Let’s face it: By and large, we American Christians can be rather arrogant sometimes. We come upon a national holiday like Thanksgiving, and in some ways we puff ourselves up all the more. After all, we’re still the dominant religion in the most dominant military, political, and economic power in history. We’re sitting on top of the world, and we like it there.
We get frustrated and sometimes even downright angry when we see anything happen that erodes our position of dominance, too. Someone objects to a nativity scene in front of a City Hall somewhere, and immediately someone else elbows their way onto TV and pipes up, “This shouldn’t happen! America is a Christian nation!”
We take offense at the sight of a Jewish menorah; we ridicule Muslims for wanting to shield their wives and daughters and mothers from being gawked at like sexual prey; we sneer at the contrived artificiality of Kwanzaa.
We need to get down off our high horses, though, and abandon both our arrogance and our illusions. While America has indeed been blessed by God with many wonderful gifts for which we are grateful as we celebrate this holiday, we need to stop connecting our national identity and our Christian identity as being one and the same, or at least as being co-mingled. There were Christians, even Lutherans, among the founding fathers, it’s true. But a good many others, especially the prominent ones, were not Christians at all but Deists and Rationalists. They denied the Holy Trinity, denied the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, denied the divinity of Christ, denied the miracles of creation and Christ’s ministry, denied His atonement for sin, denied His resurrection.
Most significantly, the fundamental document establishing personal liberties in our nation, the Bill of Right, explicitly granted that there be no recognized governmental establishment of religion. While this granted to individual consciences the right to practice or refrain from any religion they so choose, it also opened the door to the idea that in America, a person might take as equally valid any of several paths toward understanding and salvation.
One other idea that was set in motion back then, however, continues to plague our faith and our country even today. That idea was the notion that America was somehow God’s new “chosen people,” a nation that had His favor and whose people were the beneficiaries of a new covenant relationship like the people of Israel long ago. Remaining faithful to God, it was believed, would make the nation strong and prosperous.
Being virtuous citizens would ensure the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness the Declaration of Independence insisted was every man’s Creator-endowed inalienable rights.
There are numerous reasons why such an idea is both biblically and logically preposterous, of course, and we aren’t gathered here tonight for a seminar in political history. Yet, in light of our Old Testament lesson for this evening, from Deuteronomy 8, we have good reason to explore why it would be both wrong and dangerous for us to seek to have our national identity too closely connected to our true identity of being God’s people.
As Moses was reminding the people of the ancient nation of Israel of the blessings and responsibilities of having been chosen as God’s people, he’s careful to point out that they had to perform the entirety of His commandments.
Nothing else would do. Upon that obedience depended their keeping of the land which had been promised them through their ancestors. Upon that obedience depended the future fruitfulness of them and their offspring. Upon that obedience depended their very lives.
So, do we want America to be like ancient Israel, then? Do we want our survival and our well-being dependent upon our ability to keep the entirety of God’s commands? Do you? Not me! I want to run as far and as fast as I can away from a deal like that. I know that there are 300 million sinners out there, just like me, who are every bit as selfish and weak and corrupt as I am, and if our earthly blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness depend on our obedience, we’re doomed.
But it’s never really been any other way, in America or any other nation, really. The sins were done differently depending on the sophistication of the civilizations, but they still broke the same commandments. The degree of offense those sins give to our modern sensibilities varies greatly, but no nation has ever truly earned—much less deserved—God’s blessings and God’s preservation.
And preservation is, after creation, God’s next gift, isn’t it? Upon the knowledge that Adam and Eve had fallen into sin, He had no obligation to confront them and the serpent. No obligation whatsoever to discuss it and reveal a corrective action plan from that point forward. He would’ve been right and true to simply destroy His creation at that moment, for the man and the woman knew the punishment for eating of the tree in the midst of the Garden.
Yet even without obligation, God was compelled by the love that He is to preserve His helpless creatures. He had known from before the beginning of creation that it would come to this, and He knew how it had to move forward from here. He promised that there would be a way out of the predicament they had caused, a cure through the woman’s seed.
God also warned that, along the way, there would be worldly difficulties and pain. Through it all, though, because of the greater blessings of His eternal promise, He provided Adam and Eve and all who followed with all those things needed to support their bodies and lives, as the Catechism teaches us. For all this, it is our duty to “thank and praise, serve and obey Him.”
