Thanksgiving Service (Deuteronomy 26:1-11; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Luke 12:13-21)

1 Chronicles 16:34

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Thanksgiving Service – November 27, 2019
Texts: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Luke 12:13-21

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

It’s often easier to appreciate what you have when you know what it’s like to not have it.  Those who lived during the depression know what real scarcity is, and appreciate the richness of life today.  After World War II, commodities like rubber and steel were prized after they had been rationed. A full tank of gas meant a lot more during the Oil Crisis of 1973.

The point is sometimes it takes losing something before you appreciate how good you have it.  It’s a rule that the following generations have a hard time fully appreciating the hardships and struggles which their parents had to get where they are.

The Israelites were commanded yearly to offer their firstfruits at the Temple, and part of the liturgy was saying,

A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O Lord, have given me.’

But for most of the people making that confession, they had no personal experience of this history.  They might be able to imagine what it was like to be called out of Aram, dwelling as slaves in Egypt, hearing stories about crossing the Red Sea.  Yet, that’s quite a different thing than walking in the sandals of your fathers.

The thanksgiving God is desiring here doesn’t come from the outside in, by mandate of the Law of Moses.  That thanksgiving can be contrived, muttered under your breath as you’re forced to say grace with your family tomorrow.

Thanksgiving without faith may be glad that things are going well, that the pantry is full and health is good.  But that’s as far as it can see. As soon as those things are taken away, so is any apparent reason to give thanks to God.  This is the work of the sinful flesh. It works a selfish, short-sighted, and earthly outlook.

But a heart in which the Holy Spirit is at work sees God as faithful Father who provides and continues to provide even when times are lean and painful.  The Spirit turns a believer’s heart outward not to be consumed with your own problems, but be willing to bear one another’s burdens and let God decide how He will provide for both of you.  The Spirit works perseverance and resilience, because we know that this moment isn’t all there ever will be. It’s not in the present lack or abundance that God’s love is known, but in the everlasting promise He made and fulfilled when He gave His only Son to open eternal life to us.

That’s the basis of the Apostles’ words in 2 Corinthians 9:

The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. 

The one who can only see the temporal stuff will sow sparingly because he can only see what his own hands produce.  He’s limited, shackled, and without faith in the promises of a heavenly Father who gives daily bread.

Thanksgiving and giving go hand-in-hand because a heart that knows God by faith also knows how lavish He is in caring for the world.  So one who is filled with thanksgiving also freely gives because he believes that God supplied and will continue to supply everything that is truly needed for this short pilgrimage on earth.

It comes up in Jesus’ ministry, this condition of the heart:

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

The fleshly heart retorts, “How can you say that? Life is full of possessions and they’re very important.  You must be a Pollyanna fool to whitewash the practical necessities with faith.” In fact what faith does is rise above those necessities and the urgency our hearts put on them.  It’s no great feat to trust God when everything adds up and fits into the right boxes. It is a feat of faith to be a poor widow who has only two mites to live on and give those away for the service of the Temple (Mark 12:41-44).  The stronger the faith, the less the power of insistence that things go my way.  What do you put your trust in?  Not in an intangible, fairy tale God, but in the Creator of Heaven and Earth, who is praised in Psalm 104:

27  These all look to you, 

to give them their food in due season. 

28  When you give it to them, they gather it up; 

when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. 

29  When you hide your face, they are dismayed; 

when you take away their breath, they die 

and return to their dust. 

30  When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, 

and you renew the face of the ground. 

Today, just as much as any other, it is God’s will to fill us with faith and the thanksgiving which flows from knowing Him. May His Holy Spirit keep you from all covetousness and malice that you may celebrate these holidays in sincerity and truth.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Giving Thanks, No Matter Circumstances (Philippians 4:6-13)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Service of Thanksgiving – November 22, 2017
Text: Philippians 4:6-13

St. Paul’s words sound preposterous: Do not be anxious about anything.  Whatever is true, honorable, just, etc…think about these things.  I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger…I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.  What could be more unrealistic?
If Paul were just a feel-good purveyor of platitudes, then they would just be empty, motivational words.  But what he tells us is based all on who God is and what He has done and is doing.
“The Lord is at hand”
Our God is near.  Repeatedly in His Word He reminds us that He created us, provides for us, defends us:
Psalm 139:13–14a: For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Matthew 6:31–32: Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.
Hebrews 13:5–6: Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”
Where else do we get our ideas about God’s nearness?
From our feelings?  But those fluctuate so much, from day to day or in a moment.
From signs in nature?  Perhaps, but what do you think of God when the flood waters rise and destroy your property?  Or where is your joy on a gloomy winter day?
From how well relationships and work?  People are fickle and not always reliable.  It’s fine for when things are going smoothly, but where is God when they’re not?
From our health? All of us bear the effects of sin in our bodies.  It’s no surprise when we catch one more cold this fall, or one more thing breaks in our body.
We have a God who is near.  He challenges us to believe that He is at hand, and repent of our projections or perceptions.  That is His will for us in every adversity that we face: to realize where we have looked for Him in the wrong places, and to come back to His word of promise which speaks of His faithfulness no matter what.

