“As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” (Matthew 11:7–9, ESV)
Christmas and Easter are the two holidays that cause a jump in attendance at churches all across the United States as people attend who don’t normally darken the door of the church. Many come to “feel close to God” during these precious Christian holy days.
But for those “churches” and “pastors” that are enamored with nickels and noses when people come into their buildings, Christmas and Easter are opportunities to “wow” their audiences with a spectacular show that will hopefully get them to stay and “experience” all that this type of church has to offer.
I don’t mean to disparage those churches that see the infrequent visitors as a mission field to whom they can minister to and share the wonder of the incarnation and resurrection with. We would be remiss as Christians not to take advantage of this opportunity. But there is a definite philosophy that loses the baby Jesus with the bathwater when productions, lighting, and stage histrionics take the place of the power of God vested in the gospel.
I point to Jesus’ words above from Matthew 11:7-9 as sobering truths for all of us. We need to ask ourselves, “Why do people come to our church?” In doing so, we reflect this time when Jesus asked the disciples why the crowds went out to see John the Baptist. Did they go out to see a reed shaken in the wind, or as we might say it today, a man taken by the latest fads and opinions of men? No, the people didn’t go out to see that.
As a matter of fact, Jesus asks if they went out into the wilderness to see a man dressed in soft clothing. But John was famously known to wear a rough-cut animal skin with a strip of leather for a belt around his waist. He ate what he could scavenge out there in the wilderness–locusts and wild honey. John wasn’t a skinny-jeans wearing, cappuccino-sipping, bearded hipster having “dialogues” with the people. He must have looked like a wild-eyed madman compared to the refined religious leaders of the times. Instead John looked like an Old Testament prophet of God, most notably, like the prophet Elijah. His sandals weren’t Birkinstocks, and his beard wasn’t oiled with shea butter and lavender. They knew if they wanted to see a man in soft clothes that they wouldn’t go out to the wilderness.
So why did they go out to see John? Because they wanted to hear from God. And to do that, they needed a prophet. Not a fancy boy who spends his days taking selfies in a mirror to gain more followers. Not a politically correct parrot who takes the temperature of the world to adjust his message to fit the popular opinions of men. They needed a faithful messenger who would speak the truth–unvarnished and true.
So, the next time you are considering what you can do to polish up your look, your sermon, or your church’s “stage,” remember John. People came out to hear a word from God. And if they want to hear something else, there are plenty of false churches and false teachers that will accommodate them.
“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:1–5, ESV)
Although the tradition of Thanksgiving is being attacked like every other tradition in our land, it is still generally recognized that the holiday points back to the celebration of the pilgrims in the New World in 1621. The official holiday didn’t come about until a proclamation was made by President George Washington in 1789, although it was later discontinued. It wasn’t until 1828 that a campaign was begun to restore Thanksgiving as a national holiday, and formalized when it was proclaimed in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln to be the official National Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday of November. What a roller coaster!
But even this wasn’t the first thanksgiving. We could go all the way back to the time of King David, found in 1Chronicles 16 to see another Day of Thanks that came far before Lincoln made his proclamation.
Israel’s King David had finally found peace from the homicidal Saul and his foreign enemies. He moved into Jerusalem and had built a house for himself. Life was good for the king! He had finally brought the Ark of the Covenant into the city and placed it into a special tent made especially for the worship of the Lord.
In a spirit of great thankfulness and gratitude, David offered up burnt offerings and peace offerings to His God. He distributed gifts of food to everyone in the nation of Israel, and along with these national festivities, David brought in musicians and singers to offer songs of praise to the Lord. This song, written by David is also found in Psalm 105.
As we begin to prepare our hearts for this season of thanks, I wanted to take the first five verses of this song of praise (vv. 8-12), and direct your heart, dear reader, to worship the Lord, as David sought to direct the hearts of his people.
As Christians, we are to have a thankful heart on a daily basis, and David would have agreed. But Thanksgiving in the U.S. is a special day set aside so that we might dedicate our hearts heavenward, because of all the people on earth, we as sinners saved by unmerited grace should be the most thankful for his electing grace and mercy.
In today’s post, I’d like to share with you Five Ways Which We as Believers Can Show Thankfulness in Our Lives
1. Depend Upon His Strength For Your Needs (v. 8a)
“Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name;”
Part of giving thanks is recognizing that the Lord’s past gifts are a reminder of His future provision. It is interesting how quickly we forget the Lord’s past provision as we grow anxious about our future. Israel struggled with this as well. Look at Exodus 15:11 in what is called the Song of Moses. It says, “Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” Later, in verse 22 it says, “Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water.”
