(Started with story of The Ungrateful Tiger for the Children’s Chat)
Being thankful is a universal value. The story I told about the Ungrateful Tiger comes originally from Korea or maybe India and on the internet, there are stories from around the world about the importance of being thankful. From early 19th century Germany comes a Grimm Brother’s tale about a man who was ungrateful to his father and suffered the rest of his life with a toad sitting on his face. The universal lesson seems to be that we should be thankful and not be ungrateful.
Psalm 136 is a psalm of thanksgiving with the repeated refrain, His love endures forever. If you have been to a Seder meal celebration of Passover, you will recognize this psalm because it is part of the liturgy, or haggadah. This psalm gives praise to God for his character and sovereignty, then moves to thanks for what God has done and concludes with thanks for God’s continuing action.
Psalm 136 raises the theme of being thankful and I will make four observations about thankfulness this morning.
The first observation about thankfulness is that being ungrateful, not giving thanks, is a characteristic of those who have fallen away from God, those who are being disobedient to God.
When Paul wrote to Timothy about the negative character of people in the last days, he included being ungrateful. Listen to the character traits that surround ungratefulness in Paul’s list.
II Timothy 3:1-3
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 2 People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4 treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.
That’s not good company.
When Paul was describing to the church in Rome a world that had fallen away from God, he wrote about people not fulfilling their duty to thank God.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.
Being thankful is our natural and godly response to all that God does. We are meant to give thanks and we should give thanks.
The second observation is that thankfulness is directed first and foremost to God, not to any other created being or object.
In the Hebrew Old Testament, thanksgiving is always, without exception, made to God. When Moses led Israel across the Red Sea, it was not Moses who was thanked but God. When food and water were provided for Israel in the wilderness, it was not Moses who was thanked but God. When a battle was won by Israel, it was not Joshua or David who were thanked but God. There is no distinction in the Hebrew between praise and thankfulness and when the occasion required it, thanks and praise were directed to God.
The Christian New Testament, except for four rare exceptions, directs thankfulness to God as well. The Bible is clear that when we express thanks, we are to do it to God.
This is not to say we should not thank people for their kind acts. As children we were taught by our parents to say, “Thank you,” and that is important. It is more than being polite. Saying thank you affirms the action of someone who did something nice for you and builds and maintains good relationships. It is important in our church community that we say thank you to each other.
To understand why the Bible directs thanks to God, it may help for us to understand if we think about our sin. Although our sin normally harms other people: we lie to someone, steal something from someone, spread gossip about someone; although our sin normally harms other people, the Bible teaches us that when we sin, we sin against God. David, when he wrote Psalm 51 in response to having been confronted by the prophet Nathan about his sin involving Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah, made this confession
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
Our sin affects other people but our offense against God is so much greater than our offense against any other person that it can be said that we have sinned only against God.
In the same way, we can express thanks to other people for the good things they do, but we need to see that God is the source of all goodness and so it is to him that we express our thankfulness and praise.
I remember receiving financial gifts that allowed me to pay for my seminary tuition. I sent a thank you to the person who gave me the gift but what I most remember is being thankful to God that he was providing for me what I needed.
When someone does something good for us we thank them, but we are grateful to God for taking care of us and we thank him for his marvelous provision.
On the other side of this, when we do something good or worthy of praise, we give room for God to receive praise and thanksgiving. When Paul took up a collection from around the Gentile world for the Christians in Jerusalem, he said that this collection would result in God receiving thanks.
I Corinthians 9:12
This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.
What do you do when you are a musician or actor and people applaud at the end of your performance? I wondered about this over the years and observed Christian groups that would stand on stage and raise their index finger to indicate that the praise for their performance should go to God. They stood, accepting the applause of the audience and deflected it to God.
Bobby McFerrin, who is famous for a song he sang, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” when he received a Grammy music award for his recording, quoted this verse from James 1 on stage:
Every good and perfect gift is from above
When you do something good and you receive praise or when someone thanks you for what you did, accept the praise and thanks and deflect it to the one from who every good and perfect gift comes.
A third observation about being thankful comes from the story of Jesus and the ten lepers: Giving God thanks opens us up to his work in our lives.
