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90 Percent of All Lepers

Sermon: Thanksgiving
Luke 17:12-19
Bill Griffin tells the story of the leper in Mark 1:40 this way:

"'Hello, I'm a leper!' A man popped out from behind a building and stood right in front of Jesus. 'Please don't run away, Jesus!'
"'What's the matter with your skin?' asked Jesus.
"'Can't You see I'm covered with runny sores and crusty scabs?' No one wants to look at me, my face is so horrible.'
"'What do you want Me to do?'
"'You can make me better. I know You can,' said the man, falling on his knees in front of Jesus. 'If You don't, I'll scratch myself to death.'
"Jesus felt sorry for the poor man.
"'Don't touch me,' said the man. 'That's how you get it.'
"'I'm not afraid to touch you.' Jesus reached down and took hold of the man's arms and pulled him to his feet. The itching was gone. The sores started to dry. The scabs began to fall off.
"'Thank You, thank You, thank You!' shouted the man. 'What can I do to thank You?'
"'You can go to the temple, show yourself to a priest and say a prayer of thanks to God.'
"'Yes, yes; I will, I will!' promised the man hurrying off.
"'One more thing,' said Jesus.
"'Anything, anything,' said the man.
"'You don't have to tell anyone what I just did.'
"'I won't tell a soul,' said the man as he skipped toward Jerusalem; but the man was so happy and the walk to the temple was so long that he forgot and told everyone he met. Then all the other lepers along the road began to look for the wonderful Man with the healing touch." (Calvin Miller, The Family Book of Jesus, Bethany House, 2002.)

The story well told of the gratitude of good lepers. Good lepers are those who are healed and never forget the disease they once had. They remember how good clean feels. Bad lepers, on the other hand, are those who are healed and go on acting as if they never had the disease.
Ninety percent of all the lepers in Luke 17 are ingrates—bad lepers pretending they never met Jesus. What a shame! They were so completely healed that there was not a smidgen of their former state of decay left to them. They were so healed, they headed back to the social centers of their communities. These pretenders were free to run for office—any office they might imagine. They were free to return to their former bridge clubs, Kiwanis clubs, golf clubs. Their once former scourge-word-confession, "Unclean!" had been replaced by, "Give me five!" The untouchables were now the embraceables. The infected had become the respected. The isolated tomb-dwellers had become the officers at Toastmasters.

However, for all the joy of their cleansing, we never would have known about them at all, except for the 10 percent of their group who knew the art of gratitude. One of the 10: "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 a most perplexing question: 'Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to give praise to God except this foreigner?'" (Luke 17:15-18).

Sit at the once eroded feet of a thankful, Gentile leper and learn from him. It is the season of the year for us to come before God with the Old One-Hundredth on our lips and give praise to the Him for all of our abundance. I don't know if all lepers are pictured here to indicate that all praiseless people are in the 90th percentile of the blasé lepers who can receive so much from God and mention it so little.

C.S. Lewis said that ancient man approached God out of a strong feeling that he was approaching a judge. "For modern man, the roles are reversed," says Lewis. Modern man is the judge and God is in the dock (cited in A Hunger for Meaning, InterVarsity Press, 1984, p. 114). Maybe this is why we feel we have no obligation to thank Him. I suspect this is what lies behind the reason we are developing a culture without a sense of thankfulness. For me, our thanklessness smacks of a lazy atheism. Remember, one old definition of atheist is "someone who sometimes feels gratitude, but has absolutely no one to thank for it!"

There are two sides in the issue of all self-righteous abundance. These two categories are the thankful and the thankless. The thankless tend to act as though they and their circumstances are entirely self-made. The thankful see the providence of God in all they hold. The thankful believe that it is not how much we have or have not in life, but what we see as the source of what we have or don't have that is the real issue.

I once sat down with a missionary couple in Costa Rica who obviously were living on a shoestring. I studied the very meager table as we sat down. As the host said grace, his prayer swelled with such gratitude over God's abundance that I was tempted to open my eyes to peek and see if there was something on the table that I had missed. I had missed nothing. It was not what was on the table that really produced gratitude, but because his Christian gratitude was a way of life.

I have sat down with a great many people who fed me more sumptuously, but their sign to begin eating was not a bowed head but the green light signal of a fork which the host picked up.

Back to the lone Samaritan leper, whose thankfulness mandated a bent neck and said, "God, you are the Giver of this feast": The 90th percentile lepers are those who begin to eat when the host picks up his fork. All of this goes to prove the old cliché: Gratitude is an attitude. Gratitude has absolutely nothing to do with what we have but is a lifestyle. It rehearses praise so continually that God is always the Giver, and lepers are cleansed by His giving.

Is Jesus sorry He cleanses ingrates? Of course not; it is God's nature to cleanse, heal and give; but He does ask a very profound question in Luke 17: "Where are the other nine?" It's a fair question! If 10 lepers are healed and only one comes back, where are the other nine?

We were eating out the other night and I happened to look around the restaurant filled with people, 39 percent of whom were born again (according to a Gallup poll) and saw one person praying before beginning a meal. When he finished praying, I ask him, "Sir, I couldn't help but notice you were praying. Are you a Christian?

"Yes!" he replied. "The Lord saved me four years ago. Ever since then I've been filled with gratitude for all God is doing in my life. I cannot cease to thank Him."

