How many here have Instagram? I do. I’m pretty much done with Facebook these days, and I’ve mostly shifted over to Instagram. I like it a little more because it’s a little more dumbed down. There’s not as much going on in the feed as there is on Facebook. It’s just a stream of pictures, comics, and quotes that I can thumb through, and then double if I like.
Most of the stuff on there, and I’m assuming this is how it works for you too, I just scan past and never think about again. But there was one quote that I saw recently that caused me to pause and has stuck in my brain. It’s a quote from a theologian named Steven Lawson.
It goes like this:
“Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.”
I tried to find the context for the quote, whether it was a sermon or a book or something, but couldn’t. And that’s ok because this short sentence is powerful enough on its own. The background is likely the famous song Amazing Grace which starts, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
And both of those echo what we read in Ephesians 2:1-9. Please turn there and listen to how we are described before Jesus saves us:
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Here we read how God sees us before we are saved, before He resurrects our hearts, before we admit we are sinners and accept Jesus as our Saviour. He sees us as dead in our sins, sons and daughters of hell, workers of disobedience to whom evil comes so naturally, we don’t even notice it. He sees us as His enemies, deserving of wrath, and condemned. Meaning that even the good we thought we were doing, wasn’t good at all, but actually worked against God. (Isa 64:6; Romans 1)
And yet, despite being a dead, wretched, lost, blind, enemy of God – He shows us an incomprehensibly great kindness by sending His only Son, trading His Son for us on the cross, and accepting his death for our sake. He then cleanses us from unrighteousness, comes to live inside us, and promises that from now on we will be with Him forever. And what is the cost of this great salvation? What must we do? Good deeds? Give money on Sundays? Go to church? Punish ourselves? No. Jesus completely paid the price, all we must do is believe He did it. That’s why we’re here, singing, giving, serving, and studying His Word today, right?
More Wrath More Grace
BUT, here’s the thing. Steven Lawson was right. “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.” It’s almost a mathematical equation. The more you understand how much wrath God had prepared for you, how much trouble you were in, the more amazing you will understand His grace and forgiveness and the work of Jesus to be. BUT, the opposite is true too. The more you think you deserve God’s grace, the less amazing you’ll think it is.
We just had that tornado touch down in Dunrobin outside of Ottawa, right? Every time something like that happens in the news I hear someone say the same thing, “Nothing like that ever happens around here. We live in such a boring place. I wish we would have something cool happen like a tornado or hurricane or something!”
I promise that no one in Dunrobin is thinking that way. None of the people who the tornado missed are jealously looking at their neighbours house and wishing it would have wiped them out. None of the parents are looking at those with terrified, injured children think, “Wow, my family is so boring. I wish my kid had been almost killed by a tornado.”
Why? Because they saw firsthand the devastation, the damage, the wrath of the storm. Because it touched them they have a respect for it, fear of it, and for many, a thankful heart that it wasn’t worse.
Those who are far from the storm, safe in their homes, watching it on the news laugh at the storm, mock the storm, even wish the storm upon themselves for fun. Why? Because they have not felt its fury. But those who were in it, closest, who were holding each in a basement other while the storm ripped their house apart, they respect the wrath. I watched a video of a man who was in his home with his daughter when the tornado hit. It ripped off the roof of their house, and his daughter went flying up. He grabbed her little hand as she was being pulled into the storm, and held on for dear life until it passed. That man isn’t at home joking about wanting the storm to come to his town. Why? Because he felt the wrath of the storm.
The Gospel Balance
Christians are often criticized because we talk too much about sin. We are sometimes characterized as being joyless, fun-sucking, lemon-eating, sourpusses who spend too much time thinking about how bad and undeserving and guilty we are. The church is sometimes seen as a guilt factory where people who come in needing some help or encouragement are told instead that everything is their fault and that they should actually feel worse. And in some cases, that can be true. Some churches, some preachers, even me on occasion, concentrate too much on the bad news. Which is why there are so many that refuse to talk about the bad news at all.
People generally don’t like feeling guilty, shameful, wretched, blind, or lost – so they avoid places, like the church, where those feelings happen, and instead, seek out places that affirm them. They join groups that make them feel good about their life choices, feel accepted no matter what they’ve done, encourage them to do it more, and get told that they should never have any bad feelings about it. This is great when a person is trying to lose weight, learn a craft, study for exams, or get free from an addiction – but it works the other way too. Alcoholics go to bars to be surrounded by people who won’t judge them, addicts go to clubs to be with people who do what they do, violent people seek out people who want to be violent with them, sexual sinners seek out people who sin like they do and won’t criticize them, and argumentative jerks go to online chat groups…
What they want is to get rid of the feeling of guilt, shame, and fear that what they are doing is wrong. They want to be surrounded by people who will say: “Despite how you feel, despite the warnings in your head, despite your feelings of guilt and shame, keep doing it. You’re fine. You’re good. You were built this way. You deserve it. Your excuses are enough reason. You’re the exception. All of your actions are justified – because you are just like us. And if enough people say that it’s ok, good, right, beautiful, helpful, and healthy – then we can start to believe that. And we’re going to make sure everyone else believes it too.”
The Gospel of Jesus Christ exists within a paradox where guilt meets grace. There is a tension in Christianity that we all hold at the same time – and it is in that tension that we must live in order to create within us a heart of praise and thanksgiving. Christians exist in the tension between God’s Righteous Holy Wrath against us sinners who deserve Hell and the mystery of God’s Amazing Grace.
We hold in our minds, at the same time, the knowledge that we are dead, wretched, lost, blind enemies of God who have utterly rejected Him, with flesh that keeps pulling us towards sin, loving sin and self too much, and failing God every day – and the knowledge that somehow, for some reason that we will never understand, God loves us so much that He traded His Son for us so that we could be with Him forever (Rom 11:28-36). Or as Romans 5:6-8 says it,
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
That quote that I mentioned before, “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.” could be restated, “Grace cannot amazing to you unless you know how wretched, lost, blind you actually were.”
That’s why Christians spend so much time talking about sin – because we know the damage it does and the consequences of not taking it seriously. That’s why Christians spend so much time praying. Because we know that we can’t really trust ourselves, our minds, our hearts to lead us the right way. That’s why Christians don’t run from guilt, but instead walk through that guilt into grace. If we ignore the guilt, we cannot get to forgiveness. Because when we feel guilty, ashamed, and afraid of God’s wrath, it forces us to go to Jesus to deal with it.
Jesus the Advocate
My daughter Eowyn memorized a verse this week that I really needed to hear. As she was working on it, I was going through a tough time, making some bad decisions, getting really down, Satan accusing me over and over in my ear – and she kept coming to me, handing me the book, and reviewing the verse to make sure she had it right. So I had to read it multiple times that day and eventually is sunk in. It’s from 1 John 2:1 and here’s what it said:
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
What a healing balm that has been to my soul this week. The apostle, in this book repeatedly calls Christians, “My little children”. I like that and needed to hear it so much. It’s a reminder that as grown up and smart as I think I am, spiritually I’m still a child. I’m not all grown up and mature, like my Heavenly Father. I’m still learning, growing, making mistakes, and tripping over my own feet. And God knows this. When I sin, He’s not looking down on me in wrath. No, I’m a Christian. I’m forgiven. I’m one of His kids.
Sometimes I still get afraid that God is mad at me for the things I’ve done. That God is punishing me. But then I remember Romans 8:15–16 which says,
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God…”
I have to remind myself: I’m a Christian. God is my dad. When I sin, He still loves me. I’m no longer under His wrath. And as His kid, His child, I don’t need to be afraid of Him.
People tell me sometimes that I can be sort of scary. I have angry eyebrows, a pointy beard, and a loud voice and that freaks people out. Do you know who isn’t scared of me? My kids. They’ve seen my face, heard my voice, and know me – so they don’t get scared when I talk – even when I want them to be! I raise my voice during a conversation for some reason, people turn their heads and wince, babies cry, sirens start going off in the distance – and my kids laugh. Why? Because they know I’m not scary. I’m their dad. That’s how God wants me to see Him too.
Next it says,
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.”
God doesn’t want us to sin. Part of the reason He wrote the Bible was to show us our sin. The Law of the Old Testament, the stories of Israel, the hard-hearted Pharisees, the cruel Romans, the arrogant Greeks, the false teachers, the superstitious pagans – we see ourselves in all of them, and we see our sin. The Bible shows us our faults and then guides us on how to make it right. God doesn’t want us to sin. He still hates sin and hates seeing His children doing it – and will oftentimes discipline us so we can learn about the wrong we’re doing.
Later in chapter 3:9-10 we read:
“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”
Though we’ll never be free of our sinful natures until we get to heaven, God doesn’t want us to be “practicing” sin. We fall, we fail, we develop a bad habit, we go to the wrong place for comfort, that happens to all of us. But when Christians do it, we recognize it as sin. That means we don’t want to do it, even though we just did. We want to change, want to be holier, and we ask for God’s help. But sometimes we keep falling, right? Does that mean God hates us? Does that mean we’re not really Christians? That’s what Satan the Accuser wants us to think (Rev 12:10).
No, there’s an amazing but in there. It says,
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
And I’ll keep reading,
“He is the propitiation for our sins…”
If a human being was creating a religion what would that say? It would go, “I’m writing down all these things so that you won’t sin. But if you do sin, boy are you in trouble! You’d better not! Jesus won’t be happy with you!” But that’s not what it says, is it?
It says that Jesus is our Advocate. In other words, Jesus is our lawyer. He takes up the cause for us before God the Judge. He presents our defence, speaks to God for us, He mediates the conversation with God and He’s on our side. He’s our Advocate before God. And God listens because Jesus is “righteous”, meaning He is perfect. More than this, Jesus is also “the propitiation for our sins”. That means that Jesus was the sacrifice who bore God’s wrath against us so that we could be free.
This is where the understanding of “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.” comes into play again. Christians sin. Someone said to me recently that they didn’t want to come to church because they feel like a hypocrite. I told them, “It’s ok. We’re all hypocrites.” What did I mean? I meant that even though all the Christians in the church say we hate sin, we all keep on sinning. All of us. We keep sinning, keep doing things our own way, keep denying God and living as practical atheists, keep being selfish and bitter and trying to steal God’s glory. But what happens when we sin? Do we lose our salvation? Or does God simply forget about it? Does He pretend it didn’t happen? Do His kids get away with sin?
No. Do you know what happens? A Christian sins, again and again, and Jesus, our Advocate, says, “Father, don’t count that sin against them. Remember, I took the punishment for that sin. You poured your wrath out on me for that. They are still free.”
When Jesus was on the cross, God looked at the entire timeline of human existence, at the sins of all who would believe – from Adam and Eve to the very last believer at the end of time – potentially billions of people and billions upon billions of sins – and He poured the exact amount of wrath out on Jesus to pay for all of them. All our sins in our past and all the sins in our future are not forgotten by God – they are paid for by Jesus.
