Sunday, November 23, 2008

Audio from Sun, Nov. 23

Sermon from Sun, Nov. 23

Based on Deuteronomy 8:7-20.

Thanksgiving is certainly an underrated holiday as far as Christians go. In recent years it has become interesting to me that there are no culture wars about Thanksgiving. The culture wars about Christmas have really escalated. In some places, you’re not supposed to say “merry Christmas,” but “Happy Holidays,” and that really ticks some people off, and then as a pastor, I get all this unsolicited e-mail from corporations that you should say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” and they try to sell you “Merry Christmas” buttons that you should wear so that people know that you’re a “Merry Christmas” person instead of a “Happy Holidays” person.
Now, I apologize to any of you who feel this issue to be important, but I just can’t get wound up over it. It has always just seemed like a kind thing to do in our culture where people have many different religions to say “Happy Holidays,” because I recognize that a stranger might have different holidays than I do. Besides, when the phrase “Happy Holidays” started, I think it was just referring to Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year. So it’s difficult for me to get caught up in the culture wars surrounding Christmas.
But like I say, there are lots of culture wars surrounding Christmas, but not so many involving Thanksgiving. In fact, Thanksgiving seems to be beating a steady retreat to the background and declining in popularity as a holiday. Don’t believe me? Go over to the Giant across the street and see how they jumped straight from a Halloween display to a Christmas display. Thanksgiving is still there, in the background, but it hardly functions as its own holiday anymore. It has different functions: it is the unofficial holiday that bridges autumn and winter; it is the unofficial start to the Christmas shopping season; it is a day for watching football and falling asleep on couches, but for most people Thanksgiving is like my great home state of New Jersey: it is a place you go through on the way from one place to another. If you’re going from the cool city of Washington, DC to the cool city of New York, you have to pass through boring New Jersey and your only hope when you pass through New Jersey is that you don’t hit traffic and have to spend very long there. And likewise, Thanksgiving will get you from Halloween to Christmas, but you hardly notice it on the way.
If there is a push to keep Christ in Christmas, shouldn’t it be equally important to Christians that we keep the Thanks in Thanksgiving? I think so and I would turn to this passage as Exhibit A to prove the importance of giving thanks. And I say this for three reasons. Reason #1 is this obvious expression in this passage of what it’s like to live in a land of plenty. “The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper.”
Most often when we talk about passages like this in America, we think not only of the Promised Land for God’s people in the Old Testament, we think about America as well. And perhaps others around the world think of their homelands as well—it’s natural for us to be fond of our homelands and to love them. And when I hear this passage, I can’t help but thinking about the land that I call home…that great state of New Jersey. Well, actually, I think about more than that, I think about America and what a privilege it is to live here. We live in this nation where we can freely travel to so many different places and climates…and all of it is home to us. I read a couple of months ago about a man from Berwyn who had traveled to every county in the United States, all 3,145 of them. And I thought, “Wow, can you imagine all that he’s seen? Mountains and tundra and orange groves and tropics and deserts and cities and country and just everything in between. America is this huge place where one can still believe that anything is possible and has these incredible natural resources.
So we can be grateful for living in a land that is so blessed with possibilities and resources. In fact, the Scripture warns the people of God about the need to thank God. “Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes which I am commanding you today.” So the people are reminded that they need to thank God, that they need to remember God. And the way they do this: they keep his commandments and ordinances and his statutes. They thank God not only with their lips but they thank him with their lives. They show they are grateful to the one who gave them this plentiful land by honoring the precepts and laws of the one who gave them the plentiful land.
So this is reason #1 why I say that it should be important to keep the Thanks in Thanksgiving. God gave all that we have to us, and of course it extends far deeper than the physical land in which we live. It has to do with all the blessings we each know; each of our lives, in a sense, is “a land of vines and fig trees and pomegranates and olive trees and honey.” We have a responsibility to be people of thanks, and we do that by thanking God with our lips and with our lives.
There is another reason why I think it’s important to keep the thanks in thanksgiving. Reason #2 is because of the wilderness time. “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions.” Well, that sounds like a horrible time, doesn’t it? I don’t like snakes at all, much less poisonous ones; and when it comes to scorpions, well, let’s just be grateful that they live in the other corner of this great and expansive country. I don’t like them either. Doesn’t sound like a great time, really.
But look at what this passage says about that horrible time out in the wilderness. “God made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good.” I love that passage, because it essentially says, “Do you remember, in the middle of all the snakes and scorpions, do you remember all the miracles God did for you? He brought water out of a rock when you didn’t have enough to drink. He brought manna from the sky when you didn’t have enough bread to eat. And these times, these difficult times, God gave to you to humble you and to test you, and ultimately to do you good. Because in the wilderness, among the snakes and scorpions, you were fully aware that you did not have enough and there was no way that you could possibly make it on your own. You were fully aware that you could not make water where there was only a stone; you were fully aware that you could not make food where there was simply nothing to eat. And it was in that moment, where you were humbled and tested, that moment where you were fully aware of your own shortcomings, it was in that moment that you learned to trust me. In the end, those times became deeply important to you, and in the end you remembered those times as some of the best times of your lives, because it was in those times where you were in the closest communication with me.
