With A Grateful Heart
How do we summarize the last seven years together here at Horizon Church? Where do we even begin? We have gathered here together on Sunday morning for worship 371 times. Over these years we have celebrated new Christians coming to faith with nine baptisms and four professions of faith. We have also gathered for nine funerals for saints who have gone on before us to glory. We have started new ministries in the last seven years: Men’s Life, Women’s Bible study, small groups, weekly youth group, and children’s ministries.
But these are all just statistics. They don’t really tell the hundreds of stories of real life and real relationships behind the numbers. Together, we have journeyed in faith as disciples of Jesus. And many of us will attest that sanctification is a bumpy road. We have celebrated the joys of family and friends. And we have also held one another up through struggles of pain and hardships. Every single person here has stories to tell.
So how do we summarize all this? There may be many themes that weave through these years. But today I want to pick just one for us to focus upon. And it is a theme that also gives us a proper response. Gratitude. This is Thanksgiving weekend after all. It seems appropriate, then, that we take a few moments today and consider how gratitude is a perfect response to God’s grace and faithfulness to his church and his people. Take a look with me at a story in the Bible that speaks about a response of gratitude.
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.”
As Jesus is making his way from one town to another, he comes along this settlement of lepers who live in isolation. The Old Testament law required that people who had certain diseases should not be in contact with the community. Leprosy is commonly mentioned in the Bible. Scholars think it is likely that leprosy was sort of a category for a number of diseases that showed symptoms of skin rashes and sores. Since some diseases such as this were known to be contagious, those who suffered any kind of disease like this were branded as lepers and quarantined to a separate community.
As a result, lepers would group together in communities of outcasts. It is this type of community we see in this story. Luke tells us there are ten men with leprosy who call out to Jesus from a distance. They knew that they were outcasts and that they were not allowed to be in close contact with other people. This is why they don’t come near. Rather, they call out from a distance. Look at what is happening here. These men see themselves as outcasts who have been thrown away by society. And they also see themselves as outcasts who are separated from God. They cannot get near to either.
It’s kind of curious what Jesus does here. You see, I would have guessed here that because Jesus is the kind of guy who is always demonstrating grace by drawing close to those who need God’s healing and presence the most, it would have seemed obvious to me that Jesus would have called them over. Or maybe Jesus would have walked right up to them. Sure, it would have broken the customs of the social norm for those with leprosy to remain isolated, but Jesus was all about breaking through the barriers of social norms that isolated people from one another. But in this instance, Jesus does something different.
He gives them a simple instruction. Go see the priest. Again, a word of explanation. For those with leprosy who were considered unclean according to the Jewish law, the only way to remove that label—that stigma—and be declared clean again was to have it affirmed by the priest. This, again, was not all that uncommon. There were examples of people who had various skin diseases branded as leprosy which would eventually heal and clear up. So the instruction of Jesus to go see the priest was something these men knew about. They knew what it meant. But Jesus himself never comes into contact with any of these men. Jesus remains at a distance.
So this story illustrates something a little bit different with what Jesus is doing here. First of all, notice this: they still have leprosy when Jesus tells them to go see the priest. Luke tells us that they are healed as they go. I won’t speculate too much on how this took place. All that is significant in this story for us is that the actual healing took place somewhere after these men had spoken with Jesus. They had already left. That’s only an important detail for us because it means that it was a conscious decision for the one to turn around and go back to find Jesus again in order to express his gratitude.
The other thing this story illustrates is the affirmation Jesus gives to the one who returned. Maybe our inclination is to immediately look down on the other nine men for failing to do the right thing—that’s kind of what the story leads us to believe. But try for a moment to put yourself into their shoes.
Imagine that you were banished from everything that you know. Imagine that you were exiled from your family and friends. There are no cell phones. No instagram. No snapchat. You’re completely cut off from all contact with everything and everyone you have ever known. And you know that the only way to ever get that back is by one thing: you must be declared clean by the local priest. Once the priest does that, you are free to go and return to your old life. And this is exactly what Jesus told these men to go and do! Imagine it. Put yourself in their place. I don’t know about you, but I think I would be incredibly excited to go and see my family and hug my loved ones. In fact, I would probably be longing and dreaming for this one thing every single day and night of my exile. I can’t really blame these men for rushing with a one-track-mind to get to the priest and then to get back to all their dear loved ones. I admit that I probably would have done the exact same thing.
