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Sermon preached on Colossians 4:2 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/21/2010 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Being Vigilant In It With Thanksgiving”
This week our nation celebrates Thanksgiving. I like to take advantage of these sorts of important holidays in our country and use them to remind us of things that we are probably more inclined to be thinking about already. And so today’s message will think about thanksgiving. Not the holiday per se, but the actual concept of thanksgiving.
What is thanksgiving? Well, of course it is giving thanks. But most specifically, it is giving thanks for something. It’s giving thanks for some thing we’ve received. It’s offering thanks for some blessing or benefit that you’ve received. It’s an expression of gratitude. It’s saying thank you out of appreciation for what was given to you.
Of course, today we are most specifically talking about giving thanks to God. That’s not something we can take for granted. Our nation’s holiday of Thanksgiving is one celebrated by both believers and atheists. Of course, all of us can use this holiday to thank our family and friends for their love and care in our life. Yet, as Christians, we especially thank God for all that he’s done in our life. We thank God for countless things; for our family and friends; for the harvest; for our food and clothing and shelter; for our jobs; and especially and chiefly for our salvation.
Our thanksgiving can come in different forms. It can be an attitude we have. You might be someone with a generally thankful attitude. Someone who goes around constantly feeling gratitude in your heart and mind toward God and others. Thanksgiving can also be expressed through our actions. We know that sometimes we give thank you gifts to others, or do some other action as a gesture of thanksgiving. And as Christians, we say that our obedience to God’s laws is done out of gratitude. We strive to have godly actions as a way to thank God for his wonderful salvation in our life. And yet the most common way I think we all express thanksgiving is verbally. It’s something we say. We use words to give verbal expression to our thanksgiving. Hopefully those words reflect an inner state of your heart; that you really are thankful, and your words are expressing that. It’s this expression of thanksgiving that we’ll be particularly considering today from this passage. Today’s message will consider how we express our thanksgiving in words; how we thank God with our words. That of course happens through prayer. We should express thanksgiving to God in all these ways, in our attitudes, in our actions, but yes, also in our words. We should tell God thank you in our prayers!
And so today we’ll look at this verse about this very thing. First, we’ll think in general about how we ought to express our thanksgiving in prayer. Then we’ll consider the devotion we ought to have to this thanksgiving in our prayers. Last, we’ll reflect on the vigilance we should have in this thanksgiving.
So let’s begin by thinking in general about thanksgiving in prayer. Look at this verse with me. You’ll note that the verse starts out as just a general command to pray. And yet the final part of the verse connects the thanksgiving with the prayer. It says that we should have thanksgiving in our prayer. Now for most of us, this probably seems pretty obvious. And yet, I think it’s obvious because the Scriptures have trained us in prayer. But it is important that we are told this. You see, the actual word for prayer in the Scriptures, grammatically, really places the focus on making petitions. The actual word in the Greek language draws our attention to the requests we make to God. That of course can be our temptation too. To be focusing our prayers on only what we want from God. And yet it’s passages like this in Scripture that teach us that our prayers should be more than just requests. An important component of prayer is thanksgiving. We see that in the Psalms. We see that in other places in Scripture where we are taught about prayer. Our prayers do contain requests. And yet they also should have a strong component of thanksgiving.
And so this is a helpful reminder to us today. It’s so easy to spend so much time in our prayers looking out for all the things to ask of God. This passage reminds us to have that same approach to finding things to thank God for. I confess that even in the prayer meetings I lead, I don’t bring this out enough. Often we spend the vast majority of our time identifying specific requests. We need to spend time thinking of items to thank God for as well. Our prayers must be balanced with both request and thanksgiving, not to mention other components of prayer such as praise and confession of sins.