We know this is true in our own lives, don’t we? Jill & I hear this a lot from people who are older than me, as she lugs two kids around the grocery store, or as I briefly excuse myself to go change the underwear of a certain 2-year-old girl who has somehow managed another accident. Often, just during the most trying times, we hear, “These years with young kids are just the best years of your life, aren’t they? They’re so sweet at that age!” And you know, sometime that rubs me the wrong way and I want to throw a diaper at them; but most of the time I’m able to reflect and realize that they’re right. These are great years. Our kids, for good and ill, are so dependent on us right now; they trust us implicitly; they need us for everything. And I’m sure that when our kids are teenagers and they roll their eyes at us, or when they are 30 and 40 and having kids of their own and not coming around as often as we like, then we too will look back and see what good years these years were. Jill and I often think if you could just take these years with young kids and kind of spread them out throughout our lives, we might be able to appreciate them more; but it’s just the fact that they keep on coming that makes them difficult.
Yes, these are great years, but they’re also years of testing for us. They are years when Jill and I are being changed; becoming a parent is sort of like going through a sausage factory, where you go in as one thing and you come out as another. For one thing, Jill and I aren’t as selfish as we used to be. Why? Because there are babies who need us sometimes and we don’t get to choose to just leave them. When you have to take care of other people, you wind up less selfish. They’re great years, and for Jill and I we need them because they are key to becoming who God wants us to be, but they’re difficult years too.
Which is kind of the point of this passage. Out there, among the snakes and the scorpions, you couldn’t see it, says God, but I was changing your heart. I was making you rely on me more fully so that you would be a different people at the end of your wilderness time than you were at the beginning of the wilderness time. I was testing you, humbling you, and when you look back, you will say, “Thank you for those times, and I miss them dearly, because it was then when my fingerprints were all over you even though those fingerprints hurt sometimes.”
This is reason #2 why we need to keep the thanks in thanksgiving: because God uses wilderness times. For whatever reason, you may be in a wilderness time right now. Maybe, like us, it’s something as simple as having young kids. Or maybe it’s having older kids who are not behaving. Or maybe it’s losing a bit of money—or a lot of money—in the recent economic situation. Or maybe it’s a physical sickness, or maybe it’s a lonely time—whatever it is, it’s important to remember that God is not only with us during the wonderful times when everything is abundant, but God is especially close to us when we are surrounded by the snakes and scorpions and everything seems to be going wrong. It is in those times when we can be most easily shaped into his image on behalf of this world he created. So we keep the thanks in thanksgiving not only because God gives us a lot, but because even when we don’t have as much, God still uses those times too and brings so much good out of them. So we give thanks!
Now, on to Reason #3 why we need to keep the thanks in Thanksgiving. And it comes from these ominous final two verses here: “If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the Lord is destroying before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God.”
We hear that and we cringe, it’s not a very respectable verse of the Bible to modern ears, and we wonder what on earth it could mean. Does it really mean that God will destroy people who forget him? Well, look closely at the verse and it will become clear that God does not threaten to destroy the people of Israel. He does say I’m going to clear out the other nations before you, to give you a home, and that is its own question which demands its own sermon. But it does not say, “people of Israel, do not forget God or God’s going to destroy you.” It does say, “people of Israel, do not forget God or you will be destroyed.” Now there is a world of difference in this: when we forget God, God does not destroy us; we destroy ourselves.
This whole speech is Moses talking to the people on the brink of crossing into the Promised Land. Moses knows that he won’t be able to go, that he is going to die before the people get there, and so he takes time to give them his last words, in a sense. And he says when you get there, that land that God is going to give you is going to be so lovely and beautiful and amazing. And when you get there, you’re going to live off the fat of the land, a luxurious life. But if you forget who gave you that luxurious life, you’re going to destroy yourself.
We know this is true, don’t we? We live, on the whole, luxurious lives; in America, most people live lives more comfortable than the rest of the world can imagine. But that comfort carries the seeds of our destruction. Because if we are not careful, we stop running our comfortable lives, and our comfortable lives start running us. Perhaps we are experiencing that in these difficult economic times, where we simply don’t know what we would do without the comforts to which we have become accustomed. What would we do without our cable TV? What would we do without our homes heated to 70 degrees in the winter and cooled to 70 degrees in the summer? What would we do without our Phillies tickets, Pastor Mike? What would we do if we had to give up meat with dinner one night a week, three nights a week, every night? What would we do without these things?
And perhaps more pointedly, who are we without those things? I think there is something deep down in our spirits not only enjoys our comforts, but identifies ourselves with our comforts. So often when we are called on to define ourselves, when someone asks who we are, we answer with our jobs—I’m a pastor. I’m a doctor. I’m an accountant. Whatever. Or we answer with the things we like or dislike: I’m a sucker for spicy food. I’m a professional sports nut. I’m a snappy dresser.
We don’t know who we would be if we lost our homes, if we lost our ability to buy things that define us and shape our perception of ourselves and express that to other people. If I lost my job and I lost my stuff, who exactly would I be? That is the question that haunts us at times like this. Maybe this gives us a little insight on what it means to be destroyed when we fail to be thankful. When we forget that this stuff is a gift from God, that it doesn’t define us, we run the risk of being destroyed when our stuff is destroyed. When we forget that this is not ours, that we can’t do a thing to earn it and when it comes right down to it, we can’t do a thing to keep it, then we run the risk of destroying ourselves when our stuff is lost.
So this is perhaps the most urgent reason to keep the thanks in thanksgiving. When we thank God for all we have, we remember that it might all one day be taken away. And if it is, we remember that God is still there, that the gifts might be gone but the Giver remains. This is what it means to keep the thanks in thanksgiving: to love the Giver rather than the gift. And the Giver does not disappoint and will never be destroyed, and those who love him and who identify themselves with the Giver will never be destroyed either.
Let us give thanks always—with our lips and with our lives.