Jesus made his way, with his disciples, to Jerusalem and passed by the border between Samaria and Galilee. As they walked along they met ten men with leprosy or some other form of skin disease. They were likely a mixed group of Jews and Samaritans who were brought together by their mutual suffering and rejection. They had heard about the miracles of Jesus and so called out asking for healing for themselves.
When Jesus had healed lepers in the past, he had touched them but this time he just told them to go to the priests. This was not an easy thing for the lepers to do. Lepers knew the social and religious restrictions on them. To go to the priests with their disease would have resulted in punishment. Lepers only went to the priests when they were healed so they could be declared clean.
But the ten, in great faith, went on their way to the priests and as they went, they were healed. Imagine the excitement and celebration as they looked around and saw that they had all been healed. They must have jumped and hugged each other and then they must have thought about the prospect of being reunited with their families and friends. The faster they ran to the priests, the sooner they would be reunited with their families. And so they raced to go to the priests.
They all raced to go to the priests except one man who turned around and raced back to thank Jesus. There is no reason to suspect that he did not have family and friends he was eager to see. But while the nine others raced to the priests, he raced back to thank Jesus. Perhaps his mother had taught him to say thank you? But his return to thank Jesus was more than politeness.
One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
What did he gain from this act of thanking Jesus that the other nine missed?
[Jesus] said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
All ten lepers were healed, but this one received something the others did not. Your faith has made you well, what does that mean? The implication is that not only did this man receive healing for his leprosy but he also received healing for his spirit.
The nine were healed physically but because the one came back praising God in a loud voice and threw himself at the feet of Jesus to thank him, he received physical and spiritual healing and was brought into the family of God.
All of us in this world receive from God his gifts, whether or not we know it is God who gave us these gifts. Being thankful is recognition that we have received gifts from God and our thankfulness opens ourselves to Jesus who can heal not just our body but also our soul.
When we give thanks to God for the good things he gives us and brings to us, we open ourselves to the spiritual life he offers.
The fourth observation about being thankful is that cultivating a life of thankfulness prepares us for difficult times.
Why do we say grace? Is it wrong to eat a meal without taking time to say thank you to God? Is there an amount of food you eat that requires grace to be said? Can you eat a cracker without saying grace but if you put cheese on it, then you need to say grace?
There is nothing magical about saying grace. When we say grace we do not bless the food. We bless God who provides us the food. We don’t have to say grace before we eat. But whether it’s a meal or a snack, pausing to thank God for the food you’re about to eat is one way to remember who is providing you with what you need in this life.
It is easy to say thank you when you sit down to a nice meal in a warm home where you are safe. What do you do when you are in the midst of a storm? How can you give thanks when everything around you is in chaos?
This brings me to the second story that came to my mind when I thought of giving thanks.
In Acts 27, Paul is under guard, being escorted to Rome to present his case before the emperor. The boat on which he was sailing was caught in a great storm in the Mediterranean Sea called a Euroclydon or a northeaster. For fourteen days they were caught up in a storm so violent that ropes had to be lashed underneath the ship to keep the planking from pulling apart. Rigging had to be tossed into the sea, along with cargo. Luke wrote in Acts 27:20,
When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.
This sets the stage for Paul’s thanksgiving.
Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food—you haven’t eaten anything. 34 Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” 35 After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat.
Does it surprise you that Paul gave thanks to God before breaking the bread and eating it? (Obviously, his mother never told him to wait an hour after eating before swimming.) Maybe it is not a surprise since it is in a crisis that people often pray the hardest. But when people in a crisis pray, it is usually the prayer of Peter who after walking on water to Jesus sank and began to drown, “Help me Lord.” What is surprising about Paul giving thanks is that it was not a “Help me Lord,” prayer but a prayer giving thanks to God for the bread they were about to eat.
The night Jesus was arrested, knowing he would be taken and crucified, knowing he would suffer and die, Jesus gave thanks as he broke the bread and shared it with his disciples.
Paul, who suffered so much, wrote in I Thessalonians 5:16-18
Be joyful always; 17 pray continually; 18 give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Peter, when he wrote to Christians experiencing persecution encouraged them:
I Peter 1:3-6
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.
