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Thanks for the past - Deuteronomy 8

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 4th January 2004.

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There is the story of the curate who began his sermon one day with the following statement: ‘Last night my wife found me in the arms of another woman.’ Of course that immediately grabbed the attention of the member’s of the congregation as they leaned forward, sniffing the possibility of scandal. So he continued, ‘Yes, she found me in the arms of my mother.’ Well, it just so happened that the Bishop was in church that morning and he was so impressed with this sermon opener that he decided he would give a try when he was next preaching. Unfortunately, the Bishop was known to be somewhat absent minded. And sure enough when the Bishop began his sermon in the cathedral, he said, ‘Last night my wife found me in the arms of another woman- and for the life of me I can’t remember who it was.’

But you know forgetfulness can have far more serious consequences other than social embarrassment. Because a failure to remember the past with gratitude leads to pride and hard heartedness which is a basic human failing. Writing in his Notes from Underground, Dosteovesky says of man: ‘ If he is not stupid, he is monstrously ungrateful! Phenomenally ungrateful In fact I believe that the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped.’ Martin Luther used to lay great stress on the Latin proverb ,’ Nothing ages more quickly than gratitude.’ And sadly that is often so isn’t it? Even for Christians. And maybe that is why most societies have institutionalised little acts of remembrance so that we can offset this tendency we all have towards ingratitude. That is why we celebrate birthdays- expressing our thanks for the gift of life, recognising it is a gift not a right. Why we have wedding anniversaries which are becoming more and more precious as easy divorce leaves broken families in their wake. And why of course there is Remembrance Sunday- so that future generations should not forget that the many freedoms they enjoy have been purchased at great cost. But now we see all around us just what happens when a society fails to count its blessings- for what were once considered privileges are soon thought of as rights. Gratitude gives way to greed. And this becomes all the more acute when a nation forgets God. In our love affair with science and technology we become accustomed to the routine and expected-that is why we are so put out and outraged if there is a power failure- we are supposed to be in control and this should not happen. The Bible teaches man shall not live by bread alone. But we believe he can and happily live well on bread alone-or technology alone or sex alone or entertainment alone. At one time it was the atheist philosopher who cried out ‘There is no God.’ Now it is the marketing consultant who tells us there is ‘no need of God.’ And so all thoughts of God and references to him are pushed out of the public domain.

But this is nothing new. Abraham Lincoln warned his fellow countrymen in 1863, ‘ We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God.’ What would he say now? Solzhenitsyn declared this to be the root problem of the modern world which gave rise to the gulags and death camps, he said, ‘ If we are called upon to identify the principle of the entire 20th century -men have forgotten God.’ And even Bart Simpson expressed the attitude of most people when he was asked to say grace at supper, ‘ Dear God, we pay for all this ourselves. So thanks for nothing.’

Now given this natural propensity we all have for forgetting the past, and the one who has shaped that past-God- it comes as no surprise that the theme of remembering with its twin truth of giving thanks, has tremendous emphasis in the Bible. The man or woman of faith is the one who remembers and that in turn makes them into a man or woman of praise. Unbelief in people , on the other hand, has a short and ungrateful memory and praise will not come readily to their lips. And there is one chapter in the Bible in which this double theme of remembering and thanking shine through and that is Dt 8. And here we are given some very practical advice to ensure that, in the words of the poet W. H. Auden, ‘ All our thinks should be thanks.’

