Douglas B. Clawson
TV specials, magazine articles, and memorial services recently reminded us of the tragic events of "9/11" that robbed thousands of people of their lives and robbed thousands of families of loved ones. We were reminded that the tragedy was a shared onenot just because we watched it and read about it and prayed for those who suffered on account of it, but because of its effects on many of us. Thousands of people who had never worried about travel lost their sense of safety. Thousands of otherwise friendly people became suspicious of foreign-looking neighbors. Thousands of military personnel left for duty abroad. Thousands of workers lost their jobs in a weakened economy.
Yet in the midst of this tragedyand others like itthere is much for which to be thankful. "Thankful?" you ask. Yes, thankfulnot thankful for the tragedy itself, but thankful to the God who saves, preserves, and redeems his people. I am not suggesting that God has not saved, preserved, and redeemed some of those who die or suffer in these tragedies. The remnant of faithful Israelites experienced the same national and personal tragedies as the rest of Israel. Likewise, it was from a prison cell that the apostle Paul instructed believers to "rejoice always."
Giving thanks to the Lord, then, is not just a matter of thanking him that "I was spared" when others were not. Tragedy reminds us that we should thank the Lord for saving his peopleincluding those who may temporally perishfrom the eternal consequences of their sins.
Jesus gave himself to us. He saves us, forgives us, and redeems us. He gives us church families, parents, and (in many cases) spouses and children. He blesses us with the fruit and gifts of the Spirit. There are many reasons to be thankful to the Lord.
We may need or want more of these things, yet we should acknowledge that God has given us and done for us more than we deserve, considering our sin against him. And with a grateful heart, we should thank him for it.
There are many reasons to be thankful and many ways to express our thankfulness. One inspired example is found in Psalm 107. Its opening words declare, "Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!" Please take a moment to read this psalm for yourself. It is a moving declaration of thanks to God for delivering his people from their Babylonian exile. The psalm begins by describing God's deliverance in terms that remind us of the kinsman-redeemer buying his relative's freedom from slavery.
In the following verses, the psalm describes four dire circumstances in which the exiles found themselves and from which God delivered them (vss. 4-9, 10-15, 16-22, and 23-32). It doesn't matter whether these are four different situations or four ways of looking at the same tragedy. The point is that God delivers his people from all their troubles when they cry out to him.
God's punishment of his people for their rebellion and idolatry included his scattering of them to foreign lands and putting them in horrible circumstances. Israel's punishment took them to desert wastes where there was no place of safety and no supply of food or drink. Their need for those things drove them to cry out to God. When they did, he met their needs. Israel's punishment took them into the prisonlike shadow of death. With no other hope for deliverance, they cried out to the Lord and he delivered them. Israel's punishment took them into the face of the storm, where they had to acknowledge God's power and their own inability to save themselves. They cried out to God, and he delivered them.
The tragedy affected everyone. Many were killed by sword, famine, and plague. The rest were taken from their land. However, far more tragic was the fact that in spite of what they suffered, they refused to acknowledge their idolatry, violence, rebellion, and wickedness. Only when they were about to die and had no other hope did they cry out to the Lord. Then he graciously delivered them. Credit belongs to the Lord alone.
God is the one who punishes, and he is the one who saves. He reversed the curses brought on Israel for their sins. He turned the desert into springs of water. He gave his people a safe place to live and an abundance of food and drink. He gave them children. He restored their numbers and spared them from further suffering.
In all these things, the psalmist sees many reasons why God's people should thank him. So should we. God in Christ has delivered us from the wages of our sin, just as he delivered Israel. Though dead in our sins and by nature objects of God's wrath (Eph. 2:1-3), we have found peace with him. Christ has calmed the storm and brought us to a safe place. He feeds us with true food and drink, so that we will never be hungry or thirsty again. Christ delivers us from the fear of the shadow of death because he has raised us up with him from the dead. Christ has delivered us from our self-destructive former ways of life. He has made us new creations. By taking God's curse for sin upon himself, he has removed the curse from us and blessed us forever in him. Yes, there are many reasons to thank the Lord! How should we express our thanks?
Psalm 107 describes two ways of expressing thanks to the Lord. Verses 21-22 say, "Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of men! And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of his deeds in songs of joy!" The first way is to offer sacrifices of thanksgiving. The second is to sing songs of joy.
