This week’s sermon at Riverview was a bit different than usual, as it featured a fictional Thanksgiving meal and conversation between a nameless character and David, King of Israel. The foundation for their conversation is Psalm 92. You can listen to the sermon here, or you can read the transcript below.
May your Thanksgiving conversation be filled with remembrances of God’s grace and goodness, and may you come to know that it is good to give thanks to the Lord.
I’m going to ask you to imagine that it is Thanksgiving Day, and your whole family is gathered around the table for the Thanksgiving feast. But in addition to your family, you’ve also invited king David to your home for Thanksgiving. Yes, that king David – the one from the Bible – the one who fought Goliath – the one who ruled over Israel – the one who wrote the psalms. All the food is prepared, and everyone is ready to begin diving into the many delicacies laid before you at the table.
But before you eat, you ask your guest of honor to pray a prayer of Thanksgiving over the meal. He agrees, and he prays thus:
“It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night, to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre. For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy. How great are your works, O Lord! Your thoughts are very deep! The stupid man cannot know; the fool cannot understand this: that though the wicked sprout like grass and all evildoers flourish, they are doomed to destruction forever; but you, O Lord, are on high forever. For behold, your enemies O Lord, for behold your enemies shall perish; all evildoers shall be scattered. But you have exalted my horn like that of the wild ox; you have poured over me fresh oil. My eyes have seen the downfall of my enemies; my ears have heard the doom of my evil assailants. The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him. Amen.”
Everyone around the table confusedly echoes a faint “Amen,” after David concludes his prayer. You sit down, having expected the usual prayer of “Lord, thank you for this food and your many blessings,” but instead you got a psalm!
Everyone begins to pass the food to one another and heap it onto their plates and begins to eat, including you and your guest, David.
But you interject: “David, I couldn’t help noticing some things about your prayer just now. For instance, you said that it is good to give thanks to the Lord. What do you mean by that? What do you mean by ‘good’?”
David has a somewhat perplexed look on his face, but quickly responds, “I mean it is right to give thanks to the Lord. After all, look at what he’s done! Everything we have comes from God. How could we not thank him? Even the little blessings that we don’t even notice are from him. And it is right to thank him for them. For instance, I once knew a man who, for financial reasons, had to move into a one-room apartment with 8 other people. After a time, he goes to a Jewish priest and complains: “Life is unbearable. There are nine of us living in one room. What can I do?” The priest answers, “Take your goat into the room with you.” The man was incredulous, but the priest insists: “Do as I say and come back in a week.” A week later the man comes back looking more distraught than before. “We cannot stand it,” he tells the priest. “The goat is filthy.” The priest then tells him, “Go home and let the goat out, and come back in a week.” A radiant man returns to the priest a week later, exclaiming, “Life is beautiful. We enjoy ever minute now that there is no goat – only the nine of us.”
You chuckle quietly, but David’s point is made. Even though it’s almost cliché, you realize David is right that we take for granted God’s many blessings – even the little things. And it would be wrong to not thank him for them.
“But there’s more to it than that,” David continues. “You see, you cannot thank God for your blessings without first thanking God for being the kind of God who gives blessings. That’s what I mean when I say that it is good to give thanks to the Lord. It is the right thing to do, because he is so good. Anything less than complete acknowledgement of who is and what he does would be wrong.”
“Ok,” you respond. “That makes sense.”
But David’s not done. “When I think about all that God has done for me in so many ways, the only natural response I can have is to be glad. If I truly realize all that he has done, it seems to me that the right response is to break out in song!”
There’s an awkward silence, and part of you thinks David is about to start singing. But he doesn’t. Instead, he continues, “When something or someone makes you glad, the only natural and right response is to be thankful. When I think about all that God has done for me, that is how I feel. And that is why it is good and right for me to give thanks to the Lord.”
You spear a piece of turkey with your fork and dip it in some gravy and pop it into your mouth. Using somewhat bad manners, you ask David while chewing your food: “Like what? What has God done? Why is he so deserving of thanks?” You understand the concept, but part of you wants to press David for some specific examples.
