Thanks Be to God
November 20th, 1966 @ 10:50 AM
THANKS BE TO GOD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2 Corinthians 2:14
11-20-66 10:50 a.m.
I only have one regret. I wish Elijah could have heard that! As you know, that is a part of the oratorio “Elijah.” Thanks be to God. Dr. Harry, there are not many choirs that just get up and sing that, just get up and do it. That is the title of my sermon today, it is my text today. I said to Lee Roy, “Lee Roy, can you sing that today? Just up and sing it!” He said, “Our choir can do anything.” Isn’t that right, isn’t that right? Oh, man, I only heard one man come in a little early! Well, I love the choir, as you well know, and I love our music program, and I love Lee Roy, I love the instrumentalists, and I love everybody that has anything to do with these glorious, glorious musical parts of our marvelous program—and the Lord be good to us.
I have said a thousand times, “Wouldn’t it have been marvelous, wouldn’t it have been incomparable if we could have gone to church in the days of King Solomon?” Oh, I could just think of it! Solomon was the prayer and the preacher had one king and one preacher and one prayer and one praiser on that occasion, but they had five thousand Levites singing, think of it; two hundred eighty seven instrumentalists [1 Chronicles 25:6-7]. We have two here. Lee Roy, you have got so far to go, you have got to ask God five lifetimes to help you catch up. Just think of it, five thousand Levites a-singing, two hundred eighty seven instrumentalists a-playing. Oh, how it must have been; praising God, thanking God, that’s what we ought to do, that’s what this sermon is about this morning if God will help me deliver it. Praising God for everything, for everything. In everything give thanks unto God: for this is pleasing to the Lord [1 Thessalonians 5:18].
Now my text is the title, 2 Corinthians 2:14, “Now thanks be unto God, who always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savor of His knowledge by us in every place.” And the text is the title, Thanks Ne to God.
The fifth day of April in the year 1621 brought to the pages of human history one of the most pathetic and touching of all the scenes in this new world. That fierce and terrible winter of 1620, 1621, saw one-half of the one hundred two pilgrims who came in the Mayflower, saw them die. And lest the hostile Indians know how weak were the remaining few who lived, when they were buried on Coles Hill overlooking the harbor of Plymouth, they leveled the ground. It was a sad and trying and terrible winter.
And on that fifth day of April, a little band of twenty-six men and six boys old enough to help with the work, a few women and children stood on the shore of the bay and saw the Mayflower on which they had come to the New World, lift anchor and sail back to England. Not a one of them, not a pilgrim boarded the ship to go back home; they had come to worship God in the wilderness of a new world, to found a new and a Christian order, and having arrived by the grace of God, it was their purpose to stay to the latest breath.
They turned their faces that springtime in April to the task that awaited them. They built their little houses, cottages, and the center of their family worship was the Bible. They built next their little church, and the center of that church was the pulpit for the preaching of the Word of God. And third they built their little school, and the textbook was the Word of God.
Oh, sometimes I cannot but be sensitive to the change that has come in American life! For our public school system today to teach the Bible, to use it as a text, to make it the main substance and ground of our education would be unthinkable! How far have we drifted away from the moorings and the anchorings and the foundations of our forefathers.
God blessed them and that summer they had a fruitful harvest; food for the winter and nothing to spare. Their elected governor, William Bradford, in the fall at the end of the ingathering, proclaimed a thanksgiving. And in November of that year 1621, for three days the Pilgrims, their families, and the friendly Indians rejoiced and praised God together. Having read the Bible and known the Word of God, their thanksgiving reflected what they had learned in the Holy Scriptures.
In the seventh chapter of the Book of Leviticus, for example, when the families laid their offerings before the Lord, once in a while there was a burnt offering [Leviticus 1:3-17, 6:8-13], offered, but it was unusual. Most of their offerings are called peace offerings in the Bible, peace offerings [Leviticus 3:1-17; 7:11-21, 28-34]; we would call them thanksgiving offerings. The man and his family made their way up to the house of the Lord and there sacrificed an offering of thanksgiving to God. And he shared the sacrifice [Leviticus 7:15-18]. If I could call the sacrifice one thing among anything else, I’d call it a shared meal. The animal is slain; its blood poured out at the base of the altar, it was cooked there, either roasted, some of it boiled, and then the priest, the pastor, and the family, and the families’ friends shared it together, a meal offering, a vegetable offering, and the animal sacrifice—a thanksgiving offering. They shared the feast together there in the court of the Lord [Leviticus 7:15-18].
