The Greatful Heart

Sermon by Derek Thomas on November 25, 1999

Thanksgiving
1999
1 Thessalonians 5:18
The Grateful Heart
Dr. Derek Thomas

Turn with me, if you would, in your Bibles to a text
in 1 Thessalonians 5:18. While your doing that, I was just wondering, as Ligon
and I were walking to the sanctuary this morning, how honored I am to be asked,
as a citizen of the United Kingdom, to give the Thanksgiving Day sermon. And I
was conscious and reflective that this isn’t July 4.

“In every thing give thanks for this is God’s will
for you in Christ Jesus. In everything give thanks, for this is God’s will for
you in Christ Jesus.”

I was looking at Eugene Peterson’s New Testament
translations, and this one was particularly good and insightful. He translates
this verse, “Thank God no matte what happens, this is the way God wants you,
who belong to Christ Jesus, to live.”

“Fill Thou, my life, O Lord my God, in every part
with praise, that my whole being may proclaim, Thy being and Thy ways. Not for
the lip of praise alone, nor in the praising heart, I ask but for a life made up
of praise, in every part.” Well, of course, you’ll remember those words of the
beautiful hymn by Horatius Bonar, written toward the middle of the last
century. And they more or less encapsulate the thought of this verse, this text
that we have before us this morning. It falls, as you can see by a quick
glance, in the section towards the end of First Thessalonians, where the Apostle
Paul seems to be giving a whole array of instructions that at first seem to bear
no logical sequence to them. He seems to be doing what you and I often do when
we write letters, or in these days send email, but when we come to the end of
what we really want to say, we add, almost in broken sentences, all the ideas
that suddenly come into our head that we haven’t had time to expand upon. And I
feel somewhat safe this morning in extracting this particular verse from its
context, and looking at just at it alone.

There are three things in this verse that I want us
to see, and I want us to see these three things not simply as individuals,
because all of these admonitions that are given here in the closing verses of
Thessalonians, are given in the plural. And I think Paul had in mind not simply
the life of the individual believer, but he had in mind the corporate life of
the people of God.

And the three things I want us to see from this text,
for us as a corporate community, a covenant community of God’s people, are
first, there is a command: give thanks unto the Lord. And secondly, there is
also a context, because he tells us “in everything,” that is to say, in every
circumstance, in all circumstances give thanks. And then there is a
constraint. “This is,” Paul says, “the will of God for you.”

I. The command to give thanks
unto the Lord.
This is an imperative. Paul is commanding the people of God,
as the apostle of the Lord, that this is what they must do. They must give
thanks to God. We say to our children, don’t we, especially when they are
little, if they’re given a gift of some kind, you listen, and then you say,
“What do you say?” Because we don’t want them to grow up like spoiled brats.
We want them to be grateful, we want them to be thankful, and Paul is saying
that one of the hallmarks, one of the marks of identity of the children of God,
is that they are thankful.

Now, what does Paul mean here by thankful. Of
course, he means thankful to God. Thankfulness to God as recognition of His
goodness and His faithfulness to us in providing for us and keeping us and
caring for us day by day, both physically and spiritually. It means a
recognition that you and I are dependent, in an absolute sense, upon the grace
and goodness of God for all that we have. That everything we have this morning
comes from the Lord.

You remember how Paul, writing to the Romans in the
very first chapter, begins to describe one of the characteristics of the natural
man, the unconverted man or woman. And the ungodly man or woman, Paul says, is
characterized by unthankfulness. God has given them over to a reprobate mind,
Paul says, and one of the hallmarks of a reprobate mind is unthankfulness.

You remember that astonishing story in the gospels
where Jesus heals 10 lepers. Lepers who by reason of their infirmity and
sickness had been ostracized from their families and from their society, having
to live somewhere outside the city. And Jesus heals these 10 lepers. And you
will remember how Jesus bids them go to the priest in order that they might be
declared ceremonially clean. And the staggering thing about that story is that
only one of them, only one, returns to Jesus to give thanks. And were it not
for the fact that we find an echo in our own hearts of that native ingratitude,
we would be more shocked by that story than we are.

