Pastor Paul Waldschmidt delivers a sermon entitled “Build an Altar to the Lord” based on Genesis 8:18-20 at Peace Lutheran Church in Hartford, Wisconsin.
Delivered on Thanksgiving Thursday, November 22, 2018
Most early childhood teachers could write a book filled with amusing stories and humorous anecdotes about the things they’ve heard from the mouths of babes in their classrooms over the years. My mom, a kindergarten teacher for 25 years, was certainly no exception. Were she still alive today, she could relate all the various, hilarious butcherings of the last name Waldschmidt that she heard over the years. Or she might tell you about the kindergartner who complained on the first day of school that the school’s toilet paper was virtually unusable because it was way too scratchy. But I’m almost certain she’d tell you her favorite story about the little boy who showed up on the first day of school and less than a minute after the opening bell, raised his hand and asked, “When are we gonna learn how to drive?”
That kid knew what he wanted to do on his first day. He had multiple options, a world full of things that he had yet to learn, but they all played second fiddle to the thing he knew had to come first. Getting behind the wheel.
Our text for this Thanksgiving takes place on a first day of sorts. When God said to Noah, “Come out of the ark” it was the first day of completely new world. Noah was used to being a resident on earth. But he wasn’t used to being the only resident on earth! I mean the people who came off the ark—Noah, his wife, his sons and his sons’ wives.—were starting from scratch in every way.
So if you think that your “to do” list for Thanksgiving dinner is substantial, I’d venture a guess to say that Noah probably had you beat. Imagine being him. What kinds of questions are running through your mind as set foot on dry ground for the first time in a year? How about “Where are we?” (Remember, this mountain where the ark came to rest could’ve been hundreds of miles away from where Noah started.) “Where’s our next meal coming from?” “Where are we going to sleep tonight?” They needed to find a water source, build shelter, find tillable ground, you get the picture. The only thing that’s unchanged preflood and postflood is that there are still only 24 hours in a day. On his first day in a whole new world, Noah’s got a million things on his mind, two million things on his to do list. So what does he do first? He builds an altar.
Now keep in mind, this was more than just a matter of heading over to Menards and picking up an altar kit. There was the finding followed by the heavy lifting of large stones, carefully arranging them one on top of another. Plastering the seams with mud. Just building the altar was exhausting and time consuming. We haven’t even talked about what was going to go on top of the altar yet. Taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. Did you catch that? Some of ALL the clean animals. Now we don’t know exactly what that means, number wise, but suffice it say that there were animals upon animals being slaughtered and consumed by fire on that altar. It could’ve taken hours, even days to offer this sacrifice.
So why would a man so weighed down with responsibilities put everything else on hold and consume precious resources, precious energy and precious daylight to build an altar and offer a sacrifice? Why would he do that? You know why. Gratitude.
Noah knew that without the message of God, he could’ve just as easily been outside the ark instead of inside the ark when the flood came. Moments of great loss are brutal to endure. But we emerge on the other side, by God’s grace, with a greater appreciation for the things we have. Life, faith, people that we love. Those aren’t Hallmark greeting card platitudes. They aren’t intended to be trite generalities. In fact, they are the primary things we give thanks for on a day like this. Noah emerged from the ark and everything he knew had been destroyed. But he had his life. He had his faith. And he had the people he loved. And that made him build an altar.
God grant us the grace to follow his example. First of all, in slowing down and taking inventory. Noah had a million things going on in his life and in his mind. So do we. And it’s more than just the immediate holiday business before us. It’s the 24/7/365 the demands of life. Be here at this time, make sure that is clean. It’s time for that food to get prepared. It’s time for that project to be completed. Have you paid that bill? Have you called him back? Tonight, tomorrow—just breathe for a minute. Slow down and look around you. Do you have life? Do you have faith? Do people that you love and who love you, too? Then your cup is filled is to the top. It’s easy to forget that.
