One More Thing
Don't you just hate to hear "one more thing" from that person you're behind at the store, at the bank, or from the one who's ahead of you at Subway where there are probably dozens of "one more things?" Yet here we are at Thanksgiving asking for one more thing. In the words of the early 17th century Welsh poet George Herbert, our prayer as we gather is, "Thou who has given so much to me, give me one more thing.. a grateful heart." We need a grateful heart, not for God's sake. He's neither helped by our praise nor hindered by our lack. We need a grateful heart for our sakes. Poet W.J. Cameron said, "He who sits by the fire, thankless for the fire, is just as if he had no fire." Isn't that the truth? I've spent many a thankless time before many a bright fire.
But here's the problem. It seems I have to be made thankful. Hard times have to come; pain has to persist, stress has to endure, sickness strike, and then when it's over I'm thankful. God has to bring affliction down on me and then lift it, for me to be thankful. God has to make me sick and heal me, for me to say thanks. God has to hurt me, then help me, in order to make me thankful.
Lacking bad times to be delivered from, sickness to be cured from, stress to be rescued from, I need my face rubbed in my blessings. I'm some sort of recalcitrant puppy that needs to have his nose rubbed in the error of his ways before he sees them. And this works, doesn't it? How many times has a complaining child been directed from his doldrums by a mother advising, "Count your blessings?"
There is a truism behind needing bad times to appreciate the good and needing to enumerate all your blessings to appreciate them, but there is a truth that is missing. People aren't always delivered from their ailments, their suffering, their afflictions. There are occasions when there aren't many blessings to count. I know what your reply is: "I once cried when I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet." And that proves my point. If shoeless me is to be thankful for having feet, than what of the man without either shoes or feet?
There is a greater truth still. Even when people are delivered from their ailments, even when a person has many things to be thankful for, that doesn't necessarily mean real thankfulness flows from their heart. Luther told the story of an unbelieving peasant who fell from the high scaffold from which he was working. He hit the ground hard, but was unhurt. He got up exclaiming, "Now I know I have a gracious God!" Luther says that the man could know no such thing. Do you know why?
Jesus in Matthew 5 says that the heavenly Father, "makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." We could add that He rescues the evil and the good, the just and unjust from falling off a scaffold. He cures the evil and the good, the just and unjust from sickness. He rescues the evil and the good, the just and the unjust from car accidents and tornadoes, from fire and flood. Therefore, being rescued from afflictions and illnesses is no proof that God is gracious to you. He rescues the evil and good alike.
It's the same with prosperity; in fact that's Jesus' main point. Sun and rain are the blessings needed to prosper in the agricultural world Jesus spoke to. The heavenly Father gives the blessings of sun and rain not only to the good and just but also to evil and the unjust. Wicked, evil, impenitent people often prosper wildly in this world. Their prosperity is no proof that they have a gracious God. Because they have the sun shining on them is no proof that they have the Son.
This cuts both ways. The deliverance of the wicked or their prosperity is not proof of God's grace to them. Likewise the righteous not being delivered or not prospering is no proof that God is not gracious to them. This is an important point because real thanksgiving flows from grace. O you can, and I have, been made thankful by being delivered from bad times. And I have been made thankful by having my faced rubbed in my blessings. But our thanksgiving prayer is not to be made thankful. We didn't pray, "Thou who hast given so much to me, make me thankful." No, we prayed, "Give me one more thinga grateful heart." When we speak of being made to do something, you know we're speaking of the Law. When we speak of what we're given, we're speaking of the Gospel which is all gift.
The Gospel is all about what God in Christ does. The Law is all about us: what we are to do and not to. So when you're focused on self, you can bet you're under the Law. Whether I'm thinking of what ailed me and how I was delivered or of my many blessings, I'm focused on self. Even when we think we're focused on God's gifts, it's about what I have or I don't have. The Gospel focuses on God in Christ, the Giver who is gracious to us for Christ's sake.
