Give Thanks and Praise (Luke 17:11-19)

Eastern Orthodox depiction of Jesus Christ healing the ten lepers

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? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (New International Version)

Today’s Gospel story is both joyous and sad. The healing of ten lepers is astonishing and elicits praise and thanks… from only one. Maybe it’s because they stood at a distance. After all, it’s a close connection to God which causes praise and gratitude to arise within us – and not some appreciation from afar. Therefore, methinks we ought to consider what the nature of our own connection is. 

“Thanksgiving” to most Americans is Thanksgiving Day – a holiday filled with food, football, and family, the trifecta of American celebration. I myself admit to liberally indulging in all three. Although Thanksgiving has become a form of secular liturgical worship, I believe that underneath all the gravy, naps at halftime, and the occasional obnoxious relative, we know why we celebrate: To praise God and give thanks for our abundant blessings. 

It seems that even those who do not readily acknowledge the Divine intuitively know there is a power and source of blessing well beyond themselves which makes all good things occur.

Celebrations are a spiritual activity. God invented parties. When Israel was preparing for a new national life in the Promised Land, God told them to celebrate the Feast of Harvest with the first fruits of the crops (Exodus 23:16). The Levitical law prescribed how to go about giving thanksgiving offerings and offering praise (Leviticus 7:11-34).

Gratitude and praise was commanded, expected, and an important dimension of Old Testament worship. King David established a group of 288 full-time musicians to do nothing but praise and give thanks before God day and night (1 Chronicles 25).

Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!

Psalm 95:2, NRSV

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
    and his courts with praise.
    Give thanks to him; bless his name.

For the Lord is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever
    and his faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 100:4-5, NRSV)

It ought to have been reflexive for all ten lepers healed by Jesus to offer their worship to Jesus. A Samaritan, considered by many of the time as the lowliest of the low, a “half-breed,” was the lone person who came and fell at Christ’s feet with effusive praise and heartfelt gratitude. While the other nine went about their lives, free from disease and glad for it, only one guy took the time to thank Jesus and give glory to God. 

The Samaritan leper alone gives thanks to Christ, by Unknown artist

Sometimes we need to be reminded that celebration is a spiritual practice. It’s important to celebrate Jesus and for the ways God has provided and blessed us. In Holy Scripture, it is often the homeless, the sick, the lowly, and the outsiders who lead the way and demonstrate what genuine praise and honest thanksgiving looks like.

We, the Church, who belong to God and possess the Spirit, are to always remember and be mindful of what we truly have in Jesus Christ:

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. (Colossians 2:6-7, NIV)

We, like King David of old, are to establish continual worship of God:

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NIV

Our sacrifice as Christians is not with the blood of animals but with our lips and our lives:

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. (Hebrews 13:15, NIV)

And the worship service is eternal; it will never end:

And the twenty-four elders, who were seated on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying:

“We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty,
    the One who is and who was,
because you have taken your great power
    and have begun to reign.” (Revelation 11:16-17, NIV)

Praising God and giving thanks to the Lord go together like mashed potatoes and gravy. Since God created everything, and since Jesus has brought healing to us through the cross, every juicy morsel of goodness we have is to be received with the full cognizance that God is behind it all.

Our lives need to be punctuated with times of celebration, praise, gratitude, and even blowout parties. Otherwise, we become dull, boring, lifeless, and bereft of Christ’s lifeblood coursing through our spiritual veins. A joyous and raucous group of healed believers jabbering incessantly with thanksgiving of God’s goodness are winsome and peculiar (in a good way and not in the strange way of your weird uncle who wants the turkey neck to gnaw on at the Thanksgiving meal).

Seems to me that Christians really ought to be at the forefront of having maximum fun because we are forgiven people; we know and experience the presence of God; our lives are hidden with God in Christ; we are confident and can approach the throne of God with boldness; and we possess the power of the Spirit and the shepherding ministry of Jesus.

Remember to give thanks. Plan to praise – out loud and with others – for the God who stands behind every good gift of creation. Let thanksgiving (not complaint) shape your life. Be the person who comes back to Jesus and offers praise and gratitude – and see how such gratefulness and glory can change the world.

Gracious God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and steadfast love to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all praise you for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.

Give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all the days of our lives, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages and forevermore. Hallelujah! Amen!

