November 24, 2013

Giving Thanks When the Walls Cave In

Have you ever been reading something in the Bible and all of a sudden you came across something that made you want to throw the book across the room?  I remember the first time I read the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 where Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law, tricks him into getting her pregnant after he failed to keep a promise to her.  Jesus ultimately came from one of the twins that resulted.  I remember even more when I read the story at the end of the book of Judges about a priest who shoves his concubine out into a crowd of rowdy men who gang rape and brutalize her all night until she dies from the abuse and the priest then carries her home, dismembers her body, and ships pieces of it all over the nation to get the people’s attention sparking a civil war.  While I stopped a bit short of throwing the book across the room after reading these, I was definitely left with a powerful sense of “what on earth is this doing in the Bible?”  The fact is, sometimes the guys who added to the Bible wrote some things that are downright hard to hear.  I have four different books in my office all analyzing different hard sayings of the Bible.  We did a whole sermon series a couple of years ago looking at just some of the hard sayings of Jesus.  I mean, what are we supposed to do when Mr. Love Everybody Himself declares that He came into the world in order to tear up families?  How should we handle it when the guy who says that the only way to life is to follow Him also promises that following Him will lead to a lifetime of pain and persecution?

And Jesus wasn’t the only person in the Bible to say crazy-sounding stuff like this.  The truth is that there are a whole lot of things in the Bible that simply don’t square with our experience and what our culture declares to be true.   This morning I want to look at one of these with you that stands near the top of the pack.  Near the end of his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, the apostle Paul was offering some parting advice to the believers there before signing off.  Coming into the home stretch, in 1 Thessalonians 5:12, Paul writes this: “We ask you, brothers [and sisters], to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.  Be at peace among yourselves.  And we urge you, brothers [and sisters], admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.  See that no on repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.   Rejoice always, pray without ceasing…”  Now, up to this point, we can track with him pretty easily.  These are all pretty straightforward commands.  Nothing too outlandish or unexpected here given what else Paul writes.  But then in v. 18, Paul adds this: “…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

And everything comes to a screeching halt.  Do what, Paul?  I’m sorry, I thought you said that we should be thankful in all circumstances.   You didn’t really mean that.  In fact, you couldn’t have really meant that.  That wouldn’t make any sense.  There are a lot of circumstances out there that just aren’t thanksgiving-inducing.  I mean, watching someone waste away from a horrible disease of some kind…doesn’t really make us want to give thanks.  Going through financial struggles that leave us wondering how we’re going to pay the bills and keep the lights on…not really grateful heart producers.  As I was writing this paragraph I learned that my very first youth minister died at age 51 after suffering from pancreatic cancer for two years.  I confess, my first thought wasn’t, “thanks God!  You took Him home!”  And furthermore, Paul, you definitely couldn’t have said this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for us.  If it sort of didn’t make sense before, now it really doesn’t make any sense.  I mean, Jesus went through some hard circumstances.  If anyone understands that hard circumstances don’t make us want to jump up and down with thanksgiving it’s Jesus, right?

But no, no, you really did write that.  In the Greek Paul used the little preposition evn, which most commonly means “in” in English.  In fact, in the Greek the literal translation is even harder.  It simply reads: “In all, give thanks.”  There’s more, though.  The word for “give thanks,” there is actually the word that would ultimately be coined to describe the Lord’s Supper and is still used today: Eucharist.  This may be pushing the bounds of the Greek a bit, but this isn’t simply Paul telling us to give thanks generally in all things.  He’s telling us to give thanks to God for His grace in all things.  Given your current place of life and how much you’re feeling that grace of God right now, this may be one of those places where you want to throw the book across the room.  Just try and be careful to not hit the people in front of you in the back of the head.  Seriously, though, how do we make sense out of something like this?  I mean, we’re coming up on Thanksgiving this week.  Four days from now.  We have a great community Thanksgiving meal in about 5 hours.  This is a hard time of year for a lot of folks, especially if they aren’t feeling terribly thankful for the set of cards they’ve got in their hand right now.  How do we give thanks in all circumstances as Paul commands here?  Indeed, one more Greek note: the verbal form Paul uses when he tells us to “give thanks” is called the imperative mood.  Imperatives are commands.  Paul’s not making a suggestion here.  He is commanding us to give thanks in all circumstances.  How do we do it?

