Hopelessness

Finding Hope at Christmas

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Have you ever read the book of Malachi? It’s the last book of the Old Testament and sort of has the qualities of a sunrise. You’ve heard that phrase, “It’s always darkest before the dawn” and this little book reads like that. It starts off super dark but ends with a glimmer of light on the horizon. Those who heard it first really needed that glimmer because even though they thought things were bleak, they were about to get darker.

Malachi was a prophet that lived about 400 years before Jesus and 100 years after the Babylonian exile. He came on the scene after Nehemiah and Ezra had already rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and helped Israel restart their worship practices, but things were still pretty rough. The generation that had returned to Judah did okay, but as usual, it didn’t last long. The prophets told them that if they rebuilt their temple and turned their hearts back to God, then they would receive the promises of blessing, renewal, expansion, prosperity, and peace – all that good stuff that meant God was with His people.

But after a hundred years they were feeling pretty disillusioned. The Promised Land didn’t look anything like it was supposed to. Sure, they were no longer slaves in a foreign land, but the glory days of peace, prosperity, popularity, and power that they had under King David and King Solomon were long gone. Now, though they were being mostly left alone, they were still the least important territory in Prussia, ruled by a the pagan king Artaxerxes. They were barely getting by, suffering from droughts and crop failure, were constantly fighting with their neighbours, and couldn’t even get along with themselves.

Actually, it wasn’t just the living conditions and lack of plenty that bothered them most. What troubled Israel more was the spiritual drought. Sure, the temple was rebuilt and the sacrificial system was working, but the temple was much smaller and inferior to the great Temple of Solomon. Everyone knew that God had shown up to help Esther save the nation and Nehemiah rebuild Jerusalem, but they thought that once the final stone was laid at the temple, that first drop of blood spilt on the altar, that the miracles would start automatically raining down on them, but it seemed that God’s presence had all but left their nation. Even the Holy of Holies seemed deserted.[1]

But was God gone? Had God abandoned His people? Had He broken his promise to be faithful to them? Of course not. Look at Malachi 3:13-15,

“Your words have been hard against me, says the LORD. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’”

Do you hear what they are saying? It is not that God left His people, is it? Instead what we see here are a people who are upset that God isn’t giving them what they want, so they have given up. God says, “Your words have been hard against me!” That means they haven’t just been grumbling, but actually accusing God of being unfair, unjust, unkind. Maybe they didn’t say it aloud – that would be pretty unjewish – but this is what they said in their hearts and their actions show it. They thought, “What’s the point of keeping the faith if there is no profit to it?” So their worship was lethargic and passionless. Their prayers were lists of complaints about God’s lack of love, about how He was unjust in His dealings, and full of bargaining to try to get something out of Him. They even withheld their tithes and offerings because they didn’t think God would take care of them and were worried they wouldn’t have enough.

Disappointed with God

Have you ever felt this way? I have. You read the Bible, see the promises, do what you’re supposed to do, and things seem to get worse? That’s the kind of month I’ve had. I try to do things right, and things get worse. The spiritual attacks are relentless, the voices in my head are terrible, the circumstances add up, the suffering around me grows, and I get more and more bad news and I spend my time confused, angry, sad, and afraid. I try to pray, to read my Bible, to call a friend – but I can’t sleep, don’t eat, and feel miserable. I honestly feel like I’ve aged 50 years in the past 2. My tinnitus screams in my ears, I can barely hear sometimes. Some days my whole body hurts and I can hardly get upstairs. I spontaneously burst into tears in front of random people now. It happened the other day when I asked the optometrist at Costco to adjust my glasses. I literally choked up.

Have you ever had a rough patch in your life where nothing seems to go right and you start to ask yourself, what’s the point in following God? Where’s the “profit” in following God’s rules, doing things His way, saying prayers, reading his word, doing what we’re supposed to, denying ourselves pleasures – which almost always makes life more difficult? But you stick to it, believe God’s way is right, try to do things His way, but things seem to just get worse? You wonder where God is? Where’s all that “peace that passes understanding” and “joy in the midst” you’re supposed to be feeling?

And then you look around, read some stories online, or hear from others that things seem upside down. The Christians you know are all going through tough times, but the God-hating, hedonistic, non-believers are prospering. People who are outright committing evil, lying through their teeth, spreading gossip, killing babies, mocking God to His face, are not only getting away with it but are being praised and rewarded for it! Hypocrites are adulated and the faithful mistreated. One starts to think, “Where is God in this? What’s the point in doing things God’s way if it never seems to make our lives any better?”

That was the attitude of the Israelites during the time of Malachi, and it’s the attitude of many today. I know I’m not alone in this. Israel was tired of waiting, tired of suffering, tired of not having enough, tired of seeing evil get away with it, tired of calling themselves the people of God but fighting amongst themselves and then losing every other battle to the enemies that they used to be able to defeat easily. God wasn’t blessing anything they were doing so they blamed God for all their problems.

But Malachi isn’t a book of complaints and accusations. In this book God reminds His people that He is more than happy to bless them, stands ready to help them, but there’s a problem. Malachi reminds the people that God hasn’t abandoned them. It was God who chose Israel and God who stayed faithful, even demonstrating great love when they had completely turned their backs on Him. He even restored them back to their land and saved them from their enemies when they hadn’t done anything to deserve it. He demonstrated his willingness to bless them.