Paul makes this simple equation in 2 Corinthians 4:15 God's grace leads to thanksgiving. He says, "The more grace is multiplied among people, the more thanksgiving there will be." You probably still can't see the close relationship between grace and thanksgiving. You will when you hear the Greek words. The Greek word for grace is charis; the Greek word for thanksgiving is eu-charis. God's charis leads to our eucharis.
If you don't know the grace of God in Jesus Christ; if you don't know that all the wrath that should be against your sins, against the world's sins, was poured out on the crucified Christ; if you don't know that Christ was the wrath removing sacrifice not only for your sins but for the sins of the entire world, then you have an angry God. You have an angry God who is out to get you. Every nail in the road is to give you a flat tire; every stop light that catches you is to make you late; every cold you catch is to make you miserable. You live your life under the thumb of God rather than held in the pierced hands of Christ.
Now when things are going good, when you're delivered from that sickness, rescued from that affliction, saved from that situation, you feel thankful. Likewise, when you can count lots of cash, things, and stuff, the wrath of God recedes into the background. You can forget about it. You can celebrate Thanksgiving. But let the wishbone snap the wrong way; let hardship invade the home; let sadness seep in; let sickness stalk it, and that's it! Who can be made thankful in such a situation? No one. No one can be made thankful in difficult times, but even there, even then, perhaps especially there and especially then, you can be given a thankful heart.
A thankful heart is a gift of God. It's not something we can make anymore than we can make ourselves peaceful, joyful, loving, forgiving. These are all gifts that God's Spirit must give us. Where does God's Spirit give His gifts? Does He dive into the heart out of thin air? Does He give you His gifts by working certain feelings in your heart? No, the only way the Holy Spirit gets into fallen human hearts is by God's Words and Sacraments. God's charis is what causes eu-charis. God's charis or grace only gets into our hearts through the Means of Grace: through the Waters that Baptized you; through these Words of God I speak to you; and lastly through the Body and Blood of Jesus that you eat and drink.
Now we're back to our Thanksgiving service which is a Communion service. In the Bible this service is called the eucharist. The Communion service has always been the distinctively Christian Thanksgiving Service. Pagans had altars and services, but on their altars they sacrificed or gave to the gods to satisfy or appease their wrath. On the Christian altar, God gives His own dear Son to His people to eat and drink because His wrath against them has been satisfied. With the certainty that their God is at peace with them and holds no ill will toward them, they receive God's grace with Thanksgiving, His charis with eucharist.
As I said, one who doesn't know God's charis can't celebrate the eucharist. One who doesn't know God's grace toward sinners in Christ can't be thankful in all things. That's what I Thes. 5:18 says, "in all things euchastritete." How can that be? Even the pagan understands how being delivered from sickness, disaster, death, or affliction can make a person thankful. Even a pagan understands that counting all that you have can make you thankful, but hardships, heartache, and sickness don't make for thankful hearts. But if thankfulness is a gift, a gift of God's grace, then it's another story.
St. Paul had a thorn, literally he calls it a stake' in his flesh. He also calls it a messenger of Satan to harass him. He asked the Lord to remove it. God responded that His grace was going to leave it. Try to get your head around that. You can't. Paul couldn't either, but see how many times in Paul's writings he speaks about giving thanks, being thankful, overflowing with thanksgiving.
Paul had a gracious God in Christ. Paul looked for only good things from His God because after all if God had given up His only Son in behalf of him surely He wouldn't withhold any good thing. So what about all the bad in Paul's life: his beatings, his shipwrecks, his sleeplessness, his anxiety for all the churches? And what about all the bad in your life? What about all the things that don't work, don't get better, and even get worse? What about the pains and aches both mental and physical?
Knowing that God is gracious to you for Christ sake puts all things He sends your way into the category of gift. Since God has no reason to be mad at us because He put His wrath away on Good Friday, all He sends us must be for our good, for our salvation. The pagan can only see bad things, evil things, painful things as curses. But we, the redeemed, see them as gifts, and who isn't thankful for a gift? Do we struggle with this? Of course, we do. And that's why we keep coming back to the eucharist. Here is not only where we express thanksgiving; here is where we get it. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Thanksgiving Eve (20071121)