Bible Passage: Deuteronomy 8:10-18 Pastor: Pastor Schlicht Sermon Date: November 23, 2017
It wasn’t until we were at war that Thanksgiving was officially recognized by Congress. It was first celebrated in a small Plymouth Colony in 1621 when English Pilgrims feasted with the Wampanoag Indians who brought gifts of food as a gesture of goodwill. The custom soon grew in various colonies as a means of celebrating the harvest. In 1777, over 100 years later, the continental congress proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving after the American Revolution victory at Saratoga. And it was twelve years later that George Washington, in honor of the ratification of the Constitution, held a day of thanksgiving and requested that the congress make it an annual event. But they declined and it would be another 100 years and the end of a bloody civil war before President Abraham Lincoln established the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving. The year was 1865.
Thanksgiving today, in the year 2017, is a mild-mannered holiday full of football, pumpkin pie, and family reunions. It’s a holiday that in many ways celebrates our prosperity. But that’s not really what life was like for Americans in 1865. The holiday of Thanksgiving was started in a time of mourning after the Civil War. And yet they were inspired in their loss rather than their prosperity to give thanks. It’s interesting that so many of the greatest expressions of thanksgiving occur under those types of circumstances, isn’t it? Think of Job whose entire life was lost in a single day. And yet before he buried his children he said, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. May the name of the Lord be praised (Job 1:21).” Think of Jonah who sank into the depths of the sea inside a fish’s belly and yet said, “I will sacrifice to you with a voice of thanksgiving… Salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9).” Think of Ells Shields who, despite the severe pain in his back and a failing memory, told me he’s thankful every day because Jesus died for him. Times of great loss or trial, as opposite as it seems, are often the times when people find the largest reserve of gratitude in their hearts.
Which makes me wonder, why aren’t we as thankful during the good times? What a backward problem, that our extra wealth and security somehow gets in the way of our thankfulness! As it turns out, our prosperity can actually lead us to forget our God, who has given us so much. That’s why I’m so glad you’re all here tonight. Because although you could be prepping the food, although you could be getting packed up and set for the drive, although you’ve had a thousand things of your mind, you remembered the Lord your God this Thanksgiving. And that, my friends, is the key to being thankful, thankful even in prosperity.
That’s the Moses wanted his people to do. There they stood, the thousands of Israel, camped on the shores of the Jordan. They had finally made it! God had kept his covenant promise! For 80 years this small nation had been entirely dependent on God in the desert, and for 80 years they were keenly aware of the Lord’s provision through daily manna and through the visible pillar of God’s presence leading them. But now, just a stone’s throw away from the promised land, that land flowing with milk and honey, the great prophet Moses knew that their remembrance of God would soon be tested, not by trial, but by prosperity. He wrote: “Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God…Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and…all you have is multiplied,then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God…” As crazy as it sounds, Moses knew that the times of prosperity, rather than loss, tempt us to be thankless.
And he was right because it’s still true today. How many times in your life have you not expressed appreciation and gratitude to someone until you were going to lose them? Until it was their last day on the job, until they were moving out of the neighborhood, or until they were lying on their deathbed? How many times have you been surprised by similar expressions from people you never knew you had really touched. Somehow, they never let you know until they realized they were going to lose you. My grandfather passed away in August. And the last time I got to see him was on the fourth of July, just a month before that. We talked about his new condo and how he was feeling, we talked about the steaks my Uncle grilled, and just about anything besides what I would have liked to tell him, had I known what would happen. Only now, after he is gone, do I find the words of thanks I should have said. How true it is that we take things for granted until they are taken from us.
That’s why tonight, on the eve of Thanksgiving, Moses tells us to be thankful even in prosperity. That may seem quite easy, but prosperity is a difficult time in which to remain thankful. There are many good biblical reasons to gratefully receive and joyfully celebrate God’s good gifts of family, abundant food, warm clothes, and comfortable homes. But we should not mistake these gifts for God’s greatest expression of love in our lives.
There is something profoundly wrong about gauging our thankfulness based on our prosperity or lack thereof. If we let prosperity be our thankfulness meter, then we will be led to one of two false conclusions. Conclusion A: God must love me more than others based on what he’s given me and therefore I will be thankful. If you follow that one out to its logical end we are claiming God’s love for ourselves over others, insinuating that God is much more pleased with the people of North America than he is with those in third-world nations such as Haiti or Malawi. Conclusion B: I can forget God, because I don’t need him anymore. I can live quite comfortably all by myself in prosperity without ever leaning on his promises. In fact, the more people have, often the more self-reliant they become. Because of their prosperity, they cease to think they need God at all! That’s how Satan uses prosperity against us! Just as he tried with Jesus, Satan sometimes will offer us the world (Luke 4:5–7) just as long as we don’t thank God for any of it. He would rather us be ungrateful and prosperous than afflicted yet giving thanks.
But Moses warns us saying, “You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.” On Thanksgiving Christians do not give thanks most when we look at how much we have, but when we remember the Lord our God who not only lets us produce wealth, but more importantly confirms his covenant that he swore to us.
Did you catch that in what Moses said? He’s saying that God’s love and care is viewed most clearly not in a plot of ground in the promised land or a large house with fancy toys, but in the confirmation of his covenant. And what is that covenant? Jesus’ said it himself, “This is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins (Mt 26:28).” God promised to forgive our sins and bring us to the promised land of heaven. And to keep that covenant, he asked his Son to die. Your God loves you so much that he would lose his child to call you his own, to confirm his covenant. Maybe that’s why Christians still find thanksgiving in moments of great loss. Because those moments of loss reveal the Gospel in its purest form. God’s grace shines brightest in the midst of loss because when everything else is stripped away, his grace is still enough. And there is no greater example of that than Jesus’ cross. Where God suffered such great loss so that we could receive his grace.
My friends, whether you are in prosperity or great want tonight, the crucial thing is to remember the Lord your God who confirms his covenant. Yes, thank God for your home, and your wealth, for your cars and your jobs. Thank him for your food and your football. Give thanks for your prosperity, but don’t let that keep you from remembering the most important gifts God gives you of forgiveness and eternal love, those gifts which are all you ever need to be thankful. Remember that every loss you endure is a reason to give thanks because through it God reveals his grace to you. When everything else is stripped away you still have a God whose covenant and care are more than enough. Remember that each person you celebrate with tomorrow is an eternal soul that Jesus’ blood bought and paid for. And while you’re at it, remember to tell them what you should really tell them, before you lose the chance. This Thanksgiving, whether you have much or little, whether the Lord has given or he has taken away, whether you are in the middle of a desert or camped by the streams of the Jordan, remember the Lord your God. Be thankful even in your prosperity. Amen.