Friday, November 23, 2007

Blessed for the Sake of the Nations - Psalm 67

Day of National Thanksgiving November 21, 2007

In the Name of Jesus

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

In the words of Matin Luther's great "thanksgiving" hymn:

May God bestow on us His grace, / With blessings rich provide us;
And may the brightness of His face / To life eternal guide us,
That we His saving health may know, / His gracious will and pleasure,
And also to the nations show / Christ's riches without measure
And unto God convert them.
(Martin Luther. May God Bestow on Us His Grace. LSB 823:1)

At this time of year the nation has designated a day of national thanksgiving, with the intent that we, as a nation, would, all together, as a nation, give thanks. That's a pretty big order for a country who's highest virtue is the American "pioneer spirit" — that spirit that champions individual values, individual achievement, and individual choice.
Maybe this is why it has been left up to us as individuals to decide for ourselves how to celebrate the day — which altar to bow before — be it a Christian altar or a self-made altar to ourselves and our fallen desires.
As Americans we like our holidays, as long as we retain the right to observe them the way we want to observe them: the right to decide what we will give thanks for, and the right to decide whom we will give thanks to.
In our day, the only necessary elements everyone agrees on when it comes to observing this national day of thanksgiving are the following: one turkey, a tray of snacks and beverages for the televised sports, and a handful of credit cards for the advertised sales.
Reminiscent of the Latin phrase pan-em et cir-censes (bread and circuses) — that ancient critique of a citizenry that forfeited the higher things of life for a shallow and self-absorbed life — so we today are tempted to turn a national day of thanksgiving into a day of too much food and too much entertainment and too much "us" — and too little faith-produced praise for what the faith-less world will never see and give thanks for: God's hidden harvest through Christ and his Word.
Nevertheless, God has graciously brought us into his house this hour to observe this national day of thanksgiving in a manner that not only pleases him and blesses us, but also blesses this nation and the entire world.

O come, let us sing to the Lord,
Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving,
Let us make a joyful noise to Him with songs of praise.
(Venite Lutheran Service Book 220-21)

God deserves our thanksgiving. National leaders such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln acknowledged that fact and took steps to institutionalize it. But laws and directives and observances — from the government or religious organizations — are powerless to make anyone truly thankful. There is no government fine for being unappreciative; no one is going to be put in jail for failing to give thanks today. This fourth Thursday of November is set aside to merely do what it can do, give people an opportunity to express any gratitude they might have to the one they believe most properly deserves it. But, still, the call goes forth:

O come, let us sing to the Lord,
Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.
For the Lord is a great God
And a great king above all gods,
The deep places of the earth are in his hand;
The strength of the hills is his also.
O come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the Lord our maker. (Venite Lutheran Service Book 220-21)

But, although we annually enjoy a special day for the purpose of giving thanks, and we are directed by those in authority to "be thankful," God's Word — God's Law — announces the devastating reality of our fallen human condition: outside of Christ and true faith in his redeeming work, we are unable to produce any true thankfulness to the One who deserves our constant praise and gratitude. Outside of Christ, our attempts to look thankful, our attempts to express thanks, are always tainted and soiled and spoiled with sin.
The despair that accompanies a day of thanksgiving is the despair of a God-wrought awareness that we, as fallen, sinful and rebellious creatures, are incapable of the thanksgiving properly due our almighty Creator. The despair is the same expressed by the prophet Isaiah when brought into the holy presence of the Lord of earth and heaven.

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
       (Isaiah 6:1-5 ESV)

Isaiah knew his sins and he knew his sinfulness. All he could properly do is fall down before the Almighty, confess his poor, miserable condition, looking to God's abundant mercy for rescue.
This hour God calls us to be truly thankful, to express with all sincerity our heart-felt appreciation to him for the unmerited gifts given by his gracious hand, as he works through his created world and especially our own neighbor. But first we confess our needy, helpless, desperate situation: we are found by the maker of all things to be people of unclean lips and citizens of a nation — and a world — of ungrateful hearts. We join Saint Paul in crying out,

"Who will save me from this body of sin and inability to give thanks to God as I ought?"

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:25 ESV)

In Christ, the great penalty for our unthankfulness has been paid; in Christ, a great atonement has been made —
for the judgment of ingratitude that fell upon us and the world.
For all the times I have been found ungrateful for the blessings God has freely given; for all the times we have been found taking for granted the gifts of life and the gift of eternal life in God's Son; for all the times we refused to express the thanks due God and those he gives his blessings through — the Lord of Hosts has provided a forgiveness and peace that alone can willingly give God his due.
Through his Son and only through his Son true, God-pleasing, God-accepted praise and thanks is to be found — for us and for the world.
Jesus is the Great High Priest through whom our prayers and praise rise before the Lord upon his throne. Being found in him, being baptized into him, we find ourselves freely acknowledging the greatness and grace of the Almighty. In Jesus we can gladly respond to the psalmist's invitation:

O come, let us sing to the Lord,
Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.
For He is our God,
And we are the people of His pasture
and the sheep of His hand. (Venite Lutheran Service Book 220-21)

It is a sad reality that not all those who mouth the words, "Thank God" will be heard by the One who dwells above the seraphim. Only in our Savior can any of our poor and wretched prayers of praise make their way to heaven. And in our Savior, we come to realize that we have been blessed, not only for our own sake but for the sake of the nations.
You see, the rain falls on those with saving faith and those without saving faith without distinction; the earth yields its harvest in season for all fallen children of our first fallen parents. God continues to curb chaos and violence and evil, not only in the lives of those who put their faith in his Son, but for the sake of the nations — for the sake of the salvation of the nations.
God keeps evil at bay, that the rain of his holy and gracious Word might come and water the earth. The seed of the Gospel is recklessly sown to the four corners of the world, that an abundant harvest of people from every tribe and nation and race and language might give their thanks for the sacrifice of his Son on their behalf — now, here and in eternity.
God has not called us to be simply happy, clappy people who throw out a word of thanks around the turkey table once a year. The Lord of heaven and earth has called us to be what we, outside of Christ and his Spirit, could never be: truly thankful people who acknowledge all good things from our Lord's merciful hand: the blessings of this life and the greater blessings of heaven — not only for us, but for those who were brought to faith before us, and for those around the world who have yet to be redeemed by Christ's blessed Gospel.
In the closing words of Luther's hymn of praise:

Thine over all shall be / The praise and thanks of every nation;
And all the world with joy / Shall raise the voice of exultation.
For thou shalt judge the earth, O Lord, / Nor suffer sin to flourish;
Thy people's pasture is Thy Word / Their souls to feed and nourish,
In righteous paths to keep them.

O let the people praise / Thy worth, In all good works increasing;
The land shall plenteous fruit bring forth, / Thy Word is rich in blessing.
May God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit bless us!
Let all the world praise Him alone, / Let solemn awe possess us.
(Martin Luther. May God Bestow on Us His Grace. LSB 823:3)

This day, let us give thanks that in Christ we are God's thankful people.

In the Name of Jesus. Amen