Thanks for nothing
Thanksgiving – 2017 LSB #789
Text – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
THANKS FOR NOTHING
How many times have you thought to yourself, “I wish God would just show me what He wants me to do”? An answer to that question comes in the sermon text for this evening. Our heavenly Father wants us to rejoice & pray & give thanks. There is never a time when those are NOT part of the answer to our questions.
It’s common now for people to question going to church. Maybe you’ve had this thought after a particular worship service, “I got nothing out of church today.” Then, according to the Word of God in 1 Thessalonians, what should you do – give thanks for nothing! Isn’t that a radical thought? Scrapes against your emotions like fingernails on a chalkboard!
‘Thanks for nothing’ is an insult we level at other people when feeling cheated. As a result, you may find it difficult to take those negative emotions & turn them into an occasion for telling Jesus how thankful you are. Yet, the Word of God is quite clear, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances…” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 ESV)
In spite of the vast wealth with which our nation has been blessed, there is very little public display of thankfulness. The “in thing” is to protest, to demand equality, to shout down those with whom you disagree. A lot of people in the news today are, with very self-righteous attitudes, essentially telling our president, “Thanks for nothing,” & they aren’t saying a prayer!
God’s Word is clear. They should be giving thanks instead, “…for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18 ESV) Many people in our day are abandoning the Church. It should be clear from the sermon text that it is not because the Church is so corrupt, or unloving, or hypocritical. People across our nation are leaving the Church behind because Jesus is just too radical. When they want to demand their rights, Jesus tells them “turn the other cheek.” When people in the Church want to hate those who are promoting & encouraging disrespect & violence, Jesus tells us “love your enemies.”
Turn the other cheek & love your enemies are the sort of commands that sinful human beings reject. We naturally rebel against such teachings, like our nerves rebel against fingernails on a chalkboard. Digging into those attitudes a little deeper, we find it’s not even the commandments that we are rebelling against – it is the Commander.
At its heart, sin is always a rebellion against our Creator. Instinctively, we demand the right to be the one making the choices in our lives. How dare anyone tell you what you have to do? If Yahweh is our Creator than all of us are beholden to Him. So even when good things happen to us the temptation is still there to tell God, with a proud heart, “Thanks for nothing.”
Our celebration of Thanksgiving, as it was meant to be, runs totally contrary to our sinful nature. That’s why the celebration has morphed into a focus on eating & family & shopping, instead of a focus on the Triune God & the fact that He blesses us. Keep in mind; none of those blessings are what we deserve. The wages of sin is death – not life. (Romans 6:23 ESV)
If we appreciated what it means to be spiritually dead, we would be so much more thankful for the fact that we are not. If we appreciated what it means to be spiritually dead, would we get bored so easily with actually being thankful to God for His blessing? Would, “thanks for nothing,” be anywhere in our vocabulary?
We should be asking ourselves this radical question, “How can we learn to appreciate what it means to be spiritually dead?” Toward that goal we look to Psalm 23, a very well-known verse: “…though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Each of you can recognize aspects of your own life in that verse, aspects of your life that have caused, or still do cause you to experience anxiety or fear. It might be fear of what you will lose as age overcomes you. It might be anxiety concerning decisions you’re facing with far too little information to base your choices upon. It could be the fear & anxiety caused by broken relationships.
In each of our lives, there have been or will be circumstances in which a sense of walking through the valley of the shadow of death settles in. And the root cause of those experiences? The fact that apart from Jesus Christ you & I are very dead. Yet every day of our lives we instinctively work to ignore that fact, to deny that reality.
Eventually, the truth catches up with us, & the psalm that David wrote begins to speak from your heart, & from your soul, & from your mind. The shadow of death comes out into the open. One small lie eventually added up to a lifetime that is false. A small betrayal became a habit of infidelity. One small denial slowly grew & hardened into unbelief.
What on earth is there to give thanks for? Is there anywhere to turn where hope can be found? The answer to this spiritual dilemma can be discovered in the physical realm of light. What must always be present whenever there is a shadow? The answer should be obvious, because without light there are never shadows.
“…Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world.’” (John 8:12a ESV) Because we are becoming a new creation, at the hand of God, we feel the shadows all around us. Those shadows are the result of sin, but we notice them because of the Light. Without the Light there could be no shadows. Without the Light everything in our lives would be absolute darkness.
