A Sermon Preached at St Matthew's Riverdale, Oct 13 2013 on Deut 26:1-11, Phil 4:4-9, John 6:25-35
Deut 26:2 "you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name."
Thanksgiving is a word that sums up the Gospel, the essence of our faith. It sums up the job of Jesus exactly. It also sums up the whole essence of the Old Testament law. Consider, for instance, the creation of the world. Christians neither believe that God was compelled to create, nor that creation was an accident--God sneezed and, surprise!, out it comes. Rather, we think that God created because he wanted to. More, that he actually enjoyed it: he looked at what he created and called it "good." The fact that we exist, the fact that we can look into ourselves and consider our own contingency, that we can consider that we didn't have to exist but that we miraculously do somehow: this all points us to God's free, creative, joyful activity. Here we are, and our existence is a free gift to us from God. Gifts are something unexpected, surprising, and unnecessary.
Why, then, have some philosophers been offended at the fact that they can't find any necessary reason why they exist? They think the absence of such a reason means that life as given is meaningless. We Christians, on the other hand, look at the gratuity of our own existence--look at the fact that we're here and we didn't necessarily have to be--as a sign that life is a gift. Again, gifts are something unexpected, surprising, and unnecessary. I never chose to be born; it's surprising to myself that I'm even here!
And yet to some people gifts are offensive, they don't like the surprise, and they want to dictate to others what kind of gifts they should get. This can only be because, as Jonathan told us in last week's sermon, grace can be offensive. Maybe we don't want a hand out. Maybe we don't want to feel dependent. And there's nothing wrong with this within limits, but what if the drive for independence makes us ungrateful? And what if that ungratefulness prevents us from enjoying life?
This, I think, is one way to describe humanity's fall from God. Every created thing was a gift to us, a free surprise coming from God's grace. And yet we refused it or received it all as if it were a right--we only wanted it on our terms. All of the enjoyment of life, as a result, was sucked out of us and the meaning of the world as a divine gift was forgotten. Our vocation and calling as human beings was to simply rejoice in the world of grace and to offer back to God thanks and praise. But when we refused to recognize it all as coming from Him, we lost our mission in life and our joy died. For, our God given mission was to live life abundantly, receive it from God's hand and give back thanks.
This is key: to give thanks! To give something back! What can we give back to God? Nothing that he hasn't already given us; nothing of our own making. Our gift to God, our sacrifice of thanks can only be to give back to God what he has given to us, and to do it with joy. So in Deuteronomy today, Israel gives back to God a part of their harvest as a sign of their thanks. God gives us something, and since we can't create out of nothing like he does, we give him back something of what he gave to us. So, thanksgiving is a form of sacrifice…thanksgiving is sacrifice. We have nothing to give God except his own stuff: "thine own of thine own have we given thee" we say during the Eucharist when we bring up our offering plate. But it is this act of taking what God has given us, deliberately denying ourselves part of it, and offering it back with joy, which is the true vocation and calling of every human being. "God loves a cheerful giver" says St Paul. This is what we were created for.
I am of the opinion that every commandment to deny oneself in the Bible is a description of what true thanksgiving looks like. Sacrificing your first fruits, your first born ox or goat? It's thanks for God's generosity. Not committing adultery? It says, enjoy the spouse God has given you, not the one that he hasn’t. Don't be ungrateful. How about not worshipping false gods? You have to know who the true Creator is in order to give thanks properly. What about being greedy? Again, the greedy person does not live their life to the fullest now. They are always trying to enjoy a future that isn't present. So, you could probably go through every law in the Bible and figure out how it's outlining abundant living.
And yet there is a disparity between the abundant living we find outlined in Scripture, and the life we actually live. For, it throws into relief our own graceless, anxious existence. We worry about our life despite the fact that God's taken care of it. We worry about what we will eat and drink, what we will wear. We grasp after all of these things we don't have, and in the process become entirely forgetful of God who is giving us everything we need right now. Do you thank God for what he gives you now? Or do you complain that his goodness isn't good enough? The Israelites where getting bread from heaven and yet they couldn't stop complaining … bread from heaven!!
