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Lessons from Lepers

Did you know that it was Abraham Lincoln who, in the midst of the War Between the States, in 1863, established the annual celebration of Thanksgiving? Lincoln had learned how important it is to stop and thank God in the midst of great difficulties.


When Lincoln was 7 years of age, his family was forced out of their home, and Abe went to work. When he was 9, his mother died. He lost his job as a store clerk when he was 20. He wanted to go to law school, but he didn’t have the prior education necessary. At age 23 he went into debt to be a partner in a small store. Three years later the business partner died, and the resulting debt took years to repay.


When Lincoln was 28, after courting a girl for four years, he asked her to marry him, and she turned him down. On his third try he was elected to Congress, at age 37, but then failed to be re-elected. His son died at 4 years of age. When Lincoln was 45, he ran for the Senate and lost. At age 47 he ran for the vice-presidency and lost. But at age 51 he was elected president of the United States.


I think we can learn a lot from people who have endured hard times and learned to thank God in the midst of them. Today I want us to look together at the lessons on thanksgiving that we can learn from 10 lepers who had an encounter with Jesus. Listen for God’s word to you from Luke 17:11-19…


On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”


I believe there are at least 5 lessons on thanksgiving we can learn from the lepers. The first lesson is that we all have a reason to thank God.


The ten lepers had at least three reasons to thank God. First, Jesus met them where they were. Jesus did not have to pass by that village where the lepers lived. But in the providence of God, Jesus did pass by.


You did not have to come here today. One could make the argument that I have to come here. It’s my job. But you did not have to come here. Still, in God’s providence we did come here, and we all have the opportunity to meet God in worship. That’s a reason to thank him. When we come to church with an attitude of gratitude in our hearts, then we are like that one former leper who came back to Jesus to say thanks.


The second reason those lepers had for giving thanks was because God in Christ heard their cry for pity and saw their need. Jesus did not have to listen to their cry. He didn’t have to look at them in their need, but in his grace, he did see them and hear them.


We have reason to thank God today because he hears us! 1 John 5:14 says, “And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”


The most important thing in prayer is to be heard, just as in human relationships sometimes what we want most is someone to listen to us. When we go to God in prayer, praying according to his will, he hears us. That is something to be thankful for.


The third reason the lepers had to be thankful was because God in Christ met their needs. Jesus healed them of a terrible disease. Leprosy is a chronic disease caused by bacteria and characterized by the formation of nodules that enlarge and spread, accompanied by loss of sensation with eventual paralysis, wasting of muscle, and production of deformities and mutilations. As Charles Allen once wrote, these lepers…


…were ten wretched, forsaken, disheartened men. They all were hopeless. They had leprosy, and there was no cure for leprosy. The truth of the matter is leprosy was death, except it was death a little bit at a time—an arm, a leg, an ear. It was a horrible death and thought to be highly contagious. So these lepers were driven out. They couldn’t associate with anybody. They were hopeless and helpless.


But then Jesus came… He wasn’t afraid to come near them. And he healed their disease. So they had much for which to be thankful.


God meets all sorts of needs for each one of us, all the time, so that we have numerous reasons to be thankful. We always have something to be thankful for.


Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr. once said his mother had told him to always thank God for what was left. If you have enough breath left to complain, you have something left. Even after Dr. King had lost two sons, and his beloved wife had been shot to death at the organ in their church sanctuary, Dr. King was still preaching, “Thank God for what is left.” There is always enough left to thank God for.


A second lesson I think we can learn from the lepers is that our thanksgiving ought to be loud and demonstrative.We read that one of the lepers, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice, and he prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.


At one time we lived in western Pennsylvania where football is king. It was interesting to me to watch people at a Friday night high school football game. Up to that point in time, I had seldom seen people get so excited. When our home team would score a touchdown, our local fans would praise their team with loud voices! Now, I never saw anyone throwing themselves at the feet of our star running back, but I often saw people jumping up and down with thanksgiving. Even when we couldn’t attend games, we could hear everyone giving thanks in our high school stadium even though we lived a block or so away!

So, what happens when we come to church? Church people are often staid and reserved when it comes to giving thanks to God. We give thanks in muted tones, in hushed whispers, when we ought to be raising the roof in praise. The things God has done for us are far more glorious than a winning football season. God became a human being for us. He sacrificed himself on the cross for us. He has not merely healed us physically, as he did the ten lepers, he is healing us of the spiritual disease of sin. That ought to bring forth our loudest and most demonstrative praise.


A third lesson I think we can learn from the lepers is that faith which does not issue in thanksgiving is incomplete. “Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?’”


The other 9 lepers had some faith, or else they wouldn’t have asked Jesus to heal them and they wouldn’t have called him Master. Furthermore, they obeyed Christ’s command to go to the priest, even though they weren’t healed yet. The priest was the one in the Jewish community who could declare a former leper “clean” thus allowing him or her to return to society. The ten lepers all left on their journey to the priest, trusting Christ to heal them somehow, even though they didn’t see the healing until half-way through their journey.


So why didn’t the other 9 lepers come back and thank Jesus? There are several possible explanations. Perhaps the other 9 lepers were prideful. Perhaps they were ashamed to acknowledge their dependence on another by coming back to give thanks to the One who had given them the healing.


Abraham Lincoln had a very interesting observation in his Declaration of Thanksgiving on March 30, 1863. Lincoln declared,


But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!


