Posted by: Johnold Strey | November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving Sermon on Philippians 4:10-20 (2008)



This is going to be a different kind of Thanksgiving this year, isn’t it?  Your home’s value isn’t what it was a year ago.  Your salary was cut, or maybe even your job, because of the economic slump.  Your retirement savings took a big hit when stocks plummeted.  And it seems to me that there are few families who don’t have some sort of personal struggle or crisis to deal with on top of the less than stellar economic news.  I don’t know about you, but I have a feeling that for most of us, this Thanksgiving is going to feel different.  I have a feeling that there’s going to be a little part inside of us tomorrow that sits down at the dinner table with a sigh and thinks that there isn’t as much to be thankful for this year as there was last year.  There’s a little part of us that might just be skeptical enough to blurt out, “Thanks for nothing,” when we consider how life has changed in the past year.

If that thought passes your mind tomorrow, I hope you won’t entertain it too long.  And if that thought passes your mind this evening, then you’ve come to the right place to send those thoughts packing.  Tonight we’re going to spend some time focusing on one of the traditional Scripture lessons read on Thanksgiving, Philippians 4:10-20.  And when you find out the circumstances around this reading, you’ll realize that there is no reason to grumble, “Thanks for nothing!” this Thanksgiving.  No matter what your personal struggles are and no matter what effect the national economy has had in your life, the Apostle Paul will help us put everything back in perspective as we study the following words from his letter to the Philippians.

I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need. Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account. I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent.  They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever.  Amen.


If you don’t know the background of this letter, then the excerpt I just read might sound like a friendly encouragement to be thankful in all situations-an appropriate thought for Thanksgiving.  But Paul’s words carry so much more weight, and not only because they are words inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Paul was actually under house arrest in Rome for preaching the gospel.  He had some degree of freedom to visit people who came to him, but for the most part his freedom to do as he pleased was taken away.  So when Paul says, “I rejoice greatly in the Lord” under these circumstances-well, that makes us sit up and take notice.

The section of Paul’s letter to the Philippians that you just heard came at the end of his letter.  Before he closes the letter, he spends several verses thanking the Christians in Philippi for a special gift they had sent to him through a man named Epaphroditus.  Apparently they had heard about his house arrest and his difficult situation for some time, but they weren’t able to send him a gift as quickly as they wanted.  At the start of our reading, Paul said, “I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me.  Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.” Some Bible scholars think that a regional famine had impoverished the area, and so the Philippians couldn’t send him a gift earlier for that reason.  Others have suggested that they didn’t have a messenger who would deliver their gift to Paul for some time, and that’s the reason their gift was delayed.  Perhaps it was one of those reasons, or maybe another reason.   Regardless, their gift had finally reached Paul, and he wanted them to know how grateful he was for the gift.

Paul also used the occasion of their gift as a “teachable moment.”  He was grateful for their gift, but he also wanted them to know that he had a reason to be joyful regardless of wealth or poverty, and regardless of good or bad circumstances.  “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

Paul’s life had taken all sorts of turns.  He enjoyed the advantages of being a Roman citizen.  He enjoyed the advantages of an education that was second to none.  But he also suffered persecution for being a Christian.  He experienced beatings, imprisonment, and even a shipwreck, and all of it directly or indirectly connected to his work as a pastor and missionary.

It’s one thing for Paul to be thankful when things were going well, but how could he claim “to be content whatever the circumstances”?  How could he say, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation”?  How could he write a letter like Philippians, sprinkled with the words “joy” and “rejoice” throughout its four chapters, when he was under arrest?

The answer to that question is subtle, but it’s found in a couple of different places in our reading.  He began this section with this thought: “I rejoice greatly in the Lord.” And at the end of our reading, he said, “My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” Paul couldn’t imagine muttering, “Thanks for nothing,” because as far as he was concerned, he had everything in Christ Jesus.  No poverty could take away the riches of Christ’s righteousness.  No bad day could erase the glorious day of Jesus’ resurrection.  Not even death could eliminate the saving work Jesus accomplished for us by his death on Calvary’s cross.  Paul looked at the spiritual blessings that were his in Christ — forgiveness of sins, peace with God, membership in God’s family, and the promise of heaven — and he concluded that he had everything he could possibly want and more.  Paul had every reason in the world to be thankful.


And so do we!  That’s an important lesson for us to learn in a tough economy.  That’s an important lesson to learn when we’re making family budget cuts.  That’s an important lesson to learn when we’re dealing with loneliness or uncertainty or declining health or increasing tension.  But that’s a lesson we’re prone to forget.  We quickly forget the spiritual riches we have from God in Christ.  We quickly forget that our greatest treasure is not the stuff in our homes but our eternal home in heaven.  We quickly lose focus on the many spiritual reasons to give thanks, but apart from Jesus’ redemption, God would have every reason to withhold all his blessings from us for all eternity.

Last Sunday, we had visitors in our service who live in Japan.  The couple was baptized by one of our WELS missionaries in Japan, and the husband was also a confirmed member of one of our WELS Japanese mission congregations.  The day after they visited, I received a “thank you” email message from the Japanese gentleman.  His message really puts things into perspective, and I’d like to read part of his message to you right now.  “Dear Pastor Strey, greetings to you.  Thank you for inviting us last Sunday.  I was very glad to hear to God’s Word with the members of your church.  In times of trouble many Japanese people call on man-made gods who cannot hear their prayers or help them.  I am blessed.  The true God has given me His Word.  He recorded His Word to give me true comfort and hope.  I will continue to ‘grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior.’ (2 Peter 3:18) I will say again: Thank you!  Please say hello to your church’s members.”

Isn’t that phenomenal?  Doesn’t that put into perspective how much we have to be thankful for?  Many of you remember memorized Luther’s words in catechism class, that God has given us “clothing and shoes, food and drink, property and home, spouse and children, … all that I own and all that I need to keep my body and life.” But on top of all these good earthly gifts from God are the far greater spiritual blessings he has given.  Because just like this fellow Christian who lives an ocean away from us, you and I have the treasures of God’s Word.  You and I have reason to thank God not just for beautiful weather or a beautiful area in which to live, but for our “Beautiful Savior, King of Creation, Son of God and Son of Man.” (Christian Worship #369:1) Our greatest reason to thank God is embodied in his Son, Jesus Christ.  In his great mercy, Jesus went to the cross to pay the penalty for our sins so that sin’s punishment cannot touch us.  And in his great might, Jesus burst out of his tomb to prove that he has conquered sin and death and hell.  And in his magnificent grace, Jesus sends his Holy Spirit through his Holy Word and Holy Baptism and Holy Communion to deliver his forgiveness to each one of you personally.  And for that, we can say to God, “Thanks for everything” this Thanksgiving holiday.

On top of that, we can also, in a sense, say, “Thanks for nothing!”  Thank you, Lord that you have promised that nothing can separate us from your love in Christ Jesus.  Thank you, Lord, that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  Thank you, Lord, that because of your Son Jesus, we have no reason to fear tomorrow and no reason to fear the final judgment.  Thank you, Lord, that because of your clear Word and precious promises, there is no doubt of your love for us and no doubt of our status before you in Christ.


This Thanksgiving, we can say to God in true faith, “Thanks for nothing!” and “Thanks for everything!”  Amen.



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