Sunday, October 9, 2011


Good Morning boys and girls, Moms and Dads. Before we get too serious this morning, I’d like us to play a little game. And for this game, I need a volunteer. Josh! Would you kindly come up here this morning? The game I’d like us to play involves two packages.

As you can see, there is a letter on each of the package. On the first package is the letter O (with a line through it) and on the second package is the letter S (with a line through it). Now both of these letters mean something a little different when you put a line through them. In mathematics, if you put a line through the letter O, it means “nothing”. And that’s exactly what might be in the first package. It might contain nothing, or… it might contain nothing.

But what about the second package. Do you know what it means when we put a line through the letter S? That’s right – it means “money”. And that’s exactly what might be in the second package. It might contain nothing, or… it might contain money. So here’s the game: in a minute, you get to open up one of the packages and take whatever is inside home. But you have to take one or the other; you can’t take neither, and you can’t take both. You could choose the first package, in which there might be nothing… or… there might be nothing. Or you could choose the second package, in which there might be nothing… or there might be money. Which package would you choose?

The second package? Good choice. I think that we can all agree that that is the sensible choice to make. But before you open that package, I have a friend who would like to try to talk you out of your choice. But I’d like you to be smart, and only change your mind if you think that you really should, ok? Snake meet Josh; Josh meet snake…

S: Hi Josh. Sssssooo, you chose the sssecond package.
S: Didn’t your Daddy ever tell you – never take money from strangers?
D: Snake! I’m not a stranger!
S: You look pretty strange to me!
D: come on…
S: Besides, would you trust someone who keeps a talking snake in their closet?
D: I’m not sure you’re getting anywhere, Snake. Have you changed your mind yet, Josh?
S: But Josh! Josh! Why be predictable? Why be boring? He knew that you’d choose the second package all along. Don’t you want to be creative? Surprising? Courageous?
D: Courageous?? Are you convinced yet, Josh?
S: Well, even if that package does contain money, it is sure to have germs all over it. It’s likely been handled by hundreds of people over the years.
D: I’ve never heard of anyone getting sick from touching money, Snake.
S: But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.
D: I suppose…
S: You know Josh, even if the second package did contain money, your Dad would want you to share it with Matt and Danny. You wouldn’t want to have to do that, would you?
D: What do you think?
S: All right, all right – the kid’s too smart for me. Let him open his package.

Ok – go ahead Josh – tear off the top of the envelope and show everyone what’s inside. Money! That’s your reward for being such a good sport, and for not trusting in talking snakes…

Now why did we just play that game? Well, the game that we just played is a good description of how life is. We have a choice to make. We can’t not make this choice. We can’t put it off. Everything we do is exercising this choice. We can either choose to live our lives without God – as if He didn’t exist: not caring what He thinks or listening to what He says. Or we can choose to live our lives with God – acknowledging his presence, and paying attention to what He wants us to know. That’s the choice.

Now if you are interested in what’s “in” those packages, there has been a lot of research concerning exactly that. Scientists have been trying to create a “science of happiness” for the last twenty-five years. And they’ve found some interesting things. They’ve found, for example, that your “subjective well-being” (a fancy sounding way to say “how good your life is”) is going to be better if you live like God matters (that’s why one circle is bigger than the other). Here’s what the research says (Witter et al, 1985) “Religion seems to give hope, meaning, optimism, and security to individuals, and some researchers have concluded that both religiosity and religious activity are positively related to subjective well-being.”

What does this mean? It means simply that even if we just think about this life then there is an already an advantage in paying attention to God. But that’s not all there is to the story, is it? We don’t make any secret of the fact that God wants to bless his children after this life, too, doesn’t He? And the Bible makes it clear that the eternal glory that is waiting for us far outweighs any momentary inconveniences we might experience here.

So that’s life’s big choice. On the one hand, you can choose a life without God. That’s a package called atheism. And atheism is all about “nothing.” Atheism is the belief that there was Nothing. But nothing magically became everything for no reason. And then, for no reason, everything came together magically so that we can all agree that it came from nothing. What’s inside that package? Nothing.

On the other hand, there is a package we could call Christianity. The belief that there is Someone. Someone amazing. Someone powerful and loving. Someone so smart He could make the universe. Someone so loving that when we turned our backs on him, he was willing to be humiliated and scarred and tortured – to literally sacrifice himself in order to win us back. What’s inside that package?

Here are two verses to summarize what’s in that package:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you.” (1 Peter 1)

“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people. (Ephesians 1)”

So be smart like Josh: there is no point in going for the first package – it only promises nothing anyway.

Now for Moms and Dads, you might have recognized what I just presented as a simplified form of a very famous argument that is often called Pascal’s wager. Pascal was once of the smartest scientists who ever lived, and he was the first to present something like this. But if you go to Google and search for “Pascal’s wager”, the first three pages of results will be people who think that they can prove that the logic here is faulty. If anyone who would like to get into it I’d love to discuss that with you afterward, but with one exception, these arguments on the internet aren’t really refutations at all; they are actually evasions – excuses, really.

The exception, and the only good argument against Pascal goes like this: surely God is smart enough to know when people believe in him just to get a reward; God is more interesting in honesty and worship than selfishness. God knows your heart – whether you truly believe in him, or not. But Pascal himself addressed this problem. And he makes a really, really good point while he does it. He says that people who don’t really think that they can believe in God do it for reasons of lifestyle rather than for reasons of logic. That’s right: people don’t disbelieve in God because of science or evidence or logic. That’s a myth. People disbelieve in God because of lifestyle, among other things. And Pascal suggests that the obvious solution to this is… to change one’s lifestyle!

