Thanksgiving Through / Into the Ages
"How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child," so says Shakespeare in King Lear (1, IV). How much sharper when that child has God as his Father? Today we're faced with the contradiction of a government appointed day of thanks and the fact that God's people have been thankful not only through but into the ages.
However, I don't feel all that thankful this year. Drought has split my yard with fissures 8 inches wide and who knows how deep. My family is getting older; they are being blessed, but I'm getting older too. Once life was sweet like rain upon my tongue but that was yesterday when I was young, when all my troubles seemed so far away. Thankful through the ages let alone into the ages? Not hardly.
Well then let's have a Lilliputian Thanksgiving. Jonathon Swift tells us that in the mythical land of Lilliput ingratitude was punished by death. This was how they reasoned: If you weren't grateful to a benefactor who had helped you, you wouldn't even be nice to the rest of mankind, and so forfeited your right to live (Gulliver's Travels, VI). The rabbis saw it a little differently; where the Lilliputians saw ingratitude as a crime against mankind, they saw it as a crime against God. "The Rabbis say: The man who enjoys a single gift of this world without thanksgiving is like one who has robbed God'" (Narratives on the Catechism, 77).
So with my thankless sharp tooth, I either bite man or God. Here I stand convicted of biting, and it didn't really take Lilliputians or Rabbis to do it. Holy Scripture did just fine. The OT lesson from Psalm 100 convicts me of not crowding His "gates with thankful songs." The Epistle nailed me by telling me every prayer is to be "with thanksgiving." The Gospel showed me I'm more ungrateful than the birds of the air or the flowers of the field. No wonder the cantor asked for the Lord to have mercy upon me before I said, "Thanks be to Thee O Lord!"
The Law convicts me of ingratitude. Now what? There can be a law against ingratitude but no Law can make me grateful. The parent can make the child say thank you' for what he just received, but no parent can make a child truly thankful. Thankful through the ages? Not by Law by a long shot. How about a canned Thanksgiving?
Did you notice the harvest table in front here? See how it's not filled with our usual fresh fruit but processed food, canned food? This is all going to the Salvation Army; I put it on display to give you pause. Do you realize without these types of food we would be on starvation diets here in Texas? Granted we could've all out driven the drought, but if we could eat only what was produced this year in Texas there wouldn't be enough beans, flour, corn or even rice. All these come to us through manmade processes. Apart from irrigation, canning processes, preservatives, and transportation we couldn't have gotten food to our tables.
Though made by man, these are part of God's natural means of opening His hands and satisfying the desire of every living thing. The God who created the Sun and decides to bring it up in the morning; the God who sends rain where and when it pleases Him, the God to whom all look "to give them their food at the proper time," uses the hands of men to feed the mouths of men. Every can of beans in your pantry, every drop of water from your tap, every cool breeze from your AC or warm from your furnace are part of God's natural means.
Yeah, I felt it too. A smidgen of thanks flared for an instant in the rock, hard bottom of my heart, but it felt like a store-bought Thanksgiving Feast. It's no sin to buy the whole kit and caboodle from HEB, but it feels canned to me: opening Thanksgiving like you do any other canned good. The meal on the table looks like the one mom made. It looks like Thanksgiving; it tastes like Thanksgiving, but it's not the same. Likewise that little burp of thankfulness I got from your heart by pointing out where we'd be without canned goods in this record drought looked and tasted like Biblical thanks but it really wasn't. It was directed to the gift rather than the Giver.
St. Augustine saw long ago that there "'are some things which are to be enjoyed, others which are to be used.' The only proper object of our love and enjoyment is the eternal Triune God, that Reality to which alone we may cling with affection for its own sake.'" If we attempt to enjoy anything meant merely for use, our life is frustrated and we become incapable of enjoyment (A Companion to the Study of Augustine, 141). I've rescued you from the law convicting you of insufficient Thanksgiving, but I've put before you God's gifts and not God as the object of thanks. Thanks for God's gifts can be pulled out of a can.
