Luke 17:11-19 – Give Thanks

Ten Lepers Healed by American artist Brian Kershisnik

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.” (NIV)

Today’s Gospel story is both joyous and sad. The healing of ten lepers is astonishing and elicits thanks – yet from only one. Perhaps this is because they stood at a distance. After all, it is connection which causes gratitude to arise within us. So, maybe we ought to consider what the nature of our connections are, especially on this Thanksgiving Day. 

Food, football, and family have become the annual trifecta of the American Thanksgiving Day. I confess that I liberally indulge in all three. I am not here to bash on the fact that Thanksgiving has become almost a day of secular worship around an unholy trinity. That is because I believe underneath all the gravy, naps at halftime, and the occasional obnoxious relative that we know why we are celebrating the day: To give thanks for our abundant blessings. It seems 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. Gratitude was commanded, expected, and was an important dimension of Old Testament worship:

Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! (Psalm 95:2, NRSV)

Be thankful and praise the Lord as you enter his temple. The Lord is good! His love and faithfulness will last forever. (Psalm 100:4-5, CEV)

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. (Psalm 118:1, NLT)

It ought to have been reflexive for all ten lepers healed by Jesus to offer thanksgiving. 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 intense 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. 

Indeed, sometimes we must be reminded to give thanks and show gratitude for the ways God has provided for us. It is often the homeless, the sick, the lowly, and the outsiders who lead the way and demonstrate for us what genuine thanksgiving looks like.

The people of God are to always remember what they possess in Christ:

So, live in Christ Jesus the Lord in the same way as you received him. Be rooted and built up in him, be established in faith, and overflow with thanksgiving just as you were taught. (Colossians 2:6-7, CEB)

Never stop praying. Be ready for anything by praying and being thankful. (Colossians 4:2, ERV)

Everything God made is good, and nothing should be refused if it is accepted with thanks. (1 Timothy 4:4, NCV)

God and giving thanks are to 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, giving thanks, and even (virtual) blowout parties. Otherwise, we become dull, boring, lifeless, and bereft of Christ’s lifeblood coursing through our spiritual veins. Conversely, a joyous and raucous group of healed believers chatting 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).

It seems to me that Christians really ought to be at the forefront of having maximum fun because they have been forgiven; know the presence of God; are provided for; are confident in the fact they are protected; and, experience the power of the Spirit and the shepherding ministry of Jesus.

Yes, eat to your heart’s content and have a belly full of cornbread stuffing. But remember to give thanks – out loud and with others – for the God who stands behind every good gift of creation.  Let thanksgiving (not complaint) shape you and I. Be the person who comes back to Jesus and offers praise, worship, and gratitude – and see how such gratefulness can change the world.

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness 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 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. And, we pray, 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 our days; Through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

1 Thessalonians 5:12-18 – Give Thanks

Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.

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

A lot of problems would resolve themselves if gratitude was a default way of life. Giving thanks in all circumstances creates peace; causes encouragement to flow freely; warns those who are busybodies; builds patience; and spreads goodness.

It can be easy to give thanks when things go our way.  It is quite another matter when circumstances are difficult, and our expectations are not realized.  The Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Thessalonica was written to people caught between a rock and a hard place.  In fact, it was so hard that the believers focused completely on the return of the Lord. 

When times are tough, Christ’s second coming comes forth from the recesses of our minds and straightaway to the forefront of our thinking.  Gratitude is typically not a first response to trouble and hardship. Instead, we may look to escape. We long for Christ’s return as a way out of trouble.

Although we know we should be thankful, we often are not.  Envy and resentment are the twin enemies continually looking to subvert our gratitude. In our frustration of missed expectations and unwanted situations, ingratitude can easily slip into our spirits.

A life of unhappiness awaits those who are resentful of what they do not possess. Those who envy shall never be satisfied because they are always dreaming about how much better life would be without their troubles.

No matter how good we have it, someone else has it better.  To envy is to be overly future-oriented, like the Thessalonians, always thinking about how the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. And it squelches gratitude. For example, according to a study by the Templeton Foundation, gratitude has all but gone missing from the workplace.  Their research found that only 39% of people are grateful for their current employment; 74% of employees have rarely or never expressed gratitude to their bosses; and, 60% have rarely or never expressed gratitude to anyone of their fellow employees.  Workplace dissatisfaction is nearly a guarantee apart from gratitude.

If we want to live happy contented lives, then we will observe the biblical exhortation to give thanks in any kind of circumstance.  It can be a challenge to give thanks during hard times.  Yet, that might be the most important time to do it.

In her book, The Hiding Place, the late Corrie ten Boom tells about an incident that taught her the principle of giving thanks in all things. It was during World War II. Corrie and her sister, Betsy, had been harboring Jewish people in their home, so they were arrested and imprisoned at a concentration camp.  The barracks was extremely crowded and infested with fleas.

