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Thanksgiving and Faith

Everything right about us, the Lord did.

In a yard near us, a sign recently appeared with these words on it: MOM ON STRIKE. Michelle had "moved" into her children's tree house and vowed she wasn't coming down until a few things changed. A local television station saw the sign and ran a story in which they interviewed her. But even more to my interest, they interviewed her husband. I wondered what he was going to say. During his interview, he said, "I've told the kids to cool it with the back talk. I've told them to do their chores again. We're doing everything we can to get her to come down."

It makes perfect human sense that when you've offended someone, when you've done something that's not right, you want to make it up to that person. You want to make amends. It makes perfect human sense, but it makes no spiritual sense. In this passage in Luke, our Savior took great pains to make it clear that if we are depending on what we do to make ourselves right with God, we are barking up the wrong tree. After all, if you pressed us deep down into our hearts, what we really want is for the power of God to come down. We want God to be real and present and moving in our midst, changing hearts, changing culture. We want God to come from whatever tree house in heaven he occupies and be here.

But how do you get God to come down when his standards are so high? Do you want to see how high they are? Look at the opening verses of Luke 17. Jesus said to his disciples, "Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. So watch yourselves" (v. 13). What's the standard? Cause no sin. That is a high standard. And Jesus was just getting started; for after he said, "Watch yourselves," he went on to say, "If your brother sins, rebuke him." Not only should you cause no sin, you should confront others in their sin for the sake of the kingdom, for the sake of the testimony of the gospel, for the sake of the spiritual good of a brother in Christ, for someone else's good. When someone is caught in wrongdoing, when he is going down a bad path, a dangerous way, you are to confront him about his sin. Yet Jesus still wasn't done, for he continued, "If he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him" (v. 34). Cause no sin. Confront others' sin. Forgive any sin.

These are really high standards. The disciples knew that, so it was with some degree of chagrin—if not fear—that they had to call to Jesus for help in meeting these standards. In verse 5, the apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" They said: If these are really the standards, increase our faith. This is just a sanctified way of saying, "You're going to have to help us out here!" Jesus responded by admitting that to some measure they were right. It is a matter of faith if you want power to do such things. He replied in verse 6, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you." You want to see the power of God in your lives? Then you have to have faith. Of course, the key question is, Have faith in what? That is what Jesus made plain in his response: God is not moved by the deeds we perform. Jesus explained this by telling a troubling parable.

God is not impressed by our good works.

Jesus told about a man who had a servant working in the field. The servant had been working all day. When the time arrived for the servant to come in from the field, the master didn't say, "Hey, you're tired. Come sit at my table." Instead, the master said to the servant, "Fix my meal." And after the servant had done that, the master didn't say thank you. He's not supposed to. The servant just did what he was supposed to do. And the conclusion in verse 10 (which we don't really like because it was addressed to the disciples) is that Jesus said, "So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; We've only done our duty.'" It may be hard for us to understand the ancient context for what's being said in this parable, until we bring it into a modern day context.

Imagine that you've been working around the house all Saturday trying to get that leaf blower to work, and you've gone to the hardware store for the fifth time to get the right part. You're frustrated and worn out. So at dinnertime, you quit working outside, and instead of fixing your meal, you go to the local Denny's restaurant. You sit down, order a meal, and send the waitress off. She comes back after a while, bringing your plate. Now imagine what you would think if after putting down your plate, she set down another plate, and pulled up a chair. You'd say, "What are you doing?" She'd say, "Well, I got your meal. So I'm going to eat my meal at your table with you." You'd answer, "Now, wait a second. You were just doing your job. That doesn't give you a right to sit at my table."

In the ancient world, to sit at the master's table meant you had the rights of the household. You had equal representation with him. Another example set in our culture would be if you were buying a house. A realtor helped you buy a house, and after you moved your furniture in and drove your now empty moving van out of the driveway, another moving van comes into the driveway. And the realtor is in the passenger seat. "What are you doing?" you'd ask. The realtor would say, "Well, I helped you get this house. So I'm moving in." You'd say, "No. Now wait just a second. You were just doing your job. That doesn't give you a right to my house." Through this parable Jesus was saying this to his disciples: When you have done everything you were supposed to do, that still doesn't give you a right to my house. The household of heaven is still out of bounds to you. Simply because you've done everything you were supposed to doesn't qualify you for God's household.

You can just imagine the disciples thinking, Wait a second! We gave up our livelihood. We gave up our family. We gave up the fellowship of oilier people in our towns and churches. And you're telling us that doesn't count? That's supposed to count, Lord. But Jesus said: No, God is not moved by the deeds you do. I don't like hearing this. Few people do. I want to believe that because I have been good, God must be good to my seminary. As students, we want to believe that because we've been faithful in our devotions, we'll make good grades. We somehow take our good works and try to use them as bargaining chips before God. Yet God is reminding us our bargaining chips don't have currency with him. We may believe, for example, we're being faithful by doing our devotions, so we think, Lord, we read the Bible every day at our family's dinner table for the last 365 days, so you have to take away all our family's problems. If we think our works are buying off God, God is reminding us he will be no man's debtor, that our good works have no currency with him. If we're trying to trophy our goodness to get God to recognize us as members of his household, he is telling us it won't work.

