“Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Thanksgiving Eve comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, ten lepers dwelled outside of the city, communing together in their uncleanness. Ten lepers were outcast, unable to interact with any but each other, disconnected from their families, their community, and their God. Ten lepers were desperate. Ten lepers saw Jesus at a distance, and they recognized Him as the One who had healed so many others. Ten lepers lifted up their voices: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Ten lepers heard His reply, filled with pity, with compassion, with love: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Ten lepers went, perhaps in faith, perhaps in doubt or fear, but they went just the same. “And as they went, they were cleansed.” Ten lepers were cleansed, they saw in amazement that their corrupted skin was made whole. Ten lepers were healed, but only nine continued to the temple; for the first time, their unity was broken. Ten lepers were healed; only one was saved.
All ten were afflicted, all ten cried out for mercy, all ten heard the voice of Jesus, all ten went to the temple, and all ten were cleansed. But only one returned. Imagine running with these lepers as they hurried to the temple, seeing at one moment their disease-ravaged sin, and then at the next, their skin renewed and restored, like that of a baby. Nicodemus thought it was ridiculous that anyone could be born again; he should’ve watched these lepers stop and examine their newborn skin. They were cleansed, made whole, healed! Their eyes tell the story—bodies restored, life given back, families reunited. But only one returns. Ten were healed, one was saved. The other nine focus on the gift rather than the Giver; surely they are thankful, but they give no thought as to where they should give thanks, or to whom. This is a common problem; on Thanksgiving we are encouraged, indeed commanded by our culture to give thanks. But who do we give thanks to? Where do we give thanks? Scripture teaches us that every good gift comes from God Himself, that nothing we have been given is our own. We give thanks to the God for all good gifts; the blessings that we have in this life do not come ultimately from ourselves or anyone else, but from God. Even if we earned it through our own labors, it is God who gave us our abilities and even our body. God has given us all things—what else is there to do but to give thanks?
Ten lepers have been given physical healing; their leprosy is gone, there can be no doubt of that. The priests will very soon confirm that healing and readmit them to the worship life of the community. Their skin is clean, they have been brought from living death to life. They have a new beginning, a fresh start, and a joyful reunion with their families awaits them. These are good things, blessed things, gifts from God. On this Thanksgiving Eve we thank Him for food on our table, for favorable weather, for a stable government, for policemen and firemen who protect our lives and property. We give thanks to God for good health, for family and friends, for a successful harvest. But what if you had a rough year? What if your health failed, your loved ones died, or your crop disappointed? What if you struggled with relationships, had fights with family and friends, and come here tonight wondering what there really is to be thankful for? Sure, we can say, ‘Count your blessings,’ and that is certainly true. There is always much that we have to be thankful for, if we stop to think about it. But those are hardly comforting words to one who is hurting. The leper who returned, however, gives us an example to follow. Ten lepers were healed; for nine, the physical healing was all that mattered to them. Their focus was on the things of this world. For that Samaritan, however, the most important healing was not the one on His skin.
His physical eyes saw the transformation of his flesh, but his spiritual eyes were opened to see a far greater reality. He saw Christ as His Savior. His eyes were opened in faith to recognize what the other nine didn’t—this Jesus isn’t some miracle-worker, some magician and healer, but the Messiah promised by Scripture, the One who had come to heal souls as He healed bodies. “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 Him thanks.” He was drawn back to Jesus because He realized who Jesus truly was; even if he couldn’t quite put it in words, this former leper knew that the temple was no longer the place to give thanks. The place to give thanks is at the feet of Jesus. Jesus is the new temple, the place where God’s presence dwells among men. Jesus will tell the Pharisees in just a few verses, “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” The Kingdom of God is in their midst because the Kingdom of God comes in Jesus. This Kingdom comes for all people; Jesus’ fellow Jews do not return to give thanks, but this Samaritan leper, twice outcast as unclean and a foreigner, is received by grace into the Kingdom that Christ has brought. He revels in the Giver, not simply in the gift, because he has been given something much more important than physical healing; his soul has been restored, washed clean from the leprosy of sin, and he has been restored to his God.
The physical healing that he has received along with the other nine is a marker, a pointer to the greater spiritual healing that he has been given. He has a new beginning; he shows us what it means to be baptized into Christ. The same God who in Christ restored his body has renewed his soul. God gives physical gifts in greater and lesser abundance throughout our lives, and we are to give thanks for all of them. All good gifts come from God, and when all things come from God, there is nothing left besides thanksgiving. But through all of the blessings and challenges of this life, whether we receive healing or disease, life or death, good rulers or bad, poor crops or abundance, one thing stands firm, and that is where the Samaritan leper ran: Jesus. Jesus’ salvation endures, it is permanent, it cannot be moved by the changes and chances of this sinful world. We come to our Rock to give thanks this night for the greatest gifts that we have been given: the gift of cleansing from the leprosy of sin, the gift of forgiveness, life, and salvation won by His shed blood, His innocent suffering and death. Those events were still in the future for the Samaritan leper—we look back to them as completed realities—but still he clung to Jesus as the promised Savior. The temple held nothing for him—Christ was everything.
Ten lepers were healed, one was saved. Ten lepers were healed; Jesus didn’t give them back their leprosy when they failed to return and give thanks. They received healing just as God gives rain and bread to all people, whether they give thanks to Him or not. But the Samaritan realized the greater reality behind his cleansing. Following Christ doesn’t mean that you will always drive a new car, never have a bad crop, will have perfect relationships with your children, or will never get sick. Following Christ means that you have eternal salvation, that you will live even though you die. Following Christ doesn’t mean that you life will always be happy and carefree; in fact, Christ promises crosses in this life, but His greater promise is that all things will work out for your eternal good, giving you joy that endures despite anything that you experience in this life. He promises that as He has died, so you have died to sin in Him. He promises that as He was raised up in victory over the grave, you too will be raised up. The salvation He gives is spiritual, but it is also physical, the renewal of your body at the Resurrection. On that Day you will see what the leper saw in preview: your flesh restored and renewed, made beautiful and perfect for eternity. Those are the promises we give thanks for on this Thanksgiving Eve. Where do we give thanks? At the feet of Jesus, in prayer, in worship, in songs of praise. What do we give thanks for? All things, but especially for the salvation that endures forever. Whether you have had a year filled with sorrow or joy, with success or failure, or somewhere in-between, you can go forth from this place with the comforting words of Jesus: “Rise and go your way, your faith has made you well.” Amen.