Our text is the last verse of today’s Introit: Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!
At Thanksgiving, you often hear people saying that they are grateful. The dictionary defines the word “grateful” as “a feeling of appreciation for kindnesses received”. And, of course, we are grateful to God for all the blessings He has poured out upon us.
But there is more to the act of thanksgiving than simply a feeling of appreciation. Giving God thanks is also your duty. Martin Luther himself made this point in his Small Catechism when he wrote: For all this [that God has done for me] it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him (1st Article of the Creed).
It is your duty to thank God. It is not an option which you may choose when you are in the mood; rather, it is what children of God do daily by virtue of being baptized into Christ. And what’s more, this duty is akin to military service. That is how St. Paul describes your life in Christ. In Ephesians, he writes: Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. [Yes,] take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm (6:10-11, 13).
Imagine the Roman army on the move against the enemy. At night, they set up camp. And on the outskirts of the camp, soldiers would be assigned to posts, where they would have to stay awake and keep watch all night, ready to sound the alarm should the enemy launch a sneak attack. The duty of these sentry soldiers was to stand firm at their posts until morning.
You also have a duty. Your duty is to stand guard against the attacks of the devil, the world, and your sinful flesh. A Roman sentry would stand guard by keeping alert for signs of the enemy. But you stand guard in a different way. You stand guard against the enemy by making a true confession of faith in the one true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
You could say that your standing guard is all about you remaining in your baptism. And that is why confession is so vital. In confessing your sins and receiving absolution, you return to your baptism. In confessing the Creed, you are standing firm in the faith first given you in your baptism. And by giving God thanks in all things, you are affirming that the Holy Triune God, whose Name was placed upon you in baptism, is indeed good and gracious to you even in the midst of your troubles and sorrows.
A soldier standing firm at his post until morning takes a lot of courage. But it takes much more courage for you to confess in the thick of tribulations that the LORD… is good [and that] His steadfast love endures forever! For this confession requires you to walk by faith and not by sight. When you are suffering, the devil schemes to destroy your faith. He wants you to think that God is not good after all and that His love for you has come to an end. But by God’s grace, you stand firm through all your troubles and even in the face of death. You stand firm, confessing that the one true God of heaven is indeed good to sinners and that His love and mercy endures forever!
As examples of saints standing firm in their confession, consider the prophets Jeremiah and Habakkuk. Jeremiah suffered greatly at the hands of his enemies. And yet, he confessed: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-23). And then, in the case of Habakkuk, the Lord had revealed to him that Judah would soon be conquered by the Babylonians. This news distressed Habakkuk greatly. And yet, as he waited for the coming devastation, he made this bold confession: Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation (3:17-18). Do you see? In the face of personal and national calamity, Jeremiah and Habakkuk courageously confessed the goodness and the never-failing love of God.
And as one who is baptized into the Name of the Holy Triune God, you are called to make the same courageous confession. Not just to be grateful—to feel appreciation— for the gifts God has given you, but to confess even in the midst of sorrows and tribulations that God is indeed good to sinners and that His love and mercy endures forever! This is the true spirit of thanksgiving—to believe that God remains good and gracious to you even He allows you to suffer! And at the very core of your thanking God is your confession that God’s goodness, love, and mercy are always connected to His objective work of saving sinners.
Even in the Old Testament, God’s people thanked God for His objective work of deliverance. When the Israelites first entered the Promised Land, they gave God an offering of first fruits and made this confession: 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 (Deuteronomy 26:5-9). Here, the true spirit of thanksgiving had to do with confessing all that God had done to rescue His people from slavery in Egypt and to bring them into the Promised Land.
