Sermon for 20th Sunday after Pentecost (Thanksgiving)

Text: Philippians 4:6a, 7, 12b, 13
Don't worry about anything … God's peace, which is far beyond human understanding, will keep your hearts and minds safe in union with Christ Jesus.
I am content, whether I am full or hungry, whether I have too much or too little. I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me.


Martin Rinckart

Now thank we all our God!

A favourite hymn for a Thanksgiving Festival is ‘Now thank we all our God’. It’s a wonderful hymn of thanks that highlights God's love and care for each of us along life’s journey. From the moment we are born into the world ‘he has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love and still is our today.’ Let’s sing the first verse.

Now thank we all our God
with hearts and hands and voices
who wondrous things has done,
in whom the world rejoices
who from our mother's arms
has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.

This is one of the great hymns in the Christian Church. It's a hymn that fits almost any occasion. It is sung at weddings, at funerals, at dedications, on occasions as we have today. The hymn written 363 years ago is saturated with praise and thanks to God. You get the impression that the author, Martin Rinckart, must have experienced so many good things in his life, and had so many good things going for him, that he couldn’t help but give thanks and praise to God for all the good that God had shown toward him.

But let me tell you a little about Martin Rinckart, which I believe, makes this hymn even greater and more meaningful. Martin Rinckart (born 1586) was the son of a poor coppersmith. Because of his talent in music and through hard work, he went to university at Leipzig. In 1617 at the age of 31 he became the Lutheran pastor to the people of Eilenburg, in Saxony, Germany. At about the same time as he arrived in Eilenburg The Thirty Years War began and the Swedish army advanced through Saxony devastating the surrounding countryside. Refugees started to flood into the walled town for safety. Overcrowding, poor sanitation and a shortage of food created many problems. A terrible plague (the bubonic plague) broke out among the people. Other ministers in the town left or fell ill and died; the whole town council except for three died; some 8,000 people died.

People were always at Rinckart’s door and he gave away almost everything he had, even the rations for his own family. In one year (1637) he is said to have conducted funerals for more than 4,000 people who died from the dreaded fever. Even though Rinckart was in daily contact with those who fell ill and died, he remained in good health and was able to keep on caring for those suffering, dying and grieving.

To add to the suffering of the people of Eilenburg the town was raided and sacked first by the catholic Austrians and then the Lutheran Swedes. In spite of all this devastation and senseless death, it would not surprise us to hear that Rinckart had lost his faith in the love of God,
questioned where God was during all this,
and why did he allow so much suffering not only in the town of Eilenburg but throughout Germany - one third of German towns were destroyed and the male population was halved.

But he didn’t.
He didn’t focus on the losses and devastation he had seen
or the sadness that filled his heart over the loss of so many friends
or the brutal killing of his parishioners including women and children at the hands of marauding armies.
Instead he focused on the God of grace who faithfully keeps his promises, especially when the cruelty and barbarism of humanity takes control
and life on a personal level is taking some unexpected turns.
The people he loved should have been able to live at peace but instead heartache and suffering was all they felt. It was in the middle of wars and plagues that Rinckart penned a poem ‘Now thank we all our God’. It was soon put to music.

As peace was restored this hymn was adopted all over Germany as a solemn expression of thanksgiving for the end of so much bloodshed. In homes it was sung before meals as a grace. Nothing could be more moving than these words which sprung from the heart of a very grateful man and sung by people who had lost much but could still raise their voices in a song of thanksgiving to God.

The second verse speaks about our bounteous God, our generous God who is always near us giving us the assurance of his presence, peace and grace even when the events in the world around us are so confusing and troubling. With God we can be at peace even when there is nothing but chaos happening around us.

O may this bounteous God
through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts
and blessed peace to cheer us;
and keep us in his grace,
and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills
in this world and the next.

This verse is exactly what Paul was talking about when he says to his Philippian friends, ‘Don't worry about anything … God's peace, which is far beyond human understanding, will keep your hearts and minds safe in union with Christ Jesus’. Paul knew what it was like to face all kinds of trouble and suffering. He had a very difficult time being a missionary for Christ. He had travelled far and wide, not by jet or air-conditioned train, but on foot, walking over the dusty and treacherous roads, crossing dangerous seas, and meeting fierce opposition in some towns. He was stoned, locked in jail, dragged before magistrates, jostled by angry crowds, shipwrecked, you name it. He was most likely a prisoner in Rome when he wrote these words, "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances."