One morning they read in their tattered Bible the reminder to give thanks in all things.  Betsy said, “Corrie, we’ve got to give thanks for this barracks and even for these fleas.”  Corrie replied, “No way am I going to thank God for fleas.” But Betsy was persistent and persuasive, and they did thank God even for the fleas.  During the months that followed, they found that their barracks was left relatively free, and they could do Bible study, talk openly, and even pray in the barracks. It was their only place of refuge. Several months later they learned that the reason the guards never entered their barracks was because of those blasted fleas.

Sometimes we neither understand what God is doing nor perceive that the Lord is up to anything.  You may feel as if you are sitting still right now, yet, planet Earth is spinning around its axis at a speed of 1,000 miles per hour.  We are also hurtling through space at an average velocity of 67,108 miles per hour. Even on a day when you feel like you did not get much done, remember you traveled 1,599,793 miles through space!

That is amazing, yet we do not feel it. So, it is off our spiritual radars.  When was the last time you thanked God for keeping us in orbit? I am guessing you likely never prayed, “Lord, I wasn’t sure we’d make the full rotation today, but you did it again!” Yet, we are to learn to thank God in every circumstance, both big and small.  If we can trust God to keep our feet on the ground with a big thing like gravity, then we can have faith in any and every situation we experience.

Here are three simple ways of being intentional about gratitude

Pray with prayers of thanksgiving. 

I am a believer in using biblical prayers for ourselves rather than just saying what is always on our minds and hearts – because we might never get around to gratitude. But Scripture does. The Apostle Paul typically began every discussion with gratitude. For example, when beginning his letter to the problem filled church at Philippi, he said: 

I thank my God every time I remember you.  In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus….  And this is my prayer:  that your love may abound more and more in knowledge of depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:3-4, 9-11, NIV).

Write your thanksgiving.

Cards, letters, emails, social media messages, and whatever other ways are available, use them to express thanksgiving to God and others. Again, Paul ended his letter to the Philippians just as he began it, with gratitude:

It was good of you to share in my troubles.  Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need” (Philippians 4:14-16, NIV).

Keep a gratitude journal.

Identifying and writing down at least three things you are thankful for everyday has healing power. Any common fool can bellyache about how bad things are and play armchair Deity about how to fix all the world’s ills.  However, it takes a wise person to find gratitude and choose to give thanks for all the good things God has done and is doing, being careful to give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will in Christ Jesus.

Almighty God, we give you humble thanks for all your goodness and kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life. Above all, we are grateful for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for grace and 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 ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days. We pray with thanksgiving through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

Don Moen – Give Thanks | Live Worship Sessions

Exodus 15:22-27 – On Grumbling

Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.) So, the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?”

Then Moses cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became fit to drink.

There the Lord issued a ruling and instruction for them and put them to the test. He said, “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.”

Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water. (NIV)

I like children’s books. I suppose its because I’m still a kid at heart. It’s fun to read to my grandchildren. One of the books I read to them is “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” The book begins with Alexander recounting when he awoke one morning:

“I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning, I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day…. I think I’ll move to Australia.”

For the remainder of the story, Alexander’s day was a mishap of messes. Nothing seemed to go his way, and no one appeared to notice or even to care.

One of the reasons the book has been read so many times by so many children (and obviously adults, like me) is because we can all relate to the feelings of having a day where nothing seems to go right. In the middle of it we just feel like being somewhere else, like Australia.

In such times, when life is topsy-turvy and upside-down, it is so amazingly easy to grumble and complain. The ancient Israelites were having an Alexander-like day. Unlike having gum in your hair, not having water to drink is a big deal, a vital problem. So, we might understand why there was so much grumbling going on among the people. I am sure they were anxious, nervous, and scared.

Yet, complaining, unlike our emotions, is a volitional response. We choose to grumble. The problem with gripes and complaints is that it sets a person down a dark path. Oh, the criticisms and grievances begin easily and are seemingly harmless, at first. They are, however, anything but innocuous.

A mere grumble under the breath did not stop with finally getting water to drink. If we look ahead in the story of God’s people in the exodus event, the moaning and complaining quickly returned the minute something did not go their way. Then, the people became so disillusioned with their circumstances that they began longing for the “good old days” back in Egypt when they had plenty to eat and drink, forgetting about their cruel bondage in slavery. (Exodus 16:1-3)

The psychological progression continued with beginning to blame their situation on God, as if he were some mean malevolent deity. From that point, it was inevitable that the people would disobey God and eventually succumb to the idolatry of the golden calf. (Exodus 32:1-8)

Despite the grand celebration of leaving Egypt and experiencing a miraculous deliverance through the Red Sea, the people quickly forgot because of their present circumstance of lacking water. It is only logical and makes sense that the mighty God who saved them with incredible acts of power would care for the people in a desert. Yet, for many, there was no faith to be found in a new situation they had not faced before.

