The Circumstances of Thanksgiving
The Circumstances of Thanksgiving
On lady reported in an article I read not long ago that after a grueling day of training, which had included a ten-mile hike and completion of a difficult obstacle course, her son Eric’s platoon of raw recruits quickly fell into bed. As Eric lay in the dark, he heard a voice recite a prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, thank you, Lord.” There was a brief pause and then several voices said in unison, “Amen.”
I sincerely hope it will not take such drastic circumstances to bring thanksgiving to our hearts. A lot of fringe benefits come from being thankful. When we are truly thankful, our outlook will almost automatically be brighter. It’s hard to complain when you are being thankful, is it not? A grateful attitude would make all of us easier to live with, right?
But far more importantly, expressions of thanks will be constant reminders of the love and goodness of God. We read in Psalm 136: 1) Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever. When we are living with a grateful heart, we are constantly reminded that the Lord is only good and that His love is overwhelmingly forever. And in that process we are building eternal worth right into our lives – increasingly becoming what we were meant to be.
To see how invasive thanksgiving should be in our lives and to see how this works out in practice, I want us to take a look at some of the various circumstances in Scripture when thanksgiving is instructed and practiced. We will get a flavor of the life-changing, life-enhancing and life-enobling characteristic that attach to cultivating a grateful heart. First circumstance
I. When Times Are Good
This probably seems self-evident, but when things are going well, that is a great time to give thanks. The Bible is replete with people giving thanks in good times. For example, we have David fulfilling a great desire in his life in I Chronicles 16 when at long last he brings the Ark of the Covenant to the City of Jerusalem after a great deal of difficulty sometime in the late 900’s BC. You may recall that this was the Ark that dated from the time of Moses and contained The Ten Commandments; a pot of manna and Aaron’s rod – all important reminders of God’s faithfulness to the nation – but most of all, it represented God’s presence with the people. No wonder David was excited. We read in verse 1: 1) And they brought in the ark of God and set it inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before God. The burnt offering was given to seek forgiveness from sin. A primary purpose of the peace offering was to express thanks to the Lord. In verse 4 we see that 4) Then he appointed some of the Levites as ministers before the ark of the Lord, to invoke, to thank, and to praise the Lord, the God of Israel. In verse 7 David pulls out all the stops: 7) Then on that day David first appointed that thanksgiving be sung to the Lord by Asaph and his brothers.
It is vitally important that in the good times we recognized the hand of God and thank Him. We must never chalk it up to coincidence or somehow think it is due to our own ability that we have been blessed. The God who is always good deserves our thanks and recognition.
I think it is interesting that not only are there good consequences for thanking God, there are less desirable consequences that come from failure in this area. Hezekiah was a good and Godly man, king of Judah, living many years after David between 728 and 699 BC. By that time the kingdom of Israel had split and Hezekiah ruled the southern two tribes who retained their national identity after their brothers to the north went into Assyrian captivity during the time that Hezekiah was king.
Though he basically ruled well, Hezekiah blew it near the end of his life. In II Chronicles 32:24 we read, 24) In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death (you can read more about it in II Kings 20), and he prayed to the Lord, and he answered him and gave him a sign. 25) But Hezekiah did not make return according to the benefit done to him (that is, he gave no thanks), for his heart was proud. Therefore wrath came upon him and Judah and Jerusalem. This is an interesting passage because it illustrates the one basic alternative to giving God thanks. The alternative is pride and it can so easily capture us – does so easily capture us all at times.
You may have heard the story about the woodpecker. He was pecking away all day on a tree, not making much headway. I was raised on Woody Woodpecker cartoons and thought a woodpecker could zip through a tree in seconds. I remember being extremely disappointed the first time I saw a real woodpecker. It didn’t seem like he was getting anywhere. Anyway, as the woodpecker in our story was laboring away, a thunderstorm developed and somehow a bolt of lighting struck the very tree occupied by the woodpecker, splitting it from top to bottom. The woodpecker was knocked to the ground by the strike and stunned in the fall. As he recovered he got up and brushed himself off. He shook his head, looked at the damaged tree and said, “Boy, that was some peck!”
