An attitude of gratitude

Psalm 50

4 March 2007

Woodley Baptist Church

Evening service


What, in your view, is the most important Christian discipline?

We might consider prayer, Bible reading, giving, fasting, worship, confession and a number of others. Now, I don't think there is necessarily a right answer to that question, but the discipline I want to make a case for this evening is thanksgiving. The christian discipline of giving thanks to God. I want to do this from Psalm 50. It might not be immediately obvious how I'm going to make my case, but I hope it will be clear by the end.

I'm going to read the Psalm in three sections, and it would be very helpful if you had a Bible to hand. I'll start with verses 1-6, the Lord comes to judge his people.

The Lord comes to judge his people

[read vv. 1-6]

The Psalm opens majestically with three of the names of God in quick succession: The Mighty One, God, The LordrefEl Elohim Yahweh. Wake-up! The boss is coming: we'd better pay attention! The Lord is about to address creation, and he summons it, heavens and earth, into his presence.

In verse 2 we learn that the Lord is appearing in his holiness: perfect in beauty, and, as always in the Bible, the perfect presence of the Lord is an uncomfortable place to be. That's what we see in verse 3, a fire devours before him, and around him a tempest rages.ref. These words are designed to recall the terrifying scene at Mount Sinai where the Israelites met the Lord after being saved from Egypt, where he gave them his law, and made a covenant with them.

And in verse 4 we learn why the Lord has come. The Psalm so far has set up a great judgement scene, so it's no surprise to learn that he has indeed come to judge. But there is a surprise: although the heavens and earth are summoned, they are not the ones under his spotlight. Look at verse 4: He summons the heavens above, and the earth, that he may judge his peopleref.

On this occasion it is his people whom the Lord is to judge, verse 5: [his] consecrated ones, who made a covenant with [him] by sacrifice.ref At Mount Sinai God brought a group of people into special relationship with him by making a covenant with them, signing a deal. Now it's as if he's calling them back to Sinai to see if they are keeping to their side of the contract.

And that's how it is with God — he always judges his people first, because his people are supposed to be setting the standard for the rest. God's people — those to whom he has revealed himself — ought to know better than anyone how to please him. Jesus puts it like this From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be askedref.

From the fund manager given millions of pounds to invest to the teenager entrusted with the keys to the family car, privilege brings responsibility. God's people have the highest privilege in the world — how are they going to use it?

In the rest of the psalm we see God's evaluation of his people, who are in the first instance the historical nation of Israel, and by extension, his church today. That's you and me folks, so we'd better listen carefully to what the Mighty One, God, the Lord has got to say.

What we find is that two groups are picked out for judgement. First in verses seven to fifteen we find those who are engaging in ritual, rather than relationship with God.

Ritual rather than relationship [v.7-15]

[read vv. 7-15]

In verse 7 we find that all is not right between God and his people as he "testifies" against them.

But God is not upset with them because they are slack in their religious activities. On the contrary, verse 8 I do not rebuke you for your sacrifices or your burnt offerings, which are ever before me.ref. These are busy and devoted religious people. Their religious duties are performed beautifully. They are fulfilling the letter of the law. They are offering God sacrifice after sacrifice.

But all these sacrifices are unwanted gifts. The Lord says in verse 9, I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pensref. He already owns it all! All the animals, all the cattle, all the birds, they are all his already. What's the point of the people offering yet another sacrifice?

Some years ago I went to visit my grandfather who at that time was living in Canada. Before I went I asked around the relatives what I should take as a present for him. The unanimous answer was some pairs of socks with checks on, and a box of crystallised ginger. As it happened, I didn't end up taking either of these, which was probably just as well. During my stay he showed me his chest of drawers. One drawer was completely full with checked socks, and the next with boxes of crystallised ginger. He very nicely asked me if I could think of a way to get people to send him something else instead.

It's a funny story, but it's also slightly sad, because it speaks of a distance in the relationship. My grandfather was a long way away, and we, his family, simply didn't know him well enough to choose him appropriate gifts.

And so it was for these people and God. They brought him sacrifices, but he wanted their hearts. They brought him ritual, but he wanted relationship. I'm sure all of us sometimes receive presents that we know have been given purely out of a sense of duty; how much better it is when we know they are given out of a sense of love.

So it is with God. He wants the people's sacrifices. He asked for them originally, after all. But he wants them to spring from deep relationship, not empty ritual.

The people had got it back to front.