There are a few places in Scripture where God says that he was grieved he ever did something, and no doubt our complaining causes God to wonder why he ever gave us all this stuff. There's no point, if all we ever do is complain! God made the world so that we could all give thanks! When we complain, the whole purpose of the universe is thwarted. Not only that, but like any parent, God's got a limit for complaining. If you've read the Bible, you know not to push him past that limit.
Well, that limit had basically been reached, and God had a choice to make. Scrap this whole creation thing, maybe start over, or give it one last shot. If there was some member of the human family that could make up for all the complaining, do the job of thanksgiving that everyone else had given up on, and fulfill the whole purpose of the universe again by living life abundantly in the way the Bible outlined, then maybe God's creation would be worthwhile after all.
And so God became Man in order to do just that. Or to put it another way, the Father sent his Son to become man and reconcile us to God. He would show us how it's done. He would give the biggest sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving ever and re-establish the joy between us and God that was missing.
You see, we humans can only give thanks back to God with what he has already given us, and we haven't even done this. The sacrifice in Deuteronomy we read is symbolizing something like this: "God, you have given me this food, this money, this body, this relationship, this child, my very life…I put part of it in a basket and give it back to you as an offering of thanks." But what if I've squandered all the stuff God's given me and now I have nothing left to give thanks with? What if I've wasted my whole life away and all I'm left with is death? When I'm dead, I have nothing to give God; no one can thank God from the grave, says the Psalmist.
No one, that is, except Jesus. Our death comes because we have squandered our life like the prodigal son. But Jesus' death comes because he has given absolutely everything away to God. In Deuteronomy today it tells the Israelites to take some of their first fruits and give it to God. But Jesus gives all of his first fruits. In this way his very death, unlike ours, is itself the ultimate act of thanksgiving. So on the one hand, he went above and beyond the call of duty, he gave more thanks and praise back than God expected of any man. And on the other hand being God, his divine life, unlike our human life, could not ultimately be held in the grave. Rather, he was Resurrected and his thanksgiving now goes on for eternity. It doesn't actually come to an end. Think about it. Even if one of us human beings were free enough from sin that we could give everything to God, all our possessions and even give up our life in an act of martyrdom…say the Virgin Mary were to do this. Even still she would be stuck in the grave and her thanksgiving would come to an end. Not with Jesus, not with God-made-man!
So here's a summary of the points I want you to remember. First, our life is a gift, therefore, our purpose in life is thanksgiving to God. Our purpose in life is a sacrifice of praise. Second, through sin we have become complainers who have squandered our life away, and we cannot give thanks from the grave. Third, God became fully human so that he could fulfill the purpose of humanity by giving thanks. Fourth, he gave more thanks than any man, even to the point of giving up his life to death on a Cross. Fifth, because he was fully God, death couldn't hold him so he was Resurrected. His thanksgiving now goes on for eternity, and it is so abundant that it makes up for all of our complaining.
Here's what this means for you practically. First, you don't have to worry anymore that you've squandered your possessions, time, and relationships, and that your life feels joyless and meaningless. Jesus has taken care of it, and he's given you a reason to give thanks again. We give thanks for him! You are now free to fulfill your purpose in life, which is to live everything as a gift from God. God gives us back joy.
Second, this joy isn't just a cheap happiness that goes away when times get tough. When Jesus went to the Cross he told his disciples that he was doing it to make his joy complete. Even the worst things in your life can become occasions for thanksgiving. Did you go through a break up, lose your job, have a heart attack? Why does God give you those experiences? Why does God let you slide into self-destructive habits? Are they gifts from God? We all will go through these things, and the test of our joy will be whether we come out the other end as bitter complainers or as those who can give thanks for all of the things God is teaching us along the way. Those lessons are God's gifts, and they are the fruit of Jesus Christ's own life of thanks.