Theme: Thanksgiving
Text: II Timothy 1:11-12

Hear we are on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and I wonder if you feel very thankful. Some would reply, “Brother Bill, some of us are more thankful than others. It depends on one’s circumstances.”

You know, it’s easy to celebrate Thanksgiving when your family is healthy, your income is ample, your stocks are ascending, your favorite team is headed to a bowl game, your sinuses have overcome the Memphis grunge, and your aches and pains are minimal.  But that kind of thanksgiving can be awfully superficial. God is almost superfluous in such a celebration. It’s often just a matter of congratulating ourselves on how well we have done.

Real thanksgiving, biblical thanksgiving, is much greater and deeper than that. It is based not on our circumstances, but on God’s sufficiency; not on our production, but on God’s provision; not on our performance, but on God’s providence. Paul described real thanksgiving with this admonition: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

In the movie, Facing the Giants, Coach Grant Taylor tries to deliver this message to his football team. He said, “We’re going to praise God when we win and we’re going to praise Him when we lose.”

Now I know that is tough! It’s hard to feel very thankful if you’re a Memphis Tiger football fan, suffering through a losing season; if you’re a Republican and your party has just suffered a “thumpin'” at the polls or if your first major car problem came less than thirty days after the warranty expired.

More seriously, it’s hard to be thankful if there has been a death or divorce in your family in the past year; if your job is at risk; if your marriage is shaky; if someone in your family is facing a dangerous health problem. It’s hard if you have such a multitude of small problems that you can’t get a fix on them all. Like the man who said, “I could get this mattress up the stairs if I could just figure out how to get hold of it!”1

Think about that first Thanksgiving celebration in America. On September 6, 1620, 102 Pilgrims had left Plymouth, England bound for the New World. For two months they braved the harsh elements of a vast storm-tossed sea in their creaky little ship. They arrived in Massachusetts in late November. After a prayer service, they began building hasty shelters. However, there was no way they could have anticipated that harsh New England winter. Nearly half of them died before spring. Nevertheless, on December 13 of the following year, the Pilgrims declared a three-day feast to thank God and to celebrate with their Indian friends. That is real Thanksgiving, when people praise God regardless of circumstances.

In our text for the morning, 2 Timothy 1:11-12, Paul shows us what real thanksgiving looks like. Paul is in a dungeon, chained to a Roman guard. It is dark down in that hole. He can barely see well enough to write. He thinks back over thirty years as an apostle, teacher and preacher.

Most of us in such a situation would have felt sorry for ourselves. Can’t you hear us now, crying out, “Lord, you certainly have a strange way of showing your love for your servants. I have sacrificed and suffered for you all over two continents. What do I get for it? I’m locked up in this hole, and I’ll probably be executed within a month. Thanks a lot!”

But that’s not what Paul said. Instead, he declared, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel.” Then he gives two reasons for his confidence, even in a dungeon, even face to face with death. If we can claim these same two reasons, we can celebrate real thanksgiving this week.

First, said Paul,

I Can Be Confident Because I Know God Personally.

There is a huge difference between knowing about God and knowing God. Even the devil knows about God, and trembles because of what he knows. To know God personally is to love and serve Him as Savior, leader, counselor and friend.

Several months ago I attended a conference in beautiful Colorado Springs, Colo. Of course, I managed to find a free afternoon to try out a new golf course in the area. I was placed in a foursome with three men from the local area. One of them, John, was a retired math teacher at a private school.

When he found out that I am a pastor, he said, “I believe in God but I don’t go to church. I try to live by the Ten Commandments. Throughout my career I tried to influence our students toward good morals. I guess you could say that I am a Christian with a little ‘c.'” That gave me an opportunity to define for him briefly what it means to be a Christian with a capital “C.” Then, when I got home, I sent him some material as a follow-up. He caused me to consider the difference between a big “C” and a little “c” Christian. It’s basically a matter of whether or not one has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Methodists have always preached that a believer can actually know God personally and can be assured that he has been saved, born again and reconciled to God. The key Bible verse is Romans 8:16: “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”

But you might reply, “Brother Bill, I don’t have that personal knowledge of God. I don’t feel that inner assurance. How do I get it?”

Actually, God alone gives it. But we can place ourselves squarely in the bulls-eye of God’s grace by taking these five steps:

First, talk with God each day in prayer, even if at first you feel as though your prayers are pointless.

Second, read God’s inspired book each day, even if at first you read just a few verses from the Gospel of John.

Third, as you begin to sense God’s spirit touching your life, make a personal commitment to Christ. Dare to confess your sin to Him and believe that He paid for your sin on the cross. Invite the risen Christ to be the leader of your life.