Luke 12:29-32 – Be Content

And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. (New International Version)

If we’re honest with God, we acknowledge that we often worry a lot about tomorrow and how our needs will be met. 

Every day we send God moribund signals that our heads are not in the moment, and that our hearts are not into today. We fret about the future, leaving us profoundly discontent. So, we do busywork, distract ourselves with social media, and numb ourselves with spirits rather than turn to the Holy Spirit – all in the futile attempt to reduce the racing thoughts in our heads.

Far too many of us fail to enjoy the present moment. Our minds are someplace else. 

Contented people do not find their happiness in far-off places, in someday being able to acquire the things they desire, or in having a laser-like orientation to achieving a future goal. Instead, they find contentment in their present circumstances. 

Those living without fear and eschewing worry have discovered that happiness is not found in a new job, a new car, a new spouse, or a new anything.

“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz

Focusing on the present does not mean ignoring the past or neglecting the future; it just means we are to put our primary attention on living in the here and now rather than on a romanticized future free of doubt, insecurity, and uncertainty. 

If we are not present to the here and now, we either get stuck in the past or continually worry about the future.  Everything then becomes either about recapturing some bygone era or of dreaming about some idyllic future state – buying into the wrongheaded notion that whenever I get out of school, or get married, or have kids, or get the job I want, or the kids leave home, or I retire, then all will be good, and I shall finally have contentment. 

Planning for the future is wise, good, and necessary; worrying about it and neglecting the present is bad.

Whenever we rush through the present to get to the future, we lose what God wants to do for us now.  It takes flow, mindfulness, and savor to fully engage the present.

“Flow” is a psychological term that means “being in the zone,” that is, to be actively involved in the present situation with focused attention. 

“Mindfulness” means to be aware of your present surroundings, and to especially be aware of your present state of mind and emotions; it is to pay attention to all that is within you and around you. 

To “savor” something is to enjoy it so much that you want it to last forever. It is to be slow, deliberate, and enjoyable. It’s about the journey, not just the destination.

Flow, mindfulness, and savor are what Jesus asked us to do. Christ wants us to stop and smell the roses. He wants us to give focused attention to what is currently in front of us; to be mindful of all the wonder of creation that presently surrounds us; and, to take the time to simply savor and enjoy it all. 

Once I was in a bible study with a group of people and the family’s dog kept licking a particular person to the point of distraction. Finally, I said to the group: “What do you think God is trying to tell us through the dog?”  We ended up having a very enlightening conversation on our own relationships with God and one another.

We are to be present to today. 

This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Psalm 118:24, NRSV

When we realize life is short, we will not waste it on worrying about the future. Although we don’t know about tomorrow, we do know about today. And today we are to enjoy God’s good gifts to us in the here and now.

So, teach us to consider our mortality,
so that we might live wisely. (Psalm 90:12, NET)

The wise way to live is one day at a time. That was God’s message through the prophet Jeremiah to the exiled Israelites. The ancient Jews kept spending their time reminiscing about the past and wishing for a better future.  So, God told them what to do in their exile:

“Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:5-7, NLT)

Being content means to enjoy today, to savor the present moment God has you in, even if you don’t like where you are right now.

So go eat your food and enjoy it;
    drink your wine and be happy,
because that is what God wants you to do.
Put on nice clothes
    and make yourself look good.

Enjoy life with the wife you love. Enjoy all the useless days of this useless life God has given you here on earth, because it is all you have. So, enjoy the work you do here on earth. Whatever work you do, do your best, because you are going to the grave, where there is no working, no planning, no knowledge, and no wisdom. (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10, NCV)

Appreciate God’s simple gifts

Sometimes we look so hard for a future miracle, and want out from the circumstance we are in, that we fail to experience contentment in the present time. We are to enjoy the simple pleasures of life which God gives to us, even within our adversity.

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. (Philippians 4:12, NIV)

No matter what is going on in our lives, whether good or not, we can still appreciate a beautiful sunset, a good book, a walk on the beach, time with friends, good food, and a host of other simple gifts which God provides for us on a daily basis. Yet, we must stop long enough to experience and enjoy them.

Remember to celebrate

We are meant to celebrate life. The genuineness of Christianity is seen whenever Christians throw the best parties and have the most fun.

