Posted by: Johnold Strey | November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Sermon on Philippians 4:10-20 (2009)


Text: Philippians 4:10-20


As I listened to the radio last weekend, the news was not pretty.  The unemployment rate in California reached 12.5%.  One in eight California residents are out of work—and that doesn’t count those who have stopped searching for work or who are underemployed.  At a little over ten percent, the nation’s statistics aren’t much better.  With money tight and jobs at a loss, it doesn’t exactly create the kind of mood we’d want for the Thanksgiving holiday, does it?

Maybe you know someone in that situation who still manages to keep his chin up.  Maybe you know someone who says, “Well, I lost my old job, but I’m sure that God has something better in store.”  Or maybe that person says, “Well, I lost my job, and money is tight right now, but I’ve got a chance to be with family more than I ever did before, and so I’ll appreciate that perk as long as it lasts.”

In one of the Bible readings we heard a few minutes ago, the apostle Paul seemed to demonstrate that perspective, the perspective that says, “The glass is half-full.”  Near the start of our reading, he says, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances,” and a little later, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.”  Paul seemed to be the “glass is half-full” kind of person, at least based on these comments.


Maybe Paul’s life was cushy enough that he could say something like that.  He was well-educated.  He traveled the known world.  He was a well-known and highly respected missionary.  So was his “glass half-full” perspective merely because life never got hard for him?

Nothing could be further for the truth.  In fact, Paul had some real hardships facing him even as he wrote this very positive, joy-filled letter.  Paul says to the Philippians in verse 14, “It was good of you to share in my troubles.”  And troubles he had!  Philippians is one of several New Testament letters that Paul wrote while he was under house arrest in Rome, waiting for a hearing before Caesar.  Although all signs pointed to his eventual release, there was still a possibility that Paul might not walk away from his trial alive.  Even if those odds were only one or two percent, you’d think that a possibility like that might ruin your day!  You’d think Paul would launch into requests for petitioning the government and coming to his aid.  When Paul says he is content under any circumstance, even the circumstances surrounding this letter, it makes us take notice!

But it also makes our problems pale by comparison.  Paul was content in poverty and hunger.  You and I are discontent when the repair man arrives late.  Paul was content living under house arrest with restricted freedoms.  You and I are discontent when the barista forgets to put the extra shot in our beverage.  The American way of life in a hard recession is still better than most of the rest of the world!  But we’ll still Twitter about our petty troubles on our iPhones, thinking that we still don’t have the gadgets and gizmos we need (translation: want).  The last thing on our mind is the encouragement Jesus gave in his Sermon on the Mount, which was echoed in the children’s song tonight:

Seek first God’s reign, his boundless grace, His holy name in all you do:

Christ first and last in ev’ry place; All else will then be given you (CWS #762:6).

No thanks to our inbred sinful nature, we tend to seek our desires first, and make God’s kingdom last on the list.  Pews with empty places and leftovers for offerings testify where our priorities are—and aren’t.  But that’s not merely a problem with misplaced priorities.  That’s a problem with sin.  That’s a problem that fails to honor the First Commandment, to fear, love, and trust in God above all things.  That’s a problem that ought to lock us up, not under temporary house arrest, but into hell for all eternity.


How is it, then, that Paul could be so positive?  Paul had real reason to be discontent—he was thrown in jail just for preaching the gospel.  What kept him holding his chin up so high?

Was this a public relations move on his part?  If he wrote to the Philippians, told them about his poor plight, but kept a positive attitude, would they be so impressed with his spirit that they would be inspired to help him out in some sort of way?  That certainly seems like it would work.  It certainly seems like a wise way to muster some ministry support.  But it wasn’t what Paul was up to.

If we take a look at our reading, Paul wasn’t trying to draw a gift out of them.  Rather, he wanted to thank them for the gifts they had already sent, including a recent gift he had just received from a messenger named Epaphroditus.  “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.”

Maybe there was a different reason Paul stayed so positive.  Maybe he really didn’t have to face tough times.  Sure, he was under house arrest, but when you are given your own apartment in Rome, how bad could it be?  Could it be that Paul really didn’t have it as bad as we first thought?

Paul’s circumstances may not have seemed too bad under house arrest, but that’s in comparison to his previous work as a missionary.  This is the man who was stoned and left for dead.  This was the man who endured a shipwreck on his journey to Rome for his impending trial.  This is the man who was driven out of cities by angry mobs of people who didn’t like what he had to say about Jesus.  This man meant it when he said, “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.”


How could Paul say that?  What was his secret?  How could he be content, satisfied, and thankful in any and every situation?  His answer is subtle, but you will find it near the end of our reading.  After thanking the Philippians for their gift, he said, “My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”  Paul told the Philippians that they could find their contentment and thankfulness in the riches of Jesus Christ.  This verse sounds quite a bit like something Paul wrote in another one of his letters.  In 2 Corinthians 8:9, Paul said, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

The Philippians’ real riches came from the precious blood of Jesus Christ.  The Philippians’ greatest need was satisfied when the innocent Son of God laid down his life as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  And the God who gave so great a gift to Paul and the Philippians, would also make sure that their all of their needs and necessities were met.

But Paul’s thankfulness came from even more than God’s reliable goodness and his gracious forgiveness in the past.  Notice what unusual phrase Paul used to talk about God in this verse: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength”—and we could clarify the thought this way: “I can do everything through him who keeps on giving me strength.”  If God’s grace and goodness were only past blessings, that would hardly have kept Paul smiling in his present troubles.  But the Holy Spirit used the gospel promises in the Scriptures and the gracious forgiveness of the Sacrament to keep Paul strong in faith and full of thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving Day is usually a time when we think about our material blessings.  We thank God for our parents and children, for the income that pays the bills and the food that keeps our bodies fueled and the clothes that keep us warm and the roofs that keep us dry.  We certainly ought to thank God for those daily, material blessings.  But what good would any of those things be were it not for the salvation Christ won for us on the cross?  What good would a family Thanksgiving feast be if our final family reunion was going to be in hell?  What joy would love and laughter bring us if it were only a temporary delay to God’s permanent judgment?  Not much!

And so we give thanks to God today not just for food, family, and friends.  We thank God tonight, tomorrow, and always for sending his Spirit to plant faith in our hearts which clings to the forgiveness that is ours through Christ’s sacrifice, and which looks forward to the eternal future that awaits us through Jesus’ victory over death.  We thank God that he sent his Son to become one of us so that we could become one again with him.  We thank God that he did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all so that we would be declared innocent in his eyes and forgiven in his sight.  We thank God that he will not abandon us to the grave, just as he did not allow his holy Son to see decay, but raised him back to life and will do the same for us one day.  We thank God that in feast and famine, we have the riches of faith and forgiveness that no terror, trouble, or turmoil can diminish.


Tonight we’ll “stretch out” our stomachs a bit with our post-service pie and ice cream social.  Tomorrow we’ll fill up our stomachs again with turkey and trimmings and fill up our minds with another set of memories.  On Friday, you might dare to fight the crowds and fill up your shopping carts with bargains and gifts for Christmas gift giving.  But it doesn’t take any of those things to fill your hearts with gratitude.  The true secret to thankfulness in any and every situation is the good news that Jesus Christ has filled your spiritual account with his holiness, he has erased the record of all your sin, and he has filled your future with the heavenly peace and bliss that he secured just for you.  That’s reason enough to conclude with Paul, “To our God and Father be glory forever and ever.  Amen.”



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