Failure of faith begins neither with ignorance nor an egregious sin. It begins with grumbling and complaining. And if allowed to run amok, complaints will bear the fruit of discouragement, disobedience, and eventually a disavowal of God.

The author of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews reflected on the grumbling of their forebears and had this to say in response:

See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. As has just been said:

“Today, if you hear his voice,
    do not harden your hearts
    as you did in the rebellion.” (Hebrews 3:12-15, NIV)

Encouragement is the insecticide which eliminates the worm of complaints. If left alone, we stew in our own bitterness over missed expectations. Grumbling bores its way into our soul and eats away at our faith. We need the continual encouragement of one another to remember our collective deliverance and express gratitude for our salvation.

May it be so to the glory of God.

We give you thanks, Lord God, because you give food and drink to all, heal all, create wonders in this world, forge wisdom within us, and give refuge beneath the shadow of your wings. From your wisdom grant us wisdom, from your love grant us love, from your understanding grant us understanding. Feed us when we are hungry, give us strength when we are weak, raise us up when we are bent over, set us free when we are enslaved. Just as our spiritual ancestors were blessed – may you grant us the blessing of peace, strength, and gratitude. Amen.

Guilt, Grace, and Debt-Collecting: The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

Parable of the Unforgiving Servant by Nikola Saric
Parable of the Unforgiving Servant by Serbian German painter Nikola Saric

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt, and let him go.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35, NIV)

It is unfortunate that one of the few guarantees in life is that someone will hurt you, and that hurt will tear a hole in your heart and last a long time.

When the hurt comes, we all must decide how to handle the issue of forgiveness. Oh, it’s easy to talk about forgiveness when you are doing fine – its another thing when you are hurt. One man, during a conversation with his Pastor, had this story:

“Nineteen years ago, this guy stole my wife away from me. They got married and moved to Florida while my life unraveled.  After I was arrested for assaulting a police officer, this guy smirked through the entire hearing.  When I was convicted, he flipped me the finger. I’ve hated him for nineteen years. He’s coming up here next week. I have a thirty-two-caliber pistol strapped around my ankle, and when I see him, I will kill him. I’ve thought about it. I’m sixty-three years old. I’ll get a life sentence, but I’ll also get free medical, a warm bed, and three meals a day.  I’m ready to end my life this way.”

We may wonder: “Why even bother to forgive?  Why even care about that person?” Emotional pain and angry hurt can be so deep that we see no need for forgiveness. “After all,” we might reason, “look at what that person has done to me!”

Jesus does not want bitterness to be the last word; he wants it to be forgiveness. The parable of the unmerciful servant is a piece of Christ’s teaching concerning “little people,” that is, people who are, by status, lowly and unimportant to others. The heavenly Father’s heart is one that cares deeply for them. They are lost, lonely, and languishing in pain. They need help. Jesus clearly explained what to do, giving a three-step process to privately go to others who have hurt us and win them back through reconciliation (Matthew 18:15).

The disciple Peter, ever the wondering, if not wandering disciple knows that if a person hurts someone, they might do it again. So, if a lost sheep is brought back to the fold, and then is offensive again-and-again, at what point do we say enough-is-enough and stop forgiving?

We as people can often feel a keen sense of “ought to.” We feel we ought to pay the debt we owe to others, and that others must pay us the debt they owe. This works on the emotional level just as much or more than any other arena of life. If we offend someone and they become angry, we believe we ought to make them feel better.  If someone angers us, we expect them to make it right and make us feel better.

The late Methodist scholar and author, Dr. David Seamands, said the two major causes of most emotional problems among Christians are: 1) The failure to understand, receive, and live out God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness; and, 2) The failure to give that grace and forgiveness to other people. I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Seamands.

We have grace available to us in Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection. We cannot earn forgiveness.  Grace is free.  Equally true is the fact that no one owes us anything.  Grace is free for others, as well.

The Failure to Receive Forgiveness

In the end, was the unmerciful man in Christ’s parable forgiven?… No…. Why not?… Because he failed to understand forgiveness and receive it.  It was not the master’s fault; it was the man’s own fault. So, why did he react so mercilessly to a fellow person in debt? (The man’s debt was in the billions and could not be paid off, but the other man’s debt was just a few dollars). The unmerciful guy failed to grasp the master’s grace; he didn’t get it.  He thought he could work it off, and when the debt was canceled, he could not wrap his heart around such mercy. None of us can repay grace – it is free.

