More than a Miracle

Delivered November 27, 2000 by Rev. Jerome D. Cooper

Sermon Text:
Luke 17:11-19

It was a presidential election year… you know all about those, don’t you? (laughter) It was many years ago, and the Republicans at their national convention in Chicago had just nominated Abraham Lincoln as their candidate for the presidency. In fact, Abraham Lincoln, as you know, won the election, and in his first term officially declared that our nation would celebrate Thanksgiving in the month of November each year. But it was that year in Chicago after he was nominated that some partiers chartered a luxury boat and went out for a cruise on Lake Michigan. And as they were headed back to Chicago on that stormy night, something terrible happened: a schooner, fully loaded with logs from the North, was running without lights and smashed into the luxury steamboat and literally cut it in half. Well, the steamboat began to sink quickly with its 393 people on board. Of those 393, 279 drowned. But it wasn’t that far off shore and a crowd formed, lining the shore, watching the people try to get to shore on little bits of wreckage left over from the boat. Now there was one student from nearby Northwestern University, Edward Spencer, who saw what was going on and rushing to the water, he took off his jacket, jumped into the cold water and he began to swim out to the struggling people. He brought one back, and then he went again. He brought back another, and another, and the people on the shore were actually telling him “Don’t go back and risk your life!” He made 16 trips into the frigid water that night, saving 17 people. But it cost him dearly, because in some way that I cannot explain, being in that cold water and in his exhaustion, he collapsed with significant nerve damage done to his legs, so that for the rest of his life he was in a wheelchair as a semi-invalid. Many years later when he was 80 years old, somebody asked him “What is the most vivid memory you have of that fateful night.” And his response was simple. “No one ever came back to thank me for saving them… not one.”

Incredible isn’t it? But you know, probably not so unusual. Notwithstanding this wonderful weekend of Thanksgiving we have just celebrated, in general we as people aren’t that thankful. In fact, Jesus himself had an experience very similar to Edward Spencer, and we are going to look at that this morning. If you would, please turn with me to Luke 17:11-19. You can find it on page 741 of your red pew bibles. Luke 17:11-19.

“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 they called out in a loud voice, Jesus, Master, have pity on us! When he saw them, Jesus 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? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ And then he said to him, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

May the Lord add his blessing to this reading from his holy word. Please join me as we pray together.

“Lord, we do thank you for your words and scripture and we pray now that you would take these words and make them more than mere words for us, but that by the power of your Holy Spirit you would engrave them upon our hearts, that you would change us by them, that we might be more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.”

What do you think about those two stories? One from 1860 and one from AD 29 or so. They are incredible, aren’t they? In a sense, bizarre. Why is it that these people were not thankful, or at least never expressed their gratitude? It is hard to fully know, but let’s look at the scripture and see if we can come up with some principles that might guide us, and help us to not fall into the trap that these folks fell into.

Our first observation is that these men that were looking for help were lepers. Now, leprosy is a bad word, a feared word in many ways. Both today and, even more than today, back in the time of Christ. You will notice that they stood afar off from Jesus and shouted to him, which was because a leper was not supposed to get close to other people. In fact, the law says that they were to cover their faces and shout “Unclean! Unclean!” if anybody got close to them, so that people would know that a leper was near and they had better steer clear. The worst part of leprosy wasn’t the physical disease, in fact, biblical leprosy included a lot of skin diseases of which modern leprosy is only one. But actually the worst part of being a leper was the social, religious and emotional cost. Because it meant that you could no longer get close to anyone other than another leper. It meant you couldn’t go to worship. It meant you couldn’t be a part of your family. Most lepers lived outside of villages, often in leper colonies. Just like this one, made of 10 people. And as Jesus walked along, they shouted to him “Jesus! Master! Have pity on us!” Now, what were they hoping for from Jesus? “Have pity on us” is actually a common way of asking for alms, like a pan-handler. You know, “Can you spare some change?” But I don’t think that’s what these lepers were looking for from Jesus, because they knew his name. They didn’t just say, “Hey man, got some change?” They said “Jesus! Master! Have pity on us!” They knew who Jesus was and they probably new that he had healed lepers before. In fact, he had even touched lepers before. He was well known as a teacher, a miracle worker. So I am sure that what they were really looking for wasn’t some change. They were looking for healing. They were looking for a miracle.

In many ways, Jesus was in a lose/lose position. You see, if Jesus healed them, that’s no real credit to him, it is expected. “Well, of course he would heal us. He is a healer. He is a miracle worker.” But if Jesus didn’t heal them, then the people would be disappointed, might even despise Jesus. “What is his problem? Why wasn’t he willing to heal us?” In a sense, whatever Jesus did, he couldn’t win. And so he told them, “Go show yourselves to the priest.” Now, they weren’t healed immediately. It says that on their way to the priest, they were healed. I guess they figured, “We don’t have anything to lose, might as well start the journey and see what happens.” But on that journey, after they were healed, only one of them went back to Jesus to thank him and give glory to God. Why is that?