But what was their response to God’s amazing grace? Was it to worship and praise and obey and give thanks and take care of each other? It was for a short time, but not for long. It wasn’t long before they forgot the agony of being slaves in Babylon and started to grumble and complain that things weren’t good enough. They wanted more comfort, more prosperity, more gifts from God – and faster. But when God didn’t come on His magic sleigh with His eight tiny reindeer to deliver presents to everyone, it wasn’t long until they got upset with Him, so they started to dishonour God by bringing worthless, impure offerings to the temple, holding back the good stuff to themselves. Then they started to withhold their worship, love, and obedience, saying that they would only do what God wanted if He would start doing what He was told. Then, when God didn’t fulfil their demand for more worldly pleasures, they decided to do it themselves. They committed sexual sin, divorced each other, married unbelievers, took advantage of each other, and refused to help the needy. But they still wanted to be called “Holy” and “Believers” and “God’s people”, so they kept doing their religious activities.

So God tells them that the reason they aren’t feeling His presence right now, the reason they aren’t connected with Him right now is that their hearts and lives are a mess. That’s what the whole first part of Malachi is about.

God told them they were treating Him like a sugar-daddy. They proved they didn’t want a loving relationship with Him but just wanted to use Him to get nice things. And when the nice things stopped, they dropped Him like a hot-potato. That’s not love.

But here’s the revelation for us today, certainly for me, but maybe for you to. I can’t just point fingers at Israel in this because I know I’ve done this too.

It starts to feel like God only does nice things for people who love Him enough. That He’s always trying to get away and we are the ones who need to hold tight to Him. That God has lots of blessings to share but He’s giving them to the wrong people. But is that true? Is it true that if we loved and obeyed God enough, tried hard enough, worshipped good enough, served and tithed and sang enough – that things would be easy? Is it true that all the hard things in life are just God being mad at us for not trying hard enough?

The wisest man to ever live struggled with this. In Ecclesiastes 8 Solomon puzzles about how the world works. It all seems upside down. In Ecclesiastes 8:14 he says,

“There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous…”

A few verses before, in 8:10–11 he says,

“Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.”

He felt it too. He feels like the world is topsy-turvy, that evil is rewarded and good is punished, and God isn’t showing up fast enough – and so our hearts start to think that maybe it would be better to do evil because it seems to work.

We wonder why doing bad things seems to easy and good things so hard, don’t we? Marriage is hard, and parenting is hard, and getting older is hard, and being young is hard, and being sick is hard, and staying healthy is hard, and our spiritual life is hard, and there are so many temptations, and there is so much pain and uncertainty – and that’s just the tip our own little iceberg. The rest of the world is another thing. I don’t understand what the government is doing. Corporations are getting more powerful and sometimes eviler. People seem to be getting either more gullible or more selfish. Nature itself seems to be going crazy as people panic about climate change, natural disasters, and species extinction. And then we have scientists doing all sorts of insane things like creating and destroying human embryos and messing with their genes, cutting off heads and putting them on other people’s bodies – it’s like a sci-fi movie out there right now!

And when all the difficulty hits, Christians fall on our knees and cry out to God, but nothing seems to happen. We read our bibles, say our prayers, go to church, give some money, and nothing gets any better. Sure, maybe we’re distracted for a bit, feel some peace when we read a psalm or our eyes are closed, but the troubles invariably come crashing back when we get up and get back into life.

It’s easy to slip into that Malachi mindset. Instead of tithing as we should, we keep a little back because we are worried about the budget. We skip church events, skip Sundays, drop out of ministries because there’s lots of work to be done elsewhere and church stuff hasn’t really produced anything other than guilt and broken promises. We start to indulge more in the things that bring us temporary joy – porn, drinking, drugs, food, violence, entertainment – because it gives us that little rush we were trying to get from God, but He wouldn’t provide. Sure, it produces shame… but if we keep at it we know that will eventually go away.

We pull away from our Christian friends, stop going to small groups, stop calling our accountability partner, stop listening to Christian music because it just reminds us about how everyone else in the world is either more miserable or better off – and we don’t want to hear from either one of those people. We head to the doctor in hopes of a medical solution and they prescribe something that numbs our feelings and forces us into unconsciousness at night.

Sure, we still call ourselves Christians, but we stop reading the Bible because it doesn’t help. We rarely pray except to complain about how unfair life is or say that if He’d just fix things then we’d start doing what we’re supposed to. But nothing changes, and we start to wonder if God even exists at all.

It would be far easier if He didn’t, we think. If God didn’t exist, then nothing matters. There are no consequences, no Hell, just oblivion. Sure, it goes against everything we think we believe, but by that point, oblivious seems like a better option than constant pain, sadness, and disappointment, right?

That feeling, by definition, is hopelessness, and it’s not only where Israel was headed during the time of Malachi, but something felt by a lot of people today. By the time we reach the birth of Christ, 400 years later, except for a few exceptions, hopelessness had almost totally engulfed the entire nation.

Where to Find Hope

What is the cure for hopelessness? Where do we find that Romans 5:5 “Hope that does not disappoint”. What message does Malachi give to these people whose faith was falling apart? Look at the very end of Malachi, the last of the Old Testament. Look at Malachi 3:16. Here we see something special. After the complaining, faithless, disobedient and hopeless have had had their say against God, another group emerges: “Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name.”

Pause there a second. In the first part of Malachi, we see God listening to the conversations and blasphemies of the first group – the complainers. Now, we see God listening into the conversations of another group – the faithful. In this nation that had all but fallen away from God there was one group that was still faithful, still hopeful, still hadn’t bowed their knee to another god, still hadn’t turned to sin, but had remained obedient despite all the troubles they had seen. How? Look what they did. They “spoke with one another”.

