October 9, 2016

It is My Father Who Gives

Passage: Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 100, Philippians 4:4-9, John 6:25-35
Service Type:

Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.

One Thanksgiving a gentleman called Butterball’s Turkey Talk-Line to say that he cut his turkey in half with a chain saw and wanted to know if the oil from the chain would adversely affect the turkey. Another man called to tell the Butterball staff how he wrapped his turkey in a towel and stomped on it several times, breaking the bones so it would fit in his pan. Maybe stories like these call to mind your own experiences of Thanksgiving preparation challenges. Whatever those challenges may have been celebrating Thanksgiving is worth the effort.

1. I do look forward to Thanksgiving. I looked forward to Thanksgiving as a child. It evokes pleasant memories of the farm life of my childhood. As a small aside, I do try to be careful in my preaching not to tell too many personal farming stories. I point out, however, that most of Jesus’ sermon illustrations are from agricultural life—he was a country boy. By contrast the Apostle Paul was a city boy and his illustrations reflect his life experience. So when I tell farm life stories I feel that I am in good company.

As I think back I don’t know if I can say what it in particular made Thanksgiving so exciting for me. As a child the idea that food came from a grocery store was foreign idea to me. Each year I experienced the time for planting, the season of growing, and then the time for harvest. I was keenly aware that things didn’t grow unless you planted, cultivated, and had sufficient rain and sunshine. I knew how dependent we were on the growth of the earth; on God who gives life to all things. I saw, and as I grew older participated, in the work that all of this required.

Early October was the time of year when the final crops were being harvested. Thanksgiving coincided with that time when the yield of the year’s crops was known. It marked the time when we could say we were ready for winter. There was sufficient food stored to feed the animals until the next year yielded its crops. We had adequate supply of the staples of our own diet prepared and stored.

Our church had a large rural contingent who shared similar experience. So, when we gathered on the Sunday of Thanksgiving there was great excitement. The hymn we often sang “We plough the fields and scatter” spoke of the lived experience of many of the congregation. With that context in your minds you can imagine that by the time we got to the third verse of that hymn the “thanksgiving” pouring from people’s hearts was almost palpable. “We thank thee, then, O Father, for all things bright and good, the seed time and the harvest, our life, our health, and food; no gifts have we to offer, for all thy love imparts, and, what thou most desirest, our humble, thankful hearts.” On the final offering of the refrain the raised voices seemed like thunder: “All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above, then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord for all his love.”

We read today of the feast of first fruits that God instituted for Israel. (Deuteronomy 26:1-11) It was a harvest festival when people were called to present an offering from the first of the produce as acknowledgement that it was God who had given them everything. I note with you that it was to be a celebration—“you shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.” God commands a celebration. An annual celebration of thanksgiving in which we acknowledge that every provision for life comes from God’s hand is worthy of getting excited about.

Now we may respond by saying that we ought to be thankful every day and wonder if this annual kind of celebration sets the tone of only being thankful once a year. First, I would say, at least people think about being thankful once a year. Secondly, while we ought to express thanks daily it is not possible to celebrate every day. Celebrations are for drawing aside from our work routines so we can focus somewhere else. God does not expect Israel to throw a party every day. The annual blowout of thanksgiving highlights the thanksgiving that ought to be daily attitude. Thanksgiving as a feast, as an annual celebration, points us in the right direction.

2. If you were to rank Psalms according to their popularity, next to the twenty-third Psalm, Psalm 100 is likely ranked second. The opening line to “make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth” is a frequent favourite as a call to worship. It is here that we are called to “enter his gates with thanksgiving.” Perhaps the Psalmist has weekly worship in view. An important theme of weekly worship is thanksgiving. We have moved from the annual celebration to weekly routine and note the importance of thanksgiving for this rhythm of the worship life of God’s people.

It is instructive to note that in this Psalm thanksgiving is God’s command for his people. Yes, there is a note of invitation included in the command. But it is still a command. God expects us to be engaged in thanksgiving. But why a command. Shouldn’t thanksgiving be natural springing from our hearts in response to even a sober assessment of our many blessings? In the book of Deuteronomy the children of Israel were about to take possession of the Promised Land. Looking ahead to the time of prosperity in that land they are warned not to forget God. (Deuteronomy 6:10-12) Apparently when the sun is shining down on me and the world is ‘all as it should be,’ that gratefulness would be top of mind is in doubt.

We know that thanksgiving isn’t natural at all. If it was would we need to teach our children to say “please” and “thank you?” The story in Luke’s gospel recounts that Jesus healed ten lepers yet only one returned to say thank you; this is a picture of the more common human response. We take good for granted; as if health and prosperity were just rewards of our own work and careful living. We call upon God more instinctually in difficulty; less so in prosperity. In the Apostle Paul’s description of humankind’s guilt in turning from God he said that thanklessness became the trajectory of this turning away—“for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him.” (Romans 1:21) Thankfulness does not naturally arise from sin-corrupted hearts.