In every situation, in every circumstance, we are to give thanks. Even when facing death we can be thankful. Paul wrote in I Corinthians 15:56-57
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
We can be thankful in every circumstance because no matter what happens to us in this life, no matter what horrible event we suffer, we will be victorious through Jesus our Lord. This is not trite religious truth. This is bedrock truth that has enabled saints throughout the history of the church to stand up for Jesus and endure suffering.
I read this week an account of modern-day saints, Ben & Susie Thomas. Susie is diagnosed with a brain tumor, the kind that cannot be cured, only managed temporarily. They have three children and she is pregnant with a fourth. She had surgery in February and delayed radiation until the birth of their daughter which is due to happen in this coming week. After the surgery, this is what Ben wrote:
“Thank you Jesus!
Today my wife is still living and breathing.
Today the baby you are forming and creating is still moving and breathing.
Today I am still married to God’s gift to me, Susie Thomas.
Today, as other days, I am loved by my Savior and my Abba Father.
Today, I have been loved by friends and family all over the world.
Today, I am thankful.
Now, it’s time for a nap!
There are some Christian groups that teach we should be thankful in all situations and so when tragedy hits, they cover over the tragedy with a superficial veneer of thanks. But it is inappropriate to stand in the midst of suffering and put on a happy face and say, “Praise the Lord!” when that is not where your heart is.
When tragedy hits or when we are overwhelmed with struggles, it is OK to grieve, OK to weep, OK to be angry at God. We need to be authentic as Christians and this means we need to deal honestly with the emotions that come with difficult circumstances.
It cannot be a rule I follow, to praise the Lord in everything. It must be a genuine, authentic response to suffering. I suffer, I grieve, I reflect, I pray and then I conclude that despite the suffering I will give thanks because there is a reality beyond this one.
When something bad happens I need to genuinely, authentically react but at the same time I can be thankful. Not thankful that the bad thing happened, but thankful that whatever happens in this life, it is not the end of the story.
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
This perspective is what allowed Ben Thomas to express thanks in the midst of his wife’s suffering.
Being thankful makes a huge difference in our lives. Our thanksgiving should go first and foremost to God who provides us with all good things. Being thankful opens us to the work of God in our lives. Choosing to be thankful on a daily basis builds in me a perspective that allows me to be authentically thankful when I am in a difficult situation.
It is much easier for me to preach about being thankful than to be thankful. I have a difficult time expressing thanks in my relationship with God. I am grateful for all God has done but I dislike being redundant and I am much better at complaining and asking questions about what I see around me than I am in giving thanks and praise. But once again in my life, I am trying to be more thankful.
Some of you may be naturally good at being thankful, but I encourage the rest of us to put an emphasis in our time with God on being thankful. Build up this part of your spiritual life. Each morning think of five or ten things for which you are grateful and then thank God for them. When you read the Scriptures for your devotions, read the passage a second time thanking God for what happened or was taught.
If your ship is sinking this morning, if you are struggling in your work or some relationship, if you are suffering in some way, it is OK to grieve. It is OK to be angry. It is OK to be angry with God. But don’t stop there. Don’t get comfortable with your grief, frustration or anger. Move past this and come to the point of authentic thankfulness for what God has done and for what he has promised to do in the future.
Being aware of blessings will help you to be grateful, help you to be thankful.
I have a friend who had been married for over 25 years and found himself wishing his wife were different. He wished his wife were more intellectually engaged in their relationship. He wished this and that about his wife. He was dissatisfied. And as he found himself in that position, he told me what he did. He imagined that he was a widower with four children. And then he imagined he met the woman he was now married to. She was good with children, attractive, socially skilled, loved Jesus, dedicated, musical. If he was a widower, he would be so fortunate to meet someone like that. And that wonderful woman is the woman who was now his wife.
He choose to focus on the good things about his wife and this allowed him to grow in his relationship with her. Other men and women increasingly focus on the things their spouses lack and the things they do not like and those marriages move toward divorce.
Cultivate thankfulness in your life. Make a list of the five or ten things for which you are thankful and then think of what it would mean in your life if any of the things on your list were taken away from you. Do this and you will realize how grateful and thankful you should be.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
His love endures forever.