The Old Testament lesson for Thanksgiving ends with a description of the good land that Israel is about to enter. You will note that the first thing mentioned is that it is a land flowing with water. There is a narrow fringe of land around that region of the Mediterranean Sea that can support agriculture, and so water is the key feature of a land that will prosper.
Moses describes a land with abundant water, and it is only natural when he goes on to say that it is a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey. He says that it is a land in which the Israelites will eat bread without scarcity.
Based on this description, it is fitting that he ends our text by saying: “And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.” The reason this text was chosen for Thanksgiving is immediately obvious. This is of course the time when we have a holiday that is focused on giving thanks.
But while thanksgiving shows up at the end, the real theme of our text – and this section of Deuteronomy as a whole – is about remembering and forgetting. And because we have so much for which to give thanks, this is also a message that we need to hear.
This portion of Deuteronomy contains the addresses that Moses gave to Israel as they were preparing to enter the promised land. Because the nation had refused to enter the promised land after Yahweh brought them out of Egypt in the exodus, the Israelites had been condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years. God had said that no one twenty year or older would enter into the land. Instead, they would die in the wilderness.
Now, that time of wandering had come to an end. Only about a third of the people had been alive during the exodus. Most of them had been born during the last forty years, and had no experience with what had happened. So, Moses reviews Israel’s past experience and what Yahweh had done for them. He does this with one purpose – he wants to prepare them to be faithful when they enter into the land of Canaan.
This was a literally a matter of life or death. Moses says at the beginning of our text: “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.” Deuteronomy repeats again and again, that if Israel is faithful to Yahweh in the promised land, he will bless them and they will prosper. However, if they turn aside from his word and worship other gods, he will bring punishment upon them. In fact, they will be taken away from the land.
And so Moses calls upon Israel to remember. He 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.” The Israelites were to remember the past because the manner in which God had dealt with them illustrated how important it was to be faithful to Yahweh.
Yahweh had provided for them. But he had done so in a way that was intended to teach the people a lesson. 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.”
God was teaching them that he is the true source of life. He had fed them with manna to teach them that man does not live by bread alone. Yes, nourishment for the body was necessary. But what really mattered was recognizing God and his word as the ultimate source of life. Only by listening to God could they live in relationship with him. Only by listening to God could they remain his people who were blessed, and who prospered.
The land they were entering was indeed a blessing. But the blessings of the land were also a temptation. In the verse just after our text, Moses goes on to say, “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 land and its blessings were a gift from God. They were God confirming the covenant that he had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God had chosen them. God had taken them into the covenant. God had promised the land, and now he was about to fulfill that promise. But the nation couldn’t allow the blessing to cause them to forget the Giver. Later in this chapter Moses adds: “And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.”
The way to avoid this is expressed in our text: “So you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him.” If the Israelites walked in Yahweh’s ways and feared him, then the blessings of God would indeed be a blessing. They would not become circumstances in which they forgot about God, and turned to other false gods.
On Thanksgiving we reflect upon the ways that God has richly blessed us. The median household income in the world is just under $10,000. This means that fifty percent of world lives on less than that. A brief look at statistics quickly reveals that we are wealthier than billions of other people in the world. We know nothing about hunger or want. Instead, we are blessed with plenty, and our idea of hardship is that recently the selection available at the grocery store hasn’t always been what we are used to seeing. We enjoy luxuries that make our life easier and entertain us.
These blessings become the source of sin in two ways. On the one hand, we take them for granted, and don’t truly give thanks for them – except when prompted to remember by a massive meal of turkey, stuffing, and pie. On the other hand, more often, these blessings are too important to us. They become the focus of our attention. They are what matters most to us. They become the focus of our thoughts and conversation. They become the thing that gives us a sense of security and well-being.
In our text Yahweh warns Israel about the danger of false gods. Thanksgiving confronts us with our false gods that exist in the area of wealth and material blessings. It leads us to confess this sin, and to give thanks for the greatest blessing we have ever received – the Son of God, Jesus Christ. The apostle John said in his first letter, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
By his grace, God has called us to faith in the crucified and risen Lord through his Spirit. Because of Christ, we are forgiven in God’s eyes. We belong to him. As John said, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.”
Christ’s Spirit leads us to focus on the Giver rather than the gifts. He leads us to see that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. When we do this, we can be truly thankful for the many blessings we receive from God. We take note of them rather than taking them for granted. We give thanks for them.
Life lived on the basis of God’s greatest blessing – Jesus Christ – leads us to view those blessings differently. They become the means by which we can share God’s love with others. They become the means by which we are a blessing to others. John says, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.
But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
In our text tonight, Moses urges Israel to remember God and what he has done. Just as God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, so God has redeemed us from sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We remember that God is the source of life – that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. When we remember these things, then we are truly thankful for the blessings in our life as blessings that come from God. When we receive the blessings in this way, then we also see them as the means by which God uses us to bless others.