With Thanksgiving to God
November 21st, 1965 @ 10:50 AM
WITH THANKSGIVING TO GOD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
11-21-65 10:50 a.m.
We are most happy to welcome our listeners on the radio and our fellow worshippers on television, we who are gathered this holy day, this Thanksgiving Lord’s Day in the First Baptist Church in Dallas. The sermon delivered by the pastor is entitled With Thanksgiving to God. The one hundredth Psalm:
Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.
Serve the Lord with gladness: come before His presence with singing.
Know ye that the Lord He is God: it is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture.
Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise: be thankful unto Him, and bless His name.
For the Lord is good; His mercy is everlasting; and His truth endureth to all generations.
Even our own. The thanksgiving verse, “Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise: be thankful unto Him, and bless His name” [Psalm 100:4]. If I were in a prayer service or a thanksgiving hour, I might stand up and speak words of personal testimony such as these I deliver at this morning hour.
It is something out of my own life, something to speak of; maybe God will bless, if the words that I say are words that you would have said, and the providences of life that I have been through are like experiences in your testimony. Maybe God will bless us all together as we render thanksgiving and gratitude unto Him. For you see, as the days have multiplied and the years have come and gone, I have learned to be thankful for the gracious goodness of God in ways that in days past I was not thankful for, and that is the sermon this morning. Things in days past in my life, that in their coming and in their living were sometimes hard and grievous; but today, as I have grown in grace, and as I look back over them, today I am thankful for them.
So first: I grew up in a poor home, in a poor family, a poor boy. And at the time I felt it deeply and sometimes grievously. For you see it is very easy for a poor boy to contrast his life and lot with other children and with other families who are far more affluent. And in those days, growing up as a boy and being conscious of the need and the lack in which I lived, there were many, many times when I resented and was offended by the cruel providences of life that put me in a poor family, and to grow up as a poor boy. But as the years have passed and I have grown in my own soul and in the knowledge of the mercies of God, today I am thankful and I am grateful that I grew up in a poor family and as a poor boy.
For one thing, I notice that there are electric lights in our home. We never had electric lights. We lived by a kerosene lamp. I notice that we have water in our house. We never had running water in our home. I notice that we have a bathroom. We never had a bathroom in our house. All the years of my upbringing I took a bath in a zinc washtub, and carried the water from the well, or wherever I could get it, to pour into the tub. I notice that we have a car at our house and there are paved streets on which to drive it. I never saw a paved street when I was growing up. I never saw a paved highway, and of course we never had a car.
I can well remember as a lad that I had seven nickels, seven of them. And I would look at them, and count them, and recount them, and carefully place them away, having saved them over a long period of time. And I could hardly realize that I was so rich as to have seven nickels. So the whole gamut of life, I notice all of these things that are so enjoyable and so contribute to the ease of a modern family.
There is not a child that grows up today that even realizes it. They’re not conscious of the fact they have electric lights, or that they have water, or that they have a bathroom, or that they have money, or that they have a car, or that they have a paved street. They are conscious of none of these things. They don’t even notice them. They have possessed them and enjoyed them all of their lives; but I notice it, and I am grateful that I do.
As a lad, I grew up on a poor farm and in a little tiny town. There were no picture shows, there were no theaters. There were no vaudevilles. There were no radios. There were no televisions. All that was there was God, and God’s great creation around me. The stars above that I used to look at and wonder at night, and the whole immensity of God’s world around me; the fragrant earth, the springtime, the snows of the winter, the harvests; all of those things I lived with and was conscious of as a lad. This is God’s handiwork and this is the presence of the Lord. This modern group that grows up, if they ever look at a star, if they ever notice anything of the work of God, if they are conscious of how much we are dependent upon the soil, the earth, and its produce, if they are I have no consciousness of it among them.
For example, a few weeks ago I held a revival meeting in a country church in West Texas; the first time I’ve held a meeting in a rural church since I was a teenager. It brought back all of those things that I knew and loved in the many years that I was a pastor out in the country. And when the meeting was over, they took me to Lubbock to get an airplane back to the city of Dallas. There was a fierce storm from west to east going through Lubbock at the time, and the planes were delayed several hours. Finally, when the storm passed through, the whole eastern horizon was covered with an inky, dark blue, the back side of the storm as it progressed eastward. Then the sun setting toward the west; the afternoon, the sun declining in the west; built through, created across that dark curtain of blue the most vivid of rainbows; so vivid, so vivid that it was double. There was a glorious vivid rainbow and then another one, and so vivid that it came down to my feet. I was amazed. I was surprised. For the wet pavement of the airport in Lubbock carried the rainbow on both sides clear over the overarching sky and down on the wet pavement on both sides. Standing at the end of the rainbow; oh, what a glorious sight, what vivid color! And it stayed, and it stayed, and it stayed. And I watched the people there waiting for those airplanes, and I listened to their conversation. I never saw one in the airport look at the rainbow, not one. I never heard a man or a woman refer to it, not one. I never saw anybody point to it.
