Salvation and Thanksgiving
Text: Luke 17:11-19
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Gratitude, thankfulness, really is one of those things that changes the way we see, experience, and know the world. It works positively, as those who approach life with thankfulness tend to see abundance and blessing everywhere they look. People with a grateful heart tend to live longer, as dozens of studies have shown. But the opposite is true as well. Ingratitude, thanklessness, also has a real effect on people and their life in the world. Martin Luther knew that it was thanklessness that caused people to lose grip of God’s Word and fall into false belief and lies. He wrote, “Germany, I am sure, has never before heard so much of God’s word as it is hearing today; certainly we read nothing of it in history. If we let it just slip by without thanks and honor, I fear we shall suffer a still more dreadful darkness and plague…For you should know that God’s word and grace is like a passing shower of rain which does not return where it has once been…And you Germans need not think that you will have it forever, for ingratitude and contempt will not make it stay.” This should make us think. If all of these places of the world that once were strongholds of the faith—places like North Africa, Greece, Italy, Germany, Scandinavia—these places that had God’s Word, knew His saving truth, carried it in their hearts and minds—how is it that a practicing, believing Christian can scarcely be found there now? Why has it gone? The answer is thanklessness and ingratitude. Thanklessness for God’s gifts is what causes these treasures to vanish, to move on like a summer rain shower; or at the very least to become extremely difficult to find.
But when we’re surrounded by so many good gifts, how could such thanklessness even come about? In our age and location in the world, we’re surrounded by so much constant plenty that it’s easy for us to become shortsighted, forgetful—we might even say spoiled. We’ve only had our first taste of shortages of things in the last year or so, with the labor crises and supply chain issues that everyone talks about. But even then, we still have what we need; we still have daily bread. The Israelites in the wilderness had this problem. Every morning they gathered manna from the ground—morsels of daily bread, free of charge. But after they had their fill, after they had become accustomed to this abundance, they cried out, “There is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food” (Num. 21:5). It’s easy to focus on what we don’t have when we’re accustomed to such bounty.
And how often do we spend more time thinking about what don’t have than thanking God for what we do? How much do we worry about situations that haven’t come to pass rather than giving thanks for the situations that the Lord has brought us through? How often do we think that God is holding out on us, that He’s keeping something back from us that we really want after He’s already opened the treasure trove of heaven and earth to provide us daily bread and eternal life? How often are we surrounded by God’s gifts and then complain because something isn’t exactly the way we want it to be—it isn’t the way we’d prefer, the way we think it should be, the way we demand? That is thanklessness. Thanklessness stems from thinking that we should be in charge, that our every whim should be met, that whatever we don’t like should be fixed immediately, that everyone—including God—should bend over backwards so that we get exactly what we want in exactly the way we want it. Thanklessness grows out of becoming bored with good things, not giving thought to how precious and wonderful they really are. When we’re on the inside, when we’re surrounded by mountains of God’s gifts, our sinful selves get a little farsighted, seeing only the things we don’t have rather than the treasures that are already in our laps.
So sometimes we need to be on the outside to see how great something is. Sometimes we need to have an empty stomach to appreciate the feast. Sometimes we need to be cold to revel in the warmth of a fire. Sometimes we need to have nothing at all to see how wonderfully the Lord fills our hands and hearts. The Samaritan in our reading this evening knew this. He was an outsider in every sense of the word. He was not one of the children of Israel, and even though he lived among them, he was a constant outsider. Inscribed in stone at the temple gate in Jerusalem were the words: “Nothing foreign shall enter.” Those words were about him, the Samaritan. Furthermore, he was a leper, cast out of society, a perceived danger to others. He could bring disease to his family and friends. The only company fit for him were the other outcasts, and so they gathered together, ten of them, in no man’s land between Samaria and Galilee, cut off from God and neighbor, with nothing in their hands and emptiness in their hearts.
But then Someone comes along. They’ve heard of Him. He’s the One who can cast out demons, forgive sins, and cure diseases. So as He approaches, they stand at a distance, as was proper for infected lepers to do, and they raise their voices, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” And He does. In His mercy, He looks at them and tells them to go to the priests in the temple at Jerusalem. Immediately the lepers start making their way there. Nothing unclean was to enter the temple—and leprosy was most definitely unclean—but Jesus told them to go, so they went. Nothing foreign was to enter the temple, and yet Jesus told them to go, so they went, even the Samaritan. And it was on the way to the temple, on the way to God’s presence, after hearing Jesus’ promise of healing, that the Samaritan realized something, something important, something for every single person, clean and unclean, to realize: Jesus had transformed him.
Jesus told the Samaritan leper (along with the other nine) to go to the temple because He had changed them—not just changed their hearts or changed their minds—He literally changed them. The Samaritan, being an outsider, being a foreigner, having nothing at all, could see this clearer than any of us could today. He had been unclean, an outcast, diseased, dangerous. He had been the one that the inscription at the temple was directed against: “Nothing foreign shall enter.” He had been all of these things until Jesus spoke. Then the Samaritan was changed—changed from diseased to healthy, from unclean to clean, from outsider to insider, from ignorant to enlightened, from foreigner to one of the people of God. And the Samaritan knew something that we often forget: The only One who can change things, the only One who can transform reality with a word is God. This is why he turned around and returned to Jesus. This is why the text says that the healed man glorified God with a loud voice as he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. The Samaritan realized that Jesus is God—the God who created the universe with a word, the God who can forgive with a word, the God who can change things with a word, the God who gives salvation with a Word.
Salvation simply means being saved. Often we think of it in terms outside of our mortal lives here. And that’s true. We are saved eternally from sin, death, and hell. But salvation doesn’t only apply in the life to come. We aren’t only saved later; we’re saved even now. We’re saved by God from disease and sickness. We’re saved by God from foolishness and error. We’re saved from situations that endanger us, probably more than we even realize. How many times has our Lord rescued us without us even being aware of it? How many times have we stumbled and had the Lord catch us without us even batting an eye? And of course, how many times have our sins been forgiven, here in this sanctuary, out in our homes? More times than we can number. That’s how great the salvation of God is, both now and in eternity.
When all of this is laid before us, free, without any price tag, without us having to do anything for it, what else can we do but give thanks? Like the Samaritan, we’ve been changed—not just figuratively, but actually changed, body and soul, by our God. What other reaction even seems possible than to kneel before Him, recognizing His undeserved goodness, thanking Him? And that reaction is because, like the Samaritan, you’re transformed. You’re no longer an outsider, you’re now invited into the temple of God. You’re not an outcast; you’ve been changed into a member of God’s household. God doesn’t give up on you. He doesn’t turn away or treat you like a leper, turning His back on you. He doesn’t keep you on the outside. He has mercy on you. He heals you. He forgives you. He saves you and this salvation changes you. The temple doors are thrown wide open and you can enter into the presence of God, transformed by the word and sacrifice of Jesus.
So go ahead—admit that you want to be changed. Admit that you want a grateful heart, that you want eyes to see blessings you have instead of trinkets you don’t. And, as He always does, He’ll hear you and take mercy on you. He’ll change you. And because you’ve been changed, because you’ve tasted the Lord’s salvation, you’re different. This causes thanksgiving to bubble up from your heart, spontaneously and freely. You don’t give thanks to God because you have to—you do it because there’s nothing else to do. You can see how much you’ve been given through Jesus—in this life and the next. When your empty hands and hearts are filled, when your stomach and soul are satisfied, sing to him who has blest us on our way with countless gifts of love and still is ours today. In the name of Jesus, who gives us a reason to be grateful, Amen.