Friday, November 27, 2009

Sermon on Philippians 4:6-20 for Thanksgiving Day. "Thankful Thoughts and Life!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Happy Thanksgiving! Today is a holiday where we especially desire and encourage thankfulness to God. In today’s reading from Philippians, Paul shows us thankfulness in two ways: in having thankful thoughts and in a thankful life, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. Paul wasn’t writing this from some position of comfort and ease, but he taught the Philippians contentment while he was writing from prison. He was in chains and facing possible death, yet in that dark place he rejoiced and gave thanks to the Lord. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Learning to have thankful thoughts and a thankful life is a spiritual discipline. It’s an exercise of our faith and a practice of growth in maturity. As a discipline, it’s something that doesn’t seem pleasant at the time, but in the end all discipline produces a harvest of righteousness (Heb. 12:11). The first verse again says, “The Lord is at hand, do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” If our goal is to have thankful thoughts, then anxiousness, worry, and difficulty in life wage battle against us reaching that goal and steal our joy.

Anxiety and worry are the opposite of thankfulness. Worry is a completely unproductive activity. It doesn’t change our situation for the better, and sometimes it can even be worse. One member shared a good saying about worry with me: “Worry is like a rocking chair—it keeps you occupied but gets you nowhere.” How true—we often spin our wheels or rock back-and-forth worrying so much about what might or might not be, and it never gets anything accomplished. Worry and fear can keep us from taking action. And it’s not like we can’t come up with plenty of good reasons or “excuses” to be worried. There’s worries about the dismal economy and the high rates of unemployment. People’s retirement savings are in jeopardy or have been lost. The education system seems broken and underfunded. Confidence in the government is low. Costs of living climb faster than our pay does. Financial stress puts strain on relationships. All these things could give a person sleepless nights.

But all of these things are earthly needs, and Jesus directly says that God knows our needs before we ask and will provide them—so we shouldn’t worry about what we’ll eat or drink or wear, but know our Father cares for us. Another wise and welcome piece of advice that I’ve shared with many of you was given to me by my sister. She used this Bible verse to show how to be alert to bad thoughts and worries that creep into your mind. When you start to worry, or have bad thoughts on your mind, ask yourself these questions? Is what I’m thinking about true? Is it honorable? Is it just? Pure? Lovely? Commendable? Excellent? Or worthy of praise? If the answer to any of those questions is “NO!”, then guess what?! We shouldn’t be thinking about those things! We should set our thoughts on what is true, honorable, just, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy. What sort of things would these be? Where can we turn our attention away from gloomy or despairing thoughts? There is nothing truer, more honorable, just and praiseworthy than Christ Jesus and all of His gifts of salvation. Setting our minds on Christ and on holy things—the gifts of salvation and God’s Holy Word, will help to drive dark thoughts from us. Set your mind on higher things.

Going backwards from those verses for a minute, it describes more about having a thankful thought-life. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” When worry and anxiousness cloud your mind, turn to prayer. Pray that God would lift the worry from your heart, just as He tells us to “cast our anxieties on Him, because He cares for us.” Pray for peace in your circumstances, and say your prayers with thanksgiving! Start to count your blessings, and give thanks for them all by name. Begin to realize all the things God gives to you in just your daily bread—the supply and needs of our daily life. As Luther named those gifts in his explanation to the Lord’s Prayer, he listed “food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.” As we begin to give thanks for and see all that God has already done in our lives and blessed us with, we ought to witness greater trust in Him.

And God’s peace which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus! In times of trouble and worry and hardship in life, we need God’s peace more than anything. Did you ever think about what it means that His peace surpasses understanding? And not just human understanding, but all understanding, even angelic understanding? But why should peace be better than understanding? We’re people who want to know, after all! When severe trials or losses face us in life, we’re often plagued by questions. Why did God let this happen to me? What’s going to happen? Where’s God when I pray? We want knowledge and answers, but the answers are almost never forthcoming. But here’s a situation where God’s peace surpasses understanding. In situations like these, we just don’t have the knowledge or understanding, but having God’s peace rule and guard your hearts is better. We can have peace in the midst of trouble, even when we don’t understand the why, the what, or the how. We can rest in God’s love and mercy, even when questions go unanswered.

After having thankful thoughts, the second way in which we show our thankfulness is through a thankful life. Paul wrote about how the Philippians showed their thankfulness through their concern and generosity to him. Having him in their thoughts and prayers was strengthening to him as he suffered for the Gospel in prison. He rejoiced at their show of sympathy and love for him. Their thankfulness was expressed in the generosity of their charity. Our lives reflect thankfulness when we show compassion and concern for others, and when we’re generous in our charity. It reflects the knowledge that what we have is not our own, but a gift to be used in God’s service. Generosity also acknowledges that because of God’s limitless generosity, we already have more than we need.

Paul shared with them the secret of his thankful life—the secret of contentment. Our human nature is inclined to think that contentment is a state that we’ll arrive at once all our ducks are in a row. Once we have reached our goals in life, have all the things that we want, have good and healthy relationships—when we reach that decisive moment—then we’ll be content. Perhaps we could freeze life in one ideal moment. But this is not the kind of contentment that Paul knows of or teaches. He knew contentment in all circumstances: whether he had plenty or was in hunger, whether he was in a time of abundance or a time of need. Even if there was a change in store for him—he knew contentment. His contentment didn’t come from keeping the “status quo.” Do we know contentment when we lack the things we want? When life doesn’t seem to be turning our way? When we seem skeptical of our future? Chances are, these aren’t times when we feel particularly content. Most likely they’re times when we relapse into worry or even complaining. But the secret of contentment is this—in all circumstances to know that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us!

Paul didn’t need all the pleasantries of life, or even his physical freedom from prison—he knew contentment even there. Because the source of his strength, of his contentment, wasn’t in himself, but in Christ Jesus who gave him strength. He knew the strength or weakness of his own position was incomparable to the strength of God who worked in Him. He reflected on God’s provision for him and for the Philippians with these words: “my God will supply every need of yours according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Paul could think and live with thankfulness and generosity, because he knew that every need would be supplied by God with the riches in Christ Jesus. All our thanksgiving goes back to God, because He’s the One with the endless store of blessings that He pours out for us. The riches of His love that knows no bounds, the riches of His grace that reaches for every sinner, the riches of His kindness that knows our every need. The precious body given for us, and the sacred lifeblood that poured from His veins as the treasure that purchased our salvation. Whether we’re in abundance or in need, whether in plenty or in hunger, we know the one who has riches beyond measure, that supply us in our need.

Finding a heart of thankfulness and knowing how to live that life of thankfulness is not something that’s born within us, from our own willpower or determination. But rather it’s from the riches of God being poured into our lives. It’s having the true, pure, and noble thoughts of Christ to focus our hope and our life on. Living by His grace and mercy we know contentment. We know the peace that surpasses understanding and guards our hearts and minds. We know that we can do all things, through Him who strengthens us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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