narrow margin, but they let him stay. The others tolerated him. His makeshift hut was on the edge of the colony – an outcast among outcasts.
The sleepless night ended. Dawn came. Ten of them began the walk back to the city from which they had been banished. They came to the outskirts of the little town where their families lay sleeping in homes they hadn’t seen in months. They wept together thinking about their wives and children from whom they had been separated by this terrible disease.
But this morning they had hope. Jesus was coming. They sat, they talked. Joseph was the worrier, “When will he come? Where should we wait? What if we miss him?” Reuben asked, “What’s the first thing you would do if you didn’t have leprosy?” They looked at each other, “Home” “My wife” “My children” “Yes, it’s been so long.” Thaddeus didn’t speak out, but he knew, he knew where he would go first.
The sun rose in the sky, the dew began to rise off the field and hang like a cloud over the landscape around them. They ate the few bites of hard, stale bread they had brought with them. And they waited. A few stragglers came down the road, and as they came near the men cried out, “Unclean, unclean!” and the travelers gave them a wide berth as they hurried on past them.
Suddenly, in the distance, they heard faint shouts of excitement; they squinted and saw dust rising up on the road as a huge crowd came toward them. Then they saw him, walking ahead of the mob of people all gathered around him, hoping for a chance to talk to him, touch him, have a moment of his attention. And they knew this was their only shot. They began shouting at the top of their lungs, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
Then Jesus stopped, right in front of them, the crowd hung back, but Jesus walked right up to them. They looked at him with eager expectation in their eyes. He looked at them through tears of compassion. And then he spoke: “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” “But…” “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” The conversation was over -- they turned and started walking toward the town. “That didn’t go well – what does he expect – more humiliation – the priest will refuse to see us – oh, well, we tried.”
And then Thaddeus looked down. He shouted – “My hands, they’re normal!” They all looked down – they looked at each other – their skin was clear, their bodies restored -- no more leprosy! They began to run toward the town – to the priest, to their families! Then Thaddeus stopped – he watched the others race toward town – but he knew, and he turned and began to run back to Jesus, and fell at his feet and in tears he praised God, he thanked Jesus, for another chance to live.
And Jesus looked down, and asked the crowd, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Why has only one returned to praise God, and he a Samaritan?” And then he knelt and lifted the face of this man and said, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
Ten lepers come to Jesus, and in his compassion he heals all of them. I’m not sure we can comprehend the personal impact of what just happened there. Jesus didn’t just clear up a bad case of acne or fix a broken foot. He gave them their lives back. They were suffering a living hell, and Jesus with a word has restored their health, their bodies, their families, their dignity.
How would you have reacted? Of course! With ecstatic thankfulness. You would have been the one who turned around and came back and fell at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. That is the only imaginable response to that enormous of a gift. But only one returns – and he is a Samaritan, a foreigner, an outcast on top of being an outcast. And yet, he is the only one who does what everyone should do.
Where are the nine? They’ve run off to get on with their lives. They were Jews, God’s people – and they had responded like God’s people had always responded – with ingratitude.
· Like the Israelites who had been rescued from slavery and then grumbled all the way to Canaan.
· Like the animal that is cared for and fed by a loving master and then bites the hand that feeds it.
· Like the abandoned baby who is rescued and raised in a loving family and then spits on the kindness and generosity of her adoring husband as she becomes a prostitute.
Some people never get around to God. Ingratitude – thanklessness -- is how people act when they are full of themselves. Everything revolves around them. Others are useful only as long as they are providing something for me. When I don’t get my way, I am justified in rudeness and contempt and rebellion, because I don’t owe anybody anything. That may be a little harsh, but it describes someone you know doesn’t it? And if you were honest, does it describe the one looking back at you in the mirror? Probably not – we don’t often see it in ourselves – and we resent anybody who points it out to us. But no sin is more disappointing to God than for us to forget who it is who has blessed us and to live as though we were all that mattered.
But one returned – and in him we see the heart of our Savior leap with joy – because this one has recognized the incredible gift of God for what it is – a gift of grace – undeserved, unconditional, unreciprocated, incapable of repayment – a gift of sheer grace. And he is overwhelmed with gratitude – he cannot help but run back to the one who has bestowed it on him and fall at his feet in loving adoration. That is the response God longs for from his people.
Paul voices that response as he admonishes us: “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:16-18).
