How do you celebrate Thanksgiving? When you go somewhere or you host it yourself, friends gather, family comes around… Will you share the great Tur-Turkey-Key from How I Met Your Mother? Or the “little bit extra” tur-duck-en? Or is it just plain turkey or maybe ham? (In truth, no self-respecting person actually thinks you can exempt the turkey from the meal. Most usually exercise proper respect and suggest a small side-ham – for complimentary left-over sandwiches the next three days.) So when you choose turkey, how to cook it – in the oven? Mine will be on the grill, I’m told. Perhaps you will deep-fry your thoroughly thawed bird with great care and in the driveway. And what sides? Stuffing? Does it include sausage or not? Make it inside the turkey or out? Mashed potatoes? By hand or from a box; with butter or garlic or both? Sweet potatoes? Will you have them candied or gross? Brussels sprouts? There is quite a bit to debate. That’s just the food. We haven’t even gotten to your place settings or table decorations or desserts… (pumpkin pie, of course).
One can get quite caught up in all the choices around Thanksgiving. And, if you’re too conscientious or a little self-conscious, you might worry yourself into a hot mess for one of the nicest holidays of the year. With all the opinions and choices and options and calls for this or that, do you ever feel like you just wanna throw your hands up in the air and say, “Give thanks already!” Just do it… Don’t forget that thing… Tonight God speaks like that to say, “Whatever you’re doing, give thanks & praise the Lord.”
One specific way to do that is to take care not to forget him. Specifically he was speaking to the people of Israel. They were gathered on the Arabah east of the Jordan River, hoping to make a home in the land of Canaan. There God spoke to them through his prophet, Moses, and called their attention to the abundant blessings God had poured out on them. Notice how God characterizes the moment: “When you have eaten and are satisfied… when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied…” Look at all the things God assumes they’ll have… It makes me think of the cartoon I saw somewhere last week – a soup kitchen setting, a caricature homeless man to the right, soup-kitchen lady in the middle, well-dressed man in a suit to the left. The lady says, “Greedy meet Needy.” I think we struggle with that on Thanksgiving sometimes. As though having the things is somehow wrong… God notably doesn’t start by calling his people greedy. He doesn’t attack them for having silver and gold or fine houses or herds and flocks that aren’t meagre but many. He doesn’t say, “Feel bad for all you have – make penance for blessedness – Give thanks.”
No, God promises to care for his people and to bless them. We’ll confess it in the 1st Article of the Creed with Luther’s Explanation. God provides – sometimes abundantly. And he expects that our nation, our cities, our people benefit from when you spend money, or when you start a business, when you invest; that you benefit from these when you enjoy them – when you share in his blessings. He is giving the kind of warning rich King David would later give in Psalm 62, “Though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them.” Have them. Enjoy them. Don’t so much enjoy these things that you begin to feel a pride in your heart and to identify with your truck or your investments or your status and say, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” And to totally forget the God who gave all these…
Do you see how that way of thinking comes about? It isn’t from having the things. It’s forgetting the things God has said. God warned, “Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, [BY] failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees…” “Forget” is literally “not to be found”. That’s exactly what Israel did again and again. God’s commands over time could not be found in their lives – morality and justice and generosity and purity – and they fell away – over and over again. And that tempts us too. We’re tempted to idolize our things or our way of life or even one we don’t yet have – and to worship that. Or like the nine in the gospel perhaps we get caught up in the joy of God’s blessings and we run off…and leave him behind. Over time, he may even “not be found” among us… We fill our days with blessings but forget the blessing of his Word to fill our hearts. We make time for all the things but may forget to make time to gather like this. We talk to lots of people but forget the blessing of speaking with our God in prayer. And, if these are absent, God himself may finally be too. And that is a thankless, fearful place to be…where judgment hangs over.
Tonight God reminds – put a guard on your heart to keep out pride and self-centeredness. Protect your hearts with attention to his words and deeds. Take care not to forget God. Instead, give thanks & praise the Lord by remembering how he gives.
Israel had ample opportunity for that. God lists the ways he’d given to them. A good land, freedom from slavery, safety through the desert from snakes and scorpions, miraculous food and water. Israel had had so many miraculous and wonderful blessings. If you were to remember how God has given to you, what would you recount? 30, 40, 50 years with a husband or wife? How he miraculously saved your life from that cancer? 3, 4, 5 children whose abilities astound you every day? Parents that love you and supply for all your needs? The ability to persevere under circumstances you never thought you could? A job where you find fulfillment and joy and income? A country where you are free to practice your faith? Clothing, shoes, food, drink, home, all your things… Too many to count, aren’t there? Blessings from God above that he has given?
Perhaps at your Thanksgivings you’ve shared a similar experience to this one. Sometimes when my family gathered for Thanksgiving we’d go around the table and share one thing for which we were thankful. I just listed 10 things in 30 seconds, so that really shouldn’t have been a trouble – I had all the things too… But for some reason it was just hard to do. I didn’t really enjoy that. Maybe being on the spot and coming up with some dumb answer, “Um…cookies.” I think there’s also an acute awareness in our human natures, in our consciences, that we just can’t encompass all the gifts God’s given. And it makes us feel on edge, “Am I remembering enough…or good enough…or the right blessings?” And you’re probably not. And there’s lots I’m forgetting. But that’s not what God means when he calls us to remember how he gives.
Notice the kinds of things God says to his people. God gave to Israel, “so that in the end it might go well with [them].” He wanted to bless them. And he says, “[R]emember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.” God’s covenant with Israel was his promise to bring them into the promised land, to give them a home, to prosper them as a nation — but those things only so that he could bless them and us in the best way by bringing his promised Savior into the world through them.
This is how God gives. In his covenant love, God gives many things so that people come to know his Savior, Jesus. And what blessings he brought when he came into the world! He healed diseases like the lepers in the gospel. He forgave sins. He raised the dead. He spoke God’s Word. He is God’s Son, and true man like us. And God forgot about him at the cross as he suffered for all we forget. And in his mercy, God remembers us daily, not as we have been with selfishness or forgetfulness – in sins – but by faith he remembers us as he does his own Son – perfect and holy in his sight. As people royal and holy and precious. People who have the blessed hope of eternal life.
Do you see how God gives – the kind of thing it is? St. John characterized our daily blessing: that from the fullness of Jesus’ blessedness “we have all received, grace upon grace.” (Jn 1:16) Blessing upon blessing. Paul helped the Corinthians think through what that meant: “And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” We gather on this day, not to try and recount all the blessings we’ve been given, but to revel in the joy that we have all we need in our loving God. And in that comfort and confidence, to enjoy his blessings and bless others through them – with love and care, giving and receiving, preaching and praising God above.
You know, literally, “praise the Lord” means “bless his name”. That you bless the Lord – you pray that his power have success, that what he loves be done, the what he’s given more of it would come, and that what we’ve received to others we give it. Praise the Lord. Let his words and ways permeate your days so that you can properly enjoy all he has given. Stop and see those things, revel in them. And rejoice in his forgiveness and love and so be moved to serve without fear. And there will be so many opportunities you will have – so many variations you will bring – so many places and times and things I can’t even conceive… So for right now, just give thanks.