Return to Sermon Archive
Thanks for Nothing!
November 24, 2002
by Tony Grant
Thanks for Something
A doctor who used to see a lot of depressed and unhappy patients prescribed a "thank-you" cure. He told his patients that for six weeks they had to say "Thank you" for every good thing that happened to them and write down what happened. The cure rate was remarkable.
This is not surprising since the world seems to consist of two groups of people: those who are grateful and those who are not. Thanksgiving is a time of the year that retail America almost ignores. They know that the important holiday is right after Thanksgivingwhen the stores open for Christmas shoppers. Thanksgiving is that little holiday between Halloween and Christmas. Right after Halloween, the Christmas decorations come out. Thanksgiving just happens to fall in between. The stores do not want to emphasize Thanksgiving, because If you are thankful for what you have, you are not likely to rush out to buy stuff, and that is bad for corporate America. [Based on an article by Rurel Ausley Jr., "Give thanks in all circumstances," Northwest Florida Daily News, November 6, 1999, C1.]
But that is too bad because today we are going to talk about Thanksgiving. Walter Tschoepe writes:
When I worked for a large corporation in Anchorage, Alaska, the job required frequent travel. I usually flew on Alaska Airlines. When Alaska Airlines serves meals to their customers, they always place a little card on each tray with the following Bible verse: "It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto Thy name, O most High: to shew forth Thy lovingkindness in the morning, and Thy faithfulness every night" (Psalms 92:1, 2). That thought has never left me ... .
Most of the time we forget to thank the Lord. We dwell on the dark side of life, and on the failings of others; because of this we become discouraged and unhappy. I am glad that the owners of that airline had the idea and the courage to place these verses on my tray.
[Walter Tschoepe, "In everything give thanks," Land Marks Magazine, August 1996, Steps2life.org.]
It's Thanksgiving week. Time to count your blessings. If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof overhead, and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75 percent of the people in the world. If you have money in the bank, cash in your wallet, and spare change in a dish someplace, you are among the top 8 percent of the Earth's wealthiest people. If you woke up this morning with more health than illness, you are more fortunate than the million or so folks who will not survive this week. If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the agony of torture, or the pangs of starvation, you are ahead of 500 million people in the world who have. If you can attend this worship service, or any other religious meeting, without fear of harassment, arrest, torture, or death you are indeed fortunate. Billions of people in the world cannot.
It's not hard for us to count our blessings, is it? Most of us could quickly and easily jot down a lengthy list, including thanks for family, for friends, for food, for clothing, for cars, for a home, for a job, for health, for freedom, for opportunity, and so on.
"One classic praise testimony, popular in the contemporary Black Church, goes something like this: Thank you, God, for waking me up this morning; for putting shoes on my feet, clothes on my back and food on my table. Thank you, God, for health and strength and the activities of my limbs. Thank you that I awoke this morning clothed in my right mind." [Thomas Hoyt Jr., "Testimony," Practicing Our Faith (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997), 94.]
There is nothing wrong with giving thanks for material blessings, but there is a fatal flaw if that is the only kind of thanksgiving we havebecause if we are only grateful for material things, then when we lack these things, we cannot give thanks. In other words, if we count our blessings only when we have lots of stuff, when we do not have stuff, we think we are not blessed.
If we truly have no things, then we must say with Hamlet
"Beggar that I am, I am even poor in thanks."
-William Shakespeare, Hamlet, II.2.
Thanks for Nothing
However, the apostle Paul encourages us to give thanks for nothing. In fact, he offers us the example of his own thanksgiving for nothing at allnot one physical, material, tangible thing. Instead, Paul gives constant thanks for things which are not things: Faith in the Lord Jesus, love toward the saints, a spirit of wisdom and revelation, the riches of God's glorious inheritance and the immeasurable greatness of God's power (Ephesians 1:15-19). None of these blessings can be seen, touched, purchased or possessedlike food, clothing, cars, boats or homes. And yet, they are the very greatest gifts we can ever receive. To give thanks for the nontangibles, or to give thanks in the midst of violence, despair, and suffering, is what Scripture calls praise. Praise is the recognition that it is all about God and not about me.