David clears his own food from his mouth with a big swallow of milk. He wipes his face with his napkin and says, “Everything. Pick something. God has done it, and he deserves praise for it.”
David pauses to take another bite of turkey, and you do the same. You chew your food for a few seconds, thinking about what David has just said. It makes sense. If God truly is who he has said he is, and if he has done what he has said he has done, then it is right – it is just, even – to give him thanks. Because there is something about who God is and what he has done that simply requires praise – that requires thanksgiving. In fact, if what God has done and said is true, then it seems like it would almost be a form of cosmic treason to not give him thanks – it would be an injustice.
Then David breaks into your thoughts by saying, “But more specifically, God deserves praise because everything he does is right and just and fair. For all people. Everyone gets what they deserve. Everyone is treated fairly. There is no evil person who goes unpunished, and no righteous person who is not rewarded. God is completely just and right in all that he does in the world, and in all that happens.”
“Whoa, I have to stop you there,” you say. “David, apparently you haven’t heard that just last week 129 people in Paris who were minding their own business were murdered by terrorists. So how is God just? Where is the justice for those people? How is that fair? How is it fair that 129 people were removed from this earth in the blink of an eye? How can you say that God is just when things like that happen in the world?”
As the words leave your lips you almost immediately regret saying them. Here is this man, a guest at your table, and you feel like you’ve just taken all the air out of what he has been saying. To fill the awkward silence, you fill your mouth with some mashed potatoes.
David pauses a moment, then says, “Yes, that is hard to understand. And if we only look with our physical eyes and hear with our human ears, the world does indeed seem to be a place of injustice. So in order to understand things like terrorist attacks and how God can remain a God of justice, we need to use spiritual eyes and ears.”
David looks at you expectantly, as if he expects you to either agree with him or respond to his statement. Instead, all you can manage is “Uh, what?”
“It’s like this,” David says. “In my life, there have been many times when it has seemed like wicked people always get their way. They’re successful in all they do, they hurt people and get away with it, they cheat, they lie, they steal, and no one ever calls them to account. For example, I once had a crazy man named Saul chase me all around the countryside trying to kill me, for no reason other than that he was jealous of me. What did I do to deserve his hatred? Nothing. And when I see how the wicked seem to sprout and grow like grass and do whatever they want, and how they can seemingly get away with whatever they want – and when that makes me angry, I am only seeing it with my human eyes. I need to look at them with spiritual eyes.”
“OK,” you say, confused: “Then what do they look like through your ‘magical spiritual eyes?’”
“They’re not ‘magical spiritual eyes,’” David responds. “Instead, they’re eyes that allow me to see and know what God does to maintain justice. You said that 129 people were killed in Paris last week. Those who committed that crime will not get away with it. Even if they took the coward’s way out and killed themselves so as to never face a human court, they will face God’s court. And they will not get away with it. There is no such thing as a perfect crime in God’s system. Because God is a God of justice. He will see that justice is satisfied. That’s what it means to look at the world through spiritual eyes: to know that God is in control, and he will see that justice is served, either in this life or the next. And those who are wicked will be doomed to destruction forever. But God will reign on high forever. When all is said and done, all of God’s enemies will perish. Because he is a God of justice.”
David pauses to put some fresh butter on a warm dinner roll, and you’re grateful for the time to process what he has just said.
After thinking for a few moments, and as David begins to eat his freshly buttered roll, you say, “So David, you’re saying that no matter what happens on earth – whether something is just or unjust to us – that God will always make it right in the end?”
“Yes. And that, my friend, is reason to praise God. There will be a reckoning. There will be a judgment. And God will always be found to be fair and right in all that he does.”
“Huh,” you remark. “Well, then let me run this by you: last week there was a shooting in Minneapolis. A police officer killed a man, and people are saying that it was racially motivated, and that white police officers are targeting members of the black community. And they’re saying justice is not served. What do we do with that?”
David shrugs his shoulders. “I do not know, nor can I know,” he says. “I wasn’t there. I don’t know the facts of what happened, nor can I see into the heart of either man. But here’s what I do know: God knows. And God will do what is right. Even when something seems to us to be a travesty of justice, it will not be so forever. God is a God of justice, and there won’t be any wool pulled over his eyes.”
