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Thanksgiving, “Thank God for COVID-19!”

Pastor Gary Wong, November 26, 2020

Luke 17:11-19

11 On another occasion, as Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, he was passing along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 When he entered a certain village, ten men with leprosy met him. Standing at a distance, 13 they called out loudly, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” As they went away they were cleansed. 15 One of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice. 16 He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, thanking him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Jesus responded, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give glory to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go your way. Your faith has saved you.”

In most years, the introductions for my Thanksgiving sermons often focus on the preparations, anticipation and excitement leading up to the celebration of this national holiday. 2020 is turning out to be anything but a normal year. Rather than looking forward to gathering with family and friends and feasting on a traditional Thanksgiving dinner of turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie, we are facing lockdowns and quarantines. According to Gov. Walz, you can only celebrate Thanksgiving with your immediate family. Other governors have issued slightly less draconian decrees: “Indoor social gatherings are to be limited to ten people and a maximum of three different households. Diners must be socially distanced and wear masks at all times except when taking a bite of food. There is to be no singing or loud talking. Have a Happy Thanksgiving!” With the stress of a nearly yearlong pandemic, civil unrest, and a bitterly contested election, it can be hard to find reasons to give thanks to God. Today’s lesson helps us put our problems in perspective. As we focus on the countless blessings that our gracious God pours out on us, our faith filled response is to praise and thank the Lord. On this blessed Thanksgiving Eve, let’s thank God for all of our blessings, including COVID-19!

In today’s lesson, St. Luke describes a miracle that took place as Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem where he would carry out the final steps of God’s plan of salvation. Throughout his entire earthly ministry, Jesus tirelessly taught about repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Word had quickly spread about this amazing teacher who taught about the kingdom of God with authority and who had performed amazing miracles of healing. According to Luke, the former physician turned evangelist, Jesus had been traveling through the countryside of Galilee and Samaria. As Jesus approached a village, ten men stood at a distance and called out to him. Why did they stand at a distance? They obviously wanted to see Jesus and meet him. Why didn’t they just join the crowd of villagers and go right up to Jesus? We can understand their actions when Luke reveals that these ten men were lepers.

In Jesus’ day, leprosy was one of the most dreaded of all diseases. Leprosy attacks the nerves of fingers and toes, as well as the lining of the nose and the upper respiratory tract. It causes skin ulcers, never damage, and muscle weakness. It can lead to severe disfigurement and significant disability. In Jesus’ day, there was no treatment or cure. Lepers suffered horribly from the physical effects of this disease. And to add insult to injury, lepers were treated as outcasts. Because leprosy was contagious, lepers were shunned; what’s more, leprosy made its victims ceremonially unclean. According to the law of Moses, “The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as he has the infection, he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp” (Lev. 13:45, 46).

Wow! And we think that wearing a mask and staying six feet apart from people in public is hard! Following everchanging, ever more restrictive guidelines to keep us and others safe from the coronavirus can be burdensome and annoying; but we have every reason to believe that one day soon, we will have a good handle on COVID-19 and we will be able to go back to the way we lived our lives before the pandemic. Did those lepers have the same hope? Sadly, the answer is “No.” Because leprosy was incurable in those days, their disease amounted to a death sentence. For the rest of their lives, they would suffer the painful, debilitating physical effects of leprosy and be cut off from all human contact except with their fellow lepers. Their lives would be filled with misery, loneliness and hopelessness. What could they do? They could hardly help themselves nor was there anyone who could or would offer them consolation or relief. They needed a miracle. At the time they had probably lost all hope, God provided a miracle in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ.

These lepers had undoubtedly heard that Jesus had performed many miracles of healing. Word had rapidly spread about how Jesus had given sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. People lame from birth were able to walk. Jesus had cast out evil spirits and had even raised the dead to life. From the lepers’ point of view, the most important miracle Jesus had done was that he had healed a fellow leper near Capernaum. Having nothing to lose, the lepers risked the wrath of the crowd and approached Jesus. Standing about ten feet away (the distance prescribed as “safe” by the rabbis), they cried out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Lk. 13:13). This was a heartfelt plea from desperate men. They knew that Jesus had the power and had shown a willingness to heal this deadly disease. So, they put their hope in the only one who could save them. What was Jesus’ response? Luke tells us that when Jesus saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priest” (v.14).

