Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Thanksgiving Service 2006

Today, among other things, I am thankful that last night went well. Let me bring you up to speed . . .

About six weeks ago I was asked if I would speak at a Thanksgiving service sponsored by one of the Sunday school classes at our church. I said yes, thinking that it would be attended primarily by the class and their families, a gathering of maybe fifty, max. About two weeks ago I found out that even though only one class sponsors the event, the entire congregation is invited to attend. It is normally a crowd of 300 or so. And not only that, it is not just a devotional thought while the people sit at their tables after dinner; it is a full-blown service, with singing, prayer, and an offering, just like a regular service sans communion. So my talk started being called a "sermon," and my own standards for what the talk should be like got raised. I finished the first draft of the talk on Saturday before the event the following Wednesday. I read it to Susan on Sunday for timing and content, and she pointed out that there were some things that needed to change in order to liven it up and make it more relatable. I had no time Monday evening to work on it, so Wednesday evening after I got home from helping with the praise team rehearsal for next Sunday, I broke out the laptop and started revising, finally finishing the second and final draft of the talk at about 12:15 a.m. Susan looked over it yesterday and told me it was much better, so all was ready for last night.

So Susan and I dressed up and went to church last night, and I became increasingly nervous as we ate with friends during the pre-service dinner. Time for the service came near, and I went to the sanctuary to get the wireless mic and find my spot to sit until time to speak. Susan prayed for me before the service, which greatly helped to calm me. And soon it was time.

After the singing, the special music, and the time of offering, Doug Currier introduced me, and I went up to the lectern to speak. I was hyper-aware of my verbal fumbles and hesitations, but Susan told me after that they weren't obvious. In fact, I heard chuckles in the right places, saw that many people were connecting with the message through facial expressions, and even received a few "amens" at the end of the talk. With a little help from Susan, the congregation applauded at the end. It was, to say the least, everything I had hoped and prayed for.

In case you are interested, here is the text for my talk/sermon from last night's Thanksgiving Service:

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

I am honored to be speaking with you tonight. My wife Susan and I have lived here for only a year and a half, and we were blessed to have joined the Fairmount family soon after we moved here from Texas. We truly believe it was Divine Providence that brought Susan and me to this congregation of believers almost as soon as we arrived here. Even though this will be our second holiday season in Virginia, it is the first Thanksgiving. Last year we drove back to Oklahoma City to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with Susan’s family. This year the Raineses have invited us over to share in their Thanksgiving meal, so we’ll be guests in their home.

How many people here are going to be guests at someone else’s home this year? (show of hands) How many people are going to host a get together at your home tomorrow? (show of hands) I guess the rest of you have plans to spend a quiet day without the social obligations, which can sometimes be the best way to spend a holiday.

Of course sometimes plans to spend a quiet evening alone can get interrupted by unexpected company. Do you remember November 7, 2000? It was a memorable evening for most people in the country because it was the second Tuesday in November, Election Day 2000, a day that changed political elections from then on. But it was notable to Susan and me for another reason too. My sister and three of her friends came through town that day, on the way from their school in Lubbock to the Colorado home of one of her friends. And, as it happened, that was also the day 9 inches of snow fell on Amarillo – all in one day. The normal snowfall for the whole month of November in Amarillo is 2 inches, and we got nearly 5 times the normal in less than 24 hours. Needless to say, my sister and her friends left our home only to return a little while later, needing a place to stay and wait out the storm. Of course we let them stay, and our evening got a little livelier as we hosted four college-age students in the middle of a snowstorm. We fed them, found bedding for them, and helped them get through the unexpected detour in their plans.

People who hung around Jesus often found themselves with unexpected detours to their original plans. Consider the two disciples walking to Emmaus after the crucifixion of Jesus. They left Jerusalem headed for Emmaus, probably quite dejected and confused about the crazy talk of some of the women that they had seen Jesus Sunday morning. The original plan was to walk the distance by themselves, but unexpectedly they were joined by a third man, a man who, quite unexpectedly, seemed to know quite a lot about how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of Scripture. At dinner the two disciples were astonished when, unexpectedly, they recognized Jesus for who He was and then, a moment later, unexpectedly, he vanished from sight. So much for the trip to Emmaus. The two disciples turned around and headed straight back to Jerusalem.

It is fitting that these disciples should have a moment of revelation about Jesus while breaking bread with him. Meals turn out to be a surprisingly important part of Jesus’ ministry. Even if leave off the annual Jewish feasts and miracles like the feeding of the 5000, Luke’s gospel alone records no less than ten different occasions when Jesus either attended a dinner party or shared a meal with several of His friends. In fact, we have no record of Jesus ever turning down an invitation to share a meal with someone, no matter who offered it.