Perhaps we need such a proclamation again in our nation. It seems to me that often we are too self-sufficient, too proud to say thanks to God for all that he has done for us.


Perhaps another reason why the other 9 lepers didn’t come back to say thanks is because they were not appreciative by nature. Warren Wiersbe writes, “Some people are appreciative by nature, but some are not; and it is these latter people who especially need God’s power to express thanksgiving.”


The story is told of a Vermont farmer who was sitting on his porch with his wife. He was beginning to realize how much she meant to him. It was about time—for they had lived together forty-two years, and she had been such a help, a very willing worker on the farm. One day as they sat together, the farmer said, “Wife, you’ve been such a wonderful woman that there are times I can hardly keep from telling you.” (Leslie Flynn) Some of us need to increase our thanksgiving quotient, don’t we?


Perhaps another reason why the other 9 lepers didn’t come back to thank Jesus is because they were too busy. Once they realized they were healed they had to go to the priest who would confirm the healing. Then they had to get settled back into society. They had to find new jobs and reconnect with their families. There was so much to do.


Perhaps we have all known people who come to God in a crisis, then forget about God when the crisis is past. Some of us get so busy living life that we forget to stop and thank God for all that he is doing in our lives. When we are ill, we pray to God for healing, but then when we are well again, we get back to the daily grind and forget to thank God for our daily health.


Perhaps the other 9 lepers focused too much on the negative and that’s why they didn’t come back to thank Jesus. Maybe they thought, “Now we are healed, but we’re going to have to go out and find jobs. This is too much change to handle at one time!” We’ve all known people who dwell more on the negative than on the positive and that makes thanksgiving difficult.


A man writing at a post office desk was approached by an older man who had a post card in his hand. The old man said, “Sir, could you please address this post card for me?” the man gladly did so, and he agreed to write a short message on the post card, and he even signed it for the man.


Finally, the man doing the writing said to the older man, “Now is there anything else I can do for you?”


The old fellow thought about it for a minute and then he said, “Yes, at the end of the postcard please write, ‘P. S. Please excuse the sloppy handwriting.’” (John Yates)


Some of us have a hard time accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative, and consequently we don’t come back to give thanks to Jesus for what he has done for us.


Carole Mayhall has written,


Often we put a “but” at the end of a “thank you,” as in, “Thank you, Lord, for friends, but I wish I had more”; or, “I’m grateful for my health, but I wish I weren’t getting gray and creaky”; or, “I’m grateful for our home, but I wish we could afford new carpeting.”


Perhaps what we need to do is take the “but” out of our thanksgiving.


A fourth lesson I think we can learn from the lepers is that sometimes we can learn about thanksgiving from unexpected sources. When the one Samaritan leper returned to give thanks, Jesus said, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”


The other 9 lepers were presumably Jews. One is tempted to think they should have known better. You would think they would have been the first ones to recognize who Jesus was and come back to thank him. Yet, this Samaritan, who did not have as much of God’s revelation as the Jews, he was the one who came back and gave thanks. This just goes to show that sometimes we need to open our eyes wider to the whole world and see what we can learn about thanksgiving from what may seem to us an unexpected source.


For example, our Thursday night book group recently finished reading “The Book of Joy” by The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. Now, before reading the book I knew a little bit about Desmond Tutu and read a book by him many years ago. I really didn’t know much of anything about the Dalai Lama other than what I heard about him in the news from time to time. But I learned some good things from both of these men about the topic of joy and thanksgiving. One of these men was an expected source for me. The other was an unexpected source. We need to open our eyes to the unexpected sources of wisdom all around us.


A final lesson I think we can learn from the lepers is that thanksgiving opens the door to greater blessing. When that one Samaritan leper came back to thank Jesus for his healing, it opened the door for Jesus to say to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”


Literally, Jesus’ words to this former leper were, “Your faith has saved you.” I think that means that all 10 lepers received physical healing, but only the leper who came back to thank Jesus received salvation.


I read recently these words from Dr. Lissa Rankin on the Psychology Today website. She says, “healing and curing are inherently different. Curing means ‘eliminating all evidence of disease,’ while healing means ‘becoming whole.’” 


In this story from Luke 17, what I think happened was that 10 lepers were cured of their disease, but only one became whole. Curing deals with the physical. Healing is for the whole person. For the same reason, I believe in many cases the ultimate healing is heaven. In the end we are all going to face some physical problem that isn’t cured and that leads to death. But we can still experience the ultimate healing of receiving eternal life.


When we come to God through his Son Jesus Christ and give thanks for all his blessings in our lives, it opens us up to receive even more blessing than we ever imagined possible.


Sam Duncannan was a simple soul who had a great desire to do something for the Lord. So, he made it his practice to cut out pictures from cards and magazines and to paste on to these pictures appropriate verses and poems, and then to give these simple gifts to those whom he felt would be blessed by them. One day, Sam came across a picture of Niagara Falls, but for a long time could find no poem appropriate for the picture. Then he heard the hymn by Philip Bliss entitled “Have you on the Lord believed?” The first verse of the hymn goes like this: “Have you on the Lord believed? Still there’s more to follow; Of his grace have you received? Still there’s more to follow.” Sam wrote those lines under the picture of Niagara Falls and entitled it “More to Follow”. 


With Jesus there is always more to follow. What may seem like an end of the road to you right now is only a bend with him…


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