Readings: Philippians 4:4-9; Ps 100; John 6:25-35
Prayers of Thanks
Scottish minister Alexander Whyte was known for his uplifting prayers in the pulpit. He always found something for which to be grateful. One Sunday morning the weather was so gloomy that one church member thought to himself, “Certainly the preacher won’t think of anything for which to thank the Lord on a wretched day like this.” Much to his surprise, however, Whyte began by praying, “We thank Thee, O God, that it is not always like this.”
Harvest Thanksgiving is a wonderful occasion in our church year. It reminds us of the importance of giving thanks for all the blessings we’ve received from God. We can stop and give thanks even when the weather is poor or when we’re having a bad day. Whether we are in seasons of hardship and pandemic, or in seasons of plentiful celebrations, it is always appropriate to stop and give thanks to our Great Gift Giver.
It is a particularly important holiday for us in the West because it offers us an opportunity to reject notions of entitlement and materialistic ambitions. It is an occasion to be intentionally thankful for all that we have (rather than focus on what we feel we are missing).
Post-Feeding of the 5000
In our gospel today we find people that have just been materially blessed through Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5000. But rather than allowing their blessings to open their hearts to Jesus as God’s Son and Messiah, they seek Jesus out and pester him about proving himself further.
Jesus tells them that they’ve come to him because they’ve just had their bellies filled – presumably they’re hungry yet again and want instant gratification! They cloak their intentions by asking for a sign from Jesus so that they may believe in him – but Jesus would have none of it. They reference their people’s history in the wilderness and claim that Moses provided manna for them daily. Presumably, they want a similar arrangement – I mean, if Jesus could provide them a free lunch out of loaves and fish once, maybe they can find a way to turn this into a regular thing?
But Jesus corrects their misguided request by revealing the truth that it is God the Father (not Moses) that provided bread in the wilderness and now the Father has provided the Son to be the true bread from heaven, bread that ‘gives life to the world.’
Jesus’ miracles are extraordinary deeds that rectify the situations of needy people—the sick, the hungry, the dying. But the results are not lasting unless the miracles are also perceived as signs pointing to the eternal gift of God in Jesus. The crowds’ preoccupation with the benefits of the temporal has diverted them from seeing what really matters. Do they not mirror many modern people who endlessly pursue satisfactions (or even remedies) that have no ultimate significance, and yet overlook the life given by the Son of Man? (Texts for Preaching)
The Great Gift Giver
It’s so easy for us to get caught up in the gift that we forget about the Gift-Giver. It is tempting to focus on our material needs and neglect the spiritual longings of our hearts. Thanksgiving is an opportunity to be grateful for all that we have – and it keeps in line with a long line of faith traditions that celebrates the harvest as an expression of grateful worship. But it is also a time for us to recall the stories of God’s provision over the years.
How we Remember our Stories Matters
How we remember our stories, and how we tell them, speaks to whether we need to work on cultivating an attitude of gratitude. How will St. George’s look on its blessings-laden past? To be sure there have been great hardships endured, losses suffered, heart-breaking schisms. But were there also moments of manna for the journey? Where God provided enough to get through the desert wanderings?
We face an uncertain future. There are challenging financial realities, questions about sustainability, and the shape of ministry in the months and years ahead. I’m sure everyone here is faced with challenges and questions about your person lives too. Can you use Harvest Thanksgiving as a reminder of the ways God has been faithful to you in the past, so that your heart may be filled with hope for the future? Can you name the blessings, in the midst of the hardships in your lives?
Giving Thanks in the midst of Hardship
In a sermon at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, Gary Wilburn said: “In 1636, amid the darkness of the Thirty Years’ War, a German pastor, Martin Rinkart, is said to have buried five thousand of his parishioners in one year, an average of fifteen a day. His parish was ravaged by war, death, and economic disaster. In the heart of that darkness, with the cries of fear outside his window, he sat down and wrote this table grace for his children:
“‘Now thank we all our God / With heart and hands and voices;/ Who wondrous things had done,/ In whom His world rejoices. /Who, from our mother’s arms,/Hath led us on our way/ With countless gifts of love/ And still is ours today.'” Here was a man who knew thanksgiving comes from love of God, not from outward circumstances. Here is a man who in spite of the sorrow that gripped his heart, and the emotional emptiness he must have felt after burying so many, had the eyes of faith to turn to the Lord with a thankful heart.
May the eyes of our hearts also be open to blessings bestowed upon us by the Great Gift Giver. Thanks be to God.