God has given us the most astonishingly generous gift. Yesterday we went for a circular walk around Clare. We are so privileged. The Suffolk countryside is beautiful and fertile. And I know that some people – even people here – are seriously struggling, but as a rule we have so much. Few of us, if any here, will have known starvation. The only times in my life that I have gone hungry are by choice. And most of us really do have genuine choices about what we do with some of our money. Yes, the rent or the mortgage, the electricity and the food bills need paying, but most of us have at least a little at the end of the week or month to buy something that is not essential. And we have a pretty good system of public services, of education and the NHS. We know who we can turn to when we are sick. And although the recession and austerity has badly affected large numbers of people, overall and looking at the big picture, we have enjoyed an unprecedented period of economic growth and political stability, under a rule of law. And today we have so much more stuff, and so many more choices, than our parents or grandparents had. It is an astonishing gift.
The passage that we read was written to people who are about to be given a mega-gift.
The people of Israel are in the desert. God has brought them out of Egypt, where they have been slaves. It was one of the biggest refugee movements that the ancient world ever saw. And God is bringing them to the home he has promised them. But to get from Egypt to that home, they need to go through a desert. And they’ve been in that desert for 40 years. It is not a good place to be. It is (and I quote) vast and dreadful. It is thirsty and waterless. It is inhabited by venomous snakes and scorpions.
And they have been out of their depth. Metaphorically and literally. On one occasion God led them through sea on foot. There have been times when they did not know when the next meal or sip of water was coming from.
At times they were simply overwhelmed. I’m told that JF Kennedy had a plaque on his desk in the White House which said, ‘O God, Thy sea is so great and my boat is so small’. After our experience of the boat trip to the Aran Islands, I know that experience! And that is, no doubt, how they felt.
But they have also begun to experience that when we go through those periods in our lives, when we are overwhelmed, or find ourselves in a vast and dreadful desert, then we are open to receive a gift. You stop putting your trust in yourself and in your own abilities (because you can’t) and you start to trust One who is bigger than you, outside of you and beyond you.
And when we do that, we see God at work.
He leads us, as he led them, through the desert.
He provides for us, as he provided water for them in the most unlikely place. He tells Moses to strike a rock with his staff and water pours out. He gave them manna: manna was an edible bread like substance which appeared on the desert floor in the morning like dew. They didn’t work for it. It just appeared. They gave it a very technical name, ‘Manna’. Manna means ‘what is it?’
And in that time of testing the people learnt that life really is not just about the food that you put into your mouth – it is about the food you put into your soul. It is not about the stuff that you use to feed your body, but the stuff that you use to feed your mind and your heart. And they have learnt that ‘people do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord’ (Deut 8.3)
And they learnt that, if they did humble themselves before God, if they received his gifts as gifts, if they believed his promises, and followed his commands, then after the time of testing there would come a time of abundance.
It is interesting how we learn stuff about ourself and stuff about God when we go through it, when we are out of our depth. Perhaps as we come together to give thanks to God for the good things in life, it is also good to give thanks to God for the tough times.
George Matheson, who died in 1906, was a Scottish preacher and hymn writer. He wrote the hymn, ‘O love that will not let me go’. He was also blind. And on one occasion he prayed this prayer:
“My God, I have never thanked Thee for my thorns. I have thanked Thee a thousand times for my roses, but not once for my thorns. I have been looking forward to a world where I shall get compensation for my cross; but I never thought of my cross itself as a present glory. Teach me the glory of my cross; teach me the value of my thorn, show me that I have climbed to Thee by the path of pain. Show me that my tears have made my rainbow.”
But now, says Moses, to the people, you are about to enter the land that God has prepared for you. It is an amazing gift: ‘a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills’.
He says to them: ‘You are going to eat and be satisfied. But - and remember this before it happens - when you get wealthy you have a choice.
You can take the gift and forget God. In your abundance you can become proud. You can think that what you have is yours because you deserve it.
Or you can recognise that it is a gift, an undeserved gift, and you can praise the One who gives it to you.
