Sunday, October 21, 2007

gratitude (a sermon)

Here's the text of a sermon I gave last night. I hope it helps you in some way.


a sermon by Troy Cady

Philippians 4:4 says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” Since I learned this verse when I was 12, it has long been familiar to me. What I didn't know, however, was that this isn’t the first time in Paul's letter to the Philippains that he encouraged them to rejoice. In fact, in every chapter of this letter Paul does one of two things: he either admonishes us to rejoice in the Lord or he presents us with his own example in rejoicing.

Chapter 1, verse 18. Paul’s example: “I rejoice…I will continue to rejoice.” That’s twice in one verse.

Chapter 2, verse 17: Paul says “I rejoice”. Then, THE VERY NEXT VERSE: Paul tells the Philippians to “rejoice”.

Hm. So that makes two couplets. Chapter 1: “Rejoice, rejoice.” Middle of chapter 2: “Rejoice, rejoice.”

Let’s look more: end of chapter 2, verse 28. Paul tells them he’s sending back to them a dear brother in Christ. He tells them he’s doing so because he wants them to “rejoice.” Next verse: verse 29 he tells them to welcome back their brother with great rejoicing. Another couplet: “rejoice, rejoice.”

Now listen to chapter 3, verse 1. Another couplet, of sorts. The New Living Translation puts it this way: “Whatever happens, my dear brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord. I never get tired of telling you these things, and I do it to safeguard your faith.”

I love that: “I never get tired of telling you these things…I’ll tell you again and again and again: rejoice. I do so because it’s good for you. It will actually protect you, safeguard you.”

Is it any surprise when chapter 4 comes, Paul says: “Rejoice! I will say it again: rejoice!”?

Every chapter, every chance, Paul tells us to rejoice—twice! Why does Paul repeat himself like that?

Last Sunday, our family went over to the Crull’s for lunch. It was a special treat because we had home-made pizza and home-made chocolate chip cookies. Then, after that, we went to the park and the kids had fun playing tag and Frisbee and other games. As we left the park, we passed a shop that had a board on the outside advertising different ice creams they were selling. Spotting the board, one of our kids said, “I wish we could have some of that ice cream.” When we said “no” they said, “Aww, but why not?”

Heather and I replied, “Why don’t you just say ‘thanks’ for what you did have instead of complaining about what you don’t have? We just got done having some nice pizza and cookies at Alleke’s and we had the chance to come down to the playground to enjoy the nice day. For once Mom and Dad would like it if you just said ‘thank you’, instead of complaining about what you don’t have.”

They thought about that and then said, “Yeah, but: I wish we could have some of that ice cream some day.”

There is perhaps one thing more than any other thing I have to remind my kids to do: say Thank You. As children of God, we are no different. See, we tend to forget. Practicing gratitude is hard.

A 19th century Norwegian pastor named Ole Hallesby has written a book on prayer. In it he talks a lot about how hard it is to pray. He has chapters on “difficulties in prayer”, “prayer as work”, “wrestling in prayer”, and “problems of prayer”. He talks much about this because he knows that it’s hard for us to pray. But, in spite of that, he has this to say about thankfulness: “It is hard for us to learn to pray, but it is still harder to learn to give thanks. Notice our own children! We do not need to teach them to pray for the things they desire. But what untiring efforts does it not involve to train them to say, Thank you!”

Practicing gratitude is hard. And there are at least two ways we fail to be grateful. First... (click to continue reading)

First, we too often fail to be grateful for all that God has given to us and done for us. You know, if we put our mind to it, our lives really could become an endless chain of saying “Thank You” to God. There is not even an hour that passes that we do not have something—in fact, several things—for which to thank God, but too often we skip over saying “Thanks” to God.

See, God longs for us to catch even just a small glimpse of his heart for us which is infinitely gracious, kind, compassionate, generous, and caring. And practicing gratitude enables us to do that. Not only does it bless God’s heart, but God wants us to practice gratitude because he knows that if we comprehend even a fraction of how much he has blessed us, it will put our hearts at ease and our mind will have peace, security and comfort.

