This week is our Thanksgiving Sunday. We look at some tips on thankfulness, and see that the most powerful and passionate moments of thankfulness are not found in times of plenty, when everything is going great, but rather in times of want, when difficulties have us struggling.
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Philippians 4:4-9; John 6:25-35
In 1929, we were in the heart of the Great Depression. That year, a group of ministers in the Boston area were discussing how they should conduct their Thanksgiving services. Things were about as bad as they could get, with no sign of relief in sight. There were long bread lines, the stock market had plummeted, and the word Depression was a pretty good description for the mood of the people at the time.
The ministers thought that maybe they should only touch lightly on the subject of Thanksgiving considering all the despair around them. After all, there wasn’t much to be thankful for. But one of the members of this group, Dr. William L. Stiger, the pastor of a large congregation in Boston, rallied the group. This was not the time, he suggested, to give mere passing mention to Thanksgiving, just the opposite. This was the time for the nation to get matters in perspective and thank God for the blessings that are always present, but sometimes hard to see due to the hardships we’re facing.
And you know what, we can always find things to be depressed about; there are always things that might make us a little anxious about the future. I read the news online, and the editorials in the newspaper, and even the TV news, and see how many really hate our president. And while this is always the case, it think our nation is politically divided now to an extent I’ve never seen before. Maybe your one who is upset by our federal government and what they are doing. Maybe you’re struggling with a more personal issue, maybe the loss of a loved one, maybe loss of work, or insecurity at your job. Or maybe you have health concerns.
If that’s the case, it may be difficult to get excited about Thanksgiving this year. It may not be that easy to find things to be thankful for. If so, I would like to suggest to you that those ministers in 1929 may have struck on something worth remembering. The most powerful and passionate moments of thankfulness are not found in times of plenty, when everything is going great, but rather in times of want, when difficulties have us struggling.
Think about the Pilgrims when they celebrated that first Thanksgiving. At least half of their group had died since arriving here, they were literally people without a country, they had left everything they were familiar with. They were suffering hardships we can’t imagine, but still there was thanksgiving to God. Their gratitude was not for something but in something. I suspect it was that same sense of gratitude that lead Abraham Lincoln to formally establish the first Thanksgiving Day, in the midst of the civil war, when the list of casualties seemed to have no end. And the more I hear about the civil war, the more I’m struck by what a brutal war it was.
I don’t know if you’ve ever studied that war, but they lined up in open fields and just shot each other up. Guns weren’t that accurate, so they had to be close. And they were single shot, and they took a while to reload, and you could get stabbed by an enemy bayonet in the time it took to reload for the next shot. Several hundred would die in a single afternoon.
It was horrific. And the war wasn’t the only problem the nation faced. They were so divided on so many issues that the very nation struggled for survival. Yet in this setting, Lincoln set a day aside to offer thanks to God for our many blessings. Blessings that to you and me, wouldn’t be very evident. Yet the nation came together in a day of thanksgiving.
Perhaps in your own life, right now, you may be suffering through an intense hardship. I don’t know, I hope not. But maybe you are experiencing your own personal depression. Struggles you’re facing may be keeping you from feeling very thankful.
If so, then there’s no better time to give thanks for what you have. Our readings this morning might give you hope for the future. They may give you a reason to be thankful. Even to celebrate the blessings and mercies of our Lord.
In Deuteronomy, we heard about a celebration that the Israelites were to keep. After they got into the Promised Land, they were to bring their first fruits and their tithes together as sort of a thanksgiving offering. Moses even gave them a reminder of some of the things that they had to be thankful for.
To summarize what he said, Your father was a wanderer, but your people have become a great nation. You were once slaves in Egypt, and were badly mistreated and abused, but God heard your cries and saw your misery and brought you out of Egypt, giving you this land overflowing with milk and honey. I suppose they needed a reminder, after all, they had just spent the last 40 years wandering in the desert. Maybe they needed a reminder of things they should be thankful for. Maybe we need a reminder.
