Not Just a 1st Article Thanksgiving
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Thanksgiving Day has a long history in the United States. The first thanksgiving was a harvest festival celebrated in 1621 at Plymouth Colony. President George Washington issued the first national thanksgiving proclamation in 1789, but it wasn’t until President Abraham Lincoln acknowledged “the ever watchful providence of Almighty God” with his 1863 proclamation that Thanksgiving gained popularity as an annual holiday. In 1941, Congress fixed the date for Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday of November.
Since that time, our nation seems to have turned this into a day of thanksgiving without specifying whom we thank. Thanksgiving Day is “Turkey Day” and takes a backseat to “Black Friday” for November holidays. More time is spent watching football games than in worship, giving thanks to God.
But we Christians don’t really need a presidential proclamation, or an act of Congress, or a special Thursday in November to give thanks to God. Do we? Thanksgiving is our priestly duty as baptized believers. That’s what priests do. They offer sacrifices. Thanksgiving is eucharistic sacrifice, thank offering to God for all His blessings not only to us, but to the whole world.
“The Church lives in thanksgiving,” writes Alexander Schmemann. “It is the air she breathes.” This is to say the Church lives from the abundance of the gifts God showers down around her unceasingly. Unlike the world that is blind to the gifts, the Church sees them, celebrates them, and rejoices in them.
Faithful hearts are grateful hearts. We are thankful for the gifts of creation—for this planet that we live on, for sun, moon, stars, rain, soil, plants, birds, fish, animals. For our own life—our body and breath, eyes, ears, all our 2,000 or so parts, our reason, our senses. We are thankful for God’s preserving gifts of clothing, shoes, food, drink, house, home, family, and government. All this God gives purely out of fatherly goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in us. And we, as His children, say “thank You for the gifts.”
But we must not limit our thankfulness to those 1st article gifts. The Native Americans who joined the Pilgrims back in 1621 could’ve celebrated a 1st Article Thanksgiving. They believed in a creator god and held their harvest festivals to keep him happy so that he might give them a plentiful harvest the next year, too. The pagans of Rome could’ve celebrated a 1st Article Thanksgiving. They had Saturn, the god of the harvest and Ceres the goddess of agriculture and fertility.
American civil religion can celebrate a 1st Article Thanksgiving as we are “one nation under God” (“the god of your own personal understanding,” of course). Muslims can celebrate a 1st article Thanksgiving. Mormons can. Deists. Masons. Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jews. Wiccans. Members of practically any religious group can celebrate a 1st Article Thanksgiving. Only Christians can celebrate a Thanksgiving properly focused on worshiping the one true God and thanking Him for the gifts He gives us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
So, in addition to His gifts of creation—for providing all that we need for this body and life—we also thank God for the gifts of redemption: for the incarnation of His Son, Jesus Christ… for His perfect life and death… for His rising from the dead… for His atonement for the sin of the world… for His reign over all things that we might belong to Him and serve Him in His kingdom.
We also thank God for the gifts of the Holy Spirit: the preaching of the Gospel… the Church and her pastors… our own rebirth and renewal in Baptism… our refreshment in the Lord’s Supper… the absolution of forgiveness… our fellowship together with all the saints in Christ… the resurrection of our bodies guaranteed by Christ’s resurrection… and the sure hope of eternal life.
Did you notice that our readings for today follow this pattern? Each of them focuses primarily on God as described in one of the articles of the Apostles’ Creed.
Moses leads the way in our first reading with the reminder to the Israelites of God the Father’s provision for their pilgrimage. The Lord leads His people to the Promised Land. But along the way, He teaches them that their life isn’t kept by bread alone, but by every Word that He speaks to them.
God’s Word, after all, is the cause of all the gifts of the creation His people delight in. And He commanded the creation to provide sustenance for this earthly journey: manna that appeared every day in the morning dew, quail that came in the evening, and water from the rock. Later, as things got more settled for the Israelites, He provided them with a good and fruitful land.
“But don’t forget,” Moses warns Israel (and us). “You’re still a people on a pilgrimage. This isn’t home, but only a foretaste of the abundant blessings God has in store for you eternally. Remember to bless the Lord for the good land He has given you as you journey on with Him. Remember the great gifts.”
So the Church, seeing such gifts, raises to God her thanks—not one day a year, but continually “at all times and in all places.”
St. Paul swings in with the second reading reminding us to give thanks for the Son. He wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
What truth is that? The truth of the gifts confessed in the second article of the Creed. The truth about the greatest of all gifts: the coming of the eternal Son into the flesh, as we shall soon celebrate during Advent and Christmas: “To you is born this day a Savior, Christ the Lord.” To you!
What truth? The truth about the Son, who bore our sin to the cross redeeming us with His own holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death as we shall celebrate at Lent. “He made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” For you!
What truth? The truth about the Son ripping a hole right through death and transforming it forever into a peaceful sleep with a joyous and certain wakening as we celebrate at Easter. Jesus said: “Whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.” Eternal life in a resurrected body and purified soul. For you!
What truth? The truth about our Lord we celebrate on Ascension Day: “Christ Jesus… who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” The Son who reigns in heaven and yet promises to be with His own in His Word and Sacraments: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” With you!
