In Everything Give Thanks

            I heard recently about a man who had a habit of grumbling and complaining about the food his wife put on the dinner table every night.  But, before the family ate the meal, he would say a prayer and give thanks.  One evening, after his usual combination of complaint and then prayer, his daughter asked him, “Daddy, does God hear us when we pray?”

            He said, “Of course he does.  He hears us every time we pray.”

            She thought about that for a moment, and then she asked, “Does God hear everything we say the rest of the time?”

            To which, he replied, “Yes, dear, he hears every word.”  Dad was feeling pretty good that he had inspired his daughter to be so curious about spiritual matters.  But his pride was quickly turned to humility at his daughter’s next question.

            “Then, which of those does God believe?”

            Children have a way with their honesty, don’t they?  We’re just a few days away now from Thanksgiving, and I thought I would share with you some thoughts this morning on that topic.  I think you would all have to agree that this has been a tough year, and it may be that the thing you are most thankful right now is that the year 2020 is almost over.  Some of you may be finding it difficult to find much to be thankful for this year. 

            So, my task this morning is to remind us that God’s word says we are to be “giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:20).

            The apostle Paul said in I Thessalo­nians 5:17-18 to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  In everything give thanks.

            Let me read that from a few other translations.  The Common English Bible – “Give thanks in every situation.”

            Good News Translation — “Be thankful in all circumstances.”

            God’s Word Translation — “Whatever happens, give thanks.”

            The Message Bible — “Thank God no matter what happens.”

            Seriously?  Thank God no matter what happens?  It seems to me that God is asking an awful lot from us, especially during times like these – times of great disappointment, tremendous loss, unbearable heartache.  It’s hard for us to understand how we’re supposed to give thanks during these difficult and challenging times.  Because, let’s be honest.  It’s sometimes hard for some of us to be thankful even in good times.

            In Luke 17, there’s a story in the life of Jesus that involved some folks who had a problem being thankful.  We read about how Jesus cleansed ten men of the dreaded, incurable disease of leprosy.  Beginning in verse 11, “Now it happened as He went to Jerusalem that He passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee.  Then as He entered a certain village, there met Him ten men who were lepers, who stood afar off.”

            Luke tells us that they stood afar off. The disease of leprosy was a terribly painful disease that ate away the flesh and no doctors in that day could heal it.  But the physical pain wasn’t the worst part of the disease.  Lepers were separated.  They were shut out and cast off.  They were shut out from their families, a lot like people who have COVID today.  

            There’s no telling how long it had been since these ten men had felt the touch of their wife or the kiss of their children.  They were shut out from their friends.  Friends no longer came over or invited them to go somewhere with them. They were outcasts.  And so, they stood afar off.

            In verse 13, “They lifted up their voices and said, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’  So when He saw them, He said to them, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’  And so it was that as they went, they were cleansed.”

            Now, I don’t know exactly how this healing took place, we aren’t given the details.  Maybe as they walked toward the temple, they began to notice their skin losing that scaly white appearance.  Or maybe they passed by some people and noticed that nobody was running away, trying to get away from them.  I don’t know how they came to the realization that things had changed, but when they saw that they were healed, we’re told what happened next,

            “One of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks. And he was a Samaritan.  So Jesus answered and said, ‘Were there not ten cleansed?  But where are the nine?  Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?’” (Luke 17:15-18).

            It’s a good question.  Where were the other nine?  I’ll tell you where I think they were.  I think as soon as they were declared clean by the priests, they made their way to be with their family and their friends. To hug and kiss the wife and the children. To visit with Mom and Dad. To talk with their friends.  They were busy enjoying all the blessings that Jesus had brought to their lives.

            But one of them was different.  I’m sure he loved his wife and children just as much as the others did.  And I’m sure he wanted to spend time with his friends just as much as the others.  But this one man didn’t get so wrapped up in the blessing he had received that he forgot the one who blessed him.

            I think that Jesus’ response to the ingratitude of those nine lepers gives us a glimpse into the heart of God.  Jesus wasn’t angry.  But he was disappointed that only one person cared enough to express his gratitude. William Barclay says of this passage, “So often once a man has got what he wants, he never comes back.”

