Many people wonder what there is to give thanks for in times like these. Twenty-three million people are unemployed - or under-employed. The economy seems to be stalled, and not in a happy place. Prices are on the rise in a big way. We are facing an election of significance, and after November 6 one party will be celebrating and the other will be grieving. No matter which party wins, there will be a lot of discomfort with how the problems of our nation are addressed, and how that effects each of us, and whether or not things will improve. With trouble on the horizon, uncertainty before us, and discomfort with the status-quo, what is there to give thanks for?
Well, the first thing we must take note of is that the outward stuff of this world is not our first concern. At least it should not be. Those outward things are temporary and always changing. The greatest things we have to give thanks for are God's gifts in connection with Jesus Christ! The fact that you can read that last sentence and go, "Oh, that again", inwardly is part of the problem Christians face with thanksgiving.
The rest of the world - the non-Christian part - is not going to give thanks. They won't give thanks for Christ and the Gospel and salvation because they do not know Christ, they don't believe the Gospel and they have no salvation. They are, as Paul says, without putting too fine an edge on it, "having no hope and without God in the world" Ephesians 2:12. They have plenty of other stuff in this life to give thanks for, but they generally feel entitled to what they have and more. When life is roaring along with abundance and ease, things seem to the unbeliever (and to most of us American Christian as well) to be just the way they ought to be. Anything less than that is a cause for disquiet and dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Give thanks? Not likely.
Nor are they capable. They can mutter empty words of feigned piety, but one really needs to know God before one can give Him even as little as thanks. Remember the Garden of Eden; a true paradise and perfection, and yet Adam and Eve were not content. They wanted to be "like God". Now, if people who walked with God in the garden could not be content, how much less will those who deny His existence and refuse His grace be able to give true thanks to God just because we have a holiday? You need to know God before He even listens, because He knows what is in the hearts of every man, woman and child. The Enchiridion of the Small Catechism we have used in our Synod has it right, we are, by nature, spiritually blind, dead, and enemies of God.
Christians have the same problem with their flesh - their natural, human nature. We want to be well, happy, moderately wealthy and comfortable. Pain is painful, and only the twisted enjoy pain. I imagine that when I stated above that "the outward stuff of this world is not our first concern", some people had the standard, knee-jerk reaction that I was obviously one of those people who were, as one of my employers used to say, "so heavenly minded that I was no earthly good". That's the problem with Christians, you know, they don't care what happens in this world and they are content to let things go to heck in a handbasket! I have heard that charge a number of times too.
That charge is a bucket of nonsense, the kind one fertilizes gardens with. Remarkably few Christians don't care about this world and this life. Shallow Christians live for this life and little else, and deeply spiritual and sincere Christians understand that this life is given to us in order that we may serve God by serving our neighbor and taking care of one another. Of course we give thanks for the blessing of this life and this world. That is the easy part, particularly in America, where abundance is the rule and poverty is often easier than moderate wealth is in many places on earth today. I marvel at how rich we are and how little we seem to recognize it as a people.
We eat well. We are so well fed that there are public advocacy groups trying to convince people to eat less, and the government is beginning to restrict what you can eat and drink, and how much, as a matter (or so they say) of public health. The poor have cell-phones, smart phones, tablets and computers. Poverty comes with MP3 players, or at least it seems that it does, judging by the children at the schools I substitute in. They might need free breakfast and subsidized lunch, but they have their music in little electronic devices that hang from their ears way too often. And who doesn't have a TV?
Americans fear descending to an economic level which well over half of the world aspires to achieve. From our position of abundance and blessedness in things temporal, it is a fearsome thing! Public safety and public health like we enjoy in this country is unimaginable to most people alive today, and to everyone from a century ago and before. I know people from Africa who would not imagine eating fresh fruits or vegetables without cooking the daylights out of them for fear of disease carried on the food and in their water supply. When we run into food that carries disease, it makes the news. When people in the third world do, it makes dinner - just carefully prepared and well-cooked. And just think of how many places on this earth are embroiled in wars and rioting and bloodshed today.
How can we live in the midst of such overwhelming kindness of the Lord and abundant blessings and not give thanks? It is like Adam and Even in the Garden, we take perfection for granted and say, now show me something impressive! I am not wealthy by American standards. I do not even come close to it, but by the standards of the world, and particularly by historical standards, I am obscenely wealthy. I have more "stuff" than I know what to do with. In many places in the world, people can flee their homes with every possession they own in a basket on their head, and still have to worry about the really poor stealing from them.
Mind you, I don't want this prosperity to go away. I rejoice in it and thank God for His kindness, and pray that He continues to bless me and this great nation. I would like to see the whole world rise to the level of America and enjoy this earthly abundance. But all of this abundance is just for a time. I will have leave it all behind one day, for, as the proverb correctly observes, you cannot take it with you.
While America enjoys such riches in the things of this world, it is suffering a poverty of the spirit. This nation is like a living illustration of the words of Jesus, "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul? For what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" We are facing a growing famine of the Word of God. Churches abandon the Gospel for entertainment, for "the six Biblical principles for prosperity", or for something called "justice" which is not just, and focuses only on this life and this world. Church members find it convenient to be absent from worship for their own preferred activities. What's the harm, right? The church will be there next week, or in two weeks.
The thing is, church is not about attendance. It is not about success. It is not about personal well-being. It is about Christ and salvation, the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life, and it about those things for ourselves, and our families, our friends, and fellow-members of the body of Christ who gather with us around Word and Sacrament. When we begin to ask, "What's the harm?", we have already lost our focus. We don't drive on the highway like we were playing "Chicken". We don't experiment with potentially toxic foods. We don't advocate playing "Russian Roulette" as a party game. Why would we want to play around with the gift of everlasting life, and try to estimate how far we can go before we lose it?
This nation suffers from false theology that places the freedom of the individual above and at odds with the truth of the Gospel. People find their lives centered in their experience of the moment and in their possessions, without thought of God as their source, His grace and love as the meaning of their lives, and the congregation as the setting of their lives. That is, in part, why people have trouble thinking of thanksgiving when everything isn't going just the way they want it to go. They are focused on the less significant, and majoring in minors.
The most significant reason for thanksgiving is that God has chosen you to be a partaker in the Gospel. We can give thanks for the love of God that moved Him to send His Son to our world to take on human flesh and blood and human nature and become one of us. We can delight in the perfection of the life Jesus lived, so that when the crucial moment came, He was a fit and holy substitute for us. We should consider how in all of His holiness, He became sin for us - He who knew no sin of His own - so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him! How mind-blowing! He took on Sin! He became sin! And then He faced the passion with all of the beatings and the mocking and the horrible rejection and abandonment by friends and the men He came to save - and God - and then he endured the crucifixion.
All of that was done to redeem and rescue YOU. Creating you was not enough. Blessing you with our abundance was not enough. He came to save you - and succeeded. Your sins are forgiven! Now, we have heard those words so often that it loses its punch at times, but that means that because of Jesus, and the Gospel stuff spelled out for you in the Apostle's Creed, that you are now on a first name basis with God. The reasons to be frightened of Him are gone, and His love for you is now boldly displayed. He invites you to come to Him with every problem and every need. He wants to bless you and bring you to everlasting life, where the troubles of this life do not exist and cannot disturb you.
And all of it was given to you. You know it! He has taught you to believe it! You are included in the greatest story ever told! It is about you - although not just you, but you in connection with Jesus Christ and in fellowship with all those who have also been included in that marvelous salvation. You are now part of the family of God. How do you give thanks for all that?
Daily. Repeatedly. Humbly and sincerely. Could things be better here and now? Marginally, and temporarily. Could they be worse? Oh, yes. And for eternity. But God has redeemed you and brought you to the knowledge of His grace and love. And He has placed you among a body of believers to share your joy - and your sorrows - and help you keep your focus on what really matters.
He has also provided for your continuing in the faith. He has set a preacher before you, a pastor. God called that man to be His voice among His people in this one place. He has set Baptism as the way into His family and how you can identify that you, too, have been claimed and named and made a part of His household. He gives you holy food to eat. In that blessed meal He gives you His own body and blood, and cleanses you with forgiveness each time you eat and drink, and He strengthens you. All of these gifts are appropriate reasons for thanksgiving, plus you will rise from your grave, body and soul reunited, to everlasting life. How cool is that?
Are there problems in the world? Absolutely. Those are the things God has given us to work on while we are here, as we share the wonder of His love and grace with those around us. Not everyone will want to hear, or come to faith when you tell them what God has given you, and done for them, but that is not your problem. Speaking about your faith as God gives you the opportunity is your part. Making it work in them is God's part.
And we have the world we live in as the setting in which we live out our confidence in Him. We don't have to do everything, just the work God places before us. But in whatever we do, we are to do all to the glory of God. And give thanks.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. And encourage each other, because even in this most singularly blessed land, we can forget, now and then, how blessed we are, and need encouragement from our brothers and sisters in Christ!
Yours in the Lord,
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