When the struggles of life come over us, when we enter a valley filled with shadows, rather than focusing on the struggles, by the power of the Holy Spirit we can choose to focus instead upon the Light behind the shadow. If there are shadows in your life, Christ must be there as well. Our heavenly Father uses the shadows; He calls us to ‘see’ the shadows, so we become aware of the Light. Let’s face it; under the non-stop blessing of good things we become soft. We take the blessings & we take life for granted. It’s how sinful beings react to the good life. It takes the shadows to turn us back to our loving Savior in order to see Him more clearly.
The reason that giving thanks for nothing seems ridiculous is because normally, in troubling circumstances, you & I focus entirely on the shadow. We try to fix it or remove it. When all we see is the darkness of our problems, the darkness of sin, of course we’re going to feel overwhelmed as if God Himself has left us high & dry.
People have asked, “Where was God during the shooting in Las Vegas? Where was God when a man was shooting up the church in Texas on a Sunday morning?” If it wasn’t for the goodness of God, we wouldn’t even recognize those shootings as a bad thing, because without Jesus every single thing in our lives would be a similar & absolute darkness.
But don’t misunderstand. The Word of God does not call us to give thanks for the shooting. We are to give thanks even in the circumstances of a shooting. You are not expected to give thanks for cancer, but you should give thanks even in that diagnosis. The circumstances of a shooting, or of a cancer diagnosis, are still so much more than simply disease & death.
“…though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will,” what? You know the words: “…fear no evil, for You are with me…” (Psalm 23:4 ESV) Though we understand little of God’s will in any of our suffering – He is still good & we are still blessed to know Him. “…we know that for those who love God all things work together for good…” (Romans 8:28 ESV)
All things, all the circumstances of life & living, are so much larger than our suffering. It’s often possible to see that once we get past the suffering, but until we get beyond it our heavenly Father is, through our anguish, giving us opportunities to live by faith rather than by sight. No matter how strong our faith is it’s a struggle to live by faith when the good times roll. We’re more likely to do that when trial & tribulation come our way, & for the opportunity to live by faith we give thanks to the only God who loves His people enough to join them in their suffering. For in spite of all the nostalgia surrounding Christmas Jesus was born to die.
His purpose in life was to suffer death so that it would have no power over us. The shadows of our lives do not define us. The Holy Spirit defined exactly who we are as He called us out of the darkness & into His marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9 ESV) Now we experience that light but dimly. In heaven, God’s children will experience that light completely & perfectly.
In the book of 1st Thessalonians, St. Paul tells the believers to comfort each other in their trials & tribulations with the good news that heaven is on its way. In our failures to focus on the light – heaven is coming. In our failure to be grateful & thankful – heaven is coming. In the big picture of God’s creation there is so much more to our existence than the anxiety we suffer.
Once we appreciate what it means to be spiritually dead, heaven stands out all the brighter. The dark shadow of our sinful nature is highlighted by the brightness of Jesus’ love for us. So as God’s children, the Holy Spirit calls us to take our eyes off the shadow of sin & turn them toward the Light of the world. Jesus has suffered our fate & covered us with His holiness.
When we appreciate what it means to be spiritually dead, the beauty & majesty of heaven stand out all the more clearly as being worth the wait, however long that may seem. In 11 days we begin the season of Advent which has the purpose of reminding us that Jesus will come back as our King. After that day there’ll be no more valleys filled with the shadows of our failures.
St. John describes that place in Revelation 21: “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty & the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, & the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, & the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.” (21:22-25 NIV) There will be no shadows of sin & death either. Whether we are thankful for nothing, or for everything, the gratefulness & thankfulness of our hearts will be pure & unending.
Even today, God’s will for us is to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances…” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 ESV) He realizes we are only capable of that with the utmost in help from the Holy Spirit, as Romans 8:26 teaches:
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (ESV)
Once the re-creation of our body & soul is completed at the resurrection of The Last Day, we will effortlessly rejoice, pray & give thanks, not only with words, but with every thought & deed for the rest of forever. Until then we find comfort in the knowledge & promise of that future Day, which Jesus Himself will bring to us. Amen.
Praise & thanksgiving, Father, we offer for all things living, created good: harvest of sown fields, fruits of the orchard, hay from the mown fields, blossom & wood. Bless, Lord, the labor we bring to serve You that with our neighbor we may be fed. Sowing or tilling, we would work with You, harvesting, milling for daily bread. Father, providing food for Your children, by Your wise guiding teach us to share one with another, so that, rejoicing with us all other may know Your care. Amen. LSB 789.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet