Two summers ago when my dad, Matthew, my nephew and I were out in Pennsylvania watching trains, we went into a place where we always eat during the trip, and saw something that I had to point out to Matthew and Paul. There on the wall, as you walked into the restaurant, was an actual pay phone. I had pointed these out to Matthew in the past in movies, but I am pretty sure it was the first time he had ever seen one in person.
I am fifty years old, and like many of you I have witnessed the incredible advances in technology that have transformed the way we live. I know how great these changes are. But then once in awhile you have an experiences\ that makes you truly realize how much things have changed.
I had another one of those not long ago. A member of our family had received a very gracious gift. I emphasized that a thank you note should be sent, to acknowledge the gift and express how much it was appreciated. I gave the address for the individual to the member of our family. I knew that the thank you note had been had been mailed, but as it turned out the note didn’t arrive as soon as it should have. You see, if you only put the name and street address on the envelope, the U.S. Postal service has a very difficult time delivering it. This member of our family had never addressed something to be sent in the mail, and didn’t realize that you also have to provide the city, state and zip code in order for it to be delivered. With that minor oversight corrected, the thank you note was eventually received by the person who had given the gift.
Our text for tonight’s Thanksgiving Eve sermon is found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. While Paul does address a number of issues in this letter, one its purpose is to be a thank you note. As I have mentioned several times over the years, the apostle Paul had a very close relationship with the Philippian church. They were very generous in supporting his ministry, and in our text he thanks them for yet another gift of money that they had sent.
He says in our text, “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity.” Then later he goes on to say, “Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again.”
The Philippians had done it yet again, and Paul thanked them. He also goes on in our text to talk about what the gift meant before God. He writes, “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”
Paul gives thanks to the Philippians for their gift. And at the beginning of our text he takes up the theme of giving thanks to God that you expect to hear at Thanksgiving. He says, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
The apostle tell us not to be anxious about anything. Instead we are to turn to God in prayer and supplication. Now that sounds very normal. Of course, when I have problems and concerns I should turn to God. Yet notice how Paul adds, “with thanksgiving.” The apostle reminds us that our life with God is always to be one that includes thanksgiving. This is true even when there are things that cause us worry – things about which we are praying to God.
We have a tendency to focus on the things that are not the way we want them to be. Yet in doing so, it is so easy to ignore all the blessing that are already there – all the blessings that God has given to us out of his fatherly divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in us. We forget about the fact that we don’t have to wonder about where we will stay tonight or where our next meal will come from. We don’t have to worry about basic issues of peace and security. We don’t have to worry about being able to come to church to hear God’s Word and receive his Sacraments.
Most importantly we don’t have to worry about our standing before God. We don’t have to worry what happens if I or a loved one dies, as my aunt did last night. As Paul says in our text, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Through the Gospel, we know that Jesus Christ died on the cross for us. In the previous chapter Paul spoke about what Jesus Christ meant to him – that it meant “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Jesus the sinless one died in our place, and because of him we are forgiven – we are righteous in God’s eyes.
But death that ended in death could never bring victory over sin that produces death. And so on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ God has defeated death. And Philippians is unique because in this letter the apostle explicitly talks about what that means for us now if we die and what it will mean on the Last Day.
In the first chapter Paul says, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” He says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Because Jesus has risen from the dead and ascended, for the Christian to die is to be with Christ. It is to continue living in a way that is far better than what we now have.
And then in the third chapter, Paul tells us that the best is yet to come. He says that “we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” As we heard this past Sunday, we are looking for the return of Jesus Christ on the Last Day when he will raise and transform our bodies to be like his perfect resurrected body that can never die again.
These are causes for thanksgiving! They are reasons to give thanks and praise to God. And in particular it is the forgiveness and life that we have in Christ that enables us to be content and give thanks in the midst of all circumstances.
In our text, as Paul thanks the Philippians for their gift, he acknowledges that for a time they had not been able to help him. He writes, “You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.
I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Now that word “content” was used by the Stoics to mean self-sufficient and free from dependence on anything. But Paul uses it in a completely different way, and we see this in the last verse I quoted. You are no doubt very familiar with the verse, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” But this text has been completely misunderstood.
First the statement “all things” refers to the things Paul has just been talking about: being brought low and abounding; being in plenty and hunger; being in abundance and need. It is has nothing to do with the claim that “I can do anything.”
And secondly, that statement more literally is “I have strength with respect to all things through him who strengthens me.” Paul says that because of Christ who strengthens him, he has the ability deal with all circumstances. He is able to be content not because he is self-sufficient, but because he is Christ dependent. Completely dependent on Christ the risen Lord, Paul had strength through Christ’s Spirit to deal with all circumstances.
He could face them all in faith. And he could face them all with thanksgiving because the ultimate gift of God for which he was thankful was Jesus Christ – the crucified and risen Lord. That was why Paul could say in the previous chapter about his former life in Judaism, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
On this Thanksgiving Eve, we are reminded of the many blessings that God has given to us. He has richly blessed us in so many ways that are related to the support of our body and life. Yet the greatest blessing is our Lord Jesus Christ in whom we have forgiveness and life. Jesus Christ the risen Lord is the One who strengthens us through his Spirit so that we are able to be content and give thanks in all circumstances.