Now Thank We All Our God
Now Thank We All Our God by Rev. L. John Gable
November 27, 2016
If you have a really good memory, perhaps you will recall my telling you the story of the woman who sat on the couch and sobbed as she poured out her life story, a story filled with an endless litany of shattered dreams and broken promises. She told of her abusive childhood and of the wreckage of broken marriages and estranged relationships that had plagued her life. I recall thinking, “I’m sure glad I’m not her counselor” as Dr. Phil sat speechless. It was almost as if he had nothing to say to her, and what could he say, really? It is difficult to repair a lifetime’s worth of hurts and betrayals in 30 second sound-bytes that are as much intended to keep ratings up as they are to help the poor broken woman who is sitting helpless beside him. So finally, he asked her this seemingly ill-spoken, somewhat startling question, “What do you have to be thankful for?”
That is the question that has come to us this week, as a nation, as individuals and as families. What do we have to be thankful for? Is Thanksgiving simply a day on the calendar, a day off of work, a day filled with turkey and football and gatherings with family and friends, or is it a daily expression of your life and mine? How often do you and I pause to reflect and consider, in any intentional way, an answer to the question, “What do I have to be thankful for?”
For many of us thanksgiving, that is the giving of thanks, comes naturally, or so it should. We are, by and large, a people richly blessed with all the measurables of life. It is easy, or so it should be, to give thanks in times of plenty and abundance such as many of us enjoy. But in our times of plenty we would do well to ask ourselves, would we still be grateful if our circumstances were to change? Reduce those measurables by 5%, 10%, 50%. Would we then no longer be a grateful people or would we be a proportionately less grateful people than we are now? There is a sign on a church not far from here, Traveler’s Rest Missionary Baptist Church over on Boulevard, which reads, “We don’t need more to be thankful for, we need to be more thankful.” Are we thankful only because we have all that we need and so much more, or does our gratitude arise out of something deeper, something more meaningful and lasting than the size of our portfolio, the health of our family, the breadth of our friendships, the accumulation of our possessions which one day will go the way of rust and moth anyway?
In our Scripture lesson today the Psalmist pours out his heart to God for a fair hearing and deliverance from a very present trouble. However, if we look carefully at this text the writer does something very interesting. Clearly he is in a state of difficulty, in a world of hurt, but he doesn’t begin by reciting his litany of woe. Rather, he begins by remembering another time, an earlier time, when he was forced to “wait patiently for the Lord.” He recalls a time when he felt abandoned in a “desolate pit” and up to his chin in “a miry bog.” In that, he also remembers with great joy how “the Lord inclined His ear and heard my cry. He lifted me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog. He set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure, and put a new song into my mouth, a song of praise to our God.” The Psalmist seems then to burst into song, inviting the congregation of worshippers to join in the chorus with him, “Many will see and many will fear and many will put their trust in the Lord.”
What is so curious about this Psalm, and is so typical of the so called Psalms of lament, is that even though the author is in desperate need of help in the present, he begins first by reflecting upon God’s saving action in the past. His cry for help begins with a song of thanksgiving, a reminder of how God has heard and answered him in days past, which then becomes the basis for his confidence in God’s willingness and ability to help him in the present and in the future.
It is almost as if Dr. Phil is sitting down with the Psalmist and asks, “Given the desperate circumstance you find yourself in, what do you have to be thankful for?” and the Psalmist is ready with his answer. “I have so much to be thankful for. I am thankful for the steadfast love of God which never fails and for His saving help in the past. I am thankful for this wonderful congregation who is willing to listen to my story, and who has stories of their own to share, of how God has heard their cries and rescued them. I am even thankful for my present need because it gives me the opportunity to witness, once again, to God’s saving help and gives me great confidence for the future.” The Psalmist is in no way minimizing the difficulty of his present circumstances or the depth of his need, but neither is he focusing on them. His eyes are set instead on the One who will rescue him, redeem him and set him free. He sees his problems, real and threatening as they are, as yet another opportunity for God to be His provider, and in that he gives thanks.
Last Sunday evening I had the privilege of sharing a meal with many of the leaders and supporters of the Umoja project, the ministry we support in Kenya working to help provide for the needs of orphan and vulnerable children. I traveled to Kenya in 2012 and clearly remember visiting the home of one young orphan who was living with his sister and a 78 year old woman he called his “grandmother”. We asked them if they had had dinner the night before, they answered “No. We only had dinner three times last week.” I asked, “Will you have dinner tonight?” And the woman answered, “Only if God provides.” God did provide that day, through the gifts of food we brought for them. But what was remarkable to me was that as we were leaving their hut, the woman insisted that we accept a bag of peanuts they had grown as an expression of their appreciation. Despite their poverty she was offering a gift of thanksgiving. One of the many values we gain whenever we take international missions trips is the discovery that true happiness, true contentment and gratitude do not come with the accumulation of stuff. Of course, we must never glamorize poverty, but there is great spiritual truth in the words of Corrie Ten Boom as she writes, “You’ll never know that Jesus is all you need, until Jesus is all you’ve got.” If we were to ask any one of the people we serve “What do you have to be thankful for?” we should be prepared to hear a litany of praise and thanksgiving. Another woman I met on that trip had only a hut, a cow and a chicken to her name, but she smiled and said, “As you can see we are doing very well.” Despite her obvious need and scarcity, she also recognized and appreciated her abundance. True gratitude has far less to do with what we have and far more to do with our attitude toward those things. It has less to do with what is happening around us, than it does with what is happening within us.
