BEING GRATEFUL FOR WHAT WE HAVE – THANKSGIVING DAY 2019

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? [Matthew 16:24-26 (ESV)]

great blue heron with snake“As an inmate on death row, I am under many restrictions,” began the writer of my morning’s devotion. Realizing that he’d constantly been asking God for more, the prisoner prayed that God would help him be more grateful for what he already had. Curious about the author, a quick internet search told me that thirteen years ago he was convicted on one count of burglary and two of first-degree murder. His brutal crime was premeditated, there was no question of his guilt and one could say he was “as guilty as sin;” then again, so are we all! It was in prison that he found Jesus.

I pondered how a man, awaiting lethal injection, would choose to pray that God would help him be more grateful. Having lost his appeal to the state Supreme Court, wouldn’t he have some more pressing requests? Nevertheless, after praying for more gratitude, the inmate wrote of smelling the aroma of soup and being thankful that he had soup to satisfy his hunger. Mind you, that was prison food for which he was thankful, not a gourmet dinner! Writing that he sensed God’s pleasure at his gratitude, he understood that God had given him all he really needed and would continue to meet his needs; he was content with that knowledge.

Recently, a friend told me of her morning’s prayers. Although she has plenty more for which to be grateful than an inmate on death row, she was far from content. Admitting to a litany of complaints and entreaties, she was in the midst of her petitions when she distinctly heard the Spirit’s voice: “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Immediately seeing that her way clearly was not God’s, the tenor of her prayers changed. Realizing that she had all she truly needed, she stopped fixating on what she lacked; gratitude and praise replaced her grievances and appeals.

Perhaps, because there are so many restrictions on what he can do and have, the death row inmate truly understands the rest of today’s verse: “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” His prison job earns him less than $3 an hour and he lives in a cell furnished with only a sink, toilet, bed, and wall-mounted writing table. With two officers monitoring him at all times, he has no privacy. Although he is allowed one visit (with no more than two visitors) per week, no physical contact is permitted. In prison until his execution or he dies of old age, he has already lost most of his life. There is little that he can hold on to but his soul. Perhaps, having so little, it was easier for him to give what little he had left to God.

If we took serious inventory, the vast majority of us are more like my complaining friend than the prisoner. Yet, even having more than enough and little about which to grumble, we tend to want more of something or a better version of what we already have. Our prayers tend to be more along the line of “My will be done” than “Thy will be done.”

Let our prayers today be ones of gratitude. May we join that prisoner in asking God to help us to focus on the gifts right in front of us rather than obsessing about what we lack. Let us find our contentment in Christ.

You say, “If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.” You make a mistake. If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled. [Charles Spurgeon]

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. [1 Timothy 6:6-8 (ESV)]

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STANDING ON HIS PROMISES

Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks to God, and distributed them to the people. Afterward he did the same with the fish. And they all ate as much as they wanted. [John 6:11 (NLT)]

queen butterflyThe feeding of the five thousand is one of the more impressive of Jesus’s miracles. The gospels’ writers surely thought it important; other than the resurrection, this is the only miracle recorded in all four accounts. While small details vary, they all agree that Jesus had only five loaves and two fish when He said a blessing over the food. Although a typical Jewish blessing would have been something like, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth,” I think Jesus said something quite different. I don’t think He thanked God for five loaves and two fish and I don’t think He asked God for more provisions. In spite of not having sufficient food to feed even fifteen let alone more than five thousand, I think Jesus thanked our more-than-enough God for the more-than-enough food that would feed that multitude. I think the One who promised, “If you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours,” thanked His Father in Heaven for His abundant provision before that food ever appeared!

We don’t know exactly how this miracle transpired but none of the gospels’ writers describe anything impressive like fish and bread falling from heaven, Jesus staggering from the weight of the food that appeared in His arms, or needing extra baskets to distribute it (although twelve baskets were needed for the leftovers)! This extraordinary miracle occurred without drama or fanfare; as the food was distributed, it never seemed to diminish and, even though everyone ate until full, food remained.

Giving thanks in advance really isn’t so odd. Back in August, when we celebrated our anniversary, our children gave us play tickets and a night’s lodging in a nearby town. Our reservations, however, weren’t until October. Nevertheless, we didn’t wait two months to thank them. Even though we’d not checked into the hotel, enjoyed dinner and a comedy, or been assured at check-out that all expenses were paid, we thanked them in advance because we knew them to be good to their word.