Step number 4 is this: gather regularly with other believers to worship God. Yes, you could worship alone in a trout-filled stream or on a manicured golf course. But Jesus said, “Where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.” (Matthew 18:20)

The final step in getting personal with God is to take some risks with Him. Dare to do something that is not likely to succeed without God’s help. Reach out to some alienated person. Try to tutor a child at a local school. Tithe your income. Ask the Salvation Army to assign you a family to help this Christmas.

I often think back to the summer when I was a college junior, just 19-years-old. I was invited to be a summer pastor for a little church in Laurens, S.C. Their appointed pastor could not arrive until September. I was scared to death. Volumes could be written about what I didn’t know at 19. But God blessed my risk-taking. The Holy Spirit, operating through that little congregation, confirmed my lifetime mission that summer.

I shudder to think what might have happened to me if I had not taken that risk. When we take God-approved risks, we come to know God better and trust Him more. Where in your life are you taking God-approved risks that are not likely to succeed without God’s help? If you want to know God personally, risk-taking is essential.

It is not enough to know about God. It is not enough to be an excellent student of the Scriptures. In order to celebrate real Thanksgiving, you must know God personally. Paul gave a second reason for confidence:

I Can Be Confident Because God is Able to Guard All That I Entrust to Him.  

If I am the primary caretaker of people and possessions that are important to me, I am in deep trouble, because my power and wisdom are so limited. But when I entrust to God the care of people and possessions that are important to me, then I have enlisted the all-wise, omnipotent God.

This does not mean that God puts an invisible protective shield around me and my family so that nothing bad can happen to us. This is a free, sin-marred world in which bad things do happen to people of faith. God does not love me more or less than any other person on earth. What then can I be sure of in this insecure world? God’s Word assures us that nothing can separate us eternally from each other or from God. Nothing can happen tomorrow that God and we cannot handle together. No tragedy can erase God’s sufficiency.

Today you and I face at least two great struggles. One is local. It is the crime wave sweeping across our county. This danger was made very clear to me by an e-mail that I received from a young mother in our congregation. She told me that her home has been broken into four different times. The family installed an alarm system, but in the latest robbery, the thieves disengaged the alarm system before they broke in. There are two young children in the family. Now they hide their special toys before going to school for fear that they may be stolen. This mother said to me, “Our boys are losing confidence in their parents’ ability to protect them.”

The other struggle we face is the War on Terror. Some think that as soon as we get out of Iraq, the terrorists will leave us alone. They are wrong. Our enemies are developing weapons of mass destruction and would not hesitate a moment in using them against us. We dare not be naïve. We must be willing to defend freedom. God does not subsidize lazy or cowardly folks.

Facing these two threats are vital matters. But after we have done our part, God will have the final word. In the final analysis, our security is with God.  We can entrust our loved ones, our church and our nation to the only One who is able to safeguard us. And I believe that He will.

Your only assets that are absolutely secure are those that have been entrusted to Christ. When Wall Street is smoldering on the trash heap of history, your investments in Christ will be shining like pure gold.

So here we are on the eve of Thanksgiving. We don’t know what a day may bring, much less a year. Yet we dare to give thanks to God because we can say with Paul, “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day” (1 Timothy 1:12).

Some time ago one of our retired members of Christ Church was sharing with me memories from her childhood. She said, “My Dad owned a rather large boat and kept it moored near what is now Mud Island. We had many fun times on a sandbar up the river, picnicking and swimming. My brother and I were quite young at the time. Dad would not allow us to go into the water until he had first tied a rope around our waists. He held the other end of those ropes. A few times when I got into deep water, he had to gently pull me to safety. Somehow that rope always made me feel safe because I knew that my Dad was dependable.”

As I listened to that story, I thought about the heavenly Father. Though He does not control us like puppets, there is a kind of invisible rope between Him and us. He loves us so much. He has wonderful and mysterious ways of pulling us out of trouble and keeping us secure in Him. For that I am so thankful.

In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journal, there is a tender section where Emerson reflects painfully on the tragic death of his little son, Waldo. In his grief, Emerson wrote these words of faith: “All that I have seen teaches me to trust God for all that I have not seen.”2

If you believe that with all your heart, then you know the secret of our confidence, and you’re ready for Thanksgiving!

–Bill Bouknight recently retired as Senior Pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tenn. He is a Contributing Editor of Preaching

1 Moore, James W., When All Else Fails…Read the Instructions (Dimensions for Living: Nashville, 1993), p. 11.

2Moore, James W., When You’re a Christian, the Whole World is from Missouri, (Dimensions for Living: Nashville, 1997), p. 74.


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