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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

October 1, 2017

 The Feast of Thanksgiving

Habakkuk 3:17-19; Matthew 29:20-30

            Frankly, there is no way to put a fine point on it: the year 600 b.c., roughly the year in which the prophet Habakkuk wrote his prophecy, things were awful in Judea and Jerusalem.  Those of you who are students of history know that thirteen years later, in 587 b.c., the City of Jerusalem was sacked completely by the Babylonians.  They tore the Temple to shreds, and took the best and brightest of Israel’s young men and women into captivity for the next seventy-five long years in Babylon.  All the while, God was at work in ways that were not obvious to most of the people of Israel.  So when Habakkuk writes, he writes during as dark a period of time in Israel’s life that anyone could imagine.  For those of us who might feel we live in frightening and unsettling times, taking a page from the prophet Habakkuk is not a bad idea this day.

            The prophet writes in a dark and foreboding, a seemingly hopeless time, and he writes about praising God.  It is very interesting to me that he is not saying, “Count your blessings, name them one by one.  Go and count your blessings, see what God has done.”  No matter how healthy an exercise of the soul that kind of thanksgiving may be, Habakkuk goes a step further and says, though everything is dark, “Though the fig tree does not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines … and the flock be cut off from the field, and there be not herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord.  I will exult in the God of my salvation.”  It is one thing to thank God in the midst of blessings.  But Habakkuk gives thanks and praise to God when nothing has gone right.

            People of faith are often people filled with a sense of gratitude born of the fact that they trust in God.  It is a trust that shows itself to be sure and true, not just when things are going our way, but trust that sees God at work even in the worst of times, even when we are completely uncertain.  And let’s be honest, even when we are afraid of what the future may hold, we are invited to give thanks and to rejoice in the God of our salvation.

            Some of the most powerful words I have ever read are found in a book that I doubt he ever intended to be published as a book.  I am thinking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison.  Bonhoeffer sat in prison, there because he had participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler, knowing full well what the cost would be for him to face God for such an act that ran counter to so many of his values.  Still, it was something he did in courage, because he thought it was the only hope for what was happening in his own German nation.  In Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer writes these words: “By good powers wonderfully hidden, we await cheerfully, come what may.”  Do you hear what Bonhoeffer is saying?  He is suggesting that God is at work even when we do not see or feel the presence of God’s power; even when we cannot see God, God is still at work for good.  “By good powers wonderfully hidden, we await cheerfully, come what may.”  

            Jesus sat with His disciples on the last night that He would ever be alive on this earth in the body, prior to His death on the cross, prior to Jesus’ resurrection.  Jesus, in many ways, had to feel like things were taking on a life of their own beyond His own control.  Remember His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, in the small hours of the morning, when Jesus was all alone, praying, Luke says “sweating drops of blood”?  In that prayer, Jesus cries, “Lord, if it is possible, let this cup pass from my lips.  Nevertheless, not my will, but Thy will be done.”  

            Jesus sits at a table with the twelve people He has entrusted His future ministry to completely, knowing that one of them at the table has already betrayed that trust.  Jesus has lots that He could lament, but Jesus does not participate here in lament, in wringing His hands and complaining or despairing.  He does not indulge in fear or foreboding.  Instead Jesus takes the simple gifts before Him set, doubtless the unleavened bread that was a part of the Passover feast, and the wine that is also a part, to this day, of the Jewish Seder meal.  We are told by all the Gospel writers that Jesus “took the bread, He blessed it, He broke it, and gave it to His disciples,” giving them a feast that would feed the world’s great hunger and thirst for over two thousand plus years to come.

            I think the power of this meal is not simply found in looking back and remembering, as healthy an exercise as that may be.  I think what Jesus is showing us is a way to live, a way to sit at the table of life, a way to lean fully into God’s future, and to embrace that future with faith and hope and love.  Jesus takes the little bit that He has, that is placed in His hands by God, and He gives thanks.  We are told in the Greek New Testament that Jesus engaged in “eucharistia,” a Greek word that means “to give thanks.”  

            Gratitude is the meal that feeds our deepest hungers, that nourishes our faith, and that enables us to live in hope.  I want to say this to you – wherever you are in your life – that gratitude is always a choice, and that gratitude begins and ends with God.  Habakkuk knew it.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew it.  Jesus modeled it for us, this thanksgiving to God that everything is in God’s hands, that in the words of the apostle Paul, that “in everything God works for good, with those who love Him, who are the called according to his purpose.”

            So let us sit at this table, and reflect again upon how we sit at the table of life.  I tell you, thanksgiving is a feast fit for the human soul.


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