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November 23, 2008

Thanksgiving in Difficult Times

Genesis 42:46-57; Philippians 4:4-7, 12-13, 19;

Matthew 6:19-33, 25:14-28;

Luke 6:38; I Timothy 5:8


            Last week, I said that today we would return to the part of the story of Joseph that deals with the severe famine in Egypt.  Joseph took seven years to prepare for that famine, making sure that Egypt would have grain even when no other place in the world had grain.  It is important to note that because of the wisdom of Joseph, the land of Egypt was well prepared. 

I find myself wishing that someone had had that kind of wisdom in this part of the world so that we would have been better prepared for this time of recession.  We face it, nonetheless; and we must remember on this Sunday before Thanksgiving that no matter how bad our circumstances get, thanksgiving is still important for us. 

            Consider Joseph.  In the middle of the passage about the famine, we read not only that he was an administrator during a world crisis, but this affected him personally.  We see from the names Joseph gave his two sons that he was a thankful man.  One son was named Manesseh, a word that means, “God made me forget all my trouble.”  The name of the second son, Ephraim, means, as Joseph had said, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”  You see in these names Joseph’s thankful heart.

The truth is that thanksgiving has a long history of being connected with difficult times.  That is especially true in this country.  The Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth in 1621 suffered a terrible winter.  More than half of the 102 people aboard the Mayflower died.  Almost the entire group of Pilgrim wives, half of the children, and half of the sailors perished.  Only four of the original fathers survived.  Of course, the Native Americans had taught them some survival skills, such as how to grow crops.  Imagine that after all of that death, after all of that deprivation, the Pilgrims were still able to stop and give thanks to God.

            Several years ago, my brother Bill was in charge of having a devotion when our larger family gathered for a Thanksgiving meal.  When we sat down at the table, we saw seven kernels of corn at each place setting.  As Bill gave the devotion, he said, “This is the daily ration that the Pilgrims had during those very hard winter months.”  Imagine having only seven small kernels of corn per day, yet they were able to stop and give thanks. 

In the first year of his presidency, when America was a fledgling country, George Washington called for a national day of thanksgiving.  During a time of so many insecurities, the country still took time to stop and give thanks to God for His blessings.  In 1863, at the very height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln called upon a divided nation to unite in observing a national day of thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November.  When President Lincoln issued that proclamation, he asked that Americans pay special attention to widows and orphans, to those injured in war, and to all of those who mourn. 

Thanksgiving does not necessarily come in times of plenty, in times of great prosperity.  Sometimes the most significant thanksgiving we can have comes in times of difficulty.  You and I know that this country is in a recession.  We may be headed for a very deep recession that could last a long time.  Apart from the economic woes of the country, so many people are now having personal difficulty.  I heard about a family in our church during the Sunday School hour that has suffered now three significant losses just in the last several days.  Already this morning, I have talked with five men, members of Morningside, who have all lost their jobs.  Times of difficulty come to all of us in a variety of ways – sometimes illness, sometimes an uncertain diagnosis, sometimes bereavement.  When these times of difficulty come, the question is, Can we still give thanks?  My answer is yes.  In fact, it is probably more important to give thanks during these times of difficulty than at other times. 

When I think about a family going through difficulty and handling it well, I cannot help but call to mind my grandfather and grandmother and their eight children.  My grandparents were doing quite well.  They owned a home on Greenville Highway and what my grandfather called a one-horse lumberyard that was providing a steady income for the family.  Then in 1929, the Great Depression hit.  When the economy bottoms out, as it has now, homebuilding is one of the first areas affected.  People simply do not build homes when times are hard.  Even home repairs become sparse. 

During the years of the Great Depression, politicians kept saying that prosperity was just around the corner, but it was not. My grandfather kept trying to keep his one-horse lumberyard going by mortgaging his home, trying to get money out of the equity on his house and putting that into the lumberyard.  Finally, he lost both his home and his place of business.  A lesser man might have just folded his tent.  Many people did during those times of hardship, but my grandfather did not quit.

Now, with eight children and another on the way, the family moved to a rented home on Highway 56.  That grey Victorian-style house, which has white gingerbread trim, still stands across from the School for the Deaf and Blind.  On the land where Mountainview Nursing Home is now located, my grandfather raised sweet potatoes and turkeys.  The family was never without food.  They had plenty to eat, but they did not have a lavish table spread for them.  My grandmother could cook sweet potatoes three different ways for the same meal.  She had every sweet potato recipe known:  candied sweet potatoes, sweet potato soufflé, baked sweet potatoes, sweet potato bread, and sweet potato muffins.  Of course, she made sweet potato pies. When the kids came home from school in the afternoon, she greeted them with a snack, a cold sweet potato.  One of my uncles would not eat a sweet potato the rest of his life.  Knowing how my grandparents responded to the time of hardship gives me a sense of strength.  People who are sturdy, people with a strong backbone, have a knack for surviving in hard times.  I hope you, too, can call upon such family stories. 