You understand what he is saying, but you want to probe further. But before you can, David begins to speak again.
“Do you know what this means?” he asks. “This means that you will never have to be worried that evil will win. It means that you never have to concern yourself with vengeance or getting even. God says, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay.’ He will see that justice is done. It is our job to trust him. And that, my friend, is good news. That is news for which you should give God thanks.”
As you listen to what he says, you understand it, but something about it just doesn’t sit right with you. Perhaps you don’t have those spiritual eyes he was talking about.
“OK then,” you say, “If God is just, then what does he do with people who don’t know right from wrong?”
“What do you mean?” David asks.
“I mean people who, for whatever reason, can’t know the difference between right and wrong. Maybe they have an intellectual disability, or maybe they have a mental illness, and this prohibits them from doing what is right, or maybe even from knowing who God is in the first place. There are certainly people with mental disabilities who simply can’t even understand that God exists. What does God do with them?”
David sits quietly for a moment, thinking. When he opens his mouth, he speaks quietly: “I do not know how God will judge people who can’t understand him because their mind will not allow it. But I do know this: whatever God does with those people will be right and good, because that’s the kind of God that God is. The kind that always does the right thing, and the kind that always does the good thing. Again, my friend, that kind of God is the kind that deserves our thanks.”
By this time, the main portion of the meal is over, and the plates and dishes are being cleared away. Soon the pumpkin pie is being served, with an immense dollop of whipped cream on top.
As David takes his first bite of pie, he says, “Now, my friend, you have asked me about terrorist attacks, police shootings, and people who are not able to understand God because their mind will not allow them to. So now let me put a question to you.”
“Go ahead,” you say.
“If everything I’ve been saying about God is true – and that he will always do what is right, and that he will always punish evil and reward righteousness, what will he do with you?”
“What do you mean?” you ask, suddenly getting nervous.
“Well, it seems to me that the news that God is just is both good news and bad news for you. On the one hand it is good news in that you can know that God will always have the last word and the final say, and that wicked men will not go unpunished. On the other hand, it seems to me that it is bad news for you that God is just, because his justice applies to you as well. If God is just, then he must punish your sin too. He must hold you accountable for what you have done. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be just!”
You are suddenly very uncomfortable and the pie in your mouth begins to taste bad. “What are you trying to say?” you ask, quietly.
“I’m saying that if you are a sinful person, then you must one day face God’s justice. What will it be like for you on that day?”
A mild anger flares up inside you. “David, listen, with all due respect, I invited you to my house for Thanksgiving dinner, and you’re telling me that I’m going to be judged by God for my sin. Don’t you think that’s a bit…I don’t know…rude?”
“No offense intended, my friend,” David says quickly, putting his hands up in the air. “I simply know that I myself have been an evil man. I have been the wicked man who has flourished. I was a king, after all, and I could have anything I wanted. And let me tell you, I had anything I wanted. Money, women, possessions. There were times when I was the wicked man who prospered. There were times when I was the one who lied, cheated, stole, and even killed. And no one could touch me for any of it. I could get away scot-free. But I knew in my heart of hearts that I could not get away from God, because God is a God of justice. He would hold me accountable. And the thought of his justice terrified me. It caused me to turn from my sin and to put my trust in him. And now, I don’t have to fear his justice. Another reason to give God thanks!”
“Wait, wait, wait,” you say. “All this time you’ve been going on and on about how God is a God of justice, and he always does what is right, and now you’re telling me that you’re an evil man who deserves justice, but God doesn’t give it to you. How is that just? Apparently God isn’t as concerned with justice as you said he was.”
David smiles, and you get the impression that there is some detail that he left out that is crucial to his story. “You’re right,” he says. “It would not be just for God to leave me unpunished for all I’ve done. And the list of my sins is long – so long that I am not able to stand under its weight.”
He pauses, as though remembering something, and smiles again. You nervously take another bite of pie.
“But let me tell you what is even more scandalous,” he says.” “Not only did I not receive judgment for my sin, but God has blessed me and sustained me, and given me all sorts of good things that I do not deserve.”
