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Talks/Sermons
by Jonathan & Tom McKee

Title: The Celebration of American STUFF

Text: II Chronicles 31

Big Idea: Thanksgiving is an American tradition that is especially meaningful for the Christian because it gives us an opportunity to change our focus from our prosperity to God.

Sound Byte: Thanksgiving is a time to switch the focus from OUR STUFF to THE GOD WHO GAVE US THAT STUFF

Outline:

Introduction: How do we handle our American success & prosperity?
Introduction:

I love the story of the farmer who worked hard and had a beautiful farm. A friend said to him, "Wow, God has really blessed you." The farmer responded, "You should have seen this field when God was doing it by himself—it was a mess."

What was this farmer saying? I draw several conclusions from this story. Before I share them, consider—what do you think the farmer was saying? (Feel free to turn this intro into a small or large group discussion)

He might be saying:
  • God needs me, for without me this land would be weeds and rocks
  • God and I are a team—we work together and He does His part (the rain and great soil) and I do my part (work the land)
  • Between me and God, I am the hardest worker—I sweat
  • Cursed be Adam who, because of his sin, I have to work so hard
  • I am thankful to God for the opportunity to do my creative part in this section of land that God has seen fit to give to me
Perhaps at times this farmer felt all of the above. We don't know for sure. The real question is how do we feel about what we've achieved? How do we feel about the blessings of our hard work, especially when it comes to Thanksgiving season.

As I was thinking about the farmer, I thought about the first American Thanksgiving and how the people had this big pot-luck thanksgiving meal and praised God for a great year. They praised God for a new land, they praised God for new neighbors, and they praised God that He had blessed the crops of their field. Bottom line—they were thanking God for all their STUFF! They were thanking God for their prosperity. They felt rich and blessed. That is the beginning of what we Americans now call Thanksgiving.

A little girl was praying the other night and she said, "God, thank you for my family, thank you for my house, thank you for my dog, my room, my toys and my new jacket. Amen."

That about covers it, right? Thanks for all my STUFF!

A high school kid just got a new IPOD for his birthday. That night he said a quick bed time prayer. "God, thanks for the IPOD. Wow. You really came through. Amen."

Is that what prayer is all about?

Is that what Thanksgiving is all about?

After all... it's not bad to stop and thank God... is it?

If you think about these kids and if you think about the first American Thanksgiving... you notice the same thing. As I thought about this, I was reminded of this type of celebration in the Scriptures going all the way back to II Chronicles 31. Ezra is writing this account for a very specific reason. People in Ezra's time were struggling, like many of us, with their prosperity and blessings; they were so blessed by God they did not know how to thank God for such blessings. They realized that they sounded like that little girl and that high school kid praying, "Thanks for all my STUFF!"

They didn't know how to thank God for their prosperity without focusing on the prosperity and not on God. Too often we focus on the blessing and forget the actual source of our prosperity.

Ever feel that way? Ever feel that you don't know how to really thank God?

Well, in this passage, EZRA writes a success story. And the success story he writes is in the book of II Chronicles, chapter 31. He tells them, "Hey, we had a king by the name of Hezekiah who was concerned about the lack of meaningful worship and the lack of knowing how to thank God for the many blessings they were all experiencing. So this King Hezekiah sets out a way to thank God and outlines a profile of what that worship should focus on."

Hezekiah helped them (SOUND BYTE) switch the focus from OUR STUFF to THE GOD WHO GAVE US THAT STUFF.

Thanksgiving is a time to switch the focus from OUR STUFF to THE GOD WHO GAVE US THAT STUFF.

Hezekiah has a little thanksgiving service. And the profile of Hezekiah's thanksgiving service is ...
  1. First, look upward to thank God as the provider of your prosperity.
  2. Second, look back at the blessing you've received and give back to God out of your prosperity.
  3. Third, look forward to a greater prosperity.
I like to think of it as the three directions of thanksgiving—upward, back and forward.

I. Thanksgiving is an opportunity to turn our hearts upward to the source of our prosperity (v. 1, 2) LOOK UP
       Now when the festival ended, the Israelites who attended went to all the towns of Judah, Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh, and they smashed the sacred pillars, cut down the Asherah poles, and removed the pagan shrines and altars. After this, the Israelites returned to their own towns and homes.

