Thankful Villages (or Blessed Villages) are villages in England and Wales whose members of the armed forces all survived World War I. There are 53 of them including Meldon in Northumberland. Incredible really when 956,000 British & Commonwealth soldiers were killed. Sadly, there are none in Scotland and Ireland. Fourteen of those English and Welsh villages are considered 'doubly thankful', in that they also lost no service personnel during World War II. One of those villages is called, ironically, Upper Slaughter! In one of those village schools it was reported:
"On receipt of the news that a peace treaty has been signed and the Great War had ended the children were dismissed for the rest of the day after singing the National Anthem and the Doxology – a thanksgiving song to God."
By the early months of 1919 many teachers were being discharged from the armed forces and returning to school life. One school recorded:
"After prayers of thanksgiving to God the headmaster welcomed Mr Richards on his return from the war and thanked him for what he and all the teachers who had served had done to save us. The boys showed their appreciation by their loud applause."
But not all schools gave thanks to God:
"School closed for a week's holiday owing to the end of the war. Before dismissing at 11.30 we all gathered to give vent to general thankfulness and enthusiasm."
In a different kind of war, the war against slavery, God used William Wilberforce, a Christian MP, to help bring about the abolition of slavery. When the abolition bill was finally carried, he was very thankful to God. But when he was younger, it was a very different story. As a boy Wilberforce heard the Gospel, but it passed him by. As a student, he was a party animal. He would've felt very at home in the 'Toon' on a Friday night. But later Wilberforce started to explore the Christian faith. Before he became a Christian, he wrote:
"the deep guilt and deep ingratitude of my past life forced itself upon me and I condemned myself for having wasted precious time, and opportunities and talents".
Wilberforce came to realise he'd been living an ungrateful life. A life of ingratitude for the amazing gifts God had given him. He realised he was spiritually sick. And the truth is:
We're All Spiritually Sick
And that's exactly the issue being addressed in Luke 17.11-19. Look at verses 11-12:
"On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance…"
Leprosy is caused by a bacterial infection which causes sore patches on the skin and leads to loss of feeling at nerve endings. Indirectly, it can lead to loss of fingers, toes or even whole limbs. And it's highly contagious. Today, it's entirely curable but globally, there are still 300,000 new cases a year: that's about 800 a day. And, both today and back in Bible times, leprosy comes with social stigma. If you've got leprosy, you're an outcast. Indeed, the Old Testament was clear: people with leprosy should be segregated from other people. Leviticus 13 tells us that those suspected of having the disease were to be examined by a priest. If it was leprosy, they'd be pronounced "unclean". And this is what led to leper colonies. Places where outcast lepers could live together, at a distance from others. That's why these 10 lepers stood at a distance. They wanted to meet Jesus, but weren't allowed to come near. At a distance they shouted out (Luke 17.13):
"Jesus, Master: have mercy on us."
What did they want from Jesus? Well they'd heard about his miracles. The issue wasn't: could Jesus heal these 10 lepers, but would he? Jesus, Master, have pity or mercy on us. They wanted to be healed but not just physically healed. They wanted to be healed socially - declared ceremonially clean so they could come back and live in the community. So they cried out Jesus, 'have mercy on us'. But what they most needed was the mercy of a deeper cleansing. Like lots of Old Testament law, the rules about leprosy were meant to be a giant visual aid. A giant visual aid pointing to something bigger. And that something was sin. It's not that lepers were more sinful than anyone else. As Jesus states in John 9, much sickness is not a result of a person's sin in particular. Our world is a mess because of sin in general. And leprosy's a picture of that sin.
This is clear from what was to happen when a person was cured of leprosy. Leviticus 14 says they were to go back to the priest to be examined and declared healed. But then, the healed person was to sacrifice a guilt and a sin offering. You see God is completely holy and he can't stand to be near anything unholy or unclean. And that's the issue dealt with in the book of Leviticus: how can a holy God live among his sinful people? And the answer is only if there's some form of sacrifice for sin; some way of averting God's righteous anger against his people's sin. And leprosy was a picture of being spiritually unclean before God. In God's eyes, sin is like a festering disease. By his very nature; his holiness, God can't stand it or be near it.
