Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Tomorrow we celebrate Thanksgiving Day. It’s not—strictly speaking—a church holiday, but rather a day the United States sets aside, purportedly to remember to give thanks. Much of our culture now denies the existence of a creator and sustainer of life, and many more have bought into the dangerous and futile notion of some generic divine being that each individual may define to suit himself or herself. But, we know better. In fact, just as it is only Christians who can rightly pray, knowing that our heavenly Father hears us for the sake of Christ, it is only Christians who can rightly give thanks—for giving thanks to anyone other than the true Provider of all is a futile exercise.
In the book of Job, there is a creation account in which we read, “The morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy” (38:7). That’s the beginning of creation. In Revelation, the very last book of the Bible, we read of the “elders” who are gathered around the throne of God at the end of the ages, praising Him day and night. The Bible in many places speaks of praise to God, from the beginning of creation to the time we’re in heaven.
“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus,” St. Paul writes in 1st Thessalonians 5:18. And it is right that we do. We should praise Him, first of all, for the reality that He is God. We ought to praise Him all the more that He is the God who through His Son, Jesus Christ, brings life out of death, joy out of sorrow. We praise Him for His presence in those crisis situations of illness and accident, times of loneliness, and especially at the time of death—whether it be a loved one’s, a strangers, or even our own.
Praise Him, also, that even though a situation may seem terrible at the moment, He is using it as a way of working out His ultimate and good purpose for your life.
Therefore, on Thanksgiving we remember to thank God.
Here in our Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy this evening, we have a new generation of Israelites, standing on the east bank of the Jordan River. Few of them are the ones who originally left Egypt after the plagues, fleeing before the chariots of Pharaoh, thinking they were trapped against the sea and about to perish. That generation was largely decimated by disease, warfare, and God’s punishment for their later rebellion in the wilderness.
Now there is a new generation, one largely born during the wandering journey, who had not been alive when Moses first received God’s Law on the slopes of Sinai. They are ready to cross over into the land with high anticipation and hope.
As Moses is preparing them to enter the land, he encourages them to obey God. God wants them to remember His past mercies to this nation, and realize that He has been testing and training them as a people for this very moment, and beyond.
God tested Israel in the wilderness, He said, to humble them, to prove what was really in their hearts, and to teach them. Our Lord quoted those very verses when He was tempted in the wilderness Himself. (Matthew 4:4; Luke 4:4).
God has been good to us as well. He has blessed us in many, many ways. He gives us material blessings, and tells us both why and how we should not come to depend on them, so we might see that there is a spiritual wealth, too—the richness of the Word of God. It is the Word of God that is the real manna for us, the children of God today.
Verse 4 says, “Your feet did not swell during these forty years.” That may sound like a strange blessing, but imagine this: In many parts of the world, people have a rather bland, narrow diet without as much variety as we enjoy in our land of plenty. They do not get all the vitamins and other nutrients they need, so they may contract various diseases and other health conditions, such as beriberi. One of its symptoms is a swelling of the feet—something other diseases of malnourishment can cause, too. You will remember that the people of Israel received virtually all their required vitamins and nourishment through manna—a miracle food that God provided. This was their physical sustenance. For you, spiritual manna is the Word of God that supplies all your needs.
And then, the Lord said to the Israelites, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land He has given you” (Deut 8:10). But that guidance is not for the Israelites alone. Praise the Lord and thank Him yourself, as should all people for the food they eat. Even now some people see no reason to thank God for food grown and processed by human hands, forgetting both Him who gave us all these things in the first place, and still sustains them. It’s like the story of the pastor who complimented a farmer by saying, “You and the Lord produced a fine crop on that field.”
“Yes,” the farmer replied, “but you should have seen that field when the Lord had it all to Himself. It was nothing but a weed patch.” We forget sometimes what the field would be like if the farmer had it all to himself, though. All his work would be useless if the Lord did not provide sunshine, rain, and air—even wind and insects to pollinate the plants. Not even weeds could grow without the Lord.