When finally we climbed up those steps to go into the plane, I stood there on the landing and watched the people as they came into the plane and into other planes to see if anybody would pause just to see. And not one did, not one! Standing on that elevated platform, I wanted to make it a pulpit and to cry aloud, “Look, look. This is the handiwork of God! This is the Lord’s bow of promise [Genesis 9:13-16]. Look at what God hath done.” But not one, not one, not one; enmeshed in the materialities of life, enmeshed in the gadgets and the things of life, enmeshed in all of the veneer of a cheap and a shallow culture and civilization; but never a knowledge of God, and never a feeling of the presence and the nearness of the Lord Jehovah Creator. Yet the finest things in life are not for sale. They are free. Like that popular song, “The Best Things in Life are Free,” God gives them to us. For those who have eyes to see they’re not bought. They’re not for sale.
Suppose that people had to pay
To see a sunset’s crimson play,
And the magic stars of the Milky Way . . .
Suppose it was fifty cents a night
To see the great moon’s saffron light,
Or watch a gull in its graceful flight.
Suppose God charged us for flowers and rain,
Put a purchase price on a bird’s glad strain
Of music . . . the dawn mist on the plain.
How much would an autumn landscape cost,
Or a window etched with winter frost,
And the rainbow’s glory, so quickly lost?
How much, I wonder, would it be worth
To smell the good, brown, fragrant earth
In spring . . .
The miracles of birth . . .
And love? How much would people pay
For the laugh of a child at close of day;
Suppose God charged us for these, I say:
Suppose we paid for a glimpse of hills,
For the song of rippling mountain rills,
And the mating song of the whippoorwills;
For curving green breakers on the sea,
For grace and beauty and majesty,
And all of the things God gives us free;
Ah, what a poor return for these
We yield at night on bended knees
Forgetting thanksgiving . . . mumbling our pleas . . .
Ignoring the moonlight across the floor,
The voice of a friend at the open door,
We beg the Master, Give me more, and more, and more.
[“Sunsets for Sale,” Carmen Judson]
And the best things, God’s things, in life are free. I am grateful that I grew up outside.
I grew up as a Baptist, and all of the corollaries, and concomitants, and attendants, and addendums that go with a little Baptist congregation. Oh, oh, oh, oh! I can remember times when I sat in the congregation, and they fired the pastor. Oh, even as a lad I just cringed! There would sit the pastor, and the people would get up in the congregation and say the most atrocious, and terrible, and scathing, and hurtful things against him. He’d sit right there. They stand up in open meeting at the church, and point their finger at him and say those things. And then when they got through saying all those things, stand up and fire him. Oh, those things! And in that little church one time, which is typical, they just broke it wide open. We had one little bank in the town. And the banker was a member of that little Baptist church, and they turned him out for dancing. Oh, the things that went on! And they just tore things apart, tore things apart. And I could go on and on about things in that little Baptist church.
And I finally came to wonder, as I became conscious of the church, and of Christendom, I finally came to wonder, would it not be better to have a dictatorship? Would it not be better to have an authoritarian hierarchy, who lets down, who sends down mandates, and judgments, and commandments? Because people who are free apparently can’t rule themselves, and what we need is an overlording bishopric to hand down these judgments to the people. I began to wonder those things.
Then as I grew older and became conversant with the processes of freedom and democracy, oh, how I became aware of what a price had been paid for just that privilege to say what a man wanted to say, and to vote as a man wanted to vote, and to speak as a man wanted to speak, and to be free to do as a man wanted to do. Out of that basic, fundamental liberty of conscience, that is the mother of all other liberties, there are no appointed overlords, but every man is a priest unto God in his own right, and the church is a fellowship of equals before God. Oh, how I became sensitive to those great blessings of our Baptist people!
The fifth day of January in 1527, in the Lamont River that pours out of the Zurich Lake, our great Baptist preacher Felix Manz was drowned. He had dared to stand up before an authoritarian church; the first martyr slain by the Protestants of the Reformation, standing up before an authoritarian church to say that a man’s soul ought to be free before God. And on the tenth day of March in 1528, in Vienna, Balthazar Hubmaier, our great scholar and preacher, was burned at the stake by the Roman church, and three days later his wife drowned in the Danube River, standing up to avow that there is no authoritarian mandate by man that can be enforced upon God’s people.
