It is probably the most popular Thanksgiving text of all time, this story of Luke's. Jesus is on one of His many road trips, this time headed toward Jerusalem.
Now typically, a preacher will acknowledge the Samaritan who returned to thank Jesus, kick the nine guys who didn't, and close by asking, "Are you among the nine?" But I want to step inside this story with you. There is something deep here, something profound that we need to see.
Would you allow me to slow the story down to the pace of life and step into it? See here we meet ten men who have contracted the most dreaded disease of their day. The physical ramifications of leprosy are awful to consider, compounded by the fact that there was simply no medical solution in their day.
Leprosy is caused by a bacteria similar to tuberculosis, but with unique and terrible differences. It reprograms the body on a cellular level so that the body actually ends up attacking itself, causing pigment changes in the skin; sores that don't heal for months and months, leaving the body vulnerable to severe and sometimes fatal infections; the loss of sensation in nerve endings; the severe degradation of muscle response. This disease can take 30 years to run its course, all the while wreaking grotesque damage to the body.
Add to this the emotional pain. Lepers were cut off from people. At the first sign of the disease, a leper is immediately quarantined outside the city, removed from family and community. A leper would never again feel the embrace of his wife, never play with his children or gather his grandchildren in his arms. It was just too risky. Lepers were required by the Law to announce their presence at a distance and warn those who approach that they were "unclean." All human contact was severed except for the sad camaraderie of fellow untouchables, banded together in their suffering.
There's one more thing you should know that adds psychological trauma to all the rest. Beth Moore mentions it in her book Jesus, the One and Only. She had occasion to travel to a part of the world where a modern-day leper colony was located. She felt compelled to minister to those who were suffering so. But Beth said she couldn't bring herself to go inside. She says she walked by the entrance three times, trying to overcome the inner resistance she was feeling. But she could not argue down the over-powering smell of decay. It was too much to handle. (Beth Moore, Jesus, the One and Only, p. 203-204.)
A leper had to live with this. He watched his body slowly but surely turn into something awful, with the scent of death filling his nostrils all the time. Can you see these desperate men, huddled together? Somehow, they identify Jesus as He approaches. They have heard the stories about Him - His remarkable authority, His gracious care, His wise teaching, His powerful healing. Could such things be true?
"Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" they shout across the distance. "Mercy Jesus. Let our plight give rise to compassion in Your heart that moves You to help us. Don't look the other way like so many other religious teachers. Please have mercy."
And they hear back for our Lord something incredible: "Go and show yourselves to the priests." Now everybody knew that the local priest was much more than the worship leader each Sabbath. He was also appointed as the health inspector. If a person was stricken with an infectious disease from which he was healed, he was required to report to the priest, who would inspect the body and make the final call. If the priest gave him the all-clear, the once-diseased person was free to reenter society.
Jesus calls back to these lepers, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." Notice He doesn't say, "You are healed." Instead, He tells them to behave as though they had already been cured. Well, you know what happened. Those guys looked down at their bodies and at each other. Nothing had changed. The hands of one man are still mangled. Another man is still missing three toes. All still had the splotchy skin of a leper. They were no better off than they had been a couple minutes earlier, when they had first spotted Jesus.
But they knew enough about God to know He had done this kind of test of faith before. And they had heard enough about Jesus to know that He wasn't playing cruel games with them, that God worked His mighty works through Him. So they trusted in Jesus' command and set off in search of priests
I. A lesson about faith
May I pause here to say something we all need to hear about faith on this Thanksgiving week? If you wait until your problems are over to start walking in faith, you will miss the power of God in your circumstances. You cannot put conditions on a holy God. You cannot say, "Lord, as soon as there's enough money, I follow Your instructions about giving." You cannot pray, "Lord, if you'll just solve this issue in my family, I'll start going to church again." We don't put conditions on God! Instead, God calls us to trust Him before anything has changed.
He asks, "Will you love Me despite the disease? Obey Me despite the lack of ability or the lack of resources? Follow Me now, despite the depression? Will you trust Me - that I will do what I say even when the evidence defies that conclusion?"
Faith without works is dead, friends. There are a lot of people in south Baldwin County who say they have faith in Christ, but their choices and their actions refute their claim. You know what Jesus is looking for? He's not looking for you to fake it until you make it, to act your way into faith, like some say.
He's looking for what He found in Noah, whose belief in God's warning about flooding the earth moved him to build a boat long before it rained. He is looking for what He found in Abraham, who so believed God's promises that he uprooted his family and followed God's lead to a land he had never seen.
That's what God is looking for. Some of you are in horrible circumstances right now. What awaits you this week is the great question: "Will you trust Him beyond what you can see?" What is God holding in store for those who will take Him at His Word? May we be doers of this Word and not just hearers. But now back to the story.
II. Offering thanksgiving
This pitiful band is limping their way to the priests in the obedience of faith in Christ's command. And the Bible reports, in one of those pregnant sentences, that as they went they were healed. Who noticed first, we're not told. All at once, something felt different, strong. Can't you hear one of them say, "Hey!" and they all turn to look at a hand that had reappeared, tingling with life? A crutch was thrown aside as a leg was restored . . . healthy, whole, complete. The skin cleared, and the tiny hairs on a forearm turned from snow white to brown.
I don't know how this went down, I just know that it only took seconds of that before the shouts of joy started! Laughter broke out for the first time in years and a kind of sweet madness took hold of them.
Their minds began calculating what this meant and it was too good to be true. "I can go home. I can see my parents, kiss my wife again, hold my daughter, look for work!" They were beside themselves! They raced off in the distance, tears streaming from their faces, tearing away the rags that once bandaged and concealed their diseased body.
