“And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said 'Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me'" (John 11:41, RSV).
The place is Bethany, a tiny village less than two miles from Jerusalem on the road to Jericho. Mary and Martha are at the tomb of Lazarus, crying over the brother they have lost. Some of their friends have followed them to the tomb, and they, too, are weeping.
At this moment an anxious silence grips the mourners. The sobbing has momentarily ceased, the weeping and wailing have halted like a suspended sigh, and even the air seems suddenly still. They are staring intently at the quiet figure standing beside the open cave from which the stone has been rolled away. Jesus also has been weeping, but his expression and manner are calm and confident. As the master is about to speak, they wait with bated breath and pounding hearts, sensing the excitement, the expectancy, the anxiety of this moment.
Lifting his eyes to heaven Jesus utters a prayer of thanksgiving, and then with a loud voice cries: "Lazarus, come out!" From the murky, musty darkness of the tomb, before their wondering eyes, the man they had buried four days ago emerges, still wrapped in his grave clothes, but alive! As they stand there gaping, entranced by the miracle, the sharp command of Jesus snaps them back to the reality of what must have seemed a dream: "Unbind him and let him go."
In the infinite realm of imagination we can relive this miraculous moment from the pages of holy history. What bearing does it have upon our lives on this Thanksgiving Day twenty centuries later? The compassion of Jesus at the grief of his friends, the intimacy of their relationship, the faith of Mary and Martha, the mystery of the miracle itself, the reactions of those who witnessed it ---there is so much we could discuss, there are so many questions we'd like to ask, so many truths to be gained from this amazing incident.
But I want to focus on just one aspect of the story, one which has a special message for us as we celebrate another Thanksgiving. It is the prayer which Jesus spoke before he called Lazarus out of the tomb. It was a prayer of thanksgiving. What's so unusual about that, you ask? Simply this: Jesus thanked God before he performed the miracle! He gave thanks and then he raised Lazarus.
That is what I call thanksgiving with confidence. Usually our thanksgiving has a rearward perspective. It is a survey of the landscape of the past, a glance in the rear-view mirror at the road behind. We are grateful for past benefits, for blessings already received, for things now possessed, for past and present evidences of God's favor. We count our blessings and give thanks. And that is good.
But confident thanks must also have a future perspective. Confidence implies a forward-looking attitude, a conclusion about what has not yet occurred. It is like closing a business letter with the familiar line, "Thanking you in advance, I am....yours truly....
But you you may be thinking, isn't that counting our chickens before they're hatched? Isn't it a dangerous practice? ---presumptuous, to say the least! Might not our thanks be premature? Possibly. It depends on the circumstances.
To what extent, then, can we be confident in our thanksgiving? When can we give confident thanks, the kind of thanks Jesus gave before he raised Lazarus from the dead? At least three conditions are necessary. The first is the right object. Thanksgiving, you see, is a form of prayer, and the object of prayerful thanksgiving has to be God. It is meaningless to say I am thankful without knowing to whom I am thankful. Some people attribute their happy circumstances to fortune, or luck, or chance. They thank their lucky stars for what they have, or if they're really religious, they may say "Thank heavens!"
There are no grounds for confidence, however, if chance is the object of our gratitude. Our confidence must be based on our belief in a personal God and our faith that God hears and answers our prayers. We're confident because we have experienced God's goodness in the past and we have faith that God's mercy endures forever. We're confident because Jesus has shown us what God is like. Jesus said "Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you."
Jesus gave confident thanks because he knew his heavenly Father so well. His was a perfect faith, a complete trust, a sure and certain hope, the kind that comes only through constant communion with God. He said, "Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me." When had God heard him? Not just at the grave of Lazarus, but in the quiet hours of meditation in the solitude of the Judean hills; through the long nights of prayer apart from the pressing throngs seeking his help; during all the private times of sharing with his disciples; day in and day out along the dusty roadways, in every thought, word, and deed, he and his Father were one.
Jesus could say "Father, I thank thee," because he knew God so well. To know God is to expect great things of God. To believe in God is to believe that God answers our prayers, and to believe it so earnestly that we can thank God in advance, for confident thanksgiving is nothing more than expectant prayer.
So the first requisite for confident thanks is to understand that the object of our thanks is God. But that's not all. We must also be thankful for the right reason. We may pray to win the lottery or to hit the jackpot, but are those requests worthy of God? If our prayers are selfish, if our desires are impure, or harmful, or unworthy, we can no longer be confident that God will honor our petitions.
We give confident thanks not because we know what's best for us, but because we believe God does. We can be confident not that we'll get what we think we want, but that what God gives us will be good; not that our request will be granted, but that our prayers will be answered; not that we will succeed in our desires, achieve our goals, attain our objectives, but that in everything God works for good with those who love God.
Having this confidence, we can hardly help being grateful and so we give thanks to God, trusting confidently that our prayers will be heard and answered in a way that far exceeds our own desires. That is the spirit that enables people and churches to attempt great things for God, often in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstalces. They take a leap of faith, confident that God will honor their good intentions and provide in ways that they cannot see at the moment. They pray expecting great things to happen, giving confident thanks not just for what God has done, but for what God will do. Their confidence is not in their ability to make it happen, but in God's ability to answer the prayers of those who trust in God.
To pray for the right reason is not to say we shouldn't pray for material things, so long as our motives for asking are worthy. Jesus has taught us to ask for whatever our hearts desire. Not to voice those desires would be hypocritical. Indeed, God knows our desires, our secret longings, even before we express them. And having received so many material blessings from God's hand, should we not expect God to bless us in the days to come, not because we deserve it, but because God has never failed us yet?
Of course, these are not the main things for which we give confident thanks. Rather we thank God for the strength to endure pain and suffering, for the wisdom to see the meaning that lies hidden in the heart of sorrow, for the grace to understand God's will for our lives, for the knowledge that God is faithful, and just, and merciful. God has always answered such prayers, and we can be confident that God always will.
The right object, the right reason, two prerequisites for confident thanks. But there is one more I must mention, which is closely related to the other two, and that's the right attitude. We must pray submissively. Now that's a bit tricky, because how can we be confident and submissive at the same time? It seems contradictory, but in fact we can give confident thanks only when we are submissive to the will of God.
It's not a matter of expecting God to give us what we want, but of letting God fix our "wanter." Knowing to whom we are thankful, yes; and being thankful for the right things, yes. But the final test of confident prayer is whether we are seeking God's will or our own. Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, "Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will but thy will be done." After every petition there must always be that divine word of submission, "nevertheless."
How else can we give confident thanks in a world like ours? Do we really know what's best for ourselves, let alone others, as we face the complexities of life in this madhouse we call Planet Earth? As we peer through our tiny periscopes into the foggy sea of tomorrow, how can we pray at all unless our confidence rests submissively in the perfect will of God?
In that spirit, we can, like Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus, give confident thanks for what God wants to do in us, and for us, and through us, and with us. We can be confident that God will honor whatever we undertake in faithful submission to God’s will. "This is the confidence we have in him," wrote John, "that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us." When our wills are submissive to God's will, miracles can happen, as Jesus promised they would. "Those who believe in me," he said, "will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will they do."
As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let us, therefore, give confident thanks, not just counting the blessings of the past, but expecting great things from the God who holds the future in his hands.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, give us grace to pray with confidence, not in our worthiness to receive your blessings, but in your faithfulness to provide for the needs of those who seek to know and to do your will. Then may we humbly praise you for all your blessings of the past and give you confident thanks for untold mercies yet to be, in the spirit of your Son Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.