Psalm 136:1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
11 On the way to Jerusalem [Jesus] was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. 12 And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance 13 and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” 14 When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; 16 and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
One statement you will never hear from God is “Thank you.” God will never express gratitude to someone for a gift bestowed. The reason is obvious: no one ever gives God anything that God did not already give them first. David expresses it quite succinctly: All things come from You, [O LORD,] and of Your own we have given You (1 Chronicles 29:14).
To say “Thank you” is a distinctly human activity. Those two words show our position as receivers in the divine/human relationship. Indeed, even our language is a gift from heaven. We could not even pronounce the words “Thank you” unless God Himself had placed them in our mouths.
Any day of thanksgiving is thus a confessional day—a day of expressing a short creed that sums up our entire existence: God gives, we receive. Our whole lives long, we must confess that God is the Giver and that we are His recipients.
The Old Testament makes the connection between thanksgiving and confession very obvious. The Hebrew verb for giving thanks (yadah י ָ ָדה) also means “to confess”. And rightly so, because in the Old Testament, when Israel thanks God, often that thanksgiving consists of confessing, in detail, exactly what God has done— and continues to do—for His people. The Old Testament twist on thanksgiving, therefore, is that it often sounds not so much like “thank you” as “Here is what kind of God you are for us.”
For instance, Psalm 136 is a thanksgiving hymn. It begins with the Hebrew verb yadah: Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever. Three more times in this psalm, the psalmist calls on us to give thanks to God. What is fascinating is that, between all these calls for thanksgiving, verse by verse, we rehearse the work of God in Genesis and Exodus, in creation and redemption.
Listen to how the psalmist connects thanksgiving with confessing the kind of God to whom thanks is being given:
Give thanks to the LORD
to him who alone does great wonders (v.4),
to him who by understanding made the heavens (v.5),
to him who spread out the earth above the waters (v. 6),
to him who divided the Red Sea in two,
and made Israel pass through the midst of it,
but overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea (vv. 13-15),
to him who led his people through the wilderness (v.16),
It is he who remembered us in our low estate, and rescued us
from our foes, for his steadfast love endures forever (vv.23-24);
Give thanks to the God of heaven,
for his steadfast love endures forever. (v.26)
Do you see what the psalmist is doing? Yes, he is thanking God. But there is more to his thanksgiving than just saying “thank you, God!”. The psalmist is also confessing to God and the world: “God is a God of steadfast love. This is the God who created us and who rescued us from slavery in Egypt and who gave us the Promised Land as our heritage. This God is our Creator and our Redeemer. This is the kind of God we have and this is what we have received from Him.”
Every person is surrounded and covered by God’s blessings. Body and soul are the basic blessings each individual has received from God. And then, every breath of air that fills our lungs, every heartbeat, every bite of food we eat, every drop of water we drink, every moment of restful sleep, every step we take without misfortune—in short, everything we are and have—is a blessing from God. In Him we live, move, and have our being. He called us into existence. He preserves us and governs our life. If He were to withdraw His hand from us for a second, we would perish. It is, therefore, impossible for a person to count the blessings God gives even in a single hour.
And yet, who recognizes all these things as blessings from God? Most people do not regard their minds and bodies and all earthly provision as things for which God is worthy of praise. They enjoy these blessings without thinking about the source of these gifts. When people meet a little misfortune, their heart and mouth are filled with complaints. And when they imagine that they are lacking just one blessing, then they suddenly forget all the millions of other blessings they enjoy.
Most people do not recognize that their earthly blessings come from God. But you and I have received even more—all the spiritual blessings that are in Christ. And do we take time to thank God for His blessings, both earthly and spiritual? Like all people, you and I have received our physical life and all earthly blessings from God. In Christ, we have received much more. We have been redeemed, sanctified in Holy Baptism, called into the Kingdom of Heaven by the Holy Spirit, provided with the Bible, and given the Holy Supper for our spiritual nourishment. And yet, are we guilty of receiving all these blessings with thankless hearts? Our calling in Christ is to thank God for all His blessings, to give thanks always and for everything and in all circumstances, but also to be more than thankful (see Ephesians 5:20; 1 Thessalonians 5:18). Our calling in Christ is to confess just what kind of gracious God we have.
