When you read the Old Testament you continually find that one of the reasons the people of God stumbled and staggered in their journey was due to their bad memory. The years of wandering and the wilderness are often attributed with a failure to remember and give thanks for what God had done.
For example, in Psalm 78 – a sad retelling of Israel’s failure to remain obedient to Yahweh – we read:
9 The men of Ephraim, though armed with bows,
turned back on the day of battle;
10 they did not keep God’s covenant
and refused to live by his law.
11 They forgot what he had done,
the wonders he had shown them.
12 He did miracles in the sight of their ancestors
in the land of Egypt, in the region of Zoan.
And later it says:
40 How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness
and grieved him in the wasteland!
41 Again and again they put God to the test;
they vexed the Holy One of Israel.
42 They did not remember his power—
the day he redeemed them from the oppressor,
43 the day he displayed his signs in Egypt,
his wonders in the region of Zoan.
And when they failed to remember, it either led to grumbling (when things were not going good), or pride (when things were going good). So instead of humble trust and obedience in God we see grumbling and pride. Often the grumbling would lead to self-indulgence (vs29), and the pride would lead to self-reliance (vs36).
What was the antidote to grumbling and pride? Remembering well what God had done and giving thanks! In fact God had said on a number of occasions that this would be vital in order for them to avoid these two pitfalls (see Exodus 12:14-16 or Deuteronomy 8:10-20). It seems fitting, with all this in mind, to consider why giving thanks (celebrating what God has done!) is so important. And I think there are three reasons, for us individually and as a church.
(1) Thankfulness stops grumbling
When we grumble we are forgetting that everything we have is a gift from God. And we are taking for granted all the good things he gives us. This is true on a daily level where we forget his provision through things like food, health, strength, family, friends, job, finances, autumn colours/leaves and so on and so forth. But this is also true on a larger scale where we think about some of the most important building blocks that have shaped us. For example key friendships, a spouse, children, a job offer, a move to a new city… or other momentous things in our life that ‘turned out just right’.
So when we give thanks, it stops us grumbling, because instead of taking God and his gifts for granted, we appreciate them and enjoy them. Remembering keeps us grateful.
(2) Thankfulness stops pride
Another part of looking back is remembering moments in our life when we were very fragile. We have all had experiences where we have cried out in desperation and God has heard us and answered. Maybe someone we know has come to our rescue; maybe there was a sudden turnaround; maybe the job/finances came through. It’s easy to forget how vulnerable and fragile we are when things are going well, and looking back and remembering keeps us not just grateful but humble. We realise that “but for the grace of God go I”.
So when we give thanks, it stops us becoming proud, because of instead of thinking we have achieved our current situation by our own might, we recognise the hand of God in our lives and that we wouldn’t be where we are without him.
(3) Thankfulness keeps us excited
On a more positive note, looking back and giving thanks keeps us excited; it keeps us on the front foot; it stops us getting stagnant. It reminds us that God is a missionary God and a God of redemption and grace. He is continually looking to bring healing and wholeness, not just to our lives but through our lives to the world. As we look to the future we will not despair (because God is with us) and we will not be arrogant (because it’s all his work). As Paul says in Romans 8, ‘if God is for us, who can be against us’? And the answer is no-one! We’re on the winning team. We will win the victory in the end. And this gives us assurance and joy, peace and courage to say “well what’s next?” It will help us step out in faith. It will help us take risks.
When I first arrived in Dublin four years ago my heart and mind would be full of excitement as I looked over and around the city with the eyes of faith (quite literally I would walk around it or find a high spot with which to view it and pray for it). I remember feeling so feeble and pathetic (we were just 6 people and 2 kids back then!) but also so excited about what God would do. I have never lost that excitement… what could God do next…???
I love the holy ambition of Paul, who knows that nothing can stop him because God is for him, and he ends his letter to the Romans by saying (Romans 15:20):
It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation
That is what I want for our ambition as a church. To be excited that God will lead us to places where Christ is not known… and we can build a new foundation with him.
So as we come this Sunday to celebrate our third birthday as a church and look to the future, we must remember what he has done so far and give thanks. Let’s avoid the pitfalls of grumbling self-indulgence and proud self-reliance by thanking him for what he has done. And let’s stay excited and expectant of what is to come!