Christians who recognize that they are sinners, and how deep that sin goes, are people who recognize the immensity of the wrath that Jesus took for us – and recognizing that allows us to begin to understand how Amazing His Grace really is.
And understanding that grace, that undeserved merit, and then seeing all the other good things God gives us which we absolutely do not deserve – changes our lives. It makes us more willing to forgive others. Knowing that when we were enemies of God He forgave us allows us to forgive our own enemies. Knowing how generous God has been with us allows us to be generous with others. Knowing that Jesus came to serve us makes us want to serve others.
That’s why Christians take time to contemplate our sin and the wrath we deserved because of it – but the grace we got instead – it causes us to praise, to worship, to give thanks.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Chances are when you sit at the table with whoever you are celebrating with, you’re going to say grace before you eat. At least I hope you do. It’s an important habit all Christians should have – to stop for a moment and recognize that where you are and what you have is a good practice to develop humility. But when you do sit down and say grace, when you think about all the things you are thankful for, I want you to remember that that list is much longer than you realize. One Christian leader said it this way: “Everything above Hell is grace.” (Bill Stafford)
Allow that thought to enter your Thanksgiving this season. Allow yourself to see how great a sinner you are and then, as you contrast your darkness with light, realize how great your Saviour is.
Somehow this sermon got missed in the shuffle, so it’s a little our of order and the illustrations are a little dated. Sorry!
Every year I watch the SuperBowl. It’s the only football game I watch all year long. I don’t watch the CFL or the NFL at all. I don’t keep track of teams, scores, standings, or the players. And yet, every year for the past decade or so, I’ve sat down to watch the SuperBowl. I don’t care who wins, so I arbitrarily choose a team, grab some snacks, and watch the spectacle. I actually enjoy it a lot, but I know that I’m missing a lot of what’s going on.
One problem is that I don’t even really know the rules that well. While I’m starting to get a hang of it, I know I’m missing a lot. The ref blows the whistle, flags fly, the people I’m sitting with throw their hands in the air, and I just sit there waiting for someone to explain what’s going on – which doesn’t really help anyway because I have no idea what “an incomplete handoff by the backfield in the red zone after a false start which instigated a pass interference” even means. I usually just say, “Oh!” and eat another Taquito.
I feel the same way when try to follow politics. I know that I don’t understand enough to know what’s going on, but I find that more and more these days, perhaps because of my age or the moral insanity our nation is experiencing, I feel the need to at least pay more attention. And a recent event was an interesting one to watch. Did you see what happened? It was all my Facebook Feed was talking about.
During an important vote a while back, Prime Minister Trudeau felt things were taking too long, crossed the floor, grabbed the Conservative Opposition Whip Gord Brown and cussed and pushed him through a group of NDPers that were blocking his way. In his anger he elbowed NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau in the chest, hurting and shocking her enough that she ended up leaving the House of Commons and missing the vote. It got very dramatic as people left their chairs to shout foul language and point fingers at each other. But again, just like with football, there’s so much jargon, politics, media spin and parliamentary procedure, I barely know what happened and I’m sure what’s supposed to happen now.
All I know is that after watching the video a few times, I found myself disappointed with everyone involved. It was frustrating to watch the drama unfold and sin rule the moment. I was grieved by all the parties and angered by the wholesale immaturity I witnessed from people who are supposed to be discussing the incredibly serious matter ophysician-assisted suicide! Instead of giving it the gravity it deserved, as the lives of so many vulnerable Canadians hang in the balance, they turned the floor into a gong show of pride and political maneuvering.
Thankfulness in Tough Times
So, how am I to react to things like this? Should I leap into action, and send letters to the heads of all the parties? Maybe. Should I turn to social media and complain about it to everyone? Maybe – and in fact, I did. What should I do though? Or more importantly, what should I do first?
As a Christian, my first response should be to pray. I’ll admit I didn’t do very good on that. I hopped on the internet and wrote a Facebook post, and then I visited my MP’s office and talked to whoever was there about it a bit, but my first reaction wasn’t to pray. I’ve done it since, but it wasn’t my first instinct.
But what’s even more personally condemning is that when I did pray, I didn’t start in the right place. I jumped straight into asking God to fix the hearts of the MP’s, bring order to the nation, and put Christians in influential positions. I asked for forgiveness for the times that I’ve been impatient, immature, and hot-headed too – but after some reflection and study, I realized that I missed a crucial part of my prayer. I missed what was supposed to be the starting point. I didn’t thank God for what happened.
That’s a confusing statement to a lot of people. What is there to thank God for in a group of adults acting like kindergarteners when they were supposed to be talking about suicide? That’s a tough question, isn’t it? But the Bible says we are supposed to be thankful.
I think this is something that I forget too often, and I’m fairly certain that a lot of other Christians do too. Most praying people are pretty good at confessing their sins, asking for forgiveness, and then asking God for what they need – but a lot of Christians fast forward past the thanksgiving part of prayer so they can get on to the part where they ask God for things.
Sure, we say grace at meals (which I think is hugely important, by the way) or start out with a “Dear God, thanks for this day.”, but really the meat of our prayer life are often requests. Even unbelievers often find the words, “Thank God.” spilling out of them when something good happens, but how much of us really dwell on the thanksgiving portion of our prayers. Not that there’s anything wrong with asking God for things. He tells us to do that. But, I hope what we are going to learn today is that when we pause and get very specific about giving God thanks that we can allow the Holy Spirit to change our perspective on a lot of our deepest hurts and confusions.
