Our Thanksgiving celebration has a long history. In our day we have lost touch with much of the meaning of Thanksgiving. Today Thanksgiving has been largely reduced to indulging in lots of delicious food and watching football games with our families or friends. For those first folks who ?gave thanks? many years ago, they did so with a great awareness of God?s preserving hand that had kept them alive and provided for their every need.
The story of the origin of Thanksgiving goes like this: William Bradford, of Plymouth Rock, proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving to celebrate the survival of the Pilgrims in their new home. Actually, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated eleven years earlier, in 1610, in Virginia. By all appearances there wasn?t much to give thanks for on Thanksgiving in 1610. The winter of 1610 had reduced a group of 409 settlers in Jamestown to just 60 people. Those who did survivor that harsh winter prayed for help with no guarantee of when or how it might come. Help did arrive in the form of a ship filled with food and supplies from England. When the answer to prayer came a prayer meeting was held to give thanks to God. You would think that after seeing so many of their loved ones die because of the extreme hardships, the people of Jamestown would have lost all hope, but you would be wrong. Instead of giving up hope they realized they had much to be thankful for.
The gratitude of the first Pilgrims was not driven by their comfortable lifestyles as much as it was their undying faith in God. Their gratitude was not stirred because of a good life or an abundance of food, but because they were trusting in God to see them through their hardships?each of their hardships. Whether they had plenty of food or were living on scant rations, they were thankful. Whether they were celebrating the birth of a new baby or planning another funeral, they were thankful. In joy or with tears streaming down their faces, they were thankful. There is a big difference between being thankful for things and being thankful in all things.
The hardships that we will all face in life will change us. They will either make us bitter or they will draw us closer to the Lord. Let me give you an example of what I am talking about. Abraham Lincoln?s original 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation came at a very fragile time in his life. Just four months before Thanksgiving the Battle of Gettysburg took place and 60,000 Americans were killed in the conflict. Four months later in November, Lincoln delivered his famous “Gettysburg Address.” The Battle of Gettysburg and the conflict of the nation were an extreme heartache in a string of heartaches for Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln didn?t give up and throw in the towel, he didn?t become bitter, but he did surrend his life to Christ. Let me share with you what Abraham Lincoln wrote in a letter to his friend.
When I left Springfield [to assume the Presidency] I asked the people to pray for me. I was not a Christian. When I buried my son, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian. But when I went to Gettysburg and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ. (http://www.christiananswers.net/q-wall/wal-g007.html)
As we move into Thanksgiving week I recognize that there are many here this morning that are searching, straining, and racking their brain trying to find something to give thanks for this Thanksgiving. This has been a difficult year for you or maybe you are in the middle of an intense struggle right now. The struggles and hard times come in so many different forms. You don?t need me to tell you what has been keeping you up at night, what eats at your gut during the day, and drains the life out of you. You know your heartache all too well. You have been leaving a trail of tears because of your struggle, the anxiety you feel.
I want to urge you this morning to turn your attention away from the search for things that you can be thankful for and instead focus your heart and soul upon the opportunity to be thankful in whatever you are going through at this time in your life. You may say, ?Mike, that is easier said than done.? I wouldn?t disagree with you. I?m not na?ve. I visit with folks every week who feel like there is a dark cloud of despair smothering them. We can come out from under the cloud and give thanks in our struggles if we will receive and apply the counsel of Almighty God.
Let?s take a look at a fellow struggler, one who was just like you and me, who was going through terrible heartache and great anxiety, yet he found great hope in the end. Turn with me to Psalm 77 and let?s begin our study.
1 I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. 2 When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted. 3 I remembered you, O God, and I groaned; I mused, and my spirit grew faint. Selah 4 You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak. 5 I thought about the former days, the years of long ago; 6 I remembered my songs in the night. My heart mused and my spirit inquired: 7 ?Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? 8 Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? 9 Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?? Selah 10 Then I thought, ?To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High.? 11 I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. 12 I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds. 13 Your ways, O God, are holy. What god is so great as our God? 14 You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples. 15 With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah 16 The waters saw you, O God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed. 17 The clouds poured down water, the skies resounded with thunder; your arrows flashed back and forth. 18 Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind, your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked. 19 Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen. 20 You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (Psalm 77:1-20 NIV)
There are three lessons that we can take with us this morning as we take a closer look at God?s Word. First of all, our struggles are real. Don?t let anyone try to convince you that your struggles are not real. Secondly, God knows our struggles and He will use our struggles to draw us closer to Himself and teach us about His faithfulness. The third lesson that we will take a look at this morning in helping us to be able to give thanks in the day of distress is this: Remember. When you and I enter into a time of intense struggle and sorrow we need to take our eyes off of our present situation and look back, take stock of God?s faithfulness throughout the ages, and know that He will be faithful once again. Let?s begin this morning by taking a look at verses 1-9.