In Antoine de Saint-Exupery's classic book The Little Prince, the fox character is saying goodbye to the little prince. As he leaves he says, "And now here's my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."
"What is essential is invisible to the eye," the little prince repeats, so that he will be sure to remember. This fox's insight is right in line with what the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "We look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal" (2 Corinthians 4:18).
It is the unseen that is eternal. What is essential is invisible to the eye. As Helen Keller said, "The best and most beautiful things cannot be seen or even touched; they must be felt with the heart."
This of course is not the wisdom of the world. It is not what most people think. It is a crazy wisdom, an upside down wisdom. Yet this crazy wisdom has always been part of religious knowledge. Back in the fourth century when "learned bishops wrangled over fine points of Christian doctrine, Saint Anthony and his friends departed for the Egyptian desert to live in caves and come together in loving simplicity; they were hungrily seeking the almost insane openness to experience (and to God) that Christ exemplified. [In the middle ages] A rich young man named Francis, in search of that same raw vision, got naked in the piazza of Assisi and dedicated himself to a bizarre mission that included talking to animals, the moon, and Death. Around the same time, the Persian poet Rumi called for an ecstatic love affair with God that transcends the Koran. In East Asia, a branch of Buddhism grounded in meditation - Zen - evolved into a sophisticated technique for short-circuiting the rational mind so that people can 'taste' all things as they are." [Jon Spayde, "The way of the wacko," Utne Reader, May-June 2002, 65.]
This crazy wisdom runs counter to the conventional wisdom of the Thanksgiving holiday. It refuses to fall into step with the swarm of shoppers that will surge into shopping malls this Friday to begin the Christmas buying binge. "Black Friday," they call itthe biggest shopping day of the year. It is not black because it is bad, according to merchants, but because they count on the day after Thanksgiving to turn the red in their books to black. They should call it "Green Friday," the color of money.
But ponder the perspective of the apostle Paul. He does not give thanks for diamond jewelry, Game Cubes, leather jackets, computer games, or DVDs. He refuses to focus his gaze on the things that can be seen, because he knows that these things are temporary.
Instead, he looks only at the essential and eternal things that are invisible to the eye. When he counts his blessings, he lists absolutely nothing you can buy, and nothing you can own - only faith, love, a spirit of wisdom, a spirit of revelation, God's inheritance, God's power.
Pauls Thanksgiving Prayer
The Apostle Paul's letter to the Ephesians is a meditation on God's desire to reconcile all things in Jesus Christ - "to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (1:10). Paul believes that Christ has brought unity to the church, breaking down the "dividing wall" of hostility between Gentiles and Jews (2:14), and he sees this reconciling work as a mission that the church must continue to perform in the world. He dreams that through the church "the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places" (3:10).
The first chapter of Ephesians demonstrates Paul's ability to combine the general with the specific, the universal with the particular. Verses 3-14 are heavyweight theology. Paul mentions adoption, grace, sacrifice, salvation, redemption, forgiveness, and Christ's eschatological glory. But immediately following this condensed version of Christian theology, Paul bursts into a spontaneous prayer full of thanks for the Ephesian Christians themselves and full of Paul's hopes for their continued growth in faith.
Indeed, Paul's enthusiasm apparently ran away with his pen. For in the Greek, verses 15 through 23 (with a brief gasp for breath after verse 21) tumble all together into one long, jumbled, exhausting, and somewhat convoluted rush of words. The effect, however, serves to heighten the excitement and expectation Paul wanted to convey to the Ephesians about the gift of Christ himself. If the structure of Paul's prayer overwhelms the reader, its content overwhelms the believer with the blessings available through Christ.
This thanksgiving prayer includes three sections:
(1) the formal thanksgiving and prayer report (vv. 15-16);
(2) Paul's intercession, asking for God to give the Ephesians insight and wisdom (vv. 17-19);
(3) a note on God's power in Christ (vv. 20-23).
Paul begins by confessing that, every time he prays, he gives thanks for the faith and love demonstrated by the Ephesian Christians. In the apostle's view, his preaching would not be successful if his churches did not become known to others as places of faith and mutual love. It is almost as if Paul would say to us: This is your response to the gospelthat you would have a reputation for faith.