Did you see how long has passed? Three days! Verses 23-24 continue, “When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” What happened to the great God they sang about only a few days earlier?
And we are the same sometimes, aren’t we? We gather on a Sunday and sing “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing, our helper, he amidst the flood of mortal ills prevailing.” And then we go home, and a few days later crumble in despair over our situations, trials, and circumstances.
We need to understand that our thanks and praise must not only look backward, but forward. We must thank the Lord and praise him for what he will do in our unforeseen future. Give him thanks for future grace–those blessings and the strength that you have not yet received, but like manna, we will receive in due time according to his perfect will.
2. Declare How He Has Answered Your Prayers (v. 8b)
“make known his deeds among the peoples!”
We ought to start thanksgiving in how we talk with one another, shouldn’t we? Part of stirring one another up in the community of saints is to share not only our needs but also the glorious ways in which the Lord answered our prayers. We have seen the miraculous deeds of God over and over again. Our living Savior has heard our prayers and satisfied our needs repeatedly. We should have words of praise and thanksgiving constantly on our lips.
But in this song, David was speaking primarily about our testimony to the unbelieving world. “The peoples” is a reference to the nations outside of Israel, the pagan world. Spurgeon wrote, “Let the heathen hear of our God, that they may forsake their idols and learn to worship him.”
Do you remember the name Dr. Kent Brantly? He was the Samaritan’s Purse doctor who recovered from the deadly Ebola virus that he had contracted while working with Ebola patients in Liberia, Africa. In 2015, Dr. Brantly and his wife published a book of their account, and Time Magazine wrote a short story about it. Listen as Dr. Brantly declares how God answered his and many others’ prayers:
“I know that some consider it controversial for me to claim that God saved my life when I had received an experimental drug and some of the greatest medical care available in the world. I can see how these two realities appear to contradict each other. I also feel the dissonance with claiming God saved my life while thousands of others died. These issues are not clear-cut for me. I wrestle with these tensions… Some may call it a grand coincidence, and I couldn’t argue against them. But when I see the unlikely and highly improbable events that occurred—not only during my illness, but also for decades preceding the Ebola epidemic in West Africa—I see the hand of God at work, and I give him the credit.” [http://time.com/3965989/ebola-survivor-brantly-book/]
Most of us won’t ever get that sort of stage to declare the glory of God to the world. But we have a small stage of unbelieving family, friends, and co-workers who are watching and listening. We need to declare to them how God has been working in our lives, so that as Spurgeon said, “that they may forsake their idols and learn to worship him.”
3. Direct Your Praises to Him Alone (v. 9)
“Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works!”
Now, this might mean that we need to make sure that we don’t do what Israel did in Exodus 32, in redirecting our worship from God to something else, like a golden calf. This can happen the way it did for the Corinthians in 1 Cor. 3:3-5, where there were different factions in the same church, who weren’t really worshipping Christ, but their favorite teachers. That is a real danger for some.
But there is another pitfall that we need to avoid. We can see it in Jesus’ parable in Luke 18:9-12, where Jesus speaks about the Pharisee and the tax collector. Although this is called a parable by Luke, this scenario probably was enacted many times right before the people who frequented the temple. The godly-looking Pharisee prays with arms extended, speaking in pious tones, while the tax collector stood off in a corner looking as guilty as he was before God. To the casual observer or even the so-called worshipper, this looks like thanksgiving and praise. But it isn’t, is it? It’s self-worship and congratulations.
We need to be aware that when we sing or pray or speak about the Lord that we aren’t twisting worship to God into worship of self. We see this when a musician is all about himself, absorbing all the attention and praise–as he supposedly sings to “the Lord.”
Instead, we need to focus all our attention and praise on the Lord alone. Listen to Spurgeon again, “Bring your best thoughts and express them in the best language to the sweetest sounds. Take care that your singing is “unto him,” and not merely for the sake of the music or to delight the ears of others. Singing is so delightful an exercise that it is a pity so much of it should be wasted upon trifles or worse than trifles. O ye who can emulate the nightingale, and almost rival the angels, we do most earnestly pray that your hearts may be renewed that so your floods of melody may be poured out at your Maker’s and Redeemer’s feet.”[C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David: Psalms 88-110, vol. 4 (London; Edinburgh; New York: Marshall Brothers, n.d.), 336.]