God was calling His chosen people to be thoughtful as they entered the good land He had promised to them, not careless or taking things for granted. He was urging them to remember Him and all the things that He was doing, all the things He had promised to do, and how much they depended on Him. How foolish it would be for the people of Israel to forget Him and give themselves all the credit for their success! How foolish it is for us, or for anyone today, to do the same!
God wants us to remember our past too. Paul put it like this for the believer, in his letter to the Philippians: “Being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6). We are to remember that God has led us and blessed us in the past and promises to continue to do so in the future.
Remembering His blessings, His completely fulfillment of all His promises to His people throughout the centuries, is for our encouragement and to grow confidence in those promises which are yet to be fully realized.
When our lives are mostly filled with what the world considers “goodness,” we can begin to feel invincible and, thus, think we have little need for God. We can become neglectful in our praise. In the account of Jesus and the lepers, ten were healed. Ten of them had this marvelous thing happen to them, but only one came back to give praise and thanks. We usually do remember to thank God when Jesus brings His healing power into our lives. But not always. Sometimes we credit the doctor. Or the fact that we got some rest. Or the pills or supplements we took. But it is important that we do not become forgetful and neglectful and self-sufficient in our newfound health and strength. It is not our doing, any more than anything else in our lives arises out of our efforts, worthiness, or merit.
More than anything else, thank God for the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation that is ours because of the sacrificial death of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ neighbors once chased Him out of town and tried to throw Him off a cliff. Jesus’ closest friends betrayed Him and deserted Him in time of trouble. Jesus’ body sweat became blood when He reflected on the sins of the world. Jesus’ compassion for the world propelled His broken, suffering body up Calvary’s hill, where He was executed by order of His own people. Yet through it all, Jesus never ceased praising and thanking God. Jesus was the true “Sacrifice of Thanksgiving,” because He knew the Father would not abandon the world. He knew that after the darkness there would be light; after defeat, victory; after sorrow, joy; after death, resurrection.
Jesus Christ, on the cross, was forsaken by His Father. He suffered agonizing pain for all of our sins. Finally, Jesus had completely paid for the sins of the world. He cried from the cross, “It is finished!” By His death, sin died as well. But then, on Easter morning, He rose. By the resurrection of Jesus Christ we know that God our heavenly Father has fully accepted His sacrifice for our sins. And, we know that we, too, will rise from the dead and be with God the Father forever and ever. This is His promise to us—a promise every bit as real and every bit as true and assured and ours, even now, as any He made to the Israelites in ancient days.
Jesus Christ is our heavenly Father’s gift for you and for me. Forgiveness of sins is ours! The resurrection is ours! Eternal life in heaven is ours! Remember to thank God for all of this.
Martin Rinckart, author of the hymn “Now Thank We All Our God,” lived during the time of the Pilgrims. His home was a small village in Germany. Unlike the Pilgrims who journeyed from England to Holland to New England, he was caught in the middle of the Thirty Years’ War. Because this village had a big wall around it, thousands of people crammed inside for protection. Adequate sanitation facilities were lacking. Adequate medical supplies were lacking. Food and water supplies became contaminated—conditions not unlike those of the Pilgrims in the belly of the Mayflower. As a result, the plague came. Eight thousand people died during one period of epidemic.
For part of this time Rinckart was the only Christian pastor in the village. According to his journals, he officiated at the funerals of over 4,000 people—sometimes as many as 50 in a single day. During this time Rinckart wrote his great hymn, later translated into English by Catherine Winkworth.
Consider it very deeply when we sing it at the end of the service tonight. Much like another great hymnwriter, Paul Gerhardt, Rinckart knew tragedy all too well, yet still realized God’s goodness in the midst of it all:
Now thank we all our God
With hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done,
In whom His world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms
Has blest us on our way
With countless gifts of love
And still is ours today.
He is certainly ours, just as we are His. After the darkness, light; after defeat, victory; after sorrow, joy; after death, resurrection. “Offer to God,” the psalmists have written, “a sacrifice of thanksgiving.” Offer to God the “praise of sacrifice.”
Remember to thank God, now and always, for all the wondrous things He has done in your life. In Jesus’ name, Amen.