The Treacherous Territory of Preaching Thanksgiving
We are awfully close to the tipping point where Thanksgiving falls completely into the clutches of the advertising world. Where the holiday is treated as just another excuse to get you to buy more stuff and accumulate more goods. Our holy days have been co-opted by the marketers and the cultural diluters: All Hallows Eve, the Feast Day of St. Valentine, the Nativity of our Lord, and the Festival of Christ’s Resurrection. Arguably, these have all become pretty good excuses to sell, sell, sell, but Thanksgiving remained as a small, flickering light where the elements of a great holiday are still linked to the good and precious small things that make for a deep, rich life. Truly beautiful things like family, friends, a little turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, and, depending on your predilections, a nice Merlot or a glass of Mogen David. As the old hymn says, we gather together as God’s people and in our gathering, we give thanks.
A Thanksgiving service, though, is a difficult occasion for preaching and usually runs along the legalistic urging of, “Go on now and give thanks.” That is how it seems the Gospel reading about Jesus’ encounter with the ten lepers is so frequently interpreted. Give proper thanks to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Jesus meets up with these ten lepers and gets them all nice and clean, with no more rotting fingers and noses, and sends them on their merry way to be declared by the priests as fit for human company again. Nine of the ten former lepers head out presumably to the local gentlemen priests’ club to get their clean bills of health. But that one comes back to thank Jesus who, frankly, seems a bit surprised at the paltry return on His investment of messianic healing power. That tenth leper gives thanks and then gets sent on his way again.
I have had any number of chances to preach on this story of Jesus and the ten lepers. Like most preachers I have taken it as an opportunity to tell my hearers what a fine example that tenth leper is. “See! Now there’s a truly thankful fella’. If you want to be an upstanding Christian you should take him as your model. Give thanks, my friends, give thanks.” But I have concluded that to speak of this remarkable little story in this way is to come at it with very little attention to my call to deliver God’s Word in a manner that facilitates saving faith. For what is a sermon that tells you to give thanks, but a thinly disguised example of yet another demand of the Law dressed up in religious language? Because I use the example of someone who encountered God in the flesh, then somehow that must be good news for sinners? Here is why such a sermon is an unfitting format for delivery of the Gospel: It pays attention neither to how life actually works, nor to what Jesus’ death and resurrection have done for sinners like you and me… and all creation as well.
If I were to stand in the pulpit and tell my pew-sitters to take the tenth leper as their model and be thankful, it would ignore how such thanks truly comes about. It is the nature of relationship that things like faith, hope and love (the big three that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 13; the standard wedding gospel) do not appear because of our will. Who in the world has ever become hopeful because they decided to have hope? Hope comes when the thing hoped for is so sweet and rich that a person cannot help but wait for it with eagerness. In Ephesians 1:18, Paul points beyond the act of hoping to the thing we await: “…the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.”
The same is true of love, for has anyone ever risen in the morning and thought, “I’ve decided to fall in love today”? Try it out for size. Find a stranger and decide to fall in love. It does not work. You fall in love because your beloved has so much charm and wit, or a winsome smile and long eyelashes, that you just cannot help yourself. As the old Temptations song says, “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch / You know that I love you / I can't help myself / I love you and nobody else.”
That is exactly how it works with the giving of thanks. You might tell someone thanks because your parents brought you up to be polite, to say “please” and “thank you” as a matter of course, because that is what you ought to do. This is not the same thing as having a thankful heart. It is not the same thing as bursting with gratitude because you know how much you owe the person you are thanking. Demands like, “Be thankful!” have never done us sinners much good. While they can get us to drum up some outward action like shaping air and teeth and tongue into the words “thank you,” they simply cannot fill you with gratitude or make you thankful. Martin Luther liked to tell his hearers that these were words from Moses. They are the law, making demands, doling out commands. They might be able to pull you into line morally, so you do not hurt someone else, but the law, even something as nice and good as saying, “Be thankful,” cannot change your heart. Moses could not make it happen for the Israelites (see Acts 15:10) and neither can a law-preaching pastor standing in a pulpit on Thanksgiving Eve.