You remember the incident of Apollo 13, that
ill-fated mission to land on the moon. As I look down, many of you don’t
remember it, but you’ve seen the movie, and you remember what happened. There
was an explosion and the rocket was sent off course and there was a moment in
time when they thought these astronauts would not be able to return. And then
there was problem with carbon dioxide, the build up of this gas that even if
they did return, would make it impossible for them to survive, and how they
cobbled together some means using duct tape and all kinds of bits and pieces in
order to extract this carbon dioxide. And you remember how the President of the
United States went on television asking the nation to pray, and then when that
space craft successfully landed in the ocean, and those three men emerged alive,
all the thanks, and you can read it, all the thanks was given to the scientists
and human ingenuity, but there was no call for a national thanksgiving in answer
to the prayer of Almighty God.

Paul, on 10 occasions, as he writes these letters,
exhorts the people of god to give thanks. And on 18 occasions, he mentions
personal thanksgiving on his own behalf. We remember, perhaps, as we’ve just
read together in our responsive reading, those wonderful words of the 100th
Psalm, “Enter His gates,” the Psalmist says, “with thanksgiving.” And five
psalms earlier, in Psalm 95, “Let us come before His presence,” the Psalmist
says, “with thanksgiving. Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.”

And what this says to us this morning, that a
failure to give thanks to Almighty God is a sin
. It is a just as much a sin
as adultery is a sin. That an unthankful heart is something that rends the
heart of Almighty God as much as any other sin does. And I wonder this morning,
as we gather together on this wonderful day, this day that seems yet to be
uncluttered by the commercialism that so marks so many of the national days we
celebrate in this country, and there’s something wonderful about being able to
gather together, especially the reunion of families and friends, and I wonder
this morning, if at least a part of what we need to do this morning is to come
to God and confess that you and I have not been as thankful as we ought to have
been, and that we need to confess to Him the sin of unthankfulness.

II. The context of the command.
The context in which the command to be obeyed is altogether
comprehensive. Paul puts it like this, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” Or,
as your pew Bibles have it, “in everything give thanks.” And I wonder if we
can look at the first epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians to provide for us
this morning some means of attaining what it was that Paul was actually saying,
“in every circumstance.” If you turn back to chapter 3 verse 6, for example,
beginning at verse 6 through the end of the chapter, Paul is recounting with a
sense of joy and gladness the report that Timothy was giving to him of the
Church of Thessalonica.

This epistle of First Thessalonians is probably the
first epistle that Paul wrote, and was probably written not long after the
establishment of the church at Thessalonica. Paul is eager to know how the
people of God are growing in the Lord, and Timothy brings a wonderful report.
“But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about
your faith and love.” And then notice what he says in verse 9, “how can we
thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of
our God because of you.”

That is to say, there are favorable circumstances in
which the rendering of thanksgiving is altogether appropriate, and these were
favorable circumstances. I wonder this morning how often ministers of the gospel
long to hear such glowing reports about churches in which they have been
involved, as Paul was privileged to hear about the Thessalonian church, for
which he could not but give thanks to God. And there are many, many favorable
circumstances in each one of our lives.

I wonder this morning if you can think about some of
the favorable circumstances in which you find yourselves? For some of you, it
will be your marriage, your spouse, your children, your homes, your jobs, and
the sense of financial security that God have privileged you with. And a
million other things that ought to come flooding into our minds as we think of
the way in which God has been so gracious to us and so good to us, far beyond
what we deserve. And O that our hearts this morning, as we contemplate all
those issues, might overflow with thanksgiving.

But think, my dear friend this morning, think as some
of you here, and as many of you here indeed this morning can, that you are saved
and redeemed and washed in the blood of Jesus Christ, and that your sins are
forgiven, and you think and contemplate of what that involved in terms of God
the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit entering into a covenant of
redemption in eternity to save a people for Himself. And how, in the process of
time and history, God entered into a covenant of grace, that you can trace from
Genesis to Revelation, no matter what book you are in, no matter what century
are in, you can trace the signature of Almighty God as He is determined to save
His people. And think this morning of how God in His providence applied that
redemption to us, in the homes in which we were put, in the families that loved
us and cared for us, and the sermons that we heard, and the prayers that were
prayed over us, and how the Holy Spirit entered into our hearts and lives and
transformed us and gave us new hearts so that this morning we sit in this
congregation with the assurance that our sins are forgiven and that we have
peace with Almighty God. And is not that, my dear friend; is not that alone
something for which to give thanks to Almighty God?