It’s easy to thank God for the beautiful sunshine, the rain that feeds the flowers, the joys of our life and all the other good things that come our way, but what about when bad things happen? Are we to thank God then? Isn’t that strange, or even a little masochistic, to thank God for the pain we feel? And yet, over and over in scripture, we read that we are supposed to give thanks to God “continually” and in “all things”.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
- Ephesians 5:20 says Christians are to be “giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…”
- Colossians 3:17 says, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”.
- In Psalm 136, which tells the story of the plagues of Egypt, wandering for decades in the wilderness, international wars, and oppression by their enemies, begins, “Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.”
- The author of Hebrews, writing to a group of people who were suffering so much because of their faith in Jesus that they were considering turning their backs on God says, “…let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.” (Heb 13:15)
That doesn’t make sense, does it? It seems unreal, almost illogical, for the writers of scripture, who are giving us the very Words of God, to tell us that no matter how bad things get, no matter how much we suffer, or are rejected, or are forgotten… no matter how much evil we see in the world… to be thankful. How is that even possible?
The Problem With “Count Your Blessings”
I know that there are some here that are going through some really difficult times and it’s hard to find things to be thankful for. For some, your loved ones are physically, emotionally and spiritually suffering; how are you to be thankful for that? Others are regularly witnessing evil acts all around you that make you feel powerless and like the world is out of control. Sure, the sun comes up every day, but that doesn’t make up for the stains of sin that permeate the lives around you. Some of you fight depression, anxiety, fear and worry every day. Your mind is against you, and no matter how much you argue with yourself, you can’t force yourself to be the faithful, joyful person you want to be – and think everyone else is. Some feel lonely and forgotten. Others feel like total failures and it colours every aspect of your life. No matter how good things seem on the outside, it gnaws at you that you have failed in your relationships, failed in your spiritual life, failed in your pursuit of purity, failed in your parenting, failed as a student, failed as a son, daughter, husband, wife, or friend.
And the idea of being thankful for that part of your life doesn’t make any sense. How? How can you be thankful for the pain you have caused yourself and others? How can you be thankful for an accident? How can you be thankful for someone purposefully hurting you?
These are complicated issues, and I don’t intend on giving you some kind of simple solution today. I’m not going to tell you to “count your blessings”, because inherent in that advice is almost a tacit denial of your pain. It’s almost as though the advice to “count your blessings” is saying, “Pretend that the bad things aren’t happening and only think about the god things.” That’s denial, and it’s unhealthy and unbiblical. I’m not going to do that.
What I want to do instead, for the rest of our time today, is examine what God has done in Paul’s life here and how he has learned to be thankful during difficult times. I want to draw a few things out from what he says he thanks God for, and perhaps give ourselves a couple of new thoughts about ways we can look at our own hurts and begin the process of healing our souls through thanksgiving.
Remember the Context
First, and as always, remember the context here. Paul is one of the most passionate followers of Jesus in history. He went from being a man who hated Jesus so much that he would track down Christ-followers to have them arrested and even killed to being Jesus’ most effective missionary and apologists. The moment when Jesus met Paul on the Road to Damascus altered his life forever because he had experienced the amazing and abundant grace of a loving Saviour. He knew he didn’t ask for it or deserve it, but Jesus saved him anyway.
He brought that story to Corinth, one of the most corrupt and spiritually messed up cities in the world. No one there was giving God a second thought, because they were too busy relishing in every form of darkness and deplorable sin imaginable. And yet, just like Paul, God worked a divine intervention, giving grace to those who didn’t deserve it or ask for it, birthing a Christian church in Corinth. Paul’s conversion, and the conversion of every member of that church – from the pagan Greek man who was addicted to all the forms of sexual perversion the city had to offer – to the Jewish men who rejected Paul’s message so violently that they had dragged him before the proconsul and beat their own leaders for failing to have Paul persecuted – were a miracle. No one wanted, had asked for, or deserved to be saved by Jesus – and yet, there they were.
This letter comes about because Paul had been receiving reports that this church full of saved people, that Paul had been pastoring for a year and half, who were supposed to be loving Jesus, loving each other, and following God’s Word weren’t doing any of that. Instead, they had forgotten Jesus, were fighting with each other, were being corrupted by their environment, and were on the verge of telling the Apostles and the Bible to get lost. Paul’s heart was certainly broken over and over as he heard more bad things coming from the church in Corinth, and we know that he had a lot to say to them.
And yet, Paul doesn’t start his letter with a reprimand, does he? I probably would have. People in the church are fighting, calling Paul a fool, are up to their eye-balls in sexual perversion (one guy is even sleeping with his step-mom)… there were things that needed to be addressed. And yet, he doesn’t start there. Instead, he begins by reminding them of their special calling and sanctification through Jesus Christ. And then, instead of jumping straight into a lecture about all the messed up things they were doing, Paul tells them why He spends so much time giving thanks for them. Let’s read it together:
“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:4-9)
1. Thank God for His Grace
Let’s see what he’s thanking God for her, and see if we can learn from it.
The first thing we see him giving thanks for is “the grace of God that was given [them] in Christ Jesus.” He starts with the most important thing. No matter how bad things get, this is where we should start: thanking God that He has given everyone in that situation grace, and continues to extend it despite all the pride and sin.
Jesus said, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:44-45) God isn’t up in heaven zapping people who do bad things, but instead is giving more and more grace.