So, if the story of the thankful leper and Jesus is not meant as an example to take up, then what good is it? This word from God comes to place your whole life under the light of God’s judgment and Christ’s redemption. Its aim is not to sell you on deciding to be thankful, but to make you thankful, to give you faith, to get you to fall in love with your Lord, and to save you from the devil, the world and your sinful self.
My dermatologist and an occasional shot of steroid in my hip keep my own dreaded skin diseases at bay. I cannot say, “Whew! It’s a good thing I don’t have to deal with such an ugly, smelly disease. I’m glad that I’m in good shape.” I am fortunate enough never to have been afflicted with leprosy, but those lepers are really no different from me. Leprosy was just the specific form of sinful brokenness they had to live with each and every day. It is simply another variation on the wages of sin that we human beings have been paying since our first mother and father sinned in the Garden. You may not have leprosy, but the real disease that lies behind it is something you have caught as an inheritance of being born human in a fallen world. It is Sin and your Lord has come to cure you of it. But notice this, in this story Jesus does not come to cure some leprosy out of ten people who do not have the disease. He is the great physician who has come to heal the sick, to make the lame walk, the deaf to hear, and the blind see. Christ our Lord comes to take on the raging virus of sin in all its forms, so that you might be healed.
Notice in this story of Jesus and the lepers that not even one of them was healed because they decided to be healed and the tenth leper did not come back because he decided he needed to be thankful. The healing came simply because that is our Lord’s nature and will. Wherever He encounters the effects of sin He is “Johnny-on-the-Spot” serving up a dose of His power. Jesus heals because He wants to, because this is in His very nature and what He came to do. His healing is valid; it actually happens.
In the world’s eyes, not being a leper anymore is a pretty good thing, just like not being a thief or a person trailing the baggage of broken relationships is a good thing. Jesus is just fine making that sort of visible healing happen, but He is not satisfied with just shining up the veneer of your life or the lives of the lepers or the lives of any sinner. Such a repair job is only a surface fix and will not last beyond your final breath. Those nine lepers who went off in search of the priests to show-off their suitability and their newly regained status as clean people may get permission to enter the synagogues, but the fact that they have a clean bill of health does not mean any real change has happened for them.
It is an awful lot like having the Gospel proclaimed to you through the water and Word in baptism and then never having it mean a lick. Your baptism can be valid without having any effect on your actions. You can dress a person up in a clean white robe without it cleaning up that person’s heart and placing complete faith where there was only unbelief. No, what Jesus is after is a complete and utter change in the identity and very being of sinners like you and the lepers. He wants to make a new creation out of you, and that only happens when He gets at the truth of the sickness of sin in you.
When Luther died in 1546 and his companions in Eisleben went through the pockets of his robes, they found a scrap of paper on which he had written these words, “We are beggars. This is true.” He meant there is nothing any of us truly deserves from God except His wrath and judgment. We come before God not having kept the commandments, not having loved our neighbors as ourselves, not loving the Lord with all our heart, strength and mind. Instead, if we are honest about it, we know that it is we ourselves who we have put first in our lives. We trust ourselves to make a future, to achieve whatever goals we hope to arrive at in life, to make our next breath happen, and our next and our next. This is exactly what happened for those other nine lepers. They fail to come back to Jesus because they are off to live their lives, assuming they can go on and on and on like the Energizer Bunny, under their own power and free-will to make new lives for themselves.
