Almighty God, on this Thanksgiving Day, we come thankful for your love towards us, your presence with us. And now we ask that you would cover us, keep us, hold us and fill us for all of the places you are preparing to send us. This we ask in your wonderful name. Amen.
Certainly this morning, I must begin by wishing and expressing to each and every one who is both here and joining with us online, Happy Thanksgiving. But I must confess that since yesterday afternoon, I come to this moment having been caught up in so many different thoughts and reflections. As I sat in my office at home, in my library, there was one publication sitting that perhaps I had not noticed until that moment. Many of you know the feeling of sometimes having things around you, that sometimes become so familiar until that moment that it speaks louder than perhaps you ever thought it would.
As I looked around in my office, sat back. In 1975, the acclaimed pastor, author, and teacher, but most notably preacher, by the name of Reverend Dr. Gardner C. Taylor presented the Lyman Beecher lectures at the Yale Divinity School. He titled the lectures, and the subsequent publication, How Shall They Preach? While this question is ever before me, I must admit that it became extremely personal for me, as I sat back in my chair, was moving back and forth, having been glued to the television all afternoon. Became personal for me as I wrestled before and after the verdict that was rendered in the Brunswick, Georgia trial. Hearing the conclusion after listening day after day to the testimony in this case, my journey to this preaching moment had been completely redirected. All of the plans that I had had been shifted and I had to start all over again.
I, while I looked at that particular title on the shelf, asking How Shall They Preach? It was indeed personal when I was asking, how shall I preach? Almost everything I had planned had to be seen in a different light and from a different perspective. After careful reflection, I recognized I was not alone in the emotional, mental and spiritual shifting that took place in that moment. Almost everyone who had been listening and watching, or at least those who I had been speaking with, had been paying attention because we shared this feeling that something is not quite right in our communities. And while this trial raised the injustice of racism, classism, unwarranted fear, we are all at times left asking in general, what is at the root of our inability live to in unity even while we try to grow in harmony? What can be done about it?
People everywhere are asking those questions and longing for reliable and practical answers. As I reflected on the experience of this moment, as well as others, as so much about our human nature was on display as well as questioned. I wrestled with the fact that we saw some good and we saw some bad, contrary to the Genevan philosopher and writer, Rousseau. Rousseau’s doctrine, that concluded we are by nature all good, and the opposite theological doctrine of our natural depravity. We all must admit whether we are red, yellow, black, or white, rich, or poor, we all have some good, and we all have some bad. Whether we become more or less of one side or less of the other, as we mature and grow in this life, it is true that that growth is influenced by the major idea, the ideals and the values that shape our society.
So in looking at this, I was driven back to work. And looking at this, I was pushed back to my desk. In reflecting about this, I had to wrestle all over again. And I was driven back to that passage of Daniel, where it simply said, “so king Darius put the decree in writing”. And now Daniel when learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows open towards Jerusalem and three times a day, in one translation, it says he got down on his knees. He prayed giving thanks to God just as he had done before. I read that and was reminded again about that noted theologian and philosopher, Augustine of Hippo, known by many as Saint Augustine. He describes the three core elements of any sermon as teaching, delighting and persuading. The task of delivering the sermon is a noted task on any occasion. But the elements are challenged and perhaps more intensely felt, the moment we begin to take in account particular and unique context, historical notes, passions, and preferences that define and shape what we call our human experience.
As we move along the line of Augustine’s here format for preaching, Augustine says from teaching and delighting, it is this last element that often apprehends me. The notion and element of persuasion. That in this moment I would come trying to persuade you of something. Trying to persuade those who are present, those who have joined us online are gathering. Persuade those who would be gathering in our homes and families and in all communities. While I am certain that the writers of the biblical texts were inspired to teach. And at times to even delight through all that has been recorded, captured and passed down from generation to generation to us, I am comfortable this morning, concluding that their motivation and inspiration was not limited to providing us with details, facts, and information and knowledge. There was a yearning by the writers, the scribes, the preachers, and the witnesses to persuade us, to move us, to shift us and ultimately to transform us from solely, from a solely, singular disposition and outlook.
Through a profound witness of faith, there is a hope and a desire that our hearts, concerns, visions, and most of all, our actions, would move from the singular “I” to the community of “we”. From the individual to community, from standing alone, to standing together. From loving ourselves, to loving our neighbors. I could go on, but while moving through the biblical texts and passages, there is a desire to produce a shift in our hearts, in our minds and in our souls that will be seen in our actions, and not just heard on our lips.
The Old Testament, prophetic revelation book of Daniel contains numerous accounts of Daniel’s life and witness, some better known and recalled than others. But this passage that has been provided printed, posted and lifted before us on this Thanksgiving day, is part of a larger narrative that is entitled Daniel in the Lion’s Den, or Daniel in the Den of Lions.
No matter how it is expressed, Daniel, who is one of the major prophets and central figures within this text finds himself facing a challenging moment in the history of his community. And truth be told, in the history of the nation in which he lived. It is a powerful narrative that has been shared from generation to generation. Like Daniel, we find ourselves in a challenging moment as individuals, as communities and across this nation all together.
In one of the dark moments of captivity for Israel, there was a need for a testimony, a need for a witness to the mighty and providential power of God. There was a need to hear individuals say, “How great Thou art”. There was a need to be reminded of who has us all in the palm of his hand. There was a need in that moment that would affect not just the laws of the land, but would it affect the people in their homes, their families, their movements of one another. This was a powerful moment. And like Daniel, we find ourselves in a moment like that now.
