Pastor Chris Matthis
Epiphany Lutheran Church, Castle Rock, Colorado Thanksgiving Eve
Wednesday, November 27th, 2013
Sermon: Giving Thanks in the Wilderness
Text: Deuteronomy 8:1-10; Philippians 4:6-20
Focus: God supplies all our needs in Christ.
Function: That they would give thanks for God’s grace and gifts even in difficult circumstances. Structure: Multiple Stories
Locus: “He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life” (SC, 1st Article of Apostles’ Creed).
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. How do you give thanks in the wilderness? It’s easy to give thanks when your health is good, you get a raise or promotion, your kids are doing well in school, and your favorite team is in the playoffs. But how do you give thanks…in the wilderness? How do you give thanks when everything around you looks like dust and dirt and sand? How do you give thanks when the sun scorches your back, and there’s nothing to drink and nothing to eat except “this worthless food” (cp. Num. 21:5)? How do you give thanks when there are giants in the land and slavery in Egypt looks a whole lot better than the terrible exodus journey to the Promised Land?
Ask Moses and the Israelites. You count your blessings and make a list of all the gifts that God has given you. For 40 years the Lord fed you with manna—a miraculous bread from heaven (Deut. 8:3). And during that time, your clothes didn’t wear out, and you never needed to buy more than one pair of shoes (Deut. 8:4; cf. 29:5). God gave you “a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs…, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees 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” (Deut. 8:7-9). Above all, God gave you his Word—his Ten Commandments and his wonderful promises. And God always keeps his promises (Josh. 21:45).
And after you get done making your list, what do you do? You “bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you” (Deut. 8:10). You bless God and give him thanks for everything he’s given to you. You buckle down for a good sermon from Pastor Moses (almost the entire Book of Deuteronomy!), and away you go! That’s how you give thanks in the wilderness.
And how do you give thanks in a dark, dank prison cell? How do you give thanks when you share the company of rats? How do you give thanks when you’re hungry, lonely, and afraid, and your only connection to the outside world is the occasional courier who smuggles your letters past the guards? How do you reassure the people who worry about you that God is still in control and everything will work out in the end—whatever end it may be?
Ask the Apostle Paul. You write letters. You put pen to paper and scribble out the so- called “epistle of joy” to the Philippian Christians. You say, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). You remind them not to worry. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6). KEEP CALM, PRAY ON, as the sign in my office reads. And then you declare, “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). Finally, you remind them of the bountiful goodness of our heavenly Father: “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). That’s how you give thanks in a prison cell!
How do you give thanks when your world is falling apart? How do you give thanks when war rages around you, and you have a refugee crisis on your hands? How do you give
thanks when famine and disease strike your congregation, and you officiate up to 50 funerals per day? How do you give thanks when you’re the only pastor left in town because you’ve already buried two of them, and the other pastor ran away? How do you give thanks when your wife dies from the Plague, and you’re left alone to raise your children? How do you give thanks when your congregation looks to you to give them hope and reason to still believe in God?
You write a song, as Pastor Martin Rinckart did during the Thirty Years’ War in Germany. In fact, you write the hymn we sang just a few minutes ago, “Now Thank We All Our God.”
Now thank we all our God
With hearts and hands and voices, Who wondrous things has done, In whom his world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms
Has blest us on our way
With countless gifts of love
And still is ours today.
Oh, may this bounteous God Through all our life be near us, With ever joyful hearts
And blessed peace to cheer us And keep us in his grace
And guide us when perplexed And free us from all harm
In this world and the next.1
That’s how you give thanks when death and destruction are all around you. That was Martin Rinckart’s wilderness.
So what about your wilderness, your prison, your besieged city? How do you give thanks in the midst of your trials and tribulations? How do you give thanks when you can barely get out of bed in the morning because of your chronic pain or depression? How do you give thanks
1 Martin Rinckart, trans. Catherine Winkworth, “Now Thank We All Our God,” in Lutheran Worship (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1982), 443:1-2.
when you’re “working for the man” at a job you hate and don’t even know if you’re making a difference? Or how do you give thanks when you don’t have a reason to get out of bed in the morning because you’re fired or retired and don’t have a job to go to? Does your life still have meaning and purpose? How do you give thanks when your kids won’t talk to you? Or how do you give thanks when you’re absolutely worn out from taking care of your elderly parents or spouse with Alzheimer’s? How do you give thanks when you’re drowning in debt or facing foreclosure? How do you give thanks when you’re dogged by guilt and the shame of your sinful past? How do you give thanks in your wilderness?