Folks, that’s us when we don’t give God thanks for what He has done. We are taking credit and robbing Him of the honor that is due Him. You say, “Wait a minute, I did all the work. God had nothing to do with it.” May I ask, where did you get the air you breathed? Where did you get the talent to accomplish the task? Where did the coordination required come from? How about the mental capacity? It is not my intent to deny the hard work and effort you put in, but, just as David did, we need to acknowledge the hand of God in the good events of our life. Rather than be proud, we should be humbled and grateful for what He has allowed that give us such pleasure and joy. James 1:17 says 17) Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above. Not much to be proud of there, but a lot for which to be grateful. And it glorifies God to acknowledge His gifts.
II. When Victories Are Small
Let’s go next to the book of Ezra, chapter 3, in our little sojourn through thanksgiving in the Bible. The year now is 535 BC. Israel reached her apex of glory in the building of Solomon’s temple in 930 BC, 400 years earlier than this. Then came degradation, idolatry, incessant complaining (the anti-thanksgiving, by the way) and eventually captivity for the nation. At this juncture they have returned from captivity and begun to rebuild the temple. The foundation has just been laid and we find this starting in Ezra 3:11, “11) And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. 12) But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy,
Interesting picture, isn’t it? Some are rejoicing greatly. Others are weeping. Why do they weep? Because they, the older generation, had seen Solomon’s temple and they realized that what was now being built was nothing compared to what had been and so they wept. I suppose they had a right to weep. But on the other hand, here were some people doing their best in a situation that they couldn’t help and Beloved, there is something to be said for giving thanks even in the accomplishment of small tasks.
The reality is, in God’s work there is no such thing as a small task. If it’s done in the power of the Holy Spirit it is of eternal value. You can’t put a price or a size on that which is eternal. I was working a project with one of the faculty secretaries at the seminary where I taught many years ago. As we talked I made a passing reference to something that was going on in the “little church” that I also pastored at the time. I did not mean anything derogatory by my comment. It was more a term of endearment than anything, but that wonderful secretary didn’t take it that way. She let me know in no uncertain terms you should never speak of anything God is doing as little. She and her pastor-husband had been many years in ministry and it had been their lot to always serve in small churches. But she had rightfully learned that there is no such thing as smallness in God’s work.
The application here is clear. We need to consider all of our work, whether large or small, secular or sacred, recognized or not, as being done for God. We need to give our absolute best and then thank God for whatever results. We doing our part – He doing His. It can’t be any better than that. When it comes to gratitude, let’s make sure we’re not overlooking the little things. Chuck Noll, the old coach of the champion Pittsburgh Steelers from the 1970’s used to say, “Champions are champions not because they do anything extraordinary but because they do the ordinary things better than anyone else.” So if we are thankful for the small things God has entrusted to us, we will give out absolute best and that will glorify Him.
III. When There’s Not Enough
We find another interesting circumstance for thanksgiving in John 6. Again, it goes against the grain, but we need to be thankful when there is not enough. A great multitude has followed Christ, though it turns out they don’t really love Him. They’re just curious. But as the day comes to an end and they are without food, Jesus has compassion on these people and has them sit down. In the whole crowd he can find only one lunch of five loaves and two fish, hardly enough to feed the 5,000 men and their families who were there that day. There simply wasn’t enough – by a long shot!
But notice verse 11 of John 6: 11) Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. Don’t you think it’s interesting how John describes this? Jesus didn’t go through any great gyrations or plead with God to provide. Jesus simply gave thanks for “not enough.” And what happened? God multiplied what He had. God honored His thanksgiving, and God will honor our thanksgiving too. We may not always get what we think is required, but when we give thanks we open the door for God to be glorified and that is always “enough”. But I’m afraid we seldom if ever give thanks for “not enough” – we go straight to the asking. Not Jesus.
Where is the lack in your life? Is it financial? Spiritual? Mental? Perhaps you feel you do not have enough intellect. Or perhaps you feel that you lack patience. There’s nothing wrong with asking God to meet any of these needs, but may I suggest that we start with thanking Him for what we do have. I do not mean to be trite this morning, but that is truly the right starting point. He provides the necessities for whatever He intends for you in response. The old commentator F. B. Meyers says that all God’s commands are enablings. In other words, He is prepared to make us what he tells us to become. That means if you’re not perfectly what you know God wants you to be, thank Him for what He has done. That opens the door for Him to supply in even greater measure. And He gets the glory.
