Sunday, November 22, 2015

Whole-Hearted Thanksgiving: Sermon on Psalm 111

Happy Thanksgiving! Or at least, Thanksgiving Day is coming up in a few days. Can you believe it's here again? So many of our holidays in American culture have become watered-down parodies of themselves. To many people, Christmas isn't a celebration of the birth of the King of Kings; it's a time to enrich ourselves with newfound loot, and to mouth clichés about universal love and cozying up with your family through the winter. Easter becomes a celebration of chocolate and rabbits. And what about Thanksgiving? Is Thanksgiving just Turkey Day – a time to stuff ourselves full and then keep eating and finally doze off while relatives bicker over whether the Eagles can beat the Lions?

Or does the name 'Thanksgiving' give us a clue? It's literally a day set apart for giving thanks. But thanks to whom? To each other? That's all well and good, but throughout history, days of special thanksgiving have been set apart to thank God for some blessing or gift that he's given to a people. But which god? People give thanks to plenty of gods – the gods of themselves, the gods of their hard work, the gods of fortune, or simply unnamed generic gods of their own fancy. But the psalm we read is all about thanksgiving, and there's only one God worthy of thanking: the LORD, Jehovah, Yahweh. He's the God who made heaven and earth. He's the God whose works are great, glorious, and majestic (Psalm 111:2-3). This is a tough God, a strong God, a capable God! But he's also “gracious and compassionate” (Psalm 111:4) – not just tough, but good; and not just good, but actually invested in us. This is a God who's active: the whole psalm is about his works, his deeds, things he does. This God doesn't sit around on the sidelines with a bucket of popcorn. This God is involved. He's a glorious, gracious, active God; he's just and dependable (Psalm 111:6); and he's decisive: his deeds are forever (Psalm 111:3, 5, 9). He does them in public for all to see (Psalm 111:6). And there's just no end to all his righteousness, his constant yearning to rescue us and repair us and renew us in true freedom. That's the kind of God the psalmist wants to thank with his “whole heart” (Psalm 111:1).

But why should we give God our whole-hearted thanks? Why does he deserve it? Why is it good for us to give it? The hundred-and-eleventh psalm mentions four reasons. First, “he sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever” (Psalm 111:9). On top of everything else, before anything we might say, is this blessing, this great and immeasurable gift: he sent redemption. And we know that, don't we? The psalmist may have been thinking of the exodus, or maybe God's protection of Judah against the Assyrians, or maybe return from exile in Babylon. But in the light of the new covenant, the one that really does last forever and ever, we know about the Greater Exodus – not the rescue of the Hebrews from Egypt to escape slavery to Pharaoh, but the rescue of Jews and Gentiles like us from the dominion of darkness to escape slavery to sin: “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14). We know about the greater deliverance – not shielding Judah from the Assyrians, but shielding us from the fiery darts of the evil one, and even from his own righteous anger at sin by interposing King Jesus on the cross. We know about the greater return from the greater exile: once far from God and dead in sin, once banished from Eden with the flaming sword blocking the way back, in Jesus Christ we've been made alive and brought near to God again (James 4:8), and we've come to the heavenly Mount Zion where the tree of life stands (Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 22:2). Why should we “neglect so great a salvation” as this, which outshines anything the Old Testament saints knew or dreamed (Hebrews 2:3)?

We don't just know about it in the abstract, as if it were something that happened long ago and we read about it in the pages of a history book, or watched it in a documentary. It may have happened at Calvary, but it happened to you and to me. Our lives are created by it, consumed by it, captivated in it. To an undeserving and ungodly mess, the Father sent redemption in the person of his Son, who marched to the cross to fight a battle we couldn't fight, to pay a debt that we couldn't pay and he didn't owe. But he had you in mind; and when you were saved, you were every bit as redeemed as you would've been if you'd bowed the knee to Jesus three seconds after he cried out, “It is finished!” We live this redemption! It's how we became his people. No wonder Martin Luther thought of this as an Easter psalm. Be thankful.

Second, we should give God our whole-hearted thanks because “he provides food for those who fear him” (Psalm 111:5). And that's so true in a few different ways, isn't it? I mean, Thanksgiving is a harvest festival, at its heart. Whenever the early settlers sat down with their native benefactors, relieved that famine was over and God had shown his smiling face again, that's what we think of as the First Thanksgiving in our nation's history. It was all because God provided food, dispelling months of anxiety, months of teetering on the edge of extinction, waiting and wondering whether they'd live to see the flowers of spring.