So, the first way to practice gratitude is to thank God for all he has given to us and done for us. But there is a second way we can practice gratitude, and this one is also overlooked too often: We need to be grateful to God for those things he has not given us.

You know, often I will hear Christians complain, “Why hasn’t God answered my prayer?!” But, this question is misguided in at least one respect. The fact is: God answers every prayer—just not always the way we want him to answer it. See, sometimes God responds to our requests for his “blessings” by saying “Yes”, while other times he will say a flat-out “No”, and still other times he will say “Yes, but not now.”

See, because God is love, he can never do anything that is contrary to love. So, when God answers “Yes”, it’s because he loves us. And, when God answers “No”, it’s also because he loves us.

If one of my children came up to me and said, “Daddy, may we play with the butcher knife please?” I hope I would answer “No” to that request! See, God knows that sometimes the thing we want will do us harm or others harm. In those instances, God, in his mercy, will not grant our request. For this we should be thankful.

And, even though there are many things we ask for that are truly good things, sometimes God, in his love, wants us to wait for that good thing. This too is a blessing, for, even though God has given us all things richly to enjoy, we are not meant to have all good things all at once for God knows we would not be able to handle it all at once! See, our Father knows what we need, when we need it and he gives us his good gifts in his time for that reason. As his dearly loved children, then, we should be grateful to God that he blesses us in such a way. We should trust that our Father knows best and rejoice in the Lord always, being content with how he has blessed us in the present without worrying about the future.

Notice: gratitude and contentment go hand-in-hand. This is why another theme that runs through the book of Philippians deals with contentment.

Paul says in chapter four, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

What a beautiful picture of trust and gratitude Paul portrays here! He knows that, whatever happens, he can rejoice in the One who gives him strength day in and day out without fail.

In contrast to this picture, I’m not sure I could honestly say that I have “learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.” When I’m hungry, I complain! When I’m in want, I complain! But, my complaining accomplishes little, if anything.

In fact, a complaining spirit is the anti-thesis to a thankful heart. And, because thankfulness in the face of difficulty takes trust, a thankful heart is an indicator of a trusting heart. If trust is what God is after, we should make it our aim to cultivate a life of continuous thankfulness while at the same time pulling out the weeds of complaint.

So Paul says in Philippians 2: “Do everything without complaining or 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 as you hold out the word of life…”

Now, I’ve often thought about what Paul says here this way: “What?! So…you’re telling me that, if I want to ‘shine like a star in the universe’, all I need to do is ‘do everything without complaining or arguing’? What does complaining and arguing have to do with ‘becoming blameless and pure’ and how is it that, were I to eliminate a grumbling spirit, I would ‘shine like a star’? I don’t get it! How does ‘that’ give you ‘THAT’?”

It has been said that our core problem as humans boils down to what Christians call “sin”. Sin, roughly defined, is rebellion or indifference to God. It separates us from relating to God as he intended, and thus it cuts us off from all that God longs to give us. It is the thing that makes us “crooked and depraved” as Paul puts it. Sin deforms us.

So, yes, I agree: our basic problem boils down to sin. But, as I’ve thought about it more, I think it’s worth being even more specific. What I mean to say is: “Where did sin come from in the first place?” In a word, sin grows out of ingratitude and malcontent.

Think about it: in Genesis 2 and 3 we read about sin’s entrance into the world. The story goes that God created the world, and everything God created was good. Then, God created humans, and entrusted to the first man and woman the care and enjoyment of the entire creation. We could put it this way: “God gave us all things richly to enjoy”—save one. He never intended for us to eat from one tree: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. See, God withheld something from us because he knew that thing would hurt us, even though the tree seemed good. Notice, when God holds something back, it’s for our good, even though we may think it’s because he doesn’t care.

