Deo gratis, "Thanks be to God" is the final expression of the congregation at every Communion service. Augustine thought highly of these words. "Can our minds conceive, or our lips utter, or pen write anything better than Deo gratias? No words can be shorter to say, more joyful to the ear, more sublime to the understanding, and more profitable to act upon" (Reed, 383-4). Now there's a sermon outline.
No words are shorter to say and none more joyful. Thanks be to God" says a gift has been received. The sheer constancy of God's giving dulls our thankfulness. Imagine if the sun didn't rise one day. See how the plague of darkness did so much to unnerve the Egyptians. See how total eclipses still do to this day. When's the last time any of us thanked God for the sun rising? We only do so when we're in a position where we think we might not see it. Then we thank; then we say, "I've received a gift."
Thanks be to God says you've received a gift from Him, and it says you know that you don't deserve it. You thank the clerk not for the merchandise you just paid for but his work in checking you out. You don't render thanks for what you deserve or merit. Chesterton said, "The only way to enjoy even a weed is to feel unworthy of a weed" (Autobiography, 326). When the Old Testament church offered their first fruits to the Lord they declared their unworthiness. "My father was a wandering Aramean; he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer. Then we cried out to the Lord, So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. He gave us this land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that You have given me."
"Thanks" says you don't deserve something. Thanks be to God' identifies God as the giver. Without that last part things, and particularly, an abundance of things, put us in danger of becoming bound to the world. Prosperity leads us to think that we've found our place in the world. In reality, the world has found its place in us (Green, Illustrations, 295). The atheist is in a bind. When feelings of thankfulness do well up where does he go? He would rather not think about his thanks. Chesterton said that the atheist will take refuge in being thoughtless to avoid being thankful (Autobiography, 330). He is heading for the abyss of abstraction, said C. S. Lewis (Miracles, 144).
Let's not be too hard on the atheist, though. Even Augustine admitted that thanks be to God' was the sublimest thought to understand. "Sublime" means it inspires admiration or awe. The Pilgrims in 1631, and the Continental Congress in 1775 and 1776 thanked by fasting. They declared "Thanksgiving Fast Days" (Wonder Book, 286). The 1777 proclamation of the Continental Congress was more of a feast day. It was issued after a significant victory in battle but there was still 6 years left of the Revolutionary War. Who can understand that sort of thanks? Who isn't in awe over that?
Even before the Pilgrims and America, Lutherans were leading the way with thanking God in times when there appeared no good reason to. It was in the midst of the Thirty Years War when his city was sacked by the Austrians, then the Swedes, and then attacked by the plague that killed 8,000 of his fellow citizens, that a Lutheran pastor, Martin Rinckart, wrote "Now Thank We All Our God" (Barry, A., Lutheran Witness, 11-1996, 26). That sort of thanksgiving in the in face of that sort of loss and devastation is crazy; no, it's sublime. It's a miracle.
Luther explained it this way, "One who does not see such [invisible] things, but sees only the present cannot praise God except in good times" (LW, 10, 398). The first Americans saw the invisible things. What were they? They named them in the 1777 Proclamation: "that together with their sincere acknowledgments and offerings, they may join [to it] the penitent confession of their manifold sins, whereby they had forfeited every favor, and [also] their humble and earnest supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance."
The forgiveness of their sins for Jesus' sake which no man can see, feel, touch moved our forefathers to say Deo Gratias in the midst of visible devastation. How come? When thanks bubbles to the service of the fallen human heart, it reveals a new relationship toward God. "It is a glimpse into the open heaven to which in our ingratitude we are constantly shutting our eyes to as if it were not there" (TeachingCatechism I, 213). It's like the eagle eyes of the martyr we sing about piercing beyond the grave, beyond the pain, beyond this present darkness to see the bountiful grace of God in Christ whose unlimited forgiveness counterbalances all physical want and is the capstone of physical abundance.
Augustine said of our liturgical response Thanks be to God' that no words are more joyful, more sublime to understand, and no words are more profitable to act on. You want to act on something? Well, act on this: Thanks be to God. "Thanksgiving, after all, is a word of action." That is what W.J. Cameron said in the 30s and that's what the first president of the Missouri Synod said in the 1880s: Christianity in a nutshell is a religion of gratitude. Everything has been given to us: our forgiveness, heaven, salvation. All that is left for us is thanks be to God (Law and Gospel, 246).