It's hard to appreciate this if we've never gone through food insecurity like they did, like millions in the world even today still do – genuinely not knowing if they'll starve to death before the seasons turn. But on Thanksgiving, we try to get into that mindset of the Pilgrims, try to be as thankful for the bountiful table spread before us as they were to feast and see the faithfulness of God with their eyes and taste its deliciousness on their own lips. Even today, we can be thankful for a good harvest, for the fresh revelation that God will not abandon us to the pangs within our stomach, the wasting away of our own flesh. It doesn't come to everyone. Millions around the world still face the threat of starvation, still yearn for their daily bread that never seems to come. God wants to make this word, “He provides food,” true for them as well – and he wants to do that through us.

But for Christians, those words have a deeper meaning than turkey and cranberry sauce, deeper even than a holiday pig stomach and a heap of sauerkraut. Delicious as they all are, we can give thanks with our whole heart for an even greater meal. God feeds us, yearns to stuff us full, with two delicacies – his holy Word and his holy Sacrament, with his revelation to fill our souls and with the body and blood of his Son to cure us of our walking death. That's better than any ham and yams you'll see on Thursday. You can feed, strengthen yourself, on the Word of God – he's provided it for you. You can feed on the very bodily presence of Jesus Christ; you can have fellowship with God by eating the holy sacrifice that sealed your redemption. And what did the early Christians call that meal? “Eucharist,” “Thanksgiving.” Don't miss the Thanksgiving that comes more than once a year.

Third, we should give thanks with a whole heart because “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who practice it have a good understanding” (Psalm 111:10). God redeemed us, God gives us what we need to sustain our bodies and souls for the journey we're on, and now the psalmist reminds us that God doesn't set us loose to navigate by our own broken compass. God gives us wisdom, skill at navigating life. And if we put that skill into practice, we won't just sort of understand; we won't just get by, as though we're faking it. We'll actually have good understanding. Life won't mystify us quite so much if we flex wisdom's muscles, if we give wisdom some exercise in our lives. And where would we be without wisdom? Lost! Wisdom is how to figure out which path is the strait and narrow one, which twists and turns to tread, what perils to avoid and how to overcome the ones we can't. God gives the gift of wisdom for the faithful asking (James 1:5). Be thankful.

And fourth, we should give thanks with a whole heart because God “has shown his people the power of his works in giving them the heritage of the nations” (Psalm 111:6). Remember, God hasn't set us loose like a bunch of cockroaches scattering in the harsh light. We are not random. We are not an aggregate of unrelated and disconnected critters scurrying around haphazardly! God redeemed us as a people, as a united and cohesive body. He feeds us as a body so that all the parts can have strength. He gives us wisdom to function as a body, as a people. We are “a holy nation, God's own people” (1 Peter 2:9). And God has settled us and given us a great inheritance.

Of course, part of that is an earthly home. While he asks us not to get attached to it, we can be thankful that we have somewhere to rest our heads at night. Most of us have pretty nice homes, large homes, by the standards of most countries. If you've never been in a typical house in a foreign land, let me assure you that even the smaller ones of ours look like palaces. We take up a lot of space here. God gives us a home; but he reminds us that we're “strangers and foreigners on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13).

But this verse means more. God didn't just promise his people a little parcel of their own soil. He promises to give us the heritage of the nations – plural. God redeemed us in Jesus Christ, God feeds us along our journey, God gives us wisdom to navigate life, and God pledges himself to prosper what we're here to do, to disciple all the nations of the earth. The difference between the old covenant and the new one is that the new promised land is worldwide. We don't conquer it and seize it through force. But he asks us to disciple the people who live there, all of them, in the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus, and to steward all earth's land to be a lively place, a life-blessed place, a kingdom-of-God place.

And the verse means still more, this promise about the heritage of nations. We may be strangers and foreigners on the earth now, but we're “seeking a homeland,” we “desire a better country,” the home that God is storing up and getting ready (Hebrews 11:14-16). Gap, Intercourse, New Holland, Kinzers – those aren't home. Lancaster County isn't home. Pennsylvania's not home. America's not home. The earth as we know it isn't home. We're looking for an eternal place – fully redeemed earth, the earth where Jesus reigns supreme and has made all things new, that is home! And God promises that. It isn't something we have to daydream about but will never happen. It's a promise, an assurance, one that we will see, when our mission in a fallen world has run its course. Be thankful.

God redeems us in Jesus Christ; God feeds us with physical sustenance and with his holy Word and with the sacrifice of his Son; God gives us wisdom to navigate the journey we're on; God gives us shelter now, and blesses our purpose to disciple the nations, and promises us an eternal homeland to come – if we aren't thankful for all that, if we aren't meditating on that when the turkey's hot and juicy, then we're missing the whole point. But how are we supposed to give whole-hearted thanks for all of this?