This lone believer reminded me that Jesus taught a very practical principle of rejoicing in the things that mean most to me. I enjoy singing the chorus: "Thank You, Lord, for saving my soul." It has old-fashioned words in the new world of upbeat worship. Still, I think about it often. My thankfulness is not rooted in the grace of mealtime, but in the awareness of my own salvation. If this Thanksgiving your own table is more sparse than you'd like it to be, just thank Him for saving your soul. Remember this great hymn:

Could my tears forever flow,
Could my zeal no languor know.
These for sin would not atone,
Thou must save and thou alone,
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling.

Spafford—in that hymn which celebrated the death of all his family—would write that beautiful stanza:
"My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious tho't
"My sin not in part, but the whole
"Is nail'd to the cross and I bear it no more,
"Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!"
Horatio G. Spafford, "It Is Well with My Soul," The Baptist Hymnal
(Nashville: Convention Press, 1975).

Therefore, let us live in a constant attitude of God's abundance along with the writer of Hebrews 12:28, who said, "Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful and so worship God acceptably, with reverence and awe."

I know God does not always provide us all the abundance we want, but Psalms 37:25 says, "I am old but have been young and I have never seen the righteous forsaken nor his seed begging bread." My suspicion is that this week most of you will sit down to a very fine meal. I hope as you do, Psalms 100:4 will come to you, "Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and enter his courts with praise." God is the Keeper of your feast. He is the Maker of your feast.

Tony Campolo said that as he was eating a meal in Haiti, he started to pick up his fork and eat when he glanced to the window, which was near his table, and saw the faces of little hungry Haitian children, faces pressed against the glass watching him eat, mesmerized.

"For a moment," he said, "I had the awful feeling of guilt and sat poised, not knowing whether to eat or not." Then the waiter stepped over and said, "Sir, don't let this bother you," and pulled the blinds. "I laid down my fork, unable to eat that meal."

He said, "It's so like the American culture to forget to thank God for what we have, to pull the blinds and forget that we are part of the 6 percent of the world that has enough continually to eat again and again and again. ‘Enter His courts with praise; enter His gates with thanksgiving.'"

While you eat your Thanksgiving turkey, consider this: 600 people will die of starvation while you're eating that meal. On Thanksgiving Day, 12,000 people will die of starvation. Eight hundred million people in this world have not had enough to eat today. One of every 10 babies born this week will die within the first week. Twenty-five percent of those babies never will reach age 5. I now understand what it means to be a nation upon whom God has rained His blessings.

I understand how Malcolm Muggeridge must have felt when he watched Mother Teresa take from a dustbin a baby someone had cast aside, believing it dead, then suddenly chirping, "See, there's life in it!" Most of the world is not dying under nuclear annihilation; rather by the thousands, many die whimpering in the night. T.S. Eliot's lines haunt us: "This is the way the world ends for most people, not with a bang, but with a whimper!"

We all sometimes complain that God is unfair, but gratitude is an attitude. Habakkuk 3:17-18 shouts our obligation to praise, whatever our financial circumstances:

"Though the fig tree does not bud
"And there are no grapes on the vine,
"Though the olive crop fails
"And the fields produce no food,
"Though there are not sheep in the pen
"And no cattle in the stalls,
"Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
"I will be joyful in God my Savior."

There's no use whimpering. Harold Kushner said he once had an old teacher who said, "To say life is unfair is like saying a bull won't charge a man who happens to be a vegetarian." God has a plan for His world, and that plan is that everybody would know Christ. Somehow we are involved in that plan. If that plan does not speak in our lives a sense of worship and praise, we miss the whole point.

Jesus' lone leper is a picture of great gratitude, a picture of grace.

Those of us who have been redeemed by a living Lord Jesus cannot help but say, "Thank You, God. Thank You for eternal life. Thank You for our daily bread."

Break from that crowd of thankless lepers long enough to remember Somalia. Somalia is a land where there aren't any title holders any more. There are no grain fields. Everyone there lives in extremes. Somalians spend their days waiting on U.N. grain trucks.

Consider children of Somalia. Parents each morning send their children forward for rice. They are cheering and goading their children to be first in the line so they can be part of the 200 of 500 who are fed; 300 return to weeping parents, weeping themselves, because there wasn't enough for everyone.

A few years ago, one of my very favorite poets was picking up scraps of paper in a park in Brazil. Quite a poet she was. She saved the big pieces of paper that she found and wrote poems on them. Nobody really knew it then, but on those big scraps of paper with rough pencil, she wrote a book that was destined to be published in America as Child of the Dark. A woman starving to death with her poor little family wrote these words:

"Today I'm sad. I'm nervous. I don't know if I should start crying or running till I fall unconscious. At dawn it was raining…I have a few tin cans and another little scrap of metal that I'm going to sell to Señor Manuel…to buy food for the children). O Sao Paulo. A queen that vainly shows her skyscrapers as her crown of gold. All dressed up in velvet and in silk…but with the cheap stockings of the slums underneath. Sometimes I imagine I am a grand lady, dressed in a satin gown with diamonds shining in my black hair. But then the smell of the sewers comes in through the thin walls and my satin gown turns to rags, and the only thing shining in my hair is lice."
--Carolina Maria de Jesus

This Thanksgiving, enter His courts with thanksgiving and enter His gates with praise. "Were there not ten lepers healed? Where are the other nine?"

Then answer, "Lord, I do not know where the other nine have gone…I only know I have received healing and not to praise You is a sin I must not condone. I have been loved. I am clean.  I must enter Your gates with thanksgiving. I must come into Your courts with praise."

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