Thanks For Everything
October 3, 1789 was the first Thanksgiving Day proclamation given by President George Washington. This happened right after congress passed the First Amendment. So the day after passing the Amendment people claim separates Church from State, congress called on the President to declare a day of public thanksgiving and prayer!
This evening we gather for a special service of thanks. And what should we thank God for? How about everything. When leaving from where I vacation, hunt and fish, I say to the woman who provides the land, the water, the pool, and even the house I stay in, "Thanks for everything." I mean that quite literally. From where I stand, the past weeks or days have come from this woman's bounty. But that's not exactly true, is it? There are lots of things she didn't provide: the air, a beating heart, safety, sun, moon, stars, clouds, etc. So when I say to my friend, "Thanks for everything," that's really a polite exaggeration. But when I say to you that today we thank God for everything, I mean that quite literally. St. Paul admonishes us to do as much in I Thessalonians 5:18, "Give thanks in all circumstances," he says. And lest you think we might have misunderstood, in Ephesians 5:20 he says we are to give thanks to God the Father "for everything."
Everything? Surely, Paul must of meant to write "most" everything. I can say I'm thankful for most things this year, but everything? My car accident? The kid's sicknesses? What about you? Some of you've been diagnosed with serious illnesses this year. Some of you have had big time problems this year. Are we to be thankful for the pain, the sadness, the disease, the sicknesses, the death and dying that has visited our homes this year? Well, what else can everything mean other than every single thing?
How can this be? We feel like we're the 5-year-old asked to say grace. He was silent for a long time with his hands folded and his head bowed. Finally, he turned to his father and asked, "But if I thank God for the broccoli, won't He know I'm lying?" What about that? How can we be thankful for everything honestly, truly, really? Won't God know we're lying about the car accident, sicknesses, problems and pains of this last year? Well, maybe broccoli isn't always broccoli and car accidents aren't always bad, sicknesses always problems, problems always pain and pain always evil. You know we sing stuff like that in our hymns. We sing things like in God's service pain is pleasure, loss is gain, and bane is blessing. Now how can this be?
I'll tell you how can it be. Things are different in Christ. He told us that in Him, losing our life is gaining it and finding it is losing it. He told us in Him to count it all joy when we suffer, are persecuted, or maligned. He told us not just that such things are worthy of thanks but are reason to leap for joy. Think of that commercial about the Texas lottery which shows winning people leaping around for joy at having won. That's the reaction of a Christian scratching his life and finding suffering, sighing, bleeding and even dying.
Still not there yet, are you? I think composer Hugo Wolf can help. He wrote a song in the 19th century entitled "Lord, What Will the Earth Bring Forth." The closing lyrics have Christ singing this about what the earth brings forth, "Those made of thorns are for Me; those of flowers I give to you." There were thorns in our lives this year. Still are, but our thorns have no sin, no guilt, no shame, no judgement in them. Our thorns are tipped with the roses of salvation, peace, hope, joy, everlasting life. All the thorns of judgement, the punishment for sin, the suffering due guilt, were given to Christ in our place. The whips that lashed His back did so because of our sin. The punches that landed on His face did so because of your guilt. The crown of thorns that was jammed down upon His head did so because God's judgment against me hit Him instead.
Though Jesus got the thorns due sin, guilt, and judgement, He deserved none of these things for He was sinless, never thinking so much as an impure thought. The thorns came into Jesus' life because of our sins, our guilt, because of the just judgment our sins call God to render against us. That means if the thorns came into Jesus' life because of your sins, the thorns can't be in your life because of your sins. Yes, you will have thorns in this fallen often miserable life, but those thorns don't press into your heart or life because of your sins. Your sins have been suffered for once already, paid for completely, done away with entirely because Jesus suffered the thorny judgment of God for you. The thorns of judgment are for Jesus; the flowers of grace are for you.