So let’s admit today—each one of us—that we would have done the exact same thing as those other nine lepers if it were us. Be honest about that. I know I would have.
The one who returns to Jesus, then, is not the one who behaves according to the expected normal pattern. By returning to Jesus, he does the unexpected. His behavior is unusual. And—technically—he’s breaking the rules. Step one before he is allowed to be near anyone else must be the declaration from the local priest that he is now clean. That’s the law. And remember, that’s also exactly what Jesus told these guys to go and do. It seems that the expected response from Jesus should have been some kind of rebuke. “I told you to go to the priest. Why aren’t you with the other nine?”
But instead Jesus does the unexpected in affirming the unexpected behavior of this one man, and calling out the other nine for not doing the same. There is something unique about the way in which this one Individual expresses gratitude that is worth our attention. His gratitude to God is the first-and-foremost priority. Expressing thanks and praise to Jesus comes as the very first activity for this guy. And I think in our own honest assessment of where we might fit in this story if it were us, we are faced with the confession that we do not embrace and express our gratitude to God like that. It’s much more likely that we would be like the other nine guys. It’s more probable that I would make a note to drop a thank-you card to Jesus in the mail sometime over the next few weeks. I would set myself a reminder to schedule a coffee with Jesus when it became convenient. I admit that I have something valuable to learn from this story about thanksgiving to God.
So this morning let’s take a few moments here to reflect upon the important and essential practice of Christian gratitude. Our thanksgiving to God is a thankfulness that is more than a feeling. It is more than an inward emotion. It is more than kind thoughts in your head and warm sentiments in your heart. Thanksgiving is an expression. It is an outward action. Expressing gratitude to God is something that we actually physically do. But at the same time, thanksgiving is not empty action. It is an expression of gratitude that matches the sincerity of the heart. I think that’s what we see in this leper who experiences healing and returns in thanksgiving to Jesus. It is an outward expression of praise to God that springs from a genuine and sincere dedication of the heart.
The big question for us here today to consider is where we can all find gratitude like that. Where do we begin in our own lives and in our own faith to develop and embrace that kind of Christian gratitude? Maybe it will help if I reframe the question from a different point of view. And this is a question that I think some of you may have heard before; and it is a question that some of you already know the answer—in fact you have memorized the answer.
Here’s the question: what is your only comfort in life and in death? It’s the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism. It’s one of the teaching documents of the church that has been around for the past 500 years. For those of you who may have never heard of this before, the answer is this: my only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.
I am not my own. I belong to Jesus.
This is where true Christian gratitude begins. Many people live in denial of those two statements. What do you mean I am not my own? What do you mean that I belong to Jesus? Sure, I may be thankful that I can go to God in times when I need him. I may have gratitude for the times when God’s got my back. But for the most part, I live my own life the way that I want to. Nobody else owns me. My life belongs to me. I’m thankful for the times when God shows up, but it’s still my life. The part of the world that I live in is my little world. The possessions I have are all mine. The money I make is my money. Don’t tell me that I am not my own. Don’t tell me that everything I have and everything I am belongs to Jesus.
Denial that I belong to Jesus leaves me short of true gratitude. Because as long as I go through life trying to own it all myself, then any attempt at gratitude to God is reduced to self-congratulatory entitlement. I’m not praising God at all; I am praising myself. I am not worshipping God at all; I am just worshipping myself. My so-called thanksgiving is not about giving thanks at all—it’s not about giving at all; it’s only about receiving, it’s only about what I have, what I have been given, what I own. This is a false gratitude that is really no gratitude at all—it’s just about me.
One step up from denial is grudge. This gets us a little closer to thanksgiving, but not there yet. If denial refuses to accept the truth that I am not my own and that I belong to Jesus, then grudge accepts the truth—but not willingly. Sure, I resign myself to the fact that I am not my own and that I belong to Jesus, but I am not happy about it. I take no comfort in it. And I cannot truly express any real gratitude in it. An attitude of grudge acknowledges that God is in control, but would rather have it the other way around.