It appears to me that thanklessness leads to indifference. Humans today speak as if God is not necessary for life. God is regarded as an ok add-on for the religiously inclined. The One who is the author and sustainer of all life is treated as if his existence is optional for life. This is unconscionable. Such rebellion must pain the heart of God. If I were God I would be tempted to withdraw the oxygen from earth’s atmosphere to test humanity’s indifference; aren’t you glad I am not God. God’s mercy in the face of our rebellion is overwhelming.

The command to be thankful implies that we need to be schooled in thankfulness. Keep in mind that all God’s commands are covered promises. Thankfulness to God bears fruit in life; it is the way of blessing. Gratefulness to God spills over into life and issues in gratefulness towards one another. In the gospel the pattern is that our Lord turns us to himself and then to one another. A thank you note blesses people and it blesses you. When I take time to say thank you for a kindness shown I am reminded of the myriad of blessings I receive from others.

Further, what God commands he enables by the presence of his Spirit. A congregation that is characterized by thankfulness offered to one and other is a congregation where the indwelling of the Spirit of God is manifest. I find that I all to easily forget yesterday’s kindnesses shown to me because the work of the day in front of me consumes my attention. On bit of advice I once got was to carve out a time in your calendar each week for sending thank you notes—to take a few moments each week to purposefully review that week just past and say thank you. It is a habit worth embracing.

3. In the portion of the Apostle Paul’s Philippian letter we read today he gave this admonition. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” I note here that thanksgiving is to characterize all our prayers including when we make our requests known to God. The word supplication means to make a humble entreaty. So the thanksgiving that is the focus of the annual celebration and a consistent theme of the weekly worship of God’s people is also to be the character of our daily prayer life.

In thinking about praying I have found the acronym ACTS helpful in patterning personal prayer: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication. But there is more here in this text than the practical inclusion of notes of thanksgiving in prayer. The Apostle indicates that thanksgiving is the posture or character of our prayer. You may want to ask the Apostle, but what about those dark times when I can’t see anything for which to be thankful? How can every prayer for God’s help be the occasion of thanksgiving?

I learn here that thanksgiving isn’t merely an emotional response to some good in my life. Thanksgiving is to be expressed in everything—notice not for everything but in everything. One note of thanksgiving that we can always offer is that gratefulness to God that he receives our prayers that God listens to our requests. Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 13:32)

One more note from this text in Philippians that encourages this course of life characterized by thanksgiving. Take note of the constellation of things that go together in this text. Leaving worry behind, prayer with thanksgiving, “and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, that guards your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” There is a relationship between a thankful heart and release from anxiety. I am not saying that all anxiety disappears, yet thankfulness that the Lord is your keeper releases from the worry that so easily binds us.

4. G.K. Chesterton wrote, “I maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” The events of our gospel reading today follows on the heels of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand and then Jesus comes walking on the water to his disciples during a storm on the sea of Galilee. Some people who had been among that 5000 fed that day had come the next day searching for Jesus. Our Lord who knows the human heart pointed out to them that he knew they came looking for him because they “ate their fill of the loaves.” We all know how free food draws a crowd; try and get near a MacDonald’s on the mornings they offer their promotion of a free cup of coffee.

Jesus went on to say, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” In the exchange that follows these people want Jesus to perform some sign so they will believe in him. In essence they say, our ancestors trusted Moses because he gave them the manna in the wilderness. What will your give us so we will believe in you? Jesus then corrects their theology. “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.”

First, Jesus points out that it wasn’t Moses who gave the bread, but it is my Father. Jesus insists that his people value correctly—it is my Father who gives life to all. The second thing I invite you to note, in this correction our Lord offers, is the change in the tense of the verbs. “It was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. This one Jesus calls the Father gives, present tense. God gives and gives and gives.

What does the Father give? The true bread from heaven. Jesus said to them (and us), “I am the bread from heaven.” In relationship to our topic of thanksgiving the giving of the Father shapes the character of that thanksgiving. God wants to give to any who would believe the true bread that mean eternal life. Being thankful for this true bread orders all our thanksgiving. In the same way that love for God orders and lifts all other love, thanksgiving to God for this true treasure orders and lifts all other thanksgiving. Our Lord is not castigating thankfulness for food. He is saying that we miss the true bread if we treat God as if God’s function were the provision for the meeting of bodily appetite only.

It is one thing to be gathered with family and friends around a table laden with good food and know ourselves grateful to be in such a place. The gospel, however, calls us to the foot of the cross and there to know the gratefulness for our rescue from sin. This gratefulness shapes our gratitude as we take our place at a thanksgiving meal. At the cross I can see that my heart is far more depraved that I care to imagine and as I grow in my apprehension of his giving himself for me the gratitude of my heart is profoundly shaped by him. These words of my Lord resonates in my heart—it is my Father who gives, and gives, and gives. “Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder,” wrote Chesterton. I have to think that it is the wonder of the cross that he has in mind. “…It is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.”