Why do we have Thanksgiving? A shallow answer is that we have the holiday of Thanksgiving so that we can get together with family, eat of bunch of good food, watch football and do some shopping. If we were to go a little deeper, I think most people recognize that it is a time to “count their blessings.” There is a sense that Thanksgiving is associated with a general appreciation for the good things that we have. People change the frame on their Facebook profile picture to say, “Thankful.”
No doubt, you are going to do all the things I just mentioned. You will get together with family, eat a bunch of good food, watch football and do some shopping. However, before you do those things, you have chosen first to come to the Divine Service tonight. You decided to come to church. This indicates that at some level, you recognize that what I have just described isn’t good enough.
If thanksgiving is to be biblical thanksgiving, then it can’t be merely a recognition of how good you have it. It can’t be a vague sense of thankfulness that the cosmic forces of chance and fate have treated you pretty well.
Instead, our text tonight from Deuteronomy teaches us that real thanksgiving must be focused on God. And when we use the term “God” we have a very particular referent in mind. We are referring to the God who has revealed himself and has acted in history. We are talking about the God who has acted to save you.
Our text from Deuteronomy gives us one of the sermons that Moses preached to the people of Israel when they were about to cross over the Jordan into the promised land. This was the second time that Israel was in the position to do this. The first time, forty years ago, had not gone so well.
Spies sent across the Jordan River had brought back a wonderful report – the land was great – it flowed with milk and honey. However, there was also very bad news. The people who already lived there were no pushover. They were strong and presented a serious challenge.
Instead of trusting in Yahweh, the people of Israel refused to enter the land that God had promised to give to them. They said their children would just end up slaves when they were defeated. Yahweh punished their disobedience. He said that instead, only their children would enter the land. Israel was forced then to wander and live in the wilderness for forty years. God fed them with manna until now it was once again time to enter the land. Moses himself would not be allowed to do so. In Deuteronomy we hear Moses’ final words to Israel as he recounts what had happened in the past for those who had often been too young to remember it. He exhorted Israel to be faithful to Yahweh and to trust him.
The first part of Deuteronomy chapter 8 is one of the texts for Thanksgiving. On close inspection, this may seem surprising. After all, most of what Moses describes in our text are not things for which we usually give thanks.
It begins well enough. We hear: “The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the LORD swore to give to your fathers.” The starting point was Gospel. The goal was the land that Yahweh promised to give to their fathers – to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
That land was God’s gift. As Israel had already recognized forty years earlier, they had no chance to go in and take it by their own powers. Instead, it was God who had promised to give it to Abraham’s descendants. All that there was for Israel to do was to walk in faith as the people God had taken to be his own. This response of faith had been defined by the Torah that Yahweh had given to Israel at Mt. Sinai and was now being repeated for them.
But then, Moses went on to say, “And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.” We learn that God had humbled Israel. He had tested them to know what was in their heart – whether they would walk in faith and keep his commandments.
And then Moses added, “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” Yet again Moses says that God acted to humble Israel. He had allowed them to know hunger and had then fed them with manna just as he had said he would. This experience had a purpose. It was meant to teach them that life occurs by trusting in the word that comes from God. Bread is necessary, but not bread alone. Instead, what really matters is living by faith in what God says.
Moses had spoken about humbling and testing. And then he added, “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God disciplines you.” What is interesting about our text for Thanksgiving is that the majority of it talks about things for which we don’t give thanks. I don’t know about you, but being humbled, tested and disciplined does not make me feel thankful. Instead, it makes me want to complain. The old Adam in me sees these all as negative things. Amy’s brain tumor, surgery, and now lengthy process of recovery have all been occasions that generate these kinds of thoughts. I have no doubt that you experience things that do the same.
Yet our text tonight reminds us that we live not by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. God’s Word tells us how things really are. He tells us that those things for which we do not give thanks are in fact still God at work for our good. In fact … dare I say it … they too are things for which we need to give thanks. Not that we give thanks for bad experiences. But we give thanks for the way God is using them.
The only thing that can enable to maintain this perspective is the Gospel. Moses begins our text by referring to “the land that Yahweh swore to give to your fathers.” The promise of the land was rooted in God’s call of Abraham when he said: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Yahweh promised that in the seed of Abraham – in his offspring – all families of the earth would be blessed. His words were fulfilled in Jesus Christ who was, as Matthew tells us, “the son of David, the son of Abraham.” The blessing that God has given to us in Jesus is forgiveness and salvation.
On one occasion Yahweh tested Abraham by commanding him to offer his only son Isaac whom he loved as a sacrifice. Abraham trusted God and was willing to do this, and ultimately God provided a ram as the sacrifice in the place of Isaac. However God the Father did not spare his only begotten Son whom he loved. Instead he offered him as the sacrifice in your place on the cross. Jesus Christ received God’s judgment against your sin. But then, on the third day God raised him from the dead. Through the incarnate Son of God, the Father has forgiven your sins and defeated death.
God the Father has done this for you. God’s action in Jesus Christ is the reason that we now are able to trust God when as a man disciplines his son, the LORD our God disciplines us. He is the reason we are able to live not by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Jesus Christ – the crucified and risen Lord - is the reason that we are able to walk by faith.
This walk of faith is one of thanksgiving. We give thanks to God for the forgiveness and salvation we have received in Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, we are able to be thankful for the way God uses times of humbling, testing and disciplining for our good.
God’s action in Christ is the reason that we now are able to see all of our blessings as coming from God – blessing for which we give God thanks. At the end of our text Moses says, “So you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him. For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land.” The Israelites needed to walk in faith because God is the One who keeps his promises. He was about to give them a good land – a land flowing with milk and honey.
God is the One who blesses us with everything that we need to support this body and life. In fact, he is the One who provides us with far more than just that. Our response is one of thanksgiving. But this is not the “Thankful” of the world. This is thanks given to the God who has saved us - real thanksgiving. As Moses says in the last verse of our text, “And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.”
By faith we do give thanks. We bless the Lord our God – we give thanks – because of the forgiveness and salvation he has given us through Jesus Christ. We give thanks to God for the way he is at work for our good, even when he humbles, tests and disciplines us. We give thanks to God for all of the blessings that he richly bestows upon us.