            I often wondered as a child how that could happen.  If leprosy was such a terrible disease, then why would only one healed man return to give thanks to God?  As a child, I wondered why.  As an adult, I have unfortunately discovered the answer firsthand.

            I’ve seen how easy it is to take God’s goodness for granted as those nine lepers did. We are absolutely showered with great blessings and yet there are times we all fail to go back to God and give him our gratitude and thanksgiving.

We’re sometimes like a little boy I heard about.  He went to a birthday party and when he got back home, his mother asked him, “Bobby, did you thank the lady for the party?”

Bobby said, “Well, I was going to. But the girl in front of me said, ‘Thank you,’ and the lady said, ‘Don’t mention it.’  So, I didn’t.”

            Folks, it’s important that we do mention it.  Psalm 103:2, “Blessed be the Lord, O my soul and forget not all his blessings.”  Psalm 100:4, “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise:  be thankful unto him, and bless his name.”

            In 1863, Abraham Lincoln made a proclamation that Thanksgiving should be observed by our nation every year.  Here’s what he said:

“We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven.  We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and pros­perity.  We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown.  But we have forgotten God.

“We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.

“Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to God that made us!  It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.”

            For the past 150 years, our country has observed Thanksgiving every November.  But I don’t think things have changed all that much since the days of Lincoln.  We are still a nation of people who have forgotten God.

            As I’ve prepared this lesson, I’ve become aware of just how ungrateful I really am.  I get up every morning out of a comfortable bed, something many people don’t have.  I awake to a nice house that’s heated in the winter.  I turn on the lights and enjoy the blessing of electricity.  I go to the bathroom and enjoy the blessing of indoor plumbing.  I take a long, hot shower, and enjoy the blessing of hot water.

            That’s just a start.  The blessings go on and on and on.  And yet, I can’t help but wonder, how can it be that I enjoy all of these blessings day after day without pausing to give thanks to God for any of them?  And I begin to understand how it is that the nine healed lepers never returned.  They were too much like me.

            Why is it that we have a tendency to be ungrateful?  Let me suggest several reasons, and then I’ll take a positive look at how we can develop an attitude of gratitude.

            One reason that we’re sometimes not as grateful as we should be is that we take what we have for granted.  I take a hot shower every morning.  It’s nothing unusual.  It’s nothing special.  I grew up taking hot showers.  All my friends and family take hot showers.  What’s the big deal?  The big deal is that I’m enjoying something that the majority of the world will never have a chance to enjoy, and the only reason I can enjoy it is because God has blessed me in a very rich way.

            Sometimes, the only way we can be reminded of our blessings is to have them taken away for a while.  I’m sure you’ve all experienced this.  You’re watching your favorite TV show when everything in the house goes dark.  And you begin to wonder, “How long will the power be out?  How am I going to make dinner?  Will I have enough hot water left to shower?  When will I find out how this episode ends?  How much battery does my cell phone have?”  Or, for me, the absolute worst question, “How much of my sermon am I going to have to re-write because I didn’t save my work recently?”

            How often do we take the things that God has provided for us for granted until we lose them?  The people of Judah were the same way.  In the days of King Josiah, Judah prospered economically, financially, mentally, physically, and spiritually.  Life was going great for the people of Judah until they forgot about God and put their faith and trust in themselves.

            “They abandoned the temple of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, and worshiped Asherah poles and idols. Because of their guilt, God’s anger came on Judah and Jerusalem.” (2 Chronicles 24:18)

            Judah took all of their blessings for granted and forgot the one who gave all of that to them.  So, God said, “Fine, I’ll take it all away.”  It scares me to think about what would happen if God were to say to me, “Alan, I’m going to remove every blessing from your life that you haven’t thanked me for lately.”  We need to constantly remember that God is the source of all of our blessings, and not take them for granted.

            A second reason that we’re sometimes not as grateful as we should be is that we tend to think that we are the cause of our good fortune.   Let’s call it what it is – it’s pride.  We give ourselves a pat on the back and we forget that it is God who has blessed us

            Not con­sciously.  I don’t think we would ever consciously say, “Here’s what I have done all by myself.”  But I think sub-consciously, we don’t really feel that dependent on God.  After all, I enjoy a hot shower because I bring home a paycheck that pays the water bill and the electric bill.  And my paycheck pays for my car and my furniture and my food and my clothes.  And it’s easy to go on month after month paying my way and feeling like I have accom­plished something rather than understanding that God has blessed me.