Can I be honest? I don’t normally like to use the pulpit as a confessional booth or group therapy, but I must tell you: This has been a tough year for me and my family. I lost my voice during an illness in January (a hard thing for a preacher to do without!). And there was that car wreck on the way home from church in October. But out of everything I’ve faced in life, nothing has been more painful or more unbearable than the death of our unborn child. In case you didn’t know: Lisa and I lost a baby due to miscarriage earlier this summer. It was such a painful loss for us that we haven’t told very many people—until now. The thought of speaking publicly about our miscarriage so soon after it happened was just too difficult. (Some of you can relate; those of you who can’t, I hope you never know our pain). Welcome to my wilderness!
So how do I give thanks? Haltingly and infrequently, usually between outbursts of anger and tears. I’m still trying to figure it out. As a selfish sinner focused on my own supposedly unmet needs, it’s easy to complain than to be content. It’s easier to grumble than to give thanks. Unlike the Apostle Paul, I have yet to learn how to be content in every situation (Phil. 4:11).
My most common prayer of thanksgiving is Luther’s Morning Prayer: “I thank you, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, your dear Son, that you have kept me this night from all
harm and danger…” (SC). In other words, most days I just give thanks that I survived the night to die another day! (Hey! If that’s the best you can do, go for it! It’s still a prayer of thanksgiving!)
But then I take a cue from Moses and count my blessings (cp. Deuteronomy 8). I recently made a list of all the people and things for which I give thanks:
My Savior, Jesus Christ!
My beautiful, wonderful wife (Lisa)
My #1 son (Benjamin)
My ministry calling at Epiphany
My car (when it’s not in the shop!)
My cats (especially Sonic, even if he’s obnoxious)
My freedom as an American citizen
My writing ability and language skills
The beauty of God’s creation
My personal library
And the list goes on from there! After making my list, I was overwhelmed by God’s goodness, and I wrote out a prayer of thanksgiving from the Psalms in my prayer journal. Even as I still mourn the loss of the baby I will never hold in my arms, I give thanks for the wonderful son I do have—and the special joy he brings to my life.
You should try making a list of your blessings. It really takes you away from navel gazing and gets you to open your eyes to see God’s gifts. After all, we have a loving, heavenly Father, who loves to give his children gifts (Matt. 7:11). “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” (Jas. 1:17).
Even in the wilderness, when your mouth is dry, your stomach aches, your mind can’t focus, and your heart breaks, there is still hope. There is life because you live on more than
bread alone; you live by the Word of God (Deut. 8:3). You live by the promises of the Holy One of Israel. You live because God’s only-begotten Son Jesus, the eternal Word, became the Bread of Life come down from heaven to give eternal life to all who believe in him. You keep calm and carry on because you can do all things through Christ who gives you strength (Phil. 4:13). God has a track record of showing up. He always keeps his promises. So sometimes you just have to give thanks for what God is going to do instead of what he has already done.
Now here’s a biggie: How do You give thanks…from a cross? How do You give thanks
when the road is long, and Your back is bloody and raw, and the cross You bear is too heavy to carry alone? How do You give thanks when You are thirsty and weak and all they offer You to drink is sour wine? How do You give thanks when your friends abandon, betray, and deny You? How do You give thanks when Your own family doesn’t believe in You? How do You give thanks when God demands Your life to atone for the sin of the whole world? And how do You give thanks when that same God, Your heavenly Father, abandons and forsakes you to die alone?
For that is the kind of wilderness that Jesus faced on the cross. Then, if You are Jesus, You pray, “Thy will, not my will, be done” (cf. Luke 22:42) and “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). And You say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). And then You rejoice and give thanks because You know everything is accomplished and all the sinners in the world are forgiven and free because of You! So You declare, “It is finished!” and then You die (John 19:30). You give up and give in to the unknowable will of God. You surrender everything, including Your very self, and in so doing, You gain the whole world! You save the whole world!
Because man doesn’t live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God—every word that comes from the mouth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as he hung, dying on the cross, and every word he spoke after he rose triumphantly from the empty tomb— above all, the words: “Peace be with you,” which Jesus spoke over and over again nearly every time he met his disciples after the resurrection. Peace be with you. And peace be with you! “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:9). And he is with you. That’s a Word you can count on, a Word that will carry you through each and every wilderness wandering. “God shall bless us” (Ps. 67:7a). By the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, he already has. Jesus is why we give thanks. Jesus is how we give thanks. And, if I may, let me remind me that Jesus gives thanks for you: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will” (Luke 10:21). Happy Thanksgiving! In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Pastor Chris Matthis