In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The difficulty with hearing Deuteronomy 8 on this day of national thanksgiving is that we can easily confuse the United States for Israel. With all its Puritan history of cities on hills and promised lands, Christians have long confused passages that speak of Israel’s Land of Promise with the prosperity of this country. When these passages from Deuteronomy are assigned for a national day of thanksgiving, it’s easy to drift into thinking that America is the land of which Moses speaks in Deuteronomy when he says, “For Yahweh 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…” (Deuteronomy 8:7-9); or when he says that God “brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deuteronomy 26:9).
We might want to compare our prosperity with the land of Canaan; many of the good things described in Deuteronomy are present here in our country, as well. Or, we might find significance in the fact that when they entered the Land of Promise, the Israelites were supposed to appear before the priest and bring a basket of the first fruits of the land and offer them in thanksgiving to God. “And you shall set it down before [Yahweh] your God and worship before [Yahweh] your God. And you shall rejoice in all the good that [Yahweh] your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you” (26:10-11).
We are here, obviously, to give thanks. But we are not here because this is a Christian nation. Some of the founders were Christians, no doubt. But some were not. Christianity may be, at least for now, the religion that the majority of people in this country claim, but it’s not even close to being the only religion. If this were the Land of Promise, then the same severe warning would apply to the U.S. that applied to Israel: If you do not obey God and you worship other gods, then He will cast you out of the land; He will bring all sorts of disaster and devastation upon you. Moses says to the people of Israel, “For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against [Yahweh]. How much more after my death! … For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of [Yahweh], provoking him to anger through the work of your hands” (Deuteronomy 31:27, 29). So maybe we don’t want to take on the burden of Israel for the United States. Besides that, what makes us so confident that we are under God’s blessing, rather than the curse? This country is not the promised land. As Americans, our ancestors were never in Egypt, never released from slavery to Pharaoh by the mighty working of God, never wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, never entered the Land of Promise by crossing the Jordan River. As Americans, we are not the chosen people; a Day of National Thanksgiving does not mean that people are thanking god, let alone the Holy Trinity. And it seems that many of you forgot to bring with you your Levites and sojourners this morning.
I have to be honest with you, the first version of this sermon had become an extended guilt trip about how impossible it is for sinners to give thanks truly and fully. And that’s true. Our selfishness and guilt cause us to make lists today stuff we’re thankful for, encouraged to do so by the same stores who are trying to sell you a bunch more stuff tonight and tomorrow, and throughout the 31 shopping days that are left until Christmas. But that guilt trip is the religious equivalent of extended civic harangues about the true history of Thanksgiving and how we should actually be guilty with every tasty bite we put into our mouths. That may well be true, also. But we can’t confess and repent things that we ourselves did not do. We can mourn them, we can lament that they happened; we can confess the sins that we have committed in parallel ways. But both the religious and the civic guilt trips do little more than make us feel better about how much more righteous we are than those who don’t feel guilty about not feeling guilty.
So today, instead, simply enjoy the blessings that God has given you. This national holiday can’t take you to Christian thankfulness. One day out of the year is still just one day out of 365. And if we’re just trying to drumstick up some thankful feelings because we know we should—maybe because we want to make sure we’re included with the single leper who returned to give thanks to God—then we’re going to need a little more than a guilt trip to bring us back around. No, give thanks to God for all His blessings, and then enjoy them. They are good gifts of God, this food and these people. And if you’re mourning today, if you’re lonely today, if the holiday happiness just isn’t there—if you can’t manufacture it, like all the ads tell you you should—that’s okay, too. If you need a place to go, we’re going to have some extra food at our house. Come on over.
But the Church is here for more than guilt trips and national holidays. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and those who believe that He is their life will rise also. The Church is here for you to give thanks because you know you need to, and the Church is here when you can’t quite feel it. The Church is here because Jesus is here. His Word is here. His Body and Blood are here. His Law, working the fear of God in our hearts, is here. And His Gospel, working faith and hope and peace and thankfulness in our hearts, is also here. Week after week after week, God keeps giving out the harvest sown in Jesus’ cross and grave, raising people to eternal life in the Son who lives forever. Day after day after day, God gives the gifts of both daily and eternal bread, not because we’ve been thankful enough, but because that’s the sort of God we have. He gives gifts that enlighten our eyes to see Him and His Christ, to rejoice in the midst of sorrow and sickness, as well as in happiness and health. He gives gifts to gladden the heart, in food and drink and family and friends. He gives a whole congregation of sinners to lament and confess and repent together; to rejoice and believe and find peace together; to bear one another’s burdens. He gives us more than enough work to do each day of our lives, for the good of all the people He has put right in front of us. And isn’t that enough? All of that is enough. Enough for this life until He comes and brings His harvest in. He will come, and He will bring us into the final and perfect Land of Promise, spread over the whole, renewed earth. He will bring us, sojourners all, to our true home and to the true Feast. For all of that, we give thanks today and forever.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 11/23/16