Attitude of Gratitude: Week Two - "Come & Listen"
All throughout the month of November I'll be preaching a sermon series entitled, "Attitude of Gratitude," which is pretty timely considering by the time we finish the series, it will be time for Thanksgiving. You're Welcome. That's how I roll.
What we learned the last time that we gathered together (I was out for a week with a busted mouth) was that there is evidence of God's grace, blessings and favor all around us--if we are willing to see it. In fact, we also learned that the every breath we take is a prayer of thanksgiving to God--as we say his name (Yahweh) each time we breathe in and out. Which led us to say this...
When you finally realize all that God has done for you, the only true response is gratitude.
I wanted to take things a step further this week. We started pretty far out in the universe with the first sermon in this series--echoing the question that the Psalmist proclaimed: "When I consider the heavens... the moon and the stars... all that God has made... What is man that you are mindful of him?" The answer to that question, as it turns out, is that God is not only mindful of us finite and frail humans--God loves us beyond all love.
Today, however, I would like to start in a place that is located a bit closer to terra firma--although you could make the argument that it, too, has a universal quality to it. I'd like to start our conversation today by talking a bit about Facebook. Particularly, I want to focus on something that I've noticed on Facebook more and more these past few months: The Gratitude or Thankfulness Challenge.
As near as I can tell people who are participating in the Thankfulness Challenge are taking a few moments each day to post a few things that they are thankful for, and they do this for a number of days--a week, a month, maybe. Then they challenge their friends to do the same. Honestly, it's kind of cool. And it always seems to generate a great deal of discussion.
So why are people being drawn to this exercise? What is it about reading what other people are thankful for that makes us so warm and fuzzy? Do we see ourselves in their comments perhaps? When they declare that they are thankful for having a house to live in, food to eat, good friends who tell the truth, a spouse who loves them---are we reminded to be thankful for those things in our own lives?
Or perhaps it's deeper than that altogether. Maybe the reason why we find ourselves drawn to these kinds of exercises is because we desperately need a break from negativity, confusion, uncertainty and the bad news that seems to surround us on a daily basis.
It could be that gratitude is something that we all know we should express... but we don't seem to know how to do it.
Let's face it. We have all had those moments when we've prayed a prayer of thanksgiving to God. You found your lost keys after searching or them for an hour, and you exclaim without even thinking about it, "Thank you, God!" You pass a test that you were sure you failed, and you find yourself saying, "thankyouthankyouthankyou..." You sit down with your family for dinner after a long week and you look around at everyone and you want to freeze the moment.
These are what I would call Level One acts of Gratitude. It's when you blurt out thanks for something that had meaning for you--like finding a parking space in a crowded mall parking lot, or when your football team wins in the last seconds of the game... In the great big velvet painting of life, these things have no real import, but for you they are awesome.
So you give thanks to God--sometimes without even planning to do so.
Then there are Defcon Two and Three levels of thanks. You dodged a bullet. You nearly ran off the road in your car and hit a telephone pole, but you didn't. You find out that the tumor wasn't malignant. Your child gets lost in a busy store and you find them hiding under a clothes rack. These are the moments when you feel the gratitude in the deepest part of your soul. And it doesn't matter what you believe about God in those moments---you feel grateful.
But for those of us who have eyes to see, and ears to hear--as Jesus would often say--we know something about those moments of gratitude. They were gifts from God, they were moments of unexpected grace. Because you know deep inside that whatever could have happened sometimes does, but this time it wasn't your moment. For whatever reason you were spared, and for this you give thanks.
There are hundreds of moments each day that we experience grace--some of them are small, personal and warm, and others are big, cosmic and just a little bit closer to the cold than we would have liked. But for those of us who believe, truly believe, that the Creator of the Universe really does care about little old us... it's so much more. They are signs of what God has done and is doing as part of his ongoing love relationship with us.
God isn't high in his holy temple, watching benignly as we stumble around here on earth. Jesus proves that theory to be bogus. Jesus shows that God wants to be down and dirty where we are. To become intimately involved with us. To show us just how much he truly cares. And when you see this, you are changed forever. Because when you finally realize all that God has done, the only true response is gratitude.
