By Paul Koch –
Gathering in our Lord’s house on Thanksgiving Day is an easy thing to do. It is, after all, a national Day of Thanksgiving. And so, if you are to give thanks this is the place to do it. This is a place where you worship our Lord, a place where he gives to you his great gifts over and over again. If we are to take a day to stop working and shopping and running here and there to say, “Thank you” it is good to begin such a day here. In fact, I think it is a wonderful tradition that our country observes such a day as this. In the midst of all the political pandering and fearmongering and finger pointing, it is worth our time to stop and marvel at the blessings that we have in our lives.
However, like so much of our lives, the simple task of giving thanks isn’t always such an easy thing to do. Thanksgiving, as we have come to know it in our land, is usually all about gathering with family, eating a big meal and watching some football. But that often isn’t such an easy thing to accomplish. Family can be tense and difficult; there might be old wounds that are dug up at such a gathering. Though we are supposed to give thanks we end up desperately just wanting it all to end. Perhaps you have the old aunt who shows up and drinks too much and begins to air the dirty laundry of the family, or perhaps you are that old aunt who uses such a gathering to get even with those who have hurt you in the past. There is often a high expectation regarding a day of thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving Day seldom lives up to it.
Take the church, for instance. God’s children come to worship and give thanks to our God. But just what is it we are giving thanks for? Where do you direct your thanks? How come there are so few that are actually gathered on this day? And then, we read a text from Luke 17 that is read every year. Truth be told, this is a horribly misused text on the day of Thanksgiving. We hear about these lepers being healed by our Lord and only one of them returns to give thanks. What are we supposed to do with that? Are we supposed to make people feel guilty and small for not giving thanks when they ought to? Are we to focus on all the times that we received a blessing form God and then went about our business without so much as a simple “thanks you” crossing our lips? Or perhaps we are to spin this text to focus more on a call of encouragement. You know, rouse the troop; reminding them that they don’t want to be like those 9 ungrateful jerks who just wandered off. No, you have great cause to give thanks- so go ahead and give it. With all your heart you should give thanks to the Lord.
But is that really what this text is about? I’m afraid to say it isn’t. No, this text is about something far more important that making you feel bad about your lack of gratitude. This text is about the heart of our worship and the source of our salvation.
It begins by introducing us to ten lepers who meet our Lord in his way to Jerusalem. Now we are told that they stood at a distance, and rightly so. To be a leper was to be unclean. It was to be separated out from the rest of society. They had to live in little communes cut off from their community. So, they stand at a distance and they cried out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” They cry out for mercy because their leprosy not only kept them secluded from the rest of society, but as unclean individuals they could not enter into the temple,nor they could not draw near to the holiness of God. They are separated from the location of God’s mercy. See, this cry is for restoration, for inclusion again to the family and fellowship of God. They knew where God was for them. He was there in the temple, but that was the one place they could not go. So, they cry out in hopes that Jesus might deliver mercy to them.
And that is just what he does. To cry to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for mercy is like asking the ice-cream man if he has any ice-cream. This is what he does. This is why he came. His name literally means “salvation.” So, Jesus delivers mercy to these ten lepers. Mercy to those cut off from God. Mercy to those cut off from the fellowship of the faithful. He tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. You see, according to Levitical law this is the proper, God-given procedure for the reinstatement of the unclean. They had to show themselves to the priests so that everyone would know that they are clean again. And as these lepers go on their way the find that they are in fact healed. The Word of Christ has healed them.
Then we find that one of them, a Samaritan, when he realized that he was healed turned back and raised his voice and gave thanks to God. He fell on his face at feet of our Lord and gave thanks. Now this was the right thing to do. In fact, Jesus praises this Samaritan for his actions wondering why the other 9 didn’t follow suit. And we are tempted to think, see, that’s how it’s done. That is what this text is about. We should fall on our face and give thanks to Christ for our blessings. Since this is Thanksgiving Day, why don’t you get to work properly giving thanks?
But the fact that this man is a Samaritan makes this text more pointed than that. See, as a Samaritan he was a foreigner and not able to enter into the temple and approach the holiness of God whether he had leprosy or not. There was no sacrifice he could make to change this. If God was located in the temple and mediated through the priests and the sacrificial system, then a Samaritan would never be able to come to him. But the Samaritan’s great confession falling at the feet of Christ is proclaiming to you something crucial and life changing. God is not to be found in the temple. God is not located in the rituals of his people. God is not contained in Jerusalem. No, God is found in Christ our Lord. He falls at the feet of Christ because he had nowhere else to go, and falling at the feet of Christ he shows you all the way. The way the truth and the life.
It is in Christ that a new community is formed. It is Christ that hope and life is given. It is in Christ alone that you are made clean and brought into the fellowship of God. This is what this text is about. Not to shame you into giving thanks but to deliver to you yet again the source of all thanksgiving. This Word of our Lord focuses your thanksgiving. Not on football or a big meal or National pride or even your family. It focuses you on the one place where God is located for your salvation – Christ your Lord. And there before him he gives you freely his great gifts and says to you this day, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
And so, it is. Your faith, not your thanksgiving, has made you well. But that faith then flows out into a life of thanksgiving. Beginning in Christ alone as the source and strength of your thanksgiving you then correctly and faithfully give thanks for your family (no matter how broken and frustrating it can be), you give thanks for this land (despite its deep flaws), you give thanks for the food you will eat, and yes even for football. For Thanksgiving Day is not about how well you give thanks but rather an opportunity to be reminded of the rich blessings of a God that has already given you his riches.