2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some understand slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
An old proverb says, “Where there is life, there is hope.” As long as we are on this side of the dirt, we are experiencing the grace of God. Every breath we take is overseen by our Divine Creator. He knows all of our thoughts, deeds and motives, and yet He loves us anyway.
That’s the first place we need to start, by thanking God for the grace that He has shown us, and for the grace He has shown to the person or group that has hurt us. Even if it’s a natural disaster like an earthquake or flood, we can still know that we are experiencing the grace of God because His final judgement has not come.
I think this helps us because, no matter what happens, when we start with a realization that we are people who have received God’s undeserved grace, being bought by the shed blood of Jesus, it gives us a better perspective on our problems, and increases our ability to love, forgive, and offer grace to others. (Col 3:13; 4:32; 1 John 4:19)
For example, once we recognize God’s grace in our lives, we can begin to pray “God, thank you for saving me and forgiving me even though I didn’t deserve it. I’ve received your grace in innumerable ways, and I know that I’m continuing to receive your grace now. I could be in hell, but I’m not because you loved me. And that person, or group, or situation, which seems so hurtful, is also receiving your grace. It’s not out of control, because You are in control. I thank you for the relationship I have with that person, or group, or church… my wife, husband, father, mother, child, or friend… because them being in my life wasn’t my idea, it was yours. And even though I don’t feel it right now, I know you put them in my life as an act of grace. Thank you for giving me grace, help me give them grace too.”
2. Thank God for His Activity
The second thing we see Paul thanking God for are the gifts that God has given. The grace we receive from God isn’t just our salvation, but also daily gifts that show up every day. He says he gives thanks because, “…in every way [they] were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that [they were] not lacking in any gift.”
This forces us to take a moment to realize Who is in charge of this situation? Who is in charge of enriching this church? Paul or God? God. Who is in charge of fixing their speech? God. Who is in charge of changing their knowledge, or the way they think? God. Who is in charge of giving them what they need to repair whatever problems they have? God is. And further, who has been at work since the beginning of time, making sure everything works towards His end, His glory and has the best in mind for His people? God.
What about your problem? Who is in charge of it? You or God? God is.
But consider for a moment those four things Paul is thanking God for: their “speech”, their “knowledge”, “testimony” and “gifts.”
This is a bit ironic considering that one of the criticisms that Paul gives later is that they were putting far too much emphasis on having the gifts and not nearly enough on loving the One who gave them! They were treating the gifts God had given them like if at Christmas a family member gave you a new iPad and instead of saying “thank you” to them you completely ignore them and instead start showing off to everyone how cool you are now, and how many awesome things you can do with it. We know it’s wrong to forget the gift-giver in favour of the gift itself, right? That’s what the Corinthian church was doing. They were using and abusing God’s gifts, but forgetting the Gift-Giver.
And yet, Paul still thanks God that He gave them those gifts. Why? Because He knows that without God having changed their hearts, their “speech” and “knowledge” and “testimony” would be as corrupt as everyone else’s in Corinth. But now, because of the work of Jesus, they knew the One, True God. They now had greater knowledge and understanding of spiritual things than anyone else in Corinth. And even though they had gone wrong, that didn’t take away from the fact that God had given them this gift and He should be thanked.
The challenge is to ask ourselves what God-given gifts we can see in the difficult situations. We can say things like, “God, even though that person or group or situation is driving me crazy, I can see that you’ve been at work. You’ve given us your Word, your Spirit and Your Truth. And yes, they’re not listening to it, but the truth is available to everyone. And, you’ve even given that person gifts. They are here for a reason. They are good at this, they can do this, they have done this in the past. They couldn’t have done that without you, which mean you are to be thanked for their existence. I can see you at work and I thank you for it.” Even in a disaster, like Fort McMurray, we can see God at work.
Mr. Rogers, who was a Christian pastor at one point, said that when he was young and there was bad news on the radio or in the newspaper, he would get scared and his mother’s advice was, “Always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers.” And this brought him hope.
The point is sound and I would expand it for our purposes today: When we are faced with difficult times, and we go to pray, we need to start with thanksgiving. How do we do that? We look for how God has already been at work in the situation, who God has already provided to help, and what good has already happened. The Corinthian church was pretty messed up, but Paul says, “I can see God has been at work in you, that He has changed you on a fundamental level. Yes, things are a mess right now, and darkness is casting a shadow, but God’s light is still present, just as it has always been.”
Thanking God for that changes our perspective and allows us to pray, “God I’m thankful you are in charge and at work. I’m not the one who can change their minds, only You can. I’m not the one who will change how they talk, how they think, how they conduct their lives. Only you can do that. You are good, your love endures, and I’ve already seen you do good things. For that I’m thankful. I look forward to seeing what you will continue to do. You are writing a story here and I’m only in the middle of it.”
As Philippians 1:6 says that God will finish what he started. “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Who began the good work? God did. Who will bring it to completion? God will. For that we can be thankful.
3. Thank God for Sustenance
The third thing that Paul thanks God for is the sustaining power of the Lord Jesus Christ. He says, “…you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ…”
This is similar to the previous point, with an important difference. We are here reminded that in our thanksgiving prayer to God, the power to deal with the situation is not in our hands. We do not have the ability to save anyone – even ourselves.
We are reminded in Ephesians 6:12-13 that
“we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.”