The sixteenth chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy [Deuteronomy 16:13-17] presents another great thanksgiving institution in the house of the Lord among the people of God. For the Feast of Tabernacles, which lasted seven days, was nothing but a praising God for the ingathering. It was a harvest festival, one of thanksgiving to the Lord. And our young minister, Cary Heard, has spoken, “You could just pick out most any psalm and read it at a thanksgiving service.” And it was the spirit of the apostles and the evangelists and the ambassadors from God. As Paul said, as I quoted him a moment ago, “In every thing give thanks…” In every thing, the night as well as the day, the tears as well as the smiles, the sorrows as well as the joys; “In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” [1 Thessalonians 5:18].
Then as the years unfolded, the spirit of thankfulness on the part of our Pilgrim forefathers was reflected in the life of the nation. After the hard trials of the Revolutionary War, and after the work of the Constitutional Congress, and the thirteen colonies had formed these United States of America; by joint resolution on the part of the upper house and the lower, the Senate and the House of Representatives, they asked the president of the United States to proclaim a national day of thanksgiving. The year was 1789, the president was George Washington, and this is the first thanksgiving proclamation. Listen to the tone of it, the reverential gratitude on the part of our first president. He said:
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor, and whereas both houses of Congress have by their joint committee requested me to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer; now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the twenty-sixth day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these states to the service of that great and glorious Being, that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of this country. Given under my hand at the city of the New York—at the time the capital of the United States— given under my hand at the city of New York, the third day of October AD, 1789, signed George Washington.
In the immediate years that followed, James Madison was the only one who spoke of a national thanksgiving, but in the days of the dark and lowering clouds that brought turmoil and suffering to our nation, in the days of the War Between the States—Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first, annual, national day of thanksgiving. And from that time under Abraham Lincoln, until now, every November in its fourth Thursday has brought to our people an admonition from our president and a reflection of the sentiment of our nation that we pause to say words of praise and gratitude to God.
Now may I speak of that this morning? First, we shall thank God for our country, for our nation, for our government, for our democratic liberties, and for the bountiful, abounding blessings of God upon this great nation. For it is under God, under the hands of the Lord, in the sovereign will of God, that we, our forefathers, and we have been able to build this great country. It is not, it is not the fertile acres that make a great nation, it is the men who tilled it. A nation is made great, not by its vast forests, but by the men who use them. A nation is made great, not by its continental expanse and the vast network of railroads and those great mines and abundant natural resources that support those industries, but by the men who build them.
America was a great land when Columbus discovered it, but Americans have made of it a great nation. And this has been under God, one nation under God! Those first worshipers who came to these shores have been called Pilgrims, our Pilgrim Fathers. They were called Pilgrims because in their first compact, in their first document, they referred to themselves as Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews, who left their land and left their native country and as pilgrims went seeking a promised land [Hebrews 11:8-10, 13-16]. And from that devotion and from that reference in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews, they have been known as Pilgrims through these centuries since.
What a marvelous background, what a glorious foundation, what a marvelous heritage that America, America, beautiful, glorious America should find its roots and its anchor in men who sought to build in the wilderness their promised land of people who would worship God! No nation has been so rich or so blessed in its heritage, and we shall thank God for our country. We shall thank God for the Book that they love. It was the Book that led them to the faith in Christ; it was the Book that led them to seek opportunity to preach it without molestation and coercion. It was the Book that they brought to these wilderness shores, and it was the Book that they read in their homes, and taught their children, and made the textbook in their schools. And our freedoms and our liberties have been founded in the Word of God. “If Christ shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” [John 8:36]. And wherever the light in any nation, among any people, has gone out from this Word, they have become slaves under tyrants, under unspeakable, oppressive coercion! It’s the Book that makes men free.
I had stumbled into this once before, but in my reading this week, I ran into it again. There was a man who made a little compartment in his car and went into the Soviet Union and then back out and into the Soviet Union. Inside of that compartment, secretly concealed, he was taking Bibles, the Word of God, into the Soviet Union. He was finally discovered, apprehended, sentenced, and they asked him. “Why do you do a thing like that?” And he replied, “It was the Book, it was the Bible that brought life to me, and without the Bible there is no life for any people or any nation, and this is my dedication; to bring the Book of Life to the people of the Soviet Union.”
