"House of Good Things, Valleys that Sing"
Thanksgiving Oct.12, 2008 Psalm 65
Still Something for which to Give Thanks
It may seem strange to be attempting to celebrate Thanksgiving at this time this year. For those with investments, it would have been easier a month ago, before the economic crisis hit! But even in times that are lean, there are still things for which to be thankful.
A man who was experiencing financial hardship got angry with a friend who told him he had much to be thankful for. "Don't be absurd," he said. "What have I to thankful for? I am thousands of dollars in debt and I can't pay my bills." His friend said, "Then be thankful that you aren't one of your creditors!"
As we study God's word today, focussing on Psalm 65, we're reminded that there is indeed much to thank the Lord for. That may include material prosperity, as when crops flourish and the barns are full. But even if that's not the case, we can bless God for giving us security in times of loss; for providing a remedy to our inner moral mess; and for freeing our hearts to treasure Him in all His awesomeness, and to respond with joy and meaningful service.
Earth Responds Abundantly to God's Watering
I'd like to approach this Psalm beginning at the end, then working back to the first. The last 5 verses offer thanks for the physical produce of the ground - the consumables we see spilling out of cornucopias this time of year. It really emphasizes God's concern for and blessing of the environment. V9, "You care for the land and water it; You enrich it abundantly." God attends to or looks after the land. What more direct statement to support environmental concern could you ask for?! There is a real connection between God's moisturizing of the arid earth and the production of crops and livestock. Last half of v9 - God has ordained the streams to provide people with grain. 10, God drenches or 'saturates' the furrows, softening the ridges with showers, blessing its crops. It was very noticeable on the farm how the sharp steep furrows in the fall would have settled and mellowed much by the time the snow melted and spring showers came. V11 talks about 'bounty' and God causing carts to overflow with abundance - literally 'fatness'. Remember, the Jews in Palestine did not generally live in luxury, so well-marbled meat wasn't common - hence saving the 'fatted calf' for very special occasions. The word picture then is "dropping fatness" (KJV), oozing with yumminess. VV12&13 describe the countryside being clothed in prosperity; "The grasslands of the desert overflow; the hills are clothed [NLT blossom] with gladness.The meadows are covered [lit.clothed] with flocks and the valleys are mantled [deck themselves, NRSV] with grain; they shout for joy and sing." The imagery is that of even meadows and valleys personified as wearing rich crops, joining in an anthem of joy and song to the Creator who has so blessed the country and made it productive.
This picture of moist fertility is particularly appropriate this year. We've been blessed with unusually abundant rainfall - we didn't have to use the sprinkler to water the flowerbeds a single time, not even once! Often the lawns start to turn brown in mid-summer, but this year we just kept cutting and cutting! Rainfall normals for Exeter are about 514 mm from April-September. This year Goderich had 609 mm in the same period - over 18% more than normal! (see chart; unfortunately missing data made a direct comparison for the same location impossible) Some areas of Ontario experienced three times more rain this year than last. The Greater Toronto Area broke the record for rain received in June & July - 273 mm. The horticulture director at Toronto's botanical gardens noted, "Nearly everything is taller, lusher and looks healthier than usual."
The rain has certainly helped the farmer's crops (even though it made it tricky to get the hay off!). My brother is a cash crop farmer and enjoyed record yields of both white beans and winter wheat.
So, as those who have to eat in order to survive, we can thank God for such a wonderful year weather-wise and crop-wise. The arid soil responds abundantly to God's watering. Let's not be like the folks of whom the prophet Jeremiah said, "They do not say to themselves, 'Let us fear the LORD our God, who gives autumn and spring rains in season, who assures us of the regular weeks of harvest.'" (Jer 5:24)
God's Power Responds to the Chaos of our Circumstances
The earth responds to God's watering; but life is much more than eating and drinking. Thanksgiving may be a harvest festival, but we need to recognize how much else there is to be thankful for. Even when times are rough, our financial state goes up and down, we can thank the Lord for security that goes beyond digits in a bank book. Vv6-7 speak of God who "formed the mountains by your power, having armed yourself with strength, who stilled the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, and the turmoil of the nations." Here the picture is of God having robed Himself with power, establishing or fastening the mountains in place, hushing the roar of the primeval waters of chaos, laying low nations that are in an uproar against His people. In the New Testament we actually get this imagery acted out by Jesus; when He was in the boat with the disciples, a furious storm arose, causing the waves to sweep over the side of the boat. But when the disciples cried out, Matthew says, "He got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm." (Mt 8:26)
It has certainly been a stormy ride for investors in the past month or two. People who have either mutual funds in an RRSP or who bought stocks directly have watched anxiously as their portfolios melted away. North American market indices have lost 20-25% of their value in just 6 weeks. And it's not just North America - the nations truly are in tumult. Stock exchanges from Asia to Russia to Europe to North America plunged consecutively like so many horses on a carousel breaking the poles one after the other. Banks went into receivership. Britain stepped in to nationalize its banks. The tiny country of Iceland found its government having to take over the largest bank in order to stave off economic collapse. On Tuesday, central banks around the world in startling unison lowered lending rates in an attempt to keep money circulating. Scary times!
