Psalm 78 is 72 verses in length and is a history lesson. What I can tell about the history unfolded here is that it is very dark, filled with pain and much loss. In that sense Ps.78 is a very negative read, and yet it is included in God’s Word so we must not avoid reading it just because we find it negative. If we commit to reading it and understanding it we make the wonderful discovery that the Psalm is written to make a statement about God. And what it tells us about God is that He is always faithful and will never break covenant even when His people are totally unfaithful and do nothing but break covenant.
The Psalmprimarily reveals two realities. It reveals what happens to God’s people when they become unthankful and forget what God has done. Secondly, it reveals the heart of God in relation to His people when they have slipped into this unfortunate place. All of that you can search out on your own. My purpose this morning is to lift one verse from this Psalm and present a short message around the theme of thanksgiving.
The verseis 19: Then they spoke against God; They said, “Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?”
Let me state that my purpose is not to argue or debate any particular doctrinal position regarding the place and role of the wilderness in the life of the believer. I have my belief based both on Scripture and personal experience. What I will leave with you is this: Joseph came into his prophetic destiny out of the wilderness. Moses came into his leadership out of the wilderness. Israel came into the promised inheritance out of the wilderness. David entered his prophetic destiny out of the wilderness. John the Baptist came into his public ministry out of the wilderness. Jesusentered His public ministry out of the wilderness.
There may be other ways of getting there but the scripture seems to indicate that the most effective and significant ministries were arrived at through some kind of wilderness experience.
The strange thing about the wilderness is that no matter which direction you travel in and regardless of how far you travel it just seems to go on forever. You reach the top of one hill only to discover a thousand more stretching out in front of you. The wilderness creates the mindset that everything is the same as it always has been, and that nothing is ever going to change. That is exactly where some are in this service this morning. The voice coming out of your present wilderness is that your present negative reality is going to go on forever. I have good news for you.
Based on the context it is clear that although verse 19 appears in the form of a question, the children of Israel were not asking a question – they were making a statement. They were dogmatically declaring that God cannot prepare a table in the wilderness. Hear this with care: That declaration was born out of a spirit of unbelief and it revealed a heart attitude of thanklessness which was manifested in articulations of complaint.
We are looking at a people in transition– a people living between two realities; the one they left, Egypt, and the one to which they are coming, Canaan. The wilderness represents that place – that experience – between the old and the new. One of the great difficulties of this place is that we are highly conscious of what we have left behind but only vaguely conscious of where we are going.We can only relate to the new on the basis of faith and faith alone. The wilderness is the test of our faith.
It is not so much that you are afraid of change. It is not so much that you are in love with the old ways, what you have left behind. It is more a matter of the fear that moves through the pit of the stomach when you are between two trapezes. You have let go of the one but have not yet laid hold of the second one. As someone suggested, it’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing familiar or comforting to hold on to.
Here’s the question and the point of this message on this Thanksgiving Sunday: Where is God and what is He up to when we are between the old and the new, between Egypt and Canaan, between the two trapezes?
The first thing I can tell you is this: God is where you are no matter where you are. For all the weirdness of that 40 year long journey through the wilderness you cannot find a time when God abandoned His people. And whatever else He is up to I am happy to tell you that God prepares a table in the wilderness.
The table is a wonderful place. First it speaks to the whole issue of provision. When God prepares a table He is telling us that He is our provider and that there is no lack in Him. Secondly, the table speaks of appetite, of hunger, of need – which in turns speaks of my dependence upon the table and He who provides that table. Thirdly, the table speaks of a shared meal – which brings us to the idea of relationship, family and community. Fourthly, the table speaks of a safe place for relational transparency. This should be the place where the masks can be taken off – the place where family secrets are no longer secret. Fifthly, the table speaks of welcome – that I am no longer alone, that I am part of something larger than myself – that I am home.
David declared: ‘You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.’Jesus told the wonderful story in LK.14of the Great Banquet. The thrust and passion of the story is this: Whenever that great banquet was to “kick off”there was to be NO vacant chairs at the great table. I suggest that we need to embrace the reality that this Sovereign Almighty God knows those who are His and that not one will be missing when it comes time to sit down at the great banquet; not on chair will be vacant. This grand story also tells us that when we sit down at that great table we will do so as family – as equals. And all those silly things that divide people into categories of discrimination – skin colour, language, culture, race, dress, title, office, status, education and economics – will neverfind a place at this family table.
In LK.22:30, Jesus promised his disciples (which would include us) that they/we would – “eat and drink at MY table in MY kingdom.”
When you follow this out to the last book of the Bible you discover that the whole of history culminates in this: ‘the wedding supper of the Lamb’ – Rev.19:9.
But, can God prepare a table in the wilderness? Can God prepare a table in your wilderness? Consider this: In the days of his flesh the Lord Jesus took the little lunch of a little boy and prepared a banquet that fed five thousand men plus the women and children. Most commentators agree that the number was somewhere around 15,000. The detail that often gets overlooked in that story is the detail of location – the place this occurred. Depending on the translation, you find, ‘a remote place’ or ‘a barren place, or ‘a desert and isolated place’, or ‘a desolate place.’ Or the one I prefer – ‘this place is a wilderness.’ One final reading I favour is this, ‘There is nothing in this place.’ Just when we think there is nothing – in fact when there actually is nothing – we are now ready to discover what only God Himself is able to provide and that supernatural provision is represented in the image of the table.
All of this brings us finally to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Once more we are honoured to come to the table of the Lord. This table represents the full and supernatural provision of God through the finished work of redemption in His Son. And there is a sense in which this table is set before us in the presence of our enemies as well as a wilderness. We live in a cultural and societal wilderness; a moral wilderness, an ethical wilderness, a wilderness of dishonour, disloyalty, of irresponsibility and no accountability.
Let us not be like ancient Israel. Let us not throw away our faith and trust. Let us not become unthankful. Let us not become forgetful of the works of God. Let us not tolerate or nurture an attitude of resentment that fills our confession with complaint and whining.
Whatever terminology we use to reference this covenant meal of the church this morning I would prefer to use the term Eucharist. When you bring the word forward from its origin to the Greek and Late Latin you arrive at a three word definition: gratitude, grateful and favour. Obviously, and given that this is Thanksgiving Sunday, we can express the same meaning with the words – thanks, thankful and thanksgiving.
Let us then approach this covenant table giving thanks for and in celebration of the full provision of the table, the family relational community of the table; and let us celebrate the means by which this providing God has made possible all that this table represents: namely the finished work of redemption in and through His glorious Son.