You see, the people's problem was that they had somehow got the idea that God depended on their activity in sacrificing to him. This is the point that the Lord is making in verse 12 If I were hungry I would not tell youref. God does not need us! Even if he could be hungry, he would not turn to us.

The people had lost themselves in activity, frantically feeding this God who does not need to be fed, and completely neglecting relationship with him. They were busy bringing him gifts, but out of a mere sense of duty. They'd completely forgotten to love him.

Does that describe your religious life at all? Are you so busy trying to please God, that you find that you don't really know God?

If we believe that our standing with God depends in any way on the quantity of our own efforts, then we are falling into exactly the same trap as they did. God requires not ritual, but relationship.

Why do you give money? Do you think that God is more concerned with the money or with the heart that gives it? I can tell you something: he certainly doesn't need the money.

Why do you come to church? Do you think God is pleased to see you here because you come out of a sense of duty? He doesn't need you, you know, but he does want you to know him.

Why do you say your prayers? Simply because that's what you've always done? He doesn't need our prayers, you know, but he does want our hearts. Relationship is what matters to God, not ritual, however sophisticated it is.

What does God tell them to do about it? What do you give to a God who has everything? Verse 14, Sacrifice thank-offerings to Godref. Finally, as promised, we get to thanksgiving.

Giving thanks to God is the antidote to formalism. It is what moves us away from ritual, and back to relationship.

Thanksgiving puts us back into right relationship with God because at the heart of thankfulness to God is the acknowledgement that we are totally dependent on him, not he on us. As verse 15 puts it: we are to simply call on him; it is he who delivers us.

So, the first group of people God judges are those who engage in ritual rather than relationship. The second, in verse 16 to 23 are those who engage in wickedness rather than worship.

Wickedness rather than worship [v.16-23]

[read vv. 16-23]

In these verses we find God turning his attention to those who are engaged in wickedness rather than worship.

Note that he is still talking to those who, at least nominally, belong to his people, and those who have an outward form of religion. What right have you he says in verse 16 to recite my laws or take my covenant on your lips?ref.

These people had a form of religion. They were in the temple; they participated in its worship. They are in the churches; they call themselves Christians and recite the creed and sing the songs and join in the prayers. But, if the first group of people we looked at had hearts that are cold to God, this second group have hearts that are actually hostile towards him.

These people won't listen to God, verse 17, you hate my instruction and cast my words behind youref, and they are happy to break the commandments: they are thieves, adulterers and slanderers.

Their problem is that, since they have given up listening to God, they have forgotten that he is a moral God. In verse 21 the shocking diagnosis is brought you thought I was altogether like youref.

These people have created God in their own image: morally lax; indifferent to evil.

It's shocking, isn't it, to find such wickedness amongst the people of God. It was shocking then; it is shocking today. I'm sure I don't need to labour the point, but this is not a problem that has gone away. If you have any experience of the wider church in this country, you'll know that there are churches that are split by bitter divisions; churches where sexual immorality is commonplace; churches that are financially corrupt.

But this is not put here so that we can be judgemental: it is here as a warning to us. Don't become like them! The danger is spelt out in verse 22: if you reject God, there is no-one else who will save you.

How can we avoid falling into the same kind of wickedness ourselves? How can we make sure that we don't make God in our own image, but instead reflect his image?

Well, once again the answer the Psalmist gives is to practise the discipline of thanksgiving. Verse 23, He who sacrifices thank- offerings honours me, and he prepares the way so that I may show him the salvation of Godref.

In Romans chapter one, the Apostle Paul makes this charge against the human race to explain why God's judgement on us is justified although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to himref. Isn't that interesting? One of the greatest charges against the human race is that we neglect to thank God. This neglect is then the starting point for the descent into wickedness that Paul so vividly describes in the rest of Romans 1.

So it is with God's people here. They've neglected to sacrifice thank-offerings to God, and have consequently descended into wickedness.

Why is thanksgiving the antidote to falling into wickedness? Because thankful people are not forgetful people. If we are thanking God, it means we are not forgetting God. It is possible only for someone who has forgotten God to be wicked in this way, so thankfulness keeps us from wickedness.

A sacrifice of thanksgiving

So we've seen two of the dangers faced by God's people: the danger of engaging in ritual rather than relationship, and the danger of engaging in wickedness rather than worship.

We might feel that these are remote from us, but we must never forget that the devil is constantly at work, subtly whispering in our ears and turning our heads. Even if he can't turn our faith into wickedness, he'd be happy to turn it into formalism: both in the end separate us from God.