I’m sure most of you have had a campfire. Some of you even have fireplaces in your homes. And you know how it goes, right? You can’t just stick one log in at the beginning of winter and let it go until you don’t need it in the spring. Sure, you start with a nice fire, but as time wears on, the wood burns down, the logs get smaller, and if you don’t pay attention, you’ll be left with only a few charred, little blocks with a few tiny, flickering, little flames, surrounded by some orange glow and grey ash. So what do you do? When the flames are dying down, and the heat is dying out, what do you need to do to make sure the flame doesn’t go out altogether? You bring those embers together, you keep the flame alive by bringing the warmth together. In order to kill a fire, you spread it out, right? To keep it going, you pull it together.

In the same way, when the fire of faith is burning low, believers should draw together. One of Satan’s main tactics is to get us alone, to tell us all the reasons to stay home, stay alone, not share our thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears and temptations with people. He wants to divide and conquer. But to keep the flames of faith alive we must draw together.

Above my monitor, I have two cards that were given to me at just the right time with just the right message. The first has a quote from Isaiah 46:4 that says, “I have made you and will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” They remind me of God’s love.

The other one simply says, “We’ve got your back!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stared at that card, reminding myself that my church has my back. Let me tell you that I’ve had some dark times lately, some dark thoughts, and Satan has been non-stop trying to tell me some very evil lies, trying to make me feel alone and forgotten. But I look at that card and remember that my church loves me, my church cares for me, my Christian friends have my back, and it gives me the strength to send a text to a friend, an e-mail to the elders, and ask for help and prayer. It reminds that when I am too weak to pray for myself, too sad to read anything, that I can draw closer to God by leaning on His people.

And what do God’s people do when they get together? They “spoke with one another.” Hebrews 10:23-25 was given to believers in a very similar situation to Malachi’s. Oppressive government, dangerous times, losing hope, and it says to believers, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” I would imagine that God’s people of Israel in Malachi’s time and God’s people when Hebrews was written, and all of God’s people who have come after, speak the same things, right?

They confessed their hope to one another. They spoke God’s word to each other, reminded each other of the truth about of God, combatting the evil lies that were in their heads. They asked each other what brought them hope that week? They told stories about how they saw God that week. They remembered God’s promises and told stories of his faithfulness.

What else did they speak about? They stirred one another up to love and good works. Christians stopping their lives to come to one another and simply say, “How have you been this week? How can I help you? How can I serve you? Did you know that so-and-so needs something? Can we work together to help them? Tell me about how you’ve struggled with sin and temptation this week, and let me help you. How are you doing with guilt and forgiveness? Do you know that God has forgiven you?”

What else do Christians speak about to generate hope? They encouraged one another. “I know you feel miserable right now, but let me remind you how far you’ve come. I know you feel lonely right now, but you’re not. God’s here and I’m here too. I know you feel like your prayers aren’t answered, but I assure you God is listening and doing more than you know. I see answers that you’re not seeing. Let me tell you about them. I know you feel worthless but I want you to know that I see such wonderful potential in you. God is doing something amazing with you and I can see it even though you don’t. Don’t give up on God or yourself.”

Another group in Ephesus was going through a similar situation, living in evil days, and the Apostle Paul says this in Ephesians 5:15-21,

“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit…”

He’s saying the same thing. Don’t go to sin to try to get the things that only the Spirit of God can provide. But look what he says next because it’s really important. Essentially, he says what Malachi and Hebrews says:

Verse 19,

“…addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

How do you keep your hope up when things are getting hopeless? How do we keep the fire of faith from going out in our heart? How do we feel better when we feel like God and the whole world are against us? Satan will tell you to get alone, turn away from God, from friends, from prayer, from church, from your spouse and children, to get alone and get selfish. What does God say? Connect with God by connecting to other believers. He says, if you are down and feeling hopeless and want to feel more hopeful and closer to God, communicate and get together with His people. How do you resurrect dying coals? Gather them together and then blow on them! So how do we encourage ourselves when our spirit is dying? By connecting with other believers and letting the wind of God’s Spirit blow on us.

Conclusion

This whole section of Malachi is leading up to the prophecy about the coming of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus. It’s an advent scripture. Advent means “arrival”, but the Season of Advent is the waiting for that arrival. As even the faithful people of Israel groaned in frustration, but kept the faith, so Christians participate in advent as a time of waiting, of groaning, of knowing things aren’t right with the world, but anticipating that God’s plan will come to fruition, that He will make things right, that He is victorious, and that all of His promises in Jesus are true.

Christmas time is such a mixed bag, isn’t it? I know that for some of you this is a wonderful time that you look forward to and that there is much to be cheerful and thankful for. And I know for others, there is so much going on in your life and heart that you wish Christmas would be cancelled. Both of those feelings are necessary to understand Advent and the Christian faith.

So my encouragement to both of you, whichever side you are on, is to do the things that will point you and others to hope in Jesus. If you are having a good season right now, then come to the church events, host people in your homes, make excuses to get together and invite people from outside your usual circles so more people are encouraged.