A pastor recently shared his own story of giving thanks in advance. When he accepted a new job, he knew there had been some financial irregularities and questionable practices under his predecessor. Nevertheless, he was shocked to discover the church was so far behind in mortgage payments that the bank was considering foreclosure. He then learned that the church also was in debt to several church members. Sure it couldn’t get any worse than an insolvent church, the pastor received a notice from the city that, unless their gravel parking lot was paved within thirty days, services could no longer be held. That Sunday, as he delivered the disturbing news to the congregation, the pastor made one request. He asked everyone to say a prayer as they walked to their cars and felt the gravel’s stones beneath their shoes. They were to thank God for the smooth new asphalt under their feet and to praise Him for His timely provision of a parking lot! That was faith! Together, pastor and church stood on God’s promises of provision and, within thirty days, that parking lot was paved (and paid for). Eventually, through faith, prayer, good stewardship, and God’s provision, all of their debts were paid and the church got back on solid financial ground.

After the pastor told his story, I recalled the chorus to an old hymn, “Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God my Savior…I’m standing on the promises of God.” I wondered if I only thank God after His provision, which is gratitude, or if I stand on His promises and thank Him in advance, which is faith. If I have enough faith in my children to thank them before receiving their gifts, I should be able to trust God enough to thank Him for blessings not yet received. Do I stand on the promises of God? Do you?

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours.” [Mark 11:22-24 (NLT)]

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UNLIMITED

expect a miracleBut Jesus said, “You feed them.” “With what?” they asked. [Luke 9:13a (NLT)]

After the crowd followed Jesus to the far side of the Sea of Galilee, He sat on the top of a hill, taught them about the Kingdom of God, and healed the sick. The gospels specify there were five thousand men but, considering that women and children probably accompanied them, there may have been as many as fifteen thousand or more. Late in the afternoon, the disciples asked Jesus to send the people away so they could go purchase food. Rather than dismiss them, Jesus said to feed them, but the disciples responded there wasn’t money enough to feed them all. When Andrew mentioned a boy with five loaves and two small fish, he added, “But what good is that?” Seeing neither money nor food enough, the disciples had missed the point; they were seeking a human solution for a God-sized problem.

Looking more like naan or pita than a modern loaf of bread, the boy’s loaves probably were about 7-inches in diameter and no more than an inch thick. As for the fish, with no refrigeration (or mention of cooking), they probably were dried or pickled and something like sardines. Did the boy even think his lunch would make a difference to that enormous crowd? The disciples certainly didn’t. Although the boy didn’t know what Jesus could do with his meager offering, he gave what little he had to Him. One boy shared his food with thousands and, instead of having less, everyone had more!

While the people’s problem had been lack of food, the disciple’s problem was graver: lack of faith! As first-hand witnesses to Jesus’s miracles, they’d seen Him turn water into wine, heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, give hearing to the deaf, free the demon-possessed, cure lepers, make the lame walk, and return a dead girl to life. When Jesus asked His disciples what they had to feed the people, not one of them said, “You, Lord! You can feed them!” Having seen His power, they didn’t see that their greatest asset was standing right in front of them. With his offering, this unnamed boy showed more faith in the Lord than did His own disciples!

How easily we forget that, while man’s resources are limited, God’s are unlimited. “It’s impossible!” is never heard in Heaven and shouldn’t be heard among His believers here on earth. When we offer what little we have to God, He can do more with our gifts than we can imagine! He will take our meager offerings and turn them into an abundance of blessings. Instead of worrying about how it can be done, we must have faith that it can be done! When we provide God with our fish and loaves, He will provide the miracle!

It is true that we have but our five coarse barley loaves and two small fishes; in themselves they are useless. Well, then, let us give them to Christ. He can multiply them, and can make them more than enough to feed the five thousand. [Archdeacon Frederic Farrar]

Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” [Matthew 19:26 (NLT)]

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FROM START TO FINISH

Together they will go to war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will defeat them because he is Lord of all lords and King of all kings. And his called and chosen and faithful ones will be with him. [Revelation 17:14 (NLT)]

Christ the KingSeeing the rise of secularization, communism, fascism, and atheism following World War I, Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King in 1925. He wanted to remind Christians who their only King was and that it was Christ (and Christ alone) who should reign in our hearts! Originally celebrated the last Sunday in October, the feast day was moved to the last Sunday of the liturgical year in 1969. In spite of being created by the Roman Catholic Church, many Protestants including Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians celebrate the day.