What happened next? Although Luke doesn’t tell us, we can assume that after Jesus had spoken to the lepers, he continued on into the village. The lepers were left standing alone alongside the now empty road. What were they going to do? Jesus had answered their plea by telling them to go and show themselves to the priest. Why did Jesus say that? According to the ceremonial law, only a person who had been cured of an infectious disease was to show himself to the priest. The priest on duty was to go outside of the camp and examine him. If he was found to be disease free, the priest would then declare him clean. The healed man would then follow through with the sacrifices for purification prescribed in the ceremonial law. In other words, Jesus’ command to the lepers included the promise that they would be healed. Acting on that promise, the lepers started walking. True to Jesus’ promise, Luke tells us that “as they went, they were cleansed” (v.14).

What an incredible miracle! What power, mercy, and love that Jesus poured out on those lepers. These days, leprosy is no longer the dreaded disease that it once was. Thanks to modern medicine, it is treatable and curable; that’s the good news. The bad news is that while few people get leprosy these days, all of us are afflicted with a much more insidious, deadly disease: sin. We inherited this fatal flaw from our parents; sin’s symptoms show up in our every thought, word, and action. There is no vaccine and no cure. The sickness of sin runs its course throughout our lives. And when all is said and done, sin claims a 100% mortality rate. Like those lepers, our only hope is a miracle from God. Once again, the miracle that God provided came in the form of his one and only Son. Because of his love for all people, God sent Jesus to save us from our sins. Even though Jesus had no sin of his own, Jesus took upon himself the sins of the whole world and paid for them with his holy, precious blood. St. John tells us that because of Jesus’ perfect life and sacrificial death, God “forgives us our sins and purifies us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).

Because of Jesus, we are right with God. Because of Jesus, all of our sins are forgiven. We have peace with God and the sure and certain hope of eternal life in heaven. What should our response be for these undeserved blessings? The answer can be found in our lesson. Luke tells us, “One of [the lepers], when he saw he was healed, came back praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him… [Jesus] said to him, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well” (Lk. 17:15-16, 19). Think about it. The leper fell at Jesus’ feet, praising God for healing him and giving him his life back. How much more should our gratitude be to Jesus who has taken away our sins and has given us eternal life through faith in him? We can never repay Jesus for his love. Our whole lives should be one of continuous thanksgiving and praise to God from whom our blessings flow. As God has forgiven our sins for Jesus’ sake, let us forgive those who sin against us. As Jesus showed mercy to those lepers, may the love of Christ that fills our hearts overflow in acts of love and kindness to our fellow human beings.

No matter how dire our circumstances or how many problems we have, we have countless reasons to thank our gracious God. Let’s name a few of them. First and foremost, we thank God for our Savior, Jesus Christ. We thank the Holy Spirit for the gift of faith that he gave us at our baptisms. We thank him for his Word and the Lord’s Supper by which we feed and strengthen our faith. We thank God for faithful pastors, teachers, and staff ministers. We thank God for our families—parents, children, siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. We thank him for our church family with whom we have fellowship and who are our partners in sharing the gospel. We thank God that we are citizens of this great country that gives us the freedom to worship our God in our own way. This is by no means a complete list—but I think you get the idea.

Dear friends, this Thanksgiving, it may be more of a challenge to find things for which we give thanks to God. Because of COVID-19, we may be socially distanced, wearing masks, and have fewer people celebrating together. For his own good reasons, God has allowed the coronavirus to disrupt our lives. Paul, however, reminds us that no virus, no disease, not even death can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. God will use this pandemic to draw us closer to him. We rest on God’s promise that he will use this virus for our good, and we look forward to the day when we will be disease free and sin free in our heavenly home. In the meantime, let’s have the attitude of Job and humbly accept both the good and the bad from God’s hand. We join King David in praising God who “forgives all [our] sins and heals all [our] diseases” (Ps. 103:3). This Thanksgiving, let’s thank God for all of our blessings, including COVID-19! Amen.

“Now Thank We All Our God” (CW 610)

Text: Martin Rinkart, 1586-1649; tr. Catherine Winkworth, 1827-78, alt.

Now thank we all our God

With hearts and hands and voices,

Who wondrous things has done,

In whom the world rejoices,

Who from our mother’s arms

Has blessed us on our way

With countless gifts of love

And still is ours today.

Oh, may our bounteous God

Through all our life be near us,

With ever joyful hearts

And blessed peace to cheer us

And keep us in his grace

And guide us when perplexed

And free us from all ills

In this world and the next.

All praise and thanks to God

The Father now be given,

The Son, and him who reigns

With them in highest heaven,

The one eternal God,

Whom earth and heav’n adore!

For thus it was, is now,

And shall be ever more.

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