Well, for the rest of our time together this morning, I want to give you the answer to that question and then tell you how.  We’ll do this by looking at a lengthy complaint to God from out of the midst of incredible, worldview-changing suffering.  First, then, the answer.  How is it that we are able to give thanks in all circumstances?  We are so able when we have hope.  And not just any hope, but an explicitly Christian hope, a hope rooted in the strong assurance we are given that, like we said at Table Talk this past Wednesday as we finished up The Story, when the story ends, God wins.   If we’re on God’s side, we win too.  Everything that happens to us between now and then is God working to make us totally fit for His kingdom.  Because He is absolutely sovereign over His creation He doesn’t allow anything to happen to us without cause.  We may not be privy to the cause and in fact may not ever be privy to it, but this doesn’t mean He is acting irrationally or without reason.  When we have this kind and depth of hope, we can give thanks in all circumstances because we know that God is at work in our lives to bring us more in line with the image of His Son, more ready to stand in His presence with confidence on the last day and all the days that come after it.  Yet how can we come to such a hope in the first place?  Well, to get the answer to that question we have to look back.

We have to go way back to a time still many centuries before Christ, before the final object of real hope was revealed.  We have to go back to a time when the people of Israel had finally hung themselves on the rope God had given them to run with.  You see, kind of like our nation, or perhaps more personally, your own journey with Christ, Israel began really high on God.  They were all about following His commands and living life like He suggested.  From there, though, they pretty quickly fell off the wagon.  There were some revival moments—youth camp or retreat weeks, if you will—but on the whole, their trajectory was down.  Down, down, down they went, always away from the kind of life God kept telling them would secure His blessing for them.  They ran away until God finally gave them the time out they never really believed was coming.  You’ve seen it with your kids.  You keep promising punishment if they don’t straighten up, but then you keep giving them grace until they finally start to think that the punishment isn’t ever really coming.  But with God, He really did mean what He said; He would just rather give grace than judge if He can help it.  And when He dropped the hammer on them it blew their whole worldview to pieces.  They literally didn’t know how to handle the judgment they faced—militarily defeated, society destroyed, temple demolished, and forced to try and rebuild nearly 1,000 miles from their homes and that in a day when 1,000 miles was a little more arduous a journey than sixteen and a half hours in a car as my folks are doing at this very moment.

There were some voices in the nation, though, who tried to make sense out of what they were facing.  The most important of these voices were the prophets whom God sustained through the tragedy so that He could continue speaking to the people throughout the ordeal—another act of grace on His part.  And in the midst of all this tragedy, one prophet named Jeremiah gave the clearest voice to the bewildered agony of the people.  He does this in an ancient document called Lamentations because it is a collection of laments or complaints to God about the circumstances of the people of Israel.  It is, frankly, one of the more literarily elegant expressions of pain and sorrow ever written in the whole history of humanity.  Each chapter is an acrostic of the Hebrew alphabet expressing not only in word, but also literary form, that the agony of the people of Israel goes from A to Z.  Anyone dealing with hard times, but in particular hard times that seem to have come from God Himself, can turn to this oft-forgotten collection and find someone who can give clear word to their pain.

Just listen to some of Jeremiah’s complaints: “How lonely sits the city that was full of people!  How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations!  She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave.  She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they have become her enemies.”  And later: “The enemy has stretched out his hands over all her precious things; for she has seen the nations enter her sanctuary, those whom you forbade to enter your congregation.  All her people groan as they search for bread; they trade their treasures for food to revive their strength.  ‘Look, O Lord, and see, for I am despised.’  ‘Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?  Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.’”  On and on like this it goes.  The people were in a place where there was little for which to be thankful.  They had brought this all on themselves as Jeremiah notes elsewhere in the collection, but their pain was exquisite all the same.

But, while much of the five chapters of the document are focused corporately, right in the middle of the complaints Jeremiah gets personal.  He pours out his personal anguish before the Lord and reveals why he is sometimes called ‘the weeping prophet.’  If you haven’t already done so, find your way to Lamentations 3 and look at this with me.  It’s tucked right in between Jeremiah and Ezekiel both of which are pretty long.  If you find Jeremiah, keep going.  If you get to Ezekiel, you’ve gone too far.  Follow along with me as I read a bit right from the beginning of the chapter: “I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long.  He has made my flesh and my skin waste away; he has broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago.  He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has made my chains heavy: though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with blocks of stone; he has made my paths crooked.”