"Your sins have separated you from God."
So, the point of the picture is this: We're all spiritually sick lepers. And our sin has separated us from the utterly clean and holy God. John Stott was someone whom God used to call many to trust Christ and grow in Christ through his biblical preaching and writing. But before he became a Christian, he felt separated from God. He said:
"When I prayed I couldn't understand why God seemed shrouded in mists and I couldn't get near him. He seemed remote."
Maybe that's how you feel. You try to pray to God, but there's something in the way. Your prayers aren't getting through. And the reason is: you're spiritually sick. You're a spiritual outcast. And that's hard for us to take because by nature, we think we're basically OK. We might have a few spots on our skin, but overall, our good deeds certainly outweigh the shortcomings we might have and those facial spots we try and cover up. But Jesus says No. We're all spiritually sick. We've all got a disease that goes to the very core of our being. And it's much worse than leprosy. It's called sin. Rebellion against the God who made you and gave you every good thing you have. And you'll never understand God's good gift, you'll never be grateful to God, if you don't accept that you're spiritually sick. Which brings us to my second point:
Jesus came to heal and save the spiritually sick:
"When he saw them, he said, 'Go and show yourselves to the priests.' And as they went, they were cleansed."
They were cleansed. And the first thing to note is that Jesus has got the power to heal. Yes, Jesus can and does heal today. Jesus has compassion on the sick and needy. But in the Gospels, when Jesus did heal there was always a deeper point. We need to see through the healing to what Jesus is teaching us.
"... [Jesus] said, 'Go and show yourselves to the priests.' And as they went, they were cleansed."
He's pointing us back to the Old Testament. Back to that picture of sin that needs to be cleaned up. Jesus hasn't healed them at this point. It's only as they did what Jesus asked and went off to see the priest that they were cleansed. You see he's laying down a challenge. A test of faith. Yes, I can heal you, and heal you all. But will you trust my word, says Jesus. Yes, I'll heal you - on the way to see the priest. But you've got to trust me; off you go, and on the way you'll be healed. If they hadn't trusted in Jesus's word, they wouldn't have been healed.
But they did, so they were. But there's more. Remember what would've happened when those 10 lepers found the priest. They would've been examined; declared clean; and then they would sacrifice their guilt and sin offerings to make atonement or amends for their sin; the sin pictured in their leprosy. But the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament were only a picture as well. A pointer to something better. A pointer to the 'New Covenant'. All through the second half of Luke's Gospel, we see that Jesus is on a Journey. Look at Luke 17.11:
"On his way to Jerusalem"
It's a phrase that pops up again and again. Jesus was man with a mission. A mission to get to Jerusalem. But what was he going to do when he got there? Well, in Luke 18.31-32 Jesus says:
"See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spat upon... On the third day he will rise again."
Jesus was on a mission to the Cross. Jesus is the reality the Old Testament pointed to. On the cross, Jesus was acting as the priest and the sacrifice. He was the one producing the sacrifice; the sacrifice that would atone or make amends for his people's sins. But he didn't sacrifice an animal. No, he sacrificed himself. That was Jesus's mission. Why? So that spiritually sick people like you and me could be saved. Saved from the judgment our sins deserve. And he rose again to prove it. Jesus not only heals the physically sick; he's got a bigger agenda. Jesus came to save the spiritually sick – you and me – from sin and its eternal consequences – eternal death and separation from God in hell. And so, to verses 15-19 where:
A Saved Heart is a Thankful Heart (v15-19)
"One of them, when he saw he was healed, turned back, praising God in a loud voice. He fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks. He was a Samaritan."
One of the lepers knew that God had healed him. He praised God loudly. He may not have understood everything, but he knew that Jesus had healed him, so he thanked Jesus. And in verse 17 Jesus commends this Samaritan leper who came back to say thank you but he rebukes the others who didn't. When you remember what a state they were in; suffering from that terrible disease; socially cut off; spiritually cut off; they'd cried out for Jesus to have mercy. And he did have mercy, yet they didn't even say thank you.
