Sermon: The Practice of Thanksgiving

Please pray with me:

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

These are the very words of God from the book that we love:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,

To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

I thank my God every time I remember you, Paul says.

Children are not, by nature, grateful beings. They do not exit the womb giving thanks to God. Often, they are demanding, insistent, and somewhat ungrateful for all that their parents do for them. But thankfulness can be taught.

Right now, Elijah’s vocabulary is growing rapidly. It includes all sorts of animals, people, and farm equipment. He has two primary types of communication: observation and demand. He will point at something or someone and say its name: Nana, Papa, Dada, Baby, Tree, Combine. He observes the world and wants us to know he knows what is in it. Or he demands. Sometimes he points and grunts, sometimes with words or signs, but he makes clear that he wants something and he wants it now.

Part of parenting for Olga and I is teaching our children to be thankful, because it isn’t natural for him. He is by nature sinful, touched – like all of us – by the effects of the fall. Right now, we insist on him signing ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ We are trying to teach him to be thankful.

We want him to learn this because gratitude is one of the principle postures of the Christian life. As a child of God, his life was given to him by grace. He didn’t earn it, he didn’t do anything to make it happen. His life, his salvation, all of it, is a gift from God. A gift which calls for thankfulness. If you remember you catechism, Question 2 reads:

What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?

Three things:

first, how great my sin and misery are;

second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery;

third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.

Thankfulness is central to the Christian life. So we teach our son to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’

At 18 months, I don’t know whether he gets what he is doing yet. But our hope is that, day by day, week by week, year by year, his little ‘gimme, gimme, gimme’ heart will be transformed into a heart that says ‘thank you, thank you, thank you’ to God.

‘gimme, gimme, gimme’ to ‘thank you, thank you, thank you.’

It is not just Elijah and Riah who are on the journey of learning to be thankful. I am guessing that each of us is somewhere along that road as well. Somewhere between a ‘gimme, gimme, gimme’ heart and a ‘thank you, thank you, thank you’ heart.

It is only by the grace of God that our hearts can be changed, but God gives us wisdom for the journey in his word, in the letter of Paul to the Philippians.

I thank my God every time I remember you, Paul says.

In these words, Paul reminds us that thanksgiving takes practice. Christian thanksgiving is a continuous practice. When Paul wrote to the Philippians, he tells them he didn’t thank God just once or twice in his prayers. Thanksgiving wasn’t a casual or occasional part of his life. Instead, I thank my God every time I remember you, he says, In all of my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy. Every. Time.

Thanksgiving is a habit of the heart. It is not something we do once to get it over with, like your yearly physical. Instead, it should be as common and ordinary as eating and drinking. As regular as breathing. Again and again, always in all my prayers, Paul thanks God.

There is something distinctly Christian about the holiday of thanksgiving. No, thanksgiving is not a Christian holiday in the traditional sense. It is not connected with any moment in the life of Jesus or the history of God’s people. We don’t have a specific liturgical color for thanksgiving. I know the origin story we were told in school about the holiday that is, sadly, not true at all. Thanksgiving is not a “Christian holiday” and yet, there is something distinctly Christian about the practice of thanksgiving.

There is something deeply Christian about giving thanks. In a world being torn apart by hate, Christians have an opportunity to recover the deeper meaning of Thanksgiving. When many will rise early on Friday to save money on things they do not need in an unconscious attempt to fill the deep longings of their soul only to find themselves feeling emptier, Christians have an opportunity to recover the meaning of thanksgiving. When hate crimes are springing up against the weak and vulnerable, when discontent bubbles just under the surface and threatens to spill over, and when safety seems more fragile, Christians have the opportunity to remind the world about Thanksgiving. We can recover the practice of giving thanks, not as some vaguely spiritual placebo pill where we pretend all is well when it is not. Instead, we can recover thanksgiving as the spiritual power of hope and trust in God in a world so hungry and thirsty for hope.

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

But thanksgiving takes practice. It is not easy or natural for us to be thankful. Our eyes must be retrained to see with the eyes of the book of James, where it says, Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. Our hearts must be retuned to love God and to pour out our appreciation for all he has done.

But this is hard and it takes practice. It is hard because, for many of us, this has been a difficult year. People we love have died. Others have moved on to new chapters and new places in life. We have prayed and not received the answers we wanted or in the timing we would wish.

And yet, I thank my God every time I remember you, Paul says. He says this while he sits in prison, chained for preaching the gospel. The hope of Christ, the abundant blessings of forgiveness and new life turned Paul’s heart to say thanks even in the midst of difficulty.

But it takes practice. Sometimes we, like children, have to submit to saying it before we mean it. Like children whose parents make them say ‘sorry’ to their sister a hundred times before they actually mean it, sometimes we must say thank you to God a hundred times before our heart opens to truly pour out gratitude.

To change from ‘gimme, gimme, gimme’ hearts to ‘thank you, thank you, thank you’ hearts is a long journey. But it is a journey, Paul reminds us, that requires memory. I thank my God every time I remember you.

Every time I remember you. It takes remembering what has been done for us that stirs us to thanksgiving. It is the memory of grace received, love shared, and blessings bestowed that restrains our hearts to give thanks.

In a few moments, we will have the opportunity to practice this, to practice being thankful. We will take our cues from Psalm 136 that we joined in earlier. In the psalm, the people of God recounted all the ways that God had delivered them and the blessings they had received and they responded by proclaiming his love endures forever. In a few moments, we will have the opportunity to add our voices to the voice of the psalmist, to remember the ways that God has blessed us in this year and to tune our hearts to say thank you.

As we do this tonight, I want to encourage you as you sit around your tables tomorrow, to do the same thing – to go around the table and say aloud how you are thankful for what God has done this year – and to praise God together.

I thank my God every time I remember you, Paul tell us. As we remember what God has done, we are called to give thanks – again and again and again – and so have our hearts shaped to be ever thankful.

May it be so in us, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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