And in 1611 the pastor of our little English Baptist colony that had fled to Holland stood up before his people and said, “We ought not to remain away from England for fear of persecution or death. We must go back to our country and back to our people.” And in 1611, Thomas Helwys, the pastor of the little Baptist church returning to England, addressed a letter to King James I, and said, “Ye king is a mortal man and not God. And ye king has no power over ye immortal souls to appoint spiritual lords over us.” And they flung him into prison in 1611, and he stayed there until he wretchedly died in 1616. But he made a convert. He made a convert. He was a Puritan by the name of Roger Williams. Immigrated to America in 1631, and in 1635 was expelled from Massachusetts Bay colony in the dead of winter, seeking friendship among savages. Finding a place, called it Providence, and built there the first government in the earth where there might flourish a free church in a free state.
There are weaknesses in the processes of democracy that are blatant and apparent, I know. But I have come to be thankful to God for the freedom that comes from the hands of our blessed Lord, that every man is a soul unto himself before his great Maker. And there are no overlords appointed in this earth to coerce a man’s soul, or his conscience, or his church. And it has been this contribution to the world that has made our America great.
O God! beneath whose folded hand
So long hidden away
The secret of this wondrous land
We glory in today.
We thank Thee in faith profound
Our sires their sails unfurled,
And claimed as henceforth hallowed ground
This unsuspected world.
That here they suffered, toiled, and bled
For leave to keep Thy laws;
That here pure martyr’s blood was shed
For freedom’s holiest cause;
That through what Christian men have done,
By stress of conscience driven,
No other land beneath the sun
Owes half so much to Heaven!
Now in the zenith of our fame
The nations come at call,
To learn the secret that we claim
Must hold the world in thrall.
What is it? Not our armaments
On ocean nor on shore;
Not our marching armies
Nor our gold’s uncounted store.
Our faith hath made us what we are;
Beneath these skies so broad,
From Southern cross to Northern star,
Our people worship God!
[from “A Nation’s Contrition,” Margaret J. Preston, 1893]
And for years and years I was the pastor of small country churches, for ten years, ten full years––small, so very small, congregations of eighteen. And in those years that I was going to school, studying, poring over those books, year after year, studying, studying, studying, ten years; and I remained pastor of those little rural churches. And in those ten years of studying, and studying, and studying, and pastoring those little country and village churches, in those years I saw my compatriots and my compeers rise, and rise, and rise, insofar as we say rise, and rise, and rise. They came to be pastors of far-famed pulpits; these men, my compatriots, my fellow students. And while they were rising and rising, as we say, rising; in man’s judgment rising, because we think of churches as being little and big, small and great, influential and un-influential, strategic and not strategic. I’ve often wondered how it’s going to be when God judges a pastor’s work in heaven, and the size of his congregation, and the outreach of his ministry. I’ve wondered if there won’t be some surprises in glory, and some of these that are so wrapped up in their fame, and in their abilities, and in their talents, and in all of their successes and achievements, I wonder if God may not put the crown upon some lowly pastor that you never heard of, but who was faithful to God unto death and did a work for Jesus without thought of personal remuneration or recompense. I just wonder how it shall be someday.
Anyway, ten years is a long time. And for those ten years, I studied and studied and studied in school year after year, and pastored those little country churches. At the time it was long and grievous. And sometimes I was filled with, I was filled with envy that I could not suppress, insuppressible envy; these compeers rising and rising, and I out there in those little country churches. But as the years have passed and the days gone by, and now as I look back over the providences of God, I praise His name. And I am grateful for those years and the years that I spent in those rural churches, in those small villages and wide open country places.
I am grateful, one: I came to know the people that I pastored. I lived with them. I was a member of their very families, and I knew my people. Second: and I knew the church. Some of those little churches did not have a single man who belonged to it who would lead in public prayer. There was nothing in the church that I did not do. The Sunday school, the training union, the organization, the revival, all that enters into the life of a congregation of the Lord, I knew intimately, so intimately from the days of those years and years of pastoring. And as I look back, and reconsider on an elevation of the after years, looking down the slope of the mountain, I do not think God could have done for me any finer thing than to leave me out there in those country places for a decade, to learn, to learn, to learn, to be before God, to let my soul grow upward, God-ward, heavenward.