But I know this morning, that for some of you, it
isn’t the favorable circumstances that impinge upon your mind and upon your
consciousness this morning; it is rather unfavorable or difficult circumstances
that weigh down upon you. I was reminded this week of how Shakespeare in his
accounts of Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt, and when the soldiers had been
victorious, you remember that they were bidden to sing the words,
Non nobis, Domine,
Non nobis, Domine
from Psalm 15, “Not unto us, O Lord,
not unto us, but unto Thy name be the glory.” That’s an easy thing to sing,
Non nobis, Domine
, in favorable circumstances, but it’s
altogether different to sing that song when we find ourselves in difficult
circumstances.

Turn back to chapter one and verse six and I think
you’ll see something of what Paul is alluding to. He speaks of the Thessalonian
Christians, and he says about them, “You became imitators of us and of the Lord
in spite of severe sufferings. You welcomed the message with joy given by the
Holy Spirit.” In spite of severe sufferings. And Paul is alluding there to the
fact that it is part of the experience of the people of God to experience the
thorns and thistles and pains and losses and crosses that accompany life in
fellowship and communion with Jesus Christ.

Do you remember that wonderful passage in the book of
Daniel, when certain officials persuade King Darius that he should issue a
decree that for 30 days anyone who prayed to any god or man other than to King
Darius should be sent to the lion’s den. Now, those were difficult
circumstances, to be sure, and you remember the response of Daniel, as it’s
recorded for us in Daniel 6, that “three times a day he got down upon his knees
and prayed, giving thanks unto the Lord, that in the midst of difficult
circumstances he found it within himself to be able to give thanks to God. And
you see, it teaches us a very profound lesson. That his long years of spiritual
discipline in giving thanks in every circumstance meant that his spiritual focus
was not destroyed by the sudden crisis that came into his life. He was able to
give thanks in difficult circumstances because he was disciplined in giving
thanks in every circumstance.

But turn to chapter 4:13, and you’ll see yet another
possibility that Paul may be alluding to. And you remember this particular
section in chapter 4, how these young fledgling Christians in Thessalonica were
troubled. They were troubled by the loss of their loved ones who had departed,
and they were troubled in a two fold way, because in the first place they were
eager to know what had happened to them, but in a second way they were troubled
because they thought that their departed loved ones might now have missed out on
the blessings that would accompany the second coming of Jesus Christ. And so
Paul writes to them in these difficult circumstances in which they found
themselves, and reassures them, first of all, that those who have departed in
Jesus Christ have merely, have merely, fallen asleep, Paul says.

Now, don’t misunderstand the Apostle. He is not
advocating in any way, shape or form, not in a million years is Paul suggesting
that they have gone into some kind of soul sleep. That’s not what he’s saying.
But he’s saying that we need to fear death no more than we fear the blessing of
being able to put your head down on a pillow at the end of a busy day and simply
fall asleep. But Paul says something else to them that’s far more profound than
that. Far, he says, far from missing out on the blessings that will accompany
the second coming of Jesus Christ, they will be the first in line. They will be
the first in line. And in these circumstances of pain and hurt and loss, Paul
says, we are to give thanks to Almighty God. We may not be able to understand
and comprehend this morning everything that God is doing in our lives, and the
complexities that mark out some of your lives this morning are unfathomable.
“Deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill, He treasures up His bright
designs and works His sovereign will,” William Cowper said.

And it may be this morning, that as you come on this
Thanksgiving Day, that your heart is heavy and your spirits are low because of
the difficulties of the circumstances that you find yourself in. And the word
of Scripture to you, my friend, this morning, and hear it, hear it: is not that
you will be able to comprehend those circumstances, because you may never be
able to comprehend them. But the word of Scripture to you, this morning my
friend, is that you must trust Him, trust Almighty God that though you may not
understand what He is doing, He is understands perfectly and fully, so that we
are enabled, you and I as the Lord’s people, to give thanks in every
circumstance.