Our salvation is not in our hands. Our guiltlessness before God is not of our making, but because Jesus’ blood has covered our sins. Similarly, the weapons we fight evil with are not of our own creation. Our sustaining power to face, combat and overcome the evil in our life and around us is not something we can generate within ourselves. Every self-help book that says you just need to “tap into your inner strength” is utter garbage because you do not have the equipment within yourself to combat the “cosmic powers over this present darkness.” There’s not enough willpower in the world to conquer our sinful nature. You need a Saviour who will dress you in His armour and give you the strength to “withstand in the evil day”.
And so, in our prayer of thanks, we can say, “Lord Jesus, thank you that I am not the one who has to keep this person from the fires of Hell… but You can. I’m not the one who has to defend their mind and their hearts… but You can. I thank you that you have taught me that by myself I am utterly powerless and witless to withstand my real enemy… but You can. And you generously give me all I need to face this trial when I trust in Your strength. I know you’ll never quit on me, or quit on the person or situation I’m struggling with. All of humanity is one prayer away from accessing your power. You say that not even the gates of hell can prevail against Your people (Matt 16:18). You say that if You are for us, no one can be against us (Rom 8:31). This is your world and your work, God, not mine. For that I am thankful!”
So, my encouragement to you this week, as you face the difficulties of the world around you, the relationships you are in, or the ones inside your own heart, is to pray about it, of course – but to begin that prayer with thanksgiving. Before Paul started to address the many and varied problems he was facing, he got on his knees and got his heart in the right place by thanking God. It was the right thing to do, and we are commanded to do it too. Why? Because willing ourselves give thanks radically changes our own hearts in regards to whatever we are facing. It takes our eyes off of the problem and puts God back on the throne of our universe.
As you begin to pray about this trouble, ask yourself, or even ask God, these three questions:
First: What free grace (undeserved favour) have I, and everyone involved, already received?
Second: Where have I already seen God at work before and during this situation? God is consistent. He will send help, hope and healing. He will continue to complete the good work He began. Ask, where can you see Him at work?
Third: What resources has God given me to combat this evil? He offers wisdom beyond your ability, peace that passes understanding, spiritual protection, and the fruit of the spirit which are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal 5:22-23) They are offered to all who ask.
Kickstarter Update: The Kickstarter has stalled at $2400 and it’s been a few days since it has seen any new hits or pledges. The goal is $3000 and there are 9 days left. Please consider pledging towards the goal so I can make this new book a reality. If you can’t pledge, or have already, would you please consider sending the Kickstarter link to your pastor, youth pastor, small group leader, book store, or any friends and family that might be interested? It would help me a lot if you would! God bless!
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.
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)
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.
Let’s talk about Nehemiah 8. But before we do, let me give you a quick background to what’s going on. After the peaceful reign of King Solomon, the son of David, was over, the kingdom of Israel split in two. Israel to the North where 10 tribes were living, and Judah to the South which were the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi.
Not long after the split, the Assyrians came in and took over the Northern kingdom, conquered them, scattered or enslaved the people living there, and basically wiped out the northern kingdom. The Southern kingdom of Judah remained, so some of the people from Israel fled south and it grew. Many of them moved to Jerusalem and it became a very large city. To defend themselves they built huge walls around the city.
Meanwhile the kings of Judah are going back and forth between trusting God to protect them and allying themselves with pagan nations. King Hezekiah does the right thing and trusts God, but when his son Manasseh takes the throne he stopped worshipping God, put up idols all over the place, allied himself with the Assyrians, started performing child sacrifices and killed off many of the prophets of God. His son, Josiah, took over the throne at age 16 and stumbled across a copy of the first 5 books of the Bible, the Torah, and was convicted by God to clean things up. It was hard because his father kept working against him, but He did all he could.
The kingdom of Babylon is on the rise and they take over the Assyrians. Because the people of Judah had rejected God, built idols and rebelled against His law, God prophesied through Isaiah and Jeremiah that the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, would attack Judah, the walls of Jerusalem would be destroyed, the city would be ruined, and all the people would be exiled to Babylon. There they would live as outcasts and slaves for 70 years. After that time they would be allowed to come home again.
Rebuilding The People
What we are about to read here is the story of the Jewish people who had come back from exile to Jerusalem to find it absolutely ruined. The first seven chapters of Nehemiah are all about the rebuilding of the walls so the city will be defensible once again. But then, in chapter 8, the story turns from the rebuilding of the city, to the rebuilding of the people within the city.
Nehemiah was a Jewish man and a trusted official – a cupbearer – under the king of the Persian Empire (who, by this time, had taken over the Babylonians). Nehemiah had heard about how bad things were in Jerusalem and was heartbroken for his people and his city. He talked to God about it and then asked the king if he could leave and help rebuild Jerusalem.
Ezra also worked for the king of Persia, but was a teacher of the Law, a descendant of the High Priest. In an amazing miracle, he was given a mission by the king to lead a group of Jewish people back to and teach them about the laws of God. When he arrived he saw a lot of the same sins that got them in trouble in the first place, and it broke his heart.
So there are your two leaders, Nehemiah and Ezra, tag-teaming the rebuilding of the city and its people by teaching them to how rebuild their homes, their lives, and their hearts. What we read in chapter 8 is the story of Ezra, as he finally takes all of the people, gathers them together behind the city wall, appoints small group leaders, and then reads the entirety of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – , the Book of the Law, the Torah.
“And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” (Nehemiah 8:1-8)
So that’s the picture. Ezra reading the Bible to the people, in full, and then a group of appointed bible teachers explaining it to anyone who didn’t understand it. And as the understanding of what God had written sank in, people started to change.