Gifts all—and God wants them for all. For you! For me! For the whole world! We get included in all that. How can we ever thank Him enough?
But the Gospel reading challenges us with how easy it is to fall into the ways of unbelief. That is to measure the gifts of the Holy Spirit and say to God: “Fill it up right to that line. That’s enough. Don’t need any more, thank you very much.”
So the nine lepers went off with the little healing, no doubt quite grateful to the end of their days to the Rabbi who had miraculously healed them. But the Rabbi stood there asking: “Where are the nine?” He had more gifts to give! But no one came back for the rest, to give glory to God except the Samaritan. He came back for the more and got it. “Your faith has saved you,” Jesus says. And He doesn’t just mean from leprosy. He means from sin, death, and the devil.
Through His Word, the Holy Spirit creates saving faith. He brings greater gifts. The Lord always has more gifts. That’s His way. He always has more for you than you can ever imagine. So never walk away from Him and say: “I’ve had enough.” “I was baptized, so what do I need the Word for?” “I’ve received the Lord’s Supper, so why do I need absolution?” “I’ve been to worship this week. Why do I need to read my Bible at home?”
Oh, we’re guilty of telling way too often: “That’s enough.” And that is unbelief!
Thanksgiving as an act of worship is still a minority opinion. Ten lepers were cleansed that day they encountered Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. One returned to give thanks at the feet of Jesus. Seems about average doesn’t it? Ten percent or so, on any given Thanksgiving Day?
But Thanksgiving is more than a pious prayer and an attitude of gratitude sandwiched between the turkey and pumpkin pie. Thanksgiving is a concrete, tangible, real work of worship. Heads bowed, knees bent, hands folded, hearts uplifted in psalms and hymns and songs. Money in offering plates. Ears inclined to the Word. Mouths filled with prayer and praise.
I’m sure that the other nine lepers were grateful in their hearts as they went off to show themselves to the priests. I’m sure that they all talked about what a great guy Jesus was and thanked their lucky stars that they met Him on the road to Jerusalem. But only one turned around on the road, walked back, and fell down flat on his face at the feet of Jesus. That’s the faithful one, the one in whom God’s Word created faith. “Rise and go your way; your faith has saved you,” Jesus says.
And the other nine? Did they have faith that saved them? Hard to say. Faith is seen only by its works. This kind of thanksgiving at the feet of Jesus is the fruit of faith in Jesus, to whom we are indebted not only for daily bread but for life. He is the living Bread come down from heaven, the Word through whom all things are made, in whom all things have their being, and for whom all things exist.
You are cared for by the Triune God. More than you could ever care for yourself. No detail of your life is too small or insignificant. You are precious and holy to Him. As precious as the blood of His Son that purchased you from sin and death. As holy as the pure and perfect life of Jesus who became your sin so that in Him you might become the righteousness of God. Every good gift He pours down, without any merit or worthiness in us. For all this it is our duty, our privilege, our priestly responsibility, to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.
The way of faith, then, is ever returning, glorifying our Triune God for what He has given. And you will find that He always has even more to give. Which leads to even more thanksgiving from you. The Lord wants it to be an endless cycle and the very joy of your life. He wants finally to give you nothing less than Himself, and He is, as Dr. Luther put it so unforgettably, “an eternal fountain that gushes forth abundantly nothing but what is good.” And so you gush forth constant thanksgiving for all the gifts of your Lord to you.
Just think of all the way that we give thanks in the Divine Service. In the Gloria in Excelsis: “We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we worship Thee, we glorify Thee, we give thanks to Thee, for Thy great glory.”
After hearing the Old Testament and Epistle readings: “Thanks be to God.”
In the Preface: “Let us give thanks unto the Lord, our God.” And the Proper Preface: “It is truly, good, right, and salutary, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to You, holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
The Thanksgiving and Collect following the Distribution: “O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; and His mercy endureth forever.” “We give thanks to You, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift… “
Amazing, isn’t it? How much of our worship includes thanksgiving. In fact, one of the names we have for the Lord’s Supper—the Eucharist—comes from the Greek word for “giving thanks.”
Thanksgiving is worship. Worship is continual repentance and faith, receiving God’s good gifts in His Word and Sacrament. In this life we never move beyond that. Not that God needs our thanksgiving. He doesn’t benefit from our thanking Him. We do! The more we thank God the Father through His dear Son, Jesus Christ, the more we recognize how generously and bountifully He deals with us, the more our hearts and minds are opened to His hidden generosity.
So give thanks to the Lord, for He is good. Today as you gather around the table (here and at home)—some of His gifts before you, others of His gifts around you, the greatest of His gifts within you—lift your voice and glorify the God who gives, freely and without measure. He has created you and sustains you with all that you need for this body and life only out of His fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in you.
Give thanks to the good Lord who has redeemed you, purchased and won you from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that you may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
Give thanks to the Lord, who has called you by the Gospel, enlightened you with His gifts, sanctified and kept you in the true faith. In the same way, He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian Church, He daily and richly forgives your sins and the sins of all believers.
Indeed, you are forgiven for all of your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.