One of our big failures as Christians is our continual refusal to discipline ourselves in living with the word of God. We need to study the Bible. It is the shaping source of our Christian faith and way. In it we find the revelation of God which God provided through God’s Son, Jesus. It is food for our souls, direction and strength for our journey.
But not only do we need to study the Bible, we need to read the Bible devotionally, and there is a difference. The sermon today comes out of my devotional reading of the Bible a few weeks ago. But before I get into the sermon, let me share with you the way I read the Bible devotionally. Perhaps this might be helpful.
In a time of quietness, reflection and prayer, I simply begin reading a pre-selected passage of scripture. With an open mind and heart I read until some word grabs my attention. I stay with that word, allowing it to tumble around in my mind. I seek to taste the word by reflecting upon it in my mind and heart. I ask the word questions and I allow the word to ask me questions, and then out of that reflection, in that moment I form the prayer that I want to offer to God in response to his word.
I was doing this with the Psalms when I came to this 50th Psalm – a portion of which is our scripture lesson today. I came upon that 15th verse, “And call upon me in your time of trouble and I will deliver you and you shall glorify me.” Now I don’t even know what was going on in my life at that particular time that caused that verse of scripture to be so significant, except that I am like most people… trouble is often my lot. Maybe I was concerned about one of our children; maybe I was wrestling with some problem; maybe I felt that someone or something was after me, and I was being tested. I know it wasn’t a huge earth-shaking thing or I would remember it. Nevertheless there it was, God’s word for me in that particular situation and I needed it. “And call upon me in your time of trouble and I will deliver you and you shall glorify my name.”
What a promise. Deliverance. None of us will pass through too much of our life without needing to lay hold upon that promise, because none of us will pass through too much of our life without being confronted with trouble. But as I reflected upon this staggering promise, I became aware of the fact that it was not a complete within itself. Though it’s a separate verse in the Bible, it begins with the word and. So I went back to read the entire sentence. If you have your Bible before you, look back at the 14th verse and you’ll find the beginning of the sentence. “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and pay your vows to the most high.” Then comes the promise: “and call upon me in the day of trouble, I will deliver you and you shall glorify me.” That set me to thinking all over again. And the word of the Lord came to me in a powerful way. There are conditions that we are to meet if we’re going to appropriate the promise of the Lord to deliver us.
Got that? There are conditions that we are to meet if we’re going to appropriate the promise if the Lord to deliver us. God is not making a wholesale promise here. You can’t lift this verse out of its context and use it as a kind of certified check in God’s bank. Well then, since this promise is so astounding and since none of us are going to pass through too much of life without needing to lay hold of it, what are the conditions that we need to meet in order to appropriate this promise of deliverance that God gives us?
The first condition is, offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving.
Another translation says, “make thanksgiving your offering.” Now that has a specially beautiful meaning if you see it in its entire context. If you go back to the tenth verse of that reading, you’ll see God talking about all that he is and all that he has, and then in that beautiful twelfth verse he says, “if I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.” What does a God like this, an omnipotent God who created and owns the whole universe – what does a God like this want? What does a God like this require of us? There it is. Offer to God a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Listen. God’s hunger; God’s deepest longing is satisfied by our love and gratitude. Does that make you stand at attention inside? I mean, does that make you feel tall inside? That the God of the universe, the one who created and owns the world is satisfied, God’s deepest longings are satisfied by your praise and thanksgiving?
What a way to think and live during this thanksgiving season, we need to learn that lesson. It’s so easy to forget. It’s so easy to lose touch with the source of life…how we got to where we are; all the blessing that have been poured out upon us. It’s easy to think that we are where we are today because of our own efforts. We’re like that man who was being honored at a banquet for things he had done. He stood to receive the award, but got his tongue twisted, and said, “I don’t appreciate this, but I certainly deserve it.” Well we put that sort of twist to the facts of our life. We interpret our success, our achievements and accomplishments, as the result of our own doing.
Now this came home to me in a powerful way, as I followed the devastating famine tragedy in Africa. I cut a picture off the front page of our local paper and kept it on my desk. It’s a picture of an old man, who looks to be about 100, but I have an idea he’s about 50. And on his back is the stereotypical emaciated little starving child, probably his grandchild. Three generations starving to death. Now I would feel better if I didn’t look at that picture, but I wouldn’t be better. One of the things I think about when I look at that picture is, I could have been born in anywhere in the world. Has that thought crossed your mind during the past two or three weeks? I could have been born in a place of famine, or a place ravaged by war. I could have been born in a place where people earn less than $2.00 a day. And when I think of that, it makes it easy for me to count my blessings – though I was born in rather severe poverty in Mississippi, in context of our world situation, that poverty in Mississippi would be considered rich.
Then I go from there. I did not earn – I simply received the gift of parents who loved me, who sacrificed for me, who encouraged me and supported me. I did not earn – I simply received the gift of a public school education. I didn’t earn – I simply received the right of citizenship in this great country, where I have the freedom to vote, and the freedom to speak out, and the freedom to enter into the political process that shapes the destiny of this nation. But I could have been born anywhere else. You see, it’s gift.
They say that Darwin kept a notebook to jot down the contradictions that he came across, contradictions against his theories, because he knew that if he didn’t jot those contradictions down, he was so committed to his theories that he would forget them. Maybe we need to keep a notebook and record those things that we have received, things that have been given to us, things that have been done for us, blessings that we had absolutely nothing to do with them coming to us. I have an idea that that would change our lives.
Now there’s a facet to this truth that we need to look at in a particular way; and it’s suggested in the particular reading from the Revised Standard Version: the word is offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Now those two words don’t seem to go together. Sacrifice and thanksgiving. I don’t know all that that means, but it means at least this – even when we are not in the mood for thanksgiving, even when we have not recorded in our notebooks that for which we need to be grateful, we need to express gratitude. I’m telling you that gratitude can transform your life. I don’t care in what condition you find yourself; I don’t care in what depression you might be; I don’t care what’s going on in your life at this moment, if you can get in touch with the God of the universe who says to you, “offer a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” and do that, your life will be transformed. A sacrifice of thanksgiving means that the surface circumstances of life don’t have to merit it. Still we do it. Whatever the circumstances – our lives are to be an offering of gratitude.
But there’s more here. Another condition that we are to meet if we are going to appropriate the deliverance of the Lord, and it’s there in our text. Pay your vows to the most-high God. Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving. That’s the first condition to meet if we’re going to appropriate God’s deliverance. And the second is – pay your vows to the most-high God.
Not long ago, I sat with a man who was on the verge of death; cancer was ravaging his body, and he was anguishing in what seemed to be a hopeless situation. I spent about 30 minutes with him in the hospital room. His despair was punctuated with prayerful pleas that he might live a bit longer. In fact, he said, if he could make it just another year. He kept saying that he needed more time. There were things he wanted to do. Promises he wanted to keep. He wanted to pay back debts he owed; he wanted to make up for some failures that he had experienced. Here was a desperate man who wanted to pay his vows to the most-high God.
Alas, he was too late. But it isn’t too late for us. Are there commitments that you made which you haven’t kept? Are there vows to the Lord that you have not followed through on? This is what the Lord is saying to us today – listen – Do the things you promised when you received my love and forgiveness. Keep the vows you made when you accepted my salvation. That’s the word of the Lord for us today.
It’s one of the most fantastic promises in scripture: call upon me in your day of trouble, and I will deliver you. But that promise is based upon two conditions – One, offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving; and two, pay your vows to the most-high God. We can keep both of those promises today. The question is, will we. It’s the only way we are going to know deliverance.