Sin Sinks In
“And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.” (Nehemiah 8:9)
Their spirits were stirred and their emotions were gripped when they began to understand what the Bible was saying to them. They began to understand the depth of their rebellion against God, and the enormous grace God had shown them even though they didn’t deserve it. They read of the creation of the world, and the perfect place God had created for them… and how that was marred by sin. They read of the jealousy of Cain towards his brother Abel and felt it prick their hearts as they realized they had done the same thing their own brothers.
They listened to the story of the Exodus from Egypt and realized how much God loved them and would go to any lengths to redeem them and save them. And they listened to the story of the people who refused to even go into the Promised Land… the land they were currently standing on… and how they instead of trusting God, they would wander the desert for 40 years.
And they looked up around them, at the city they had been working so had to rebuild – the capital city of their Promised Land – and realized that they sat on holy ground because it was a gift from God, and God dwelled in a special way in this place. Then they remembered why they had been sent into exile, how they had rejected this God, His law, His prophets, His warnings, and began to see how even though they had returned from their exile, that they were still doing the very same thing. They were face to face with their sin, and they couldn’t escape it.
Then Ezra began to read the 10 Commandments and the people realized that they had broken every one of them, and they stood guilty before God. And they wept.
They read of the blood sacrifices, the lamb that was slaughtered after the High Priest placed the sins of the people on its, this one symbolic act that was required to cleanse the people from their sin. The read of the scapegoat that would be ceremonially driven from the city to show the people how God was driving away their sin. And the bull that would be slaughtered before their eyes, its blood spilled, because that’s how serious God takes sin.
And it sinks that it had been a long time since they had repented. A long time since they had been obedient to fulfill the law. It had been years and years since most of them had celebrated the Day of Atonement. Decades of sin – years and years of guilt – was piled up against them. God had a right to be angry.
If you are a Christian, or if you’re not but God’s been working on your heart, then you know what this feels like. God starts to get hold of our hearts, and we begin to understand what the Bible says about us. It is absolutely appropriate, when we come face to face with our sin, fr it to bring an emotional response. In this case, we’d call it conviction, guilt, shame, and fear. They saw themselves through the eyes of God – contrasted their lives against his perfect, moral law – and it’s something they hadn’t thought about before, or hadn’t thought about for a long time. They weren’t “good people in a bad situation”. They were depraved, broken, lost, sinners. Under the wrath of God, surrounded by evidence of His righteous judgment, and their hearts broke.
There is power in the public reading of the scriptures. The Bible contains the best news, and the worst news, in history! The world is condemned, sin has separated us from our Creator, all hope was lost, and we are all destined for hell because of the perfect and necessary judgment of God. And we can’t argue with it. We cannot stand before Holy God and argue that we’re good people – our consciences testify against us and what we read in the Bible won’t allow it. That’s the bad news. But it is absolutely necessary to hear and understand the message of the total depravity of our hearts before we can grasp the amazing grace of salvation through Jesus Christ.
We don’t really like to talk about sin – at least not our own. Our society, in general, prefers to deflect blame onto someone or something else. It’s never our fault, and therefore none of us ever really sin. It’s not a new thing. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the snake.
Adulterous men and women blame their spouse for driving them into the arms of someone else. Corrupt business leaders say it’s the economy that made them steal from so many people. Thieves blame the security system saying that if they didn’t want it stolen, they should have protected it better. People with addictions blame the substance, the manufacturers, the pushers, or the peer pressure. Gossips blame the tabloids and the people who listen to them. Slanderers blame the object of their scorn. Jealous and envious people blame the advertisers. Pornographers blame the consumers. Perverts blame the objects of their lust. Parents blame schools, schools blame parents. Everybody blames the government, and the government parties blame each other. Nothing is ever anyone’s fault.
But one of the core messages of the gospel is that we are sinners and that when we stand before God one day, He is going to pull out our rap-sheet, all of the excuses in the world are going to melt away and all that will be left with be us, our guilt, and perfect judgment of the all-knowing God of the universe.
The Importance of Guilt
Christians, those who believe in Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord, know that the first step to freedom in Christ and being saved from sin, is to admit guilt. Admit we are sinners. Admit fault. To say, I am a sinner who has willingly, and willfully broken the law of God over and over. I wanted to, I chose to, I meant to, and I did it again and again.
I worshipped things that weren’t God. I stole things that weren’t mine. I lusted after people that weren’t married to me. I lied. I promised things to others and didn’t follow through. I promised things to God and didn’t follow through. I used God’s name as a curse word. I worked for my own glory, and my own fame, as much as I wanted, not giving glory to the One who created me but taking it for myself. And often as I worked, I did it at the expense of others. In my anger I’ve wanted people to be dead, and I’ve done things to hurt them. I did it. No one made me. I am without excuse. If I were put on trial for everything I’ve ever done or thought… I would be guilty a million times over.
And when we come face to face with that sin, it will either harden our hearts to God – causing us to tell God to get lost because He just makes us feel bad – or it will break us, causing us to fall on our face before Him in sadness, fear and repentance.
My prayer is that our sin breaks each one of us. That come face to face with our sin destroys the pride that makes us think we are our own highest authority. That it destroys the image in our mind of how good we are, how lucky God is that we call ourselves one of His people, how blessed people should be to be around us. That it obliterates that false theology of believing that we are good enough to be in the presence of Holy God in Heaven, because we know in our very soul, that we’re not.