That brave and dedicated Christian but reflected the marvelous, glorious vision of Ezekiel in the forty-seventh chapter of his prophecy. The vision is this: as you know, Jerusalem is located up in the mountains, and then below is the wilderness of Judea, scorched and burned, sterile and barren, and finally down and down is the Dead Sea where nothing lives. Not even a bird, not even a live bird flies over those salt waters and the whole [area reeks of] of death. This vision in Ezekiel: Ezekiel says, and out of the sanctuary in Jerusalem there flowed a river. And everything lived where the river came, and by the banks of the river was the tree of life, and the leaves were for the healing of the nations [Ezekiel 47:1-2, 7-12]. And that river is the Word of God, the Book, the revelation of the Lord. We thank God this day for our Book, our Bible. We thank God this day for the hardships and the trials that they endured.
You did not pay particular attention because I did not expatiate upon it then, but I am now. Isn’t it a commentary worth remembering and noticing that these great initial proclamations of thanksgiving came out of our darkest days and out of our deepest trials. In the days when a little band of Pilgrims sought to find ways even to eat bread and to live, in those dark and troublesome days [came] their proclamation by their elected governor for a Thanksgiving. And out of the dark days of the Revolutionary War and the conflicts of that Constitutional Congress came the great Thanksgiving proclamation from our first President George Washington. And out of the dark days of the War Between the States with General Lee, Virginia’s native son, on one side, and my grandparents and family by his side, and most of us with our roots in the Confederacy, and on the other side with Lincoln and with General Grant, people who speak our language, and belong to our country, and live in our continent; what an awful and what a tragic thought that there should be war between these states, and brother slaying brother, and families torn apart, and our nation in ruins. It was out of that time and out of that day came the proclamation from Abraham Lincoln for a national, annual Thanksgiving.
And this is the true test of the courage and devotion of a people. Can you thank God in the nighttime, singing songs in the dark? [Psalm 42:8, 77:6]. Can you trust God in the hour of trial, and death, and disease, and famine, and persecution, and failure, disappointment, despair, can you thank God then?
Why, my friend an infidel can thank God when everything’s going his way. I’m sitting on top of the world and my feet dangling off, everything is for me. Everything I touch is prospered, everyone in my house is healthy, everything I do is just—an infidel can sing songs then!
But how do you do when the dark day comes, and the child is sick and dies, and the family circle is broken, and what you dreamed of has been dashed to the ground, and every rainbow vision is shattered, then what do you do? Is that a thanksgiving also? In everything give thanks unto God; can you? Do you? [1 Thessalonians 5:18].
In my reading I came across a conversation between two mountaineers. Way up there at the head of the holler, why, there was a young man, young family man, young fellow, talking to his friend, an older man, couple of mountaineers up there.
And the young man said to his older friend, he said, “You know, I have a hard time understanding, I have a hard time understanding, for they tell me and I’ve been taught all my life, that our heavenly Father cares [1 Peter 5:7]. And you know I don’t understand it, for,” said the younger man, “it seems to me that the wicked prosper and the righteous perish. Seems to me that the vile and the villainous seem to have most of this world’s goods, and God’s people are in rags. Seems to me,” he said, “that the people who are glad and happy are the wicked people, and God’s people suffer so, and I don’t understand it.”
And the younger man used an illustration. “Why,” he said, “take old man Monroe down the creek here. Look at him, one of the best men that ever lived; yet old man Monroe, he doesn’t have enough money to send his children to college, that he’d like to have with all his soul. Every day he prays for his little crippled boy and the boy doesn’t get better, he gets worse. And last year, lightning came and killed one of his horses, and he had only two. And this spring the wind blew his barn down, and I don’t understand,” said the younger man.
And the older man said, “Well, you didn’t know old man Monroe before he became a Christian.”
“No,” said the younger man, “he’s been a Christian ever since I knew him.”
“Well,” said the older man, “I knew him before he became a Christian. I knew him when he was one of the vilest, wickedest men in these mountains. I knew him when he beat his family and when he drank everything that he had away. I knew him when my wife and our neighbors fed his children through the cold of the winter. Then old man Monroe years ago got saved and became a Christian. And you go down there now, and visit him. They don’t have much of this world’s goods, that’s right, but they have a Christian family and a precious home, and they have enough to eat, and they have a dry roof over their heads, and every time I’ve been there I’ve heard them thank God for it!”
Then the older man said, “By the way, have you seen old man Monroe since the lightning killed his horse and since the wind blew his barn down, have you seen him?”
“Yes,” said the young man, “Yes, I have.”
“Well,” said the older man, “let me ask you, did he complain?”
“Had he lost heart?”
“Was he down?”
“No, no,” said the young man, “No, he wasn’t.”
And the older man said, “There’s your answer.”
And the young fellow said, “Well, I still don’t quite understand.”