Andrew Carnegie was an American businessman who founded the Carnegie Steel company. Carnegie became America's richest man; the Bill Gates of his day. When he died everyone wanted to know what was in his will. One of his more distant relatives received £1m. In today's money, that's about £15m. But when this relative was told about his inheritance, he cursed Carnegie for being so mean; that's right: he cursed the man who'd left him £15m. Why? Because in his will, Carnegie gave away £365m to charities; and there was only 1 measly million for this long lost relative. "Curse the stingy old man. How dare he cut me off like that", he said. The ingratitude's staggering isn't it? But that's what Jesus is saying those other 9 lepers are like. Like Carnegie's relative, they'd been given a totally underserved gift, which would have changed their lives. A gift worth more than £15m. But they displayed staggering ingratitude. It's not that they cursed Jesus for what he hadn't given them. You know: thanks for the healing, but where's the Porsche? No, the point is they were so ungrateful for what they'd been given they forgot to say thank you.
If you've got small children, you'll know this all too well. Parents spend a large part of their lives providing for their children. And in their immaturity, children don't understand how much is being done for them. They have to be constantly reminded to say thank you. On Mother's Day, after giving his mum a present, one child asked: so, when's children's day? But when we see that level of ingratitude in adults, it's shocking isn't it?
"was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?"
The one who came back was a Samaritan. A non-Jew. Someone who wasn't one of God's special old covenant people. Someone who was regarded as unclean and cut off from God's grace. And the shocking implication is that the other 9 were Jews. They were part of God's old covenant people. But they didn't get it. And it gets more shocking in verse 19: Jesus said to the Samaritan:
"Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well."
Meaning your faith has 'saved' you. And again, the implication is that the other 9 weren't saved or healed in this deeper sense. Why? Remember they'd all heard about Jesus. They'd all called out for him to have mercy on them. They'd all taken him at his word and gone off to see the priest. So, they'd all been cleansed of their leprosy. But they'd missed the deeper point. They'd missed the point that their leprosy was a sign of their sin. And their cleansing was a sign of their need to be cleansed spiritually; saved from a fate worse than leprosy; saved from a fate worse than death – eternal death in hell. They'd the badge of church membership - they were Jews after all; the people of God. And they'd experienced Jesus's gracious cleansing of their leprosy. But their staggering lack of thankfulness shows they hadn't understood what a mess they were in. They didn't get that not only were they physical lepers; they were also spiritually sick lepers. John Stott, who I mentioned earlier, said this about the time before he became a Christian:
"I'd believed in Jesus all my life. I'd been baptised and confirmed. I went to church, read my Bible, had high ideals and tried to be good and to do good. But all the time, often without realising it, I was holding Christ at arm's length and keeping him outside"
And the point is, you can be in church all your life and still miss the point. You can have all the right badges of church membership; you can sit under the clearest Bible teaching and still think you can be good enough for God on your own. And just like those 9 Jewish lepers, it's dangerous. Because despite all those badges of church membership, your sin isn't cleansed. And you're still heading for a lost eternity. So, you're not thankful that Jesus has fully cleansed and saved you. You're not thankful, because you've never really received the gift of forgiveness. And so, in reality you're not living a life of gratitude to God.
I wonder if that's true of any of you here this morning? Why not today receive God's free and undeserved gift of forgiveness, new and eternal life, saying thank you to Jesus for his death and resurrection, turning to and trusting in him, willing to follow him. And if you've already trusted in Christ are you, in response to all he's done for you, living a life of thankfulness to him? It's so easy isn't it to become a moaner like the people of Israel did in the desert after being rescued from slavery in Egypt. It's so easy to become grumpy old men and women but as Christians we're to live lives of thankfulness in response to all that God's done for us in and through Christ – living lives of sacrificial service and giving, rejoicing in Christ. After putting his faith in Jesus, William Wilberforce wrote:
"I'm grateful to Jesus for giving me peace of mind and I devoted my future to the service of my God and saviour".
Do you have that peace? Do you have a grateful heart? And are you living a life of loving service to God in response to his amazing generosity in Jesus: the good news of free forgiveness?