Paths of grace: Gratitude
(Transcription of Sunday, August 27, 2017 sermon.)
So here we are talking about gratitude and it’s not even Thanksgiving!
Maybe you think I’m pushing things a little too fast, but I think this is good. By the time November comes you’re going to be so occupied thinking about travel, celebrations, food, family gatherings and all the things Thanksgiving involves that it’s really hard to focus. Everyone is telling you how much you’ve been blessed and how you should donate to people who don’t have as much. So much gets lost in all of that. But now here at the end of August we’re not worried about any of that. We can take a good close look at the path of grace our Lord leads us down today, that path of gratitude.
Using the word of the week, I want to ask you this question: “What is that eclipses gratitude in your life?” What is it that casts a shadow over your thankfulness? You wouldn’t think we would have to ask this question. We have so much. We have so much wealth, so much food so many clothes, we have nice homes to live in. There are so many things to be thankful for.
But you know how it works. You only need to see one person who has something that you don’t have or one person who you thinks looks better than you do or one person who seems to be having a better time than you are, and you are a little bit jealous. And now you’re not content. You wish you had what they have or you could do what they can do or you look like they did. Suddenly, that blocks the things that we should we should be thankful for. Just like the moon blocks out the sun and all of a sudden you can see very clearly the corona around the edge. Things like jealousy, greed and covetousness get in the way and suddenly we see what we’re really like. We’re not nearly as thankful as we probably should be.
And I know that bothers you. I know that grates against you. It really bugs you when somebody is not thankful. When they don’t seem to be grateful for the things they have or the things you’ve done for them.
I love the story of grandparents who loved to send gift to their grandkids for birthdays and holidays. But they never got an acknowledgement that the gift had been received. No phone call, no text, no thank you, nothing. Finally they decided we’re not sending anything else until they get some kind of feedback. You’ve been there. There are people you know you want to grab by the scruff of the neck and say, “Why you ungrateful little…” (You can finish that sentence as you please.)
So we know this is a problem. It’s very interesting that the path of gratitude our Lord reveals and leads us down doesn’t take us past pantries filled with food or garages filled with cars or homes filled with things. No it takes us in a whole different direction. The path we’re going to follow today is a very interesting story from the Old Testament that has to do with the ark of the covenant.
You can read more about this in 1 Chronicles chapters 14-16. The ark of the covenant was that very special chest that God had commanded Moses to build. It was fairly big, covered with gold, gold angels on top, with poles in it so the priests could carry it everywhere they went. Inside was the tablets of the law, a jar of manna, the staff of Aaron (he was to be the high priest for God’s people.) And so they carried that chest with them. It was a reminder that God had come to be with his people.
He was living in the midst of them. When they arrived where they were going to stay they set up the tabernacle around it, the ark was in the holy of holies, the presence of God filled that place and they knew that God was going to take care of them, provide for them and lead them, a very real powerful reminder.
So we’re going to jump into the story at a time after God’s people have come into the promised land after the time of the judges but before they have a king. During this time, Israel as Israel tended to do was always fighting battles with the Philistines. That’s their classic enemy. All kinds of skirmishes all kinds of battles. They could never quite get the best of them.
One day they had this great idea. We’re going to take the ark of the covenant into battle with us. We’re going to take the presence of God with our armies and then we can’t lose. We’re going to have God right there to win the battle for us. It didn’t quite go as they planned. In fact, they lost that battle and they lost the ark of the covenant. The Philistines actually took it, captured it and took it back home.
What a great trophy to bring back home! So they take the ark home and they put it their temple of their god, Dagon. So now they have this statue of their pagan God and they have the ark of the covenant right next to it.
That didn’t work out they way they thought. Every day their priests went into the temple and the statute of Dagon had toppled over. It happens often enough that pieces start breaking off. The hands break off and the head breaks off and around the place where the ark is everyone is getting sick. Everybody’s got these tumors growing on their body. The Philistines finally said we can’t take this anymore. We’ve got to get rid of this thing. It’s killing us. Nobody wants it because they know it’s bad news. They decide they are just going to send it back to Israel.
They put it on a cart, hitch up a couple cows, crack the whip and it’s on the way down the road. Imagine that you are one of the tribes of Israel, working in the field and here’s a cart with the ark of the covenant just walking it’s way back to Israel. They didn’t know what to do with it. So they put it in someone’s house, in a place called Kiriath-Jearim. It’s there for a while.
