Have you noticed this trend away from Thanksgiving Day services? When I was growing up Thanksgiving Eve services were unheard of. Doesn't the name strike you as slightly comical? "Say Lord I can't set aside that day to be thankful; how about the evening before?" Here in Austin I notice almost all Lutherans have Thanksgiving Eve services. Many Protestants, however, have moved there services back to the Sunday before; presumably that is even more convenient than a Thanksgiving Eve service. Mark my words; it won't be long till we Lutherans follow suit. But let's be honest there is no Christian duty to have a special service on or even around the secular holiday of Thanksgiving. However, there is a duty to be thankful.
Our Catechism teaches us this, doesn't it? Under Luther's Explanation to the First Article of the Apostles' Creed we are told, "For all this it is my duty to THANK and praise, serve and obey Him." Do note that thanking God is considered just as important, just as required, as serving and obeying God. If disobedience is punished by God then so is thanklessness.
But our Catechism didn't decide on it's own that Thanksgiving is a duty. No, the Bible itself declares it. Ephesians 5:20 says, "Always give thanks to God the Father for everything." There are hundreds of other passages, but why quote them? Isn't this one enough. The Bible doesn't say, "SOMETIMES give thanks" but "ALWAYS give thanks." Neither does it say give thanks for SOME things but "for EVERYTHING." The Bible, unlike worldly Thanksgiving, does not tie our thanks to what things we have but to whom we get things from. The Bible doesn't tie our thanks to the gifts but to the Giver.
The Giver regardless of what He gives should be thanked. Isn't that how you raise kids? At Halloween the house that gives healthy treats is to get thanked just as the house giving jumbo candy bars. In fact, isn't it true that we have such a sensitivity this that we keenly remember for many years someone who in some form or fashion was ungrateful to us? Isn't it true what has always been comically said: "If a new bride wants to be remembered forever, just don't write a thank-you note for a wedding gift?"
There is a duty to be thankful for everything. But having said that more needs to be said. Sinners although they are suppose to be thankful in all circumstances will be thankful in none on their own. Ungratefulness, according to 2 Timothy, is a mark of these end times. What's more ingratitude increases as goods increase. That's the point of Deuteronomy 8, isn't it? "When you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God." Friends, we are living in the most prosperous times in the last 50 years in one of the most prosperous cities of our time. It's easy for us to forget our God.
That's why we have been taught and why we still teach our kids Luther's Explanation to the First Article. Here we are reminded if not for Him we would not be here. He didn't create us in some vague, general way. No, He has given us our bodies and souls down to our very eyes, ears, and all our members our reason and all our senses. God didn't just create Adam and Eve with His bare hands. No, according to Psalm 139 He created you too knitting your together, literally, in your mother's womb.
But that's not all. A pagan Deist could say the first paragraph of Luther's explanation. Ben Franklin, Tom Jefferson, and many of our founding father's being Deist believed that God created the earth but then He just let it go to be governed by the Laws He had established. They were indeed thankful for creation, but that's where it stopped. Not so Christians. We believe that God still to this very day provides for and protects His creation. Our thanks is to extend not just to our bodies but our clothing, not just to our feet but to our shoes, not just to our bellies but what fills them, not just to our houses but the homes God makes of them. Our thanks extends to the spouse we have and the children given to us.
But our thankfulness isn't even to stop at this point because it's not a case of God merely providing for us. He also protects us. Luther said that if you could see how many spears, arrows, and daggers the devil has pointed at you and yours right this very minute, you would die of fright. God is busy every day through His holy angels defending your from dangers seen and unseen, from human enemies and incredibly powerful demonic ones who would devour you in an instant if given half a chance.
Ah, I can see what's happening. Bit by bit, the more I talk something like thankfulness is being pumped up in your heart. But isn't this the way of the world? The world provides a dozen different gimmicks to MAKE people thankful. Have them count their blessings; point out to them people who are less fortunate then them. Churches too have many gimmicks to get people to church on Thanksgiving.
Friends, are such things really any different than the grandmother who was so proud of the fact that each year her grandchildren came in person to thank her for the Christmas check they received from her. The woman's friend being quite impressed by this since her own grandchildren did no such thing wondered out lout, "I wonder how I could teach my grandkids to do that?" "That's easy," the other replied, "Just don't sign their checks."