In verses 17-19, Paul carefully notes his prayer is to God, even as Jesus Christ prayed. In fact, our ability to pray to God is made possible by Christ himself. Having gained God's ear, Paul reveals the subject of his constant prayers. He requests nothing less than the gift of the Spirit, a gift that imparts divine wisdom, a gift that allows the discernment of spiritual realities, a gift that reveals to these Ephesians God's truth. The result of having received the Spirit will be a wondrous blessing. They come to "know" God fully, to experience God firsthand.
As Paul sees it, what this new wisdom and knowledge will reveal to the Ephesian Christians is threefold: the hope of God's calling, the richness of their inheritance and the greatness of God's power.
First, the hope of God's calling. This "calling" Paul wants the Ephesians to claim, with all the hope of their being, is nothing less than God's invitation to all people to become sons and daughters of God through Jesus Christ. In Paul's mind there could be nothing anyone could hope for more than salvation from sin, reconciliation with God, and adoption into God's familyall accomplished through the free gift of Christ.
Second, this hope takes shape in the form of a "glorious inheritance" shared among all the "saints"that is, all those who respond to God's call. Paul's phrase here in verse 18 combines both "richness" and "glory" to convey the overflowing abundance of this promised heritage. God not only accepts us as we are, but God treats us with extravagant attention and lavish affection.
Third, part of this wealthy inheritance is the unfathomable greatness of God's power working on our behalf (v. 19). Verse 19 forms a bridge to the final section of Paul's thanksgiving prayer (vv. 20-23), for it is this very same power, Paul insists in verse 20, that was capable of raising up Christ from death. If Paul's talk of "call" and "inheritance" in verse 18 made a point of impressing on the Ephesians the abundance of God's gifts, the apostle now focuses on getting believers to grasp how vast is this divine power exerted on their behalf. This is a power "above all rule and authority and power and dominion" (v. 21).
That is why all our faith and love must center on the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul reports, "I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints." Then he adds, "For this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you" (1:15). Paul knows that the sign of true success is not a Lexus, or a big house on a hill, or a job with a six-figure salary. Instead, success is being a person who trusts Christ completely, and who loves neighbors consistently. This living out of the vertical and horizontal dimensions of lifea vertical relationship with Jesus, combined with a horizontal relationship with neighboris the key to a perfectly balanced and fulfilling life.
Paul also gives thanks for a spirit of wisdom and revelation (v. 17), which he prays will come out of our ever-expanding relationship with God through Christ. This spirit of wisdom opens our eyes to what God is planning for us, and it helps us to see that nothing is richer or more valuable than a life in communion with God, both today and in the life to come. With this spirit of wisdom and revelation, we can finally grasp the riches of God's glorious inheritance (v. 18), a heavenly inheritance far more valuable than stocks or bonds or savings accounts or real estate.
The final invisible item that Paul wants us to appreciate is the immeasurable greatness of God's power, a power that has raised Jesus Christ from the dead and seated him in the heavenly places. This power has put Jesus in a place of ultimate authority, far above every earthly ruler, not only in this age but also in the age to come, so that everything on earth is now under the soles of his sandals (vv. 19-22). In short, Jesus rules.
But the best part is this: God's amazing power is at work in those of us who believe, and this power is experienced as we take part in the life of the body of Christ, that body of believers known as the Christian church (vv. 19, 23). It does not really matter how much wealth or power or prestige or personnel or inventory or square footage we control in this world, because our greatest influence comes through our work as disciples of Christ.
As followers of Jesus, we experience the divine life and power of God that fills all things.
As followers of Jesus, we are able to endure incredible hardship and overcome enormous personal obstacles.
As followers of Jesus, we are able to share the love and grace and hope and peace and forgiveness of our Lord.
As followers of Jesus, we are able to step out in mission and share the gospel in both our words and our deeds.
None of these is a "thing," in a material sense. But whether we are rich or poor, homeowners or homeless, working or unemployed, we have access to an amazing set of essential, eternal, unseen treasures. As Christians, we can honestly say to God: Thanks for everything. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 12/10/02