The Gospel for this evening is very familiar to all of us. It is not only the traditional gospel for Thanksgiving, but it is also part of the three year lectionary. So those of you with exceptional memories may remember hearing this same gospel a few weeks ago on Sunday, October 14.
We remember this story not only because we hear it often, but also because it is so memorable. The lepers' cry for mercy - their healing - the return of the single leper who just happened to be a Samaritan - the questions, "Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?" All the elements are in place to make this story dramatic and memorable. There is much we can learn from it.
Since the reason we gather this evening is the Thanksgiving holiday tomorrow, it may seem that we should talk about the "attitude of gratitude" that we find in the Samaritan leper who returned to give thanks. We could talk about our lack of thankfulness for all the gifts God gives us. We could look into the possible reasons that the other nine had for continuing on their way and not returning to give thanks. We could discuss these things, but will a lack of thankfulness really be the problem tomorrow?
Although it is always good to remember to give thanks and to encourage others to do the same, tomorrow's holiday will more or less do that for us. After all the name of the holiday is Thanksgiving. Tomorrow, millions of people all over the United States will celebrate Thanksgiving. There will be proclamations by the president and others to give thanks for our many blessings. Families will travel great distances to be together and give thanks. Even the T.V. will have spots encouraging us to give thanks. I think it would be safe to say that tomorrow may be the one day in all the year when thankfulness abounds in the United States.
If there will already be a lot of thankfulness in the culture tomorrow, then what more can we say about the subject of thankfulness this evening?
In spite of all the encouragement to give thanks tomorrow, there will be one thing that is missing in many people's thanksgiving. To whom will they give that thanks? There will be lots of thanks tomorrow, but the sad truth is that most people won't really know whom they are thanking on Thanksgiving Day. There will be this warm emotional glow of thanks, but for many that is all it will be. Many will babble some traditional words over a turkey and think it is prayer when all they are doing is violating God's Holy Name. All over the United States, many will have some sort of Thanksgiving experience, but many will not be able to turn their eyes up to their creator because they don't know who He is. Even more tragic is the fact that those who do not know their creator while they are here on this earth will be separated from him forever when they enter an eternity of suffering after they leave this life. The one thing our nation needs, in fact, the one thing that all mankind needs is the knowledge of the one who deserves our thanks. This evening's Gospel has comfort for us because it reveals much about the one to whom we give our thanks.
First of all, we can learn from the attitude of the lepers as they first encountered Jesus. They lifted up their voices, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us."
At the very least, these lepers saw Jesus as a prophet like Elisha who acted as God's agent to heal Naaman's leprosy. They saw Jesus as one who taught with power - not only with words, but also with signs. They had heard the confession of others who had witnessed Jesus' teachings and now they came into the presence of this prophet for healing of their own.
They asked for more than physical healing. Their cry is more than a simple, "If you will, you can make me clean." The lepers cried out, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us." They cry for mercy. People often get grace and mercy confused. Grace gives good things over and above what a person deserves. Mercy withholds the bad things that a person deserves. The word mercy contains within it a confession of sin that acknowledges the justice of punishment for sin. When the lepers asked for mercy, they admitted that they deserved the leprosy and much worse because of their sin.
In addition to their confession of sin, there is praise. Every request for help contains within it an unspoken acknowledgement of ability. We do not ask a person for help unless we believe that person can actually help us. When the lepers cry out, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us," they are expressing faith in Christ's power and authority to grant that mercy. At the very least, they are praising Jesus as the agent - or prophet - of God who is the source of all mercy.
Luke tells us that Jesus told the lepers to show themselves to the priests. Then, as the lepers traveled, the leprosy left them. Nine of the lepers continued on their way. The Bible does not tell us where they went, but it is possible they did just as Jesus told them. It is possible that they showed themselves to the priests in Jerusalem.
The one leper who turned around also did what Jesus commanded. He also showed himself to a priest. He now understood what the writer to the Hebrews said, [Hebrews 4:14-16] Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. The one leper who returned understood. Jesus is the High Priest. The priests in Jerusalem are shadows by comparison. They are shadows who point forward to Jesus our Great High Priest.
As our Great High Priest, Jesus not only offered the sacrifice as the priests in Jerusalem did, but He Himself was the sacrifice. The priests in Jerusalem offered lambs, goats, and other animals for the forgiveness of sins. These were shadows that pointed forward to the sacrifice that God Himself would offer - the sacrifice of his only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
That lone leper worshipped the Priest who would offer Himself on the cross for the sins of the whole world. He worshipped the Priest who would pass through that sacrifice of death and rise to a new life.
This returning leper understood that Jesus is God. When he came into Jesus' presence, he fell on his face in a posture of worship. As he thanked God, his thanks were directed to Jesus, the Son of God.
This lone leper teaches us that our thanksgiving belongs to the one who sacrificed Himself in order to take away our sins and then rose from the dead to open heaven to all believers.
Tomorrow, many will offer some sort of thanks for family and friends, their well being, the wealth of their physical possessions, and so forth. For many, it will be generic thanks. Many do not know the true source of their many blessings. Few understand that there are blessings far above and beyond this world. For these, thanksgiving is a nice tradition and little more. They give their thanks, but there is no one to listen.
We Christians on the other hand give specific thanks to the one true God. We join this lone Samaritan leper and give thanks not only to the true creator and master of the universe, but also to the true savior of mankind. We rightly give thanks for the material gifts of this world. We also give thanks for a gift that is truly out of this world - the gift of forgiveness for the sake of the Son, our great High priest who earned eternal life for us. We praise God for His glory and majesty, but the greatest praise we can offer to God is the praise of the lepers - Lord, have mercy upon us. Because we receive God's mercy for the sake of Jesus Christ, our prophet, priest, and king, we have the joyful opportunity to give thanks both here in time and forever in eternity. Amen.
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