Monday, February 26, 2007

God is Great, God is Good, Let us Thank Him for….

(A sermon for the first Sunday in Lent based on Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13)

Most of you probably prayed the same table blessing during your childhood that I did during mine:
God is great, God is good,
let us thank him for our food.
By his hands we all are fed;
give us, Lord, our daily bread.

There was a commercial jingle during my childhood that was similar in rhythm to that blessing:
Nestle’s makes the very best

That made a connection in my mind, because of all the foods for which I was thankful, chocolate was at the top of the list.

Now, though, I am a man, and I am supposed to have put away childish ways. I have, however, put away neither chocolate nor my gratitude for it. In fact, I now have more reasons to be thankful for dark chocolate, as research is indicating that the flavonoids in it are good for me, particularly for my heart and my brain, two rather vital organs. While I know that I am supposed to have put away childish ways, I hope that I will forever remain simple enough in my approach to life that I never stop thanking God for the simple things in life—family, food, friends, and fun.

Nevertheless, I and most of you should now be at a place in our lives where we understand what blessings matter the most. And it is not the material blessings of life that matter the most and for which we should be most grateful.

Still, the material world is not a bad place to start, since that is in fact where we do start. George Harrison sang, “I got born into the material world,” and we all did. Christian faith does not shy away from accepting the material world; the Bible does not shy away from teaching us of the responsibilities we have in relation to our material blessings. So the book of Deuteronomy instructed the people of Israel to make proper acknowledgement of the source of their material blessings. When they gathered their initial harvest in the Promised Land they were to take some of that produce, go the place of worship, show it to the priest, set it down before the Lord and worship him. They were to acknowledge that their material blessings had come from God and they were to give some of it back to him.

We learn something here of the importance of the discipline of giving our tithes. Such giving is not just so that the lights can be kept on and the missionaries funded, as important as such things are. Our giving, when it comes from a grateful heart and from a discerning mind, is our thanksgiving to God for what he has given us. The Israelites were also told, “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house” (Deuteronomy 26:11). Our bounty should be cause for celebration! Giving and celebrating go together because they reflect our acknowledgement of God’s good gifts to us.

Do you remember how Scrooge reacted when the real wonder of Christmas dawned on him? That paragon of greediness turned into a whirlwind of generosity. When the wonder of all that God has done for us dawns on us his generosity fuels our generosity.

Notice, though, that the blessings that were to be celebrated by the Israelites went far beyond material things. When they brought their offering to the Lord they were to make a confession of faith before him. In that confession they were to acknowledge the fact that God had saved them from Egyptian bondage and that he had given them the good land in which they were living. Material things were an important component of the blessings of life but they were a part of a much bigger picture. That bigger picture was freedom from slavery and the blessing of being home. We express gratitude for our material blessings not just because we have been blessed materially but because the God who gives us those gifts also gave us our salvation.

Our greatest blessing is our salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. It is that blessing that gives color and tone and hue to all other blessings. The blessing is not just for me and for mine, though. You may have noticed that in the instruction to celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord had given the Hebrews, they were to do so “with the Levites and the aliens” who dwelled among them. The Levites were Israelites who were ministers, so having them join in the celebration makes sense. But the “aliens” were non-Israelites, foreigners who had come to dwell among the people in the Promised Land. God has always intended that his grace and love and salvation be available to everybody, and they in fact are. So Paul could write,
The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Romans 10:11-13)

How good and great is God? He is so good that he loves everybody. He is so great that he gave his only Son Jesus so that anybody who trusts in him and who calls on him will be saved. That salvation is for absolutely anybody who will come to him, believe in him, and call on him. Paul said that “the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.” Our God is a generous God; how thankful we are that his generosity extends to his salvation!

So the blessing that we celebrate the most is our salvation; we celebrate our material blessings in the context of our salvation. That means more than remembering to thank God for our material blessings as well as our salvation. It also means to have a saved perspective on our material blessings. We who are Christians celebrate and express gratitude both when we have material blessings and when we do not. Jesus had just gone forty days without food when he was tempted by Satan. Naturally, then, the first area in which Satan tempted him was food. Jesus understood, though, that something was more important than food, even after going without for forty days. He knew that listening to God’s word and being obedient to God was more basic and more valuable than even the most necessary physical blessings. We should thank God for the fact that we can be thankful even when we don’t have the things that most people think you must have in order to be thankful!

Jesus relied on his relationship with his Father and on what he had learned from his Bible as he fought against the temptations of Satan. We can celebrate and express gratitude to God for his provision in our spiritual struggles. Sometimes we think that the closer to God we get the less we will struggle spiritually. The truth is, though, that often the closer we get to God the more our spiritual struggles increase. We have to look no farther than the life of Jesus to know that is true. No one ever lived in a closer and more obedient relationship to the Father than did Jesus but he experienced excruciating spiritual struggles, beginning with the his temptation by Satan and ending with his painful cry of “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” on the cross. He experienced those struggles exactly because he was so close and obedient to his Father. All the way through, though, he knew the strength that came from his life of faithful obedience. So can we.

Nothing matters more than our salvation. We praise God for that more than for anything else. Being saved, we want to be faithful to God in our salvation; we want to live life in his way. When Satan confronted Jesus following his forty days in the wilderness, he tested him in ways that went right to the heart of who Jesus was and right to the heart of the mission that he had been sent to carry out. Had Jesus given in to any of Satan’s temptations, he would have been turning his back on God’s way for him. He would have been compromising the hard way of the Father for the easy way of the world. He would have been giving up the way of sacrificial love for the way of superficial showmanship. But he did not compromise nor did he give up; he stayed the course. We Christians want to bear witness to who Christ really is as we go about our lives in the world. We celebrate and express gratitude for the help God gives us in being faithful to him and living life in his way.

God is great and God is good in so many ways. He gives us our material blessings. He gives us salvation. He gives us a saved perspective on our material blessings. He gives us the inspiration and resources that we need to persevere in our spiritual struggles. The question for you and me is, how can we best respond to him in gratitude and love?

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