And if you are going through a struggling season right now, then I encourage you to clear some space in your schedule and be willing to accept these forthcoming invitations. Honestly decide in your heart that you will make your church family and various Christian events a priority, to meet with Christian friends, to find ways to talk and sing with each other – as medicine for your soul! If you are sliding into hopelessness, into temptation, being sucked into the dark, or call text another believer and tell them. Ask them to pray for you. I have been rescued from the dark so many times by doing that because it’s what I’m supposed to do. It works because gathering with other believers is the recipe for hope – and there’s no more perfect time of year to make excuses to get together to speak and sing with one another than Christmas time, right?

[1]  The Lexham Bible Dictionary & ESV Study Bible Malachi Introduction.

How to Find Hope When Hopelessness Strikes

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Advent 1 - Where to find hope

Audio:

Text:

Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament and shines like a beacon in a dark place. And those who first heard it really needed a beacon because even though things weren’t at their darkest, it still wasn’t a great time in the life of Israel.

Malachi was a prophet that lived about 400 years before Jesus and 100 years after the Babylonian exile. He came on the scene in the years after Nehemiah and Ezra had already rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and reinstituted the sacrificial system, but things were still pretty bleak. Though things were going ok for the generation that had come back to their homeland of Judah things were far from perfect. The prophets that had encouraged them to rebuild their temple had given promises of blessing, renewal, expansion, prosperity, peace, that would come when God’s glorious presence would once again come to the temple.

But when they looked around at their life they were disillusioned – it wasn’t anything like that. Sure, they were no longer being oppressed in a foreign land, but the glory days of expansion under King David and the peace and prosperity under King Solomon were long distant memories. Now they were the least important territory in Persia under Artaxerxes, were barely getting by, suffering from droughts and crop failure, and were constantly fighting with their neighbours.

It wasn’t just the living conditions and lack of plenty that bothered them, there was also a spiritual drought. Sure, the temple was rebuilt, but it was much smaller and spiritually inferior to the great Temple of Solomon. God had shown up to help Esther save the nation and Nehemiah rebuild Jerusalem, but they thought that once the final stone was laid at the temple that the miracles would automatically rain down on them, but it seemed that God’s presence had all but left their nation. Even the Holy of Holies seemed deserted.[1]

Of course, the problem wasn’t that God was gone, but that their hearts were far from him. Their worship was lethargic and empty of love or passion. They constantly complained about God’s lack of love and how he was unjustly punishing them. They even withheld their tithes because they were worried they wouldn’t have enough. It can be summarized in Malachi 3:13-15, “Your words have been hard against me, says the LORD. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’”

Disappointed with God

Have you ever felt this way? What’s the point of following God? Where’s the gain in following all God’s rules, doing things His way, which is almost always harder, and then things just getting worse? God is the “Lord of hosts”, the “God of gods”, the “God of angel armies”, but where is He? The arrogant, self-willed, atheistic, non-believers all seem like they are doing better than us. And people who are outright committing evil, mocking God to His face, are getting away with it! What’s the point in believing in God when He never does anything to make our lives any better?

That was the attitude of the Israelites during the time of Malachi, and it’s the attitude of many today. They were tired of waiting, tired of suffering, tired of not having enough, tired of seeing evil get away with it, tired of calling themselves the people of God and then losing every other battle to those which they used to conquer easily. God wasn’t blessing anything they were doing, so they blamed God for all their problems.

But Malachi doesn’t allow for that. Malachi comes to God’s defense. He reminds them that God is more than happy to bless them, but refuses to bless their sin. He reminds them that God was the one that chose Israel and has stayed committed to them, showing them great love even when they had completely turned their backs on Him, and then restored them back to their land. And what was their response? To worship and praise and obey and give thanks and take care of each other? No… it was to grumble, complain and dishonour God by bringing worthless, impure offerings – to withhold their worship, love, and obedience – to commit sexual sins, divorce each other, and marry unbelievers – to dishonour and live unjustly towards one another – and to live as hypocrites who say one thing and do another.

He tells them that they aren’t receiving God’s blessing right now because their hearts and lives are a mess… which is a story we’ve all heard so many times, right? Almost to the point we’re tired of it. I know I can start to feel that way.

God, where’s the good news!? Why is everything so hard? Marriage is hard, and parenting is hard, and getting older is hard, and being young is hard, and being sick is hard, and staying healthy is hard, and our spiritual life is hard, and there are so many temptations, and there is so much pain and uncertainty – and that’s just the tip our own little iceberg. This world is a whole other thing. I don’t understand what the government are doing, corporations seem to be getting more powerful and sometimes more evil, people seem to be getting either more gullible or more selfish. Nature itself seems to be going crazy as people panic about climate change, natural disasters, and species extinction. And then we have crazy scientists who are doing all sorts of terrible things like creating human embryos and then destroying them, messing with human genetics, cutting off heads and putting them on other people’s bodies – it’s like a sci-fi movie out there right now!

Our spirits cry out to God, we hit our knees, we cry out to God and nothing seems to happen. We read our bibles, say our prayers, go to church, and nothing gets any better. Sure, maybe we’re distracted for an hour or two, but invariably it all comes crashing back on us. Or worse, we come into church hoping for an uplifting message with some answers and just hear once again how our problems are somehow all our fault – and we go home feeling even more miserable. Seems to be the same story over and over, right?

Then it’s easy to slip into the mindset that Malachi was writing about: What’s the point of all this religious stuff? What’s the point of believing in God if things are just going to be miserable anyway? Where is God when all this insanity is going on? We hear stories about amazing things happening in India, China, and Florida – but what about Beckwith, or Ottawa? And like Israel, we get disillusioned and disappointed with God and start to back off our faith.