[Picture – Corrie and Betsie Ten Boom] Illustration – It was this passage that got Corrie and Betsie ten Boom through those dark days in the Nazi Concentration camp, Ravensbruck. The barracks were filthy and cold and infested with fleas. They wondered how they could survive this God-forsaken place. They had secreted away a few pages of the Bible and would read it to the women in the barracks at night. When they read this passage, Betsie said, “That’s it, Corrie! That’s his answer. ‘Give thanks in all circumstances!’ That’s what we can do. We can start right now to thank God for every single thing about this new barracks!’”
I stared at her, then around me at the dark, foul-aired room. “Such as?” I said.
“Such as being assigned here together.” I bit my lip. “Oh yes, Lord Jesus!”
“Such as what you’re holding in your hands.” I looked down at the Bible. “Yes! Thank you, dear Lord, that there was no inspection when we entered here! Thank you for all the women, here in this room, who will meet you in these pages.”
“Yes,” said Betsie. “Thank you for the very crowding here. Since we’re packed so close, that many more will hear!” She looked at me expectantly. “Corrie!” she prodded. “Oh, all right. Thank you for the jammed, crammed, stuffed, packed, suffocating crowds.”
“Thank you,” Betsie went on serenely, “for the fleas and for…” The fleas! This was too much. “Betsie, there’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.” “‘Give thanks in all circumstances,’” she quoted. “It doesn’t say, ‘in pleasant circumstance.’ Fleas are part of this place where God has put us.” And so we stood between piers of bunks and gave thanks for fleas. But this time I was sure Betsie was wrong.
What they later learned was that their barracks were free from the constant inspections and the rapes and molestations by the guards because of the fleas. The guards refused to enter their barracks because of the fleas.
“Give thanks in all circumstances.” Even when those circumstances are unfair and miserable and discouraging – God is still at work. Thanksgiving isn’t reserved for times when the path is smooth and life is abundant. Thanksgiving belongs – even in – especially in – those times when the path is difficult and life is a struggle. It is then that we can see and distinguish all the more clearly God’s rich blessings in our lives and know that he is in control. It wasn’t in his strength, but in his weaknesses that Paul found God the most powerful and his grace the most amazing.
I hope you not only get around to God, but that in your life, he is the center – the beginning and the end – that he is your all-consuming passion and that thankfulness comes as naturally as breathing. For it is in thankfulness that we get a sense of our deep dependence on God. It’s not just the added extras – the abundance above and beyond – it is an awareness of every breath and every new day and every meal, our family, our job, our possessions – it is a constant awareness that we live in the grace of God. It is that kind of awareness that produces gratitude and thanksgiving.
The early church had a word for the Lord’s Supper – eucharist – from the Gk word for “thanksgiving.” It is easy to see why they called it the thanksgiving:
Matthew 26:26-29 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
· When Paul reflected on the meaning of the Lord’s Supper he wrote: 1 Cor. 10:16 Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?
· Thankfulness is what characterized the supper for the early Christians. Yes, it was a memorial service. Yes, in the supper they remembered his body. Yes, the supper was about the suffering and death of Christ.
But woven throughout these simple elements of bread and wine is thankfulness:
o thankfulness for God’s indescribable gift of grace
o thankfulness for the Savior who rescued us from sin and death and reunited us with the Father who loves us
o thankfulness that when we looked up, it was no longer on hands ravaged by spiritual leprosy, but on the face of Jesus who had come to bring us life.
· How could we not come running back to him and throw ourselves at his feet in gratitude and praise?
For just a few moments – let’s stand in the sandals of the one leper who has been cleansed and has turned to come back to the Savior to thank him for what he has done for us. And our thankfulness is so much deeper, because when we turn we see the face of our Savior who has taken our place on the cross – me the sinner, he the sinless – me the helpless, he the son of God.
Illustration – Garrison Keillor, author of the nostalgic Lake Wobegon books, recalls his childhood Thanksgiving dinners, as the family gathered around the table and remembered the blessings of the past year.
Uncle John usually gave the prayer, which caused everyone to squirm. As Keillor said, "Everybody in the family knew that Uncle John couldn't pray without talking about the cross and crying.... Sure enough, Uncle John prayed, talked about the cross, and cried. Meanwhile, the rest of us shifted nervously from one foot to the other and longed for the prayer to end."
Then Garrison Keillor adds this powerful observation: "All of us knew that Jesus died on the cross for us, but Uncle John had never gotten over it."
I hope we never get over it.