The inability to know and receive grace drives many Christians to the tragic treadmill of constant striving for perfection, achievement, and recognition from others. Many people refuse grace and instead try to get rid of their guilt through endless work – fueling the workaholic, motivating the addict, and animating much of the service done in the church and the world. The problem is not a lack of understanding sin or acknowledging personal sinful actions among Christians; the problem is what to do about it. Too many believers are trying to work-off their debt.

The Unforgiving Servant by American artist James B. Jangknegt

Here is a little test: Why do you do what you do? Why do you do good and right things?  Be honest.  Is it to truly worship and celebrate the Lord who has erased such a great debt of sin in our lives? Or, are we working to pay off a debt to God?  Am I striving to assuage my guilt? Are we searching to feel better through our service to others?

We can be so accustomed to operating according to guilt instead of grace that we don’t know what to with the absence of guilt – so we just go back to guilt as our default setting, like a dog returning to its vomit. Furthermore, the tragedy is compounded by insisting that others operate out of guilt, too.

Another little test: Are we content to simply ask people to help or to serve, or do we believe that there must be arm-twisting with some guilt to motivate them? Guilt and arm-twisting are inconsistent with the gospel of grace.  If we believe we must guilt our kids, family, co-workers, neighbors, or anyone else before they will do anything, then it is us who have a spiritual problem.

Ideally, we live and work out of a sense of gratitude toward God and not by guilt. Yet, there are always folks who continue to work out their unhappiness on other people by insisting they get on the guilt train along with them. We are unable to forgive ourselves, so we live with the guilt and try to pay off our debt, making ourselves and everyone else miserable in the process.

The Failure to Give Forgiveness

The unforgiven are the unforgiving. The reason the guy in the story responded so violently to a person who only owes him a few bucks is because he never really believed he was forgiven by the master in the first place. He could not envision a world in which his debt was paid. The unmerciful man was still operating as though life were a matter of collecting debts.

At the heart of many broken relationships and emotional conflicts is an insistence on debt-collecting. We want from others something they cannot give us. God in Christ erases the great debt we have, not some other person.  Yet, we go out and seek from others what only God provides. People are good at being people – but they make lousy gods. It is God who meets the deepest needs of our hearts – your spouse, children, friends, church, and community cannot do it. That is a job for Jesus. The watershed issue is grace – whether we can receive it, or not.  We cannot give something we have not first received.

It would be weird if a marriage vow went something like this: “I have a lot of terrific inner needs and inner emptiness and debts to pay, and I’m going to give you a marvelous opportunity to fill my Grand Canyon of insecurity and take care of me!”

Sometimes people have a nasty tendency to make idols of other people and look at them as though they owe us a debt of happiness, joy, and peace. For example, the weird marriage vow, if followed through with, inevitably will result in debt-collecting. A few years down the road the spouse says, “This is not what you were like when I married you… You owe me!” Our insecurity comes from the inability to receive grace. It is all about grace. Everything is about grace, not guilt and not debt-collecting because the debt has already been paid and the guilt has been erased.

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled (with the blood of Christ) to cleanse us from a guilty conscience. (Hebrews 10:22)

Conclusion

You and I are forgiven. There is no need to collect a debt which is already paid. The cross of Jesus Christ has taken care of the sin issue once for all, and not one person reading this is an exception to grace. Here is a final exam, to determine if there is someone we need to forgive:

  1. The Resentment Test: Is there someone you resent? Is there someone who has wronged you?  When you see them or think about them, do you have resentment in your heart?
  2. The Responsibility Test: You say to yourself, “I wouldn’t have this problem if it wasn’t for ________.”  This is passing the buck and believing that my happiness is dependent on another person. The truth is that no one is responsible for your emotional well-being and happiness except you.
  3. The Reminder and Reaction Test: Is there someone who “presses your buttons?” This is when we see or talk to a person who reminds us of someone else who hurt us, and we react to that person by transferring our anger and/or pain onto them.

The Pastor responded to the man mentioned earlier who had lost his wife to another man by saying, “Well, I guess it doesn’t matter if you go to jail because you’re already in jail.  The guy who stole your wife and smirked at your hearing isn’t in jail. You are. You are a prisoner of your own hate, and you are slowly killing yourself.”  A week after that conversation the man called the Pastor and said, “You know, I get your point.  I put the gun away.  I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in jail – and I want to get rid of this bitterness.”

The way to do deal with bitterness is through forgiveness. To forgive involves a long journey, just like every other aspect of following Jesus. Hopefully, by retelling the gospel of grace to one another week after week our hearts will be soft.  We will want to begin the journey to forgive others, stumbling forward with hearts torn by hurts, yet set free by grace.

May it be so to the glory of God.