What Children Can Teach Us At Thanksgiving
November 24, 1991
Once again the holiday season has rolled around and people are saying, “Where did the year go?” Already the stores are filled with Christmas decorations, children are wondering what they will find under the tree, and Mom and Dad are wondering how they will pay for it. These days Thanksgiving is basically a pre-season holiday, something you do to get in shape for Christmas. We eat, we sleep, we watch football, and we don’t stop until January.
That’s a shame because the art of giving thanks is one thing that separates man from the animals. To receive a gift and say, “Thank you,” is one of the noblest things a man can do. There is nothing small or trivial about it. To say “Thank you” is to acknowledge that we have been given something we did not earn and do not deserve. Happy is the man who understands that all of life is a gift of God and that life itself is the ultimate gift. Which is why the Bible says, “In everything give thanks.” (I Thessalonians 5:18) When we can’t do anything else, we can always be grateful. As someone has said, “If you can’t be thankful for what you have received, be thankful for what you have escaped.”
With that in mind, I’d like to bring a special Thanksgiving message from Psalm 131. As you know, David was a poet and a musician—”The Sweet Singer of Israel.” If you read through the Psalms sometime, you’ll notice that nearly half of them were written by David.
Psalm 131 is one of the Pilgrim Psalms. The heading calls it “A Song of Ascents.” That means it was part of a group of Psalms which were sung as the Hebrew pilgrims made their way up the mountains toward the city of Jerusalem for one of the annual festivals. Fifteen of these Psalms are grouped together—numbers 120-134. All except one are fairly short, exactly the kind of songs you would expect a group of travelers to sing as they marched along. The Pilgrim Psalms are like the choruses we sing every week. Their purpose is the same—to prepare the heart for worship.
It’s possible that you’ve never noticed Psalm 131 before. It only has three verses, so you might tend to overlook it as being not very important. But that would be a mistake because this little hymn by David is really a little jewel. Charles Spurgeon said that this Psalm is “one of the shortest to read, but one of the longest to learn.”
There are three verses in Psalm 131 and each one reveals an important quality for us to consider as we approach the Thanksgiving season.
I. Humility 1
The Psalm begins with these words, “My heart is not proud, O Lord, my eyes are not haughty.” Not many of us would begin a prayer this way. It sounds odd to our ears, as if per-haps David was bragging about his humility.
It’s always tricky to talk about humility. How do you know when you’re truly humble? Come to think of it, if you are truly humble, will you even know it? It has been well said that humility is the virtue which, when you think you have it, you’ve lost it.
It’s helpful to know that the word for “proud” is actually the Hebrew word for “high.” In the Old Testament, it was used for high trees and high mountains. It was used to describe King Saul who stood higher than anyone else in Israel. It was also used of God who was said to be “on high” and whose thoughts are higher than the thoughts of man. We use the word in the same way when we say, “Get off your high horse, buster.”
No Merit Badges for Humility
Let’s be very honest with ourselves on this point. We live in a culture that puts a very low value on humility. They don’t give out merit badges for humility. From the moment we enter the world we are urged to get ahead, to climb the ladder, to look out for number one, to win through intimi-dation, and to prove our success by the car we drive, by the home we buy, by the clothes we wear, and by the friends we keep. And Chicago has got to be one of the most status-conscious places in America. I’m sure you’ve seen those T-Shirts that say, “The One Who Dies With the Most Toys Wins.” (When I see that, I always want to say, “So what? Dead people don’t play with toys.”)
While it may be true that the meek shall inherit the earth, it doesn’t seem to be happening around here.
We all feel the pinch. Not long ago a friend told me that he hates Christmas because giving gifts has become a game where your love is measured by how much you spend. It’s a sad commentary on the way we live.
The Curse of Having Too Many Options
David went on to describe humility in terms of how he looked at his own limitations. “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.” The Living Bible simply says, “I don’t pretend to be a ‘know it all’.” David is saying, “There are many things in the universe that are far beyond my meager ability to understand. I don’t worry about those things and I don’t try to figure them out.”
Humility in this context simply means that you don’t run the world, you don’t have all the ans-wers, you know your limits. That last one is a hard one for some people—the idea that you have limits. It’s sort of a trendy, New Age-type idea to talk about unlimited potential and the untapped resources within. The truth is, our potential is very limited and the only untapped resources are the ones we discover when we come to the end and admit that we are limited but God is not.
When I pastored in Texas we invited Dr. John Hannah, a professor of historical theology at Dallas Seminary, to come to our church and give a series of messages on various contemporary issues. After one message a young man came up and asked his advice on what he should do with his life. The young man explained that he felt he had so many possibilities open to him that he couldn’t decide which way to go. I’ll never forget Dr. Hannah’s answer. He said, “That’s the curse of having too many options. The man who thinks there are 15 things he could do with his life will probably do none of them very well. But the man who has only one option throws himself into it because that’s the only choice he has.” Dr. Hannah went on to say that for most of his life his options have been limited and that’s why he is a happy man. I think David would agree entirely. Happy is the man who knows his limits and within those limits does the very best he can.
