It’s not hard to figure out why this text from Deuteronomy was chosen for Thanksgiving. Near the end, it contains a wonderful description of the land that Yahweh was about to give to Israel. We hear: “For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper.”
And after describing this amazing place, Moses tells the Israelites how they are to respond to it. He says, “And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.” Indeed, it sounds like directions for you tomorrow afternoon after you have finished your Thanksgiving feast.
However, there is far more in our text than just the simple message that we should give thanks for God’s blessings. For starters, there is the reminder that all of these blessings are purely a matter of God’s grace. In the first verse of our text, Moses says: "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.”
Yahweh wasn’t giving the land to Israel because they had earned it or deserved it. Instead, he was going to do so because he had promised their fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that he would do so. And his promise to them was not based on anything they had done. Instead this was purely a matter of God’s grace – his undeserved favor. It was by God’s grace that he had called Abraham in the first place. And it was by grace that he had promised to give the land to Abraham’s descendants.
The blessings that God has given to you are no different. In the Small Catechism’s explanation of the First Article of the Creed, Luther reminds us that God has given us everything, that he has given us our body and soul, eyes, ears, and all our members, our reason and all our senses, and still takes care of them. Then after mentioning our very body and life, he goes on to describe how God gives us everything else we need and have. He also gives us clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all we have. He richly and daily provides us with all that we need to support this body and life.
God does and gives all of these things. But it is not because we have deserved or earned them. Instead, Luther adds, “All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.”
At the same time, most of our text is not about giving thanks for the blessings of the promised land. Instead, Moses is looking back on what Israel had experienced and us describing how Yahweh was at work to test and teach Israel. This was preparation that was meant to lead them to be faithful to Yahweh.
Moses says: “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.” God had humbled Israel, and he had done this in order to lead Israel to the understanding that they needed to rely on God.
They needed to understand that life was about more than food. Instead, true life began with faith in Yahweh as they listened to his word. Life was found in the covenant he had made with Israel. Moses says in our text: “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.”
Israel was God’s son, and Yahweh had dealt with Israel in the same way a father treats his son. We hear, “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God disciplines you. So you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him.”
This was the goal. It was necessary because of the very blessings God was about to give Israel. Yahweh was about to graciously give them this good land. And immediately after our text Moses warns Israel about what they needed to avoid. He said: “Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them,
and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
The same challenge faces us. We allow the blessings God gives to us to become temptations that insulate us from God. Secure in the provision of the things we need to live, we cease to think about God as their source. The Giver is forgotten. Or worse yet, we turn the blessing themselves into false gods. They become the focus of our lives. They become the source of our security and sense of well being.
Israel did this. We do this. And because this is so, God sent his Son, begotten from eternity, into the world. Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, the incarnate Son of God lived in our world. As true man, he too needed daily bread. He too received the blessings that God provides for our lives.
Yet as the sinless Son of God he never ceased to know that the Father was the source. He never allowed the blessings of this world to supplant the Father and his will. After fasting for forty day in the wilderness, our Lord was indeed hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Jesus had come to serve and carry out the Father’s will, not to use his power to benefit himself. He would not allow even the need for daily bread to turn him away from faithfulness to the Father. Instead, he responded using words from our text as he answered: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Where Israel was an unfaithful son, Jesus the incarnate Son of God was faithful all the way to the cross. He was faithful to the Father’s will as he took our sins upon himself – every way that we fail to give thanks and acknowledge God as the source of our blessings; every way that we treat the blessings as false gods. He took our sins and received the judgment of God that we deserved. By his suffering and death he redeemed us – he freed us from sin and the devil.
And then on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. In Jesus the resurrection of the Last Day has begun. In Jesus the new creation has begun. And through the work of the Spirit in Holy Baptism we are now a new creation in Christ.
Christ’s Spirit leads us now to see God as the source of every blessing. He moves us to give thanks to God who so richly supports us in this bodily life. He aids us in the struggle to fear, love and trust in God above every blessing that God gives. For when we give thanks to God; when we see God has our greatest good, then we can receive God’s gifts as true blessings.
And Christ uses the blessings of creation to give us the spiritual blessing that we need. In the Sacrament of the Altar he uses bread and wine to give us his true body and blood. Just as our Lord gave thanks when he instituted the Sacrament, so also we give thanks for the forgiveness he now delivers through his body and blood that we eat and drink. Here we are forgiven for failing to be thankful. Here we are forgiven for putting God’s blessings before God. And here Christ nourishes the new man in us so that we can be thankful to the God we fear, love and trust in him above every blessing.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving our text reminds us about the many blessings that, like Israel in the promised land, God has given to us. We have received these by Gods’ grace. Yet there is always the temptation to take them for granted, or to place them before God. We give thanks that in his Son Jesus Christ, God has acted to forgive us for these failures. We give thanks that in the holy food of the Sacrament of the Altar we receive forgiveness, and are strengthened in faith to receive God’s blessings with thanksgiving.