O thank the Lord for all his love

We have passed the autumn equinox as the sun has crossed the equator. Traditionally, the full Harvest Moon reminded farmers of the need to complete the harvest. Because of the very hot and dry summer harvesting began early this year and generally the yields have been good. In many churches harvest thanksgiving services are being held and are attended by larger than normal congregations, especially in rural areas. Farmers, more than most people, know how dependent we are on the annual crops their land produces. Those crops will provide us with food for the coming year.

It is good to give thanks to God for all the good things he gives us. Many people, young and old, in churches and in schools, will this year again sing well-known harvest hymns. One harvest hymn gives thanks to God for the way he provides us with our daily food and also gives us so many other blessings as well. “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand: he sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain, the breezes and the sunshine, and soft, refreshing rain. All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above; then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love.”

True thankfulness, however, is more than words sung once a year. It involves an ongoing response of love for and delight in God who blesses us in so many ways. The last verse of that harvest hymn says, “We thank thee then, O Father, for all things bright and good, the seed time and the harvest, our life, our health, our food. Accept the gifts we offer for all thy love imparts, and what thou most desirest, our humble, thankful hearts.”

The greatest gift God has given to the people of this world is his Son, Jesus. One of the best-known verses in the Bible says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Out of love for us, Jesus came from heaven to live among us and then to die on a cross to pay the price for all the sins we have committed. Those who acknowledge their need for forgiveness and believe in him receive God’s gift of eternal life; a life that begins now and lasts for ever. Their response is always, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”

Holidays are important

The summer holiday season is in full swing. The number of people in Britain taking holidays is increasing. In 2017 87% of British people took a holiday at home or abroad. On average British people take 3.8 holidays each year of which nearly 50% are overseas holidays. People living in London and Northern Ireland take least holidays; less than 2 per year. 18% of people don’t take a holiday. In 2017 the average British family spent £1284 per person on their summer holiday.

In the Old Testament God commanded the people of Israel to celebrate annual feasts and festivals. They were communal holy days which focussed on remembrance, thanksgiving, joy and celebration. The people remembered the great things God had done for them in delivering them from slavery in Egypt and in providing food and water for them through their 40 years in the wilderness. Other festivals were related to the annual harvest when the people thanked God for his faithful provision for their needs and offered their gifts to him. Each year the people also remembered their need for God’s forgiveness and offered sacrifices to him.

The weekly Sabbath day was God’s gracious provision for his people to rest from their daily work. “Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work.” In our secular society we have lost sight of the importance of a weekly day of rest. All of us need to rest. A weekly day of rest enables us to do our work more efficiently, to spend time with our families and those in need and to thank God for his love and faithfulness.

Holy days are also an opportunity to think about eternity. In the midst of our busy lives it is good to reflect on the fact that we are mortal. When someone we love dies we may put on their gravestone the words “Rest in peace” because we want them to find eternal rest and peace. Christians in the first century patiently endured persecution as they lived in obedience to God’s commands and maintained their faith in Jesus. In the book of Revelation John hears a voice from heaven saying, “Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them!”

The peace of God

A few years ago we were given a red mug with the words “Keep Calm and Carry On” on it. The design of the mug is based on a motivational poster produced by the British government in 1939 in preparation for World War II. The aim of the poster was to raise public morale in anticipation of the mass air attacks on major British cities. In 1940 and 1941 the Blitz killed more than 40,000 civilians and destroyed more than 1 million houses in major cities around Britain, but the 2.5 million copies of the poster were never used. However, the British people, especially those living in London, show amazing courage and resilience in the face of the terrible bombing they endured.

The motto on the poster was an appeal for stoicism – a “stiff upper lip” and calm resolve in the face of adversity. Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy which encourages people to subdue their emotions through self-control and fortitude. Today, a stoic is seen as an unemotional person who seems to be indifferent to pain, pleasure, grief or joy, and who accepts hardship without any display of feelings or complaint. In hard times a stoic does not look for, or expect, love and comfort, but simply accepts what life throws at them.

In his letter to the church at Philippi the apostle Paul presents another approach to the challenges of life. He wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

When he was in Philippi Paul had been unjustly beaten and imprisoned. At midnight, when he and his companion Silas were in prison, they prayed and sang hymns to God. Their response to suffering was to rejoice in the Lord remembering his love for them in Jesus and thanking him for the many times he had blessed them in their lives. They knew that, even in prison, the Lord was with them. So they prayed to him and gave thanks to him and asked him to help them and give them his peace. When we experience adversity, as we all do, it is good to pray to God and rejoice in who he is. He hears our prayers and will give us his peace.