He even accepted invitations to eat with Pharisees. It may be surprising to realize that on at least three separate occasions Jesus was invited to dinner parties thrown by Pharisees. But I think it’s more surprising that Jesus kept accepting the invitations. That’s because these Pharisee dinner parties never turned out to be fun, social occasions. They all end with Jesus rebuking his host or the other guests or both for ingratitude, self-righteousness, egotism, and hypocrisy. Luke records the key events of these Pharisee dinners in Chapter 7, Chapter 11, and Chapter 14 of his Gospel. To give you a taste of how these dinners unfolded, we’re going to look in detail at the last one in Chapter 14.

Turn there with me and let’s look at this passage together.

Luke 14:1 “One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched.”

This time the tension is high right from the start. For one thing, the host is a “prominent” Pharisee, not just a run-of-the-mill Pharisee. For another, the dinner is a Sabbath dinner, which was more than meal; it was a religious observance. And if that weren’t enough, Luke tells us that at this dinner, Jesus “was being carefully watched.”

Have you ever felt like you were being “carefully watched” at a party, your every move scrutinized and judged? In America the Thanksgiving meal is a kind of test of the newlywed wife; she is expected to prove herself to the in-laws by cooking the perfect Thanksgiving turkey. For Susan, the first Thanksgiving that she cooked on her own was more of a chance to prove her cooking skills to her own family than to mine, even though my mom was actually at our home for that Thanksgiving. Susan even went as far as to take pictures of the dishes and have my mom and our other guests sign affidavits attesting to the quality of the meal. I have to admit, the food was picture-perfect, and it was also delicious. I tell you what, I didn’t marry Susan because she was a great cook, but I am quite happy she is one.

The Pharisee wasn’t looking for a turkey dinner, but they did have a test prepared. Look at verses 2 through 6:

There in front of him was a man suffering from dropsy. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him away. Then he asked them, “If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull him out?” And they had nothing to say.

Dropsy, also known as edema, is defined in the dictionary as “an abnormal infiltration and excess accumulation of serous fluid in connective tissue or in a serous cavity.” From what I read about it, dropsy was painful and disfiguring. And, as the Pharisees planned it, the man with dropsy represented a test that Jesus could not pass. If Jesus healed the man, they would accuse Him of working on the Sabbath. And if Jesus refused to heal the man (unlikely given His past record), then they would accuse Him of a heartless lack of compassion. Jesus instead turns the tables on them by asking the questions first. The Pharisees can’t say that it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath because they have been mercilessly attacking Jesus on that very point, and yet if they say it is not lawful to heal, then they are the ones who would appear heartless, faced as they were by a man in obvious pain. And as for helping an ox or a son out of well on the Sabbath, of course they would do that, but again they can’t say so without undermining their previous accusations against Jesus. So they say nothing, and Jesus heals the man and sends him on his way.

Yet the dinner party was only just getting started. After the pre-dinner excitement settled down, the guests began finding their places at the table. This was a time of social one-upmanship, and there must have been a few disagreements among the guests as to who should sit where in the pecking order, for Jesus, not one to be intimidated by the money or status of the others at the party, gives the guests a lecture on humility.

Look at Luke 14:7- 11:
7 When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: 8 “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9 If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 10 But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

And Jesus’ advice does not end there. He catches the eye of the prominent Pharisee who is hosting this dinner party, and He gives some advice directly to him about his invitation list.

Luke 14:12: Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid.”

If the Pharisee followed this advice, he would likely never have another dinner party because except for Jesus, it is highly probable that every guest in the room fit one of those categories. The reason Jesus gives for avoiding such guests would have raised an eyebrow: “Don’t invite them because, odds are, they will invite you to their homes and return the favor.” Really?! Jesus, you don’t say? I can imagine that the host is half a breath away from saying out loud, “Well, Jesus, that is precisely the point.”

I think this prominent Pharisee had a similar mindset to the one I had while I was trying to make a go of building an Amway business. Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Amway itself or anyone who is in it. But for me, it changed the way I looked at people. I started seeing everyone as a prospect of the business, and I started valuing people based on how receptive they were to my sales pitch or how much stuff they were willing to buy from me. What a relief it was after years of failing to make any real headway in Amway a wise preacher pointed out to me that failure can be as much a indicator of God’s plan for my life as success can be and that, perhaps, it was simply not God’s design for me to have a career in Amway. Once I let it go, I felt much better about all my relationships and was able to lay aside guilt too.

Jesus wants the Pharisee to let go of the social maneuvering of the “who’s who” dinner party games, and the best way to do that is to change the invitation list. Jesus’ suggestions for who should be invited to the next party are in verses 13 and 14:

13 “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Why would Jesus make a special mention of the resurrection? Because the host was a Pharisee, the Jewish sect that said they believed in the resurrection – in contrast to the Sadducees, who said they did not. Jesus’ comment underscores the disconnect between the Pharisee’s words and his actions. On the one hand he says that he believes in an afterlife at which point he will be rewarded by God Himself. But on the other hand he acts as if the social and monetary rewards of this world are his true motivation.

