November 24, 2011

The Path to a Thankful Heart - Nov 24, 2011

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The other day I got an email from my mother-in-law that made me stop and think. The email contained this simple question: If you woke up this morning and had only what you thanked God for yesterday, what would you have?

I’m glad God doesn’t operate like this. He doesn’t withdraw His blessing from our lives when we neglect to thank Him. Nor does He withhold our daily needs when we fail to ask for them. As Martin Luther wrote,

“God gives daily bread without our asking, even to unbelievers, but we pray …that He would teach us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving” (Martin Luther’s Explanation of what “Give us this day our daily bread” means in the Lord’s Prayer).

On Thanksgiving Day we pause to take stock of all we have been given, and to give thanks. We don’t want to be ungrateful people. We want to give credit where credit is due.

But, that convicting email question makes us wonder, “Why don’t I thank God more often?”

This morning God’s Word is going to show us some of the barriers that get in the way of having a grateful heart. May God bless our study, so that we see, and overcome these barriers. May God bless us through His Word and by the Holy Spirit, so that today we give thanks with a grateful heart.

Our first reading comes from Genesis chapter 32. Here a man named Jacob is praying to God. He says…
“O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, LORD, you who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ 10 I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps” (Genesis 32:9-10 NIV).

One barrier to a grateful heart, is entitlement. Feeling that you deserve good things.

At this point in his life, Jacob wasn’t having any trouble with the barrier of entitlement. He had a big family, huge herds of animals and plenty of servants to tend those herds. But Jacob knew that he didn’t deserve to be as blessed as he was. God hadn’t given him these things as some kind of a reward for a job well done. God had given him these things simply because God is kind and thoughtful.

Entitlement can make a mess a Christian’s life. God doesn’t always give us the things we expect Him to. And when that happens the Christian who feels entitled to what God is withholding can grow bitter. And it’s pretty hard to be both bitter towards God and grateful to Him at the same time.

Instead of feeling like we deserve good things, we need to think like Jacob. God doesn’t owe us anything. He created us. He created all we have. He keeps us alive each and every day. We don’t have a single good thing that doesn’t have it’s origin in Him. So really, everything that we have, is a gift from God.

King David put it like this,
“Everything comes from you [God], and we have given you only what comes from your hand” (1 Chronicles 29:14 NIV).

The foolishness of entitlement is most obvious when we look at all the sinful things we’ve done with our lives. Who can really look at their thoughts, and words and actions and honestly say, “Hey God, You owe me”?

Humility removes the barrier of entitlement, and sets us on the path to a grateful heart.

The second barrier to a grateful heart that I’d speak about today is greed. Sinfully wanting more than God wills us to have.

God speaks to us about this barrier in one of the civic laws that He gave to the nation of Israel. Leviticus 19 says…
“9 When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:9-10 NIV).

God used this Old Testament law to provide for people who didn’t have their own fields. The poor person and the foreigner were suppose to be able to pick up what was left from the harvest that they were not able to plant or gather.

Part of having a grateful heart is recognizing that God gives both TOO us and THROUGH us. Part of a grateful heart is being able to give. Martin Luther once said…
“God divided the hand into fingers so that money would slip through” (Martin Luther).
Greed blocks the way to a grateful heart by convincing the Christian that if God gave it to me, He meant it for me only. And when our grip on our time and money and possessions is made tight by greed, we react to God’s tender tugging with anger. It’s pretty hard to be both greedy and grateful to God at the same time.

The great irony of greed is that if God’s Son had been greedy, we would have no hope. If Christ had said, “Why should I give everything up to save sinners? It’s mine” then the cross wouldn’t have happened, and we’d still be in our sins, and on the way to hell. But He wasn’t greedy. He was completely selfless. He became a servant, and died in our place.

In one of his letters, the apostle Paul instructed Timothy…
“17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share” (1 Timothy 6:17-18 NIV).
Contentment removes the barrier of greed, and enables us BOTH to have a grateful heart, AND to lead others to thank God as well.

The last barrier to a grateful heart that I’d speak of today is a little different than the first two. Entitlement and greed are easy to put into words. The third barrier is harder to tack down. I suppose you could say this final barrier is taking things for granted. But it’s a little more than that. It’s also failing to see how valuable our blessings really are.

In Psalm 36 King David wrote…
“…You, LORD, preserve both people and animals.
7 How priceless is your unfailing love, O God!
People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
8 They feast on the abundance of your house;
you give them drink from your river of delights.
9 For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light we see light” (Psalm 36:6-9 NIV).

David describes the blessings of food and drink as “the abundance of God’s house” and “the river of delights”. Yet how often don’t we get sick of God’s blessings. Just try making the same supper three nights in a row. That’s usually enough to make someone grumble. We’re so used to having a variety of good things to eat.

Or think about all the little gadgets that we enjoy. Imagine instead of an mp3 player in your pocket you had that many musicians following you around. And you could pause them at will. Wait, wait, wait, my wife is talking to me. Okay, go ahead and play.

One of the reasons Thanksgiving Day helps us to be grateful at heart, is that on Thanksgiving we try to slow down and savor our blessings. We stop and look around and see them for once instead of just dabbling in the goodness and moving on to the next thing.

Slowing down and looking closer removes the barrier of taking things for granted. And if we look close enough at our blessings, we just might see what they all mean, and where they come from.

When the apostle Paul and Barnabas were preaching in the city of Lystra, Paul noticed a paralyzed man in the crowd. Paul could see that this man believed what Paul was saying about Jesus. So, through Paul, God healed the man, and he jumped up and began to walk.

When the pagan citizens of Lystra saw this they ran off to get bulls to sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas. They figured they must be gods in human form. Then the book of Acts tells us…
“…when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: 15 “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. 16 In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 17 Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:8-17 NIV).

Life giving rain, overflowing harvests, plenty of food, friends and family – these all testify to the same thing – God is kind. He loves the people He has created.

If we slow down and look closer, we can see this. Even in a world that sometimes hits us with pain and suffering and loss, we can see that God is a God of love. For in Christ Jesus we have a gift which surpasses all the gifts we thank God for on Thanksgiving. In Christ we have a Savior who washes our sins away, even the sins of a thankless heart. His death and resurrection give forgiveness and peace to all who believe.

And really, aren’t all the little gifts that God gives just arrows meant to point us to the big gift? Each gift says, “God’s a giver. He loves you.” And when we hear that through Christ all our sins are forgiven and heaven is now our destination, then we see how much we really have to be thankful for.

Prayer: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, thank You for the Bible. Thank You for bringing us into Your family through Jesus. Give us a spirit of humility. Help us truly see we do not deserve the love you shower on us. And let that fill us with joy as we see that you still shower us with loving care. Thank you God. Help us to be content, and willing to give to others. Help us to see that we are acting as your hands when we give. What a privilege. Help us never to lose sight of how amazing even the simplest of your gifts is. As science unlocks more and more of the details of Your universe, help us to see each and every marvel as part of Your little gift to us us. And keep in the very center of our grateful hearts, the cross of Christ. Drive us back to the foot of that cross often Lord, to see our sins and our Savior. For there we cannot help but be grateful. Amen.

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