1 I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. 2 When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted. 3 I remembered you, O God, and I groaned; I mused, and my spirit grew faint. Selah 4 You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak. 5 I thought about the former days, the years of long ago; 6 I remembered my songs in the night. My heart mused and my spirit inquired: 7 ?Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? 8 Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? 9 Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?? Selah (Psalm 77:1-9 NIV)
First lesson: Our struggles are real. I?m sure that I don?t have to work too hard to convince you of this fact of life. From the moment we are born we encounter struggles in life?all kinds of struggles in life. If you will take a look at the Scripture we are studying this morning then you can see that you and I are not the first people who have ever experienced times of intense sorrow, anxiety, and pain. The Psalmist says he cried out to God for help, when he was in distress he sought the Lord, he stretched out untiring hands, but his soul would not be comforted. Have you ever been in a situation like that? The old saints use to call times like this ?the dark night of the soul.? Those dark nights were sleepless, their days were full of anxiety, and their souls just wouldn?t respond in hope.
When you and I go through times like this our mind races and we begin to question so many things about our lives and about God. Look at the questions that the Psalmist raises.
? Will the Lord reject forever?
? Will he never show his favor again?
? Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
? Has his promise failed for all time?
? Has God forgotten to be merciful?
? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?
? Has God forgotten me? If God loves me then why am I hurting so badly? Why can?t I find any rest? Why doesn?t He answer me?? When we find ourselves distressed and questions like these begin to flood our hearts and minds, then we find ourselves in the absolute worst predicament of all. We can endure any struggle as long as we have hope, but when we begin to question if God cares, if He has forgotten us, then our anguish and pain can absolutely crush us. Ray Steadman wrote these words about the predicament the Psalmist faced as he lay awake at night feeling all alone.
It is bad enough to endure the circumstances that he has to go through, but what really troubles this man is that he is facing the possible collapse of his faith. He sees the possibility of not only losing this battle, but losing all battles. What is really troubling him is the gnawing feeling down underneath that if prayer does not work, then God is not real. And if God is not real, then faith is a delusion, life is a nightmare of hopelessness, and man is but a helpless victim of forces too great for him to control. That is his major problem. That is what is really bothering him. (Ray Steadman, The Pressure of Problems)
The Psalmist was wondering if God had forgotten and the same thoughts have entered into some of our minds. For many people, when problems, struggles, and sleepless nights come, faith falters. It does not have to be this way my friends. I urge you to take the next step with me. Step out of doubt and stand strong upon the promises of God. Let?s take the next step and learn our second lesson.
Secondly, God knows our struggles and He will use our struggles to draw us closer to Himself and teach us about His faithfulness. My friend, you are not alone. When Thanksgiving arrives this coming Thursday you may very well be facing the same heartache that you have been struggling with for the past few weeks or months, but you can know that God is at work.
King David knew heartache. He had witnessed the death of an infant son, he had suffered tremendously because of his adulterous affair with Bathsheba, he had lived life on the run like a common criminal while King Saul was trying to kill him, his friends had turned their back on him, and he had even suffered the anguish of one of his adult sons trying to take his throne. How can one man deal with such heartache? David knew the remedy to his anxious moments, he knew where his strength resided, and he knew where to turn when he had no other place to turn. David wrote,
17 The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. 18 The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:17-18 NIV)
King David wasn?t the only person in Scripture who faced sleepless nights and felt like his life was over. If you read the Bible then you will find an endless list of men and women who faced perilous times, heartrending situations, and who tasted bitter tears. The Apostle Paul wrote of his own struggles in his letter to the Corinthians.
8We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. 9Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. (2 Corinthians 1:8-10 NIV)
Paul knew what it was like to lay awake at night and wonder if he would see the light of day. He knew what it was like to have friends betray him, to suffer from poor health, and to feel alone. Paul also knew that he was not alone in facing these tough, tough situations in life. Paul knew that he was a member of the fraternity of suffering. He wrote,
13No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. (1 Corinthians 10:13 NIV)
Whether you are a follower of Jesus or not you will face difficulties in your life, you will struggle and suffer with perplexing predicaments and problems. The difference between the followers of Jesus and those who choose to do life on their own is this: Those who cling to the hand of Jesus as they go through heartbreaking experiences will know that God is still at work. You can?t hold on to the nail pierced hands of Jesus and not be reminded that God does His best work in the lives of those who are facing defeat.
