The Turtle on the Fencepost

Deuteronomy 8:7-18

Preached FCCW November, 19, 2017       Thanksgiving Sunday

Could there ever be a Biblical passage better suited for the Thanksgiving holiday than today’s Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy?

Moses whet the Israelites’ appetite for the Promised Land that awaited them by focusing on the easy access to food they would enjoy there. He portrayed Canaan as a land of olive trees, fruits and honey, and bread without scarcity. Which I think meant the same thing then as it does now – all you can eat. Not exactly turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce, but certainly a lot better than the diet they had been used to.

During their years of wandering in the desert, there were times when there seemed to be precious few signs of God’s blessings for them to be thankful about. “Is God with us or not?” the people would repeatedly complain to Moses. Sometimes things were so bad that the people wished that they were still slaves back in Egypt, where at least they got fed regularly.

On their own out in the desert, though, they were perpetually in danger of dying of thirst or starvation. But always in the nick of time, God would come through, squeezing water from a rock for them to drink or raining down bread from heaven to eat.

When you are this close to having nothing, and you know there isn’t a thing within your power you can do to turn things around, then even the smallest breaks are easily identifiable as miracles; and the tiniest blessings are reasons to rejoice and give thanks. It gets pretty hard to forget about God when you’re living on a prayer.

 

But by the time the Israelites reached the threshold of the Promised Land, most of the generation that lived during those 40 years of scarcity and utter dependence on God, weren’t around anymore.

Moses still remembered those days, though. And he impressed upon the people why it was important for them not to forget about those times. He told them, “When you are finally living the good life, do not think too highly of yourself, forgetting the Lord, your God, and all God has done for you.”

He had the foresight to see that the prosperity that awaited them in Canaan held its own brand of peril. Not to their physical survival, but to their souls.

Moses also recognized a surprising spiritual principle, that is as true today as it was back then. Which is that we sometimes exhibit gratitude in reverse proportion to the number of blessings received.The more we have the more we take for granted, or give ourselves credit for, and the less thankful we are.

Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that if the constellations appeared only once in a thousand years, imagine what an exciting event it would be. But because they’re there, over our heads every night, we barely give them a look.

One of the evidences of spiritual growth is a gradual reversal of that pattern.

God wants to provide us with good things. And, God guides us to become people who exhibit thankfulness in consistent proportion to the gifts and blessings we’ve received.

Moses made the connection between the people’s sense of gratitude and their faithfulness to God; a faithfulness that would be evident in the ways they treated each other, and in how well they kept the commandments God had given them to live by.

When their needs were great, they could not afford to forget who their provider and protector was. It’s hard to ignore God when He’s turning boulders into fountains to save you from dying of thirst.

But what would happen when scarcity was replaced with prosperity? When the time came that they could raise their own crops and dig their own wells?

Nothing diminishes the power gratitude has to deepen our awareness of God faster than the illusion of our own self-sufficiency.

Moses warned the Israelites, “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth. But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.”

Alex Haley used to keep an unusual picture hanging on his office wall as his own reminder of this. It was a picture of a turtle on top of a fence post.

When visitors to his office asked him why he kept such an odd picture on his wall, Haley would answer; “Every time I write something significant, every time I read my words and think that they are wonderful, and begin to feel proud of myself, I look at the turtle on top of the fence post and remember that he didn’t get there on his own. He had help.”

I still haven’t figured out what advantage it would be for a turtle to be on top of a fencepost, or why he would be grateful for any assistance in getting there.

But you get the picture, right?

Which is that the truest form of thankfulness comes not from how much we have, but in remembering that we only have what we have and have gotten to where we are, with God’s help.

Maybe, in place of the classic Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving painting of the family gathered expectantly around the table as father carves the turkey, we ought to hang Alex Haley’s picture of the turtle on the fencepost.

While one picture captures the enjoyment of abundance, the other reminds us that something beyond our own hard work puts the food on the table and the roof over our heads.

Which leads to another important awareness.

That God calls those who have received much, to be generous toward those who still have less than enough.

That it’s a short step from our forgetting about how God provides for us to overlooking the ways God can work through us and through what we have received, to meet the needs of our brothers and sisters.

The hallmark of the Christian life should always be a tendency towards gratitude. And a life that is rooted in thankfulness will be a life that displays generosity.

So as you take in the bounty spread across your table on Thanksgiving, let your mind’s eye peek beyond the stuffing and turkey for just a moment, to notice that the ways that God has provided for you when life may not have been quite so abundant.

Be aware of God as the true source of whatever security you enjoy in the present.

Remember that you, like the turtle on the fencepost, could not be where you are;  without God’s help.

Because, that is the best reason of all to be thankful.

 

Copyright 2017                  Raymond Medeiros