The book of Daniel, and life’s witness of Daniel, provides us with a view of God. A view of a God who is sovereign, loving, omnipotent, omniscience, righteous, and merciful. Daniel presents for us a witness of one individual who is navigating the tension experienced within the challenges of his day, while providing us with the assurance that God will fulfill God’s just and sovereign purposes in time and eternity. While the experience in the lion’s den is significant enough, this passage and that whole story hinges on a complex turn, as it begins with an orchestrated decree that was meant to trip Daniel up and produce a conflict between the official regulations of the day and challenge Daniel’s identity, Daniel’s conscience, Daniel’s sense of purpose in the world in which he lived.
Even with this, we find what might appear to some, a remarkable response to the challenges in that moment. When Daniel heard that decree and that it had been published, he went home, went up to his room, opened the window, got down on his knees. And three times a day, he prayed, he gave thanks to his God, just like he did before. I had to wonder, how do you give thanks even in the face of challenge? How do you give thanks when everything is not right all around you? How do you give thanks when you still have to deal with decisions that have been made, but a life that still has to be lived? How do you give thanks to God in this moment?
This annual and national holiday is a day that has been set aside to celebrate the harvest and the blessings of the past year. It is in particular here in the United States, the recalling and in some respects modeled after that 1621 harvest feast shared by the English colonists, the pilgrims, as we call them of Plymouth, and the Wampanoag people. It was a moment filled with possibilities then as they did in that moment, what was done with hope and with vision, that diverse peoples could come together, work together, live together and care for one another as one. Hundreds of years later, prayerfully, our gathering is more than about just food. But somewhere around the table, as you will gather somewhere around that food, and I’m looking forward to it as well. Somewhere in that moment, and in those moments within our hearts, as we gather, we will have similar thanks, but we will gather with hope. We will gather with vision that diverse people can come together. They can work together. They can live together as one.
My heart is thankful, but aching that we might come together on this day as they gathered in that day. But we will come with vision looking ahead and not just looking behind. Come together, saying thank you for where you brought us from, but knowing He did not bring us this far to leave us right here. We are called to acknowledge that our actions today and all that we do today in word, in deed and in spirit, will shape the days that are to follow. This notion of giving thanks rises above and is not bound by food on the table, but it’s defined by some as grateful acknowledgement of the benefits and favors, especially that have been given to us from God. And I am comfortable to admit that I’ve been favored and blessed in many ways. And you are sitting here as well with food on the table, food that is being prepared, things that are waiting for you when you arrive.
And are we really thankful and grateful? And will we give thanks not just for what we have, but mindful of others and even sharing with others? Our acts and expressions of appreciation and thanksgiving are often subject to our circumstances and our emotions, though. We often find ourselves captive to our circumstances and tripped up by demanding dynamics in those moments, and in moments filled with tension, challenges, choices, and options. Daniel’s faith gave him access to power that would not only help him face the moment, but he had the boldness and the power to pass through the moments that were to come. He knew that perhaps the lions were coming. He knew that perhaps hear things would be difficult, but Daniel had this faith and belief in God. And his faith in God and his relationship with God made it possible for him to give thanks even while facing challenge.
It is my belief in God, my faith in God, my relationship with God that gives me the strength and power to be thankful at this point in life, as I witnessed the division that is still within our nation, the injustice that masquerades as justice, the political pietism of some and the Christian quietism of others that continues to influence our actions, policies, and practices around this nation. But Daniel went home. He fell on his knees. And he prayed.
I know I’m drawing to a close here, but if I had time, I could park my preaching car right there. And stay there for a while. He prayed. I don’t have all day, but I’m thankful for parents that taught me how to pray. And I have experienced the truth that there is power in prayer. Not only is there power in prayer, but the truth is, as I’ve heard from a little boy, prayer changes things.
But prayer is so powerful that if it doesn’t immediately change things, if you keep on praying long enough, prayer will change you so that you can change things. You can get down on your knees one way and get up from your knees another way. In my house and in my life, it was, and it is still true, that just a little talk with Jesus can make everything all right. Daniel knew that when the whirlwind of circumstances are circling around you, what is most valuable is what you got in you. Daniel knew it was not his position, his status, the treasure in his accounts, that was most valuable. It was his life and his soul. And if we lose our soul just to save our possessions, what does it profit us to gain the whole world and lose our soul?
Something happened when David prayed. And I will tell you, try praying sometimes, something will happen. He was able to give thanks even while he questioned what was taking place around him. David gave thanks as he must’ve seen the difference between seeing God far from him and seeing God with him. And here’s the turn that we make today. Many of us realize that in the world, Christmas and the Advent season begins for some October, maybe for some, even in September. But if we really look at it, it was all positioned in such a way that our thanks would start to shift that we would be able to recognize not God from us, but God with us. And so I looked at this passage, I recognize today, even with what was going on in the world, even with what is happening around us, even with the things that we heard that upset us, that we would be thankful to say God with us. That even in the midst of lions dens, even in the midst of enemies are sometimes around us, even in the midst of all is going on today, we make a shift that says God with us.
And I don’t know about you, but I’m thankful that He walks with me, He talks with me, and He tells me that I am his own. And the joy that we’ve shared, none other has ever known. I’m thankful for a God that has never left me, nor forsaken me, I’m thankful for the readings and the witnesses that have persuaded me. I am thankful for the love of God, a savior and a spirit, the family and friends that have transformed me. What a mighty God we serve. And because I know that God is able, I’m persuaded that great is Thy faithfulness. I’m persuaded that the love of God will guide me today, but I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Happy Thanksgiving.