The antidote to this, the poke in the eye for the devil, is the discipline of thankfulness, the sacrifice of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving will keep us from falling into a ritualistic faith or wickedness because it keeps the focus on God. Thankfulness is exercise for the soul; it keeps our spirits healthy.

In the last part of the sermon, I just want to look at what that means practically: what does it mean to sacrifice a thank-offering. How do we develop an attitude of gratitude?

How to build an attitude of gratitude

We should be aware that an attitude of gratitude doesn't develop by chance. It was my daughter's third birthday this week, and people were kind enough to give her loads of presents, most of them pink, but that's forgivable I suppose. Anyway, all week we've been telling her to "say thank you nicely". Why do we need to teach her? Because saying thank you doesn't come naturally.

Thanksgiving, then, is a discipline. It is something we can learn. If we leave it to chance, it's just not going to happen, and then we face the dangers described in this psalm.

That's why the Psalm describes thanksgiving as a sacrifice: verse 14, Sacrifice thank-offerings to Godref; verse 23, He who sacrifices thank-offerings honours meref.

By definition, a sacrifice requires effort, commitment and investment, on our part doesn't it? A sacrifice does not happen by accident.

So we need to work at building thanksgiving in to our daily lives. How do you think we can do that?

One thing we do as a family is to say grace together before we eat. It could easily become a formalistic ritual — "for what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful", the most graceless grace ever uttered. But we try to use it as a real opportunity to acknowledge God's goodness in providing for us. It's part of learning to be thankful.

Another thing we must do is to make thanks-giving a major part of our prayers. The various models of prayer that we learn all include it, like ACTS: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication. Or the simpler, Sorry, Thank you, Please, good for children, good for adults! But personally I like to start my prayers with thanks. I find it helps to give me the right attitude from the outset, to find my right place before God: dependent on him for everything.

In so many of Paul's letters he begins with thanks: Romans First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of youref; 1 Corinthians I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesusref; Ephesians I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayersref; Philippians I thank my God every time I remember youref and so on.

In fact, it's instructive to look at the letters that he doesn't begin with a prayer of thanks, and try to work out why!

What if I don't feel like giving thanks?

But what if I don't actually feel much like giving thanks? It happens, doesn't it? Perhaps we are experiencing a really tough time in our lives; there really doesn't seem to be much to be thankful for. What are we going to do then?

Well, like any sort of exercise, the times when we least feel like it are the times when we probably need it most. That's why thanksgiving is a sacrifice, a discipline. We need to make the effort to do it, even when it's a struggle.

One elderly saint I know told me that he spends twenty minutes every day writing down the things he has to be thankful to God for; he's done it for decades. To be able to make a fresh list every day must take a depth of appreciation of God that I can only imagine, but I know that what he reads in the Bible about God at work is powerful daily fuel for thankfulness.

I have no doubt that his lists include things that don't immediately look like causes for thankfulness. Things that go wrong; things that are hard; things that challenge him and hurt him. We might not always be able to see the silver lining, but if we believe that God is sovereign — that he is in control and loves us — then everything we experience can work for our good, and that's worth thanking him for. We need to learn to look deeper than our immediate circumstances and day to day events, and see the bigger picture of what God is doing in us and through us. This is not "looking on the bright side of life"; this is not fatalism — it's deep Christian maturity.

Actually, it's when things are toughest that we need to give thanks the most: look at the promises of the psalm: verses 14 and 15 Sacrifice thank-offerings to God, fulfil your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honour me.ref It is the thankful who will be saved in the day of trouble. And again in verse 23, He who sacrifices thank-offerings honours me, and he prepares the way so that I may show him the salvation of God.ref It is the thankful who will eventually know the salvation of God.

When times are toughest, give thanks the most. And this will be easier if we make thankfulness to God a deeply ingrained habit throughout our lives: an attitude of gratitude.

What if I've got nothing to be thankful for?

So, I've mentioned a few ways that might help us to build an attitude of gratitude. This is worth working on, because the message of this psalm is that thankfulness is the key to a healthy relationship with God, and the best defence against the errors of ritual and wickedness in our worship.

I just want to say a final word to anyone here tonight who, for whatever reason, genuinely feels that he or she has nothing to be thankful to God for. If that's you, then in the light of this teaching from God, you need to be aware that you are in danger. If you can find nothing whatsoever to thank God for, then what is clear is that you have lost touch with him completely. The Lord says to you: come back; come back tonight.