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In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is a unique day on which Christians gather in churches. Thanksgiving isn’t a day in the Christian church year. Originally, our country celebrated a day of national thanksgiving by a proclamation of President Washington in 1789. President Lincoln declared it a federal holiday in 1863, during the Civil War. President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the date around, and then it was fixed on the last Thursday in November in 1942. Christians have never needed the government to set a particular day in order for us to give thanks. When Christians gather together, they gather around the Jesus who, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread and wine and gave thanks, giving us His own Body and Blood to eat and drink. So the meal is sometimes called by the Greek word for thanksgiving: eucharist.
Thanksgiving is at the center of what we do. It is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to You, God our Father, through Jesus Christ. Our lives revolve around thanksgiving. But it is certainly appropriate that while the nation celebrates its thanksgiving by doing what Americans never do otherwise—eating a lot of food and watching football—we, like the Samaritan leper, make our way to the house of our God to fall down at the feet of Jesus, praising God and giving thanks to our Lord. And we do what we do all the time, praying for all kinds and sorts of people, especially those in high positions over us. We pray that they would do the work God has given them to do, so that the Church can do in peace what God has given her to do: proclaim the salvation of Jesus, by which He saves all people and brings them to the knowledge of Himself.
Again, it is always good, at all times and in all places, for God’s people to gather around His Word. And in the midst of a prosperous and blessed place, it is all the more important. That’s what Moses is telling Israel in Deuteronomy before they enter the land of promise. He tells them about all the blessings of the place: it’s 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 you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless Yahweh your God for the good land he has given you (8:7-10).
But the land is not the goal or end. Yahweh is. The land is a gift and good, but God is the Giver and the Good. As Jesus says, “God alone is good” (Mark 10:18). And as soon as Israel forgets that all the material blessings of the land are gifts of God, and begin to think that they have gotten them for themselves, then the gifts are no longer good for them, but objects of idolatry. When they ceased to fear, love, and trust God above all things and feared the people in Canaan, and loved and trusted their own ability, rather than God’s promises, then God made them wander in the wilderness for 40 years, to humble them and test them. How were they humbled? By having to live from nothing except the day-to-day gifts and promises of God. How were they tested? By having to trust that God would give them what they needed for each day, rather than trust themselves to gather as much as they thought they would need, or fearing that they would run out.
They were given literal daily bread, manna from heaven, which appeared each morning and then disappeared, only to be given again the next day. They had to live not from what they could earn, not from what they could gather, not from what they could get for themselves, but what God gave from heaven according to His own word. So it is, from the lesser to the greater: when they gathered manna each day, it was only because God spoke and gave it. And when they gathered copper and iron, when they ate bread, honey, olives, pomegranates, figs, and drank the wine of their vineyards, it was only because God spoke and gave it. They did not live by manna alone, but by the Word. And they did not live by the abundance of the land, but by the Word.
How easily they forgot! Within two generations after they entered the land, the people were doing whatever was right in their own eyes, because they did not know Yahweh or the works that He had done for Israel. The material blessings were still there, but what good is life and food and comfort without the Giver, who is their Life? They took for granted the gifts and assumed that things would simply continue on ever after, because their god was the good things they had, and not the God who gave those good things.
Beware, Moses says, in the midst of the prosperity and the blessing, that you forget the God who is the Giver of all good things, and the one by whose word you live. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, Jesus said, but they still died. Food, no matter how abundant, will not keep you alive forever. The things you enjoy have no life in them. If the life is in the prosperity and the material blessing, then what happens in times of little and less? What happens in times of famine or disaster or persecution or immorality? Is God still good?
But the Word that comes from the mouth of the Father is the Life itself. He is the true bread who comes down from heaven to give life to the world. He says, the bread that I will give for the life of the world is My flesh. And if you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man, you have eternal life, and He will raise you up on the last day. Dear children of God in Jesus Christ, do not seek first the comforts of the stomach and the skin; seek first Jesus, who reigns as King in this world in poverty and cross; seek Him, and all these things will be added to you. Your God gives you what you need for this life. But when this life runs out, He gives the Word by which you live forever. He gives you the Jesus who fasted and prayed for you, who was homeless for you, who suffered and was crucified for you. He gives you the Jesus who was raised from the dead, and He gives you that resurrection and life in His eucharistic Body and Blood. Eat and be full, and bless the God and Father of Jesus, because He will give you not a piece of earth next to the Mediterranean Sea, but an unlimited land that stretches across the entire new creation: the promised eternal heavens and earth, in which righteousness dwells.
What is the bread of this world compared to the eternal bread of Christ’s flesh? And yet, He still gives that, as well. He still provides all that we need for this body and life. Purely out of His fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, He still gives good things in this creation, even in the midst of sin and death. He still gives us families with whom we can eat and drink and celebrate, even if they’re not biological. As Jesus tells His disciples: everyone who has left brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, houses, lands for My sake will receive a hundredfold and inherit eternal life (Matthew 19:29). Among all the things we take for granted, and abuse, and misuse, He is still the gracious Father, who gives us everything in Christ.
Each day is the day that the Lord has made, a day to rejoice and be glad. Each day the sun rises and sets. Each day we rise from our beds in His Name, marked with His holy cross. Each day we lie down in our beds, marked with the same Name and cross. Each day He gives us the daily bread for which we pray. So give thanks to Him every day! His mercy endures forever! We remain in His hands, guarded by His holy angel, delivered from the evil one. At all times and in all places we give thanks to Him, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. Today and each day, until the day when the eternal resurrection life overcomes the dead flesh of sin, and by the Word of God made flesh, we are made whole 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, 11/26/19