Someday we are all going to die. Rather than this being a downer, it is an opportunity to ponder an important question: Will you celebrate the time you have here on this earth and enjoy it? 

It’s not hedonistic (living for pleasure) to enjoy life and have a party. It’s actually a biblical thing to do. A spirit of celebration is a Christian spirit.

Work with enthusiasm

Dive in and enjoy your work. We end up worrying whenever our focus is on the destination. However, the real point of life is to enjoy the journey and the process. Be present to your work now and enjoy a job well done for the day, instead of looking forward to a fatter paycheck and a better job in the future.

My God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:19, NIV

Engage in work with joyful abandon, and not with compulsive perfectionism (which is joyless and life-draining). Find ways of enjoyment within the kind of work that may be draining and not very exciting. Every job has mundane repetitive work to it. Yet, how we go about that work is significant.

If the here-and-now is not the best time of your life, then you and I need to be mindful to the words of Jesus because our focus is somehow misplaced. Contented people focus on the present, what is happening now, today, and they do not worry about tomorrow because that future state is the responsibility of God. 

Ever-present God, enlarge my heart to receive more of your grace and contentment. Rescue me from my small thoughts of your love and goodness. Free me from any unbelief and uncover my many fears. May I rest secure in the knowledge that you are good and everything you do is right, just, and fair. Amen. 

2 Samuel 6:1-15 – Be Careful How You Celebrate

Ark of the Covenant by Isabel Piczek 1982, St. Norbert Catholic Church, Orange, California

David again assembled all the best men in Israel, 30,000 in number. David and all the men who were with him traveled to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God which is called by the name of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, who sits enthroned between the cherubim that are on it. They loaded the ark of God on a new cart and carried it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart. They brought it with the ark of God from the house of Abinadab on the hill. Ahio was walking in front of the ark, while David and all Israel were energetically celebrating before the Lord, singing and playing various stringed instruments, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals.

When they arrived at the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and grabbed hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The Lord was so furious with Uzzah, he killed him on the spot for his negligence. He died right there beside the ark of God.

David was angry because the Lord attacked Uzzah; so, he called that place Perez Uzzah, which remains its name to this very day. David was afraid of the Lord that day and said, “How will the ark of the Lord ever come to me?” So, David was no longer willing to bring the ark of the Lord to be with him in the City of David. David left it in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months.

The Lord blessed Obed-Edom and all his family.King David was told, “The Lord has blessed the family of Obed-Edom and everything he owns because of the ark of God.” So, David went and joyfully brought the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David. Those who carried the ark of the Lord took six steps and then David sacrificed an ox and a fatling calf. Now David, wearing a linen ephod, was dancing with all his strength before the Lord. David and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord, shouting and blowing trumpets. (New English Translation)

The Christian season of Eastertide is a grand celebration of Christ’s resurrection and the new life we enjoy in Jesus Christ. Since God is the center of all things, celebrations need to be mindful. Nothing in life is a matter of doing whatever the heck we want to do.

Even celebration has its boundaries and limits.

The narrator who originally compiled, told, and wrote the today’s Old Testament lesson wanted to communicate something significant about God and how to relate to the Lord.

God put the big kibosh on David’s hoedown. At that time in the history of Israel, the ark was the foremost symbol of God’s presence with the people. Within the ark contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments (the symbol of God’s Word); the staff of the first priest, Aaron, (the symbol of God’s choice); and a pot of manna (the symbol of God’s provision). Thus, the ark was a holy object, pointing to a holy God.

The ark of the Lord was built during the time of Moses, when the ritual laws were established concerning offerings and how to approach God in worship. There were detailed prescriptions for how to construct all the sacred articles for worship. (Exodus 35:30-40:33) 

The ark was at the center of worship, representing the presence of God among the people. For nearly five-hundred years before David, the ark had become a familiar object in the life of Israel, always there, continually the symbol of God to the people.

I’ve been a Christian for many decades. One reason I refer to the seasons of the Christian Year in the present tense, is so that it doesn’t become old hat to me. Although I just presided over yet another Easter Sunday in my long tenure as a pastor, I am still in awe of Christ’s resurrection and am eternally grateful and full of joy over new life in Jesus Christ. I always want it to be fresh, as if I’m stepping up to the empty tomb for the first time.

