Thanksgiving

[November 27, 2013] I have adopted these Scripture readings for tonight’s service from the common lectionary:

  • Deuteronomy 26:1-11
  • Psalm 100
  • Philippians 4:4-9
  • John 6:25-35

After a thanksgiving litany we will open the service with “All Creatures of Our God and King”; and then during the general confession of sins, we will sing Swee Hong Lim’s “Lord, Have Mercy.” After the first three readings we will sing, “We Gather Together to Ask the Lord’s Blessing”; when the offering is collected we will sing, “Now Thank We All Our God”; after the prayers of intercession, before we say the Lord’s Prayer, we will sing, “In the Lord I’ll Be Ever Thankful”; and at the conclusion we will sing, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.”

There are several points I hope to make this evening during the sermon. The service is worship offered to God in thanksgiving for the harvest, more generally for the bounty of creation, and, we must add, of salvation.

The First-fruits of God’s Creation (Deuteronomy 26:1-11)

The reading from Deuteronomy describes a simple thanksgiving ceremony for the fecundity of the land in which the Lord has settled us (literally, of the Promised Land in which the Lord has settled His people Israel). We offer up to God the first-fruits, not the surplus or the leftovers or even the tail-end. This giving something back of what has been given to us is thanksgiving. “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee.” The land has been given to us but it does not belong to us. It has been given to us that we might settle and live there, and live off of its bounty. Our rights over the land are limited, because it is not our own. This is not only true of the Land of Israel but of the earth itself and all that God has given to us of it. It is not ours; it is God’s still. When we offer up to God anything, we are offering up to God what already belongs to God. It is a way of showing our appreciation; that we do not take it for granted. It is, I think, also a way of acknowledging that we know that though it has been given to us it is still not our own, that our rights over it are limited, and that along with those rights is the responsibility of stewardship, of caring for the earth and making sure that it does not come to harm.

We have, of course, failed miserably. Indeed, we have acted like thieves, not stewards. For this there will be consequences. Since we have not taken care of the earth, the earth will no longer take care of us. You who are familiar with the Book of Deuteronomy are well aware of what I speak.

If, by chance, the worse does not come upon us, it is by the mercy of God, and we had best seize the opportunity to make whatever amends we can while the favor is given. Who knows but that God may relent and the course of things which we have set in motion may yet be turned.

That is the first point I would like to make with respect to this passage. There is a second:

So, the Israelite brings the first-fruits to God and gives thanks, humbling herself before the Lord. But then the Law goes on: “You must then rejoice in all the good things that YHWH your God has bestowed on you and your family—you, the Levite and the foreigner living with you.” The command is to rejoice, to enjoy, all the good things that the Lord has bestowed on us. Here, I think, is the source of our problem. We desolate the earth, our home, because we are full of greed and lust and avarice, and we are full of such insatiability because we refuse to be satisfied and to enjoy what we have. No sooner than we have something than we want more. Hence we have this commandment: “You must rejoice.” Perhaps if we allowed ourselves to really enjoy—to taste and savor—simpler foods we would not be such gluttons. Perhaps if we enjoyed our homes we would not insist on large homes that are a great deal of work to maintain but that we never fully enjoy. Perhaps if we enjoyed the clothes we wear we would not insist on having so many garments. It does not really matter what the reasons are that we are such compulsive consumers; the fact is that many of us have far more than we can possibly really enjoy.

This raises a question about our thankfulness. We give thanks for all this superabundance—houses and yards and cars and clothes and foods and things and more things, and for our consumption of all kinds of goods, including education. But others go without—not because they are lazy and do not want to work, but—because they cannot find work or are not paid adequately for the work they do, or because they are too young or old or too sick or impaired, or because they are ostracized from workforce. If we consider the nature of profit, we cannot get around the fact that excess profit is a form of theft; it is stolen from the poor. The bounty of the earth are for all to benefit from; but if such bounty is controlled in such a way that the poor are blocked or hindered from enjoying it, then those who are in control are stealing from them. It has never been the case that the rich get richer without the poor becoming poorer. In a just economy, the standard of all would rise, and the earth—especially its natural habitats—would become healthier under our care. How can we be thankful for the bounty we have stolen from others?

We can really only be thankful for what we morally have a right to enjoy. We cannot thank the Lord for giving us the willingness to destroy the earth that does not belong to us or for giving us the privilege of being thieves of our fellows. God has given us neither of these. If we want to be thankful for that, let us thank ourselves. Truly, perhaps a more appropriate attitude would be to weep and wail and fast on account of our sins until we change our ways!

We ought, however, truly to be thankful for the good that the Lord has given us. Let us offer up to God our first-fruits and enjoy what the Lord has given us.

Consider what it might mean for us to offer up the first-fruits? We may think that means giving a tithe of our income to a church. I won’t argue against that, but I think if we leave it at that, then it’s a cop-out. Perhaps it means that we ought to attend to our spiritual life, pursuit and well-being with the best of our energy and resources, to do this first with what we have, rather than to give our best to taking care of our other needs. Perhaps it means something else: I only ask that we think about it.

