Thankfulness and Thanksgiving
We had our Harvest Thanksgiving Service last Sunday. Today, let us celebrate a broader and larger time of thanksgiving. It is not just the process of food generation that requires our attention but all that makes up our lives and consciousness, our personal history, our present circumstances and our trust and faith and hope for the future.
The Old Testament reading places everything in context. God created the heavens and stretched them out. Scientists today who believe in God might change that slightly and say God created the heavens and is still stretching them out. They talk about the expanding universe. Isaiah was not a scientist and yet his language was consistent with what scientists today tell us. The reverberations of the Big Bang are still moving through space. Creation is still being stretched. God, says Isaiah, 'spread out the earth and gives breath to its people and life to those who walk on it'.
Conditions to support life exist on earth. We do not know of any other planet where this happens. Our radio telescopes and space cameras can see things millions of light years away but none so far indicates any form of life and consciousness such as ours. Is that not amazing and remarkable and awe-inspiring? If the earth was just a little nearer the sun - our life would not be possible. If the earth was just a little further away from the sun - our life would not be possible. There’s no life on the moon, for example - none at all. Even a planet with slightly higher or lower gravity, different oxygen content in the atmosphere, even a different day/night cycle would make life impossible.
We can find many examples of life on earth that are uniquely suited for the environment in which they lives. Take them out of that environment they die. There is a great diversity in that life, but you cannot take a
tropical fish and expect it to live on a mountain top. Humans cannot survive in space. We can take supplies with us and build shelter, but the lack of gravity and radiation still cause problems in the long term. In order to survive on another world, without any means of artificial support, we would need to find a world just like the earth. As far as we know at this point in time there is no other conscious life like ours. How can that be?
Isaiah having given his testimony to the existence of God goes on to testify to a close relationship with God. 'I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand'. This is extraordinary and unprecedented knowledge. Why would Isaiah say this if he did not think and feel that it was true? Where did this knowledge of God come from? God had spoken to Isaiah, made Himself known to Isaiah and inspired Isaiah to speak and act in His name. This direct, one to one, personal knowledge of God was found within the context of God’s call to the people of the Old Testament - the Jews. This knowledge is not classed as scientific knowledge. It is described as spiritual knowledge. It makes a connection - not with another planet somewhere in our universe or beyond - but with the dimension of divine life in which our physical earth and universe is held and sustained.
The entire Bible witnesses not to other forms of life in the planetary system but to the life we see and know being part of a whole larger form of life closer to and akin to the life of God. Jesus called this eternal life and He invited people and He invites us to become aware of it and enter into it. Thus - if you in your life on earth for however long or short your days may be - accept that invitation and enter into eternal life you are already part of God’s greater creation which is ongoing and eternal in nature. That answer one of the most difficult questions that human life offers. Why do we have to die? The answer is 'We don’t have to die'.
How do we know? Here is the amazing thing. God sent Jesus to prove to us that we do not have to die. He first of all demonstrated the original powers of creation and then He rose from physical death into visible eternal resurrected life and appeared before and in front of his former friends and disciples in and from that higher state of existence.That is what Christianity is all about. And if you have understood that and accepted that and you are a Christian - then is that not the most wonderful cause for thankfulness and thanksgiving? You will leave this life to be sure sooner or later as all humans do - but in Jesus Christ you will certainly not die. Paul said 'We will be transformed' - changed - and what we will be will be far superior than what we are on earth limited as we are by frail and imperfect bodies and only partial knowledge of all creation. God is not cruel and God does not play sad jokes. God is good, God is love, God cares, holds and comforts each one of us who love Him in return. To know and understand that that is why Jesus came to earth is to be a Christian. To be a Christian is a cause for thankfulness and thanksgiving.
But Isaiah says more. We are not just to be passive recipients of this knowledge of God and of eternal life. Our calling is to share this with others - with as many as we can. We have to be a spiritual light to people who do not know that God exists and loves them. We are to open their eyes to the spiritual realities of the Living God 'I was blind but now I see'. We are to set free people in chains to idols and addictions, to false ideas and substitute gods. We are to lead out of spiritual darkness those who indulge in spiritualism and astrology and paganism and atheism.
Paul testifies to this knowledge in an even more personal way. In Philippians he challenges us to rejoice as a way of life. Jesus told his disciples that He would give them His joy and nothing and no-one would be able to take it away from them. At Pentecost, this joy was given to the Church. Great Christians have been joyful people even if they have struggled and suffered for their faith and commitment to Jesus Christ.
Paul says 'Do not be anxious about anything'. Who, you may ask, is he trying to kid? I remember one of my favourite films. I saw it in the Coliseum in Glasgow in 1965. It was called 'The Great Race' and it starred Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk and Natalie Wood. 'The Great Race' was a car race set in 1908 from New York to Paris via Alaska, the Arctic, Russia and eastern Europe. It was a hilarious film which can still make me laugh. Its director was Blake Edwards who was married to Julie Andrews and who made the Pink Panther films with Peter Sellars. Tony Curtis played a kind of Richard Branson type of adventurer and dare devil. He was always fair and chivalrous, good and kind. He wore white suits. He was called 'The Great Leslie'. Jack Lemmon played a mad inventor- a malevolent, dishonest, cheating crook, called 'Professor Fate'. He only wore black. Peter Falk was his daft assistant and Natalie Wood was a female suffragette newspaper reporter.
They entered The Great Race and the Professor Fate sought to win by fair means or foul, including sabotaging his competitors’ vehicles. Natalie Wood’s car soon broke down and she wangled a lift with The Good Leslie, taking advantage of his chivalry. At one point the two vehicles of the Good Leslie and Professor Fate find themselves floating on a ice flow which has broken away overnight from land. The ice flow is melting. It will eventually break up, the cars will sink and they will all be drowned. The Good Leslie whispers to Professor Fate that they don’t have a lot of time. He adds 'Don’t tell anyone'. Professor Fate explodes is a fit of self-interest 'Don’t tell anyone? Well - when the water reaches my lower lip I am sure going to mention it to someone'. They all survive. The ice flow drifts back to land and they get off it with the vehicles and continue The Great Race.
The point is - Paul is not being unreasonable in asking us not to be anxious about anything. All that is happening is within the overarching providence of the Living God. It is possible to face difficult and extreme circumstances without being anxious because you can rejoice with thanksgiving as a Christian person. At least, even as you feel your anxiety - you can know also the calming comforting presence of God in your life.
Paul then says in everything by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. He is not saying that we are not under stress or difficulty but in these we should be full of thanksgiving, faith and hope. He himself knew what he was talking about. He suffered a lot for Jesus Christ. He had a thorn in the flesh - perhaps a continuous form of malaria. Some atheistic psychologists suggest epilepsy since Paul received visions. His visions were deeply spiritual and health giving though - and that is the point that refutes that possible interpretation.
If you do this, says Paul, 'the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus'. Guard your heart from the said anxiety. Guard your mind from despair and mental illness. Jesus went through this for us and he can accompany us through our own trials and difficulties. He is there, taking our hands. Let Him. Thankfulness and thanksgiving. It is a Christian way of life. Let it be yours.
Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.