Some time ago I was preaching in a church in the South, and after the service the pastor took me to his home. When I walked through the door, I couldn't help but notice the large game trophies around the room. There was a large zebra skin on the wall. There were antelope skins on a chair. There was even this one large stool that had been made out of an elephant's foot. It was impressive. I asked the pastor, "Where did these come from?" As the pastor explained the trophies on display, he apologized for having them because he knew the internal dialogue going on in my mind: Aren't these endangered species'? Did you shoot Bambi? So he began to say things such as, "These were shot a long time ago before they were endangered species, and I didn't shoot them. Someone else shot them." Even in the display was an apology.

What does the Bible teach when it says our best works are only filthy rags to God? That the very thing the rest of the world is to get God to recognize them and respond to not working. They say, "Lord, look what I've done!" The whole world is balancing scales. They think, Well, I'm not perfect, but the good outweighs the bad. We need to see it from God's perspective: he is saying no matter how much good you do, it does not qualify you for his favor, not in itself. Then you recognize even our best works do not fall on the good side on that scale before God. Because of the great disproportion between our best works and God's true holiness, they cannot count in that way. This is a scary realization because it goes against the world's notion of what will qualify us before God to enter his kingdom. The disciples must have been thinking, Now what do we do? We've sacrificed so much for him. Surely he's got to recognize this! But Jesus made it clear that God would not be moved by the deeds we do. So what does move him?

God is moved when we acknowledge our desperation.

Luke 17:11-19 tells us that Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, "Jesus, Master, have pity on us!" Why did they call out in a loud voice? Because in the ancient world, someone who had leprosy was perceived not only to have a physical ailment but also a spiritual ailment. Lest the contagion spread, these people had to leave the fellowship of God's community. They had to leave their homes. They couldn't even experience the arms of a loved one around them. They couldn't even stay inside the walls of the town, but had to go outside the "city limits," away from their livelihood and fellowship with others. And lest anyone get close enough to catch the contagion, they had to call out, "Unclean. Unclean. Stay away from me." So in this desperate condition, the lepers cried out to Jesus, "Jesus, Master, have pity on us!" What did he do? He did have pity on them. Why? God is not moved by the deeds we do. He is moved by the desperation that we own, that we claim, that we acknowledge before him. We know how this works in our human relationships.

My wife and I have friends in the ministry, a man and his wife, who have a son who in his middle teens has turned away from the faith, away from his family, and has turned to wild and rebellious living. Their son has embarrassed and hurt his family so many times that the wife confided to my wife some time ago she wasn't even sure she could love her own child any more. She has so much hurt. Not long ago, one of the escapades ended with the young man coming home. And he did what he'd done many times before—he protested that his actions had not really been very wrong. He promised he would make it up, that he would do better. But his mother just couldn't bear it anymore, so she walked out of the living room. The young man was left alone, sitting in the living room, and he began to thumb through the family photo album that was on the coffee table. He came across a photo that moved him. He called his mother back into the room and said, "Mom, when I looked at this photo, I realized why you can't love me any more. In this picture you are looking at me as a little boy, and your eyes are filled with such hope for me. But, Mom, I have dashed all your hopes. I know it. I have dashed your hopes." This time, he spoke to his mother out of his desperation, not out of a promise to be better, or out of a protest that he had not done anything so bad. Because of his absolute desperation, his realization that "I don't have any reason you ought to love me, Mom," his mother's heart broke for her child again. And she wanted to embrace him.

Our God is telling you and me not to come to him trophying our goodness. He wants us to come acknowledging how deeply we need his grace. It's when we recognize God is willing to receive those who come in desperation that we become willing to be repentant. Do you recognize that? If God wants us to trophy our goodness, then we wait till we measure up. But if we recognize it is God's great kindness that leads to repentance, then in desperation we become willing to approach God. Because he listens to a desperate person, I can pray, "Jesus, Master, have pity on me! This anger in my life, this lust, this ambition, Lord, this awfulness that I hate. I see the monster of sin in my life." I look at it in the face and say, "You are mine." I own it, knowing that when I'm willing to do that, God will say, "My child, you are my own." He won't say that because I've trophied my goodness, but because my desperation leads taken me to the foot of the cross. And there I say to my Savior, "Jesus, Master, have pity on me!" That's not the natural condition of my heart. I recognize my position, my teaching, what I believe about Scripture—I do these things, and I want to do so many other things. But then I have to be reminded of how God desires my desperation. I'll recognize that when I'm watching TV, and I see a young homosexual who is dying of AIDS. He will look at the camera and admit, "There are people who will condemn me for my lifestyle, but I'll tell you honestly, I would have loved anything that loved me back." That's such an honest statement of desperation that may put that heart closer to the resonance of heaven than my own heart on the days I am so proud of my position and my preaching and my good deeds. "Jesus, Master, have pity on me! There's nothing in me that should make you love me. I just cry out to you, Lord. Please, Lord, have pity!"