Let’s consider now how we need to have devotion to this sort of thanksgiving in prayer. Verse 2 says, “Continue earnestly in prayer.” The words “continue earnestly” are actually a single word in the Greek. It’s a single imperative verb. That’s the main command in this sentence. The idea of this verb is to be keeping busy in something; to attend constantly to something. This is a very active and engaged word. It’s to adhere firmly to something or to persist obstinately in something. Here, Paul commands us to be doing this with regards to prayer, and as he goes on to say, with regards to our thanksgiving in prayer. We are to constantly be engaging in prayer. We should never be separated from prayer; this prayer which is to be full of thanksgiving. Several translations such as the NASB translate this verb as “devote,” which I think is right. Devote yourselves to prayer. Prayer; thankful prayer, is to be a devotion. As Christians today we talk a lot about the importance of having a time of devotions. Well, this is part of it. Devoted to prayer; prayer which involves thanksgiving.
And so if we are to be devoted in prayer as this passage commands, what does that look like? Well, I think the devotion aspect here means that we have a regular pattern and program of prayer in our life. And that regular pattern is not like once a week. That’s may be regular, but it doesn’t approach the frequency of regularity patterned for us in the Bible. Think of what examples we have in Scripture on this. What examples do we have in the Bible that talk about the frequency of prayer?
Well, we see the commendable example of Daniel in Daniel chapter 6. For Daniel to be devoted to prayer meant that he had three formal times of prayer during the day. It says he specifically got down on his knees during these times. These were formal times of prayer for him. They were formal enough times that others were even able to observe him in prayer. Of course, that’s the chapter where Daniel ends up in the lion’s den because of his devotion to prayer. That’s being devoted to prayer. Usually for us, it’s our human apathy or busyness that keeps us from being devoted to prayer. That didn’t stop Daniel. Neither did the threat of being thrown into the lion’s den. We can clearly say that Daniel was devoted in his prayer life, and for him that meant three formal times of prayer each day. Of course we see this sort of devotion in the words of the Psalms too. Psalm 55:17 records the psalmist mentioning that he comes in prayer morning, noon, and night. Again, three times a day are mentioned in that psalm. We see that sort of devoted prayer throughout the day mentioned in various Psalms.
Of course, I’ve mentioned two examples of here of praying three times a day. In contrast to that, you’ve got Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. There he says to “pray without ceasing.” Of course, I find it hard to believe that Paul meant you must literally be on your knees in formal prayer every second of the day. Otherwise, Paul himself would be violating that as he wrote the letter. Certainly we should have an attitude of prayer throughout every second of the day, constantly in our hearts and minds lifting things up to God. And yet we should also have formal times of prayer, and we should not cease from that devotion to prayer. I think that’s what Paul’s getting at when he tells us to pray without ceasing.
So, my point here is that we need to be devoted to prayer, prayer with thanksgiving. This devotion should be regular; it should be frequent; and you should set aside times for even formal prayers; not just quick prayers on the run. But times where you really spend some concentrated time before the Lord.
I mean, let’s think about this from another angle. What things are you devoted to in your life already? What daily practices do you do, that have become your habits? Things you almost never miss. Well, most of us are devoted to having three meals a day. I’m sure everyone is devoted to sleep. Many of us are probably devoted to checking our email at least three times a day. Most people have other hobbies or interests to which they are devoted. Well, God calls us to be devoted to prayer, prayer with thanksgiving. If we can do these other things of our devotion daily, almost without fail, ought we not to also make the time for devotion to prayer? We are to continue earnestly in prayer, with thanksgiving. This is God’s command to us today.
I’d like to turn now to think about how our prayers, and specifically our thanksgivings, are to be vigilant. Verse 2 says we are to be vigilant in it with thanksgiving. When it says that we are to be vigilant in it, the pronoun “it” is referring back to the prayer. We are to be vigilant in our prayers, but then we are immediately told in what way we are to be vigilant in our prayers. It says “with thanksgiving.” We are to be vigilant in our prayers in general, but the specific point here is that we are to be vigilant in thanking God in our prayers.
And so, let’s talk through what this means to be vigilant in our thanksgiving. Let’s define this word “vigilant” first. This word appears in several key places in Scripture, and we often find different related translations. Sometimes it’s translated as being “watchful.” Other times it’s translated as “being awake.” Other times as being “alert.” These all get at the same idea. We need to be alert, awake, and on the watch. Think of a night watchman. A good night watchman is not asleep. Instead he is constantly scanning the area, looking for intruders. A good night watchman is watching constantly. He’s on guard, on his toes, always ready to take action. That’s what this word is getting at here. That’s what it means here to be vigilant.