And the older man said, “When a man is born from above, when he becomes a Christian, when God comes in his heart, the outside doesn’t change. You still have famines, and pestilence, and failures, and wars, and heartaches, and disappointments. The world outside doesn’t change, it’s just the same; but he has changed. He’s a new man on the inside, and God is with him! The Lord lives in his soul. When these disappointments and frustrations come and when the dark day comes and disease and death, why, he’s a Christian. The Lord’s with him, and he has an unseen courage and strength for the hour. And the young man answered, “I believe I’m beginning to understand.”
The difference is not that some of us fall in unspeakable sorrows and some of them do not, that’s no difference. The difference in us is that some of us have God, and when we face and meet the trial and the heartache, there is help from heaven. There is encouragement, there is thanks to Him and praise. That’s when you’re a Christian; God did it, that marvelous, incomparably, precious dedication.
Why, this week some of our families will be facing Thanksgiving, having buried a precious child, having buried a loved husband and father. I know, for I’ve buried them. Some of them will be facing this Thanksgiving having gone through perilous operations. And some of them having lost—I came across a man yesterday that had lost everything in the stock market. The difference is that the man of the world will be bitter and complain and curse God at evil fortune, but a Christian will be like Job, “The Lord gave, the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord” [Job 1:21]; thanksgiving.
Well, I’ve got something else, and rather than expatiate on it, preach about it, add words, just let me tell you how it came to my heart. Monday night, a week ago, I brought the closing address at our state Brotherhood convention at the Memorial Auditorium here in Dallas. Many of you here and many of you listening on television and radio were there that night. And as you know, before I stood up to speak and bring the message on my heart, I was preceded by four men from the state penitentiary. They were dressed in white, and they had their numbers on them. Those four men—some of them were murderers, bank robbers—all four of them in the penitentiary for violence. And among them, they had been sentenced to about two hundred years. Well, all four of them stood up, one first, then the second one, the third, and the fourth, and they gave their testimony. They described the life that had led them into crime and finally into that terrible penitentiary.
And after all four of them had spoken and were seated, one of the number came back to the rostrum and to the microphone and summed up some of the things that he was afraid we had not noticed. And one of the things that he said will stay in my memory as long as I live. He said, “Do you know what we think about and what we miss when we walk down those concrete corridors and hear those iron doors clank behind us and turn our faces to that lonely, steel cell?” He says, “Do you know what we think about it and what we miss?” He said, “There’s not one of us that thinks about those things that we thought that we wanted!”
And all four of them had described that in detail. They wanted money, and money, and money. And they killed men for it and robbed banks for it, and they wanted pleasures, pleasures, pleasures. And they wanted to be the head of the gang, their egotism palliated. They wanted to be somebody big shot! And he said, “As we walked down those concrete corridors and sit in those steel cells, there’s not any of those things we thought we wanted that we desire at all. Nor,” he said, “is it that we miss anything that we were able to get by murder and by force and by violence.”
He said, “Do you know what we miss and what of all things of the earth we wish we had?” He said, “We miss walking down a country road, listening to a wild bird sing and the wind blowing through the treetops and the vista of the hills against the horizon. And we miss coming home in the evening; the laughter of a child, the family circle. Oh,” he said, “if we could do it over again, if we could do it over again, it would be these things we clasp to our hearts. These things would we seek;” sweet, humble, precious little things that make up a happy and glorious life. Let’s not forget.
Thank Thee, Lord, that I can walk down the road. Thank Thee, Lord, that I can see the distant hills. Thank Thee, Lord, for the voices that I love, the touch of an encouraging hand, the smile of faith and confidence. Thank Thee, Lord, for the sharing of a meal, for the table spread. Thank Thee, Lord, for the children. O God, help me not to forget in the rush and the striving, help me not to forget that God is in these little things that sanctify and hallow and enrich our hopes, our hearts, and our lives.
I had it in mind, but I’ll not do it. Mrs. Curtis Meadows’ Gleaners class sends me their little bulletin. And on the front of that bulletin, I took out a Thanksgiving poem, “For the Smallest Blessing.” Lord, make me like that, to remember God has enriched me in the little remembrances that bless our lives.
Now we must sing our song, and as we do, in this balcony round, on this lower floor, coming down here to the front, “Here, pastor, I give my heart to Jesus,” or “I’m putting my life in the fellowship of the church.” A family you, a couple you, one somebody you, while we sing this song, come. Give the pastor your hand; “Pastor, today I’ve given my heart to Jesus,” or “Today, I want to come into the fellowship of this dear church. I want to be here with you and these dear people.” Do it, make it now, come now, while we stand and while we sing.