In the meantime, God’s people insist on having a king. You’ve got King Saul and then King David. David has consolidated the nation of Israel and they have a capital city of Jerusalem. David says, “We’ve got to bring the ark to Israel. The ark of the covenant has to be in Jerusalem.” They send for the ark of the covenant. They put it on a cart, hitch up some oxen and they are going down the road. Now their roads aren’t as nice as our roads. Lots of potholes, rocks, it’s pretty rough going. The oxen are slipping, the cart is rocking back and forth, and the ark starts to fall off the cart.
A man named Uzzah reaches out to steady the ark, and drops over dead. You don’t touch the things of God. You don’t get near the mountain where God is. You don’t get near the ark, unless you are one of the priests. You just don’t mess around with a holy God. Understandably, David is afraid and angry. He leaves the ark right there, in a guy’s house. His name of Obed-Edom.
While the ark is in his house, he is blessed. His flocks are growing, his fields are abundant, everything is good for him.
David goes off, and he is still waging war agains the Philistines. But David does it differently. Everytime David goes to battle, he first talks to God. He inquires of the Lord. “Should we go into battle?” “How should we fight them?” “Is this the right time?” God would say, “Yes, go into battle, you’ll win the victory.” David does. So he learns over the next few months that he can trust God. That God is going to protect them. That God is with them in a very real way. He has learned that he needs to deal with God on God’s terms, not his own.
So we’re going to get the ark and we’re going to bring it to Jerusalem, but we’re going to do it the right way this time. We’re going to have a better cart, and we’re going to fix the road and there’s going to be priests involved who are supposed to handle these things. And they get it back to Jerusalem. It’s a marvelous celebration. It’s an amazing day. There’s music, there’s a parade. David is dancing for all he’s worth as they bring it into Jerusalem.
And that is when David appoints thanksgiving to be sung in the Old Testament lesson today. He orders the people in charge of the music
Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples! Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works! 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! Remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles and the judgments he uttered (1 Chronicles 16:8-12).
David is commanding that thanksgiving be given to God because of his wonderful presence and power and protection among the people.
In the Psalm today we hear a similar command for thanksgiving.
Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever! (Psalm 30:4-5, 11-12)
Listen to that. The motivation for gratitude has nothing to do with clothes, food, possessions, houses where they lived, anything that they had or didn’t have. Their entire motivation was God who showed up and turned their lives around, so that they enjoyed his gracious favor. He turned their sadness into gladness. And that is what led them down that path of gratitude.
Now for us, it’s not all about the ark. Now it’s about Jesus, who is the ark of God’s presence and power and everything that God is for us. You could say that it was the ark who typified who Jesus would be. In Jesus all the law is fulfilled. In Jesus we have a great high priest who goes on our behalf to God. We have Jesus who is the bread of life. Everything that was in that ark is in Jesus.
And Jesus takes the anger of God on the cross for just a moment, that one short time, so that we might have God’s favor and forgiveness for a lifetime. There was mourning when they wrapped up Jesus and put him in the tomb. But in the morning, there was joy, when they discovered that he was alive. Suddenly we realize that Jesus has come to turn everything around. There’s going to be struggles. There’s going to be sadness. There’s going to be pain. But he’s the one who brings the dancing, the gladness, and the praise and everything for which we give him thanks.
In fact, Jesus himself is the one who leads us down that path of gratitude. When he fed the 5,000 with just a few loaves and bread and fish or when he fed the 4,000 in the gospel today in Gentile territory with just a little bit of food. Or when Jesus sat around the last supper with his disciples with a little bread and wine. He gave thanks. Not because there was a whole bunch of food there. But because the presence of God was there to save his people. And he was it. He was the one who was there to save.
And that’s what motivates us to be grateful and to give God thanks. That’s something that never changes. Everything else in life changes but that never does. Our Lord comes, he comes to us, so that our lives are filled with gratitude. That’s why we stand for the holy gospel. Our Lord is talking to us. We kneel at the altar. This is our Lord coming to us to save us. That’s why we pause at the font and we remember the new life we have in our baptism, and the new clothes he gives us, clothing us with gladness.
That’s what the path of gratitude is all about. Jesus took that path to come to us, so that we too can follow him down that path of gratitude.