Giving thanks to God indicates that your soul is no longer imprisoned. You've come out of the cave of sin, guilt, and shame having been freed by the innocent life and guilty death of God the Son. David was in a real cave shut-in by Saul who wanted to kill him. He prayed, "Bring my soul out of prison, so I may give thanks" (Psalm 142:7). What God did for David in the realm of the physical He has done for you in the realm of the spiritual. Come out of the cave the Devil, the World, and your Flesh surround you in. Come out in Jesus' name. What sin can they accuse you of that Jesus hasn't already paid for on the cross? What law can they demand you keep because Jesus failed to keep it? What can such release, such deliverance, such salvation bring forth but thanksgiving?
You've all seen Norman Rockwell's painting of three generations around a Thanksgiving Table. It wasn't painted for Thanksgiving but to illustrate one of FDR's four freedoms: The Freedom from Want. And you probably don't know that Rockwell saw famed psychiatrist Erik Erickson. It is said that Erickson told the artist that he painted his happiness rather than lived it (wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Rockwell). Don't you paint your thanks; live it; express it; revel in it.
Thanks be to God; I've been saved for better things than these. Thanks be to God; I've been delivered from a fate worse than death by the Christ who is life. Thanks be to God; even though my mother and father might cast me off, God in Christ never, ever will. Thanks be to God; though worms destroy this body in the grave, because Jesus rose from the grave, I will too and I will see Him with my own eyes in my own flesh. Thanks be to God; all that Jesus earned for me when He walked this earth and when He died on the cross comes to me in things I can feel, things I can see; things that I can eat and drink with my mouth and confess with my lips. Thanks be to God; although the world may be going to hell, I am a brand that has been plucked from the fire for Jesus' sake.
Protestant theologian Karl Barth said, "Joy is the simplest form of gratitude." Paul in Philippians connects thanks to joy. Right before the Epistle Reading where Paul says with prayer and thanksgiving let your requests me made known to God he says, "Rejoice again I say to you rejoice." This joy is not rooted in what you have or don't have. It's not rooted in your feelings be they cares or contentment. This joy is rooted in God. This is how Augustine expressed it in his City of God. He starts with things even unbelief, the world, is thankful for tomorrow and moves to what really matters. For the first things matter for a time, but not all time.
"For although we can never sufficiently give thanks to Him, that we are, that we live, that we behold heaven and earth, that we have mind and reason by which to seek after Him who made all these things, nevertheless, what hearts, what number of tongues, shall affirm that they are sufficient to render thanks to Him for this, that He hath not wholly departed from us, laden and overwhelmed with sins, averse to the contemplation of His light, and blinded by the love of darkness, that is, of iniquity, but hath sent to us His own Word, who is His only Son, that by His birth and suffering for us in the flesh, which He assumed, we might know how much God valued man, and that by that unique sacrifice we might be purified from all our sins, and that, love being shed abroad in our hearts by His Spirit, we might, having surmounted all difficulties, come into eternal rest, and [to] the ineffable sweetness of the contemplation of Himself" (NPNF, I, II, VII, 31, 140)?
You know that Deo gratias is the second half of a versicle and response. The elder says "Bless we the Lord." This is the line that closes the five sub-books of Psalms. Together the 2 lines are what the Lutherans replaced the rather dismal dismissal of the Catholic Mass, "Go, it is the dismissal" (Reed, 383). Lutherans focus on the miracle that having once more been fed with the Body and Blood of our God for our highest good, we are able to bless the Lord not curse Him, not run away from Him, not hide from Him, but bless Him. "Thanks be to God" expresses our wonder, our awe at this privileged miracle of partaking of Christmas each Sunday.
Here's the rub. Thanksgiving Day is a secular holiday. More people in America celebrate it than they do Christmas (www.telegraph.co.uk- Thanksgiving-2015). Augustine, Luther, the Pilgrims, and the First Continental Congress would say there is no way you can say thanks to the true God apart from saying Deo Gratias for the joy, the redemption, the salvation that came down at Christmas. That's what we do at the end of our Communion service and the beginning of each new week. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Thanksgiving Eve (20161123)