We're just going to have to go to the first Thanksgiving, and I'm not heading east to Plymouth and 1621, but south to Texas and 1598. That's right; the first Thanksgiving on American soil was held May 4, 1598 near present day El Paso. Juan de Onate was an explorer who led an expedition on a harrowing journey through the Chihuahua desert. When they finally found a pass out of that territory, they paused to have a meal of fish and fowl; drank their fill from the Rio Grande, and had a Communion service (Austin American Statesman, 11-24-05). They had a Eucharist which comes from the Greek word for "giving thanks."
You can't give thanks to God, you can't be thankful to God if you think He is mad at you. You can't celebrate Thanksgiving if you have a guilty conscience before God. If you try, then you offer thanks as appeasement, as atonement, as a means of placating a wrathful God. If you grew up with an abusive parent, you know what I'm talking about. You'd be thankful, extra grateful just to stay on his or her good side. You weren't really thankful; you were fearful. And if you think God is going to get you for your sins, if your conscience convicts you for your sins, you must deal with that before singing, "Now thank we all our God."
Actually, you can't deal with it, but God in Christ can and did. Where are all those laws that convict you of everything from thanklessness to pridefulness? God sent His Son to be born of the Virgin Mary, to be born under the Law to redeem them that are under the Law. And why does Paul say God did that? "So that we might receive the adoption as sons." You know when you adopt there are all these legal hoops you have to get through. For God to adopt you as His own dear child there were the 10 Commandment hoops, and Jesus jumped through everyone.
Of course, those Commandments required that sinners be punished. Your guilt is real; your sins are real. That dread you feel for what you've done or left undone; that fear you have that at any moment God like a wrathful father is going to turn around and hit you hard without warning comes from the fact that your sins really do deserve not just a whacking, not just a whipping, but a crucifying, a damning and a dying. And that's what Jesus got in your place. And believe you me; He got it all. Down to the last drop of judgment, pain, suffering, terror, and hell, Jesus took not only your punishment as His own but the world's, and so in Jesus your heavenly Father has put away all His wrath towards sinners.
Can't you feel the relief? Can't you sense the joy? That's what draws us to this Meal of Thanks. We aren't trying to appease or placate God. We're not trying to atone for our sins; no that took place 2,000 years ago on a cross outside Jerusalem. We come to this meal because God's wrath has been satisfied; our sins have already been sent away in and by the Body and Blood of Jesus. He invites us to this meal of His Body and Blood as a pledge, a seal, a guarantee that all is well between us. He's sees not our sins; He sees Jesus. Juan Onate burst with thanks when he saw the Rio Grande that could provide lifesaving water; we burst with thanks when we see the Body and Blood of Jesus that provides forgiveness, life, and salvation.
I don't think we're done yet. This sermon isn't only about Thanksgiving through the ages but into the ages. Revelation shows us that thanksgiving goes on to God and the Lamb forever and ever (7:12). That happens on those days when disaster is striking the earth, when God's people are diagnosed with horrible diseases, when sheep of the Good Shepherd are struggling and hurting. On and on it goes, "blessing, glory, wisdom, and thanksgiving, honor, and power and might be unto our God forever."
All of heaven sings that because all of heaven is focused on God in Christ. It is true "as an old writer says that he who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only" (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 10). You might have nothing right now. No money, no health, no happiness, no hope. You might see nothing before you but desert drear and painful living, but in Jesus, for Jesus' sake, you still have God Almighty. He hasn't cast you off. He won't cast you off. He can't cast you off. Having God you have everything in this world and the next. Having God you have too many things to ever be thankful for; that's why it goes on forever and ever.
Friends, trying to get thanks out of your own heart is like a baby trying to get food from sucking his thumb (Chesterton, XX, 463). It isn't going to happen. Trying to get thanks out of the good things in this life - food, drink, house, home, spouse, children - is like a baby trying to get nourishment from his pacifier. That's not going to happen either. Sustenance can only come from outside the baby from real food.
Thanksgiving can only come from outside of you from the Giver of all things. And behold He's here: in these Words, in those Waters, and on this Altar. After meeting and eating Him once again, I can call for you to "Give thanks unto the Lord" not only because as I will say "He is good" but because as you will remind me "His mercy endureth forever." As His mercy endures into the ages, so does our thanks. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Thanksgiving Eve (20111123)