At the close of our service this morning we will sing the beautiful Thanksgiving hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.” It would be relatively easy to imagine the circumstances of plenty and provision in which this hymn was written, but quite the opposite is true.
Martin Rinkart, the author of this hymn, was a Lutheran minister in Eilenburg, Saxony (Germany) during the 30 Years War in the middle 17th century. During those years the walled city of Eilenburg saw a steady stream of refugees pour through their gates seeking safety and protection, until the Swedish army finally surrounded the city, cutting it off entirely from outside resources. Very quickly famine and disease ran rampant. Homes were destroyed and the people were perishing by the thousands, which put a terrible strain on the parish priests and pastors as they tried to care for their flocks. As the siege of the city continued and the plague worsened, the pastors too succumbed, all except Martin Rinkart. In 1637 alone he conducted funeral services for nearly 4500 residents of Eilenburg, including that of his own wife. During those terrible years the population of Germany was reduced from 16 to 6 million people. As the captivity of Eilenburg wore on, the Swedes demanded a huge ransom for its release, a ransom they could not pay. So, recognizing their desperate condition, Pastor Rinkart left the relative safety of the walls of the city to plead for mercy on behalf of his beleaguered people. The Swedish commander, so impressed by his courage and faith, lowered his demands. Soon afterward the 30 Years War ended and Rinkart wrote this hymn for a grand service of worship and celebration in gratitude to God. For what, we ask? Given all that they had been through what was there to be thankful for? Given this context, listen again to Rinkart’s now familiar words.
“Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices.
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mother’s arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this wondrous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!
All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him who reigns with them in highest heaven;
The one eternal God, Whom heaven and earth adore;
For thus it was, is now and shall be evermore.”
Our response to life has less to do with what happens to us than it does with what happens within us.
The woman stared blankly back at Dr. Phil. She had just finished telling her sad story of a broken life and his question to her seemed to be totally out of place and unfounded. What did she have to be thankful for? Hadn’t he been listening to her? She clearly said she had nothing to be thankful for. So he gave her this assignment. He said, “I want you to write down 100 things you are thankful for. That is your assignment for today. And tomorrow I want you to write down 100 more things you are thankful for, and they have to be different than the ones you wrote down today. And the day after tomorrow I want you to write down 100 more things that you are thankful for.”
What that wise counselor was doing was retraining that woman’s focus. Was she focusing on her “haves” or her “have nots”? Did she view life through the lens of scarcity or abundance? Was she focused only on her problems, or could she somehow come to see God’s ample provision? In Psalm 40 twice we read that the Psalmist had things that were too great for him to number, the first being, his blessings – “Were I to proclaim and tell of God’s wondrous deeds they would be more than can be counted” (vs.5). But also, so numerous, were the problems which confronted him from within and from without – “for evils have encompassed me without number, my iniquities have overtaken me until I cannot see; they are more than the hairs on my head and my heart fails me” (vs 12). But what did he choose to focus on, his needs or God’s provision? Most definitely on God’s steadfast love and mercy which had seen him through all the struggles of the past and gave him confidence and hope for the future.
Today I am offering you an opportunity, as the old hymn goes, to “count your blessings, name them one by one”. In your order of worship you will find a half-sheet insert with the heading, “Now Thank We All Our God” which is numbered 1-100. I encourage you today, in an exercise of thanksgiving, to consider your own answer to the question, “What am I thankful for?” I used this example and exercise a number of years ago, and thought it worth repeating. I read an article recently from the Massachusetts General Hospital newsletter citing a study that found that “participants who devoted just 20 minutes per week for three weeks to writing about positive aspects of their lives experienced strengthening of activity in specific brain regions and heightened feelings of gratitude as much as three months later…Focusing on things for which you are grateful counteracts depression and anxiety, lowers chronic stress, promotes feelings of love and mutual interdependence with others, helps you cope with adversity, and is linked to greater feelings of life satisfaction and wellbeing.” Gratitude just might be an antidote to much of what ails us.
Regardless of our circumstances, whatever they may be, we of all people have much to be thankful for. And perhaps we, of all people, are most blessed because know to Whom to say “thank you.”
“Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices, Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices.” Amen.
I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.
Happy are those who make the LORD their trust, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.
You have multiplied, O LORD my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you. Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.
Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.
Then I said, “Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”
I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O LORD. I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.