First of all there is the need to recall God’s word and God’s provision- vv 1-6. Just look at v 1Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land that the LORD promised on oath to your forefathers.’ And then v 3 : ‘ He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.’ Why is priority to be given to listening to God’s Word-that which comes from the mouth of the LORD? Well, imagine what life would be like without it, as in fact it is for most people in practice. If there is no external word from God then all you have to go on is what you can see, hear and touch. You have to produce your own interpretation of life. The focus is then invariably on you and the here and now. You become the centre of your own little world. You come from nowhere and you are going nowhere, so all meaning and value is crammed into the three score years and ten. That is bound to make you rather self-centred isn’t it?. It will also make you somewhat short sighted- it will be what you can get out of life and those nearest to you and who cares about future generations for you wont be around to answer to them. In other words, our view of reality is very ,very limited. But when God speaks, you find out that there is someone greater than yourself. That you are not an accident but have a purpose, that you are part of a much bigger story. This word of God tells you that you are accountable to him, that he is your ruler and has been at work in your life from the moment you were conceived, in fact even before that, for the person you are is dependent upon a million and one others factors that have been operating long before you were even thought of, right down to the ancestors you have. In other words reality is much, much bigger than our little experience of it. And God’s Word reminds us of that fact. And this will tend to make a person humble. As Paul asks the proud Corinthians, ‘What do you possess that was not given to you?’. The answer- nothing. You did not choose to be born of the parents you have, or have the good education you have had and relatively decent lifestyle compared to most of the world, so why do you act as if you have earned it-you have not. There is no such thing as a self-made man. God has provided for you and that is what his Word teaches.

But we also need this Word not only to ensure that our view of reality is fully rounded but also to ensure that it is not distorted- v 2 Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.’ and v 5 ‘Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD your God disciplines you’ Some people have too good a memory in that all they can ever think about are the bad things that have happened to them and do nothing but moan. They are for ever the victims. For them the glass is always half empty and never half full. They live as if nothing good has ever happened to them and they become fixated solely on the negative. And maybe that is your tendency. Some of us are the Puddleglums and Eyores of this world. But a proper understanding of God’s Word corrects that, because the follower of the true God recognises that there is nothing wilful or capricious about him- even the hard times have a loving purpose - to test and strengthen faith, to show who or what we are really trusting in. Sometimes God uses hardship to drive us to him as in his kindness he kicks away the props we have been depending upon for so long in order to discover the one solid foundation in life-God. But there is a risk involved in this in that the danger is that when the going is tough we question God’s goodness or whether there is a God at all. But if we take God at his Word, which tells us that he does have our best interests at heart, then we can say that even the tough times are designed to make us into more godly people, causing us to be dependent upon the Giver rather than the gifts. That is why the manner given to the Israelites in the desert lasted for only a day. The Israelites couldn’t store it, without it turning into maggots. No, they were literally dependent upon God for their daily bread and that kind of dependency makes for a close relationship doesn’t it? It also ensures that we give God the glory for we are forced to recognise he is the great provider. As a church we have had to face this with Project Newland. Just supposing that all the money and property turned up just like that? What would have been our response? Initially no doubt, it would have been ‘isn’t that amazing?’ But pretty soon we would have taken things for granted. We would have become more than a little conceited too I would imagine- ‘ Look at what we have done.’ But this way we have had to pray more, examine our hearts in terms of our commitment in giving, and when it has come together, as it now is doing with the purchase of the buildings on Beverley Road, we are left in no doubt as to who has been sovereignly at work at every twist and turn and he is the one who will receive all the praise and glory. But I only know that this is the right way to interpret these things because of the Bible.