It was 16 degrees when I got into my car in the Walmart parking lot last Sunday before church. I had stopped to get the doughnuts for TOPS, our Teen Bible Class. And the news that it was 16 degrees on November 18th was received pretty much exactly as you’d expect. “Are you serious, Lord? Well at least we only have about 6 more months of this!” But you see, while it was 16 degrees….I was getting my car. Which started and not only transported me, but also warmed up to a comfortable temperature during the drive. The drive from Walmart, where I got doughnuts! Life was good, but I was so wrapped in the 16 degrees that I lost sight of how good it was. Do you ever have that? Where a single willow of trouble or difficulty makes you lose sight of the whole forest of things that you have to be thankful for? Oh, Lord forgive us, for taking so many for granted!
And he does. As regularly and consistently as the morning sun rises—solely by grace, without our merit, so also mercy and pardon rise from our God—solely by grace, without our merit. On the cross, Jesus said to his Father “punish me instead of them.” Today, Jesus says to his Father, “Bless them because of me.” And he does. Our Baptism is the Ark from which we emerge each day to a spiritual clean slate, a fresh start, a new life. Just like Noah did so many years ago.
And what’s the first thing on our priority list each day? Build an altar! Just like Noah did so many years ago. But that analogy limps of course. Because thanksgiving is more than just building a metaphorical altar with a 2 minute prayer at the beginning of the day. That’s not a bad thing to pencil in, mind you, but in reality, a Christian’s entire life is a continuous altar building from beginning to end. It’s every time, every action, every moment where you say, “Lord, accept my humble sacrifice.”
If that’s true, and it is, your sacrifice is saying kind words when your heart would prefer mean ones. Your sacrifice is patiently abiding with someone when you’d be justified to blow up at them. Your sacrifice is telling your spouse or your parents or your friends “I’m sorry. I was wrong to do that.” Your sacrifice is helping when it would be easier to sit. Trusting when it would be easier to worry. Praising when it would be easier to complain. That’s hard work. It takes precious time. It involves moving some pretty big rocks. But building those mini-altars throughout our lives is the Spirit given upshot of gratitude, of knowing what we deserve and what we get instead. What we get from the providing hands of our dear Creator today, every day, and in eternity. So build an altar to the Lord today, every day and in eternity as well. Amen.
Preacher, Pastor Jeremy Husby delivers a sermon entitled “Be Content in Thanksgiving” based on Philippians 4:10-13 at Peace Lutheran Church in Hartford, Wisconsin.
Delivered: on Thursday, November 23, 2017
Sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.
Those words, or something somewhat similar, were spreading like wildfire throughout ancient Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia Minor in the 1st Century. However, though they sound familiar to Christians who have read through the inspired words of Paul in the second lesson for today, they did not come from his pen, his mouth, or his mind. Unlike Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the words that were captivating the Roman Empire were not inspired of God.
Sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.
Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher is credited with coming up with that phrase in particular; along with another insightful quip: It is not what happens to you, but how you react that matters.
It was not accidental that Paul’s words, I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances, sound almost as if Paul and Epictetus were cut from the same cloth.
One of the apostle’s apologetic strategies, his tools for defending and explaining the truths of Christianity, was to study the philosophers of the age and expand on their rudimentary understandings of how and why human beings exist.
For a few hundred years before Paul sent this letter to the Philippians, Stoic philosophers were sorting through those very questions. What is the point of life? Why are we here? What does this world offer to me to fill this insatiable desire to be content and satisfied and, finally, truly happy?
Paul learned the answer to that question. In keeping with his apologetic efforts, the word that Paul used to describe the emotional state and spiritual gift of contentment that he enjoyed isn’t used anywhere else in the Greek New Testament. It is, however, found over and again in the writings of the Stoics.
When Paul wrote, I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances, a much more literal translation of his words might read I have learned self- sufficiency whatever the circumstances.