I think there are a couple principles of thankfulness we need to take away here. The first one is that thankfulness depends on our expectations. Certainly, these folks had expectations of what Jesus would do and he merely fulfilled the minimum. It is like the two friends who met on the street and one of them was very down. He seemed to be almost on the virge of tears. He was despondent and the other friend asked him, “What has the world done to you to make you feel this way?”
The friend responded, “Well, you know 3 weeks ago an uncle died and left me 40,000 dollars.”
“Hmmm,” the other said, “Well, I don’t really view that as a problem, is there something else?”
“Well, yeah, you see, 2 weeks ago, a cousin died and left me 85,000 dollars.”
“Wow, that’s great! So, what’s the problem.”
“You don’t understand, you see last week, my great aunt died and she left me almost a quarter million dollars!”
The friend shakes his head and says, “Okay, I guess I’m just not understanding something here, because, okay, I understand that members of your family died, but I mean, as a result you are being blessed beyond what most of us could hope for.”
“No, you really don’t understand. You see, this week… nothing. (laughter).
Thankfulness has a lot to do with our expectations doesn’t it? That friend got into a pattern and thought, “Wow, what’s coming this week?” Some one had said that there is no quicker way to make people ungrateful for their blessings than to give them those blessings consistently and regularly. And isn’t that true in our lives as well? I mean think about God. God blesses us on a regular, consistent weekly basis, a daily basis, an hourly basis. In fact, you could even say a moment by moment basis. The fact that you are sitting here breathing in and out, that your heart continues to pump, that we are even sitting here with the freedom to worship with brothers and sisters in Christ that, hopefully, we really like. These are blessings! Yet how often are we really thankful for them, or how often do we just take them for granted? In fact, how may of us were maybe even grumbling a little bit today before we came to church? I know. No one in this church. But how many of us got up and said, “Wow, I have the blessing and the privilege to go to church!” and were truly thankful. I imagine there were some of us, but I imagine it was similar to the story here, 1 out of 10.

But we also generally tend to take our family and friends for granted too, don’t we? Maybe it’s our husband or our wife who is constantly working, blessing us and doing things for the sake of the family and for us, and we just think that is the way it is supposed to be. We expect it to happen and so we lose our thankfulness. We no longer see our spouse as a gift, but as an appendage that ought to be there. In fact, sometimes we might even think that we deserve more. A better wife, a better husband, better children, better parents, better friends. A better job, better pay, a better life. We think we deserve more and so we end up being completely unthankful and ungrateful for what we actually do have, because our expectation is that we ought to have more and better.

Try to remember back a couple of weeks to George’s sermon when he told about the 2 men who bought presents for their wives. Remember the first man, the good example? He and his wife, they saw this wonderful diamond in the window and the man decided that even though they really couldn’t afford it, he was going to work and scrimp and save and sacrifice to buy her something really nice like that. We let’s say he kept a dairy and in that diary he wrote, “I am going to do this for my wife. I am going to find her the best thing that I can possibly afford with all that I can possibly save between now and Christmas.” And let’s say the wife just happened to read that diary entry and she realized, “Wow, my husband is planning something really great for me.” But as Christmas got closer, the husband realized that he was having a hard time saving as much as he wanted to, because they really were fairly poor. And so close to Christmas he wrote again in his diary, “You know, for the sake of our family and even for the sake of my wife, I really shouldn’t spend all of this money on that piece of jewelry. We have more important needs. I will still buy her something nice that she will like, but I really can’t afford to get her what I wanted.” But she didn’t read that part in the diary and so when Christmas morning came, she went to the tree and opened her package, thinking she was going to get this really nice, wonderful piece of jewelry. But what she found was a beautiful silk scarf. Now before she read the diary, she would have been overjoyed with this scarf. But what happens? She is disappointed. She is crest fallen. Why? Because she had a different expectation, and that took away the thankfulness for what she was given. Now obviously this is not a true story, but on the other hand, it is very true to life, isn’t it? All of us can relate to this, because we all recognize our first principle: that thankfulness depends on our expectations.