Instead of tithing as we should, we keep a little more back each week because we are worried about the budget. We think, “God hasn’t given us enough money, so how can we afford to tithe?”

We start to skip church events, skip Sundays, drop out of ministries – after all, there’s lots of work to be done and attending church hasn’t really produced anything other than guilt and broken promises about “finding joy in suffering”.

We start to indulge a little more in the things that bring us temporary joy – porn, drinking, drugs, food, violence, entertainment – and it gives us that little rush we weren’t getting when we were trying to connect with God. Sure, it produces some shame… but if we keep at it we know that the shame will eventually be quieter.

We pull away from our Christian friends, stop going to small groups, stop calling our accountability partner, stop listening to Christian music, because it all just reminds us about how everyone else in the world is either just as miserable or better off– and I don’t want to hear from either one of those people.

So we head to the doctor in hopes of a medical solution, and they are more than happy to give us something that numbs our feelings and forces us into unconsciousness at night.

Sure, we still call ourselves Christians, but we stop reading the Bible because it just produces more guilt and we rarely pray, except to complain to God about how unfair life is, how He’s not doing His job, how if He’d just fix things then we’d come back to doing what we’re supposed to. But the prayer bounces off the roof, nothing changes, and we start to contemplate not only why we started to believe in the first place, but whether God even exists at all.

It would be far easier if He didn’t, we think. If God didn’t exist, then nothing matters. There are no consequences, no Hell, just oblivion. That, by definition is hopelessness, and that’s not only where a lot of people are today, but where Israel was headed during the time of Malachi. By the time we reach the birth of Christ, except for a few people, hopelessness had almost totally engulfed the nation.

Where to Find Hope

What is the cure for hopelessness? The simple answer is hope. “Hope that does not disappoint”, as Romans 5:5 puts it. What message does Malachi give to these people whose faith was falling apart and who were losing hope? Look at the very end of Malachi, the last of the Old Testament. Open up to Malachi 3:16. After all the complaining and faithless and disobedient had had their say against God, another group immerges:

“Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name.”

Pause there a second. In this nation that had all but fallen away from God, there was one group that was still faithful, one group who had not bowed their knee to another god, one that had continued to remain obedient despite all the troubles they had seen. How?

Look what they did. They “spoke with one another”. I’m sure most of you have gone camping and had a camp fire. These days they make you buy your wood from the store at the campground, and it’s really expensive, so you really need to enjoy every little piece. You start with a nice fire, but as the night wears on, the wood burns down, the logs get smaller, until there is only one little charred block, with a tiny flame, surrounded by orange embers. So what do you do? You stoke the fire, right? When the flames are dying down, and you’re all out of wood, what do you need to do to make sure it doesn’t go out? You bring the embers together, you keep the flame alive by bringing the warmth together. In order to kill a fire, you spread it out, right? To keep it going, you pull it together.

In the same way, when the fire of faith is burning low, believers should be drawing together to keep the flames of faith alive. And what did they do? They spoke with one another. What did they speak about?

Hebrews 10:23-25 shows believers who were in a very similar situation. Oppressive government, dangerous times, losing hope, and it says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

They confessed their hope to one another: “What brings you hope this week? How have you seen God this week? What do you remember of God’s covenant to us? How has He been faithful to you this week?”

What else did they speak about? They stirred one another up to love and good works. “How have you been doing this week? How can we help you? How can we help others? Have you been caught in sin? How are you doing with forgiveness?”

What else did they speak about? They encouraged one another. “I know you feel miserable right now, but you’re doing great. I know you feel lonely but I’m here. I know you feel your prayers aren’t answered, but I assure you God is listening and doing more than you know. I know you feel stuck, but I see such wonderful potential in you. God is doing something amazing with you and I can see it. Don’t give up!

Another group in Ephesus was going through a similar situation, living in evil days, and the Apostle Paul says this in Ephesians 5:15-21, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit…” Which all makes sense right? Sinning by drinking or doing drugs isn’t really going to help, right? But look what he says next, because it’s really important. Essentially, he says what Malachi and Hebrews says:

Verse 19, “…addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

How do you keep your hope up when things are getting hopeless? When the fires are going out in your heart? Satan will tell you to get alone. Turn away from God, away from friends, away from prayer, away from church, away from your spouse and children, to get alone – so you are an easier target. What does God say? Not just “Speak to each other.” But “sing to each other!”

He says, if you are down and feeling hopeless and want to feel more hopeful and closer to God, get together and sing to each other! Sing your praise, sing your thanks, sing about God, sing about Jesus… but not just to feel better, but out of submission and reverence for Jesus. When we sing songs of faith together our hearts knit together, and then fall before Jesus.

How do you fire up dying coals? Blow on them! So how do you encourage yourself when you feel your faith is dying? Draw together with other believers and speak and sing!

Elijah is John the Baptist

Let’s close by reading the end of Malachi, the last words of the Old Testament, starting in 3:16 again,

“Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name. ‘They shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him. For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts. Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.”

I can almost hear the words of the faithful in response to this, “Yes God! We will keep meeting together, keep remind one another, keep speaking your name and singing your songs. We believe you will completely save us one day. But when, God? When will you come and deal with the evil once and for all? When will you come and raise up your people like the sun? When will healing come? When will you tread down the wicked and cause us to leap for joy?

And God tells them the sign to wait for in 3:5 that will kick off this glorious time,

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”

Who was this one that would come right before the “great and awesome day of the Lord”? Who would come to prepare the land so it wouldn’t be “utterly destroyed”? According to the Bible and the words of Jesus it was John the Baptist, who would come and proclaim Jesus’ coming as Son of God and Saviour of the world. (Matthew 11:7-14; Luke 1:17).