4. Delight Yourself in God More Than Just His Gifts (vv. 10-11)
“Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice! Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually!”
Notice the focus here, “Glory in his holy name….those who…seek the Lord (2x)….seek his presence.” Today we will find ourselves giving thanks for many blessings and gifts, and we should. But our love and the thanksgiving that accompanies it, should be more for God and not only for what he can and has given to us.
Remember what it says in Habbakuk 3:17-19? “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.” (Habakkuk 3:17–19, ESV)
Our ultimate joy and thanks should be for receiving Christ as our Savior and Redeemer. That is the best gift we have ever or will ever receive. Everything else is simply grace upon grace. Jesus said, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” (Mark 8:36–37, ESV).
5. Dwell on What the Lord Has Said and Done (v. 12)
“Remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles and the judgments he uttered,”
Our struggle with being discontent is usually a memory problem. The root of our discontentedness is most often found in our unwillingness or inability to recall all that the Lord has already said to us and done for us.
I always think it’s a perfect sign of the self-centered world we live in that the day after “Thanksgiving” we have the biggest shopping day of the year. We are thankful, but we must have more! And we as Christians can get sucked up into that same attitude. Instead of dwelling on the eternal blessings and gifts given to us, we look at the flashy bobbles everyone else seems to have and we want to know why we don’t have them. We want to know how we can have them. And it’s not just tangible “stuff” that we crave. We crave prestige, power, influence, friends.
But listen to the prophet Jeremiah: “Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”” (Jeremiah 9:23–24, ESV)
Our greatest riches are not from the Lord: our greatest riches is the fact that we know the Lord. Let us give thanks for this most magnificent gift!
No matter where you serve the Lord, whether in a city or rural setting, it is easy to become overwhelmed with the many responsibilities that are required of a minister. For 12 of my 17 years as the pastor of a small church in an urban inner-city area of Los Angeles, I juggled two sets of responsibilites—leading our church in many of the main teaching responsibilities, which consisted of preaching for about 45 minutes three times a week from three different books of the Bible, along with men’s discipleship, and counseling. There were, of course, many other responsibilities which we could sprinkle in along with those, but those took up major chunks of my time.
Additionally, I taught pastoral ministry courses at a nearby seminary twice a week during the regular semesters. Because of Los Angeles traffic and the distance to the seminary, I would spend about 4 hours each day on congested freeways as I travelled to and from the school. That meant that on the days that I taught, I would spend most of my days either commuting to and from the seminary as well as teaching. When I returned I would most often drive straight to my office at church and pick up my duties there.
These two worlds, church pastor and seminary professor, required that I have a very good grasp of time management and discipline or else I knew that all those involved—my wife and children, my church, and my students—would suffer and I would not be able to faithfully discharge my duties.
Because of this, I understand the time constraints that are placed upon any servant of God as they seek to make the best use of their time to bring glory to God. To help those that might be working at doing this very thing, I’d like to share with you how I did this, even thought it was imperfect, in hopes that you might benefit from the lessons I learned.
I remember reading several years ago in a book by the famous productiviy guru Stephen Covey, the illustration of the big rocks and little rocks. It helped me to see the importance of prioritizing the big responsibilities in my life and ministries, and was a help in looking at the big picture.
In this illustration, Covey says he invited a seminar attendee to the front of the room to a table with a glass jar and several bowls with rocks, pea gravel, sand, and a glass of water. He asked the woman if she thought she could fit everything on the table into the jar. She said she’d try and made a few attempts, trying to put the sand and gravel in first. By doing this she found that the larger rocks wouldn’t fit. After a few more attempts she said that she didn’t think it was possible. Covey thanked her and then proceeded to take an empty jar and added in each element one at a time. He started with the larger rocks, then added the pea gravel, shaking the jar to settle in the gravel as much as possible. Then he added the sand. At each step he asked the women who had failed if she thought the jar was full. At first she said it was, then as she caught on, she answered that somehow she knew more would fit in. After the gravel and the sand, Covey once again shook the jar so the sand filled in all the spaces between the large rocks and the gravel. Finally, Covey added the water, which filled the microscopic spaces between the grains of sand, assuring his audience that the jar was now truly full.
Covey used this illustration to show that unless the large rocks, which represent the important things in our lives, are put into place first, we will never accomplish what matters most. And when what matters most is our families and our ministry to the Lord, we want to make sure that these things are placed in the most important place of priority in our life and limited time. The other stuff, the small stuff, can be added afterwards if we so desire.