God is pleased when we acknowledge our gratitude.

If that moves God, then we get some hint of what should move us. After all, something moved the leper in an entirely different direction because of what Christ had done in his life. Remember what happened in the story in Luke? Jesus told the lepers to go to the priests. So the lepers showed themselves 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" (vv. 14-15). Think of what had just happened. As they were going, they were healed. They were not yet at the temple. As they were going. Then one of the lepers, when he saw he was healed, turned back and went to Jesus. Think of everything he was risking at that point. He risked a change in his health. He had just been cleansed and he saw it. He could tell something was different, if he would just go another few blocks to his church, the priest would declare him clean; he could go back to fellowship in that church. He could go back to his livelihood. He could go back to the arms of his loved ones. Just over there. Instead, he risked it all. What had changed could change back. Believe me. He risked it all to go back and give praise to Jesus. He risked a change in his health. He also risked a change in Christ's demeanor. There were ten who were cleansed. One leper went back to Jesus. He was a Samaritan. Though we can't prove this entirely, our impression is that the rest of them were Jews. They'd been healed in mass, the entire group, yet only one of them returned to this Jewish rabbi to give thanks. He didn't know what Jesus was going to do. For all he knew, Jesus would say, "Oh, there's a Samaritan in the group. Well, forget you. You're not healed." This leper didn't know what was going to happen, but he knew he had to do something. He was no longer searching for his own gain. It was gratitude, thanksgiving, praise that was motivating him. He had to go back. Think of what was being said. He had cried out to Jesus in a loud voice. Then, how did he praise Jesus? In a loud voice! The degree of his desperation matched the degree of his appreciation.

There's a message in here. The one who has been cured of much, praises much. The one who knows something really has because of goodness in him, but because of the goodness of compelled to offer praise. That change is what moves, motivates him. It gives strength to the soul, because the joy of the Lord is our strength. That's what we have to recognize. That is our great motivation as well. It's not —I'm going to do this so the ogre in the sky won't get me. I'm going to do this so I'll get more good stuff either in this life or the life to come. Those weren't the leper's motivations. I'm not saying they have no purpose in the Christian life, but that's not primarily what should drive us. What drove the leper is love for this One who loved him so much he would heal his leprosy. Do you know what it means to say, "Jesus, Master, have pity on me"? And by faith to know he does change us? He changes our priorities. He changes everything we're willing to do.

Steven Andrews is a wonderful pastor on the outskirts of Detroit. Some years ago his daughter had some sort of gift exchange at school. Among the various gifts she received was a chocolate teddy bear that she brought home and put in her room. She went to school the next day. And while the daughter was at school, her mother went into her room and found her younger preschool brother there. As mom entered the room, the brother backed against the wall like a cornered criminal, the evidence of his crime all over his face, and said, "Oh, Mom, I'm so sorry." Well, mom wasn't going to be dissuaded by his admission of his guilt just because he'd been caught. She said, "You are going to confess this to your sister when she gets home from school." You can just imagine a little preschooler's anxiety building every hour. Finally when his sister came to the front door, this little boy ran to her. He virtually threw himself on her mercy. "Oh, Sister," he said. "I'm so sorry! I ate your chocolate teddy bear." But this was the kind of sister who was always looking for a chance to love this little brother. So she picked him up in her arms and said, "It's okay, Johnnie. I will love you anyway and always." Through the tears of shame that were coming down his face for his wrong, he began to giggle. I mean, he was still crying, but then he started to giggle. And he threw his arms around her and hugged her for all he was worth.

That's a wonderful picture of the Christian life. We have recognized our shame for our sin—we've owned it, acknowledged it before God. Then when we know through the words of the gospel that God is saying, "My child, you are mine. I will love you any way and always," we become like the leper and throw our entire being before God, embrace him, and say, "Lord, thank you! Lord, how can I serve you?" It is ultimately that joy that gives strength to our lives. That's where this whole account ends. In Luke 17:19, Jesus said to this leper at his feet, "Rise and go; your faith has made you well." We think, What faith? I mean, there was no recitation of the Apostles' Creed. No great statement of the divinity of Jesus. All that happened was this leper said: Jesus, everything that's right about me, you did. Oh, you may think, That's not much faith. But that's this much faith: a mustard seed of faith. Jesus said if you would have faith even as small as a mustard seed, the power of God would come down. Your faith is your belief that Jesus did everything that's right about you.

© Bryan Chapell
Preaching Today Tape #219
A resource of Christianity Today International

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Bryan Chapell is the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois.

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Sermon Outline:


I. God is not impressed by our good works

II. God is moved when we acknowledge our desperation

III. God is pleased when we acknowledge our gratitude.


Your faith is your belief that Jesus did everything that's right about you.