But there is a second principle, and that is that thankfulness does not depend upon our circumstances. Thankfulness does not depend on our circumstances. Let me read for you a quote from a book by Don Moseley, one of the founders of Jubilee Partners – a Christian community which seeks to help the poor and those in need. Back in the late 1970’s when there was a tremendous influx of Asian refugees, they took a number of them into their community. And he writes,

“We invited the Asian refugees to join us in our worship services and our bible studies. And in these settings, we often learned humility. I will always remember the one informal worship service in which each of us was given a sheet of paper and a pencil. We were then asked to spend 5 minutes drawing something for which we were thankful. It was October, so I quickly drew a leaf to illustrate my appreciation for the colorful foliage in the Jubilee woods and the beauty of God’s creation. Then we were asked to share our pictures with others around the table. And so I explained my little sketch and then I waited to see what the woman across the table had drawn. Slowly, she turned the paper over for me to see. There was a crude drawing of one man shooting another while a woman and 2 children ran away. With tears in her eyes, she explained, “When we try to escape from Laos to Thailand, a soldier catch us. He say he will kill all of us. My husband say, ‘No! Kill me! Let my wife and children go!’ The soldier kill my husband and let us run away. I thank God for my good husband.”

Thankfulness. Thanksgiving does not depend on our circumstances. Thankfulness is really a matter of the heart. It is a matter of our attitude, rather than the circumstances. In fact, there are some people who are thankful whether they get what they want or not. Whether the world, whether life gives them wonderful things or whether it gives them difficult things, they are grateful anyway. That’s the kind of person they are. But you also probably know people for whom when they don’t get what they want they are ungrateful – but even when they do get what they want they still aren’t thankful for it. Because, I guess, they think they need or deserve more. Never satisfied. Never truly thankful. Except for moments like Thanksgiving when they sit down and are expected to share something they are thankful for.

You see the question that comes to you and to me is “What kind of person am I?” Am I a thankful kind of person or am I really the more ungrateful type? Because if I am waiting for circumstances to make me thankful, I will wait forever, because it is not in me. Just as it didn’t seem to be in those who were rescued by Edward Spencer that stormy night on Lake Michigan or the 9 out 10 lepers who never returned to Jesus.

Rudyard Kipling, who was one of the greatest English writers – and actually turned down more honors than most of us could ever hope to win – at the height of his popularity was paid 10 shillings for every word he wrote. But not everybody appreciated his writing and a group of college students facetiously wrote him a letter and enclosed 10 shillings saying, “Mr. Kipling, please send us your best word.” He actually wrote back. All the note said was, “Thanks!” That really is a great word.

Charles read Colossians 3:14-16 a little bit earlier, but let me read it to you again. And notice how God peppers thankfulness throughout his description of how we are to relate to one another and to relate to him.

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace, and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God the father through him.”

Notice how God speaks to us through Paul that in our relationships with each other we are to be thankful. In our worship of God and with each other, we are to be thankful. In our service to God whether in word or in deed, we are to be thankful. Do it all with thankfulness and gratitude in our hearts to God. Thankfulness is to be the background of the Christian life. In fact, look one more time at these lepers. How many of them got a miracle? Ten of them, right? But nine of them were satisfied with a mere miracle. They got their miracle but that was all they got. But what about the one that came back? Jesus tells him “Rise and go. Your faith has made you well.” Now he was already healed. But, you see, because he was willing to come back and offer glory to God and thanks to Jesus Christ, he got something more than a miracle. He also got wholeness. He got more than the miracle. In a sense, he got the miracle worker, too. More than healing: wholeness and salvation. But only because he was thankful and he went back to the source of that blessing and gave thanks.

How many of us miss the true gift that God wants us to have, because we haven’t been thankful for the things he has already given? You see, we are often far too satisfied with getting a job, getting married, getting a car, getting a house. All of those things that we get from God, we end up being satisfied with them. In one sense, the problem with thankfulness is that we have too high expectations and therefore we are not thankful for what we get. But in another sense, we have our expectations too low. We are satisfied merely with what we get. But when we are thankful, it opens us up to new realms of blessing. For this one Samaritan who was thankful it opened him up to a whole new realm of possibility, and he was able to receive Jesus’ salvation and wholeness.

The question that comes to you and me today is, “Beyond this weekend of Thanksgiving, are we going to be people with hearts of thankfulness, who are therefore open to the fullness of blessing that God has for us?” Let us keep coming back to him in gratitude with open hearts. Let us receive the further blessings that he wants to give us, the greatest of all being the gift of himself. Let’s not settle for the miracle. Let’s look for Jesus Christ. We need to raise our expectations because he will meet them – above and beyond what we could possibly ask or imagine.

Join me as we pray. “Lord, we do thank you. We thank you that you have given us life, that you have given us the ability to see your many blessings, and we ask now that you would also give us a heart to truly be thankful. Not just in special moments, not just in particular circumstances, but Lord, that you would create thankful hearts and spirits within us. That you would open us up to all the blessings that you desire to pour into us. For we ask it all through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.”