You have to know Providence to give thanks to Providence

Sermon for Thanksgiving 2010

+  Acts 17:22-31  +

Have you noticed that Thanksgiving is one of the only holidays in the US calendar for which it’s OK to talk about God?  You’ll even hear politicians talking about “God” and divine Providence at Thanksgiving. Here’s what our own president had to say yesterday:  “As we stand at the close of one year and look to the promise of the next, we lift up our hearts in gratitude to God for our many blessings, for one another, and for our Nation…I encourage all the people of the United States to come together – whether in our homes, places of worship, community centers, or any place of fellowship for friends and neighbors – to give thanks for all we have received in the past year, to express appreciation to those whose lives enrich our own, and to share our bounty with others.”

All politics aside, what do you think about that?  Good?  Bad?  We all know that there are many different religions that make up 21st Century America.  What do you think of this calling on all Americans to come together and lift up our hearts in gratitude to God?  What about this American tradition of giving thanks to Providence?

I’ll tell you what it makes me think of:  Athens.  First Century Athens, in Greece.  The people there were very religious.  There were religious places and objects of worship on every street corner – each one dedicated to Providence, although back then, they envisioned Providence as many different gods – divine beings, each one providing for something different.  The god of rain provided rain, the god of fertility provided fertility, the god of love provided love.  If people were looking for providence in some area of their lives, they would go to the temple of the god of that thing and bring an offering, say some prayers, make some sort of commitment.  If they got what they were looking for, they would go back with an offering of thanksgiving to give thanks to that god.

That was the religious climate in Athens when the Apostle Paul visited the city, and he used their religiosity as a starting point in his preaching. He drew their attention to one altar in particular – an altar dedicated “To the unknown god.”  That was the altar that came closest to the truth.  The truth was that for as religious as the Athenians were, the true God remained an unknown God to them.

In a very tactful, nice way, Paul laid out the bare truth for them:  You people are very religious, but your religion is absolutely wrong.  You don’t know God.  Your worship is worthless.  Your altars to Providence are useless.  Your religion is a sham.  The truth is you have to know Providence in order to give thanks to Providence.

Now, he continued, what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you

The true God, Paul told them, made all things and rules over all things, without anyone’s assistance.  He doesn’t live in manmade temples.  He doesn’t need people offering him food or sacrifices or any service of any kind.  He needs nothing from man – unlike, if you saw that movie Clash of the Titans – the gods of Olympus needed man’s worship and prayers in order to survive – the Greek gods depended on man for their continued existence.  Not so the true God.  Man depends entirely on him – for everything: life, breath, food and everything else.  All of that comes from Providence.

The true God, Paul told them, made all the people on earth from one man – referring to Adam – Adam and Eve, and God is responsible for where all the nations ended up on the globe, for exactly where and when each person is born and lives.  God’s providence has been running the world since the world’s creation, providing for man, free of charge.

And here’s the big question: why? What was God looking for from mankind?  Repayment?  Compensation?  Service? Worship? None of that.  God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. Paul doesn’t go into it here, but there’s a reason why people have to grope around in the dark for God.  In the beginning he walked with Adam and Eve. But when they rebelled against him, they plunged our human race into darkness.  We no longer walk with God by nature.  We’re alienated from Him, sinners who are hostile toward him, unwilling and unable to know or worship the true God.  And so we all end up creating false gods to worship, false images of Providence.

Paul told the Athenians, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”  All of God’s providence to mankind is geared toward this: that men should hear God’s call to repent – to turn from their idolatry, to turn from their false worship, to turn from their ignorance and know the true God who demands nothing from man and gives everything to man – the God who reveals himself in one Place: in the Man whom God has appointed to be the Judge of all mankind – the Man who was put to death by sinful men, but raised from the dead by God.  It’s by faith in him that sinners are saved.

That was the end of Paul’s sermon in Athens.  He didn’t even get to tell the people the name of this Man, or explain to them that he was God’s eternal Son, born of the Virgin Mary.  As soon as he mentioned the resurrection from the dead, the Athenians, for the most part, shook their heads in disbelief and told Paul, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.”  But a few of them listened.  A few of them repented.  A few of them believed.  That’s how it always goes.

You and I live among a very religious people here in America.  There are some atheists and humanists, but for the most part, Americans have a belief in a divine Being; we recognize the hand of Providence, and we have this national holiday for giving thanks to him.

The only problem is, the religion of most Americans is a religion of ignorance.  It’s been that way since the days of our founding fathers, many of whom were just like the Athenians, worshipers of a generic, unknown deity.  The true God still remains unknown to most of our fellow countrymen, as he was once unknown to us.  For some, he’s been replaced by Science and Evolution as the True Provider.  How many Americans believe what Paul said – that the true God created this universe, and created the first man, and that all human beings are descended from him?  They are no better off than the Athenians were.  The generic American god called Providence is just another one of those manmade idols.  Even the name of Jesus Christ has been distorted so that practically everyone knows the name of Jesus, but very few know the true, biblical Person of Jesus. 

Thanksgiving Day in America is a lot like worship in Athens – a lot of people offering up futile thanks to an unknown God. They will have no Advocate when the Day of Reckoning arrives.  They will have to answer for their idolatry. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but time is running out for an America that remains intentionally ignorant.

Do you realize, then, how blessed you are to know the truth?  It’s nothing to be arrogant about, either.  You and I would not and could not know the unknown God except for his Providence.  First, he provided that Man named Jesus to live and die and rise again as our Substitute.  Then, as he sent the Apostle Paul to Athens and converted a few of the Athenians through his gospel message, so God has provided messengers to bring you the Word of the true God: his revelation of himself in the Bible, his command to repent, his call to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.  The only way into the presence of Providence is by faith in Christ Jesus, faith that comes by hearing the message – the message that God has provided for you and to you. Jesus said, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”

You who know the true God through his Son – you are the ones, the only ones, who can approach his altar with thanksgiving today and tomorrow.  You who trust in Jesus Christ for forgiveness are the only ones who can stand in God’s presence without fear, whose prayers and requests are acceptable in his sight, because you have an Advocate before him 24/7/365. You are the ones – the only ones who can proclaim the name of the true God and make him known to your neighbors and to your fellow countrymen. You are the ones whom God has called in whatever you do, whether in word or deed, to do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” 

You have to know Providence to give thanks to Providence, and by God’s grace, you are the ones who know him, or rather, are known by Him, loved by Him and forgiven by Him for Jesus’ sake.  And that must be, today and every day, your #1 reason to give thanks.  Amen.

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