Enjoy God (Psalm 100)

Psalm 100 exhorts us to enjoy God. Be joyful in Him, serve Him with gladness, come before Him with a song. It is all exuberance! If we enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise, giving thanks and blessing His self-revelation (His Name), then it is not out of any sense of duty—though a duty still lies there—but out of sheer joy. It is a response to God’s self-revelation. Know that YHWH is God. He has made us, so we are His; we are His people and therefore the sheep of His pasture. How can this be? How wonderful! Why is it wonderful? Because YHWH is gracious; His steadfast love is everlasting, and His faithfulness endures from generation to generation.

We are so ungrateful, so miserable, that we do not see what the Lord has given us, much less that it is the Lord who has given it to us, and that He has given it to us out of a personal love for us. As Francis was desperately sick, and was soon to die of His maladies, He had a vision of Christ on the cross and as a result of that vision He received the painful wounds of Christ on His hands and feet and side. And out of that suffering, He blessed God the creator who has made all things and made our bodies. Indeed, I do not think that it was until after that vision that Francis really appreciated His own body. There is something wonderful about being enfleshed, being in these corruptible and suffering bodies. What is it that we do not see, that makes us so unhappy? We do not see the goodness of God, and yet the goodness of God was all that Francis could see—“the only true God, Who is the fullness of good, all good, every good, the true and supreme good, Who alone is good, merciful, gentle, delightful, and sweet.” I do not think he was deluded; I think he had the scales removed from his eyes.

The key to rejoicing in all the good things that the Lord has bestowed on us is to see that it is such a good God Who has bestowed them on us. Our rejoicing in the bounty of creation is inseparable from rejoicing in God Who is good. If our eyes were opened to intuit the reality of God, we would rejoice in God and rejoice in these bodies of ours and in the good things we have been given for our health and well-being, and in the beautiful world that surrounds us, the natural world in which we are situated and that sustains and keeps us. (We are not apart from it as subject and object; we are as much a part of it as everything else: our awareness of it is part of nature’s own awareness of itself.) Having joy in God is the key to rejoicing in the goodness of creation, and to being thankful.

The Lord Is Near (Philippians 4:4-9)

Paul repeats what the psalm says, “Be joyful in the Lord,” and repeats it again, “Be joyful!” I am pretty sure he does not mean we must always wear a smile on our face when all around us is suffering and the incredible devastation that is the result of humanity’s rebelliousness against the goodness of God. Blessed are those who mourn! Nevertheless, “Be joyful” does not mean other than having joy.

There is an inward joy that is unavoidable if we know that “the Lord is near.” Paul does not just mean that the Lord is coming, meaning in the Second Advent. That is true enough. But he means that the Lord is near now. The Lord is not far from us, and therefore we have no need to worry about anything. We fret and worry because we are unable to trust that God is taking care of us and those for whom we are responsible, especially when we (and they) are already suffering privation. Yet, the Lord—and by Lord, Paul means the incarnate and resurrected Jesus—is near. We cannot avoid suffering under the general judgment of God that Jesus also suffered under. It floods on the just and the unjust! But we can nevertheless trust in God as He did. Though we are killed, not a hair of our head shall perish. This is nonsense, of course, unless it is true. If the Lord Jesus is near, if in our privation He is with us also suffering; if His Father is our Father, then we can trust our Father as He did, even if it means the cross.

A few lines down in this letter Paul says, “I have learnt to manage with whatever I have. I know how to live modestly, and I know how to live luxuriously too: in every way now I have mastered the secret of all conditions: full stomach and empty stomach, plenty and poverty. There is nothing I cannot do in the One Who strengthens me.” This is what it means that the Lord is near. If we know that the Lord—this One, Jesus—is near, we can also master this secret.

“Tell God all your desires of every kind in prayer and petitions shot through with gratitude.” If you have a worry, tell it to God. If indeed we have any desire, tell it to God. Telling it to God requires that we get face-to-face with God, that we engage in this personal relationship, and get close to Him Who is close to us. By giving our requests, our worries and our desires, to God we allow the Holy Spirit to do something with them, to change us. “Shot through with gratitude” for all that God has given to us: this means that we recognize and acknowledge and appreciate that all things come from God and still belong to God and that God has given everything to us to enjoy. This mixing of our requests with gratitude, and having our gratitude permeate our desires, makes our desires permeable and malleable to the Holy Spirit’s operation. This will tamper our greed and lust and gluttony and avarice, maybe enable us to shed them. Desire is a wonderful gift, but not when it means we cannot enjoy what is actually given to us but always want an idea, an image, we have manufactured in our minds. Greed, lust, gluttony and avarice are all about delusion.

“And the peace of God which is beyond our understanding will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.” If we are joyful in Christ, knowing that the Lord is near, and give God all our desires so that we are not overcome by worry or greed, then the peace of God will guard our hearts and thoughts as we abide in (inside) Christ Jesus. If we reside in Jesus, in this incarnate and crucified and resurrected present One, we can rejoice in all the good things of creation and all the good things of salvation, things heavenly and earthly. (Even if we must also mourn for the suffering of humanity and of the earth by humanity’s hand: after all, Jesus both enjoyed people and wept over them, always having a hidden joy in God.)