Stained glass in the First Lutheran Church of
Washburn, North Dakota

Yet, we have all likely had the experience of something becoming so familiar, that we begin to lose sight of how important and valuable it really is. Not until we lose it, or something traumatic happens, do we wake up and take stock of its true significance. 

The Israelites had become lethargic and apathetic toward the worship of God, and it led to some disheartening and tragic circumstances. The people of God throughout the ages have always needed to be vigilant against the opiate of familiarity, dulling the senses to the importance of worship.

Moving the ark of the Lord to Jerusalem was one of the first acts David did as the king of Israel and Judah.  God was with David and brought him success against his enemies. David enjoyed a close relationship with God.  Even though David’s heart was in the right place, he made a huge miscalculation, which ended up offending God. 

David had the best of intentions in bringing the ark to Jerusalem and giving it a prominent place in the center of Jewish life. This was an exceptionally good plan. The problem, however, came in the manner the ark was carried from one place to another. 

God’s law laid out in careful detail how the ark was to be transported. Uzzah and Ahio were Levites charged with the ark’s care. Only the Levites could handle the ark and the holy objects of worship that went along with it.

Since it was the job of the Levites for hundreds of years, they knew better than to carry the ark of the Lord on a cart. God clearly told Moses that the ark was to have two long poles of acacia wood overlaid with gold inserted into four gold rings of the ark. The ark was to always be carried on the shoulders of the Levites with the two poles.

We are not told why Uzzah and Ahio were pulling the ark on a cart with oxen instead of carrying it in the prescribed way. Perhaps it was because the ark was incredibly heavy and no easy task to carry.  Maybe they decided it would be easier and more expedient to have the much stronger oxen pull the ark on a nice new cart; it would save a lot of energy transporting it over a long distance.

Or it could be that they were tired of moving the ark in the same old way they had always done it. Maybe it was old hat to them, and they were ready for something different.

For pragmatic people, Uzzah and Ahio’s approach makes a lot of sense. However, God was not okay with this arrangement. When the oxen stumbled and the ark was in danger of falling off the cart, Uzzah reflexively reached out to steady it.  That was the last act Uzzah ever did on this earth. God immediately put him down for his “irreverent act.”

So, here is the not so good idea: Evaluating the worship of God by common sense pragmatism, what we think will work best, and how we feel it ought to be done. Everything about worship is to pay attention to the holiness of God through our obedience. 

Whenever we avoid the prescriptions of Holy Scripture, however best the intentions might be, is not a good thing and people will get hurt. One can never justify an action that goes against God’s Word because people are praising God. Just because the heart is in the right place does not mean what is being done is okay.

David’s first response was anger, then fear. He gave his best effort, and it resulted in God’s disfavor. Perhaps David took for granted that the ark could be moved any old way he wanted to move it. 

Trouble with God happens whenever we value efficiency and expediency over obedience and submission.

The great error of Uzzah, resulting in his death, was trying to manage God. We do not take care of God; God takes care of us. God does not bow to us. The Lord doesn’t allow the creature to manage the Creator.

God wants a pure, unadulterated, and obedient worship celebration from people in the way God wants it to be done, period. It is not up for negotiation.

Holy God, we confess that we have too often forgotten we are yours. Sometimes we carry on our lives as if there was no God and we fall short of being a credible witness to you. For these things we ask your forgiveness and for your strength. Give us clear minds and open hearts so we may bear witness to you in our world. Remind us to be who you would have us to be regardless of what we are doing or who we are with. Hold us close and build our relationship with you and with those you have given us on earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 113 – Shout Praises

“From Sunrise to Sunset Praise God” by Muha Rukab

Shout praises to the Lord!
Everyone who serves him,
    come and praise his name.

Let the name of the Lord
    be praised now and forever.
From dawn until sunset
    the name of the Lord
    deserves to be praised.
The Lord is far above
    all of the nations;
    he is more glorious
    than the heavens.

No one can compare
    with the Lord our God.
His throne is high above,
    and he looks down to see
    the heavens and the earth.
God lifts the poor and needy
    from dust and ashes,
    and he lets them take part
    in ruling his people.
When a wife has no children,
    he blesses her with some,
and she is happy.
    Shout praises to the Lord! (Contemporary English Version)

When my firstborn daughter was an infant, I was a busy seminarian as well as working a job. I had very little discretionary time on my hands. Yet, I could stand over the crib of my beautiful little bundle of a girl for long stretches of time without ever thinking about all my responsibilities. Whenever she awoke I spoke to her in that kind of baby talk that only a doting father can do. 