“So you’ve done all sorts of bad things, but received all kinds of good things from God? Yeah, that sounds real just,” you say, half incredulously and half spitefully.
“Just hear me out,” David says. “I deserved to be punished. I deserved to be judged. But instead of giving me what I deserved, God gave me what I didn’t deserve: grace. Instead of bringing me down low, God raised me up. Instead of taking my life for my sin, God enriched it with his grace. Instead of snuffing out my life, God has sustained it. And so with the life that God has given me, I can declare that the Lord is upright. He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.”
“But David,” you interject, “you haven’t dealt with the reality that what you’re describing isn’t just. You’ve been saying throughout our whole conversation about how God loves justice and is always just. But what you’re describing about your life isn’t just. If you’ve done all of these horrible things, you deserve do be punished. But you haven’t been. How do you reconcile that?”
“On my own, I cannot,” David says. “Like I said before, God’s justice is good news and bad news. It means God always does what is right, and we should thank him for that. But it also means that he must judge my sin, because I am a sinner! But God made a way for justice to be satisfied that doesn’t end in my destruction.”
“What?” you ask. “How? How can God punish your sin but not punish you?”
David looks down into his lap, contemplative and quiet. “God promised my forefathers to send us a deliverer. And through this deliverer all nations on the earth would be blessed. And this deliverer would repair the breech between man and God because of their sin. This deliverer would live a perfect life. And for his perfection, God would give him the crown of righteousness – the reward for a person who is perfect. But that crown was not to be his. Because he would volunteer to instead take the sin of those who would trust in him upon himself. And then, as the consequence of their sin – so that justice might be satisfied – God would punish him, and the payment for their sin would be born by him. So he would go through death, for them. And then, in the greatest exchange that would ever be, in all history, he would give them his righteousness. So now when God seeks to satisfy his justice, it would be poured out on him – the punishment would be paid. And as God seeks to reward the righteous, he would reward those who have the righteousness of the deliverer.” As David says all of this, his head remains bowed, his eyes staring into his lap.
“OK, I get it,” you say. “It’s the great exchange: the deliverer gets our sin, and we get his righteousness when we trust in him, and God’s justice is satisfied by punishing him instead of us. But there’s still one thing that doesn’t make sense. How is it fair that this deliverer is punished for my sin – especially if he never did anything to deserve it? That, to me, seems to be the most cosmic injustice – a man punished for things he never did.”
David’s eyes are still on his hands, folded together in his lap. “It would be an injustice, yes, if a man were forced into such a position. But the deliverer is not forced into this position. Instead, he volunteers.”
“What?” you say. “Why would anyone volunteer for that? Why would someone volunteer to be punished for things he never did?”
“Nobody would volunteer for that,” David responds, quietly. “Unless he were motivated by a kind of love that is other-worldly – a love that is divine – a love that you and I can’t even begin to comprehend. And the deliverer is motivated by that kind of love, because he is not just a man, but he is also God himself. And he loves his people so much that he is willing to be killed for their sins. And he is willing to give them the righteousness that he earned. But it could be no other way. If he were to not come, then all men would be lost in their sin. All men would be doomed to destruction. But he has come. And so I sit before you today: a condemned sinner, saved by grace through this deliverer, and found not guilty. All because God is a God of justice.”
David lifts his eyes and connects with yours, but you turn from his gaze, as it seems he’s staring into your soul. He goes on, and you look sheepishly off into the corner.
“And now,” he says, the intensity of his voice rising, “I can have confidence in this life. I don’t have to live in fear of a vengeful God any longer. Because the deliverer has paid the price of my sin. Now all I know is grace. Now I can approach God with confidence. I no longer call him my enemy, but instead I call him my friend – my rock!”
You turn your gaze back to David and your eyes connect. At this moment, nothing else seems to matter: the meal, the holiday, the pumpkin pie – all of it is of no importance.
David says, “Do you see now how this is good news? Do you see now why it is good – it is right – to give thanks to the Lord? To sing praises to the name of the Most High? To declare his steadfast love in the morning, and his faithfulness by night? Do you now see why I have been made glad by his work, and why, at the work of his hands, I sing for joy?”