Yes, you have troubles, sorrows, pains, and tears in this life, but that bluer than blue sky your heavenly Father put there just for you. That fiery red fall tree the Lord turned so, just for you. That sunrise, sunset, full moon, and twinkling star, they are all there for you. Surely, you know that God made this world for our sake, our enjoyment, our joy? Surely, you know that without forgiveness we are like death row inmates who have their most special meal ever made for them right before they die? Who could eat it let alone enjoy it with certain death and judgment hanging over their head? Well, imagine how the condemned man does enjoy it when a pardon comes through? That's you. For Christ's sake you've been pardoned of all your sins. You can enjoy the flowers of God's creation guilt free.
But thanks our thanks is to be for everything. The depression in my head, the recession in my pocketbook, the pain in my back and even the aching in my heart. Who can say that and mean it? Only a Christian. Only someone in Christ. These things feel like thorns but they smell like flowers because Christ has removed, soaked up in His own body, any stench of sin, judgement, or guilt. In His nailed pierced hands, He can turn such difficult things into glorious works of art. Haven't you seen people turn trash into art? Well, it's a much smaller thing for Christ to turn the sharp thorns in our lives into sweet smelling flowers.
Still not there? Still find yourself swimming in the deep end of the pool of problems? You're on the way to the surface; on your way to bursting out from under the heavy waters of sadness into the bright light of God's gifts, but it's hard. The waters are deep, and even though by God's grace thorns may smell like flowers they still poke like thorns. It's my fault; I've turned your heart too much in the direction of what God has given you this year. You're thinking, weighing, evaluating all that God has given, both good and bad. What I really meant to focus you on is what has been forgiven.
A father of the early church said this in the 200's, "In returning thanks to the Giver..., piety divides it's thanks between what has been given and what has been forgiven." George Washington realized this too. In his first Thanksgiving Day proclamation he directed Americans in their prayers not just to say thanks to God but to "beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions." Washington knew that the greatest need a sinner has is forgiveness, and so that is also the greatest blessing to be thankful for.
So when I look at what I've been given this year, I would be wise to look at in light of what I've been forgiven. In other words, I've been given a car accident but I deserve death. I've been given pain, sorrow, and suffering from time to time but I deserve these eternally, unendingly. I've been given true flowers, fiery trees, full rainbows, and a full table. My sins deserve only poison ivy, trees on fire, deadly thunderstorms and hunger, but I was given forgiveness. So even when rashes, fire, storms, and stomach troubles came my way, they didn't come to make me pay for my sins.
Let's start three piles. Put in one pile the good things you've been given food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, a good spouse, good government, good children, land, animals and all you need for this body and life. Put in a second pile all the thorns you've been given this year. Put here the heavy things, sad things, painful things, harsh things, and depressing things that you've been given this year. Okay, make one more pile. Put in this pile all the things that you've been forgiven for this year, all the judgments that did not fall, all the punishments that did not come, all the suffering you did not suffer because Jesus bore those in your place.
My pile of what has been given is not as big as the one of what has been forgiven. And my pile of thorns is even smaller than what has been given or forgiven. Can I look at those piles and say, "Thanks for everything." Of course, the given and forgiven piles are easy, but what about the painful pile? Well, here's the problem. I see things in my given pile that are only there because of something in the pile of thorns. I even see things in my forgiven pile that are only there because of that pile of thorns. You see it's not just the gifts of God that lead a person to repentance, so can the thorns.
I guess what I'm saying is that my Thanksgiving is like that Jenga game where wood blocks are stacked up in a square. My Thanksgiving is interconnected to the given, the forgiven and the thorns because all the things I have gotten this year have something in common. I didn't deserve any of them. Follow closely here. You know I didn't deserve what I was given or forgiven because I am a sinner. But neither I nor you really deserved what thorns we were given because we are forgiven sinners. So not only what has been given and forgiven this year has come graciously for Jesus' sake, so have those thorns. Like the game Jenga my tower of thanks is linked to all the blocks: the given, the forgiven, and the thorns. I start pulling things out that I'm not thankful for and crash goes my Thanksgiving. What then can I say but, "Thanks, thanks for everything." Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Thanksgiving Eve (11-24-04); Philippians 4:6