There are all sorts of gimmicks to pump up thanks in a person, but no gimmick can cause thanks to flow from the sinful human heart. There are all sorts of ways that pastors use to get people to show up for Thanksgiving services, but no man can give them thankful hearts. When we're talking "thanking God" we're talking miracle even as when were talking "believing God." And when we're talking miracle, we're talking about the realm of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the only one who can create a clean heart in us and renew a right spirit within us. In 1 Corinthians 2:12 St. Paul teaches us that the spirit of the world cannot reveal to us the things that God has given us; only the Spirit of God can do that.
The Explanation to the First Article of the Apostles' Creed is not a gimmick to pump up thankfulness because it is proclaiming to you what God has done for you. It is proclaiming to you the Scriptural truth about your Creator, your Preserver, and your Protector. Being Scriptural truth it hits your heart with the impact of the Holy Spirit. Even as the Spirit cries out in your heart "Abba, Father," so He cries, "Thank you Father."
But, and here is the important part, it really isn't in the laundry listing of all that God does for you that the Spirit operates. It's in that last paragraph of the Explanation: "All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without and merit or worthiness in me." There's the Gospel for you. There's not only the power of God unto salvation, but there is the power of God unto Thanksgiving!
Let me illustrate: A boy is asked by his mom to do chores. She finds on the dinner table a bill: Mowing grass- 5.00; raking grass- 2.00; bagging grass- 1.00; hauling bags out front- .50. That night on his pillow the boy finds a bill of sorts from his mom: For carrying you 9 months in my body-
No Charge; for giving birth in much pain - No Charge; for feeding you - No Charge. For clothing you - No Charge; for caring for you when sick - No Charge. The boy read the "bill," and ran to his mother's open arms with tears and gratitude.
Folks, it was not all that his mother did for him that produced the thankfulness, but the "No Charge." Likewise, it is not all that God richly and daily provides for us to support this body and life that dissolves our hearts in thankfulness and melts are eyes to tears. No, it's the fact that He does all this ONLY out of fatherly and divine goodness and mercy without any merit or worthiness in us!
Thanks be to God then because it means all that God does for is most secure and certain. It's rooted in fatherly goodness and mercy. Now that means much more than as the Scripture says He pities us as father pities His children or that He knows how to give good gifts to us even as us sinful fathers do. "Fatherly goodness and mercy" means all that He does for us comes to us for the sake of Jesus who taught us that in Him we may, can and should call God, Father. "God," says Luther in our Catechism, "tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children as their dear Father."
Because the sins of the whole world were borne by Christ, God is merciful to the just and the unjust. He sends His rain, His sunshine, His blessing upon the world so that we have food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land and animals and all that we have. Granted the whole world doesn't know and/or believe that God does this "only out of fatherly goodness and mercy," but we do. We've read His note to us in Scripture where He laundry lists all that He has done, still does, and will do for us, and we've seen "No Charge" after each and ever item. Therefore, how bold, how confident, how thankful we can be. All that God does for us flows from the wounds of Christ. That's why we can say His mercy endures forever.
But there is more. We say His goodness and mercy are not just "fatherly" but "divine." Divine means it's not human. Thanks be to God! Do you know why? It is a true saying that ingratitude tries up the milk of human kindness, but it does not dry up the milk of Divine kindness. The people who haven't acknowledged God on this or any other day aren't going to go outside and find the sun dark. Those who don't give thanks to the Lord for their meals do not find their plates empty.
And neither will we. Though our hearts become hard at times taking for granted all that God richly and daily provides for us, we will never find God removing His provisions for that reason. Though we become discontent with what God provides in the area of health and wealth, He will not treat us as we deserve, like humans would. No, He never has provided for us just so that we would thank Him. He never has and never will look for any merit, worthiness or thanks in our hearts before He sending us His provisions.
Friends once God's providing and protecting of us is securely rooted in His fatherly divine goodness and mercy then Thanksgiving begins to flow. It is a duty in the sense of a soldier on duty. When you say a solider is on duty you mean he is in the state of being occupied with what he is suppose to be doing. He is freed from all else but that. Having richly, daily, and graciously been provided with all that we need to support this body and life, we are now free to be engaged in Thanksgiving. Our hearts are free from the burden of providing and protecting ourselves; our hearts are free from the worry of God withholding His gifts because of our sins. Our hearts are free then to soar above all the cares of this life to thank our God even as the angels in heaven freely do that. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Thanksgiving Day, 11-25-99, Explanation of the First Article