Have you been to a bookstore recently? Or, rather, as you are seeking out your Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals over the weekend, take a look at what books are the most popular and best sellers among baby boomers and millennials, alike. The self-help sections have surged so much.
That’s because it isn’t just Stoics in the centuries just before and after Christ that are seeking happiness and fulfilment in life. Believers and unbelievers alike want the kind of self-sufficiency that Paul wrote about almost 2000 years ago. However, the secret of self-sufficiency that Paul learned is the difference between believers finally finding it and unbelievers continuing their search.
Paul had to learn that secret because, even as the philosophers posited, contentment is not a natural emotional state for human beings. That fact is something that you don’t have to learn, isn’t it? Even as you sit down for your Thanksgiving meal (tomorrow/today), with enough food to feed an army, will you feel satisfied? It could be something somewhat insignificant, like the turkey being a little dry or that your sister-in-law put too much pepper in the green bean casserole. Maybe you’d rather be watching the football game or be in a room with anyone other than your mother-in-law. Maybe it is that empty chair that still sticks out like a sore thumb, either because of the loss of a loved one or the one you are still looking to love.
Whatever it is, everything isn’t exactly the way that you want it. You might be happy, but it could be better. Or, maybe, you won’t be celebrating Thanksgiving at all. You might take the time, like you are for an hour today, to be thankful to God for all that you have but you’re not having a meal, there’s no family gathering, and your list of physical blessings to be thankful for is pretty short.
That feeling of discontent isn’t there simply because you are being ungrateful. That’s simply a symptom of the disease that affects the way that you perceive and receive the actions of your neighbors and the situations that surround you.
The reason that, by nature, you are discontent is because you are sinful. It is not outside influences that teach you how to have insatiable desires. That has been an inclination in human beings ever since Adam and Eve conceived their first child. Which means that the problem with finding self-sufficiency, that even the greatest philosophers couldn’t solve, is that your self is flawed.
But, if happiness doesn’t come from outside influences and it cannot come from within, where can it possibly be found? What is the secret?
I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
Paul’s secret isn’t so secret. It is the same thing that has been giving people strength for centuries. Strength cannot come from within you and it does not come from adapting your mind and heart to, or simply accepting, your particular circumstances. It is not understanding who you are. It is about understanding what Christ changed you into.
The secret that Paul learned by experience in his life, when he was blinded and, subsequently, when the scales fell from his eyes, was so much more than simply giving him rose-colored glasses to see the world differently.
Up until his conversion, Paul had been seeking to find contentment and satisfaction in pleasing God through his righteous acts and religious fervor. But, as he learned, he could never accomplish it on his own. He could never be good enough. Instead, Christ gave him the strength to be righteous in God’s sight by changing him from being a sinful enemy of God to being an innocent child of God.
Jesus did that by living a perfect life on this earth, never once falling for the Devil’s temptations to covet or be envious or greedy. In his divine self, without the flaws of sinful man, Jesus was content to leave his plentiful life in heaven to feel hunger on earth and sacrifice that life to pay for all of the times when Paul was covetous, envious, or greedy. With his precious blood, shed from the cross, he covered Paul’s imperfection completely so that, when God looked at Paul he only saw his own perfect Son, instead.
With Christ’s forgiveness on his mind, Paul was content with whatever situation he is placed in. Even if in jail, which is likely from where he wrote the book of Philippians, he sang praises to the one who redeemed him and gave him self-sufficiency in the life Christ made his.
Is Paul a good example for you to follow? Sure. But rather than focus on him being able to overcome any situation in life, focus on why he was able to do it; Christ gave him the strength.
Christ gives you the strength, too. He lived perfectly for you. He died in your place. Whether you are well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want, Christ strengthened you to be a blood-bought child of God.
To paraphrase Epictetus, you can be sick and yet content, in peril and yet content, dying and yet content, in exile and content, in disgrace and content because in
Christ’s life and death, made yours by faith, your new self is sufficient for you. Amen.