II. Simplicity 2
Verse 2 brings before us a second quality that is very useful as we approach Thanksgiving. It is the quality of simplicity. “But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.” The picture is one only a mother can fully understand. A child is born and for a long time he looks to his mother’s breast as the source of his nourishment. Breakfast, lunch and supper all come from the same place. When he is hungry, he cries and Mom knows exactly what to do. Her milk satisfies him and back to sleep he goes.
But the day comes when he has to learn how to take a bottle. That’s not a happy day. He cries, big tears roll down his face, his arms reach out but his mother pushes them away. He fights, he pouts, he screams, all to no avail. What has happened to Mom? She who used to be his friend has now become his enemy. And if Mom has a heart at all, she cries too because from now on things will be different. She will feed him but never again in the same way.
When the bottle is over, when the tears have stopped, when he learns to eat with his brothers and sisters, then the child comes, lays his head on his mother’s breast, not in order to be fed, but just because he loves her. He comes because he wants to be near her.
Here is the truth: Unless a mother weans her child, he will never grow up. He’ll be a baby all the days of his life. Though it may seem hard, and though the child misunderstands, if a mother truly loves her child, she will not stop until the job is fully done. When the job is finally done, the child no longer begs for that which it once found indispensable. Once he could not live without his mother’s milk; now he no longer needs it.
Needed: Childlike Trust in God
To be weaned is to have something removed from your life which you thought you couldn’t live without. David is saying, “I’ve come to the place where the things I thought I had to have, I don’t need anymore. Now my soul is quiet and content.”
Most of us live on the opposite principle. We figure our contentment on the basis of how many of our needs are met. Unfortunately, it’s hard to reach a place where all our needs are constantly met. By that standard, it’s hard to ever really be content. If contentment is measured by how much of the world’s goods you possess, who can ever say, “I have enough.” You’ve all heard the story of the billionaire who was asked when he was going to stop working. “When I make enough money,” was his reply. “How much money is enough?” The answer came back, “Just one more dollar.”
That’s the way most of us figure contentment. In our hearts we think, “I would be happy if only I had a new car or a new job or a new dress or a new husband or a new wife.” Since life is hardly ever that simple, we stay frustrated when we ought to be happy.
No wonder Thanksgiving just whizzes on by. No wonder Christmas is a nightmare. No wonder we are never satisfied. Instead of being weaned from the world, we are wedded to it. Or maybe I should say, welded to it. In any case, our soul is anything but quiet, our countenance anything but peaceful.
“Did He Use Her First Name And Her Last Name?”
It was Jesus who said, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) What was he talking about? Was it not a faith that is childlike in its simplicity?
Most of you know that in just a few months April Jahns will be going to serve as a missionary in the country of Niger. Her little nieces have had a hard time understanding why Aunt April would be going so far away. While April was in candidate school in North Carolina several weeks ago, Amy (who is only 4 years old) was talking things over with April’s mom, Sharon. Amy said, “Grandma, I don’t want April to go to Africa.” Sharon replied, “But April has to go. God called her and said, ‘April, I want you to go to Africa.’”
Amy thought about that for a moment. Then she said, “How do we know he was talking about our April? He might have meant some other April.” Then, summoning up all her reasoning powers, she asked a crucial question: “Did he use her first name and her last name?” Did he just say, “April” or did he specify, “April Jahns?” After all, there are a lot of Aprils in the world and he could have meant someone else. Sharon decided that this was such an important question that she and Amy got on the phone and called April down in North Carolina. April told Amy that God had indeed used her first name and her last name. Thus reassured, four-year-old Amy gave her blessing for Aunt April to go to the mission field.
That, I think, is what Jesus was talking about when he said, “Unless you become like a little child.” It is faith which is childlike in its simplicity. There is something our children can teach us at Thanksgiving. They can teach us what it means to have a simple and uncomplicated trust in God.
How God Weans Us From The World
How does God go about weaning us from our dependence on the things of the world? I ran across a three-part answer from a Bible commentator writing over a century ago. First, he makes the things of the world bitter to us. Second, he removes one by one the things on which we depend. Third, he gives us something better. In the end, we find that we no longer need the things we used to think we couldn’t do without. And our walk with God is stronger than ever before.
At the end of a bloody battle during the Civil War, someone found the following prayer folded in the pocket of dead Confederate soldier:
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve;
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity, then I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy;
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing I asked for, but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among men, most richly blessed.
It is a great advance in spiritual understanding to be able to say, “I got nothing I asked for, but everything I had hoped for.” That’s what simplicity is all about.
III. Integrity 3
There is a third principle to be added to humility and simplicity. It is the principle of integrity. Verse 3 says, “O Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore.” The word “hope” in Hebrew means first to wait, then to wait expectantly. The concept is very close to our English word “confidence.” An expanded definition would be “to wait on something because you know the thing you are waiting for will happen because the person you are waiting on is trustworthy.”