There was no doubt about it, there was a contentment about Paul that banished all worry and anxiety and enabled him to give praise and thanks to God even though his circumstances were anything but pleasant. Paul had copped it but he was still able to say, "I am content".

When we look at the lives of people like the apostle Paul and Martin Rinckart we wonder how these people could be so positive in the face of so much adversity. It's not normal to feel contented when your whole world has been turned upside down.

You and I know what it's like. When things go wrong, when we are upset, uptight, depressed, discontented we feel anything but comfortable, satisfied, and relaxed. The mere fact that things aren't going well for us makes us discontented. We wish things were better. We worry and fret over so many things and it's so easy to become unhappy and dissatisfied when confronted with adversity, too many bills, disloyal friends, or whatever.

In spite of everything Paul was able to feel contented. His contentment was focused on something beyond what is earthly.
Paul was content because Jesus Christ was very much a part of his life.
He was absolutely convinced of Jesus’ love for him and of his constant presence in every circumstance of life.
He was sure that Jesus’ loyalty to him as Friend and Saviour could be counted on even when everyone had given up on him and everything else had gone against him. As he said, "If God is for us, who can be against us? Certainly not God … He gave us his Son - will he not also give us all things?" (Rom 8:31,32).

He was content because he was sure that he rested securely in the love of God. He said, "I am certain that nothing ... in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 838,39). Do you see why Paul was so confident and contented? There was nothing more sure and enduring in his life than the love of God for him. Trouble will come and go but God's love never ends. That's why he could be content.

God and his love for you never changes, even though the circumstances of your life may change dramatically from day to day. Faith in Jesus Christ directs your attention away from the suffering and pain that can be so overwhelming to see that nothing can take God's love away from you, not even death itself. You may wonder about the wisdom of God, or think that he doesn’t really care, or question whether he even loves you, but that doesn’t change the fact one bit that God's love for each of us is constant and always strong.

London's great preacher, Charles Spurgeon, once told of riding through the English countryside where he saw that the weathervane on a farmhouse had these words written on it: "God is love".
The sight so intrigued Spurgeon that he went to the farmer and said, "Why did you put those words on the weathervane? Do you mean that God's love is as inconsistent as the wind?"
The answer came quickly, "No, not all. I mean that God is love no matter from what direction the wind blows."

God is love no matter from what direction the wind is blowing in our life. He is good today, and will be good tomorrow, no matter what circumstances we may find ourselves in, or how we may feel about them. God is good.

God is the Creator and Ruler of the universe, yet it is this same mighty God who tends to our smallest needs. Nothing happens without his knowledge. Every detail and every need is known to him, the Almighty Lord.

Paul writes, ‘I am content’. Even though life hasn't always been a picnic, he is contented and confident. The most important thing is that he is God's and so without hesitation could say, "I can do everything through him who gives me strength. "

Like Paul we can be sure that undergirding us in every circumstance of life are some everlasting arms that will not let go. We can walk with confidence and courage.

That kind of contentment doesn't just happen though. It has to be learnt, and it requires faith in Christ. It means learning to live contentedly when times are bad, as well as when they are good. It means reminding ourselves that we are Christ’s, he has saved us with his own life and he is not going to let anything happen to us now. It means going back to our baptism and the promises in God's Word that we are God's children, he is our Father in heaven and that we are special and loved by him. Nothing and no-one can take that way from us.

It’s easy to be discontented, to want something more than we have been given, to want things to be so different in our lives to the point that we are unhappy and stressed. At a Thanksgiving Service we thank God for his daily provision of what we need and his constant watchfulness over us. And so we stop and count our blessings. Name them one by one. See what God has done for us. See how satisfied and contented we are with God by our side.

Today let's thank God for every blessing we have received from his hand, food, clothing, good homes, good government, our families, our church, our country. But even if we had none of these things and were in a situation like Martin Rinckart we would still have reason to praise and thank God – his love, care, forgiveness never change even though circumstances in our lives change.
Let us praise God for his overwhelming concern for our well being.
Let us join with people who have sung this hymn over the centuries and thank the God who does so much for us.

All praise and thanks to God
who reigns in highest heaven,
to Father and to Son
the Spirit now be given:
the one eternal God,
whom earth and heaven adore,
who ever was, is now,
and shall be evermore.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
14th October 2007

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