Choose to Meet

Next week we enter into the Advent season, the season of waiting and preparing ourselves for Christmas. I know that for some of you this is a wonderful time that you are looking forward to, and that there is much to be cheerful and thankful for. And I know that for some of you, you’ve got so much going on in your life and in your souls that even the idea of celebrating Christmas seems like more of a chore than a blessing.

My encouragement to both of you is to keep doing the things that will point you and others to hope in Jesus. If you are having a good season right now, then that’s great, come to the church events, host people in your homes, make excuses for people to get together and invite those from outside your usual circles so more people can encourage one another. And if you are going through a struggling season right now, then I encourage you to clear your schedule and be willing to accept these forthcoming invitations so you can be with your fellow believers more and more. Honestly decide in your heart that you will make your church family and various Christian events a priority, to meet with Christian friends, and to find ways to sing and talk with each other – as medicine for your soul! If you are sliding into hopelessness, that’s the recipe for hope – and there’s no more perfect time of year to make excuses to get together to speak and sing with one another than Christmas time, right?

[1] Acosta, D. R. (2016). Lord of Hosts. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press. & ESV Study Bible Malachi Introduction.

The POWER of Thanksgiving

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The Power of Thanksgiving

We live in an age of expectancy, selfishness and pride. We live in a darkened world that refuses to thank God for His provision and will not acknowledge His grace. The world came into being by chance, everything is a collection of random atomic accidents, and we are only here by coincidence. Everything we see – for good or ill – we have achieved on our own and there is no guiding hand or purpose to anything in life. We are all merely highly evolved animals – of no more value than a virus or a pinecone.

If you are successful, then it is because you either lucked out in the genetic or economic lottery. If you are not successful, then you need to try harder and fight more to get what you deserve in this world. Sadly, none of it matters though, because all you have – your home, money, and relationship – are merely forms of reorganized dirt that will be long forgotten within a few generations anyway. “Meaningless, meaningless… Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless”  — or so goes the opening lines of Ecclesiastes, setting the theme of the entire book – that nothing matters and no matter what we do, we all die anyway.

Depressing, isn’t it?

That’s a world without thanksgiving – without gratitude – without the understanding of grace and mercy. That’s the secular world that doesn’t understand James 1:16-17 that says, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” They are deceived. Or the words of John the Baptist in John 3:27, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.” Or 1 Corinthians 4:7, “Everything you have was given to you. And if this is so, why do you brag as if you got these things by your own power?” (ICB).

Everything we see, have and experience comes through the Father’s hands – all of it. Good, positive, happy, joyous experiences – and painful, confusing, hurtful, frustrating experiences. None of it happens without God’s consent.

  • The creation of the world in all its wonder and perfection – and the fall of Adam and Eve that brought the curse upon it.
  • The choosing of elderly Abram and barren Sarai to be the father of a great nation – and the children of that nation being enslaved by Pharaoh for 400 years.
  • The building of the glorious Temple of Solomon – and it’s destruction by Nebuchadnezzar 400 years later.
  • The calling of the Prophet Jeremiah when he was about 17 years old to bring messages of God to the people of Israel – and when these same people hated him so much that they stoned him to death 50 years later.
  • The golden years of the Great Kings David and Solomon and the evil times of King Ahaz and Queen Jezebel.
  • The writing of the Law of God, and the losing and forgetting of it.
  • The rise to power of evil Haman and the rise to power of Queen Esther.
  • The advent and birth of Jesus Christ, and the slaughtering of the babes two years later.
  • The coming of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, and his beheading under a pagan king.
  • All of the amazing life of Jesus, His miracles and teachings – and His betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion.
  • The rise to power of Saul, the persecutor of the church, responsible for killing Christians – and his conversion to faith which resulted in the writing of most of the New Testament and the spread of Christianity all over the world.

He allowed the earthquakes in Haiti and Pakistan, Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Japan, the droughts in Africa, the Flood of the Yangtze River, the Halifax Explosion, the Black Death, the Bubonic Plague, and the Spanish Flu. He’s also overseen the organization of the United Nations World Food Program, the Red Cross, Compassion International, World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, UNISEF.

God ordained the birth and lives of Nero, Caligula, Genghis Khan, Josef Mengele, Adolf Hitler, Adolf Eichmann, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung, Ayotollah Khomeini, Joseph Stalin, and Osama bin Laden. He also ordained the lives of Constantine, Saint Augustus, Saint Patrick, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, William Wilberforce, Corrie Ten Boom, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Schindler, Mother Theresa, and Billy Graham.

All of these people and things have been decreed by God. None of them were an accident. Every action was an act of His will and His design.

A believer recognizes that everything – everything – happens because of God’s plan and His design. A Christian trusts that God knows what He’s doing. They believe that God’s plan is better than what they can come up with and refuse to sin in order to get their way (Ecc 8:12). They believe that “for those who love God, all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28) – and they don’t define “good” as “comfortable, healthy, and wealthy”. They know that the greatest good is a closer fellowship with God, a closer likeness to Jesus Christ, the bearing of fruit for His Kingdom, and our final glorification as we go from this life to the next. We have a big picture – not a small one – of God and His plan.

Thanksgiving Practiced

This morning I want to talk a little about the importance of having that big picture – and how we can gain that kind of big picture by doing something very important: giving thanks. And I want to start with a quick survey of thanksgiving in scripture so we can see how incredibly pervasive has been for the people of God.