But it is when God’s people leave the Bible behind that they leave reality behind and that leads to the problem of plenty and pride vv 7- 17. Look at v 12: ‘..when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’ And v 17 ‘ You may say to yourself, "My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me." What do you fear most? Wealth or Want? I guess for most of us the answer would be want. But by far the greatest danger, as far as Scripture is concerned, is wealth. It was a wrong view towards wealth that caused the risen Lord Jesus to curse the church of Laodicea. It was against wealth that the apostle Paul warned in 1 Timothy 6: 17, ‘ Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is uncertain, but to put their hope in God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.’ That was the problem with Israel. No sooner did she enter the promised land, that she became so besotted with the gifts that she promptly forgot the giver and went off running after idols-which is exactly what Dt 8 warns against. And that is the danger which faces every church in every generation. Whilst we are called to exercise good stewardship we are to avoid hoarding because we then become proud thinking we have deserved all this wealth and we become too self-sufficient. A friend of mine who is Vicar of a large church in Cambridge has said that on looking back it was interesting to note that when the church had stacks of money in the bank that is when outreach and growth was at a minimum. But when they lived close to the line, that is when they saw maximum blessing. Why? Well, because first of all they were using the money for the God-given purposes to promote mission -as money came in it went out- and secondly people knew they had to commit themselves in prayer and giving if they were to move forward. And as they did so, they became more grateful people. But it can also be a problem at the individual level too. Think of what can so easily happen when someone becomes a Christian at school or university. The Gospel is just so wonderful, that new found relationship with Christ is so intoxicating you just want the whole world to hear and so you get involved in evangelism, Bible study and prayer meetings and you really do want to capture the world for Christ. And unless one is careful that soon begins to fade as the career becomes all consuming, the mortgage all demanding, the desire for respectability too alluring. Almost imperceptibly the first love is lost and you are caught up in a middle class rut with Christianity being reduced to little more than a hobby. And that is tragic. Jesus warned against it: he called it ‘the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desire for other things which choke the word, making it unfruitful.’ That is nothing more than a summary of the warnings to Israel in Dt 8. Nothing ever changes.

So what is the antidote? It is this : Remember with gratitude and declare with praise. And this vital exercise appears throughout the passage like a refrain: v2, ‘Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert for forty years’, v v 10 ‘When you have eaten and are satisfied praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.’, v 11 ‘be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God’, v18 ‘But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you that ability to produce wealth and so confirms his covenant.’

Have you ever wondered why the most effective Christians have often been the most joyous Christians? And by that I don’t mean they walk around with a ‘sweg’ on their faces- you know what a ‘sweg’ is don’t you? a sick, wet evangelical grin. It is because they were people overflowing with gratitude. Augustine saw that Paul’s words to the Corinthians touched everything, all was of grace and so he wrote: ‘ Let me not tire of thanking you for your mercy in rescuing me from all my wicked ways.’ The same grace was a marvel to John Newton , one time slave trader and blasphemer who had a deep sense of the ‘what might have been’ had the Lord Jesus not saved him, and so he went on to pour out his praise in the hymn Amazing Grace.

1And this gratitude which shows itself in praise is meant to be our constant response to God. Again v 18, ‘ Remember the Lord your God for it is he that gives you the ability to produce wealth.’ It is he who gives us the ability to do anything. Isn’t it a wonderful thing that you can read, think, dig the garden, paint a picture, decorate a house, play the music, preach a sermon, care for children, the list is endless. Where do you think these abilities came from? The idol Chance? Of course not- God. And those people whose minds are focused on recalling these truths show it constantly. Dvorak began writing his new music with the words "with God" and ended "God be thanked." Similarly Bach wrote in the margins of his music SDG (Soli Deo Gloria- to God alone be the glory). G. K. Chesterton stated as the ‘chief idea of my life taking things with gratitude and not taking things for granted.’ That is a very helpful aspiration isn’t it? ‘taking things with gratitude and not taking things for granted.’ This transforms what other wise would be chores into acts of praise. So for the Christian the good past is joyfully remembered and the bad past freely forgiven for that is what God has done for us in his Son.

But these habits of gratitude and holy remembering have to be cultivated. Here are a few questions to help us do just that. Do you take stock at the end of a day, a week, a month or a year? Do you keep some record of God’s goodness, at least a mental note of gracious answers to prayer, signs of God’s providential ordering so you can look back and say ‘God did that’? What about consciously committing whatever work you are to do to him for his glory? Do you fully enter into those services for remembering - The Lord’s Supper, Harvest? Do you pause from time to time to thank God for the hundred and one tiny joys that make up each day? You see, that taking time out for thanks, pausing for praise will mark out the Christian from anyone else and will at the same time renew and refresh his spirit and vision of God. It will also be one of the best antidotes for doubt as Stephen Charnock the Puritan preacher once said ‘ If we did remember his former goodness we should not be so ready to doubt his future care.’ So let all your thinks be thanks.

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