Many people in this world do not have enough to eat.  Many people in Spartanburg County do not have enough to eat.  I often try to depict to you just how vast the problem of world hunger is, but I really have not found a better illustration than one I have previously used.  Imagine the population of one of our medium-sized cities.  Imagine that the entire population of Greenwood, South Carolina, died one day.  The next day, the entire population of Anderson, South Carolina, died.  On the third day, the entire population of Salisbury, North Carolina, died followed by the deaths of every person in the cities of Concord, North Carolina, Gastonia, and then Gaffney.  Do you think people in Spartanburg would be a little worried?  Every day in this world, the number of people living in one of those cities dies from starvation.  We talk about times being hard.  Certainly this economic crisis is not happening just in the United States.  It is a global crisis.  The truth is that as American people, we still are doing much better than so many other people in the world. 

What does God expect from us?  How does God expect us to respond in times like this?  I want to call your attention to two sections of Scripture, both from the Gospel of Matthew.  In Matthew 25, Jesus told the Parable of the Talents.  I want to extract from these passages in Matthew seven principles of stewardship that always apply, but especially during difficult times.  We find the first principle in Verse 14: “It will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them.”  Everything you own, everything you have, belongs to God.  That little pronoun “his” tells us that God owns everything, and we are His servants.    The way we react to what He has given us depends on our sense of stewardship to Him.  We find this principle repeated throughout Scripture.  Psalm 24 says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein.”  Everything belongs to God.

Consider the principle provided in Verse 15:  “To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability.”  According to the footnote in my Bible, a talent was a little over a thousand dollars, a lot of money in the first century.  God, the Master, entrusts to His servants, each according to his ability.  God does not give everybody the same.  God gives to us according to our ability to handle it.  We need not quibble about who has more than somebody else or feel deprived.  God wants a measure of our spiritual maturity, a measure of our ability to trust Him, to do what He wants us to do. 

The master in this parable is going on a long journey.  He will be away a long time.  Most people believe this economic crisis is going to last for quite a while.  I know that most people in South Carolina did not vote for the new president of the country, but it is incumbent upon all of us to pray for him.  The economic crisis is only one of the big challenges facing him.  He must also face two wars – one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan – as well an enormous fuel crisis, an energy crisis.  I sometimes wonder if maybe he did not wake up the day after the election and think, Why have I put myself in this situation?  I can promise you that Obama needs the prayers of the American people.

The third principle is that the amount of money we have is not important to God. What matters to God is how we use it.  Look at Verse 22 as the man with two talents came to the master and said, “Master, you entrusted me with two talents; see I have gained two more.”  His master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant!  You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.  Come and share your master’s happiness!”  The master made the same comment to the servant who had five talents.  What matters to God is that we are faithful in using what He entrusts to us for His purpose.

The fourth principle is simply this:  faith requires action.  It is a matter of trusting God and obeying what God tells us to do.  Verse 24 tells of the final servant who had received only one talent.  “Master,” he said, “I knew you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.  So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground.  See, here is what belongs to you.”  Did the first and second servant also know that the master was a hard man?  Did they know that the master had high expectations?  Because this third servant really has not used what he was given, the master does not cut him any slack.  He does not mollify him, saying “Maybe you can do better next time.”  Instead, the master calls him “wicked” and “lazy” then adds, “Give what you have it to the one who now has ten talents.”  He criticizes this servant, emphasizing that he should have put the master’s money on deposit with the bankers.  I really question that translation.  I am not sure bankers practiced in the first century, but the master certainly means the servant should have done something wise with the money.  God does not care how much we have.  What matters to Him is that we use it wisely. 

Do you remember the story about Jesus sitting across from the treasury, watching a widow place two copper coins in the collection?  Jesus commended her, not because her offering was more than anyone else’s.  In fact, it was the lowest amount.  He commended her because she was faithful in giving to God what she had.  Faithfulness is the issue. 

Turn with me to Matthew 6:24, the Sermon on the Mount.  Here we find the fifth principle.  Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters.  Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”  You cannot serve God and money.  Accumulating wealth is not our goal.  Filling a piggy bank is not our goal.  Padding a bank account is not our goal.  Money is never an end in itself.  It is always the means to an end. 