IV. When You’ve Lost Control
It’s just bred into us as humans to want to be in control, isn’t it? For some it is more important than others, but for all of us a certain amount of security comes from the feeling that we can exercise some control over what happens in our lives. And, of course, it is purely an illusion. From a human perspective, we are daily at the whim of this or that person, this or that law, regulation, rule, co-workers attitude, spouse’s temperament – whatever. We can’t reach the control levers fast enough to keep up. And then – some really awful thing happens that makes it exceedingly clear that we are not the master of our own fate – like disease, layoffs, an election gone wrong!
We’re in Daniel 6. It is around 540 BC. Daniel, though originally a young captive, had risen to become the equivalent of prime minister to his Babylonian captives, such had God blessed him. Now, under a new administration, imposed when the Medes took over Babylon in 538 BC, Daniel, as an older, wiser and experienced leader, again found himself in a high position – this time as one of three presidents reporting to the king. He’s high up; he has great control; he is faithful and godly and therein lies the problem because he also has enemies among his colleagues. Daniel’s enemies manage to convince the king that no one, on pain of being thrown to the lions, should petition or pray to anyone for 30 days except the king himself. All kings, apparently, have large egos.
Of course, you remember the rest. Daniel gets the memo and goes on a rampage – informing the king that he has been duped and must revoke the law, right? Isn’t that what you would do? I’m pretty sure that I would at least seek a quiet audience over a cup of coffee. But here’s what Daniel did when he had lost control – when the election had gone against him – when someone else’s idea was accepted. According to Daniel 6:1: 10) When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously. When Daniel got the memo, he just went on about his business as usual. Don’t you wish you had that cool? I wish I did. What I like is that Daniel specifically gave thanks before his God. Thanks? When they are starving the lions and coming to get you for the entre? Thanks? Man, I’d be praying hard, but I’m not sure thanks would enter the picture. Of course, we know that Daniel was saved in this instance, but Daniel didn’t know that. He didn’t know the outcome. And yet he gave thanks. We don’t give thanks because we tend to think that not only have we lost control, but so has God, right? We have to get our perspective right, see things from God’s point of view, understand that He is always in control.
A bus driver is conducting a tour of famous Civil War battle sites. “Here,” he points out at one spot, “is where the Southern troops routed a whole regiment of Yankees. Over there, the Rebs wiped out a whole platoon of Yanks. Down about a mile, there’s another valley where we captured a thousand Union soldiers.” A tourist says, “Didn’t the North ever win a battle?” “Yup. But not while I’m driving this bus.” There’s the thing. God’s bus is the entire universe. He’s always in control. So when we’re not, we can still be thankful, knowing we are in His hands. He is glorified when we trust Him like that and we are built up.
V. When Times are Tough
Now, hold on to your hat because it gets tougher from here on. We must also learn to thank God in hard times when ordinary people wouldn’t even think about being grateful. This is emphasized throughout Scripture and many examples could be cited. Let me give you two. Turn first of all to Acts 27. In this chapter we have an account of the apostle Paul being taken as a prisoner to Rome by ship. The ship has run into difficult times and even the hardy sailors are fearful for their lives. But we read beginning in verse 33 of Acts 27: 33) As day was about to dawn, Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing. 34) Therefore I urge you to take some food. For it will give you strength, for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.” 35) And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat. Did you ever do one of those quick little head down, “Wops, I dropped my napkin” prayers before eating with people who don’t give thanks? Not Paul. In the midst of some pretty difficult circumstances and surrounded by some pretty rough guys, Paul gives thanks. Now, Paul is saved out of this circumstance and God does keep him alive, although it was anything but a settled fact when he gave thanks. But let’s look at another man in difficulty.
In Matthew 26 we have the account of Jesus eating on the night of His death. We read in verse 26, “26) Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27) And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28) for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. This instance is fascinating to me. Of course, the disciples were so in the dark about what was about to happen that we are told elsewhere that they were busy arguing about who among them was the greatest as they entered the room that night.
