Thanksgiving under pressure

There is never a bad time to give thanks. This sounds trite, but it is the way many of us were taught – it is the sort of behaviour you expect from people who have seen for themselves that good times and bad times are given in endless rotation – if not in equal parts – to everyone. So cheer up! Be thankful! We say. – things could be worse, is what we often mean, and who would know better than us – and we develop a habit of giving thanks that, quite frankly, could use some tinkering.

Ours is a reluctant gratitude, born of a life of relative ease (when compared to much of the world) and sharpened by the memory that life events and circumstances are subject to rapid (and occasionally unwelcome) changes. It is in that knowledge that I approached the texts for this morning; not the usual thanksgiving fare, but instructive, nonetheless. Each informs the other, and all point to a pattern that is expected of God’s faithful in any age.

Isaiah is not the place you’d expect to start, but here we are. In the early chapters, a book of warning and promise – and by Ch 25, we seem to be witnessing the complete collapse of the dream that was the Jewish kingdoms. Yes, the nation was divided – with each still independent of their much larger neighbours…for the moment. The writing is on the wall, however and Babylon will conquer both Israel (in the north) and finally Judah in the south. All sense of security will be shattered – the leaders led out in shame and humiliation, the people who are left behind reduced to second-class citizens, at best. And through this misery and confusion comes the voice of the prophet. Yes, occasionally that voice cries “I told you so”, with the odd “it serves you right” thrown in for good measure – but the prophet’s task is not to taunt the nation in defeat; the prophet – every prophet – also brings the words of propise back to the people.

Promises are hard to hear when your dreams have been crushed, and your culture taken captive – Israel was never the strongest nation in the enighbourhood, and when their best is overwhelmed with the might of Babylon, it is truly disheartening. It is also a terrible blow to the image of God that has been promoted in this formerly stable kingdom. So Isaiah starts in the strangest of places – calling for thanksgiving and praise in the midst of destruction: listen again very closely

 For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin;
the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt.
Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;  cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.                                                                                                                                                                             
When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,                                                                                                                                                                    the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;                                                                                                                       the song of the ruthless was stilled.  (Isaiah 25: 2-5)

God’s people are called to witness to a different kind of strength – and it is neither the power that built the walls nor the power that brought them down – it is the power that nurtured the poor, and quieted the “noise of the ruthless”; it is the power of God that is to be praise, according to the prophet. The suggestion of Isaiah is that only in exile are the people able to identify this particular strength – real strength. It is in our uncertainty and despair; in the shambles of our current situation; it is from the rubble of our delusions that God calls and says “Here I am: champion of the poor and weak. Let my strength encourage you – accept from me the power of the weak, the quiet, the humble and the greiving.”

Does this sound right to you? Does it sound like I might be arguing for decline and destruction, so we might get a glimpse of who God really is? I will not suggest that we must suffer to be faithful, but I will always argue that our failures and our sufferings can help us find our way back to what matters – back to the power (so called) of God.

Psalm 23 takes us further down that path – a product of a different time; a more productive, more peacable time in the history of Israel, the author knew the fickle nature of good fortune. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” nothing is eternal except the peacful, purposeful presence of God. This is a poem of utter dependence – something that is often confused with a lack of responsibility, though nothing could be further from the truth. The ‘sheep’ still need to move intentionally toward the good things that the shepherd’s wisdom reveal. And there is strength in that dependence – the kind of strength that can only inspire gratitude.

What then, does that look like for us? Our personal encounters with the grace of God are one thing – in moments of difficulty, the sudden, overpowering feeling that it will be okay; that you are not alone – these are the stories that keep us going. But what of the community? How do the gathered people of God – the church – this congregation – how do we bring those moments into focus? Where do we look to find evidence that all is not lost…?

We look to the host, who invites us in and calls us by name and blesses us with the Holy presence. God draws us together around Jesus – and though each of us alone has a story to tell about the good God has done for us, together in worship we tell a story of hope for the future. The church as it is, or as it may become, is a living breathing offering of thanks reminding even the reluctant in our communities that God has not abandon creation.

So I say let the walls crumble – so long as we can still gather. Let the outward signs of our power and strength be taken from us – so long as we can still sing praises. Let the rest of the world ridicule us and declare our efforts irrelevant – we know better, and that is what matters.

Give thanks to God for the faitth that has found us, and forms us, and frees us to live hopeful, joyful lives. Amen

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