Sure, God is keeping my life secure within his will, but I’d prefer my own will. Okay, I guess I’ll give praise to God if I must. But I’d rather not. Alright, I’ll share the blessings God has given to me. But it feels like an obligation, not an act of thankful gratitude. You see what’s happening here. All my gratitude and all my thanksgiving is just going through empty motions. This is a gratitude that has the outward appearances of doing all the right things. But these actions are pretty hollow on the inside.
True Christian gratitude, then, is a thankfulness that fully embraces the truth that I am not my own and that I belong to Jesus. True Christian gratitude cannot happen when we live in denial of this. And true Christian gratitude cannot happen when we begrudgingly or half-heartedly accept this. True Christian gratitude only happens when we center our lives within the truth that I am not my own and that I belong to Jesus. I don’t just acknowledge this. I don’t just affirm this. I must do nothing less than make this the center my life.
Look at how this works. When I center my life on the truth that I am not my own and that I belong to Jesus, then I no longer insist on seeing all of my possessions as exclusively mine to own and control. Rather, I see material possessions as blessings of God. And I am a steward—a caretaker—of these blessings. None of this actually belongs exclusively to me. It all belongs to God because I belong to God. None of these possessions are my own because I am not my own.
The job that I have, the family of which I am a part, the accomplishments I have achieved, the abilities with which I have been talented; all of these things are the gifts of God. All of these things begin with God and are attributed to God, because I am not my own and I belong to Jesus. I cannot receive credit for anything of my own or for any of my successes. It is not because of my intelligence. It is not because of my hard work. Those things are the gifts of God as well. And so I owe thanksgiving to God for all of my accomplishments and successes as well. I have been created and appointed by God as a steward—a caretaker—of all my abilities.
When I embrace and center my life on all that this means—that I am not my own and I belong to Jesus, that all that I have is a gift of God—then I start to take a new perspective on thanksgiving. My entire life becomes a testimony of gratitude to God. The difference is as simple as a preposition. So often, when we think of thanksgiving, we talk about it as a list of everything we are thankful for. For is a preposition of extension. It works like this. Chairs are for sitting. Use a fork for eating lunch. Grab a towel for cleaning up that mess. In these axamples, the action is connected to some kind of extension using the preposition for. And most of us express gratitude like this. We have lists of things we are thankful for. I am thankful for family and friends. I am thankful for food, shelter, and clothing. I am thankful for a job and successful acomplishments. My thanksgiving is all connected to extensions. But what happens if all those extensions are taken away? Then the only way I remain grateful is to come up with a new list of extensions to be thankful for. Without the extensions, I cannot be thankful if my gratitude is always framed as being thankful for.
Interestingly, the Bible rarely speaks of thanksgiving using the preposition for. Rather, the Bible tells us to give thanks in. Give thanks in all circumstances. In is not a preposition of extension. In is a preposition of proximity. The Bible describes thanksgiving as an expression that is embraced as close and amongst our lives no matter what circumstances or extension may—or may not—exist at any given moment.
This is a way of living that always acknowledges God first. This is a way of living that will continually center upon the lordship of Jesus first. And this is a way of living that genuinely experiences comfort in doing that. I take great joy in knowing that my life and everything in it is in the hands of God because it belongs to God. I find comfort and peace of mind in living gratefully every day as a steward and caretaker of all that God has given. I am thankful every single day that God has lovingly extended his grace in a way that bought my salvation. And what an incredible privilege it is to respond to this every single day with a life of continual gratitude in all things, in every circumstance.
Out of ten who were healed, one man threw aside all other priorities to seek out Jesus first. One man turned around and directed worship to Jesus as the very first response. He didn’t just give thanks for his healing. He gave thanks in his healing.
There is only one who is ever worthy of praise like that. Only God. Every day is a gift from God. And the way you and I open that gift is to live every day in grateful praise to Jesus. I praise and thank him today and every day because I am not my own. Today and every day I belong to Jesus. That is true Christian gratitude.