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The holiday God requires

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Psalm 100

What is your favorite holiday? According to all the surveys, Christmas is America’s first choice. Yet it may surprise you to learn that it was not celebrated until 336 A.D., and did not become popular in America until the 1860s. And no one is sure when Jesus’ birth actually occurred. It is observed on December 25 because early Christian leaders wanted to replace Saturnalia, a popular pagan holiday observed on that day.

The holiday which comes in last in popularity for Americans is Thanksgiving. Only 2% rank it their favorite. Would you? God does.

It is a glorious and wonderful thing to celebrate the birth of Jesus. We should do so every day. But thanksgiving is the one observance which is commanded by our Lord, absolutely mandated by the Scriptures: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Thanksgiving is the will of God.

Why is thanksgiving so important to God? How can it be more important to us? Today’s message teaches this simple fact: thanksgiving is the key to the presence and power of God. The power you need for your life and problems today. Our text will show us how to use that key this morning.

Be thankful for who God is (Psalm 100)

What are we to do? Here are seven imperatives, seven commands in this famous psalm.

“Shout to the Lord”—”shout” means to participate actively and publicly in vocalizing your praise to God. This is no spectator sport, no watching professionals or musicians perform. To “shout” involves your voice, your mind, your emotions, your spirit, your body. To give everything to personal, passionate worship.

“Worship the Lord with gladness”—”worship” here means to orient your entire life and existence to your sovereign Master, to give him your whole heart, to surrender your entire life to his service. This is 24/7, not just an hour at church. To yield your life all day, every day, to his Lordship. Do this with “gladness,” rejoicing for the privilege.

“Come before him with joyful songs”—literally, “come into his presence through joyful singing.” “Presence” means his face. Get so close to God that you can see his face. Twice over the years, I have heard the President of the United States speak, in the same room. Both times I was so far away that it could have been his brother, or his wife, for that matter. Get into the closest possible presence of God with your worship.

“Know that the Lord is God”—”know” means to acknowledge or confess personally, to admit publicly that the Lord is God over all the world. This is a public confession, made proudly and boldly.

“Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.” More of this in a moment.

“Give thanks to him”—once you are in his presence, give thanks to God. The 100th psalm carries the Hebrew inscription, “for giving thanks.” It is the only psalm in the Bible which does.

“Praise his name”—the “name” of God denotes his presence, his personality, his very essence. Praise God himself.

Here are the commands of God, his expectations of us. They come to this: give thanks to God, this day and every day.

Who should do this: “all the earth.” Is anyone excluded? Anyone today left out? No matter our singing ability. I may be the only person you know who was invited not to join his church youth choir. But I can sing in this choir loft. And so can you.

No matter our religious background. As you know, Jews thought God made Gentiles so there would be firewood in hell. But here Gentiles are invited into the worship of God.

No matter our religious achievements. No sins can keep us from God’s love; no failures can bar the way. No sin is beyond the grace and forgiveness of our Father. If you dwell on the earth, you are invited to the worship of the Lord God.

Why do this? Because of who this God is:

He is “Lord.” This is the Hebrew word YHWH, transliterated “Yahweh.” It was the holiest name in all the Hebrew language. It means “the One who was, is, and is to come.” Lord of all time and eternity. Lord of your past, present, and future.

He is “God.” This is the Hebrew word Elohim, meaning “one who is great, mighty, and dreadful.” Yahweh says who God is; Elohim says what he does. He does great, mighty, awe-ful things.

He is “good” (5a). This Hebrew word means that God keeps his promises, out of his character and nature. He is righteous, trustworthy, and holy. He deserves our thanks.

Theologian Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.: “It must be an odd feeling to be thankful to nobody in particular. Christians in public institutions often see this odd thing happening on Thanksgiving Day. Everyone in the institution seems to be thankful ‘in general.’ It’s very strange. It’s a little like being married in general.”

Be thankful for who God is. Such thanksgiving is the key to the presence and power of our Lord.

Be thankful for what God does

The psalmist calls us to give thanks for who God is, and now for what God does. Here we see the blessings of the Lord in three tenses.

First, what he has done for us in the past: “He made us” (3b). He created us, each and every one of us.

Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” If you dwell in the heavens or on the earth, he made you. There are no exceptions here.

