Thanksgiving in Crisis
Is Thanksgiving in crisis this year? I've had sickness, tragedy, dying and more on Thanksgiving. It surely was a crisis for those involved. Paul writes Philippians from prison; he writes other epistles to congregations that reject his pastoral authority; he writes another epistle from death row. Yet what do we read: Phil. 1:3, "I thank my God every time I remember you." 2 Cor. 2:14, "But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ." 2 Tim. 1:3, "I thank God,as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers." Even in a crisis, there's still Thanksgiving.
Paul is in prison yet he commands joy in the Lord "always." And just in case we're hard of hearing, he says, "I will say it again: rejoice!" "Always" There's no situation it doesn't include. Be it sickness, sadness, dying, death, disaster, poverty, or problems, Paul says, "Rejoice." How can that be? He tells you: Because your joy is in the Lord. In a 1521 sermon on this text, Luther links joy to forgiveness of sins. He says, "One may as well try to persuade water to burn as to talk to such a heart [conscious of sin, afraid of God's wrath] of joy in God. All words will be without effect, for the sinner feels upon his conscience the pressure of God's hand" (Church Postil, Advent IV, 3). Feel the squeeze? Afraid of what God may or may not do to you, your family? A guilty conscience has no peace and can't be thankful.
Luther goes on to say the only way anyone is liberated from an accusing conscience and assured of God's mercy is to place no hope in his works but only in God's mercy for Jesus' sake. Hear Luther preach the Gospel promise: "Christ bears our sins; He is our Bishop, Mediator, and Advocate before Godonly through Him and His work is God reconciled, our sins forgiven and our conscience set free and made glad" (Ibid. 4,5). However you think God is toward you that's how you are to others. See that relation? "Rejoice in the Lord always.Let your gentleness be evident to all." See that? "Rejoice in the Lord.be gentle to all." The Greek word translated "gentleness" is one of the most untranslatable Greek words. (Barclay, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, 92). It's being so sure of your position you can be extra yielding, gracious, and giving. How would you live if you had a God who was tenderhearted, gracious, and all-giving to you because He considered you, loved you, treated you as His own dear Son? Well, that's the God you have in Christ.
But, but, but what about the heightened anxiety now? I feel it. I see it. Luther says it's a warning sign if you "'cannot bear to have anyone speak of dying'". It means you don't "'know the Lord and His Word of life'" (LW, 16th Century Biographies of Luther, 527). Well, I can't bear to hear stories on Covid surging, shortages looming, lockdowns imminent, not to mention deaths mounting. Turning the station, flipping the page, changing the subject is no answer. God's Word to the Philippians is. Paul knows their anxiety level, and so he says, "Stop it." "Stop being anxious about anything." The form of the sentence means to stop doing what you are doing. But it's not a bare command. Paul says, "Stop being anxious about anything; on the contrary in everything pray, praise and give thanks." See again how the "in everything" answers the "anything" you may be anxious about?
Here's where the text gets strange; or better put where it's divinity starts to shine. Paul says contrary to being anxious about anything in everything by prayer, by begging, by specific petitions, characterized by thanksgiving, be moved to make known your requests to God personally. Listen to this law illustration about thanksgiving and see how it can be Gospel. St. Peter sent out 2 angels one to gather prayers and the other to gather thanks from God's people. When they returned they were both in terrible moods. The Angel of Petitions had a basket crammed with requests. The Angel of Thanks was blushing with shame. He returned with 3 little thanksgivings in his basket (1,000 New Ill., 172). Ouch, right? Not according to Paul. As many as your petitions so many are your thanksgivings. But how can that be? Thanksgiving comes from recognizing undeserved gifts. Chesterton said, "The only way to enjoy even a weed is to feel unworthy even of a weed." (Autobiography, 326). In another place, he says, "All goods look better when they look like gifts." (Aquinas & Assisi, 251). This is the disciples after receiving 12 baskets filled with bread and fish; this is Peter with a net filled with fish to the breaking point, then one filled but not breaking; this is the disciples in the boat after the storm is stilled; this is a leper being cleansed, a blind man seeing, a dead man raised. This is now. God says, "All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future--all are yours, and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's" (1 Cor. 3:21-23). God says, "For all the promises of God in Christ are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us" (2 Cor. 1:20). God says, no He promises: "Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate You from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus your Lord" (Rom. 8:38-39).
