✠ In the name Jesus ✠
It may feel a little bit strange to be gathering today for a service of Thanksgiving–and not just because everyone’s trying to make you feel like you’re doing something wrong by coming to church. It feels odd because this is 2020. What are we supposed to be thankful for in this year where everything seems to have come unraveled? 2020 is the year of political upheaval and social conflict and a pandemic that is upending so much of our lives and leaving people feeling isolated and uncertain. How are we supposed to give thanks in the midst of all that?
First of all, it may be helpful to remember that this national day of Thanksgiving was established by President Lincoln in 1863, right smack dab in the middle of the Civil War. We can learn something from that Thanksgiving proclamation. After recounting all the blessings that the nation was experiencing in spite of the war, Lincoln said:
“No human counsel has devised nor has any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, has nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States . . . to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwells in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation . . .”
Those words are certainly still fitting. And those words are consistent with what St. Paul says in today’s Epistle reading about giving thanks and being content in all circumstances. Remember that Paul was in prison at the time he wrote this letter, in chains for preaching the Gospel of Christ. He was guarded 24 hours a day and was confined to his shackles. Now how could a man like that ever possibly be content or thankful? And in the same way how are we to have an attitude of gratitude in the midst of hardship, when we don’t feel the mercy of the Lord? What about when people have lost loved ones, or when their health is poor, or when relationships are strained, or when the financial situation seems to be in doubt? What then? Paul gives his answer, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances . . . whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all things through (Christ) who gives me strength.”
Paul wasn’t just engaging in optimistic thinking or trying to channel some nebulous “positive energy.” Nor was he looking within himself to find his source of contentment and peace. There was no “indomitable human spirit” here overcoming adversity. On the contrary, St. Paul often spoke of his many weaknesses. Remember that he said, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” The Apostle could be content and thankful even while in custody because he knew that, regardless of the circumstances in which he found himself, he belonged to the Lord Jesus, the One from whom he had received forgiveness of sins and deliverance from death and the devil, the One who had seen him through many difficult times before. St. Paul wrote elsewhere, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? . . . No, I am convinced that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Jesus Himself said, “I know My sheep and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” There’s the source of strength for real thanksgiving to God, the mercy of the Lord which endures forever and which will never pass away.
St. Paul used some very fitting imagery here. He said, “The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” The picture that is painted here is that of a military sentry standing watch at his post. Just as Paul, in a negative sense, was being guarded by the Roman soldiers, so also all believers, in a positive sense, are guarded and watched over by the peace that comes from God. Those who are in Christ Jesus by faith are in God’s “protective custody.” And so despite Paul’s imprisonment, he knew that he was being guarded by an even greater force. He was uplifted and surrounded by the peace of God, just as you are who have been baptized into Christ’s holy name.
And this peace of God is not just a fleeting feeling, either. Rather, it is the restored relationship that we now have with God, the reconciliation that took place between us and Him through the cross of Christ. Prior to the redeeming work of Jesus, we were in rebellion against God through our sin. The status of our relationship with Him was one of war. We wanted to be independent of Him and govern ourselves. But then the Prince of Peace came. By Christ’s sacrificial death at Calvary, all of our war crimes were atoned for. And by His glorious resurrection, we were raised up into a right and restored relationship with God our Father.
You are at peace with God, then, in Christ. Your sins have all been answered for by Jesus. God is on your side. Heaven is yours in Him who is seated at the right hand of the Father. Your conscience is at rest by the virtue of His blood. You know by faith that God will work all things, even the bad things, for your eternal good. He strengthens and brings you closer to Himself through affliction. He disciplines the ones He loves, you who are His redeemed children. That is the true source of your contentment, regardless of your current circumstances in life. That is the ultimate spring from which your thanksgiving to God flows this day, the peace of God which guards you, the peace of the Lord which is with you always in the holy Eucharist. As the life-giving body and blood of Christ and His saving Word dwell in you richly, you are made able to give thanks to God the Father always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus.
So if your health is good or has been restored, if you have all that you need of food and clothing and shelter, if you have friends and family to lean on, give thanks to God. And if your health is not so good and you’re struggling with ongoing physical issues, if you feel isolated or unsettled, if the finances are tight and stressful, give thanks to God, too. For He is at work with you to accomplish His good and gracious will for you. The One who suffered for you is with you in your struggles. He will never leave you or forsake you. Trust in Him. You are not alone. Paul wrote in Romans 5, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Thanks be to God that no matter what your circumstances are, He has given you every blessing and every good gift in Christ the crucified.
At the end of today’s service, we will sing the familiar hymn “Now Thank We All Our God.” It was written in the early 1600's by a man named Martin Rinckart. Just like the author of last Sunday’s sermon hymn, Rinckart wrote his hymn during an epidemic in which thousands died, including his own beloved wife. During those days he lived in desperate circumstances, barely able to provide food and clothing for his children. But he did not give way to despair. Trusting in Christ the Redeemer, he was made able even then to praise and thank the Father in heaven, to speak of the “countless gifts of love” of the Lord who “still is ours today.” Like Job, he was able to say in faith, “The Lord gave; the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Our thanksgiving is not based primarily on the circumstances of our life. Our thanksgiving is based first and foremost on our fellowship with God, that we have been reconciled to Him through the precious blood of the Lamb. Every single one of us, then, has reason to give thanks to God this day, because when it comes to the most important things, eternal things, we’ve been blessed beyond our comprehension.
And the fact of the matter is that also when it comes to temporal things, we have been blessed abundantly, too. We may not have every single thing that we want, but we do have everything that we need. God provides richly for all of our daily needs, granting us food and medicine and clothing and shelter, in a country which yet remains a great nation, one in which we are still able to worship the true God openly and without fear. We have much for which to be thankful to God. And our thanksgiving for these temporal things is deepened and enriched by all of the eternal blessings that are ours through the Word.
May God grant us, then, hearts full of gratitude, so that this day and every day, the words of St. Paul may be our own: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. . . whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all things through (Christ) who gives me strength.”
✠ In the name Jesus ✠