True and Full Thanksgiving!

The Day of Thanksgiving–10 October 2021

Psalm 95

1 Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! 2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! 3 For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. 4 In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. 5 The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. 6 Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! 7 For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Today, if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, 9 when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. 10 For forty years I loathed that generation and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.” 11 Therefore I swore in my wrath, “They shall not enter my rest.” Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit;  as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.  Amen. (ESV)

The opposite of thanksgiving is unbelief!

Think back to your childhood school days, when your teacher taught you about antonyms. Antonyms are pairs of words that are opposite in meaning. For example: alive/dead; beautiful/ugly; friend/enemy; happy/sad. 

I have a question for you. What is the antonym for the word “thanksgiving”? Well, according to that source of all knowledge, the Internet, the opposite of thanksgiving is thanklessness and ingratitude. However, spiritually speaking, these antonyms do not quite hit the mark.

God’s Word trumps the Internet, the Dictionary, and all other sources of human knowledge. And according to the Bible, the opposite of thanksgiving is not just thanklessness but downright unbelief. Either you wake up every day thanking God or you are dabbling in unbelief.

The Unbelief of the Israelites!

When Israel left Egypt, it was because the Lord had chosen them, and He pledged to bring them to the Promised Land. That was God’s intention, God’s promise. The Israelites should have set their hope on God. They should have remembered the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea—

by which God delivered them from their enemies. Yes, they should have remembered God’s mighty works. But those people, so freshly delivered from slavery, turned out to be a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.… They forgot [God’s] works and the wonders that he had shown them… [And then,] they sinned still more against [God], rebelling against the Most High in the desert. They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” (Psalm 78:8, 11, 17-19). 

One especially egregious example of the Israelites’ unbelief was at Massah and Meribah. Massah means “testing” and Meribah means “quarreling”. At that spot, the people failed to trust that God would provide them water in the wilderness. Instead, they put God to the test and quarreled with God, saying: Is the LORD among us or not? (Exodus 17:7). 

The climax of the Israelites’ unbelief was when it came time to enter the Promised Land and the people refused to do so out of fear of the enemy. According to the historical account in the Book of Numbers, all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them,… “Would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword?” (14:2-3). 

In a tragic irony, God gave them what they wanted. The Lord said to them: As I live, declares the LORD, what you have said in my hearing I will do to you: your little ones, … I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have rejected. But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness (Numbers 14:28, 31-32). Then, for forty years, that stubborn and rebellious generation wandered through the wilderness. And except for two men—Caleb and Joshua, who followed the Lord—they all died without reaching the Promised Land.

“Do not harden your hearts”—Kind words from a loving Saviour!

The opposite of thanksgiving is not just thanklessness and ingratitude but downright unbelief. The Israelites died in the wilderness not merely because  they were a thankless, ungrateful people. They died because they did not trust God to care and provide for them.

And so, on this Thanksgiving Sunday, it is very fitting that we pay heed to the warning in today’s psalm: Today, if you hear [God’s] voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.

To us, these words may seem rather harsh. But these really are kind words from our loving Saviour Jesus. Imagine parents seeing their child about to touch a hot stove. The parents yell out “stop!”, and the child is so startled that he begins to cry. Of course, the parents spoke so urgently out of their great and tender love for their child. So too, when God says “Today, when you hear My voice, do not harden your hearts!”, He is speaking forcibly out of an infinite compassion for us sinners. Yes, His admonition for us to not harden our hearts is indeed a kind word spoken to us sheep who love to go astray!

God desires for us to enter His rest!

Out of His great love, God desires for us to enter into His rest. Remember how on the seventh day of creation, having provided Adam and Eve with a perfect garden of peace and safety, God rested from all the work that He had done (Genesis 2:3). Fast forward to the Exodus, and God’s rest meant God’s land for His people to settle in, and with peace to enjoy it. And now, God gives to His faithful a rest far beyond anything that the Israelites won in their conquest of Canaan. In Christ, God gives to His faithful children a share in God’s own sabbath rest. Yes, God gives us the enjoyment of His finished work not merely of creation but of redemption. The ultimate Promised Land of rest is an eternity spent in the glorious presence of Jesus.