Portions of the Bible teach about those who would accumulate money.  Jesus told a parable about a farmer who had been so prosperous that he would build bigger and bigger barns to store all that he had.  Jesus had harsh words for him, “You are a fool. This night your soul will be required of you.”  Some teach that if you give, God will bless you and blessings will overflow.  Jesus even said, “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down and overflowing” (Luke 6:38).  The teaching does not stop there.  It is not like the televangelists teach it.  Jesus does not bless us so that we can have a lot for ourselves.  He wants us to become a channel of blessing.  We give so that we can receive so that we can give more.  We receive more and we can give even more.  Those who are faithful in giving discover that God uses them as a channel of His blessing.  Paul writes in II Corinthians, commending the Philippian church.  He tells them that because of their generosity, thanksgiving has overflowed to many other people.  That is the idea God wants us to understand.

The sixth principle comes from Matthew 6:19-20:  “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  If you would like to know where your heart is, open your checkbook and look at your recorded checks.  Looking at the places where you have spent your money is a wonderful and quick way to take inventory.  Those checks will reveal to you your priorities.  Sometimes the record is very telling.

Two statements are important at this point.  First, I Timothy 5:8 states, “The man who does not provide for his own family, and especially those of his own household, has disowned the faith and is worse than an infidel.”  Being a good provider is important.  You may ask a very good question, “How can a man provide when he does not have a job?”  Let me hasten to say that being a good provider does not mean just providing money.  Think of my grandfather who was flat broke.  He provided an example of the way a man of faith copes with a very difficult situation.  We – I am speaking especially to men – must provide spiritual values far more than anything else.  We must provide an example of the way people of faith respond in times of difficulty.  That is a very important concept about being a good provider.  Second, it is also vital that we remember that God, who gave everything, who owns everything, has asked us to return to Him part of what we have, regardless of how much or how little it is. 

I love the story about the little girl who shared her birthday with George Washington.  One year she planned to celebrate her birthday with some friends at a party.  Before the party began, her mother baked a cherry pie and cut it into eight wedges.  During the celebration, the little girl’s grandfather unexpectedly came to the house.  She knew how much he loved cherry pie, but the pie had already been cut into only eight slices, the exact number needed for the invited guests.  The little girl was perplexed about what to do.  Suddenly, she had an idea.  She pulled a stepstool up to the kitchen counter, reached in the drawer, and took out a biscuit cutter, which she used to cut the very center out of the pie.  I do not know where you start eating a piece of pie, but I always start at the point and work back toward the crust.  That part on the point comes from the center, the very best part of the pie.  She gave her grandfather the very best piece. 

God wants us to give to Him the very best we have.  We sometimes think about our finances with a pie-shaped graft.  We see these wedges about where our money is going.  Think of your income as a pie-shaped graft.  Take the center out of it and give it to God.  Give Him the very best.  Everything else will be a wedge-shaped piece with a scalloped tip.  Everything will be affected by the way you give to God.

The last principle appears in Verse 25 of Matthew 6:  “Therefore, I tell you do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more important than food and the body more important than clothes?”  What did Jesus say to do about financial anxiety?  Did he tell you to read your Bible and pray daily?  No, you might have expected that advice from him, but instead, he said, “Look at the birds and look at the flowers.”  I love flowers.  I love to grow flowers and feed the birds.  One of the joys of that advice is to remember that God provides for the simple things in His world.  He wants to provide for us.  He gives us remarkable instruction in Verse 33:  “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.”  Seeking God first means that we will have a sense of thanksgiving.  We will understand that no matter how difficult circumstances are, God – who provides seven kernels of corn, who provides for a wonderful harvest during the summer – always provides what we need, not necessarily what we want. 

Some years ago when our children were very small and before we returned to Spartanburg, we were living in Winston-Salem.  We had four sons at that time.  I was working as an associate pastor, and we went through an especially hard patch in our lives.  Though Clare and I decided we would not give each other Christmas gifts, I just could not stand the thought of not giving my wife a gift.  I bought her a laundry basket – great guy that I am – and put in it a lot of little simple gifts that we needed for our home.  She could not stand the thought of not giving me a gift either.  On Christmas Day, I thought she had given me a necktie because of the size and shape of the box.  When I opened the gift, I found that Clare had cross-stitched a bookmark with the words of Philippians 4:19:  “My God will supply all of your needs through his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”  Can you imagine what that simple bookmark meant then and means now from my dear wife?  That verse is an assurance from God’s Word that He will provide.

These are difficult times for many people, but we still have so much for which to be thankful.  Thanksgiving really does not depend on our circumstances.  Thanksgiving is not what is on your table.  Thanksgiving is what is in your heart.


Kirk H. Neely

© November 2008

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