“Drawing Near in Thanksgiving” (Luke 17:11-19)
Harry Ironside was a famous American preacher and evangelist in the mid-20th century. One day he was having a meal in a crowded restaurant. Just as Ironside was about to begin eating, a man approached and asked if he could join him. Ironside invited him to have a seat. Then, as was his custom, Ironside bowed his head in prayer. When he opened his eyes, the other man asked, “Do you have a headache?”
“No, I don’t,” the preacher replied.
“Well, is there something wrong with your food?” asked the man.
Ironside replied, “No, I was simply thanking God as I always do before I eat.”
“Oh,” said the man, “you’re one of those, are you? Well, I want you to know I never give thanks. I earn my money by the sweat of my brow. I don’t have to give thanks to anybody when I eat. I just start right in!”
To which Ironside quipped, “Yes, you’re just like my dog. That’s what he does too!” 
Like Ironside’s table guest, the farther away from God you are, the less thankful you will be. Where are you in relation to God today? Is your heart and mind far from him? Are you only thinking about turkey? Are you stressed out, because you know you have to get home soon to start cooking? Maybe your mind is on the football game you will watch today? Or perhaps you are already thinking about having to fight traffic and crowds tomorrow when you hit the mall to begin your Christmas shopping.
We often distance ourselves from God in the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts. We go home after church, and we forget the reason for the day. We forget that we should be thankful always, not just on one day. We neglect to be in God’s Word on a daily basis, not just on Sunday. Removed from God’s Word, you won’t hear that he is the giver of all good gifts. Removed from God’s Word, your faith will not be strengthened so that you can be truly thankful. Removed from God’s Word, you will neglect to walk in God’s ways. Not walking in his ways, you will be more inclined to live for yourself and not for God. You will begin to think that you have gained everything by your own efforts, and you will tear into the gifts that God gives you just like Harry Ironside’s dog.
The 10 lepers in today’s Gospel lesson were at a distance. They were distanced from the community because of their contagious skin disease. According to the Law, they had to live outside the city walls… far from their family, far from their friends, far from all human contact. When anyone passed by, they had to cry out “Unclean! Unclean!” Those who shared their condition were thought to be cursed by the Lord. The life of a leper was an extremely sad and lonely existence.
Jesus’ reputation preceded him, and so seeing Jesus enter their nearby village, they cried out to him, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us.” They kept their distance, as they were supposed to. They dare not approach because of their uncleanness.
In spite of their distance, Jesus drew near to them with his gift of healing. He told them to go show themselves to the priests. According to the Old Testament Law, a person cured of a contagious skin condition was supposed to show himself to a priest and offer certain sacrifices at the temple. In this way, the person was publicly declared to be clean and was welcome back into the community. And so, even before they were cured, the 10 lepers trusted Jesus’ words and set off for the temple. At some point along the way, they looked down and realized that their skin was like new.
Even though we are sinful, we dare not approach the holy God. We should keep our distance. Our hearts are unclean. But in spite of our sinful distance, God draws near to you with his gifts of love and forgiveness. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross paid for your uncleanness, and he did this even when we were still unclean. Romans 5:8 says, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” In Holy Baptism, your uncleanness was washed away. You were publicly declared to be cleansed of all your sins and welcomed into God’s family. You were made to be like new again in God’s sight. Now, you can be truly thankful for all the gifts God gives … not only spiritual blessings, but earthly, material blessings, too. They are all from God’s gracious hand, as the Psalmist says in Psalm 145, “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.”
But why are we truly thankful? Are we thankful only because of what we have received? This seems to be the case of the 9 who did not return. Why did only one former leper return to thank Jesus? One author suggests the following nine reasons why the nine did not return:
“One waited to see if the cure was real.
One waited to see if it would last.
One said he would see Jesus later.
One decided that he had really never had leprosy in the first place.
One said he would have gotten well anyway.
One gave the glory to the priests.
One said, ‘O, well, Jesus didn’t really do anything.’
One said, ‘Any rabbi could have done it.’
One said, ‘I was already much improved by the time I started heading to the temple.’”
St. Luke doesn’t tells us why they didn’t return. I would imagine that they were thankful to one degree or another. They were thankful that they didn’t have leprosy anymore. They were thankful that they could go back to their families and be a part of the community once again. They were thankful that they were cured … but that’s where it ended.
How about you? Are you thankful only because of what we have received? This may be true. Plus, perhaps we sometimes feel we deserve more than what we have. The late Erma Bombeck illustrated this point after she had survived breast cancer. She wrote: “An estimated 1.5 million people are living today after bouts with breast cancer. Every time I forget to feel grateful to be among them, I hear the voice of an eight-year-old named Christina, who had cancer of the nervous system. When asked what she wanted for her birthday, she thought long and hard and finally said, ‘I don’t know. I have two sticker books and a Cabbage Patch doll. I have everything!’ The kid is right.”
Are we thankful only because of what we have received? Or rather, are we thankful only because we know from whose hand we have received? This was the case with the one who returned to give thanks to God. The Son of God drew near to him with his gift of healing. There was no longer anything separating him from the community. So, he rushed into the village, fell at Jesus’ feet, and thanked him. He recognized by faith the divine nature of Jesus. And so Jesus could say to him, “Your faith has made you well.” The man was not only made well in his flesh. He was made well in his heart. This man was saved by God’s grace through faith, just like you and me, and he responded with thanksgiving … directed to the proper object of thanksgiving, God himself. He knew from whose hand he had received his gift, and he responded accordingly.
You are saved by God’s grace through faith. You have been given all kinds of good gifts from his gracious hand. Jesus draws near to you in a very personal way today in the Eucharist, in the great thanksgiving feast of our Savior. He draws near to you and feeds you with his own body and blood. You now recognize the source of all your gifts — both spiritual and material — and you direct your thanksgiving to its proper object, God himself.
When I was a youngster and received a gift, my mom and dad sat me down immediately at my desk in my bedroom and had me write a thank you note. They stressed the importance of actually saying, “Thank you” to the person who gave me the gift.
It’s important for us to say “Thank you” to God for our gifts. He doesn’t need our “thank you’s.” After all, he gives good things to those who don’t even acknowledge him. But WE need to say “Thank you.” It’s an exercise of our faith, as we acknowledge the giver of all that we have and all that we are.
So how can we write a thank you note to God? We can’t drop a note in the mailbox addressed to “God, in care of Heaven.” Our thank you note to God is saying “thank you” with our voices in prayer and praise and worship. Our thank you note to God is serving others with love of Christ with our hearts and hands and lives. Our thank you note to God is having an attitude of thanksgiving every day. We can say thank you that God has drawn near to us in Christ, so that we may draw near to him in thanksgiving.
 Ray Stedman, Folk Psalms of Faith; located at http://www.christianglobe.com/Illustrations/theDetails.asp?whichOne=t&whichFile=thanksgiving
 Charles L. Brown, Content The Newsletter, June, 1990, p. 3 at http://www.christianglobe.com/Illustrations/theDetails.asp?whichOne=t&whichFile=thanksgiving
 Erma Bombeck, Redbook, October, 1992 at http://www.christianglobe.com/Illustrations/theDetails.asp?whichOne=t&whichFile=thanksgiving