Some of the crash may be due to unscrupulous institutions and CEOs reaping the greed they sowed earlier on. A news item from Monday stated, "the former CEO of the bankrupt Lehman Brothers, Richard Fuld, became the poster boy for Wall Street greed today as he defended the $484 million he received in salary, bonuses and stock options since 2000. 'Is that fair?' asked committee chairman ...[Waxman] who pointed out Fuld owns a mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut, an ocean front estate on Jupiter Island, Florida, a ski chalet in Idaho and a Manhattan apartment...even as Mr. Fuld was pleading with Secretary Paulson for a federal rescue, Lehman continued to squander millions on executive compensation..."
The prophet Habakkuk foresaw another world cataclysm: the Babylonians would come sweeping through and conquering entire nations. He asked God about the justice of all this. The Lord answered telling of one who would be 'puffed up', 'greedy as the grave'; "Woe to him who piles up stolen goods and makes himself wealthy by extortion! How long must this go on?...Woe to him who builds his realm by unjust gain to set his nest on high, to escape the clutches of ruin!...Has not the LORD Almighty determined that the people's labor is only fuel for the fire, that the nations exhaust themselves for nothing?" (Hab 2:6,9,13) Or as the New Living Translation puts it, "Has not the Lord of Heaven's Armies promised that the wealth of nations will turn to ashes?"
Yet despite his insight into the upcoming devastation the Babylonians would bring, Habakkuk trusts God to bring him through even when all material wealth is swept away. If you've suffered financial setbacks in recent days, take heart from his prayer: "Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour. The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights." (Hab 3:17-19) God is Lord of the mountains and valleys, the pounding of the waves, their crest and their trough. His almighty power responds to the chaos of our circumstances, providing security and stability when everything seems to be in turmoil.
Guilt-laden Consciences Respond to God's Grace & Forgiveness
We can thank God when crops abound; we can still be thankful when the seas roar and we're down in a trough. But there's more to life than our physical resources and financial means. Fuld reportedly said he took 'full responsibility' for the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and 'felt horrible' about it. He said, "This is a pain that will stay with me the rest of my life." Sin leads to guilt when we're confronted with the outcomes of our evil ways. But you don't need to be CEO of a bankrupt corporation to experience it. Stretching the truth; telling a lie; betraying a friend; feeding a rumour; reneging on a promise - there are many ways to fall short. God's Holy Spirit convicts people of sin and judgment. Is there a remedy for that burden of conscience?
Back to Psalm 65, vv3-4: "When we were overwhelmed by sins, you forgave our transgressions. Blessed are those you choose and bring near to live in your courts!" When sins prevailed upon us - when they were greater than we could stand - You forgave our rebellion. What joy for those God chooses to bring near, to make acceptable in His holy courts!
Did David foresee a sacrifice - perhaps a figure on a cross - as the solution to his sin-problem? Back then in the tabernacle ceremony, an animal was killed in a substitutionary way to bring atonement for one's fault. The blood of the victim played a special role (Lev 4:25f). The apostles came to understand from the Lord's Supper that it was Jesus' 'blood of the covenant...poured out for many' that made possible 'forgiveness of sins' (Mt 26:28). That's the meaning or significance Jesus Himself attaches to His death for us. When we confess our sins, repent, and turn to Him, He justifies us and purifies us so we can be deeply and truly clean. "When we were overwhelmed by sins, You forgave our transgressions." Thank God that our guilty consciences can respond to His wonderful grace!