This year, Christ the King Sunday was yesterday. Celebrating Christ’s second coming, His messianic kingship, and His sovereign rule over all creation, it marked the end of the church year. Next Sunday, the first Sunday in Advent, begins the new liturgical year. Advent means “the arrival or coming of something” and, for Christians, Advent is a time of preparing to celebrate Christ’s first arrival (his incarnation) and also a time of anticipating His second coming “when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed.” [Titus 2:13].

While our children or grands might have candy filled Advent calendars to help them count down to Christmas, many adults observe this season of anticipation with a spiritual discipline, such as memorizing Scripture or Bible reading. Although no Christmas Eve service would seem complete without hearing the account of Christ’s birth in Luke 2,  there are twenty-three other chapters in Luke’s gospel! If you started December 1 by reading one chapter in Luke and read another chapter every day until the 24th, you’d wake up Christmas morning having read the entire gospel. As we busy ourselves in preparation for the holidays, reading Christ’s story and words might keep our minds on the reason for Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago.

The last week before Christmas, when life gets busier and it’s harder to keep centered on Jesus, Luke’s narration can keep us grounded in Christ as we see God’s plan fulfilled. On the 18th, Jesus will predict His death for the third time. In the next day’s reading, before taking His triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus will tell His followers what is expected of them between His departure and second coming. We’ll read of His conflict with the religious leaders on the 20th. On the 21st, Jesus warns the disciples about the future: the persecution, the tribulation, and second coming. It will be Judas’ betrayal, the last supper, and Peter’s denial on the 22nd and Jesus’s trial, crucifixion, death and burial on the 23rd. Finally, on the 24th, we’ll read of His resurrection and ascension. Hopefully, as Luke’ words take us from annunciation to ascension, Christmas morning will be a more meaningful to us all.

May we always remember that Jesus is the only reason for the season!

The immense step from the Babe at Bethlehem to the living, reigning triumphant Lord Jesus, returning to earth for his own people–that is the glorious truth proclaimed throughout Scripture. As the bells ring out the joys of Christmas, may we also be alert for the final trumpet that will announce his return, when we shall always be with him. [Alan Redpath]

I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! [Luke 2:10b-11 (NLT)]

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LITTLE THINGS WITH LOVE

Feed the hungry! Help those in trouble! Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you shall be as bright as day. [Isaiah 58:10 (TLB)]

food bankWhile tucking toothbrushes, dental floss, Band-Aids, and soap into shoeboxes already filled with pencils, notebooks, markers, tee-shirts, and toys, I thanked God, not just for the privilege of giving, but also that basic items like these are not a luxury in my world. In many parts of the world, however, they are! For example, our pastor just returned from Cuba where a sample-size tube of toothpaste costs the equivalent of $5 and is so sparingly squeezed that it lasts a family of four one month. The gifts he’d packed in his suitcase were simple drugstore items such as toothpaste, feminine hygiene products, and pain relievers, but the people who received those basics were as appreciative as if he’d delivered a treasure chest of gold and diamonds.

Dwight Moody once told of a man at sea who was ill and confined to his cabin. Hearing that a sailor had fallen overboard and not knowing what he could do to help, the man picked up his light and held it against the port-hole. Upon hearing that the sailor had been rescued, the man returned to his bunk. When walking on the deck after his recovery, this gentleman met the fellow who’d fallen overboard that night. Recounting the frightening episode, the sailor said he’d been sure no one would see him in the darkness as he desperately tried to stay afloat in the churning waves. But, just as he started to go down for what he was sure was the last time, a light from out of a port-hole shone on him; finally seeing the drowning sailor, a man caught his hand and pulled him into the life-boat.