III. The constraint — God’s will
But there is also a constraint.
There is a command to give thanks, and there is a context in every circumstance,
but there is also a constraint. And that constraint is, and Paul puts it in
typical apostolic fashion, “This is,” he says, “God’s will for you.” Now, Paul
had said this before. He said it in chapter 4 verse 3 about sanctification, “It
is God’s will that you should be sanctified.” In precisely the same way, it is
God’s will that you should give thanks to God in every circumstance.

This is a strange age in which we live, isn’t it.
And part of that strangeness is that this is an age amongst the people of God
when confusion reigns about the will of God and guidance. If you were to go
Amazon.com or RTS, if you go there this morning and look at the religious book
section, at the number of books that are now currently in print on guidance, you
will find that there are 36 of them currently in print on the subject of
guidance. Now, I put it to you, that if it were possible to go to that spot on
the internet and look for books on guidance written in the 18th and
19th centuries, you will come up with “0” books. Because they
didn’t write books on guidance. And you’re asking, as I hope you’re asking,
“Why is that the case?” And let me suggest to you a possible reason: because
this is an age in which antinomianism abounds. This is an age that does not
want to hear and does not immerse itself in the law of God. One of the
characteristics of the 18th and 19th centuries of our
forefathers, and of the pilgrims, was that they so immersed themselves in the
law of God that Spurgeon said of Bunyan, “This man is a living Bible!
Prick him anywhere – his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows
from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his very soul is full of
the Word of God. I commend his example to you, beloved.” So that we ought to be
so much in the word of God and our thoughts an principles so molded and shaped
by the principles and statutes of the word of God, that if we did that, my dear
friend, 95 percent of the questions that we ask about guidance would be solved
in an instant. Paul says, “You don’t have to pray about this one, it is God’s
will for you, that you be thankful.”

But let me say something by way of a conclusion,
because you’re asking, as indeed I am asking, “How in the world is it possible
for me to give thanks in these circumstances, in this difficulty, in this trial,
with this hurt, how can I give thanks to Almighty God when the world seems to be
coming apart all around me?” And Paul gives the answer: “It is God’s will for
you,” he says, “in Christ Jesus.” It is because of your relationship to Jesus
Christ that you will be able to give thanks.

Do you ever watch those programs on TV about
antiques? These scholars and professionals who can look at a piece of furniture
or painting or a piece of porcelain, and though it may be unsigned, they can
detect the signature of its creator and author. And I put it to you, that when
you read the pages of the New Testament, you can detect the signature of the
Apostle Paul, because 167 times he uses this little signature, “in Christ
Jesus.” And I’ll tell you why. It was because of what had happened on the road
to Damascus, after he was involved in the death of Stephen, and he heard a voice
on high that said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” So that when he laid
a finger on one of Jesus’ disciples, he was laying a finger on Jesus Himself.
Paul never forgot that. Not for all the length of his days did he ever forget
that. And he couldn’t put pen to paper without adding that familiar signature,
“in Christ Jesus.”

My dear friends, this morning will you think with me
and meditate with me on your relationship to and union with Jesus Christ the Son
of God? Do you remember how Paul puts it, when he writes to the Colossians, and
he writes to the Colossians in chapter 2 verses 6-7, “So then, just as you
received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in Him, rooted and built up in
Him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with
thankfulness.” Isn’t that a beautiful metaphor? That as you think about your
relationship to Jesus Christ, you will overflow with thanksgiving.

From the annals of the rich heritage of this country, there has
been preserved this announcement that was made 376 years ago. “Inasmuch as
the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn,
wheat, peas, squashes and garden vegetables, and made the forest to abound with
game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as he has protected us from
the ravages of the savages, has spared us from the pestilence and granted us
freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience, now I,
your magistrate do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye little
ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of nine and
twelve in the daytime on Thursday, November ye 29th, of the year of our Lord one
thousand six hundred and twenty-three, and the third year since ye Pilgrims
landed on ye Plymouth Rock, there to listen to ye Pastor and render Thanksgiving
to ye Almighty God for all his blessings
. William Bradford, Ye Governor
of Ye Colony, AD 1623
.”

Let us, this morning, do the same, with all of our hearts, for
Jesus’ sake, Amen.

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