In the Old Testament we find believers who knew that the only condition under which life could be enjoyed is the life of gratitude. For the Jewish believers, everything under God – both good and bad – was a reason to give God thanks, because they knew that their thanksgiving was an act of trust that God would deliver them. These believers breathed thanksgiving with every breath.

The psalms are full of thanksgiving, of course. The praise book, the emotional book of the Bible, interplays suffering, fear, doubt, anger and loss with thanksgiving, worship, deliverance, confidence and joy – sometimes in the same verse!

David, the author of many of the Psalms was a man who gave thanks to God. When the Ark of the Covenant was finally coming into Jerusalem, He appointed a special group of Levitical priests that had the singular job of remembering, thanking and praising God. It was an official title that day – the official ThanksGivers. It was seen as a requirement for all of God’s people – but David went a step further and made sure that God was thanked by people dedicated to nothing else.

Job, even after his great wealth and large family was destroyed in a series of sudden and terrible accidents, chose to acknowledge God and worship. In the midst of great pain and struggle, it says “Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.’” (Job 1:20-21). He was in agony. He “tore his robe and shaved his head” (acts of intense grief and emotion), “fell to the ground and worshipped”. Why? Because he knew that all things come from God’s hands and chose to react with thanksgiving – which was an act of hope for deliverance and of humility before God’s plan.

Before interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, Daniel gave thanks to God. He was standing in front of the ruler of the whole world, who wanted an answer to an dream, and instead of jumping to the end, he stood right in front of him and said a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the ability and opportunity to interpret the dream (Dan 2:23). Later, after King Darius had made the law against praying to anyone but him – on threat of being torn apart alive by hungry lions – Daniel went to his room and continued to “get down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God.” (Dan 6:10). He was a champion of thanksgiving and wouldn’t stop for anyone.

Paul had a lot to do, and much to say in his letters, but he very often takes time and space to not only give thanks not only for his salvation, and teach thanksgiving to the other believers, but to relate to the people receiving the letters how thankful he is for them. (Rom 1:8, Eph 1:15-16; 1 Cor 1:4; Eph 1:16; Phil 1:3-5) His letters drip with thanksgiving. Why? Because Paul was truly thankful that he had been saved by Jesus from a life headed to hell and brought into a life of service in His Kingdom. Everything else compared to knowing Jesus was “rubbish” (Phil 3:8) – and Paul was thankful.

And this thankful man, over and over, commands the followers of Christ to be thankful themselves – and to remind others to be thankful. Over and over we are not only encouraged, but commanded to remember to be thankful for our salvation through Jesus Christ  For example, Colossians 3:17, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Or Ephesians 5:20, “…giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (See also 1 Cor 15:57; 2 Cor 2:14, 9:15)

And finally, we know that Jesus had a regular habit of giving thanks before almost everything. Jesus Christ, Son of God, was thankful. Let that sink in for a minute. Through Him it was all created. He was on earth, surrounded by fools and enemies, there to suffer and die… and yet he spends a lot of time thanking God. Why? Because it was commanded of Him as an obedient son, and also because He was truly thankful to His Father for all that He was experiencing – both good and bad. He thanked God before the feeding of the 5000 (Mk 8:6-7), and again on the night of His arrest before He instituted the Lord’s Supper (Lk 22:19). He thanked God in public prayers that everyone could here (Mat 11:25).

He thanked God aloud, as His voice choked and with tear stained eyes, as He wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:41). His weeping didn’t cancel out his thankfulness. His pain didn’t mean he was faithless. He was moved by loss, grief and the sorrow of death and yet at the same time He thanked God.

Why is Gratitude Such a Big Deal?

Why is this such a big deal to God? Why do we see gratitude in the face of trials and blessings, over and over throughout scripture? Why have thousands of Christian preachers, teachers, elders, writers, mystics, puritans and saints stressed the importance of having a heart filled with praise and gratitude? Because Thanksgiving has a lot of power behind it.

I think I know two important reasons: Our capacity to thank God shows the condition of our heart – and our willingness to thank God is an antidote to poisoned thinking.

Thanksgiving Shows The Condition of Our Hearts

We’ve already seen that thanksgiving is a choice to worship to God – but our choice to thank God shows what’s going on inside of us. It shows what we believe about ourselves and our relationship with God. It is a litmus test of our faith and an acknowledgement of who we think our provider is “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” says the psalmist in Psalm 121:1? Is it in my fields, my finances, my strength, my army, my country, my abilities, my knowledge, my relationships? No, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” The question is a heart check.

One of my commentaries had a great quote:

“Gratitude is a joyful commitment of one’s personality to God.” (Baker encyclopedia of the Bible, p. 900)

When we are being thankful, we are committing our personality – or who we are, what we think, and what we find important, our source of joy and security and self – to God. We will not be thankful if we are full of pride, thinking all we have is ours. We will not be thankful if we are grumbling beause we believe we deserve more. We will not be thankful if we are coveting other people’s things, jealous of what they have. Thankfulness shows what is happening in our hearts – and a lack of thankfulness shows that there is something wrong.

If you can’t give thanks, then there’s something wrong with your heart. It means that you no longer remember the amazing grace of God, His salvation through Jesus, and you have forgotten all the other gifts you have already received. If you cannot give thanks, then you’re not seeing straight, and there is something wrong.