       [2] Hezekiah then organized the priests and Levites into divisions to offer the burnt offerings and peace offerings, and to worship and give thanks and praise to the Lord at the gates of the Temple. (2 Chron. 31:1-2, NLT)
The first step of thanksgiving is to turn our hearts from worshiping STUFF—things that bring us temporary happiness—to God.

Thanksgiving is a time to turn our hearts upward and switch the focus from OUR STUFF to THE GOD WHO GAVE US THAT STUFF.

In the first Thanksgiving celebration in American history, we see a guy who helped the first American settlers turn their hearts upward. William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth colony in 1623 sent out his famous declaration in which he said, and I am going to paraphrase Bradford, "Since God has really outdone Himself with us this year and we have tons of Indian corn, wheat, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, game, fish and clams, and has given us a year of peace..." (and he goes on and on and on and on about the blessings of God during the past year) "that we the Pilgrims should gather between the hours of 9—12 on the first Thanksgiving and listen to our pastor and then give thanks to Almighty God for all His Blessings."

Notice that Bradford asked that they listen to the teaching of the Bible (the pastor) and then they give thanks to Almighty God.

How do we usually thank God in America? Often we go around the Thanksgiving table and share our thanks. It might sound like this ...
  • I thank God for my family
  • I thank God for my friends
  • I thank God for my health
  • I thank God for my stuff
All of these things are important and significant, but the focus is on family and stuff—not God. We get caught up talking about how prosperous we are.

I believe that Hezekiah wanted people, before they got to the stuff they were thankful for, to focus on God.

To make sure that the people focus on God, he has them do two things: 1. Get rid of STUFF 2. Worship and take an offering.

In the time of Hezekiah, there was some bad stuff that they needed to get rid of. There was not only idols, but some sexually explicit stuff like those Asherah poles that distracted the people. Luckily, we don't have any sexually explicit stuff around us today that distracts us (sarcasm implied). They burned down all idols and turned to worshipping God—God alone.

As you can see, this is a two step process. 1. They removed things in their lives that take away the focus on God alone. They removed the stuff that did NOT belong in their life. Do you have anything that doesn't belong in your life? Do you have idols that distract you from Godly things? Maybe we have some sexual temptations that are conveniently beamed into our house through cable or the internet that we need to remove. Notice that Hezekiah had them totally destroy this stuff. If Hezekiah was a teenager, he probably would have cancelled his cable service if that's where the distractions came from, or ripped the high speed internet cord from the wall.

But then... 2. They turned their attention to God, taking an offering, and worshipping Him alone.

Some of us might need to get rid of something before we can really switch our focus to God alone. Some of us might be like the one armed lawyer.

A lawyer opened the door of his BMW, when suddenly a car came along and hit the door, ripping it off completely. When the police arrived at the scene, the lawyer was complaining bitterly about the damage to his precious BMW. "Officer, look what they've done to my Beeeeemer!" he whined. "You lawyers are so materialistic, you make me sick!" retorted the officer. "You're so worried about your stupid BMW, that you didn't even notice that your left arm was ripped off!"

"Oh no!," replied the lawyer, finally noticing the bloody left shoulder where his arm once was. "Where's my Rolex?!?"

King Hezekiah had them strip themselves of all distractions so that they could turn their hearts upward and truly focus on God.

When we have totally stopped to strip ourselves of all but God, then it is time to move to the second direction of our Thanksgiving—looking back at what God has given us.


II. Thanksgiving is an opportunity to look back at God's blessings and give back to God out of our prosperity. (vv. 3-8) GIVE BACK

       The king also made a personal contribution of animals for the daily morning and evening burnt offerings, as well as for the weekly Sabbath festivals and monthly new moon festivals, and for the other annual festivals as required in the law of the Lord. [4] In addition, he required the people in Jerusalem to bring the prescribed portion of their income to the priests and Levites, so they could devote themselves fully to the law of the Lord.
       [5] The people responded immediately and generously with the first of their crops and grain, new wine, olive oil, honey, and all the produce of their fields. They brought a tithe of all they owned. [6] The people who had moved to Judah from Israel, and the people of Judah themselves, brought in the tithes of their cattle and sheep and a tithe of the things that had been dedicated to the Lord their God, and they piled them up in great heaps. [7] The first of these tithes was brought in late spring, and the heaps continued to grow until early autumn. [8] When Hezekiah and his officials came and saw these huge piles, they thanked the Lord and his people Israel! (2 Chron. 31:3-8, NLT)
Have you ever noticed how when professional athletes, those multi-millionaires, do some volunteer project, they often say, "I'm giving back to the community." That's what Thanksgiving is—giving back on how much we have been blessed. The word Thanksgiving is made up of two words—Thanks and Giving. We often forget that giving is part of the thanksgiving.