That’s right: “the person who [struggles with belief] should attach himself to a Christian community and begin to take part in the same spiritual activities that believers engage in – to pray, to sing, to read the Bible. Eventually, faith will come…” (WLC) and along with it all the benefits of knowing God. Simply practicing devotion can lead us to real heart-change.

But why did I decide to tell you all that on Thanksgiving Sunday? Well, it has a lot to do with Thanksgiving, believe it or not!

You see, after researchers discovered that Christians are happier, they decided to dig into that a little bit. If Christians are happier than other people, why? And they found something very interesting. The one thing that they discovered to correlate with happiness more than anything else they considered, more than health, more than wealth, more than youth, more than good looks (seriously) – the one thing that correlates with happiness is… an attitude of gratitude. That’s thanksgiving.
Let me describe one of their experiments. This is really cool. They picked three groups of people at random. They asked everyone in the first group to take a few minutes every evening for ten weeks, and write down three events that happened to them that day. The second group was asked to write down three things that irked them today – things that bothered them. And the last group was asked to write down three things that they were thankful for. The results were fascinating. By the end of the experiment, those people who were exercising gratitude were considerably happier than the other two groups. Simply practicing gratitude can change one’s attitude.
And further research has made the picture all the more clear: practicing gratitude reduces stress, fear, anxiety, high blood pressure, depression, and heart disease. Gratitude can actually extend your life.
But the primary source for teaching on thanksgiving and gratitude is the book in front of you this morning. This important idea, so strongly connected to your happiness, is found in the New Testament more than anywhere else in history. Of course, this is good evidence that the God of the Bible is the same God who also designed you and me.
As a concept, thanking and being thankful is more common in the New Testament than the concept of obedience. It is almost as common in the New Testament as that of worship. The size of the bubble matches the number of times the idea is mentioned in the New Testament. But there is a story in the Bible that puts thanksgiving in between obedience and worship, too. Let me read it to you. (Luke 17)
11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
14 When he saw them, [Jesus] said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.”
Now just in case you don’t know, leprosy is a terrible disease – a disease for which there was no known cure. In fact, it took almost two thousand years to discover a cure. And so these poor men must have heard that Jesus had healed other people, and so they were begging him to heal them, too. So why did Jesus say “Go, show yourself to the priests”? Well, to explain that, let me read another story (Luke 5):
12 While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy.[a] When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
13 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him.
14 Then Jesus ordered him, “Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”
You see, the law – the commands of God as given to Moses – had specific instructions for people who were healed of leprosy: they were supposed to go and let the priests examine them to establish that they were truly healed. But you probably noticed an important difference between these two stories. In the one I just read, Jesus heals the man first and tells him to go show himself to the priest second. But in the story with the ten lepers, Jesus just tells them to go. There’s a good lesson here, by the way: God deals with each of us differently – our experiences are tailor-made for us, and it can sometimes be a mistake to compare our circumstances with that of others. But let’s read the remainder of the first story:
12 As [Jesus] was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy[b] met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
14 When he saw them, [Jesus] said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. [Pretty cool, huh?]
15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then [Jesus] said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has saved you.”
Now I’ve got to tell you: if I was just healed from leprosy in that way, I’d be one of those nine who kept going to see the priest. And it wouldn’t be because I wasn’t grateful. It would simply be that the person who had just healed me had given me instructions, and not only that, but I had just been healed because I was following his instructions! So no matter how grateful I felt, I would have persisted in obedience – an obedience not just to the words of my healer, but also faithful to the law that God gave Moses.

But here’s the thing: by persisting in obedience in that manner, I would have missed out on a greater blessing. Greater than being healed from leprosy? Absolutely. For the thankfulness that drove the tenth leper back to Jesus is something that we all need this morning. Christian churches are full of people who have heard Jesus’ voice. For the most part, those people are at least trying to follow his guidance. But only a few, perhaps only one in ten, are able to see beyond the rules, to see the love built into the rules, and to be grateful to the rule-maker; to see through the healing, to see the love in the healing, and to be grateful to the healer; to see through the joy and see the joy-giver. And that was the man who received an extra blessing. That was the man who received the true blessing. That man is the challenge for us this morning.
You see, thanksgiving is actually two things at the same time – feeling grateful and expressing gratitude. Feeling grateful is the practice of slowing down to savor positive experiences. And no wonder that makes people happier! But expressing gratitude is even more important. Feelings of gratitude are often focused on the gift, but an expression of gratitude connects you with the giver. And that’s the other thing that research shows:
With an attitude of gratitude, your relationships will improve! Instead of focusing on what the other person isn’t doing for you, an attitude of gratitude focuses on all that the other person is doing for you – and what a difference that can make. Thanksgiving can heal relationships. How is your relationship with God this morning?
I can guarantee that all ten of the lepers in our story felt grateful. But only one understood how important it was to express that gratitude to his healer. Only one returned to connect with the one who not only gave the rules around healing, but actually provided the healing, too. Only one received that true blessing. Thanksgiving is the bridge between obedience and worship. Practice it – even if you might not feel like it!

Don’t let your problems fill your vision
The way to escape is to make a decision

Open your eyes; wipe the frown off your face
God is extending his hand in grace

Take a breath, chill, lose the attitude.
Be at peace, breath in some gratitude.

God loves you more than you’ll ever know.
And getting to know Him is awesome… so…

Don’t you think it’s time to start living?
Have yourself a grateful Thanksgiving!