Here are some facts I learned this week about these bodies God has made. Your body is made of 100 trillion cells; 300 million of them die every minute. Your brain possesses 100 billion nerve cells. Each square inch of your skin contains 20 feet of blood vessels; placed end to end, your body’s blood vessels would measure 62,000 miles. That’s how far your blood travels each day. That same square inch of skin has an average of 32 million bacteria on it. Your eyes are the same size as when you were born, but your nose and ears never stop growing. Every year 98% of the atoms in your body are replaced. And when you sneeze, all your bodily functions stop—including your heart.

Your God made all that, when he made you.

In the past God created us, then redeemed us. He made us, and then he bought us.

“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Now, “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (v. 9).

One of the first stories I ever heard in a sermon was about the boy who built himself a little red toy sailboat. He loved it, and played with it every day. Until the day the string broke and it sailed down the river and out of his sight. He was crushed.

A few days later he saw his boat in the window of a pawn shop. He went to get it back, but the owner told him he’d have to buy it. So he saved every nickel until he had enough money. He took it to the shop and retrieved his boat. As he left the store he said to the boat in his hands, “Now you’re mine twice. I made you the first time, and I bought you the second.”

Be thankful for all that God has done for you in the past. Next, be thankful for what he does in the present: “we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture” (v. 3).

“We are his,” for he made us. He “owns the patent.” He is our owner and master.

And so we are “his people, the sheep of his pasture.” This means that he knows us intimately and personally, as a shepherd knows his sheep. The shepherd lives with his sheep. He sleeps in their field, and walks at their side. He weathers their storms, faces their enemies, comforts their fears. He knows his sheep intimately.

In John 10 Jesus says of himself, “the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (v. 3). Jesus knows your name. He knows every detail of your life. And he loves you intimately. Nothing shall ever separate you from his love (Romans 8:35-39).

We think we have earned what we have today, but we’re wrong.

If we were to shrink the world’s population to a village of precisely 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same, that village would contain the following: 57 Asians, 21 Europeans, 14 from the Western hemisphere, and 8 Africans. 52 would be female, 48 male. 6 would possess 59% of the world’s wealth. 80 would live in substandard housing; 70 would be unable to read; 50 would suffer from malnutrition. Do you know how many would have a college education? One. How many would own a computer? One.

Did you deserve to have physical abilities and not challenges? To be born in America and not Iraq? To have parents who would love you and not abuse you? To have the privileges and opportunities you enjoy today?

Be thankful for what God has done in the past, and what he does in the present. Now be thankful for what he will do in the future: “his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations” (v. 5).

Here’s a glimpse of our future: “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away'” (Revelation 21:3-4).

Our finite and fallen minds cannot begin to comprehend the future God has in store for us: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

Conclusion

Give thanks because of who God is, and what he does. When we do, our thanksgiving ushers us into the presence of God: “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise” (v. 4). The “gates” of the Temple were the first entry point; the “courts” were the area where worship was given.

When we worship the Lord, giving thanks to him, we are able to enter past the gates and into the courts of the Almighty. This is how we enter his presence, and experience his power. This is how we meet with God. In this way and no other. Thanksgiving unlocks the gates of heaven. It is their only key.

Is Thanksgiving a holiday or a holy day for you? Is it an annual event or a daily experience? When you see who God is, and what he does in the past, present, and future, can you hold back your thanks and praise? Does he not deserve our attitude of gratitude, thanksgiving as a daily experience and lifestyle? This is how you experience God, in all his holiness and power, grace and glory. This is the one holiday God requires.

I found this poem this week, and it has lifted my spirits every day:

My heart is overflowing with gratitude and praise,

To Him whose loving kindness has followed all my days;

To Him who gently leads me by cool and quiet rills

And with their balm of comfort my thirsty spirit fills.

Within the vale of blessing, I walk beneath the light

Reflected from His glory, that shines forever bright.

I feel His constant presence wherever I may be;

How manifold His goodness, how rich His grace to me!

My heart is overflowing with love and joy and song,

As if it heard an echo from yonder ransomed throng.

Its every chord is vocal with music’s sweetest lay,

And to its home of sunshine it longs to fly away.

I feign would tell the story, and yet I know full well

The half was never, never told—the half I cannot tell.

Fanny Crosby wrote these words. Her eyes were blind. But her heart saw God, and gave him thanks. Does yours?