Are you in a place like this?  Have you experienced one before?  Can you hear the depth of his pain here?  We don’t simply read about Jeremiah’s pain here.  We’re draw totally into it.  In these words we can feel his agony in our souls.  It mingles with our own agony there and almost makes us want to weep along with him.  But Jeremiah doesn’t stop there.  There are still deeper depths of misery to be plumbed.  Jump down to v. 16 with me: “He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.’  Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall!  My soul continuously remembers it and is bowed down within me.”  Could there be a lower place in all the world than Jeremiah is in here?  These are not the words of a man who seems to have any reason for giving thanks.  His hope is all but lost.  And as I said just a bit ago, if we are going to live out Paul’s command to give thanks in all circumstances, we need hope.  So how does Jeremiah, how do we, pull out of all this?

Look at v. 21: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.”  Now, before we look at v. 22, think about that in light of what came before it.  Jeremiah is in a place of utter hopelessness.  And yet there is one thing, one thing he remembers, that gives him hope when nothing else will.  What could be so powerful as to draw a person in this incredibly deep valley of death back to the life of hope?  This, friends, is where we find the secret of thanksgiving, the secret of giving thanks in all circumstances.  Pay close attention so you don’t miss this.  Look at v. 22: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’”

Let me read that one more time just to make sure you can fully take this in.  “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”  Okay, you’ve heard it.  Now, let your mind wrap itself around the dichotomy here.  On the one hand Jeremiah is, with all of his people, in a place where God seems to have utterly abandoned them to their enemies.  Thousands have been killed.  The city and the Temple are gone.  The holdouts went back to Egypt, the one place God told them in no uncertain terms to never return.  The captives have been hauled off to Babylon.  If there were any set of circumstances that might make someone doubt the presence of the love of God, would these not qualify?  And yet Jeremiah declares that His love never ceases and that His faithfulness is great.  How?  What is he talking about?  Well, he’s not talking about something God does.  God’s mercies are not new every morning because He wakes up and thinks, “You know what, this is a good morning.  I’m going to make my mercies new this morning.”  No, Jeremiah is not talking about something God does, he’s talking about who God is.  He is reciting attributes of God’s character.  Jeremiah goes from declaring his hope in God to have perished to averring proudly, “Therefore I will hope in him,” not because his situation changes from v. 18 to v. 24.  He makes this transition because of what He calls to mind, namely, the character of God.  Out of the depths of his sorrow and sadness he remembers the character of his God and beyond all worldly expectation he makes the most reasonable decision he could possibly make: he has hope.  How can you do something like that?  We can do it because when we have a good handle on the nature of the character of our God hope is the easiest, most rational decision we could possibly make.  When we know God’s character, hope is easy.  When we know God’s character, hope is easy.  And when we have hope, we can give thanks in all circumstances.

 

Where we find ourselves, then, is back around where we began a few minutes ago.  But, instead of looking at Paul as crazy for commanding something so inane as “in all circumstances give thanks,” we see now that Paul was imminently rational for saying such a thing.  When we know the faithful, loving character of our great God, giving thanks in everything makes perfect sense.  This doesn’t mean that we’re not honest about our pain.  Jeremiah showed us pretty convincingly we can and even should do that.  But even in our honesty about our pain, we can still have hope and give thanks because of what we know about the character of our God.  When we know God’s character, hope is easy.  It’s easy because, as Jeremiah declares, His faithfulness is great.  He is faithful to His people and His plans.  His plans are for His glory and our good.  He’s working in every circumstance to bring us more in line with the image of His Son.  This means that even in hardship and tragedy He is still drawing us out to be more like Him.  Thus we give thanks in both seasons of plenty and of famine, of sickness and of health, of wealth and of poverty.  We give thanks because we have hope that times of hardship will one day soon become times of blessing.   We have such hope because we know the character of our God.  When we know God’s character, hope is easy.  So if you are in a place where thanksgiving is about the furthest thing from your mind—and I know some of you are there; that’s okay, so was Jeremiah—take some time this week to reflect on the character of the God you serve.  When we know God’s character, hope is easy.  When you have, rest in that hope and give thanks.