|September 2013: scenes around the Palouse River|
Monday, November 25, 2013
The Need for Thanks
Preached on Sunday, November 24, 2013
Scripture readings: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 10:1-11
A father just got back from helping on his son’s Boy Scout back-packing trip. He was still pretty excited when he told his friends the highlights.
They had taken a pack-horse with them. “And, boy, am I glad we had that horse!” he said, “After one of the boys got hurt, we used the horse to carry him out.”
“How was the boy hurt?”
“Well, the horse stepped on him.”
The apostle Paul says, “In everything give thanks,” or “give thanks in all circumstances.” And then Paul writes, “Do not quench the Spirit,” or, “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire.” From what I can tell, Paul was pretty unquenchable himself. I think he was as full of fire as he was full of thanks, and that the two went together, and that they played a part in making Paul a person who was really, abundantly alive.
Now, when Paul says, “Give thanks in all circumstances,” it sounds almost like a command. In a way, it is. Thanksgiving is not an elective. It is not an option. Thanksgiving is needed. It is required. It is required for our happiness right now. It is required for our everlasting happiness.
In a way, thankfulness is as important as patience. It is hard to learn patience. You learn patience by having all the things happen to you that make you impatient.
But the people who have learned patience are the people who make our lives better. Patient people make the hard things easier for us. They give us confidence, and they help us to live abundantly.
Then, when you find someone who is actually thankful for you (for you!): why, that is the gift of life itself! But it is just as hard to learn to be thankful as it is to be patient. You only learn to be thankful by learning the alternatives. And the alternatives to being thankful are dark and bitter things.
But if the patient and thankful people are the source of life to you, aren’t you glad they learned, the hard way, those lessons that God wants every human being to know? So, when the Lord says, “Hey you! You be thankful too!” you can begin to understand why it is so important. The command to be thankful is as important as God’s command to love.
Jesus said, “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) The people who are abundantly alive around us (the people who make our lives full) have these qualities: thankfulness, patience, love, forgiveness, peace. They make life worth living now. And they are what will make heaven truly heavenly.
All these gifts come from God himself, and it is God who makes heaven so heavenly. This is because, as strange as it sounds, God himself is full of thanks.
There is something essential to God (as we see and hear him in Jesus) that looks at us and longs to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:12) That is thanksgiving in the heart of God. God created us so that, in the end, he might rejoice over us. (Zephaniah 3:17) Thank has its origins with God who rules heaven and earth. Sooner or later, if we want to be at home with God, we must give thanks.
The more we read about Paul (in his letters, and in the stories of his life in the Book of Acts) we realize that being thankful cannot mean a self-generated feeling of thanks. The commandment to be thankful is not a command to pretend, or to put on an act.
Paul explains that thanksgiving is part of receiving the peace of God that goes beyond understanding, “Do not be anxious about anything; but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God, which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)
For me, that kind of peace does not mean that all conflict and struggle will go away. Peace is a kind of harmony. But it doesn’t mean that everything is harmonious toward you. It means that you have your footing. You have your foundation in God who is peace.
So people and circumstances may seem to be coming at you in the wrong way, but you can come at them in the right way. You can do what it takes to meet those things, and deal with them, because the peace that passes understanding is in you. I think it is called the peace that passes understanding for two reasons: first, we don’t quite understand it ourselves, and (secondly) nobody else does either.
I’ve told you my “peace that passes understanding” story before. It comes from the time when I drowned. I was seventeen and my senior class on an outing in the foothills. I was swimming in a lake with my friend Danny.
We were out pretty far from the shore for my level of skill. I got tired, and went under, and I couldn’t get back to the surface. I felt as though God were with me and saying, “Trust me”. But he didn’t tell me that I was going to live. The silent voice left me just afraid as anybody could be who was struggling not to die.
At the same time, I felt as though I was calmly watching and waiting for whatever came. I felt both fear and calm at the same time. This seemed to go on and on, for a long time. Time slowed down, full of fear and calm. Finally, I couldn’t hold my breath any longer and so I breathed my last breath, and everything went black.
Next thing I knew, I found myself without a body, flying incredibly fast through nothing but brightness. Then I woke up choking up water on the beach. One of the teachers had given me mouth to mouth resuscitation. My friend Steve told me that I had not been breathing, and that I was purple when they got me to shore. My strange experience of absolute terror and calm define for me that peace that passes understanding.