Coming face to face with the reality of our sin is supposed to breaks our hearts, just as it breaks God’s. There’s a reason God chose blood to represent sin. Because it’s disgusting, scary, horrible, repulsive and permanent. Sin kills. And when we figure out that we are sinners… not just people who make mistakes and have good excuses, or just need to try to do better, or deserve a second chance because deep down we’re good people … when we start to see our sin, and revile it – it becomes disgusting to us – and we learn the consequences of our sin, it should break us. And it’s right that it does.
That’s exactly what the people who were listening to Ezra read the law felt. They wept because they felt guilty, they felt ashamed, they felt the conviction of God weighing heavy on them.
I hope you have felt that. I hope that you haven’t been sold some kind of garbage that God is going to let everyone into heaven because He loves everybody so much. I hope you don’t believe the nonsense that says that you people are basically good on the inside. We’re not. Without Jesus, I’m not, and neither are you. Without Jesus, we are dead in sin, absolutely selfish, lovers of idols, and children of hell. We are people in rebellion against God, on the path of destruction. It is only because of His common grace to this world that most people can draw their next breath, because if He called in their chips today… they would be condemned.
Anyone who has not dealt with their sin will be exposed and judged. That is why these people wept. And why anyone who has not dealt with their sin, who harbors unrepentant sin, who hasn’t come to God for forgiveness, should weep.
The Good News!
But that’s the bad news! And Nehemiah and Ezra, after they had read the law, looked out to see the people’s hearts breaking, and their weeping, and realized that even though their conviction and guilt is right – that they haven’t grasped the whole truth of what was just read in the scriptures. They didn’t understand the whole story!
“Then he said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.’ So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, ‘Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.’” (Nehemiah 8:10-11)
They were saying, “Listen everyone! I know you’re heart is broken because you have seen your sin… but you need to remember… this day is holy to God. It is set-apart and special to Him. This is the day where the hearts of His people broke before Him. Where, after such a long time, His people finally figured out how far they were away from Him, and wanted to be different. The children of God finally looked around and saw that they were living in sin and slime and rebellion… and they got up and wanted to come home. And they humbled themselves before Him, and repented, and God is absolutely pleased today!”
I can almost see Ezra rolling back the scroll of the book of Exodus 34:6-7 and saying, “Everyone, remember!
“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin….”
…God’s got it all in perfect balance! Your fathers were the ones who rebelled. But you are the thousands who have turned their hearts back to Him and He will forgive you. To you He is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and will always be faithful to you. Do not grieve today, but give thanks! ‘The Joy of the Lord is your strength!’ He has joy because of you, and will share that joy with you!
You can’t have God’s joy when you are still in your sin. It’s impossible. That kind of radical freedom, absolute peace, and powerful, overflowing love is only possible when God gets a hold of your heart, forgives your sins, cleanses you from your unrighteousness, and sets you on the straight path that leads to life and eternity with Him! Do not let grief be the end of this day! No, know that because of your repentance, your hearts are right with God, and there is great joy and rejoicing in Heaven because of you.”
I hope you know both sides of this today. I hope you have felt the conviction of your sin, and have turned to God for salvation.
Jesus was the final sacrifice of the old system of the Law. He was the perfect Passover lamb. His blood was shed for your sin and mine. His perfection completed the entirety of the Law of God, and He offers to exchange His righteousness for our guilt and sin. I hope you’ve felt conviction and guilt and shame – and that you know what it’s like to be forgiven and purified and made new in the name of Jesus Christ.
I hope you have wept over your sin – and now know that the Joy of the Lord is your strength!
A Real Thanksgiving
And now we come to the even better news. What is the proper response when you finally realize all of this is true? What should happen when you finally figure out that the burden of your sins, your condemnation to hell, has been lifted from you, atonement has been made by Jesus for your soul, God is your Father once again, and you are His forever and no one can take that away? What’s the right response?
The right response is to have Thanksgiving Dinner! Verse 12, “And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.”
That word “because” is the most important word in that sentence. When these people sat down to eat that day, they had a real thanksgiving dinner. They didn’t do it out of tradition. It wasn’t because it was on the calendar. They didn’t just get the good wine, order a turkey, and invite everyone over because they wanted to be with their family. They did it “because they had understood the words that were declared to them”.
Words of life. Words of hope. Words that changed the way they saw themselves, the world, and their God forever. Words that drew them into a brand new relationship with their Father in Heaven that they hadn’t had for years.
We need to do the same thing. Did you know that the original act of parliament from January 31, 1957, which created the Thanksgiving holiday in Canada says this:
“A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed … to be observed on the 2nd Monday in October.”
It was started as a day to thank God for His abundant blessings to us.
So let me encourage you that when you come into the Thanksgiving season, that you do it with a mind towards the grace God has shown us in Jesus Christ. He loved the world so much that He sent His one and only son, that whoever would believe in Him wouldn’t have to die in their sins… but would be able to have eternal life with Him forever. And He walks with us throughout our entire life, and promises to never leave us nor forsake us, no matter what.
Praise God that it’s not about how good we are, but how good He is. It’s not about how much we punish ourselves, it’s about the punishment He took for us on the cross. It’s not about how religious we are, because religion without Jesus only leads to death. Those who understand this have the most reason to give thanksgiving because they have experienced the resurrection of their souls – they have gone from death to life.
I hope that’s true for you. I hope you have admitted your sin and turned to Jesus. Today is the day of salvation. And a day to begin giving real thanks.