We see this same word used in a few other key passages in Scripture. I’ll mention a few of them because they help you appreciate the imagery being used here in our passage for today. In Matthew 24 and 25, for example, Jesus is talking about his return; his second coming. There he says at three different points, that we need to be “watching” for his return. He says that, because he says we won’t know the day or hour of his return; we need to be watching because he’ll come like a thief in the night. That word for watching is the same word as vigilant here in our passage. 1 Thessalonians 5 and the book of Revelation both pick up on this exact same imagery from Jesus, again calling for us to be awake and watching for the Lord’s return – again same word – because he’ll be coming like a thief in the night. In Matthew 26, Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane and he tells Peter, James, and John, to watch and pray with them. He says that they were to watch and make sure they don’t fall into temptation. They needed to be on guard against the temptation that might shortly come to them when Jesus was arrested. Or in Acts 20; there Paul tells the Ephesian elders that they had to be alert in their spiritual watch of the church. They had to watch out for the spiritual well being of those under their care. Or in 1 Peter 5, Peter talks about watching out for the devil, who prowls around like a roaring lion.
These all references that make use of this same word for vigilance here from Colossians 4:2. This is an important concept in Scripture, this idea of being alert, awake, and on the watch. We must have spiritual vigilance in many ways, the New Testament says. Many of the popes in history took the name Gregory; that name Gregory actually comes from this word in the Greek for vigilance. Gregory is the verb form of the word, meaning, I’m am awake; I am being vigilant. Now I’m not praising the papacy by any means. I’m just making the point that this concept of vigilance from the Bible is that important, that even many popes in history took it as their name.
But the point that this passage is making here in Colossians is that we should be vigilant in our thanksgivings. So, what’s that mean? We’ve talked about vigilance in general, but how’s that apply to the thanksgiving we offer in our prayers? Well, simply put, I think it means that we have to be proactively looking for things to be thankful for. Like a night watchmen who vigilantly watches for the enemy; we need to be on the watch for things to thank God for. We need to be alert to notice all the things for which we should be thanking God.
Now, in one sense, it’s not like we have to look very hard, of course. There are plenty of things to thank God for. With no thought at all, we should be able to come up with a long list. For that matter, there are Scriptures that talk about how we should thank God in all circumstances, and even the hard ones. Philippians 4:6 and 1 Thessalonians 5:18 for example; you can look those up on your own -Philippians 4:6 and 1 Thessalonians 5:18. That means there should always be things to thank God for, in each and every circumstance.
And yet, that’s part of why we have to be vigilant in our thanksgiving. Yes, there’s plenty to thank God for in general. We should thank him for the general things. Yet I think this passage says he wants us to go beyond just the general things. To seek out the specific things that are unique to each circumstance. You should be watching to see all the things to be thankful for in each and every page of your life. That’s easier to do, maybe in the good times of life. Yet, what about in the hard times? What about when there are really difficult trials that come your way? Can you still be vigilant to find things to thank God for? Can you find the things to thank God for in those circumstances, knowing that Romans 8:28 is still in effect? That, “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”
John Chrysostom, one of the ancient church fathers, sometime around the early 400s wrote a sermon on this verse. He listed a number of things to thank God for. Listen to some of things from this list. He said we should thank God for what we know, and what we know not, both for the seen and the unseen, for those things that go along with our wills, and for those that are against our wills, for tribulations, for refreshments, for hell, for punishment, for the kingdom of heaven. That’s quite a diverse list. Can you find things to thank God for in all circumstances and in all things? We must be vigilant in finding such things, and then thank God for them in our prayers.
How easy it is for our prayers to become rote. How easy it can be for our thanksgivings in those prayers to become rote. We can end up just thanking God for the same few things each time. Now, there’s nothing wrong with repeatedly thanking God for the same things in our prayers. Certainly there are things we are so especially thankful for, that we ought to bring them to God all the time. And yet, certainly we could all be more alert in finding things for which to thank God. I mean, most of us are probably constantly finding new prayer requests to bring to God. Let’s also keep finding new thanksgivings to offer to God as well. This is what it means to be vigilant in thanksgiving in our prayers.