The crazy thing is, you will receive more joy out of giving out of your own prosperity, than if you kept it all to yourself.

I'll never forget a quote in Time magazine from a former tobacco company executive who turned into an anti-smoking crusader. He said, "I don't need the cars and fancy ties and all those trappings that consumed me once. My enjoyment comes when some kid comes up to me and says, 'I'm never gonna smoke.' I can take that to the bank, whatever bank you want to call it." (Jeffrey Wigand, Time, February 14, 2005, p. 8.)

Giving back is part of Thanksgiving.

This reminds me of our text. Notice how the people give thanks to God by giving—a giving that is based on the blessing of God on their prosperity. First, (vs. 3) Hezekiah gave an offering from his own wealth. Then he told the worship leaders (the priests and Levites) to exercise their gifts of leading worship (v. 4), and then he told everyone else to make contributions (tithe) so that the worship leaders could quit their jobs and be paid to work full time leading worship (v 4). During the time of Hezekiah, the people had devoted so much time into their own stuff and had not been thankful of God by giving their tithes and offerings to the Lord... so much so that the worship leaders (the Levites and Priests) had to go out and find jobs and therefore they didn't have time to lead worship.

That's still true today. The majority of the church contributes very little to God and His ministry through the church.

A 7-year-old girl noticed how much her parents put in the offering plate in church one Sunday morning. After church, her mother commented, "The choir was awful this morning." The father commented, "The sermon was too long."

Their daughter added, "You've got to admit it was a pretty good show for a dollar."

This is what was happening back in the time of Hezekiah. The worship leaders had to moonlight just to survive because people weren't giving back to God.

And notice what happens. When the people give of their first fruits (v. 5), Hezekiah saw "heaps" of gifts and they all praised God.

But the giving is based on our prosperity. Notice the word First fruits. What does this mean?

Verse 7 says that they did most of their giving in the third month and in the seventh month. This is very important. The third month was the grain harvest and the seventh month was the vine and fruit harvest. In an agriculture society, where you have two major harvest seasons, the people gave at that time. Our first American Thanksgiving celebration was in the fall, after the harvest.

So what does that mean to me? It means that when I am blessed (in 21st century American culture its called payday), I give first. I stop and thank God for his past blessing of the work He provided for me.

And that's what the backward look of Thanksgiving is. It is stopping to thank God for our past blessing and then giving back to Him the first fruits (on payday) from that blessing.

Looking back at God's blessings helps us switch the focus from OUR STUFF to THE GOD WHO GAVE US THAT STUFF.

But our thanksgiving doesn't stop there—there is a forward look.


III. Thanksgiving is the opportunity to look forward to the future prosperity that God has for us (v. 21) LOOK FORWARD

       In all that he did in the service of the Temple of God and in his efforts to follow the law and the commands, Hezekiah sought his God wholeheartedly. As a result, he was very successful. (2 Chron. 31:21, NLT)
Wow, what does this mean? I love this verse. It sound's like if I give thanks by tithing the first of everything, I'll be rich. When you read all of the verses 9-21, you will note that Hezekiah restores worship and everyone prospers. Doesn't that sound great?

Is that what Ezra is saying?

Yes. That is exactly what he is saying. In fact it is the message of the Bible. When you read the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua and Judges you read over and over again that God promises to Israel that if they obey the laws they will prosper. And when they obeyed, they prospered and when they didn't they were killed, captured and lived as slaves.

What does that mean for us today. God's promises are the same. But the key word is "prosperity." What is prosperity?

I believe that it is two things:

First, a prosperity in worship. What happened when people thanked God by giving a tithe of their prosperity? The leaders of worship could quit their other jobs and devote themselves to the teaching and leading of worship so that the people could focus on a strong knowledge and worship of God. That is prosperity. Today, when people give of themselves in proper worship, the church can flourish. They can devote themselves to teaching and worshiping. (Acts 2:42)

Second, a prosperity in the blessings of God. Is this wealth, healthy families, and security? I believe that it can be. Let's face it, when you follow God's principles, you worship Him and obey His righteous commands (the Ten Commandments), you are in the place to be blessed by God. But I believe that this is the hardest part of Thanksgiving. Because too often when we are blessed by God, we become like the farmer who said, "you should have seen this land when God was doing it alone" and we focus on our work, our goals, our family, and our prosperity. And that is not really prosperity because it lacks the first aspect of prosperity—worship. Let's face it, often it is hard to worship God in a way that leaves the blessing to Him—not us.