Do you remember the story of the The Pharisee and the Tax Collector from Luke 18? It’s a story where two men walk up to the temple to pray at the same time. One man, the self-righteous Pharisee says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”. The other man, stood far off “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus says it was the second man whose prayer was received. The way that the Pharisee gave thanks showed the condition of his heart – as did the tax collectors humility. Thanksgiving shows the condition of our hearts.

An Antidote to a Poisonous Thinking

The second reason I think scripture keeps reminding us about gratitude is because making the choice – as in, putting the time, energy and effort into giving thanks – is actually an antidote, a medicine, for a broken, darkened, sad, hopeless heart. Romans 1:21 gives one of the signs of us hardening and darkening our hearts as a lack of thanksgiving. It says, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” They didn’t honour God or give thanks to him – which showed the futility and darkness of their thinking.

But the opposite of that is true as well! We can fix our foolish and dark thinking by choosing to give thanks to God. Turn with me to Philippians 4:6-7. It says, “…do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

The “and” clause there seems to me to be a promise. It’s an “if, then” statement. If you pray and give thanks, then you will receive the peace of God. If you want a guarded heart, then pray and give thanks.

Look a little further and see that this verse comes right before a verse that address something we’ve been talking about for a couple weeks: taking charge of our thinking :

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Thanksgiving and taking control of our thought life – and even choosing to rejoice if you look up at verse 4 – are all tied together. If you can’t rejoice, then start giving thanks. If you are not at peace, start to give thanks. If you are anxious about something, start giving thanks. If you feel like your mind is out of control and you need divine guarding, start giving thanks. Thanksgiving is an antidote to poisonous thinking.

Examples of Thanksgiving

But how do I start giving thanks? If you’re really in the dumps, and really down, and frustrated, it’s really hard to start just – giving thanks. You don’t feel like it, right? Well, that’s where taking control of your thinking comes in, and I’ll give you a tool to help you out. Look again at Philippians 4:8 and let’s ask some questions. If you can’t think of what to give thanks for, then turn that list into a series of questions:

What is “true”? What is the truth about my salvation, my God, my hope, my assurance? I’ll tell you again to go read Romans 8! What “true” things can I thank God for? The scriptures are true. They are a fount of cool water in a world filled with dark lies. We all know people who are truthful – people we trust – let’s thank God for them. What else is true in this world?

What “honourable” (dignified, reverent) things can I thank God for? For me, I think of some of the great preachers and teachers of the past that stood for God despite great pressure to conform. I think of the martyrs who suffered for their faith. Of heroes past and present that stand for the name of Jesus. Of men and women I know who worship God with reverence and faith.

What about thinks that are “just”? What kinds of “justice” can I thank God for? We know God is just and will make everything right in the end – evil will be punished and goodness rewarded. But we also see justice in this world if we look. We live in a nation with law and order, police protection and military force that seeks to bring justice to those who have been wronged both here and around the globe. I am also thankful for all the people I know who live rightly, fairly, and don’t compromise. For the stores that don’t cheat me and for missions organizations that are fighting for the protection of those who can’t fight for themselves.

What does the word “purity” bring to mind that I can be thankful for? I think of the amazing joy of teaching eager children the gospel, and how open their minds are to it. I think of the scene of a land covered in new-fallen snow, all white and perfect. I think of how God is perfectly holy and can never be corrupted, and how, because of Jesus I am pure in His sight, and each day He is making me more like Him.

What around me is “lovely” or beautiful and causes me to praise God and give thanks? This one is easy. Just take a look outside. Fall is my favourite season. But there are many other things. Art, photography and music have a lot of beauty in them. A well designed building, car, technology or even appliance can be an object that allows us to thank God. Wonderful stonework on a building, a piece of jewelry, a sunset, the smell of a book, a nice cup of coffee. All lovely things that can give us another reason to give thanks.

What “commendable” things or people can I thank God for? I’m reminded of my wife, who lives a life worthy of commendation, and of my children who continue to have a good reputation with all who know them. I think of the commendability of good bible translators, teachers and writers who work hard to be perfectly truthful. Of all the missions and relief organizations that we can trust to do their job and spend our money well. Of the members of our leadership team who are working hard, doing their jobs without grumbling and complaining, and bring a good reputation to our church.

What do I see around me that is brimming with “excellence”? Certainly the design of creation – it’s magnificence and microscopic intricacies cause us to think of God’s perfection. But what about a cell phone, how a bridge is constructed, or that we can now fit 200GB on a memory card that is only 15mm wide. A well designed garden, a kept field, a motor that runs in perfect time, are all things of excellence. Now, these things are my list – and yours will be different – maybe a 200GB memory card doesn’t immediately draw you into worship like it does to me. That’s ok.

What do I know about God that is worthy of “praise”? Well, everything, when we start to read about Him. Open up Psalm 121, 145 and 146 and read about salvation, protection, and deliverance from God.

“The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 146)

Conclusion

This is my list, and I’m sure yours is different, but I hope you see my point. If we take the time to do this, then it not only gives us an antidote to poisonous thinking, but is an act of worship and obedience to God. He honours those who honour Him.

We live in an age of expectancy, selfishness and pride. We live in a darkened world that refuses to thank God for His provision and will not acknowledge His grace. His people ought not be like that. Thanksgiving takes practice, effort, time and energy – but it’s benefits are incredible. It will bring us closer to God, realign our priorities and adjust our attitudes.

Thanksgiving is powerful – so let us not take it for granted. Like Jesus, let us make a habit of it.