“The God of peace will be with you.”
Paul says it again, but He adds that He is the God of peace, right after this admonition:
“Brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Think back to all the times just recently that you’ve worried, set your mind on how bad things were, how hopeless situations were, ad how awful people are and they deserve worse than they get.
In His Law, God says we should have no other gods, and love our neighbor as ourselves.    When we distrust God, we are guilty of the very first Commandment of not loving and trusting in God above all things.  When we get down on our neighbor and think the worst about him and wish ill for him, we sin against the Second table of the Law—against God and often hurt our neighbor too.
Now that’s a serious problem for our relationship with a holy, almighty God who wishes to be our Father.  But with you, of shallow thankfulness and a lukewarm heart, He has made peace with you through the gift of His Son.  Jesus, Immanuel, God-with-us is the assurance of peace with God in spite of the ways you have been unfaithful and unthankful.  “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” (Romans 5:1-2)  This is access by grace to a Father in heaven who loves you, cares for you, and upholds you.
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
“I can’t go on…I can’t take anymore…I just can’t handle this…It’s impossible to live like this!”  These are the things we tell ourselves and others out of desperation.  With minds set on earthly setbacks—our incompetence and the messes we’ve made, other people’s failings, looking inside and not finding the strength to go forward.
The Lord is at hand.  These are not empty words.  When He says that He will never leave you or forsake you, that you need not be anxious like a Gentile about how to get by, that He is as close to you now as when you were an embryo being made in the womb—believe it.
By the power that enabled Him to create out of nothing, He creates for you and in you.  Where is it going to come from?  How will I get there?  He has it mapped out how He will give it.
How am I, a Christian but tossed around with bouts of unbelief, to trust in Him and keep my faith?  He gives you that strength, because it’s not a strength that you muster up yourself.  It’s a divine, heavenly strength which He delivers to you in His Word, in the sermon, in the absolution, in the Body and Blood of Jesus.
Empty words?  Platitudes?  Far from it.  Great is His faithfulness indeed!  All of His promises have Him standing behind them.  Even better than that, the Lord is indeed at hand for you. Amen.