If anyone has the right to tell us to be thankful, it is Paul. In his second letter to the Corinthians he wrote about some of the hardships he had gone through since he became a Christian. He wrote: “I have worked hard, been in prison, been flogged, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I have received the forty lashes minus one. Three times I have been beaten with clubs. Once they tried to stone me to death. Three times I was shipwrecked, and spent a night and a day in the open sea.” (2 Corinthians 11:23ff) And the list goes on.
Earlier in that same letter he wrote, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed…” (2 Corinthians 4:8ff) It is in the middle of a life like that that Paul encouraged us to, “give thanks in all circumstances.” Paul gave thanks as an experienced and sensitive human being, not as some kind of thanksgiving robot.
He wrote, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15) Paul was able to feel deeply for others, and for himself. After a friend recovered from a nearly fatal illness Paul wrote, “But God had mercy upon him, and not only upon him, but on me also, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow.” (Philippians 2:27) A thankful heart is a feeling heart, a vulnerable heart, a caring heart that has its footing and foundation in God.
What do you say when someone asks, “How are you?” Some people have a stock answer to that. They just say, “Fine!” Or they might say: “Can’t complain!” And they are always waiting to add: “It wouldn’t do me any good if I did!” These are people you know who could give, if they chose, a long, long list of reasons why they could complain. But it is their choice to be easy on you, and on themselves, by not reciting that list.
More than that, they know there is more to their life than their list of pains and struggles. No matter how long that list grows, they are thankful for their life, and they do have another list up their sleeve. It is the list of God’s blessings. They have learned that you can have an abundant life, a full life, and a happy life by keeping the right list up your sleeve.
We are made for thanks. We are made to receive thanks. According to Jesus, one of the great experiences we are created for is the future day when we come into his presence, and he will laugh and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant, you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much, enter into the joy of your Master!” (Matthew 25:21) We will have the joy of hearing the Lord’s own “thank you.”
We are also created to give thanks, because giving thanks is part of love. Look at how quick thankful children are to show their thanks and love by making presents, and cards, and pictures for those who love them, or those whose love they long for. Thanks is really, only a stifled instinct in us. It is a long lost habit waiting to be relearned.
I know that I could do so much better at being thankful. I think it would help if I started by learning to give thanks for little things. That is part of the reason for giving thanks when we eat.
I often forget to give thanks before my meals. I didn’t grow up in a home where this was normal. Sometimes I remember to give thanks in the middle of my meal, or after it is over.
I am not a bad cook, for the things I do cook, but I find that giving thanks makes the meal better. Not that it changes the taste, or the amount of nutrition I get from it. Thanks changes a meal from being a thing to being a gift. It gives life to the meal. That makes a big difference.
Giving thanks changes everything that way. People are changed, circumstances are changed, pains are changed, struggles are changed, and failures are changed. They don’t look any different. They don’t act any different. They don’t feel any different. But you are changed because you have gotten your footing in God, and everything else becomes a calling, or a cause, or an opportunity, or a gift. That makes a big difference.
Do you need reminders to give thanks? Get something or make something to remind you to give thanks. Maybe you have someone at home who helps you be thankful. Put a note on your mirror. Have a picture or poster, or have a gift from someone. Put it out where you will it and be reminded to give thanks.
Patiently ask the Lord to show you how, and where, and when to be thankful. He will teach you.
Sometimes, by giving thanks you will find healing. By saying thanks, you will feel that you have dropped a burden into God’s hands, or you will see how you should have given thanks a long time ago. You will see the Lord’s gifts better than you ever saw them before.
Saying “thank you” sharpens your senses. It helps you see the difference between the good and bad things. This is important because it can be risky to thank God for something we feel is bad, because God doesn’t do bad things. Thanking him for the bad things may lead you to blame him for them. But if you thank the Lord, in spite of the bad things, your eyes may be opened, so that you can say, “Here was the evil that happened. I can see now that God did not do that thing, yet he was there with me in the middle of it all, and he has helped me. God taught me, guided me, and changed me, as a result of it. God has brought me through, and I am glad to see that he has done it.” Thanks can be hard work: but thanks has this reward.
Now, when Paul says that thanks is God’s will for you he means not only that it is necessary for you, but it is the thing that God is working for in your life. Thanks is the shape of your soul in God’s blueprint for your life. Thanks is your destiny.
God became human, in Jesus, to live a perfect life for you that you could not live on your own; and to die a perfect death for you that you could not die on your own. In Jesus, God died for you; for your forgiveness, for your healing, for your peace, for your everlasting joy.
When we know the Lord, when we know God in Christ; our life is built upon his gift of love. Our life is built on thanks for this love. When you know his love, you also know that God is thankful for you. You are the child that he has won for himself. Real life is thanks, from beginning to end, from everlasting to everlasting.