The Manna of Life (John 6:25-35)

Before, when we considered the offering of the first-fruits, we were thinking quite literally of the Land of Israel and by extension of the bounties of earth. Yet the Promised Land is also a symbol, or rather, a type of something yet to come. We are familiar with the Passover lamb being a type of Christ Who was shed His blood that the judgment of God might “pass over” us and became our spiritual food to sustain us on our journey; and we are familiar with the exodus being a type of our deliverance from the world. The Promised Land is also a type, but not so much of the afterlife when we cross the Jordan of death as the fullness of Christ. Christ Himself is the Promised Land. The fullness is yet future, but we do enjoy some of it now. There is a sweet tasting of Christ in the present, and nourishment too to be gotten.

The story in John 6 does not actually speak of this. The first part of the chapter has Jesus break the loaves and take up the fish and feed a multitude of five thousand. John tells us “the time of the Jewish Passover was near,” and so there is this significance to the act. It is like a Passover Seder. But after the crossing of the sea in the verses that follow (16-21), the nuance shifts to the wilderness journey and the manna that sustains the people on their way to the Promised Land. The Feast of Booths (Succoth) celebrates this journey and the entrance into the Promised Land, and that motif underlies the Gospel according to John from 6:22—10:21.

Jesus says that they did not recognize what was signified by the feeding of the multitude but were only amazed at the miracle and the fact that they were fed. “Do not work for food that goes bad, but work for food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” People put all their effort into working for things in the world’s economy. But while we must work to feed ourselves, what is the point to that if our lives our wasted? Eternal life is the uncreated life of God, which God wants to share with us that our spirits may be enlivened by it, our souls permeated with it, and our bodies resurrected from the dead as Jesus’ own body (and not Lazarus’) was. We are given eternal life and we are given the Holy Spirit. The Son of Man gives this to us because it is His. “Work for the food that endures for eternal life.” What is this food that Jesus is talking about?

They want to know what kind of work they ought to be doing if not working for a living. If they ought to be carrying out the work of God that the Son of Man might give them the food that endures for eternal life, what is this work? Jesus answers that God’s work is to believe into Him, the Son of Man on whom the Father has set His seal and sent for this purpose. Just to believe into Him—that is the work of God. This can be understood in two ways: it is the work that God does in us and it is the work that we must do. The ambiguity of the language means that it probably embraces both. The work of God within us allows us to do the work of God, which is to believe into Christ.

They figure out that Jesus is alluding to the manna in the wilderness as a sign. So they want to see another sign from Jesus like the manna from the wilderness, as if the feeding of the five thousand was not enough. Perhaps the bread and fish were too earthly; they want to see manna come from heaven. We are never satisfied with the earth, are we? This is at the bottom of our ingratitude. And so we miss the point that Jesus is the incarnation of God in the flesh, in earthiness. If we are not content with the earth, how can we become content with God Who has come to us in earthiness and Who wants to fill the earth with His own fullness. Heaven comes down to earth in the end. There will be no separation or distinction between the two.

Stop looking for manna from heaven. The fact is this that the Father has given us the true bread from heaven—the incarnation of the Son of God in Jesus of Nazareth. He is the bread from heaven come down to earth that gives life to the world (to the people living on the earth). The manna that sustained the people in the wilderness on their journey to the Promised Land is a type of the incarnate One Who is food for His people in the wilderness journey of this life until we get to the fullness of Christ when He is revealed in glory. The life that He gives is the eternal life of God, the Holy Spirit. It is enough for us now.

“Give us that bread always,” they say. He says to them that He Himself, the incarnate One, is the bread of life (eternal life). No one who comes to Him will ever hunger; no one who believes into Him will ever thirst. Coming to Him is equivalent to believing into Him. If we come to Him, if we give ourselves to Him in a relationship of fidelity, of faith, He will be our food and will satisfy all our hunger and all our thirst. We will always want for more and He will always be enough, for we can never want enough of Him and He always has more to give. He always satisfied even though He makes us want more. The only thing we lack is a desire for more of Him.

Hunger and thirst express dissatisfaction. We can go without food longer than water, but hunger and thirst are essentially the same. Working for the food that goes bad, our labor to change the created world into something more useful for ourselves, always leaves us hungry and thirsty. It is the work itself that makes us hungry and thirsty. We are never satisfied with the bounty of creation. The Sabbath means to rest and be satisfied with what God has given; work is the opposite of that. We are always striving to satisfy our hunger and thirst. Our gratitude slips away the harder we drive ourselves. We do not stop to enjoy or to rejoice in all the good things that the Lord our God has bestowed on us. Jesus is not only the Bread of eternal life, He is the Bread of this life, the life we are living. He is the Bread that nourishes and sustains us, because He is the only Bread that satisfies the anguish dissatisfaction in our souls.

Jesus satisfies our hunger and thirst. We are not yet in the Promised Land, when He shall be all in all, but right now we can have Him as our manna, to satisfy and nourish and strengthen us for our journey. With Jesus in our spirit and more and more in our hearts, we can rejoice in God and therefore rejoice in all the rich bounty and goodness of creation.

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