Thanking God for His Blessings in Christ (Psalm 67)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Thanksgiving Eve – November 23, 2016
Text: Psalm 67
“God bless you!”  “I feel truly blessed.”  “God has blessed them with children.”  You hear phrases like this all the time from people.  But think about what is being said.  We say “God bless you” when someone sneezes, wishing them health.  We say that we’re blessed or someone else is blessed when they have what they want—be it a nice house or lots of grandchildren.  We say that God blesses something when it goes our way.  But seldom do you hear God’s blessing on adversity.
What are we confessing when we only speak of good things as blessings?  I think too often we are promoting blessing from a god who only gives health, wealth, and increase; and not death, poverty, and loss.  That god’s name is Mammon, and he doesn’t just deal in currency; he is the god of prosperity.  Mammon is hard at work around this time of year.  When we think of what we’re thankful for, he’s craftily trained us to think of material stuff and count those as our blessings.  Then, the whole world, who worships at Mammon’s altar, bombards us with the teaching that you know God’s blessing through how good your life is and what kind of stuff you have—a Pontiac or a Mercedes; Faded Glory or Ralph Lauren; Chicken of the Sea or Red Lobster.  To bless others is to buy people stuff so they too can experience Mammon’s favor.
Rather than have Mammon teach us about blessing, let’s have the true God enlighten us.  The blessings of God are a treasure beyond anything that can be bought or sold.  They cannot wear out or become obsolete.  The blessings of God cannot be stolen and they even stay with you beyond the grave.
David, in the Spirit, writes,
     May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
This is the Aaronic Benediction, first given in Numbers 6, but still received today by God’s people after every Divine Service.  In the Western church it’s common for the congregation to bow their head because God said, thus “you shall put my Name upon the people and I will bless them.”[1]  But what is God’s blessing?
First, that God is gracious to us.  How many of you groaned when you remembered that you had to leave the house tonight?  Or when you remembered you still had to go to work today?  How many of you had one or many mean thoughts about another person?  How many of you got more excited about upcoming sales than the extra worship services of Advent?  You do realize that God consumes sinners, don’t you?  The Scriptures say, “You are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you…You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.”[2]  Just as we confessed at the beginning of service, “we justly deserve [His] temporal and eternal punishment.”
But God is gracious to us.  He makes atonement for our sins.  He shed the blood of His sinless Son for sinners’ sake.  Therefore, the Scriptures also say, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.”[3]  He doesn’t give us what we justly deserve; He gives “His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him may not perish but have eternal life.”[4]  Every moment of our life God is gracious to us (right now, he’s even gracious to those who despise Him!).  St. John writes, Whenever[5] we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  So, yes, when we sin, God does not immediately punish us.  He is long-suffering toward us and calls us to repent and believe that He forgives us for Jesus’ sake.
Second, God blesses us.  Not only does He not punish us like we deserve, He shows His favor to us.  When the Prodigal Son returned, he confessed, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”  But the father didn’t just make him one of his hirelings.  Instead, he said to the servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate.”[6]  God does the same for you.  He has not only removed your sins as far as the east is from the west, but He is pleased with you!  He is pleased to call you His own child, pleased to welcome you onto holy ground in this place, and pleased to receive you into eternal dwellings.
A blessing is God’s favor, spoken onto His people.[7]  Think of how many ways God speaks His favor to you in the Church.  When you were baptized into Christ, it is as if He said to you in the water, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.”[8]  When you heard the absolution today, and when you hear this forgiveness from a brother or sister, it is as good as Jesus speaking into your ears: “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.”[9]  Shortly, when you receive His Body and Blood at this altar, you will hear Him say, “Take; eat.  This is my Body given for you. Take; drink. This is my Blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”  The Lord God has adopted you in Christ to be His own child.  So, come near often, and receive your Father’s blessing.[10]
Thirdly, this Psalm teaches us that God makes His face to shine upon us.  In Psalm 4, David writes, “There are many who say, ‘Who will show us some good?’”  Apart from the Lord, we look for good in our circumstances.  If our appetites are sated, then we’re content to say we love the Lord and He’s good to us.  But as soon as we lose possessions and health, we become downcast as if God had forsaken us.  Who will show us some good?  Is it to be found in this fleeting life of labor, evil, and loss?  Of course not!  Psalm 4 continues, “Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord! You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.”[11]
The Lord makes His face to shine upon you, so that you can be sure that you have God as Father in every joy just as much as in every sorrow.  What’s come before has led up to this: God blesses you and forgives all your sins, He blesses you and crowns you as His own royal sons and daughters.  But here, He also promises to hear your prayers, support you, and defend you in every need.  He will never leave you, nor forsake you.  Therefore, we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”[12]
If this is how we see God’s blessing, it changes not only our Christmas season, but every day of our life throughout the year.  Psalm 67 tells the result of God’s blessing:
            that your way may be known on earth,
your saving power among all nations.
                    Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you!
                    Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth. Selah
                    Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you!
The blessing that God gives to sinners—forgiveness and adoption as children—is how the nations know Him.  It’s not in wealth or prosperity.  On the contrary, God often shows Himself most clearly in weakness and poverty.  He shows His blessing when faith isn’t strong and when we really can’t handle what’s laid on our shoulders.  God chooses those moments to make known His “saving power among all nations.”
The Lord said through the Psalmist Asaph, “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”  God’s blessing is our strength in weakness, our healing in sickness, and our life in death.  If everything went well all the time, who would be moved to praise the Lord?  But when God shows Himself as the Helper of the helpless, praise pours forth from the lips of all the redeemed!
The Psalm concludes,
            The earth has yielded its increase;
God, our God, shall bless us.
                    God shall bless us;
let all the ends of the earth fear him!
The earthly increase does come, but it’s not the way we know God.  Christ has taught us, “Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”  In due season, God does satisfy the desires of every living thing[13]—how much more for His children!  But first come the true blessings: forgiveness of sins, adoption as God’s children, and a divine promise to be our Helper in every need.
So when the Psalm confidently ends, “God shall bless us,” we know that He does with riches that cannot be found from anywhere on earth.  Peace be with you in Christ Jesus both now and forever! Amen.
[1] Numbers 6:27
[2] Psalm 5:4-6
[3] Psalm 103:10
[4] John 3:16
[5] 1 John 1:9, emphasizing the ongoing conditional sentence in Greek
[6] Luke 15:11-24
[7] Tyndale Bible Dictionary, “Bless”
[8] Matthew 3:17
[9] Matthew 9:2
[10] cf. Genesis 27:26-29
[11] Psalm 4:6-7
[12] Hebrews 13:6
[13] Psalm 145:16