Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thankful worship for God’s benevolent blessings

Thanksgiving is here again, and like so many of you, I enjoyed gathering with friends and family, and thanking our God for all that he has done this year in our lives, and in First Baptist. 
 As I look back at this year, we have much to be thankful for.  God has provided for us through another year. He has blessed us with a church family that loves one another with the love of Christ, and God is bringing new life into our church in a way that I hope and pray continues. We’ve seen God care for those that have struggled with their health; we’ve seen his provision in the midst of some extremely weird weather. We’ve seen projects completed, and began a few more. What’s more, I look around First Baptist, and I feel like life is slowly beginning to bloom again. In the last year, God has brought several families into the life of the church, and we’ve seen what feels like an explosion of kids around the church. When I arrived, there were few kids. Now, I go to coffee hour, and I feel like there are kids running all around. Children are a blessing of God. This is a huge joy. On top of that, there has been birth. Both natural, and people being born again, to borrow John 3 language. As a pastor, I have found the new births in the kingdom of God to be a particular source of joy in the last few months. Scripture tells us that there is more rejoicing over one sinner who repents than 99 righteous people who need no repenting (Luke 15:6-7), and I rejoice greatly for new births in Christ. Here in 2011, we have much to be thankful for.

And yet, this year has been a weird, hard year for many. It’s been another year of economic downturn. It’s been a year marked by protest, and strange weather. I’ve watched people struggle with the pain of being out of work, or in jobs that don’t quite make the bills, and battle for their health, fighting sickness or surgery. Personally, I will always remember this as a hard year. First, because of Irene, and the damage it brought to Vermont. I remember looking at Facebook, seeing my hometown underwater, and standing in the muck at my grandfather’s house, looking at a place that I used to play wrecked beyond belief by Irene.  It’s one thing to see a tragedy on TV, it’s another to see your hometown underwater and your grandfathers’ home destroyed. But Irene pales in comparison to the pain Veronique and I felt at losing our child. While still in the first 6 weeks of pregnancy, life begins at conception, and Veronique and I felt that pain deeply.  And I am not alone. The tragedy of death has touched many in the family of First Baptist. Parents have been lost. Siblings passed. I’ve prayed at the bedside of a close friend and watched her try to be brave for her father as he faced a surgery he did not survive. I’ve seen a heart-wrenching moment, where a young boy sought to flee the crowd, and just get away from his mother’s funeral. As a family of faith, we’ve been touched by sadness and hardship in this past year.

            This week, as I reflected back on the year, I found a greater appreciation for the great statements of thanksgiving. I am always amazed at the fact that the greatest statements of thanksgiving came in dark moments, but this week, they came home in a new and deeper way this week. Think about the pilgrims. They buried over half of their original band of 110. They dug 7 times more graves than they built homes, and yet at the same time, the set aside a day thank the Lord for His blessings. One o-f their leaders, Edward Winslow, wrote of that first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621: "And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty." What’s more, Lincoln’s famous thanksgiving proclamation came in the middle of the suffering of The Civil war, and yet He said the country's blessings were due to the "ever watchful providence of Almighty God... No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy." And he then asked for the "Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it." 

What can motivate that kind of thanksgiving in them, and what can drive us to give thanks in this way? First, I would encourage you to give thanks because the promise of scripture is that God is faithful, and His love endures forever. Time and again, scripture reminds us, “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; His love endures forever.” It’s all over the place. His love endures forever. And when life is hard, we can cling to this. His love endures forever. It just does. It does not cease. It endures forever, and in the end, he is working all things on the behalf of those who love him and have been called according to His purposes (Romans 8:28), and He plans to give you hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). He will restore the years that the locust have eaten. He will. Even when you can’t believe that this is true, it is, and you can rejoice in this truth, He is Good, and His love endures forever. 

 But there is more,  God pours out his grace on his children in times of hardship, and gives us the tools to deal with it. His grace is sufficient, Paul writes. He discovered that when he found himself facing hardship, God’s grace was sufficient. This is true for us to. When we find ourselves facing hardship, he shows a grace that is sufficient even when we can’t understand it.  Church father Augustine wrote, There is a joy which is not given to the ungodly, but to those who love Thee for Thine own sake, whose joy Thou Thyself art. And this is the happy life, to rejoice to Thee, of Thee, for Thee; this it is, and there is no other. He provides his grace, he really does. I’ve found this to be true. One way that I have found his grace this year is reflecting on the wonderful truth that we do not have a savior who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses. He knows what it is to suffer. This year, as I have struggled with the pain of losing our child, I’ve found his grace most fully as I have reflected on the suffering of Christ. It’s been said that in the gospel, we find a significant tool to face hardship. This is my experience to. This is no longer an academics statement; it’s mine. I have found comfort time and again in this truth. I do not have a savior who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses. My savior was tempted. My savior suffered. My savior did not stand far off, above my pain. My savior came near and knew it, completely. The end of Hebrews 4 reminds me and you of this, and then it tells us something wonderful. Because he suffered, “we can draw near to the throne of grace with confidence draw, knowing that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. I can draw near, you can draw near. Because of his love, because of His graces shown to us in the cross, we can draw near, knowing that he has not left us alone. SO while our weeping lasts for a night, joy will comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5) because of what he has done

So, as you look back on the year here at Thanksgiving, my encouragement to you is simple. Give thanks to the LORD. Give thanks, because our Lord’s love endures forever, give thanks because He knows our suffering, and because He does, we can draw near and find grace to help in time of need. So give rejoice and give thanks. Whether this has been a banner year, or a terrible year, rejoice in these great truths. Give thanks and worship Him. Psalm 100 tells us, Come before him with shouts of joy, Worship Him with gladness; come before Him with joyful songs. Know that the LORD, He is God. It is He who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. When troubles come, he will show us mercy and grace. So  “enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.