St. Luke 17:11-19
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
St. Luke 17:15-16, 19: 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… Then [Jesus] said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… Let’s get something straight right off the bat: true worship of God is not primarily about gratitude, although that is what many would have us believe. Many people insist that worship is thanksgiving, that worship is primarily about what we do. They say that true thanksgiving, if it is genuine and sincere, must come from the heart, naturally and freely, boundless, full of praise, celebratory, and joyfully dynamic. Therefore it must also be lively, upbeat, and cheery, or else it is false gratitude, and therefore false worship.
But true worship is not primarily about gratitude; it is not primarily about our work or what we do. True worship of God is faith; it is trust in His mercy; it is taking Him at His Word; it is reliance upon His sacramental gifts. Martin Luther, in his Large Catechism, puts it this way: “True worship and service of God takes place when your heart directs all its trust and confidence only toward God and does not let itself be torn away from Him. It consists in risking everything on earth for Him and abandoning it all for His sake.”
We hear about that in today’s Gospel. Ten men, ten lepers, confident that Jesus not only can but will come through for them, lifted up their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” That is also to say, “Lord, have mercy upon us! Kyrie eleison! Lord, be compassionate! Lord, do not turn a deaf ear to our prayer, and do not deal with us as we deserve, but suspend Your righteous judgment, set aside Your wrath, relent from Your fierce anger, and have mercy on us. Deal with us as the father dealt with the prodigal son. Be the Jesus to whom we look in every need! Have mercy on us, and heal us!”
That is the prayer of the lepers. All ten of them cry out; all ten of them trust in His mercy. And so it was that as they went out, all ten were cleansed… And that is what bothers us – not that only one returned, but that Jesus did not take back His mercy, His gift of healing from those who did not thank Him. Truth be told, that is what we would do when faced with ingratitude. “Why, that no-good ingrate; see if I ever do anything for THAT person again!” But thankfully, our Lord Jesus is not like us; His mercy is not conditional or easily called back. Our Lord’s mercy endures forever.
And it does so because it is not extended to us as a result of our prayer or faith. The Lord extends his mercy toward us only and simply because He chooses to be merciful, only because He wills to be compassionate to those who continually disappoint Him. Jesus does not interrogate the lepers; He does not first make them prove their worthiness, and say, “You know, guys, I will do this for you, but I need to know that you’ll be truly grateful…or else!” No, He simply says, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.”
What happens next is gratitude. For while worship is not primarily about gratitude, gratitude certainly is a fruit of faith; it is how faith receives the gift our blessed Lord gives. And so we give thanks to the Lord our God – not so that God might do us a favor in return, and not because we need first to prove our sincerity. No, dear fellow redeemed, let us give thanks unto the Lord our God because that is how we receive the Lord as He comes to us in His Word and Sacraments.
That part of our communion liturgy called the “Thanksgiving,” the words, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” is the return to Jesus simply in order that we may receive more and more of whatever He chooses to say and give in whatever way He chooses to say and give it.
And so the Samaritan returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, threw himself flat out on the ground at Jesus’ feet, and gave Him thanks. It was not just that this man was overwhelmed, but that he simply could not get enough of Jesus. And so down on his knees he went, in faith, ready to receive more.
And our Lord does not disappoint the returning cleansed leper. Jesus says to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” It was more of what he got before, but this time given in a different way.
And it is that second blessing that the other nine missed out on. For they are not so much ungrateful as they are unwilling to hear and receive more of the mercy Jesus gives. Their faith decreases while that of the Samaritan increases. They are content with what they have while the Samaritan cannot wait to hear and receive more. They are satisfied, while the cleansing of the Samaritan only produces a greater hunger and greater thirst for the gifts and blessings Jesus gives.
Therefore, true worship leads to true thanksgiving. Faith leads to the desire to have more and more of the same from Jesus. And so thanksgiving is not the thing. Rather, thanksgiving is all about the Jesus who gives. And it is Jesus, the Gift and the Giver, who produces the thanks which is the hunger and thirst for more and more of Him in His preaching and in His sacraments.
Like the Samaritan, our Lord Jesus has cleansed us and healed us of the leprosy of our sin; this took place in the waters of Holy Baptism. And we can walk away from the font confident that our Lord will not undo what He has done, confident that He will not retract His mercy, confident that He will not take back His gifts. But those baptismal waters are not the end, for they lead us to give thanks – a giving of thanks that desires to hear again and again the forgiving, life-giving, life-saving words spoken over us in Holy Absolution, and a giving of thanks that leads right to the Lord’s Supper which is the best Thanksgiving meal ever.
And so this is true thanksgiving and true worship and true faith – not to do something for Jesus or to celebrate Him in the way we think He should be celebrated. It is not to focus on our nation or our national heritage or our freedoms. It is simply to participate in receiving the Lord’s gifts of Word and Sacrament, and to want more and more of Jesus. For this is the worship, says Luther, that “God himself established and to which He bore witness that He was indeed well-pleased with it. He has established it in such a way that it can never be exhausted or observed enough. For who remembers God sufficiently? Who can praise Him too much? Who can thank Him enough?”
So forget about what you think worship is or ought to be. We do not tell the Samaritan that his throwing himself at Jesus’ feet is wrong or that he should have been more joyful or more spirit-filled.
Instead, if you want to engage in the true worship of God and honor the Lord and thank Him rightly, then remember and receive with thanksgiving all that He has to give in His Word and in His Sacraments. It is there that the Lord is praised and glorified; and it is there that you, like the Samaritan, receive more and more of Jesus.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.