Certainly this is something that might easily become rote in our prayer life – our thanksgiving for our salvation. We could get so used to thanking God for it, that it just rolls off our tongue. It can becomes just something we say in our prayers, without it really expression the joy of our heart. It can become habit, just a formula in our prayers; almost like lip service. And yet that ought not to be the case.
You see, this is of course something we should never tire in giving thanks for. We should thank God for our salvation over and over again! We should constantly thank God that he sent his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to save us from our sins. We should constantly thank God that through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ, that we have the hope of eternal life. Our salvation is the greatest gift God has given us. We should never tire in thanking him for it. I know God never tires in hearing your thanksgiving for this either.
But think how we can be alert even in this. Think how we can be vigilant in thanking God for our salvation. I think it’s this idea of vigilance in our thanksgiving that helps guard us from making this just a mindless habit, or something rote, in our prayers.
We can be vigilant in finding things to thank God for, even in our salvation. Now,
you might think it’s easier to be alert in thanksgiving with regard to all the changing details of your life; that new job; the new spouse; the plans that worked out or didn’t work out; your stock investment that really took off. We might think it’s easier to be vigilant in thanksgiving with those things. There’s just so many new exciting aspects of our life generated from those circumstances; therefore we can probably find lots to thank God for with this those things.
But what about our salvation? In what ways can we be vigilant there? Isn’t it just the same thing each time – thank you for forgiving me of my sins? Well, I would remind you today that our relationship to Christ and the gospel is so rich and deep. I believe that if we are alert about his saving work in our life, we can find so much to be thankful for, each and every day. We can find new specific things in your life that are all related to your salvation. Be vigilant to find those things, and then thank God for them.
For example, think about all the general aspects of our salvation, and then look at how those are at working right then and there in your life. Think about our justification – what are those recent sins you’ve committed? Thank God that because of our justification, those are sins that Christ already has paid the price for. Think about our sanctification – what are the specific ways he has been teaching you and growing you? What spiritual lessons has he taught you this month? This week? Today? Thank him for those things as he grows you in your sanctification. Think about your faith in the gospel. How has he been growing your faith through trials of various kinds? Thank him specifically for that.
Think about how his Spirit living inside you, another benefit of the gospel, is helping you know and understand the Bible better. Thank him for all the specific new insights you’ve been having in his Word. Think about your assurance – when you find yourself growing in the assurance of your salvation, that’s a great thing. Thank him for it. These are all different aspects of your salvation. Things like our justification, our sanctification, our faith, his Spirit in our lives, our assurance, they are all different aspects of this salvation he has brought to us. Be on the watch, alert, vigilant, for how this salvation is at work in your life, each and every day. Then find new specific things to thank God for, for how he is working out his salvation in your life. If we rightly say that the thing we are most thankful is our salvation, shouldn’t this be our attitude? Shouldn’t our thanksgiving be most vigilant then with regards to our salvation?
If you are here today, and have not yet received this salvation, then I urge you to receive it today. You don’t have to leave this place without this most wonderful gift. You don’t have to leave today missing out on this which is the greatest thing to thank God for. Turn from your sin and call upon Jesus. Set him as the Lord and Savior of your life. He will at that moment forgive you, come into your heart, and begin a process of growing you to be more and more like him. You will be saved at that moment. And so I urge you, call upon him even right now, and then afterwards, thank him, for saving you.
Saints of God, my closing application to us, is this. It’s the Thanksgiving holiday this week. We tend to be alert in our thanksgiving during this holiday. Here’s when all year long we tend to be most vigilant in our thanksgiving. It is certainly fitting to have special days of thanksgiving like this. Yet I think there’s something of the vigilant thanksgiving that we have during this time of year, that this passage says we need all year long. By the grace of God, let’s be renewed in this vigilant thanksgiving today. May we be devoted all year long to vigilantly pray with thanksgiving. There’s so much to thank him for, especially our salvation. Let’s thank him even right now. Amen.
Copyright (c) 2010 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.