The book of Leviticus explains that the sacrifice of thanksgiving was one type of peace offering. A peace offering was offered under various circumstances. The circumstance reflected in the sacrifice of thanksgiving was the establishment of a relationship of peace or well-being with God. Psalm 107 calls upon those who have returned from exile to offer a sacrifice that celebrates their relationship with God, now that he has redeemed them and restored them from exile.
Don't get the wrong idea. This sacrifice was not the satisfaction of a debt, a payment for sin. This was a meal eaten with family or guests in the presence of the Lord. It celebrated a new state of peace with God. An animal's fat was burned on the altar to the Lord. The animal's shoulder was given to the priest. The person who offered the sacrifice, along with his guests, ate the remainder of the sacrifice (Lev. 3; 7:11-15, 28-36).
This sacrifice of thanksgiving marked the beginning of a new and wonderful relationship with God. Therefore, Psalm 107 does not merely call on the returned exiles to thank God for their past deliveranceremembering it today and moving on tomorrow. It calls on them to celebrate their new state of well-being with God because he has graciously redeemed them from their exile and mercifully brought them back into a blessed, ongoing relationship with him.
In Christ, God has delivered us from the punishment that our sins deserve. He has rescued us from his righteous wrath against us for our sins. In Christ, God has declared that we who have repented of our sins and turned to him in faith are forgiven and righteous in his sight.
Most of us are privileged to live in North America, where we have advantages and blessings that people all over the world long to have for themselves and their children. We should be most grateful to the Lord for these things. We should be even more grateful for the great salvation and everlasting deliverance that we have in Christ. He keeps us safe from the wrath and curse of God. He is our living bread and living water and true vine. He calms the storm with his word of peace. He speaks and the dead are raised to life. We should feel compelled with every word and song and gift to thank the Lord for redeeming us in Christ. How will we thank the Lord for his goodness to us?
Consider once again the two ways in which Psalm 107 calls the people of God to express their thanks. Beginning with the second one, we see that God wants us to sing of his deeds with songs of joy. And we do this when we sing psalms and hymns to him. By singing his praises corporately, we teach one another about what he has done and we thank him for those things (Eph. 5:19-20).
What about the first way of expressing thanksoffering a sacrifice of thanksgiving? Yes, Christ has fulfilled the sacrifices of the ceremonial law and brought an end to the shadows of the old covenant. But consider once more the underlying principle that this sacrifice expressed. The person presenting the sacrifice expressed his thanks by sharing a meal with the Lord and with others. The animals brought by the people were costly to them, but, in gratitude to the Lord, they were acknowledging that they owed everything to him.
The sacrifice of thanksgiving certainly anticipated the Lord's Supper. The physical elements of the Supper do not cost us very much, but they are signs of the great price that God himself paid to commune with us. He did not spare his own Son.
Another way that we can express our thanks in accordance with the spirit of this passage is through the material gifts that we present to the Lord in our worshipsuch as our annual Thank Offering. In such an offering, we express our thanks to the Lord for what he has done, and we share that expression of thanks with others.
When we present our gifts at the same time that others in our church family are presenting theirs, it is as if all of us who have been saved from destruction have assembled together to express our thanks to the Lord. In the Thank Offering, we are not participating in a onetime event. Rather, we are participating in an offering that helps to provide for an ongoing ministry. We are celebrating our ongoing communion with our Lord and with each other.
We share with men who are being equipped and refreshed for lifelong ministry by taking classes at the Ministerial Training Institute of the OPC. We share with families that receive New Horizons, ranging from those who are new to our church family to those who are third- and fourth-generation members of it. We share with members of new mission works who are not yet able to fully pay the evangelist laboring with them, but who will in time, Lord willing, join us in supporting other mission works. We share with our missionaries in other parts of the world who are preaching the gospel, building up the church, and preparing others to become pastors. We share with the sick and injured as they come to our medical missions, so that those made well can testify to what God has done for them.
"Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good" (Ps. 107:1). Let us declare our thanks for all that he has done for us in Christ by singing songs of joy to him. Let us give thanks by generously presenting to the Lord this Thank Offering that is shared with so many others.
The author is the associate general secretary for the Committee on Foreign Missions. He quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, November 2002.