But are we ever, genuinely, truly, and fully thankful? I’m guessing we’re not, because I can’t even begin to enumerate all of God’s blessings to us even apart from the salvation He has promised us by His Son. Can you?
We should be thankful for indoor plumbing, hot water, and microwave ovens. But we’re not. Not really. Not normally. We don’t really notice them until something goes wrong. We should be thankful for the spice aisle and a wide variety of fresh produce all through the winter. We should be thankful for penicillin and band-aids. Are you? How about asphalt, cable TV, and synthetic rubber? Soap, toilet paper, and Teflon?
That is the problem with lists of things we’re thankful for. If we made an honest list, it’d be empty. To fill it up we have to re-name it to “Things We Should Be Thankful For, But Mostly Aren’t.” And even then, we’d only hit a few highlights. We’d say: Family, friends, food, America, and good health. But would we remember things like plastic wrap and air conditioning?
Man’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses. Yet how many of us have probably spent some amount of time daydreaming about what we’d do with a windfall of a million dollars? Money does not buy happiness. But it can buy a lot of opportunities, security, beauty, and peace of mind. That is why the love of it is the root of all evil. The love of money is love of self and the desire to make one’s own way in this world. It is quite the opposite of thankfulness, which is willing acknowledgement of dependence on someone outside ourselves.
In the Christian heart, thankfulness is not expressed in saying “Thank you” so much as it is in saying “I, a poor, miserable sinner.” For any thought of all the good things in our lives immediately brings to mind our daily ingratitude and our unworthiness. As many and as innumerable are our sins, so also are the good things in our lives, the things like Teflon and dimmer switches and cell phones that we take for granted.
We cannot possibly list them all. Heck, we haven’t even noticed them all.
Thus does the Lord warn Israel: Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God. It is God the Lord who gives you power to get wealth. He laid that copper in the hills and the iron on the ground. He caused the wheat and barley, vines, figs, and pomegranates to grow, and the sweet water to flow down the valleys. He brought His people out of slavery and made them free in a land of prosperity when bread was not scarce, where they lacking nothing. But this prosperity brought danger. Do not forget, they are warned. Do not grow complacent. Always, always(!) look out for the serpent.
Woe unto us. We have forgotten! Why else would we not list toilet paper and asphalt on our lists? How could we forget to thank God for Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, Albert Einstein, and Nikolai Tesla?
Did we think, like teenagers, that if we throw our dirty clothes on the floor pixies come and clean them and put them in our dressers? Did we think the refrigerator fills itself? Silly, to be sure. But serious as well. For our view of creation has been no less self-centered and vain. Repent, all of us.
But do not be afraid. For if earthly mothers and fathers keep earning paychecks and keep doing laundry and changing oil and grocery shopping, then God is even more faithful, more loving, more devoted to your well-being. He does not love you because you say “thank you.” He loves you because that is who He is. It is what He does. He is love. While you were still a sinner, while you hated Him, He sent His Son. He sent His Son because He loved you. And this is the way He loved you, too: He sent His Son. This is Love. Shouldn’t we be thankful for it?
Of course. But our giving thanks does not add anything to it. God does not need our thanks or praise. He does not need someone to love, but He loves to love, He loves to give, He loves to forgive. And since it is not Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, I’ll even dare to tell you a secret: He loves you more and better than your mother or father do.
We pray then that God would fill us with thanks and praise, that we would bless His Name; that we would be humbled to be served by Him. We pray that He make us thankful not only for the mundane things of this world, like weed whackers and fingernail clippers and fresh fruit all winter; but that we would look in awe at the Bible; that God Himself would cause us to realize that we hold His holy and infallible Word! Thank God for doctrine, for the revelation of the Son, for all His faithful prophets and apostles and evangelists and pastors. God Himself would speak with us, comfort and encourage us, guide and protect us.
May we remember at the Altar that we are surrounded not only there but at all times with armies of holy angels who protect us from the demons and join their worship to ours. May we tremble with joy at the thought that God would enter into our flesh and join Himself to us through simple bread and wine.
Of the list of things for which we should be thankful there is almost no end, and one of them is certainly the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. Thank God for them, indeed. But what God has done for us our hearts cannot contain, our thanks and praise cannot express. Our cups runneth over. God is good. His mercy endureth forever. He loves us and forgives us. Soon He shall bring us home. We will live in the truly free, long-promised land, free of serpents and with no forbidden fruits.
In Jesus’ holy Name. Amen.