David says, “You have a choice to make. Either you choose to live like everyone else or you choose to wait on the Lord.” Once a child is weaned, the apron strings have been cut. The child comes to rest on his mother’s lap not because he wants something but because he wants to be near his mother. In the same way, God weans us from our dependence on the things of this world so that we will not be bribed into trusting him. What credit is it if you trust God because you have a mate, a house, a job, a happy home, a secure future, and good health? What will you do when you lose your mate, your job, your home, your family, your security, your reputation, your con-nections, and your health? When life tumbles in, what then?
That’s what integrity is all about. It’s choosing to put your confidence in God alone. It’s believing that he has answers to questions you can barely understand. It’s coming to the place where you don’t measure your spirituality by your prosperity. It’s finding rest in your soul because you discover that the things you used to crave aren’t so important anymore.
A Letter to Jesus
Several years ago I ran across a copy of a letter written by a woman named Lois Kaufman after the death of her husband and her two subsequent tumor operations. The letter was written to Jesus. (The letter was published in the Biblical Bulletin, a publication of the Biblication Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pennsylvania.)
I’ve written a lot of “Thank Yous” lately, but this is my first one to you. Until now I didn’t appreciate your gifts to me these past several months.
Thank you for taking Don home to be with you. Now I’ll never be concerned with what the future holds for him. His days are guaranteed. Thank you for giving him such a wonderful Christmas. Thank you for making his birthday last Sunday his best ever.
Thank you for putting me in the hospital three weeks after he died and showing me the way you could use his death in my life. I wasn’t always sure how to approach others with the Gospel. But now you have given me so many openings, I can hardly handle them all.
Thank you for my most recent surgery and for the lessons it taught me. Especially for showing me how much I needed you. Thanks for letting me see what it is like to face surgery and suffering without you as I watched the difference in the lives of my roommates.
Thank you for the lessons Becky and Lori (her daughters) have learned from this. I could never have taught them the way you did. That’s because of the great Teacher you are. I can’t wait to see what you give them on their heavenly report cards.
You know, Jesus, I wouldn’t have planned my life this way. In fact, I would have planned it just the opposite. I would have sought to avoid death’s knock. I would have ducked out on the surgeries and tried to pretend that Christians were kept well by you all the time. But I would have missed out on so much.
The kids are sorry they couldn’t be with their daddy on Father’s Day, but we were glad he could be with both his earthly and Heavenly Father this year.
Oh, I could go on with this letter, but I could never cover everything I have to thank you for. So I’ll send more, but for now please accept this as a beginning.
When you read something like that, you can only conclude one of two things: Either that woman has lost her mind or she has chosen to put her confidence in God alone. That’s the very choice we all face.
A New Way to Count Your Blessings
There’s a lot to ponder in these three verses. Now you know why Spurgeon said this Psalm is one of the shortest to read, but one of the longest to learn.
Humility, Simplicity, Integrity. We need those three qualities every day of the year, and especially as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday.
It’s traditional in Thanksgiving sermons to ask people to make a list of their blessings. I’m going to ask you to make a list this week but not the traditional one. When we make a list of our blessings, we normally begin and end with our material blessings. That’s good and proper but it doesn’t exhaust the subject.
In the spirit of Psalm 131, I’m going to ask you to sit down sometime between now and Thursday and make a list—a very personal, private list—of the things from which you have been weaned in the past year. That is, make a list of the things which through suffering and hardship God has taken away from you in the last twelve months. And now your faith is stronger and deeper. And now your walk with God means more than it ever did before.
I want you to list those things you used to think you couldn’t live without but now you know you can. It could be a dream you had for your life that consumed all your energy but God has taken it from you and you have found, “Yes, I can live without that.” It may be a relationship, an idea, something you owned, a personal possession, a promotion or a new job you just had to have, or a new account you set all your hopes on. It may be a person around whom you built your life, and now that person is gone from your life. It was difficult to let go, but you did, and now you are stronger for it. It may be something you fought for, strived for, lived for, worked for, and when you got it, you found it wasn’t as important as you once thought.
On your list may be things which are quite good and proper in themselves. Most of the things on your list will not be bad or evil or sinful. It’s anything that has happened in your life in the last year about which you can say, “God has shown me that I don’t have to have that in order to be happy.”
Be Thankful for the Things You No Longer Have to Have
As the song says, “Count your many blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.” The surprise is not just in the outward material blessings of the last year. It is also in the times of pain and suffering which seemed to be for no good purpose but turned out to be blessings in disguise. That, too, is the goodness and grace of God.
Thanksgiving is only four days away. We ought to be the most thankful people on the face of the earth. May our days be marked with humility, simplicity, and integrity. Let us be thankful not only for the things we have but also for the things we no longer have to have. And let the people of God hope in the Lord both now and forevermore. Amen.