            Nearly 3000 years ago, a wise leader by the name of Moses fore­saw that the nation of Israel, like all nations, would soon forget the true source of their blessings.  What he said of them could very well be said of us in the United States today:

            “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, that flow out of valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of oil and honey; a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing; a land whose stones are iron and out of whose hills you can dig copper.  When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.” (Deuteronomy 8:7-10).

            Then God also inspired Moses to add this solemn warning:

            “Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments, his judgments and his statutes which I command you this day, lest when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them; and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold is multiplied, and all you have is multiplied:  when your heart is lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God which brought you up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage…Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth.’  And you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.” (Deuteronomy 8:11-14,17-18)

            Let us never forget that it is God who is the source of all of our many blessings.

            A third reason that we’re sometimes not as grateful as we should be is because we focus on negative things rather than the positive things.  Let’s be honest – it’s hard to rejoice and be thankful when life has got you beat down.  It’s hard to be thankful when your doctor tells you it’s cancer.  Or when your son calls up and says, “Dad, could you come get me out of jail?”  It’s hard to be grateful when the bills are piling up and the boss is considering layoffs.

            In Exodus 14, we read about Moses leading the Israelites out of the land of Egypt.  And the thing we remember most is Moses parting the Red Sea and all the Israelites passing through safely on dry ground.  It was a great example of faith.  But, just before that, there was something not so positive.

            You see, when the Israelites left Egypt, Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his armies to chase after them to bring them back or kill them.  And so, when the Israelites came to the Red Sea which blocked their path, and then they looked back at the approaching Egyptian armies, they freaked out.

            Exodus 14:10 says, “The Israelites looked up and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. And they said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die’?”  The Israelites’ first reaction to their circumstances was to complain.  And it may be that you’re finding it hard to be thankful right now because you’re trapped in a situation in your life that is extremely difficult, and it doesn’t look like there’s any way out.

            In everyone’s life, those dark moments, those times of distress, grief, anxiety and loneliness are inevitable.  And in those moments, if we’re not careful, we can allow the stress of the moment to swallow us up with discontent.  Those dark moments are so powerful and they can be so overwhelming that they sometimes move us to feel angry with God, or to feel abandoned by God, or to feel betrayed by God.  And when we’re consumed with resentment directed at God, it’s hard to be grateful.  “What do I have to be thankful for?” 

            Now I don’t know if you’re struggling with any of these things.  Pride, taking what we have for granted, unpleasant circumstances. But whatever the case, I think we all would like to learn to be more thankful and appreciative of what we have.  So, let me quickly give you three suggestions that I hope will help us all to develop a spirit of thanksgiving in our lives. 

How to be More Grateful

A.        Make a personal choice to be thankful

            It has well been said that we cannot always determine what happens to us, but we can always determine how we will react to what happens to us.

            Two men were walking through a field one day when they spotted an enraged bull.  Immediately, they began running toward the nearest fence. The storming bull followed in hot pursuit, and it was soon apparent they weren’t going to make it.  Terrified, one of the men shouted to the other, “We’re in big trouble, John. Say a prayer!”

            John answered and said, “I can’t. I’ve never said a public prayer in my life.”  His friend said, “But you must!  The bull is catching up to us.” John said, “All right.  I’ll say the only prayer I know, the one my father used to repeat at the dinner table: ’O Lord, for what we are about to receive, make us truly thankful.’”

You and I can’t control much of what happens to us in life.  But you and I can control how we react to what happens to us.  We can either choose to be consumed by the problems of the moment, or we choose to remain aware of the many ways God has touched and blessed our lives through the years.

            Gratitude is a choice. And even though it may be difficult to be thankful at certain times, we need to make a personal decision that we are going to be grateful people even when we don’t feel like it, even when it is hard.  Remember what Paul wrote, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (I Thessalonians 5:18)

B.        Instead of complaining, look for the positive

            Two of the biggest barriers to gratitude are complaining and grumbling.     When God led the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt, he made sure that he provided for his people in the wilderness.   When they were hungry, God sent manna and quail.  When they were thirsty, God sent water gushing from a rock.  Over and over, God provided for their needs.