My generation has been materially blessed. And we have chosen to take the gift and forget God. We think we deserve our prosperity. We think that all this stuff and much more is ours because we are wise and hard working and have good standards.
It is quite a useful way of looking at things. It means that we can justify being a ‘have’ in a world of ‘have-nots’. If people are poor they obviously deserve to be poor. They must be lazy or wicked or foolish or all three. And I can keep what I have for myself.
Wealth and pride are like two star struck lovers. Pride looks at wealth and says ‘I have won you by my brilliance’, and wealth looks at pride and says, ‘I am your prize’. And as the lovers gaze at each other, there is no place for God.
When I was at theological college we had a young man spend a term with us. He was from the then East Germany and he was training to be a Lutheran pastor. He told us that on one occasion, on a Communist Youth camp, they went into the canteen and sat down. In front of them were empty plates. The youth leader said, ‘Today we are going to ask God for food’. She said a prayer. The plates remained empty. ‘You see’, she said, ‘God has not provided the food. And so now the food will be provided by the workers from so and so farm and prepared by our team of caterers. Why pray? This is the work of our hands’. And the food appeared.
But in our pride we miss the point. Who gave us this world in the first place. Who gave us seeds and plants and cattle? Who gave us life? What did you do to deserve to be born when you were, to whom you were, where you were, with the gifts that you have? And who gives you the ability to produce wealth? V18: ‘But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth’.
My prayer is that those of you who are younger will not make the same mistake that my generation has made. My prayer is that you will turn back to God. That you will recognise that all that you have is undeserved gift. It comes from God. It doesn’t actually belong to you: it belongs to Him, but he has given it to you for your delight and enjoyment.
That means that it is a sacred gift: it is to be received with gratitude, with an awesome sense of responsibility, with praise.
That is why we are here today: to say thank you.
That is why it is a good thing to say ‘grace’ before meals. It can begin by being very simple. ‘Lord Jesus, thank you for this food we are about to eat’. And I know that it will feel awkward to begin with, but saying thank you to God is a really good habit to get into. One mum said to a guest at dinner, "We say grace at dinner each day to remind us around here that there is something bigger than our egos."
Praise is about recognising that all things, not just food, are the gift of God.
Some students were asked to list the Seven Wonders of the World: Great Pyramids, Taj Mahal, Grand Canyon, Panama Canal, Victoria falls, St Peter’s Basilica, China’s great wall. One student, a quiet girl, said nothing: ‘There are so many’. She said, ‘I can’t make up my mind’. ‘Tell us what you have written and we’ll help’. So she said, ‘My seven wonders of the world are – to touch, to taste, to see, to hear, to run, to laugh and to love’.
GK Chesterton said, “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing, and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”
Those of you who are American have got one thing really right (I’m only going to admit to one thing!): You have a national thanksgiving day. Thanksgiving for your founding fathers and mothers, thanksgiving for your land and your people and your harvest. It was declared, in 1863 by Lincoln, that it would be a day for “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens".
And when we give thanks for something, several things follow.
- We recognise that there is one who is so much bigger than us, and on whom we are in complete dependence
- We recognise that God does love us, and delights to give us good things, and that even when we don’t have stuff we can still trust him.
- We recognise that we do not deserve this, and that it is complete gift.
And there is one final thing. If we do not receive material blessings as a gift from God, if we think we can take them for granted because they are the consequence of some astonishing set of cosmic coincidences, or because we have done something to deserve them, then we are never going to receive the bigger gift that God longs to give us. And that gift if actually far more precious than all of this.
It is a gift that will take us through death into life. It is the gift of God’s word and his promises, the gift of forgiveness, the gift of the invitation to become a child of God, the gift of the Holy Spirit – God’s presence to live in us, guide us and strengthen us; the gift of an eternal destiny; the gift of deep and intimate friendship with the person of Jesus Christ.
And if we begin to learn to receive material gifts from God as a gift with gratitude and trust, then one day - and I hope that many of you have already done so - we will be ready to receive the treasure of the spiritual gifts that he truly longs to give us.