One of the other guests at the party, perhaps trying to side with Jesus or at least acknowledge the one point of common ground between Jesus and the Pharisees proposes a toast of sorts and says in verse 15 “Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.”

Of course, Jesus does not disagree with the sentiment, but He takes the opportunity to clarify just who will be eating the feast. Jesus tells a parable about God’s feast, and He tells them that there are some people who have had invitations for a long time (like the people around Jesus at the Pharisee’s house, who had known since childhood that the kingdom of God was coming, ushered in by a Messiah), and these long-time invitees had even RSVP-ed and said they were coming. But when the actual time comes for the party, they are too entangled in worldly concerns to actually attend. Unhappy that His formal invitations should be declined at the last minute, God opens His home to – guess who – the poor, crippled, blind, and lame. When there is even more room around the banquet table, He welcomes anyone who wants to come, anyone that is except the original invitees who were too busy to show up in the first place.

Luke doesn’t tell us what the mood around the table was after all Jesus had to say, but I would guess it was pretty chilly. I don’t imagine a lot of smiling faces and light-hearted conversation after that. I’m not really sure whether there would be smiling faces and light-hearted conversation at any Pharisee’s party, even without the scolding lectures. When Jesus accepted these invitations to eat with Pharisees, I’m sure He did so willing to go anywhere He was invited, willing to spread the Truth of God anywhere He was welcomed. And yet I hardly imagine He was ever eager to go have an evening with people who were always looking for an opportunity to point out how much better they were than everyone else and who would have been tickled to see Jesus mess up and embarrass Himself in public.

There were, however, some parties that Jesus did look forward to eagerly. The first one we read about is in Luke 5 and was thrown by Matthew shortly after Jesus called him away from his career as a tax-collector and into a career as an apostle. Luke tells us in chapter 5 verse 29 of his Gospel that Matthew, also known as Levi “held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them.” In this one verse there are four ways in which this tax collector’s party differed from the typical Pharisee party.

First, it was described as a “great banquet.” While the Pharisees’ dinners probably had no lack of food and drink for the guests, they are never described as banquets. There is no sense of extravagance at all. The tax collectors, however, went all out when they threw a party. It wasn’t just a “banquet” at Matthew’s house; it was a “great” banquet. I’m sure there was enough food to feed an army, and I can imagine music and dancing and laughter ringing through the place, with Jesus in the middle of it all.

Speaking of Jesus, the second big difference from a Pharisee party is that this one was thrown “for Jesus.” At the Pharisee dinners Jesus is just one of many invitees, a guest treated with no more honor than any other, and sometimes with less honor than the others. Not so at Matthew’s banquet. For Matthew, Jesus is not just an honored guest; He is the whole reason for the celebration in the first place. He is the sine qua non of the event: without Jesus, there would be no party.

Third, there were so many people they could only be called a “large crowd.” It wasn’t just Matthew’s personal friends and close family; it was everyone who could fit in the house, and then some. There was no need for Jesus to tell Matthew to invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind because, in all likelihood, they were already there. Apparently even some Pharisees and lawyers were hanging around, and no one seemed to mind until they started complaining about who Jesus was eating with.

Fourth, there was more eating and less talking. Out of three dinners with Pharisees, we have plenty of lessons and no actual mention of eating. But here Jesus doesn’t have a lecture for Matthew or his guests. But Luke does tell us they were eating together.

Sharing a meal with friends did not stop with Jesus death and resurrection. In Luke 24 we read of two different meals that Jesus shared with disciples after His resurrection: the first one was the dinner on the road to Emmaus we’ve already looked at. The second was at a gathering of the apostles, described by Luke in 24:36-43:

While they were still talking, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.

And even after He ascended, Jesus didn’t stop sharing meals with His disciples. When Jesus established a memorial that would endure through the centuries, He did it at a meal. He did it with a meal. We Christians share bread and drink together every Sunday, not just with one another, but with Jesus as well, who told us to always remember Him whenever we do it. Jesus accepted every invitation He received while He walked the earth, and even now He still shows up every time His presence is requested.

The tradition of Thanksgiving is nearly as old as our country. In 1789 President George Washington declared the first official Thanksgiving Day in November. He said that day should “be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious [God] who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection.”

Tomorrow most of us will celebrate Thanksgiving by sharing a meal with family and friends. Even those who are planning on spending tomorrow by themselves will actually have a guest. Who is coming to dinner with you? Jesus. But if we celebrate Thanksgiving the way Washington envisioned it, Jesus won’t be at our meal to lecture or chide us. He’ll be smiling and saying, “Blessed are you, for you are feasting in the kingdom of God.”

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