Which brings us to today’s Gospel account of our Lord’s healing of the ten lepers. From childhood, we have been trained to think about this text with a sense of guilt for not being more thankful. It is true, of course, that we are often guilty of living thankless lives and we need the Lord’s forgiveness. But a sermon on this text can easily be reduced to an exhortation to be more like the lone Samaritan. “Be more thankful” becomes the focus, and the hearers go home thinking about their need to give thanks rather than focusing on Jesus. Yes, there is thanksgiving in this text, for the Samaritan falls on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks. But the real focus of this text is on the promise of God fulfilled in Jesus.
The promise of Christ in this text is subtle, for it is not spoken but rather acted out. The promise is in the healing. Jesus heals the lepers, and He heals us. The promise is also in Jesus’ welcoming the foreigner. The Samaritan was an outsider, and so are we. Jesus heals. Jesus welcomes the outsider. Taken together, Jesus’ acts of healing lepers and welcoming the outsider Samaritan point to Jesus’ ultimate work to restore fallen sinners.
Due to the contagious nature of their disease, the ten lepers had to live in isolation. This social alienation was, in some ways, worse than the disease. It kinda reminds me of the mental health problems that have arisen today from people living in isolation during the recent pandemic lockdowns. But it was even more intense for the lepers, for they were regarded as living under God’s curse (as those who were “unclean”), and thus they were ostracized and avoided.
Now, when Jesus says to the grateful Samaritan: your faith has made you well, the full sense is “your faith has saved you!”. This salvation consisted of restoration—first to physical health and then to the life of the community, as the Samaritan is now free to return home to his family and his village.
You and I are like the ten lepers. We, too, need to be restored. Sin has had its effect on us all—physically, socially, and above all in relation to God. The Jewish rabbis of old had a saying: “curing leprosy is as unlikely as raising the dead”. And it’s true, from a human perspective, the curing of lepers and of sinners is not just unlikely, but impossible. But then we have the promise of restoration proclaimed by the actions of Jesus in today’s Gospel.
Jesus heals the lepers. Jesus welcomes the foreigner, the outsider, the Samaritan. Jesus restores the lepers to a life of health and community. And the lone Samaritan returns not only to thank Jesus but also to confess what kind of God Jesus is. The acts of the grateful Samaritan—his praising God with a loud voice, his falling on his face at Jesus’ feet, and his giving Jesus thanks—are his bold confession that to thank Jesus is to thank God, for Jesus is God-in-the-flesh. In falling at Jesus’ feet, the Samaritan is joining the Old Testament saints in confessing that God is good and that His steadfast love endures forever.
The cleansing of the lepers are pointing us this morning to the restoration we have in Jesus. Jesus comes to us who were conceived and born outside of God’s grace and cursed with sin-sickness. Jesus heals us from the leprosy of sin. Jesus welcomes us outsiders into His saving presence. The Good News is that on Christ’s behalf, God chooses to be merciful to sinners, sinners who do not deserve anything good but receive it because of the Person and work of Jesus for them.
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ reveal the very heart of God the Father to the world. Once you see clearly how much God loves you; once you see the life God desires for you, even the life that He makes possible for you; once you see what God was willing to pay so that you might be saved from the slavery and disease of sin and restored to the new life of salvation in Christ; once you see all this with the eyes of faith in Christ, then your life is rooted in thankfulness in God! And not just thanking God for earthly stuff but also confessing just what a gracious, loving, and merciful God you have, whose grace, love, and mercy are revealed in their fullest in Jesus.
Sinners are cured in the dying of Jesus and in the rising of Jesus from the dead. And now, we cured sinners live thankful lives in Christ. We know whom to thank, and we know why. Every day, we not only say “Thank you, God!” but we also confess that God gives and that we receive. God alone is the Giver, and He has given to us supremely in Jesus. To God, we always and in all circumstances say “thanks for everything, God!”. And before the world, we confess: “Here is the kind of God we have—a God who is ever steadfast in showing grace, love, and mercy to undeserving sinners”. With grateful hearts, we confess what God has done and continues to do for us in Jesus.
Give thanks, then, to the LORD, for God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (see Romans 5:8). Give thanks to the LORD, for God has equipped you with everything good that you may do His will, God working in you that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever (see Hebrews 13:21). Give thanks to the LORD, for God, who raised the Lord Jesus, will raise you also with Jesus and bring you into His presence (2 Corinthians 4:14). Give thanks to the God of heaven, for His steadfast love endures forever. Amen.