First, remember that “the works of the LORD [are] studied by all who delight in them” (Psalm 111:2). If we delight in any of these things he's done for us, we should study them! That's not something we say or do often, though, is it? Do we really believe that studying is a form of thankfulness? But it is. Says so right here. In fact, it's essential to thankfulness. Don't just take a surface-level acceptance of what God has done. Really dig into it, see how it works, explore! Delve deeper into God's works, appreciate them in their full measure. Study the things God has made: the sun, the moon, the starry heavens, the mountains, the trees, the fields and valleys, the plants and animals and the rocks they stand on, and all the things in the rivers and oceans and in you and me. Study the redemption that God gave you: really contemplate the ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus and what it means. Study the Word of God that feeds you. Study the wisdom that God grants you. Study the nations you're called to disciple. That's the first step of whole-hearted thanks.

Second, follow the psalmist's pledge: “I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation” (Psalm 111:1). Thanksgiving is not a small thing, and it's also not a private thing. The psalmist doesn't say, “I will give thanks to the Lord in a vacant parking lot.” He doesn't say, “I will give thanks to the Lord in my kitchen when I'm home alone.” He intends to thank God for his blessings when other people can hear him and be moved by it! After all, God “shows his people the power of his works” (Psalm 111:6). God is a public God! So if God wants to display his works publicly, why should we get in the way? Thanksgiving is public. It informs, it trains, it moves, it leads others to give thanks! Our thanksgiving is how God sweeps up others in praise.

Third, while the psalm doesn't say this outright, do you think the psalmist would spend so much time talking about what God's works are like if he didn't think those would be good for us to be, too? The third key to whole-hearted thanksgiving is to “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2). The psalmist knows that God is “gracious and compassionate” (Psalm 111:4). And that's a common theme in the Old Testament: “The LORD, the LORD, God gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). We can thank the gracious God by also being gracious. We can thank the compassionate God by also being compassionate. Be slow to anger, be abounding in love.

If God is always faithful to his covenant (Psalm 111:5), we can be faithful to him. If God provides food for us, we can share that food with others – whether it's the food on our Thanksgiving table or the food of the Word of God. If God is just and trustworthy, if God is steadfast and upright, so should we be (Psalm 111:7-8). He's a God who makes the sun rise on the wicked and the good, who sends soothing rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45), and he asks us to “always seek to do good to one another and to all” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) – do good to Republicans and Democrats, do good to Americans and Syrians, do good to Christians and Muslims and atheists, do good to homeless veterans and to refugees fleeing black-hearted butchers, do good to your annoying neighbor and that one family member who won't stop criticizing you, do good to all. Because that's what God would do in our shoes. That's what God did do when he stood in human shoes on the dirt beneath our feet: he spurned his own safety, he gave himself to welcome us in, homeless and scarred, lost refugees from sin's dire savagery. To give whole-hearted thanks, we need to imitate him – not pretending we could ever equal him, but being entranced by the beauty of his character, so in love with his goodness that we're inspired to let him transform us. Now that's thanksgiving!

And fourth, we can give whole-hearted thanks by doing it forever. The God we're thanking is a God of forever, and his gifts are built to last. “His righteousness endures forever” (Psalm 111:3), he is “forever mindful of his covenant” (Psalm 111:5), “he has commanded his covenant forever” (Psalm 111:9). This isn't a God who changes his mind. This isn't a God who patches up our broken souls with duct tape and Elmer's Glue! This is a God whose actions are forever. They don't fall apart. They don't get revoked. Your redemption will never come unglued by your stumbles. The feast of God's Word will never leave your belly empty. God's wisdom may send you down over rough and rocky terrain, but it will always lead you where you're meant to go, if you follow it with study and understanding and faith. And God's mission will never die; it prevails already against all the gates of hell can muster.

So to God belongs “eternal praise” (Psalm 111:10). Not praise that's for sunny days and clear skies. Not praise with an expiration date. Not praise that comes and goes with the setting of the sun or the shifting of the wind. Eternal praise. What Paul means when he tells us to rejoice always, to pray without ceasing, to give thanks in all circumstances, because that's the will of God in Jesus Christ for each and every one of us (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). We can give thanks in all circumstances because no matter what happens in life – no matter whether we have a job or lose one, no matter whether we're healthy or sick, no matter whether our loved ones are flourishing or being lowered in a casket – no matter what happens, the things the psalmist mentions remain the same.

None of those things can erase our redemption; none of them take away our food for the journey; none can deprive us of godly wisdom; and none of them irrevocably derail our mission or burn down our eternal homeland. None of them make God unrighteous. None of them take God's mind off of his covenantal commitment to us in Jesus Christ. So hard times may come. So will light times. But whole-hearted thanksgiving means that even when the table's empty, even when your uncle shows up drunk and your brother-in-law starts a brawl, give thanks to God even still with all your heart. “Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him” (2 Corinthians 2:14). Amen.

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