Our God is the end of the journey

Last Saturday I stood at the graveside of a good friend I had known for more than 45 years. Standing with his wife, children and grandchildren and other family members I shared the deep sense of loss they were experiencing. My friend had died from cancer after a short illness. It had all happened so quickly. After the burial, we went to a local chapel where more than 200 friends had gathered for a service of thanksgiving. We sang hymns my friend had chosen for the service which all expressed his personal faith in his Saviour, Jesus Christ. The hymns were full of the Christ-centred hope in which my friend had faced death; the last enemy. The hymns reminded us that, though my friend is no longer with us, he is now safe in the presence of Jesus.

The first hymn celebrates the greatness of God. “And when I think that God his Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in; that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin. When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation to take me home, what joy shall fill my heart! Than shall I bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim; My God how great thou art! Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to thee; How great thou art! How great thou art!”

The second hymn reflects on our frailty and need of the eternal strength and grace of Jesus; who is the Rock of Ages. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me Saviour or I die. While I draw this fleeting breath, when my eyelids close in death, when I soar to realms unknown, see thee on thy judgement throne; Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.”

The third hymn focusses on heaven. “My Saviour will never forsake me, unveiling his merciful face, his presence and promise almighty, redeeming his loved ones by grace. In shades of the valley’s dark terror, where hell and its horror hold sway, my Jesus will reach out in power, and save me by his only way. For yonder a light shines eternal, which spreads through the valley of gloom; Lord Jesus, resplendent and regal, drives fear far away from the tomb. Our God is the end of the journey, his pleasant and glorious domain; for there are the children of mercy, who praise Him for Calvary’s pain.”

O thank the Lord for all his love

This weekend I led a Harvest Thanksgiving service in a nearby church. These services have changed over the years. Today harvest displays are mainly comprised of tins and packets rather than fresh fruit and vegetables. This is more practical when the harvest gifts are distributed because the food lasts longer. The food at the service I led was given to the local Foodbank. Such gifts give a boost to the Foodbanks around the country and provide much needed food for poorer families.

In the Western world today we are less conscious of the importance of the harvest than we were. Throughout the year our supermarket shelves are filled with a massive variety of different kinds of food from all parts of the world. Most of us don’t know, or even think to ask, whether the farmers have had a good harvest. The people in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, however, are experiencing severe food shortages because of a sustained drought. People are dying because the harvest has failed.

The Earth is a tiny planet in a vast universe and is, as far as we know, unique. We have an abundance of water and much of the land is fertile and can be cultivated. Enough food is grown every year to feed all the people in the world, but there is an unequal distribution. Many have more than they need and others go hungry. The World Food Programme says that one in nine people in the world don’t have enough food to lead an active and healthy life and the number is growing. Children, women and rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia are in the frontline of hunger.

It is important to remember God and to give thanks to him. He is the One who created the earth and the abundance of good things that sustain our lives. In the Old Testament the people were told, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God. You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.” One of the best known harvest hymns says, “All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above, then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord for all his love.”

Do not be anxious about anything

A report from The Mental Health Foundation provides an insight into the extent of depressive illness in Britain today. 1 in 4 people experience a mental health problem in the course of a year, with anxiety and depression being the most common. 1 in 10 children have a mental health problem, and depression affects 1 in 5 older people. Women are more prone to anxiety and depression than men, but suicide rates are 3 times higher amongst men than they are amongst women.

The Bible provides real help to those who are anxious and depressed. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

Paul knew that it is not helpful to simply tell people not to worry, so he gave good advice about what we should do. When we are anxious or afraid we should pray to God. We should talk to God about “everything” – big things and small things. When we pray, we should give thanks, remembering all the good things God has given us. We can thank him for the gift of life, a beautiful world, our family and friends, food and clothing, and his amazing love shown in the gift of his Son, Jesus. This puts our situation into a proper perspective, because when we are anxious and depressed we tend to forget all the wonderful blessings God has given us.

Then we can ask him for his help and strength to face our problems. Anxiety and fear can paralyse us, but God can help us to overcome them. When we pray, God also gives us his peace, which transcends all understanding. Some years ago I visited a friend who had suffered a heart attack. He was in the coronary care unit and I could see his monitor. I asked him whether the doctors had told him when he would be able to go back to work. Immediately his heart rate jumped to double the rate it had been, although there was no apparent change in his face. He was obviously very anxious about the future. We read together Psalm 56, verse 3, “When I am afraid, I will trust in you.” Then we prayed and asked God to take away his anxiety about the future and to give him his peace.