So, for me, I set up a general day by day schedule that looked like this:
Mondays—Family Day. This was time that unless absolutely necessary due to a real emergency, I did not work or neglect the family. These focused days were filled with great joy and helped me to relax and spend time with my wife and children. I understood that if I lost my family, I lost my ministry.
Tuesdays—Seminary teaching in the day, church administration and counseling appointments in afternoons and the evenings.
Wednesday-Study and sermon preparation for Wednesday night, and teaching in the evenings.
Thursday– Seminary teaching in the day, study and sermon preparation for Sunday mornings.
Friday-Continue study and sermon prep for Sunday morning if not finished, study and sermon prep for Sunday evenings.
Saturday-Men’s Bible study and/or evangelism; finish sermon prep for Sunday nights if not done.
Sunday-Worship in the morning and evening, monthly leadership training and board meetings in between services.
This was my regular “big picture” schedule for most of my 17 years as pastor of my church. When the seminary had a break, then usually my involvement at church increased and I was able to divert my attention to other necessary needs at church.
And although I can’t say that I never struggled with being exhausted at times, or having too much on my plate, my schedule helped me to fit the big things into my days, and then the smaller “pebbles, and sand,” like phone calls, visitation to homes and hospitals, and pop-in-visits, fit in without losing sight of the important responsibilities that needed to happen.
Most people within your church will never have any idea how many hours and how much time you put into serving them—and that’s as it should be. We are servants after all. But the Lord knows, and we will all have to give an account for how we spent our time as ministers of the gospel. So, if you are a pastor of a church, take that seriously. The pastorate is no place for lazy men.
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” 1 Corinthians 2:1–2 (ESV)
Set in a backdrop where the church in Corinth was filled with many Christians who had a strong taste for ear-pleasing speakers, Paul addresses his intentional plan to not be seeker sensitive in his preaching. The words “lofty speech” and “wisdom” (ESV) both reference the exalted form of rhetoric that the preferred speakers used in their addresses to the church.
“And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 2:3–5 (ESV)
What did Paul mean when he wrote of his “weakness…in fear and much trembling?” Clearly, Paul was connecting his preaching to these things (“…my speech and my message…”). I think that Paul’s words here are a much-needed correction to the celebrity culture within the Western church today.
The Apostle to the Gentiles stood before this church in Corinth as a weak man. He did not have the polish and trappings that the false teachers of Corinth had, and to many, this was a severe disadvantage. Although they might not say it this way, there are many who would imply strongly that the message is secondary to the method. If you don’t have a media empire pushing your message, then the world won’t listen and you’ll be ineffective. I wonder how Paul would have responded to that sort of thinking. Well, we don’t have to wonder because his Spirit-inspired words are given to us.
In his commentary on these verses, Alan Johnson clarifies what Paul is saying: “…[Paul’s] proclamation (wider than only preaching) of the “mystery” of God, namely, Jesus Christ as the crucified One, was in keeping with the sole focus on the cross because Paul consistently, deliberately presented himself not self-confidently but in self-effacement, not in strength as a “successful” person but in weakness and fear, with much trembling (v. 3).” (Alan F. Johnson, 1 Corinthians, vol. 7, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 62.)
Paul isn’t working to build his brand. He isn’t seeking to launch a well-strategized media plan that incorporates all the latest channels for all the up-and-coming evangelical elites. He isn’t buddying up to those more popular false teachers in order to share the limelight while justifying this as focusing on the majors and overlooking areas of disagreement in the name of “grace.” Nope. Paul is not about Paul. He unashamedly points to himself as a weak and fearful man. His words were perceived by the Corinthians as implausible and foolish–because that was what the unvarnished gospel sounds like to unregenerate ears. Paul didn’t seek to “fix” it.
And since Paul wasn’t trying to boost his own brand, he didn’t care what others thought about him so long as they saw Jesus. Paul was weak–he didn’t feign weakness to seem more spiritual. He was scared–but God was his strength. He wasn’t practiced and polished in his delivery, intentionally–so that people wouldn’t walk away impressed with this servant’s speech, but so they would walk away worshipping his God.
Paul focused on the cross in his life, message, and methods. In our glitzy evangelical world of super conferences, social media blitzes, and multi-books deals, we are all too often a faint shadow of this servant of God. May we join with George Whitefield in saying, “Let my name die everywhere, let even my friends forget me, if by that means the cause of the blessed Jesus may be promoted.”