Now, the response to all that God gives us and withholds from us should be one and the same: “Thanks” said with a heart of restful trust. God longs for us to express gratitude to him accompanied with its twin contentment. Had the first humans responded this way, they would not have focused on the one prohibition God imposed (for their own good, mind you!). And, had they not obsessed over what God withheld from them, they would not have taken what God never intended them to have. In short, had they expressed simple childlike trust and gratitude (thankfulness and contentment), we would not live in a broken world today.

So, remember God’s blessing comes in two forms: gifts given and gifts withheld. We do well to be content with what we have, grateful for what we have; and we do well to be grateful for what we do not have. That’s why when Paul says that, should we learn to be grateful, to resist the compulsion to complain and argue with God, we really will be “blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation.” See, it’s ingratitude that made us “crooked and depraved” in the first place, so thankfulness (after having received God’s forgiveness) can set us right again.

Now, lest you think I’m reading into the biblical text too much (that is, linking ingratitude with our core human problem), you should know that many other Christians throughout history place gratitude at the top of the list in putting things right again.

For example, in the 16th century, as key Christian reformers rethought the foundations of the Christian faith, they realized there was so much to think about that the average person would not be able to grasp it all. So, they saw fit to summarize concisely the chief points of what they deemed the essentials of the Christian faith. These summaries are sometimes called “confessions” and sometimes called “catechisms”.

A “catechism” was, among other things, a tool parents could use in their homes to instruct their children about the chief points of the Christian faith. Often, in these catechisms they would start with the most important issues and then proceed to other matters that flowed out of the established first principles. The thinking was that if the children only learned, say, the first two questions—out of a total of, say, 129—then they would at least be learning the most important thing.

In light of that, one such catechism, written in Heidelberg, Germany sheds light on the foundational nature of gratitude in the Christian life.

Listen to Question 1 now, keeping in mind that the first two questions are the most important:

“Question 1: What is your only comfort, in life and in death?

“Answer: That I belong …not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head;…he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

Can you hear “provision”, “blessing”, “protection” in those words? I repeat: “my faithful Savior…has fully paid for all my sins”. And, he “has completely freed me”. And, “he protects me”. And, “he assures me of eternal life”.

So, is it any wonder that the appropriate response to this is, essentially, gratitude expressed through a “wholehearted willingness to live for God”?

Now listen to question 2 where the importance of the practice of gratitude becomes more explicitly stated. The question goes like this: “How many things must you know that you may live and die in the blessedness of this comfort?”

Answer: “Three things. First, the greatness of my sin and wretchedness. [That’s our need.] Second, how I am freed from all my sins and their wretched consequences. [That’s God’s provision for our need.] Third, what gratitude I owe to God for such redemption.”

And that’s where the answer ends: gratitude. Gratitude. The reformers here are telling us: “If you are going to know only three things in this life, know these three things: your need, God’s provision for your need and your gratitude for God’s provision.”

Prior to becoming a Christian, God works in the human heart to show us our need. On becoming a Christian, God shows us his ability to forgive and give us everything we need. And, though it sounds outlandish to say so, the Christian life after conversion consists of the practice of one simple, yet difficult discipline: the practice of gratitude.

Perhaps this is why Thomas Merton, a 20th century monk, says this: “the full fruitfulness of spiritual life begins in gratitude for life…and in the greater gratitude that seeks to be dissolved and to be with Christ.”

I’ll conclude now with this quote from the Norwegian pastor Ole Hallesby whom I mentioned earlier. He writes: ““It is…necessary for us to catch a vision of the heart of God. His is the most tender and most sensitive heart of all…If someone has rendered a great service to you or your dear ones in a difficult situation, then you feel the desire to meet that person, grip his or her hand fervently and say from the bottom of your heart: ‘Thank you very much for what you have done for us.’ My friend, do the same to Jesus. He is not made of stone. He is moved to happiness every time He sees that you appreciate what He has done for you. Grip His pierced hand and say to Him, ‘I thank Thee, Savior, because Thou hast died for me.’ Thank Him likewise for all the other blessings He has showered upon you from day to day. Do this often during the day, in the midst of your work as well as when you are resting. It brings joy to Jesus. And you yourself will become glad.”

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