And then typically when you feel that gratitude, you want to share it. You want to tell someone about it. You want to say, "You are not going to believe what happened to me..." or "I can't wait to tell you about this incredible moment..."
Or you simply accept the Facebook Thankfulness Challenge and tell the whole world (or at least your 500 friends) why you feel so grateful.
Psalm 66 is going to be our guide today. In the fourth century, St. Jerome called Psalm 66 a "Psalm of Resurrection" in his Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible. I love that. Let's read it and see if you agree...
1 Shout for joy to God, all the earth!To begin, this hymn is a communal song of thanksgiving, which means that it was sung in worship by ancient Israelites as a way of expressing gratitude to God. It's a song about "we"---but it has "I" implications. It tells about what God has done for God's people and for all of humankind, but it speaks right into the hearts of individuals who have experienced their own moments of salvation.
2 Sing the glory of his name;
make his praise glorious.
3 Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!
So great is your power
that your enemies cringe before you.
4 All the earth bows down to you;
they sing praise to you,
they sing the praises of your name.”[a]
5 Come and see what God has done,
his awesome deeds for mankind!
6 He turned the sea into dry land,
they passed through the waters on foot—
come, let us rejoice in him.
7 He rules forever by his power,
his eyes watch the nations—
let not the rebellious rise up against him.
8 Praise our God, all peoples,
let the sound of his praise be heard;
9 he has preserved our lives
and kept our feet from slipping.
10 For you, God, tested us;
you refined us like silver.
11 You brought us into prison
and laid burdens on our backs.
12 You let people ride over our heads;
we went through fire and water,
but you brought us to a place of abundance.
13 I will come to your temple with burnt offerings
and fulfill my vows to you—
14 vows my lips promised and my mouth spoke
when I was in trouble.
15 I will sacrifice fat animals to you
and an offering of rams;
I will offer bulls and goats.
16 Come and hear, all you who fear God;
let me tell you what he has done for me.
17 I cried out to him with my mouth;
his praise was on my tongue.
18 If I had cherished sin in my heart,
the Lord would not have listened;
19 but God has surely listened
and has heard my prayer.
20 Praise be to God,
who has not rejected my prayer
or withheld his love from me!
As you may have realized, this psalm retells the story of the Exodus of the ancient Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. But what is between the lines of this song is something incredible. The Psalmist is declaring that the Exodus was ultimately not just for Israel's benefit but for the enactment of God's will for all the earth. In other words, God was doing something in, among and through the people of Israel that was a catalyst for greater redemption, greater witness to the glory of God and God's grace.
The psalmist cries out, "Come and see!" or "Come and listen!" which is a plural imperative--meaning "EVERYONE--YOU HAVE TO HEAR THIS! YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS!"
Scholars believe that this psalm may have been written after a time of tragedy or tribulation. Something bad has happened, but the words of the song reflect a confidence in God that is not shaken. "God has seen us through worse things," the psalm infers, "and God will see us through this." In fact, the focus of this psalm is on God's activity, which is described as AWESOME! The word is actually nora, but it means "awesome," which many of you by now know is one of my favorite words. This is about what God has done---what God is doing--and what God will do. And whatever God does----is AWESOME.
The psalmist says that God turned the "sea to dry land," and that the people of Israel passed over the river on foot. The word he uses for sea is yam and the word for river is nahar. Both of these words were also words to describe elemental deities in the ancient Canaanite religion. Yam and Nahar were defeated by the Canaanite god Baal and put under his sovereignty.
The psalmist is telling us this why exactly?
He's saying in a very subtle way that would have been evident to those who first sang this--"God is above all false gods. God is sovereign over nature. The Creator, the Almighty, the God-of-Angel-Armies has been and always will be on your side."
There is a cosmic dimension to this---just as we discovered last week. God has done amazing things in Creation. There is so much that is beyond our comprehension about this God. And yet, this God has been present in our history, in our past... this God has shown up when we felt all was lost. This God cares about our troubles, and woes. This God will deliver.
