It has only been since Virginia became our adopted home that we have learned that the first English Thanksgiving celebration in America occurred on December 4, 1619 at Berkeley Hundred along the James River here in Virginia. The men had just completed a two and a half months’ voyage across the Atlantic from Bristol, England. It was a diverse group of sailors, soldiers, craftsmen – even a priest – that had come together for a single purpose. Clifford Dowdey wrote in his book “The Great Plantation”: “The men placed their personal luggage on the hard ground, gazed at the woods enclosing them and listened in complete silence. Then at a command from Captain John Woodlief, the men kneeled and said a prayer of Thanksgiving to Almighty God for their safe voyage.”Captain Woodlief’s descendant, Graham Woodlief writes: “They did this in accordance with the proclamation they received from the Berkeley Company in England, instructing them, upon arrival, to give thanks and to do so annually and perpetually. The first English Thanksgiving in America had just occurred.” In recent years, my family and i have on several occasions attended and participated in that annual reenactment and remembrance of thanksgiving that continues to this day.
As we come upon this annual time on our calendars to give thanks, i am mindful of another thanksgiving account that occurred 1600 years prior to that remembrance along the James River. It’s recorded in Luke chapter 17: As Jesus continued on toward Jerusalem, He reached the border between Galilee and Samaria. As He entered a village there, ten lepers stood at a distance, crying out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” He looked at them and said, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed of their leprosy.One of them, when he saw that he was healed, came back to Jesus, shouting, “Praise God!” He fell to the ground at Jesus’ feet, thanking Him for what He had done. This man was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Didn’t I heal ten men? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” And Jesus said to the man, “Stand up and go. Your faith has healed you.”
Here was another diverse group of men. At least one was a Samaritan and certainly some others were Galileans. But instead of being brought together by a cause, they were united by an affliction. They were ostracized from the rest of civilization by their leprosy – and united in the fact that they would live out whatever remained of their lives in this debilitating state. And then one day – along came Jesus! He had become well known across the region. Word of the miracles He had performed spread like wildfire. These men knew that if they had any chance of escaping their leprous fate – Jesus was it. So, they cried out to Him – and Jesus had mercy on them.
Now these men who had been united by their disease, were now united in their faith. They so trusted Jesus that when He told them to go and show themselves to the priests, they did so even though they had not yet been healed. Their healing didn’t occur until they had begun their journey. They stepped out by faith – believing that what Jesus had promised would come to pass. These truly were men of faith – and their faith was rewarded, in that each and every one of them was physically healed. These men who had been united in disease and united in faith had now become united in their healing.
How many were grateful for their healing? Each and every one of them experienced the feeling of gratitude! They were no longer destined to a life of misery and agony. They were no longer to be separated from family and friends. They were no longer subject to living a life of despair. They had been set free! And each and every one of them were ecstatic and grateful!
But here is where their paths diverged. For nine of the men, their path of gratitude led to celebration and restoration once they had been declared clean by the priests. They pressed forward to the better days that were ahead and never gave another thought to the One who had made them whole. Only the Samaritan returned with a heart overflowing to express thanksgiving and worship to the One who had transformed his life. Only the Samaritan returned to give glory to God. Only the Samaritan demonstrated a heart of complete surrender and thanksgiving. And, as a result, only the Samaritan experienced the cleansing of his sin and continued his journey in an intimate relationship with Jesus.
You see, gratitude is a feeling, but thanksgiving is an action. On these days of Thanksgiving, are we like the nine – content to be grateful for our blessings – or are we like the one – worshipping the One who is due all worship – surrendered to Him with a heart overflowing with perpetual thanksgiving? How often do we bombard heaven with our petitions, but fail to express thanks for the answers we’ve received? Let’s not forget to give glory and thanksgiving to the One to whom it is due!