But one man stopped dead in his tracks as the others ran ahead. Watch him as he runs back. Hear his shouts of praise to God. See Him fall at Jesus' feet. And let this moment prepare you to offer your own thanksgiving to God. Here are a few things that will help you and me.
A. Track your blessings to their source
Jesus asked the obvious in v. 17. "Were not 10 cleansed? Where are the nine?" Common decency tells us that thanks should be expected when grace has been shown. But Jesus' questions point to something ugly in our hearts - a tendency in us all to enjoy the gift without worshipping the Giver.
We've grown accustomed to comforts and conveniences that are viewed as extraordinary in most of the world. Common grace is so common that we have come to feel entitled to it. One teacher asked her students to list what they thought were the Seven Wonders of the World today. And the kids started raising their hands: Egypt's Great Pyramids. The Taj Mahal. The Grand Canyon. China's Great Wall. One little girl didn't lift her hand and the teacher finally asked her directly why she hadn't offered any suggestions. And she replied, "I can't make up my mind about which ones because there are so many."
The teacher asked her to say what she had so far and maybe they could help. And the girl said, "I think the Seven Wonders of the World are to see, to hear, to touch, to taste, to feel, to laugh, and to love." We have so much that graces our lives on a constant basis for which to be thankful.
I think David has the right idea. He has an antidote to this oversight in Psalm 103:1-5. David preached to himself: "My soul, praise the LORD, and all that is within me, praise His holy name. My soul, praise the LORD, and do not forget all His benefits. (And then he begins to list them.) He forgives all your sin; He heals all your diseases. He redeems your life from the Pit; He crowns you with faithful love and compassion. He satisfies you with goodness; your youth is renewed like the eagle." And David's list goes on.
Somewhere on his way to a priest, this man who had been healed walked through this same spiritual exercise. He counted the blessings, then returned to the Blesser. Before he celebrates with anyone else, he returns to offer the only thing he could: his heartfelt gratitude and trust in the One who had been so good to him.
Some time this week, stop and deliberately, purposefully consider the goodness of God. Don't rush ahead like those nine lepers to enjoy the bounty of food and family and home and forget where they came from. Don't miss the grace in back of your blessings. Instead, look through them to a Heavenly Father whose good pleasure is to give His children the Kingdom.
B. Let the measure of His mercy be the measure of your praise
When this leper returned, he was loud. Verse 15-16 tells us that he returned and, with a loud voice, gave glory to God. The Greek words are "megas phone," from which we get megaphone. You could hear this guy coming. This is amplified praise. This is joy at the top of your lungs. This is, "I don't care who hears or what they think. I don't care if I'm the only one doing this: I am going to praise the Lord!" He had spent years shouting in desperation; now he shouted in appreciation.
There's an unchangeable principle here that comes to us from this: the one who has been healed much, praises much. The one who understands the depths and dangers from which he has been delivered by the mercy of God will be sing praise the loudest. You feel the rescue so deeply that you want others to know the Rescuer.
Psalms 35:27-28 says it like this: "Let those who (literally) delight in My righteousness shout for joy and be glad; let them continually say, 'The LORD be exalted, who wants His servant's well-being.' And my tongue will proclaim Your righteousness, Your praise all day long."
Let the unfathomable depths of His mercy to you be the gauge for your gratitude. And let it be loud! Would you join me right now in an offering of thanksgiving and praise for all He's been for you. For loving you enough to come for you in Christ, for the cross and the tomb, for the gift of saving faith, for forgiveness of sin, a slate wiped clean, reconciliation with the Father, etc. Forget your reserved and release what your heart longs to say! (Time of rejoicing with shouts of joy!)
C. See the place gratitude has in saving faith
There are two words to describe what happened to all ten lepers. In v. 15, we find the word healed, which comes from a word used medically in Jesus' day to mean "mended, whole, or cured." Another medical term comes in v. 17: cleansed. It too emphasizes wellness, but is a social dimension as well. It meant they were free from the stigma or defilement brought on by the leprosy; ceremonially clean; totally cured.
But there is one more word that Jesus says exclusively to this very thankful man. "Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well." Made you well is a very different word from the others. It's not a medical word, necessarily, although it was used to describe the safe delivery of a baby. The word is "sozo," which means "saved, rescued from danger." "The Greeks used it for people who escaped dangerous situations. Sailors surviving a storm at sea had been saved, they said. "Sozo!" When Matthew began his gospel, he started with the Christmas story, and said the angel told Joseph to name the Christ child "Jesus," because that name meant that He would 'save people from their sins.'" (Andy Cook, from his sermon "The Miracle of Thanksgiving.")
This was the word the Apostle Paul used to describe what happens to a person who publicly confessed Jesus as Lord and believed He was our triumphant Sin-bearer. "If you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved." ("sozo," Rom. 10:9).
This was the word Jesus uses for this man who took Him at His Word and connected the Healer to the healing, the Rescuer to the rescue, the Savior to the salvation. As he falls on his face at our Lord's feet, Jesus sees something more in his heart. You see, gratitude is a part of worship, and worship is the essence of saving faith. I remember well that moment in my life when the Holy Spirit connected the dots for me, and I realized just what Jesus had done for me on the cross! I hadn't lived long enough to have much experience under my belt, but I knew that I was loved past all deserving and I wanted to give my heart, my life, my all to Christ.
Do you know what I'm talking about? This former leper does. When he met Christ, he was gripped by two fatal conditions - one of the body with leprosy, one of the soul with sin. Now he was well in a way that surpassed all his expectations. Let all who have been made well by Jesus be so glad!