I imagine God looks at us in much the same way, as well as speaking and acting toward us in ways we can understand. Just as parents (hopefully) communicate on a level their kids can understand, so G-d condescends and stoops to our level in order to help us. 

The Lord is seated on high, looking down on the heavens and the earth. G-d looks at us with lovingkindness and seeks our best interests. The Lord notices the poor and acts justly on their behalf. G-d observes the needy and lifts them from their want to a place where they can thrive. The divine condescension of God is a beautiful thing because without it we would be like a helpless baby.

G-d, while being unknowable and unreachable in so many ways, has nevertheless communicated with humanity in a way people can understand and to which they can respond. The Lord has accommodated, or made allowance for, our language and general level of understanding.

The Lord, sovereign and high above us all, has chosen to stoop and coo over us here on earth. G-d’s love affectionately delights in us. The psalmist’s portrayal of G-d is not of some aloof Being who is bothered with humanity’s pestering. Rather, G-d sees, notices, and cares. We don’t need to do some sort of spiritual back flips to gain G-d’s attention. We already have it.

This psalm of praise to G-d celebrates how the Sovereign of the universe notices and acts. We are meant to remember the great deeds of G-d – both those things done in history, and the things done for us, personally. 

“Despite our earnest efforts, we couldn’t climb all the way up to God. So what did God do? In an amazing act of condescension, God climbed down to us and became one with us.”

Will Willimon

In Christianity, the concept of divine condescension and accommodation is given its supreme form in the person and work of Jesus Christ. By becoming human, Jesus accommodates himself to the human condition. Through his life, teaching, and ministry, Christ speaks as G-d, communicating sufficiently and effectively to humanity.

The redemptive events of Christ – his incarnation, holy life, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification – are divine acts of grace, mercy, and love to all humanity. Praise and thanksgiving are the appropriate responses to such events done on our behalf.

This is one reason why the spiritual practice of journaling is such a good personal discipline because we then have a record of the ways in which G-d has acted on our behalf. When we look back and remember, we can praise the Lord all over again for lifting us from the ash heap. And this will fortify our spiritual mettle for the times when we need encouragement.

Keeping a gratitude journal and writing each day about at least one way the Lord has acted on your behalf, can bring encouragement, transformation, and joy to your life. I suggest you write for your own eyes only. This is between you and G-d. Therefore, you need not be concerned for correct spelling and grammar. It doesn’t even need to be legible, as long as you can read your own writing!

“Praise is the rehearsal of our eternal song. By grace we learn to sing, and in glory we continue to sing. What will some of you do when you get to heaven, if you go on grumbling all the way? Do not hope to get to heaven in that style. But now begin to bless the name of the Lord.”

Charles Spurgeon

What’s more, shouting our praises is not only appropriate but encouraged – even commanded. Shouting is both cathartic and fun. It builds emotional resilience and spiritual strength. Coupled with writing, shouting our praises has the effect of bringing spiritual growth and maturity to our lives.

We, of course, want to avoid shouting at others. Yet, we can take advantage of shouting while driving alone, out in the woods by ourselves, or even into a pillow. This isn’t weird. Shouting goes appropriately with praise and celebration.

In fact, it would be weird if there were no shouting. Try telling a sports fan watching their favorite team that they aren’t supposed to shout. Or just see what happens when a woman longing for children becomes pregnant for the first time.

Emotional expressions are expected whenever G-d shows up and accomplishes great deeds for us. To not do so is a sign of having spiders in your heart and garlic in your soul. It’s not right.

What are you thankful for today? Is there something in this day for which to praise the Lord, whether big or small? Will you give yourself permission to shout?

Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all you have done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, the beauty of this world, the wonder of life, and the mystery of love. We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and the loving care which surrounds us on every side. We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts and leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us. We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on your mercy and grace.

Above all, we thank you for your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, the truth of his Word, the example of his life; his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; his dying, through which he overcame death; and his rising to life again, in which we are raised to new life. Grant us the gift of your Spirit so that we may know Christ and make him known; and through him, at all times and in all places, we may give thanks to you in and for all things. Amen.