What this does for those of us who are awake and listening is simply this... It makes us aware that there is something bigger going on around us. We came here today to church as acknowledgement of that. By gathering here we affirm that we are better together, with others, than we are alone. And this affirmation should lead us to individual appreciation. Because in the end, it is our individual choice, our personal decision to truly offer thanks, to truly be grateful. And we can sing along when we gather for worship, but the truth of our sentiment is tested when the rubber meets the road in our own lives.
So why is it so difficult for us to simply live in gratitude? Why is it so hard for us to make gratitude our lifestyle, rather than just something we express once in a while when we're overwhelmed by it?
Psalm 66 reveals to us that human beings worship God because of who God is, which is revealed in what God does. Our gratitude toward God is a direct result of our realization of God's character through the activity of God in our lives and all around us. The trick is---we have to always be open and willing to see it even when things are not going that well.
So how do we make this work? What are some practical ways that we can have an attitude of gratitude each and every day?
First, I think we need to Remember the Ebenezers.
The Ebenzers aren't a New Wave 80's band that dressed like characters from a Charles Dickens story. Although, that would be cool. Ebenezers are literally "stones of hope." They are stacks of stones, monuments that were erected by the ancient Hebrew people to help them remember momentous occasions when God did something incredible in their lives.
We all have Ebenezers. They serve as memorials that we can look back on our life and see scattered throughout our time line. I have some Ebenezers of my own.
I was born with glaucoma--and would have been blinded by the disease had my mom not insisted on going to an eye specialist even after the family doctor told her it was nothing.
When I was fourteen my family moved across the country from Colorado to Florida. I was angry. I didn't want to leave my friends. When we arrived here it was 100 degrees in the shade. I was miserable. And then one summer night a few weeks later I met the love of my life on a football field.
I have had more than my fair share of car accidents. More than once I actually thought, "This is it. This is when I cash it in." But I'm still here despite my poor driving skills.
My wife and I were apart for five years before we got married. I was recently divorced, which she didn't know. She was about to be married, which I didn't know. Because of a chance meeting of an old school friend on a random night in the middle of an arena full of people we found each other again.
My youngest son fell into our pool when he was two years old. When I realized it and rushed to pull him out he was under water, not breathing and sinking. If I had been there just a minute later...
There are stones of hope throughout my life. I think about every job I've ever had, every class I ever took, all of the ministries, churches I served... all of those things were leading me to this moment, to this place.
Stones of hope. Remember the Ebenezers.
Second, Remind Yourself That It Isn't About Yourself.
Sometimes the things that you are going through, the stuff that has happened or his happening have nothing at all to do with you. Maybe it's about the lives you touch, the roles that you play, the words that you speak into the world. Like we said earlier there is something greater going on around you. There is a cosmic aspect to all of this--a connectedness with those around you that is bigger than you by a long shot.
The story of the Exodus was a story about how God saved some people, but it pointed to a bigger truth about the nature of God. No matter what you might be going through in the moment--there is a story you have to tell about how God has done great things. You need to tell that story. The world needs you to tell that story. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and tell your story.
Finally, Realize that God is Still In The Resurrection Business
There is a timeless aspect to Psalm 66. The people singing that psalm weren't even a glimmer in anyone's eye when God rescued the Hebrew people from slavery. But it made them realize that God wasn't trapped in the past. It reminded them that God was imminent, close and still working. God wasn't there God was here.
You need to know this. God LOVES to bring what was dead back to life. This is the very nature of God. The Apostle Paul loved to talk about Jesus as the FIRST among those raised from the dead. This means that God was just getting started.
One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, once wrote, "If you are patient and are paying attention, you will see that God will restore what the locusts have taken away."
Remember the Ebenezers. Remind Yourself that its bigger than you. Realize that God isn't done... that trials and tribulations don't get the last word. Lift up your thanks. Proclaim your attitude of gratitude to the world. Shout it out loud! "Come and listen! Come and see! Let me tell you what the Lord has done!"
Because when you finally realize all that God had done for you, the only true response is gratitude.