At Smith’s Grove, Kentucky, in Warren Association, on a cold winter day, we had our monthly workers conference. And up from Nashville, Tennessee, and the Sunday School Board, drove John L. Hill and B. B. McKinney; Dr. Hill to speak and B. B. McKinney to lead the singing. At ten o’clock that morning they divided up, and the women stayed inside of the church house and the men went out to an empty parsonage. They had no pastor at the time for the men’s meeting. Oh, there were fifteen or sixteen of the men! They had a coal fire burning in the grate, and we all sat down in the living room and hallway for the men’s meeting.
And the man stood up at the front and he said, “We have no program. Our program has fallen through, and Brother Criswell will now speak to us,” and he sat down. There wasn’t anything else to do. He just sat down. “Brother Criswell will now speak to us.” So, young Brother Criswell took his Bible and walked up there to the front, and to the best that he could, he poured out his heart to that little handful of men. And after the service was over, John L. Hill came up to the young country village preacher and put his arms around his shoulder, and said, “Young man, I have my eye on you.” Years passed, years passed, and the pulpit committee of the First Church in Dallas wrote to Dr. Hill and said, “We seek a pastor.” And Dr. Hill wrote back and said, “There is one,” and he gave my name, from Oklahoma. The pulpit committee looked at each other. Nobody had ever heard of such a guy, and they dropped the letter in the wastebasket.
After a while and the days passed, they narrowed the choice down to three men. And they wrote to Dr. Hill and said, “Tell us of these three men.” And Dr. Hill wrote a little sentence about the first one, and a little sentence about the second one, and a little sentence about the third one. And then he said, “But I have already told you. There is one man for that pulpit, the young pastor in Oklahoma.” And the pulpit committee said, “Well, at least we ought to look at him. We ought to look at him.” And the rest of it is an open book. That’s the only time John L. Hill ever heard me, the only time he ever heard me, in a little country church, with a handful of men, asked to speak with no preparation at all.
Preaching in one of those little country churches, a man from the city said something that stayed in my mind. He said, “Young fellow, you’ve got this little church jammed with people. The same boy that can jam a country church like this someday will jam a great city church.” At the time it was long and hard. As I look back, it is with immeasurable and unfathomable gratitude and thanksgiving for every day of it.
Now I’m going to leave out a whole lot of things that could be said, and I want to conclude. In the twenty-sixth verse of the eighth chapter of Romans, Paul writes, “For we know not what we should pray for as we ought” [Romans 8:26]. In that famous psalm, the one hundred sixth, in the fifteenth verse, “God gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul” [Psalm 106:15]. Pretty hard for us to know what is the best for us. Sometimes we hammer at God’s door, and sometimes we beg and importune from the hands of the Lord. And sometimes God in our importunity gives us what we ask for and what we pray for, but He sends leanness into our souls. There is some better thing [Hebrews 11:40]. Let’s leave it with God. “For we know not what we should pray for as we ought” [Romans 8:26], but when we come before the Lord and ask, let us also say, “But dear God, I cannot see from the vantage point of heaven; O Thou who seest the end from the beginning, choose what is best for us,” and let God say. Look at this:
He asks for strength that he might achieve;
He was made weak that he might obey.
He asks for health that he might do greater things;
He was given infirmity that he might do better things.
He asked for riches that he might be happy;
He was given poverty that he might be wise.
He asked for power that he might have the praise of men;
He was given weakness that he might feel the need of God.
He asked for all things that he might enjoy life;
He was given life that he might enjoy all things.
He received nothing that he asked for;
He was given all that he hoped for.
His prayer is answered, he is supremely blessed
[from “He Prayed,” author unknown]
He got nothing for which he asked.
O Lord, let it be in Thy wisdom what is best. If it is infirmity, then Master, may I have grace in the hour of infirmity. If it is weakness, then Lord, may I grow to trust Thy great strength. And if it is difficult and dark, then Master, may I learn to sing songs in the night. For what is best, Master, give me a grateful and a thankful heart.
And while we sing our hymn of appeal today, you, somebody you, give himself to Jesus. “Pastor, here I come, I offer you my hand. I give my heart to God. I take the Lord as my own Savior this day” [Romans 10:8-13]. In this great throng, in the balcony round, there’s a stairway at the front and the back, and time and to spare; come. On this lower floor and into the aisle, down to the front, “Here I am, pastor. Here I come. This is my wife. These are our children. All of us are coming today.” Or one somebody you, on the first note of the first stanza, come, come. When you stand up, stand up coming. And God bless you in the way, while we stand and while we sing.