Our pastor’s suitcase of basics and the clothes he and his wife left behind in Cuba can’t stop the blackouts, ease the nation’s food shortages, or shorten the queues waiting for a bus or a few gallons of gas. The Samaritan’s Purse shoeboxes our church filled won’t change governments, provide jobs, or feed the hungry. The meals packed for food banks, clothes donated to resale shops, gifts purchased for strangers whose names hang on a giving tree, food served at a homeless shelter, change dropped into the bell ringers’ buckets, checks written to the Salvation Army, or the animal purchased for Heifer International won’t solve the world’s problems. Nevertheless, while we can’t change the world, we all can do our part to change the world for someone, even if it’s just with a toothbrush or a tube of toothpaste!

“Let us take the torch of salvation and go into these dark homes and hold up Christ to the people as the Savior of the world,” said Moody as he finished his story of the light in the port-hole. “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love,” were the words of Mother Teresa. Few, if any, of us will pull a drowning sailor from the sea and we’re not likely to win a Nobel Peace Prize for our humanitarian efforts. Nevertheless, in our own small ways, we each can make a difference by shining a light for those in despair. Let us be the light that brings Christ’s love into the world!

You are the world’s light—a city on a hill, glowing in the night for all to see. Don’t hide your light! Let it shine for all; let your good deeds glow for all to see, so that they will praise your heavenly Father. [Matthew 5:14-16 (TLB)]

Eternal life is in him, and this life gives light to all mankind. His life is the light that shines through the darkness—and the darkness can never extinguish it. [John 1:4-5 (TLB)]

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DOUBT AND UNBELIEF

The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.  [Deuteronomy 29:29 (RSV)]

purple coneflowerGod makes Himself known through His creation, His word, and in the still small voice of His Spirit and the things He has revealed to us are what make our faith possible. Nevertheless, there is much that He has not made known to us, which is why faith is necessary. A day will come when our questions will be answered; when that time comes, our hope will turn into reality and what we believe will be seen. But, until then, there will be occasions of doubt. Doubt, however, doesn’t mean we’ve lost our faith; we can’t doubt what we don’t believe!

John Piper likens our faith journey to driving a racecar and doubt to an opponent splashing mud on our windshield. We don’t quit the race because of a little mud; instead, we slow down, turn on the windshield wipers, and clean off the muck! Questioning how the man who’d been nailed to a cross and sealed in a tomb could rise from the dead, the Apostle Thomas had reason for his doubt. Although the others claimed to have seen Jesus, Thomas hadn’t and questioned their claim. Had they seen and touched the wounds in His hands or the gash in His side? Thomas thought he needed that kind of proof to be sure it was Jesus. But, like a good racecar driver, in spite of the mud on his windshield, he didn’t quit the race. Thomas was still with the disciples when, eight days later, Jesus appeared and offered his maimed body to the doubting man. Perhaps, simply hearing the Lord’s voice and seeing Him standing there was all the disciple really needed. We never read of him actually touching Jesus before exclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”

While doubt comes from a troubled spirit and a questioning mind, unbelief is an act of the will. A deliberate choice, unbelief is the opposite of faith! It says, “I hear you, but I choose not to believe you!” The story is told of an atheist and Christian who were debating the existence of God and the truth of Scripture. At the end of their discussion, the atheist asked the Christian, “What happens if you faithfully live your Christian life and, when you die, you discover that you’ve been wrong all this time?” The believer answered, “Having lived a good life of joy and love, I simply will remain dead.” He then asked the atheist, “But, what if I am right and you’re wrong?” The atheist replied, “Then I will have made the greatest mistake of my life!” That mistake will have eternal repercussions!

Faith is a journey and we all will wrestle with doubt along the way, as I did in yesterday’s devotion about evil. “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” said the father who asked Jesus to heal his son; I echo his prayer. Jesus doesn’t demand enormous faith before He acts on our behalf. He said a tiny mustard seed of genuine faith is all that we need to move mountains. When moments of doubt occur (and they will), let us continue to pray, “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” God, the creator and sustainer of our faith, will give us faith when we ask. He will help clean the spattered mud off the windshield of our car so we can finish the race.

Sometimes we need to go through the foyer of doubt to get into the sanctuary of certainty. [Greg Laurie]

If ours is an examined faith, we should be unafraid to doubt… There is no believing without some doubting, and believing is all the stronger for understanding and resolving doubt. [Os Guinness]

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” [John 20:29 (RSV)]

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. [Hebrews 11:1 (RSV)]

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