Thanksgiving goes with prayers, beggings, and requests because it counts God as already having answered. This is not name it claim it; this is not believing God for a miracle. This is taking God at His Word. As you, sinful parent though you be, know how to give good gifts to your child, and always answer their "prayers", so your dear Father always answers His dear children for Jesus' sake. In fact, He promises to answer before you even ask. Go ahead let this passage blow your mind: "Thus says the Lord God,"It shall come to pass that before they call, I will answer; And while they are still speaking, I will hear" (Is. 65:13, 24). How many times does a parent say to a child, "I know what you're going to ask"? And do you think you in your 30's know your child better the Almighty, ever living, ever-loving God knows you? You know how you can be anxious and not even know what it's about? You know how you can be anxious about nothing and anxious about everything, so you don't even know what to pray when? God in Christ knows that. And He says that He's already answered those unspoken prayers.
And get this. Paul says specifically that your prayer and petitions wrapped up in thanksgiving that you present to the Almighty God are that made of a superior. How cool is that? In the Army when I made known a problem, a situation, maybe even an anxiety I had about a situation to my commander, and he said, "That will be all", I left relieved, thankful. I couldn't do anything more, and he hadn't told me to do anymore. But get this: although it is the Greek word for making a request of a superior it's also the face to face preposition. Paul gives you the extreme picture of getting in God's face. That's the impression I get of Abraham interceding for the righteous caught up in sinful Sodom (Gen. 18), and surely the Canaanite woman did this for her demonized daughter (Mt. 15: 21-28). Luther did something like that when Melanchthon lay ill unto death. "Our Lord God had to stand there and take it from me there, for I threw the sack at his door and rubbed his ears with all the promises to hear and answer prayers that I could recount from Holy Scripture, so that he had to hear and answer me" (https://redbrickparsonage.wordpress.com/?s=ears).
Though this account is disputed, it is beyond doubt that Luther had great "'chutzpah toward God'" in prayer not out of pride but in faith (Collver, A., Fides Heroica? , CTQ, 76:1-2, Jan/Apr 2012, 117-127). In faith, through the knowledge of God that can only be known in the face of Christ. In faith, that springs from the Gospel according to Paul: " He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things" (Rom. 8:32)? There Paul goes with his "all things"; it goes with "rejoice always" "don't be anxious about anything" and "in everything pray with thanksgiving."
The word thanksgiving here is the Greek word eucharistia which is Paul's name for Communion. When we are Eucharistic, that is receiving with thanksgiving everything that comes from His hands the good, the bad, the ugly, but particularly the Body and Blood of His own dear Son shed to cover our sins and uncover our salvation, "we become all that God wanted us to be from eternity" (The Life of the World, 45). Continually receiving from God what we can never pay back be it what all receive clothing shoes, house, home, land, spouse, children, my reason and all my senses or what Christians particularly receive washing, cleansing, and forgiving in Word and Sacrament, this continual receiving leads to continual thanksgiving. Not a one day a year holiday, but an everyday attitude toward God. Chesterton says, "It is the highest and holiest of paradoxes that the man who really knows he cannot pay his debt will be for ever paying it. He will be for ever giving back what he cannot give back, and cannot be expected to give back. He will be always throwing things away into a bottomless pit of unfathomable thanks" (Aquinas & Assisi, 252-3).
Think Chesterton is being too "Catholic" here? Then, lets go a little more Eastern Orthodox and back to the Eucharist. If we think food in itself is a source of life, than we are in fact in communion with a dying world. We're in communion with death. Earthly food is life that has died and must be kept in refrigerators like a corpse (Life of the World, 17). Not so the Body and Blood of Christ. It is living and lifegiving to those who eat and drink in faith. It is the Medicine of Immortality as Ignatius called it. Luther called it "a pure, wholesome, soothing medicine which aids and quickens us in both soul and body" (LC, V, 454, 68). Eating and drinking not just forgiveness, not just life today, but everlasting life for all the tomorrows that will ever be, how does that not bring forth thanksgiving?
True thanksgiving is like a magnet. If someone gave you a dish of sand sprinkled with flecks of iron, you'd look with the eyes and search with the fingers, but you wouldn't detect them. But use a magnate and there they are. The unthankful heart is like those eyes and fingers. It discovers no mercies in life, no blessings in each day, but the thankful heart sweeps through times, even times of crisis, and like a magnet finds all the iron of God's blessings, but the iron God puts in the sands of our life encases gold (O.W. Holmes in 6000 Illust., 60). Sick, healthy, worried, happy, afflicted, assured: run the magnate of thanksgiving through your life and be prepared to sing. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Thanksgiving Eve (20201125); Philippians 4:4-7