Thanksgiving, with Humble Penitence for Our National Perverseness and Disobedience

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“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
If Abraham Lincoln released his 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation today, it would be met with derision by all sides from the Huffington Post to the Drudge Report, from Fox News to MSNBC. In the statement that is considered to be the beginning of the annual tradition of presidential proclamations, Lincoln wrote:
The year that is drawing towards it close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come… the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity… peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict… Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence (sic), have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines… have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy…  I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States… to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.
That portion of the proclamation is remarkable in itself, but what is even more shocking to contemporary ears is what Lincoln says in his closing words:
And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him… they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife… and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity (sic) and Union.
Can you imagine any politician today speaking of God dealing “with us in anger for our sins” or encouraging us to adopt a spirit of “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience”? Progressives would deem the words “sins,” “perverseness,” and “disobedience” judgmental, intolerant, and hopelessly archaic. Conservatives would bristle at national self-criticism from the country’s commander-in-chief (at a time of war, no less).
Lincoln had good reason to speak of perversity, of course. He was knee-deep in blood in a civil war precipitated by half of the country’s leaving the Union so it could protect the institution of slavery. But his proclamation was firmly within the American tradition. The Thanksgiving proclamation at Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1676, referred to God’s “sore displeasure against us for our sins.” In 1789, George Washington urged that we “unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions.” John Adams in 1798 recommended that congregations “acknowledge before God the manifold sins and transgressions with which we are justly chargeable as individuals and as a nation.”
This penitential theme carried through into the 20th century. Dwight Eisenhower spoke of the need to “bow before God in contrition for our sins.” Both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush acknowledged “our shortcomings and transgressions.” But any suggestion of national failings, let alone sin or perversity, has gone missing from the Thanksgiving proclamations of the last three decades.         
I suppose that begs the question: Is this something a Christian should even be doing? Some hesitate to get involved, saying we should just focus on the Gospel. Others ask, “Why pray for someone who doesn’t want our prayers?” And sadly, there are those who claim we don’t really have much for which to repent.
That last claim is the easiest to refute. As a nation, we have much for which to repent. The blood of the Civil War is a mere trickle compared to that of more than fifty million babies aborted since Roe v Wade. Marriage was first abandoned and then redefined without much of a fight. The poor have been caught in a safety net that provides just enough resources to foster dependency, but never enough to gain release from the slavery of entitlements. Racial tensions and political rhetoric have escalated. In an age of instant electronic communication, we’ve lost the art of polite discourse and meaningful conversation. And sadly, we have too often trusted in our economic and military strength rather than the one true God.
As far as individual sins—just run through the Ten Commandments. Have you coveted what is not yours? Have you told lies about your neighbor, betrayed him, slandered him, or hurt his reputation in any way? Have you helped your neighbor improve and protect his possessions and income? Have you led a sexually pure and decent life? Have you hurt your neighbor or failed to support him in every physical need? Have you honored your parents and other authorities as God’s agents? Have you failed to hold God’s Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it? Have you kept God’s name holy by calling on it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks? Have you feared, loved, and trusted in God above all things?
An honest examination of our nation and ourselves will show that we do, indeed, have much for which to repent. We are by nature sinful and unclean and have sinned against God by thought, word, and deed.
So, given our own sinfulness, what gives us the right to pray for anyone else? Short answer: the grace of God. We can intercede for others before God the Father because we are right with Him and have access to His grace through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Only we who have access to the Father’s presence and grace can mediate Him and His grace to others. When we intercede, we use our position with God, our righteousness in Christ, for the benefit of others.
As Christians, we stand within two large communities. On the one hand, there is the fellowship of sinners that includes all the descendants of Adam and Eve. As human beings, we have a common origin, existence, and destiny. We are part of the human family and cannot disassociate ourselves from it. We share in each other’s prosperity and adversity. On the other hand, we are members of the communion of saints. As the body of Christ, we share in the sins and blessings of one another. Others pray for us, and we in turn pray for others. In intercession, we use our faith for the benefit of others, especially in common prayer.
The critics of the Early Church were astonished that Christians prayed for people who were unrelated to them, foreigners, and even enemies, rather than just their own families, community, and other Christians. This was, and still is, a countercultural feature of Christian piety. In worship, all Christians pray together with Jesus and the whole Church on earth for the whole world and its people.