Our Hearts Respond with Hope, Joy, & Obedience
We've seen God deserves our thanks for food and other physical provision - the fruit of the earth having been watered. We've seen He deserves our thanks for stabilizing us through the waves, the ups and downs, of our circumstances - financially, or when our health acts up, or perhaps relationships disappoint us. And He deserves our thanks for releasing us from our load of guilt that's accumulated from our wrongdoing - what a cost the Lord paid so we might be free and forgiven!
Psalm 65 adds that our hearts can respond to our Saviour with hope, joy, and obedience. V5, "You answer us with awesome deeds of righteousness, O God our Saviour, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas..." (Ps 65:5) Knowing God answers our prayers sparks hope. Without Jesus, things must be so bleak. Occasionally in the hospital when I'm visiting as chaplain, Christians will tell me they don't know how people who don't believe can stand it. A doctor said to me recently, "There are no atheists in foxholes or ICUs." Jesus maintained, "All things are possible with God" (Mk 10:27): where the Lord is, there is hope.
Our hearts respond to our Saviour with appreciation and joy. The Psalm begins, "Praise awaits you, O God, in Zion..." V8 says God's wonders call forth "songs of joy" even amongst those living far away. When we experience and truly appreciate all that the Lord has done for us, He becomes more precious to us, stirring our praise as an expression of how we treasure Him.
Our hearts also respond with action. Second half of v1, "To You our vows will be fulfilled." What is God calling and nudging you to DO by way of working out your salvation? How can you communicate and take to others the "good things of [His] house" which have been such a blessing to you? If our hope is in Him - if we esteem Him most highly, value Him the greatest in our life over any other idol that might try and compete - we'll realize He deserves our obedience along with our thanks.
More Thankful with Less
While a consumer society chases after more 'stuff', sometimes that robs people of happiness. We may have a lesson to learn from people on the planet that have come to be thankful for much less - things that can't be held in your hand. In this month's Focus on the Family magazine, Patrick Dunn tells of a couple he calls "Shawn and Cheryl" who felt more blessed when they got rid of things. He writes, "During the tech boom of the mid-'90s, Shawn and Cheryl lived in the heart of Silicon Valley...The couple married and agreed on one main goal. "We wanted to make money and drive good cars," Cheryl said. They bought a home in the good part of town with...a $5000 refrigerator and $1000 dishwasher...Buying was easy: If they wanted clothes, they bought them. If they wanted a vacation, they took one. "We'd go out to dinner every night..." Cheryl said. "We'd go to $60-a-night restaurants just because it tasted good. And at one point, we had three cars because we felt like having a new one." Though the two were Christians, church and faith took a back seat. "The things that were important to us were making money and having fun," Shawn said. "It was all about the here and now; it was very selfish."
Yet, Dunn observes, the trappings of success couldn't hide their growing unrest. "Something was wrong; there wasn't any peace," Cheryl said. The more they invested in the pursuit of pleasure, the less they invested in their marriage. Relational intimacy faded. During that period, the couple found a church and joined a small group. ...On a whim, [they] joined a missions trip to Mexico. For several days, the group visited neighbourhoods filled with mud streets, dirt floors and piles of rubble. "It was kind of embarrassing," Cheryl said. "Here we were, unhappy in a big home, when their homes were made of pallets and old garage doors."
One evening, Shawn and Cheryl watched streams of people attend a makeshift church service. Despite the poverty, the pastor asked people to give to the church. "I saw kids coming with one peso - virtually nothing. But they came because they believed in Jesus," Shawn said. "You could see the joy they had even with so little."
[Back in the United States] they sold their large house and moved into a 1000-square-foot home, then they slowly started selling the things that had led them into debt. Over the next year, the couple began volunteering more at church, became small-group leaders, and began planning for future missions trips.
"It felt so good to get the focus off of us," Cheryl said...[She] quit her job and began work at a non-profit...God changed their marriage, too. The couple put more emphasis on spending time together, improving communication and changing their attitude toward money. ...Plus, [they've] found joy in giving to others - letting go of what they used to hold on to. In short, they're free. Shawn said, "God changed our hearts...We're more content. We have everything we need and more." Let's pray.