But Jesus knew better, and as He gave them this ritual to be a perpetual reminder of Him, He knew full well as He gave thanks for that cup that it was symbolic of His own blood which was about to be shed in the most horrific way. [pause] You see, He’s not asking us to do something that He’s never done. When He says in James 1: 2) Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, He’s not speaking from a philosophical or psychological ivory tower. He’s been there; He’s gone before us. He never asks something of us that He hasn’t already done.
Remember how Paul and Silas were singing and praising God at midnight in a rotten Philippian jail after they had been beaten and put in stocks? Now that’s a faith worth having, don’t you think? Let me give you a more modern version. Fast forward to 1943. Boarding the SS Dorchester on a dreary winter day in 1943 were 903 troops and four chaplains, including Moody alumnus Lt. George Fox. World War II was in full swing, and the ship was headed across the icy North Atlantic where German U-boats lurked. At 12:00 on the morning of February 3, a German torpedo ripped into the ship. "She's going down!" the men cried, scrambling for lifeboats. A young GI crept up to one of the chaplains. "I've lost my life jacket," he said. "Take this," the chaplain said, handing the soldier his jacket. Before the ship sank, each chaplain gave his life jacket to another man. The heroic chaplains then linked arms and lifted their voices in prayer as the Dorchester went down. Lt. Fox and his fellow pastors were awarded posthumously the Distinguished Service Cross.
Medals don’t do you much good after you’re gone, do they? But I’m willing to bet there was not an atheist among those men who received life-preservers that day. What do you think? And I wouldn’t be surprised at all that those chaplains have seen men in heaven that might never have been there except for their sacrifice, trust and thankfulness to God. In Philippi, you will remember that God opened that jail with an earthquake and the jailer and his whole family became believers on the spot. Beloved, God never wastes the response of a thankful heart. I hope that you never have to face such life or death circumstances, but I know that you will face very difficult circumstances. We all do. I urge us, be thankful in all things.
Now, I want to close with this. Please hang with me a few more seconds. We would all acknowledge that we should give thanks, but is it really all that important and how do we do it, especially in the hard times? There is an interesting insight from John 13 – We’re back to the night of the last supper with Jesus and the disciples. Judas leaves the room early on that night, on his way to betray the very Son of God with whom he has spent the last three years in close companionship, and look at Jesus’ response. It’s found in verse 31 of John 13: 31) When he (Judas) had gone out, Jesus (knowing full well what he was about to do, by the way) said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. What Jesus understood and what is a key factor in how we look at life – what Jesus understood is that there is something more important even than life. And that is the glory of God. And knowing that what was happening was in accordance with the plan of God and calculated to bring God glory, he was content and grateful, and He aligned perfectly with God’s purpose for His life – tough as it was.
Beloved, we were made to glorify God, and it is absolutely amazing how our lives change as we begin to truly seek this as our first priority. If you were listening closely today you will have noticed that every circumstance for thanksgiving we looked at provided a way to glorify God. It is both the motive and the end – and (get this) every time we give thanks we are becoming more and more what God made us to be.
The opposite is also true. Every time we fail to give thanks we become less human, and less God’s. Paul is describes the progress and fate of those who reject God and makes a very interesting statement in Rom. 1: 21) For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22) Claiming to be wise, they became fools, Quickest path to dumbing down, to becoming a fool, to move from dumb to dumber? Don’t honor God and don’t give Him thanks. Every time we fail in that we move one step away from what we were meant to be. Do you see? The opposite of giving thanks is to assume honor for myself. Pretty soon we’re like the ship captain who looking dead ahead through a pitch-black night suddenly sees a light on a collision course with his ship. He sends a signal: “Change your course ten degrees east.” “Change yours ten degrees west,” comes the reply. The captain responds, “I’m a United States Navy captain! Change your course, sir!” “I’m a seaman second class,” the next message reads. “Change your course, sir.” The captain is furious. “I’m a battleship! I’m not changing course!” “I’m a lighthouse. Your call.”
Beloved – don’t try to be your own god by not acknowledging His hand in your life. Thanksgiving, is not just a courtesy; it is a matter of fulfilling our God-intended purpose in life. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.