But the tenth leper, now that is a different story. He comes back not to confess his new cleanness like the other nine did to the priests, he came back to the source of new life he had been given by his Lord. He came because he recognized his beggarliness, his nothingness apart from Jesus. When you know you deserve nothing and Jesus gives you absolutely everything, when you realize the truth about your state of affairs, there is nothing to do but give thanks. The leper just could not help himself. What he did was no different from what Luther talked about in the Small Catechism when he explained what baptism means for daily living: “It means that the old creature in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily contrition and repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
You see, it is not in the healing of his disease that salvation and thankfulness come for the tenth leper. It is in having his eyes opened to the nature of his relationship with Jesus that his complete healing and salvation happens. Not only is he a leper who was forced to live on the fringes of society, always forced to give people warning of his presence. He is also a Samaritan, someone who is seen by the religious folk of the day as an outsider, unable to come into God’s good graces. Not only does Jesus have no fear of the man’s disease, He also does not have a problem with his lack of religious credentials.
Christ our Lord is smitten with those who have no shred of evidence to plead their goodness or righteousness. Like an addict working a Twelve-Step program, all the tenth leper had was a true knowledge of his nothingness and the new reality of his life caused by this preacher from Nazareth. It is in this mysterious combination, in the unbreakable bond of both his living death as a leper and an outsider and his new clean state in Christ, that he has the full and complete healing which Jesus is after all along. When that happens, there is only an explosion of gratitude that can result. The new, healed body lays prostrate before Jesus saying, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
This is why a sermon telling people to be thankful does not do the trick. It misses the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection. If all you needed to get better from the disease of sin is an example or a demand or a law, Moses would have been plenty for you. You would not need a savior. You would not need the great physician. You would not need anything but a how-to manual for successful living or moral aptitude or a copy of Godliness for Dummies. To tell you to be thankful would be to forget the very thing that gives any life at all: our Lord’s death and resurrection. It would be to leave out the most important part of this story and our own story which is the event that tells the truth about your beggarliness and at the same time raises you up to new life. For it is Jesus on the cross who changes everything for you. It was the empty tomb that declared the emptying of Jesus’ lungs of their last breath as the victory over your sin. It is Jesus crucified and risen who says your divine judgment is condemnation and your hope is in Him alone.
As Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Paul’s three words in 1 Corinthians 13, faith, hope and love, are relational. They happen because you are compelled to love, to hope and, finally, to trust. At the end of the story, Jesus does not say to the leper that his thankfulness has made him well, but his faith. In the trusting of Jesus, the leper is fully and finally healed both of leprosy and his sin.
It is all a matter of faith and if it is faith that makes us well, then the preacher might just ask, “Where the heck can the people before me get some of that fine stuff?” I tell you it comes when true sinners, true beggars and not sham beggars, appear before the Lord and hear His freeing Word. Thus, the task for a preacher on Thanksgiving is to bravely gird the loins and give sinners Jesus thusly:
“Stand up straight with your broken lives and your trust in yourselves. Throw off your bandages to reveal your rotting flesh like a real sinner and hear our Lord as he speaks to you: You are forgiven in spite of yourself. You are claimed by one who is absolutely unafraid of your darkest secret and deepest shame. He knows you through and through, for He is the one who holds each and every cell, all your amino acids and DNA together. And He is dead and risen that you might have life and have it abundantly. No longer does your future depend on either your past or your resolve to make things better, for Christ comes to raise you from the dead and bring you salvation all on His own power, His own holiness, His own passion for life.”
We no longer need to decide to be thankful, for our Lord has given us everything and eternity too. He gives the things that elicit gratitude. In this new life, suddenly all God’s good gifts are viewed as our Lord’s horn of plenty. Your sweet potatoes with marshmallows. The warmth of your bed on a crisp November morning. Your beloved family gathered around your table and those you have lost who are gathered around God’s heavenly table. Your future. Your past. Your every single breath and heartbeat. These come not just as another thing you should be grateful for in life, but an actual part of the salvation that God has set out for you from the beginning of time.
Then the word on the preacher’s lips is not, “Be thankful,” but, “Get up and go on your way in the new life you’ve been given. Your faith has made you well.”
And now may the peace which far surpasses all our human understanding keep your thankful hearts and trusting minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.