            But it didn’t take long for the Israelites to start complaining.  They said, “Oh that we had meat to eat!  We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.  But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (Numbers 11:4-6)

            It’s easy to fall into the same trap spiritually.  If we don’t focus on the blessings God has given us, we will tend to focus on those things that we are unhappy about, and complain.  And if you happen to be someone who likes to complain, then you can find plenty in this world to complain about! 

            You can start with the cost of groceries, or the cost of medical care.  You can complain about everything from the traffic in Spring Lake to the fact that we have to wear masks everywhere we go.  And then you can move to complaining about things like slow Internet service, or how long it takes you to get through the drive-through at McDonald’s, or the weather, which is either too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry.  And you can get your list drawn up and sit down with someone else who has their list and you just sit and complain to one another about how terrible everything is in this world.

And let’s be honest.  The thought of doing that is tempting to many of us because we enjoy complaining.  We may call it griping or grumbling. In the Bible, the most common term used is “murmuring.”  But regardless of what we call it, complaining is “an expression of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, or discontent.”  Which means that it is the very opposite of being grateful.

            And we need to learn to catch ourselves when we are complaining and just put a stop to it.  Paul wrote in Philippians 2:14, “Do everything without complaining and arguing so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe.”

C.        Develop a daily habit of giving thanks

I love this quote that Sueanne found on Facebook – “November is the month where people who have complained on Facebook for the past 11 months become thankful for 30 days.”

            I love that quote because it’s so true.  But, in order to be a thankful people, we need to give thanks every day. Not just once a year on Thanksgiving.  We need to discipline ourselves to find something each and every day that we should be thankful for and express our thanks to God. 

            And so I want to challenge you to begin a regular routine of finding something each and every day to give thanks for.  Keep a notebook or a journal and write down the things that you’re thankful for.

            No matter how small or insignificant your blessings are, you will learn to search out the positive amidst the negative and give thanks for what you do have. 

            Some of you may be familiar with Corrie Ten Boom’s autobiography, The Hiding Place.  In that book, she tells how she learned to be thankful to God for everything while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.

            Corrie and her sister Betsie, were herded into a horribly crowded and filthy barracks.  1400 women were crammed into a building designed to hold less than 400.  Most of the window panes had been broken and dirty rags stuffed in the openings.  The plumbing had backed up and the toilets spilled their filth onto the straw mattresses which covered the floor.  The smell was almost unbearable.  And on top of all that, they were covered with fleas constantly biting them.

            They began to read from their Bible which they had managed to sneak in.  Corrie read from I Thessalonians 5:17-18, our text this evening,  “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”

            Betsie said, “That’s it!  That’s his answer.  Give thanks in all circum­stances!  That’s what we can do.  We can start right now to thank God for every single thing about this new barracks!”

            They thought of several things to be thankful for.  They were thankful that they had been assigned to the same place.  They were thankful that there had been no inspection and they still had their Bible.  They were thankful that the barracks was so crowded so they would have the opportuni­ty to talk to more women about the Bible.

            Then Betsie said, “God, thank you for the fleas.”

            But that was too much.  Corrie said, “There’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.”  But she later confessed that she learned to be thank­ful even for the fleas.  Because of the fleas, the prison guards didn’t come into the barracks very often.  And the absence of the guards made it possible for Corrie and Betsie to study the Bible with the other women.

            “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”

            In his book, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, William Law made the following statement:

“Would you know who is the greatest saint in the world? It is not he who prays most or fasts most; it is not he who gives most alms or is most eminent for temperance, chastity, or justice; but it is he who is always thankful to God, who wills everything that God wills, who receives everything as an instance of God’s goodness and has a heart always ready to praise God for it. Could you therefore work miracles, you could not do more for yourself than by this thankful spirit, for it turns all that it touches into happiness.”

            He makes a great point. When you see God at work and respond to what he is doing with thankfulness instead of resentment, it will change your whole demeanor.

            I don’t know what all of your circumstances are right now, but I’m going to guess that some of you are going through some tough times.  Even if the midst of all the problems we’re facing, may we continue to give thanks to our God.

            “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”

            May God bless you and be with all in this Thanksgiving season.

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