St. Paul gives instructions on the nature and function of common prayer:
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Tim 2:1-6).
The Church has the responsibility to engage in prayer. This does not just please God the Father; it is an essential part of our involvement in His mission to all people on earth. It is the basis for the work of evangelism in our community, for evangelism flows from intercessory prayer for those who have not yet “come to the knowledge of the truth.” Jesus did not just sacrifice His life as a ransom on behalf of every human being. He is now the one and only mediator between God and man. Since God wants all people to be saved, Jesus intercedes for all people and prays for their salvation. So we, too, join with Jesus in His intercession.
Paul says that we should pray for two main groups of people. First, we should pray generally on behalf of everyone without exception because God wants all people to be saved. Second, we should pray specifically for “kings and all who are in high positions.” Whether they are good or bad rulers, they need our prayers because they are meant to work for God in ruling His world. They can’t do that without God’s help and the prayers of the Church.  
Paul tells us to offer four different kinds of prayer on behalf of others: supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings. In our supplications, we, like Jesus, identify ourselves with others and stand together with them. With Christ, we stand in for them by our petitions to God for them in their need. We act as if their needs are our needs. If they are in trouble, we don’t distance ourselves from them, but stand beside them, pleading with God to help them, whatever their need.
Even if those around us aren’t in trouble, we still stand in for them with Christ by our prayers for their prosperity. We act as if their lives were ours and pray for them as if their welfare is ours. Even if they are not Christians, we ask Him to give them His good gifts, such as health or success at work or at home. We assume that God puts us in touch with them so that He can use us to bless them.
We also stand in for others with Christ by our intercessions when they have sinned. We ask God to have mercy on them and bring them to repentance. All too often the discovery of evil in others reinforces our own self-righteousness and isolates us from those who sin. Instead of gossiping about them, we, like Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer, can treat their sin as our own sin and plead for their forgiveness.
We, surprisingly, also stand in for others with Christ through our thanksgivings of the blessings that they have received from God. If things go well for them, we do not envy them and begrudge them their happiness. Instead, we act as if their blessings are ours. We thank God on their behalf for His loving kindness and generosity to them because they are not yet in the position to do so themselves.
This is an aspect of intercession that has received scant attention in recent times, but it was prominent in the Early Church. They believed that the Church was appointed to serve, together with the angels, as a single choir that voiced thanks and praise to God on behalf of the whole human race. In this, we follow Jesus, who leads us in the praise of His heavenly Father.
The Scriptures indicate that we all have three basic circles of responsibility in which we are to exercise our spiritual vocation by the practice of intercession. First, and foremost, we have the duty of spiritual care for our own families, friends, co-workers, and associates. Among these, we have a special duty to pray for those who do not believe as well as those who are in trouble. We should also pray for our personal enemies. We need them in our lives as the touchstone for our love, just as they need us to relay Christ and His forgiveness to them.
We have the duty of spiritual care for the members of our congregation and for those who spread the Gospel. Pastors and missionaries, the sick, and the lapsed—all these are singled out for the special mention in the New Testament. By praying for them, we work with them, struggle with them, secure the help of the Holy Spirit for them, and open a door for the Gospel in the hearts of its hearers.
We also have the duty of spiritual care for the world and its rulers. Just as Christians benefit from good government, political stability, economic prosperity, and international peace, so the world and those in authority throughout the world are helped in their work by our prayers for them. Political instability and social unrest are signals for us to increase intercession so that matters do not get out of hand. We can do more for international justice and world peace by our individual and corporate prayers than anything else we ever do. Our prayers are our greatest contribution to the welfare of the world and the salvation of its people.
All of this frames your life on earth; and, actually, it frames your Thanksgiving Day as well. I pray that it is a day of celebration and comfort, of family and friends. But I also pray that it is a day of thanksgiving and humble penitence—for you and I, our nation and the world have much reason for both. Out of His fatherly divine goodness and mercy, the Lord provides us with all we need for this body and life and eternal life. And as Christians, He gives us the privilege and responsibility to share those gifts with others by our confession and prayers.
So let us give thanks to Him whose mercies are new every morning and who graciously provides for all our needs of body and soul. As God’s beloved children, let us use our standing to bring before Him petitions on behalf of ourselves and our nation, trusting that He will hear our prayers and answer them favorably for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ. In Him alone we have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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