Teacher and author Dr. David McLennon tells the story of his very first job in a small town general store. This was long before malls and supermarket chains, at least it was in his community. At thirteen he was hired as a handy boy in the store. He would sweep the floor, bag items for customers, and stock the shelves. One day, he heard the owner say to one of the clerks “It’s that time of the year again, it’s time to take inventory." At thirteen years old, he had never heard that word before. So the next time he was alone with the store owner, he asked, what’s an inventory? Patiently the owner explained that it was a time when you made a list of everything that you had – from the groceries on the shelves to the wrapping paper and string. Somewhat puzzled, the young boy then asked, Why?
“Well, responded the owner, its easy to forget how much you have each year. Every now and then you have to take an inventory just to see what all you have." That little story, to me, pretty well sums up what Thanksgiving is all about. It’s time when each of us needs to take an inventory of our life. Make an effort to count all the gifts and blessings that you have. And then take a day to celebrate those gifts and blessings, remembering the Author of those gifts. Looking for and Celebrating the times that you have seen God working in your lives.
Perhaps it’s a shame that we only do this once a year. Our second reading from Philippians told us that we should always do this. Paul told the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord always. Everyday should be a celebration for the gifts and blessings God gives us.
He tells them, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” We should be acting in a spirit of thanksgiving everyday, rejoicing in God’s gifts to us, no matter how difficult our year may be going, we can still rejoice in thanksgiving for what we have. The thing that makes Paul’s comments so meaningful is that he wrote this letter to them while he was in prison. He is telling them to rejoice in all things, from a prison cell! He was jail, but even there, he rejoiced in all things.
Paul’s attitude can teach us an important lesson – our inner attitudes don’t have to reflect our outward circumstances. We talked earlier about some struggles that you might be going through, some hardships you might be facing. These struggles and hardships don’t define you. It is possible to be rejoicing inside, even through struggles. Paul could do this because he knew that no matter happened to him, Jesus was with him. No matter what happens to you, you can rejoice knowing that Jesus is with you. If you know Him and you believe in Him, and you cling to Him, then nothing can happen to you that He won’t help you through.
Paul urged the Philippians to be thankful in all things. It’s so easy to get discouraged when things don’t go the way you had hoped. But don’t let these discouragements rob you of your joy. Don’t let the struggles and hardships rob you of the peace that Christ brings you. If that’s been happening to you, then get back to Jesus. Look at your struggles from His view. Realize that He is more powerful than anything your facing, and let Him help you through.
How do we realize this rejoicing and this attitude of thanksgiving in our own lives? I think that our reading in John will help. Prior to this passage we read in John, Jesus had fed the 5,000 gathered on the mountainside. Most of these people had seen some of his miracles, and they wanted to see more. That’s why so many were following Him. It’ not so much that they loved His teaching, they loved His miracles! They were following Him for a magic show.
So now, they were looking for Him, to see what He would do next. Not only had they seen a number of miracles, but they got a free meal out of it, too! That’s why they were so interested in following Him. That’s why, by the end of the chapter, most of them turned away and no longer wanted followed Him. That’s why He is trying to teach them here. They needed to believe in Him. That was His message. They asked him point blank, as clear as they could, what must we do to do the work God requires? Jesus answered it just as clearly, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent.”
Believing in Jesus is what we must do to do what God requires of us. That’s it! Just believe. You know John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, he gave his one and only son, that all who believe in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” How about 1st John 3:23 – okay you might not know that one, but it says, “And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another, as he commanded us.”
Here is one final thought in this. When I talk about what it means to believe in Jesus, it’s not enough to just believe that He existed. It’s not even enough to know that He was God’s son. That’s all head knowledge.
It’s about clinging to Him as if He is your only chance. We see that here. Who did Jesus say He was? He said, “I am the bread of life.” What is bread to our life? It is our provision, our sustenance. We can’t survive without bread, can we? We need it.
Believing in Jesus Christ is knowing that we can’t survive without Him. He is our bread. We need Him. And just as bread must be eaten daily to sustain life, we must look to Christ daily to sustain life. When we learn this, when we look to Him for everything, then we can easily see His hand at work and give thanks as they did in Deuteronomy. Then we can rejoice in all things as Paul told the Philippians. And then we can experience the attitude of thanksgiving no matter what comes our way.