If God can raise Jesus from the dead, if he can lift the Psalmist out of the ?miry pit,? save Joseph from prison, heal a blind man, and rescue us from eternal separation from God then He can use our struggles to teach us about His unwavering faithfulness. Paul wrote,
18I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. (Romans 8:18 NIV)
Don?t forget that God is at work. Our hearts may break, our nights may drag on, and our minds may race with questions, but we must know that God is at work. Let?s move on to our last lesson.
Our last lesson for helping us give thanks on the day of distress is this: Remember. Turn with me to Psalm 77:10-20 and let?s read together.
10 Then I thought, ?To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High.? 11 I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. 12 I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds. 13 Your ways, O God, are holy. What god is so great as our God? 14 You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples. 15 With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah 16 The waters saw you, O God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed. 17 The clouds poured down water, the skies resounded with thunder; your arrows flashed back and forth. 18 Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind, your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked. 19 Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen. 20 You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (Psalm 77:10-20 NIV)
Drowning in a sea of sorrow and distress the Psalmist makes a choice?he chooses to remember. I am learning some things as the years rock along and I gain more and more experience with disappointment, heartache, and the anxiety that brings so many of us to our knees. I am learning that what we are now experiencing, no matter how excruciatingly painful it may be, it will not last. A new day will dawn. The sun will come out tomorrow. These rough seas that are battering against our hearts will die down. I am also learning that God is Sovereign, absolutely Sovereign over the experiences of your life and mine. If I did not know that God knows what I am going through, what you are going through, and that He loves us with an everlasting love then I would have no hope. Because I know that God knows that leads me to believe with all of my heart that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can separate me or you from God?s love. Paul wrote in Romans 8:35-39.
35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36As it is written: ?For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.? 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39 NIV)
I have to confess to you that in the middle of the storm, when our hearts are hurting and we just want the struggle to cease, we can so easily forget this foundational fact of our faith. The key for us is to remember. We can?t form our beliefs based upon the tiny slice of sorrow that we are presently experiencing?we must turn around and look back over the ages to see how God has been faithful throughout the ages. As we are reminded of God?s faithfulness in the lives of others and in our own lives then we will find strength for our present struggle.
Back during the dark days of 1929, a group of ministers in the Northeast, all graduates of the Boston School of Theology, gathered to discuss how they should conduct their Thanksgiving Sunday services. Things were about as bad as they could get, with no sign of relief. The bread lines were depressingly long, the stock market had crashed, and the term ?Great Depression? seemed like an appropriate description for the mood of the country. The ministers thought they should gloss over the subject of Thanksgiving so that they could deal with the misery faced by so many. After all, there wasn?t much to be thankful for.
Dr. William L. Stiger, pastor of a large congregation in the city, spoke up and drew the ministers together. This was not the time, he suggested, to give mere passing mention to Thanksgiving. What they needed was just the opposite. This was the time for the nation to get matters in perspective and thank God for blessings always present, but forgotten during times of intense hardship.
During those times of intense sorrow we need to look back and see the faithful hand of God that has lifted us out of the pit of despair over and over again. We need to see His hand of grace that has provided for us over the course of our lives so that we can gain new confidence for the sorrow-filled time presently being experienced.
We need to remember those who have gone before us who have suffered and yet found God to be faithful. Remember Job? How can you forget Job and the suffering he endured? Job questioned God?s justice, he questioned God?s grace, but in the end he found God faithful. Do you remember Hannah? She wanted to have kids more than anything in the world, but she was barren. She felt like less than a woman, but God heard her prayer and gave her a son who became one of the greatest prophets in Israel. Do you remember David? All he did was faithfully serve the King, but the King was jealous of David?s success and plotted to kill him. David lived on the run. He hid in caves and had a rag tag group of followers who were a bunch of outcasts. Yet, David refused to give up on God. He refused to believe that living on the run would be the pattern for his life for the rest of his days. The day came when God took David from the cave and seated him on the throne! Do you remember Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? They were serving God faithfully and yet they became the scourge of the nation and thrown into the fiery furnace. Just when they thought their lives were over they spotted a fourth man in the midst of the fire and they realized that it wasn?t over?God was with them! They weren?t alone!
Oh, remember my friends! Remember how God has shown Himself faithful in times past in your own life. Remember how God has been faithful in the lives of those who have gone before us throughout the ages. Remember and gain strength for today. Remember and lift up your eyes with tears streaming down your cheeks and thank Him for His faithfulness. Give Him thanks in your day of distress.