To thank God for Him and then to thank God for all of His blessings and even give (I love giving—generosity is so much fun), but to only give lip service to God is not Thanksgiving. Then my prosperity becomes an idol. The first thing Hezekiah did was to tear down the idols. I don't have an actual Asherah pole to tear down, but I have STUFF. Beyond the bad stuff that I know I shouldn't have... I also have some good things that can become distractions: if I do good in school, I can become successful, if I do good in sports, I can become successful, if I am popular, then I am successful... I am thankful that I am so successful—and that is my Asherah pole. Hezekiah tells me that I need to get rid of that idol.

That's the trick. Look forward to what God is going to do for you... but keep your focus on the provider, not the provision. We need to switch the focus from OUR STUFF to THE GOD WHO GAVE US THAT STUFF.

When you really get a hold of Thanksgiving, and the lesson from Hezekiah, what we see is that Thanksgiving is really about focusing on God and thanking Him. We can see God's work as we look up, look back and look forward. As we look, we switch the focus from OUR STUFF to THE GOD WHO GAVE US THAT STUFF.

CLOSING STORY: (this is a good opportunity for you to insert a closing personal story that illustrates how you were able to switch your focus from STUFF to the provider of the STUFF. The following is a story I use.)

I'll never forget the best present I ever received from my grandpa. It actually wasn't something I wanted... and I don't think I've really ever used it, come to think of it.

It was Grandpa's last Christmas with us. His health was slipping and we knew that his time with us was short. There were times that Grandpa looked around the room and didn't know where he was. His memory was failing and we often had to remind him who he was talking to.

Christmas morning arrived and each of us opened presents one at a time—that's our tradition. My kids tore open packages with new toys, dolls and stuffed animals. My grandmothers carefully opened their presents: new socks, lotions and Christmas candies. I was "Santa" that year. It was my job to hand everyone their presents and organize who opened what and when. Every once in a while I stopped being Santa for a moment to open a present for myself. A new sweatshirt from Grandma. A new DVD from my brother.

Near the end of the morning almost all of the presents were gone. My Grandfather, in a moment of clarity, instructed my Grandma to go get a present from the car. Grandma came back from the car with an old hand saw with some ribbon tied onto it and small piece of paper scotch taped to the handle. I took the saw from my grandma and saw that the small folded piece of paper had my name on it—Jonathan—in Grandpa's handwriting. I opened the piece of paper and this is what is read:

    This saw was mine for the last 30 years. It's a fine blade, I've built many things with this saw, you've probably seen the results of this saw's work around the house.

    I've been on several jobs where others noticed this saw and admired it. I've been offered money for it more than a few times but always refused.

    The saw is still in good shape, but I am not. I had the blade sharpened and it's ready for work.

    I wanted you to have it Jonathan.

    Love,

    Grandpa
I kept the note, and the saw is hanging proudly in my garage next to my other tools. I don't think I've ever used it—I have a nice DeWALT Skill Saw. To be honest, I don't think I'll ever have a use for it. But I'll never get rid of it. It was my favorite present that Christmas.

Grandpa died later that year. He left a legacy of love and hard work. His saw represents both those things to me.

To anyone else looking at it, it's just a dumb ol' handsaw. To me, it's a reminder of who Grandpa was. That Christmas, my focus wasn't on the gift, it was on the provider of the gift. My thanks wasn't for a saw, my thanks was to the provider of the saw.

And that's what our focus should be this Thanksgiving. We need to switch our focus from OUR STUFF, to the GOD WHO GAVE US THAT STUFF.


Jonathan McKee Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new If I Had a Parenting Do Over, 52 Ways to Connect with Your Smartphone Obsessed Kid; Sex Matters; The Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket; and youth ministry books like Ministry By Teenagers; Connect; and the 10-Minute Talks series. He has over 20 years youth ministry experience and speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for youth workers and parents on his websites, TheSource4YM.com and TheSource4Parents.com. You can follow Jonathan on his blog, getting a regular dose of youth culture and parenting help. Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.



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