And today, we thank God in the same spirit. We thank God for all He has done to set us free from our bondage to sin and to give us eternal life. And of course, our thanksgiving is always connected to God’s objective work of saving sinners through Jesus Christ our Lord. Here, then, is our thanksgiving confession: “I was born dead in trespasses and sin. I had gone astray and I was God’s sworn enemy. But while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son (Romans 5:10). Yes, God the Father so loved the world—so loved me—that He gave His only-begotten Son over onto death upon the cross. God’s Son took upon Himself all of my sin, guilt, and shame. And God’s Son suffered the judgment of condemnation and the damnation that I deserved. Through the shedding of His blood, God’s Son has set me free—me, who was born a lost and condemned person. Yes, Jesus has set me free from sin, death, and the devil and has given me the priceless gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.”
There is a wrong and a right way to be grateful. The wrong way is to be grateful only when we receive what we think is good—a good job, good health, a nice home, and lots of possessions. For then, when we lose these things, we stop being grateful. The right way is be grateful for who God is—that He is good [and that] His steadfast love endures forever and that His goodness and His love are most clearly revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ, God-in-the-flesh. When we are grateful for who God is, then our gratitude, our thanksgiving, continues even we encounter sorrow and suffering.
The writer to the Hebrews admonishes us with these words: let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe (12:28). This is the essence of a true gratitude, that in Holy Baptism, you have received a kingdom that cannot be shaken. This kingdom is built on the foundation of God’s goodness, love, and mercy in Christ. And nothing in all the world can undermine this foundation. Your sins are great and you are indeed a poor, miserable sinner. But Jesus is an even greater Saviour, and in His Blood you are washed clean and pure in God’s sight. And then there are all your sorrows and struggles. Through such afflictions, the devil seeks to drive you to despair and unbelief. But by God’s grace, you courageously confess that God remains your merciful Saviour and that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
The last epistle St. Paul wrote was to Pastor Timothy. Paul wrote this letter from prison as he was awaiting execution for being a Christian. As a servant suffering for the sake of the Gospel, Paul counsels Timothy to share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 2:3). And this counsel also applies to you and to me and to all the baptized, who bear the Name of the Holy Triune God.
By God’s grace, we share in suffering as good soldiers of Christ Jesus. We stand firm against the schemes of the devil. When the devil tempts us to despair over our afflictions, we boldly cast all our cares upon God, knowing that He cares for us. The devil’s ultimate game plan is to convince us that God is our enemy, that He is out to punish us and that He no longer hears our prayers. But like good soldiers, you and I stand firm in the Lord’s strength. In our own strength, we fail miserably. For when we are overwhelmed by our troubles, we often—with a bitter heart—make a false confession of God, accusing Him of not being good and loving. But, thanks be to God, our faithful God calls us to repent of our bitterness and unbelief. And through His Holy Word and His Holy Supper, the Lord forgives us, renews us in the faith, and gives us His strength, so that we may indeed stand firm unto the end, that we may remain faithful confessors of the one true God even unto death, and thus receive the crown of life.
Until the day we die, we need the Lord’s strength. And by God’s grace, we receive the Lord’s strength—the strength to suffer as good soldiers of Christ Jesus; the strength to courageously confess that God is good and that His steadfast love endures forever; the strength to confess God’s goodness and love even when we are overwhelmed by our sins and our troubles and by the evil so rampant in the world. In fact, you could say that at the very core of our faith is the act of thanking God for His faithfulness to us in all circumstances, even when we are sorely afflicted. That is why we confess every Lord’s Day: O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, and His mercy endureth forever. Yes, by God’s grace, we confess that God’s love is always greater than our sins and afflictions. By God’s grace—coming to us through Word and Supper—we receive the strength to join St. Paul in confessing: For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18).
At the start of my sermon, I had said that it is our duty to thank God. We are duty-bound to thank God for giving us both our daily bread and our eternal salvation. But, of course, thanking God is much more than a duty. To thank and praise, serve and obey the one true God is the highest joy we could know. It is the joy of knowing that sin, sorrow, suffering, and even death have been overturned by God’s goodness, love, and mercy in Christ, who died to save us sinners for heaven. And in such joy, we endure all hardship as our Lord’s good soldiers, who, with thankful hearts, join in the same confession made by St. Paul as he awaited his execution: The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen (2 Timothy 4:18).