We usually do not think of the day we die as a glorious day, but it is. For on that day, our heavenly Father graciously take[s] us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven (Small Catechism: 7th Petition of the Lord’s Prayer). But until that glorious Day, it is still possible for you and me to give ourselves over to an evil, unbelieving heart, leading us to fall away from the living God. But our calling in Christ is to hold our original confidence in God firm to the end and to strive to enter that rest, so that none of us may fall by the same sort of disobedience evident in the Israelites in the wilderness (see Hebrews 3:12, 14; 4:11).  

Failing to enter God’s rest is possible!

This Thanksgiving, it is very appropriate for us to remember that it is possible to fail to enter God’s rest. It happened to the ancient Israelites; it can happen to us. And especially now, with yet another COVID Thanksgiving, as we see other people and also ourselves growing more impatient and fearful and less kind and loving, it is very appropriate to remind ourselves that a heart that is not thankful to God is a heart of unbelief.

True and full thanksgiving!

What is thanksgiving? Is it thanking God for all the blessings of food and drink, home and family, work and health? Yes, it is that, but it is never merely that! True and full thanksgiving is thanking God for who He is and and what He has done to save us in Christ Jesus.

This thanksgiving runs deeper and higher than our troubles and sorrows. This true and full thanksgiving says with great joy: “No matter how much I may suffer in this world, I will still join the psalmist in proclaiming that God is good and St. John in confessing that God is love (Psalm 136:1; 1 John 4:8, 16), and I will still thank God for creating me, for saving me, and for making me holy in His sight, all for the sake of Christ Jesus my Lord!”

A godly example of true thanksgiving!

For an example of true thanksgiving, consider Pastor Martin Rinckart, the author of one of today’s communion hymns. Pastor Rinckart served  in the German city of Eilenburg during a time of war, famine, and plague. In one single horrific year, 1637, the plague struck down more than 8,000 people, including all the other pastors in town and his own dear wife, Christine. That year, Pastor Rinckart officiated at over 4,000 funerals, and some days he led funerals for as many of fifty people at once. Yet, in spite of his hardships, Pastor Rinckart wrote a great hymn of thanksgiving.

Now thank we all our God With hearts and hands and voices,

Who wondrous things has done, In whom his world rejoices;

Who from our mothers’ arms Has blest us on our way

With countless gifts of love And still is ours today. (LSB 895:1)

Through all his burdens, Pastor Rinckart’s spirit was not crushed. His attitude may be seen in the signet ring he wore, upon which was inscribed an acronym of the sentence “My trust is in Christ alone”. Without question Pastor Rinckart retained a trusting spirit in the Lord and in the certainty of His blessings.

Pastor Rinckart is for us a positive example in opposition to the negative example of the ancient Israelites. And of course, Pastor Rinckart follows in a long and honoured line of biblical examples of thankful saints. Think of Job, who in his suffering yet proclaimed: I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God (19:25-26). Think of David, who though he was oppressed by his enemies said nonetheless: I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth (Psalm 34:1). Think of Jeremiah, who though he knew Jerusalem was about to fall at the hands of the Babylonians still made this bold confession: 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 finally, think of St. Paul, who while suffering imprisonment encouraged his fellow Christians with the words: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice (Philippians 4:4).  

We are sheep who trust alone in Good Shepherd Jesus!

Every Sunday, we give God thanks with these words: O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, and His mercy endures forever. We are to make this our confession even when we are suffering, for the moment we stop thanking God for His goodness and mercy is the moment we join the Israelites in their unbelief.  

One day you may lose your health or wealth or you may suffer from an act of violence or persecution. But do not harden your hearts or put God to test and quarrel with Him. Instead, by God’s grace, continue setting your hope on God; continue to remember God’s mighty works of creating you, of redeeming you in Christ, and of sanctifying you in the Holy Spirit. Thank God for the blessings of a loving family, good health, and abundant provision to sustain your life in this world. But above all, be thankful for who God is—that He is good [and that] His steadfast love endures forever and that His goodness and His love are revealed most clearly in the Person of Jesus Christ, God-in-the-flesh.

The sinless Son of God must die in sadness; / The Shepherd dies for sheep that loved to wander (LSB 439.5 & 4). And because Jesus the Good Shepherd laid down His life for us to deliver us from our slavery to sin, death, and the devil, we [now] are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand. And as Pastor Rinckart inscribed upon his ring, so we inscribe upon our hearts the words “My trust is in Christ alone”. And all the days of our lives, we sing to the LORD… [and] make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! [Yes, we] come into his presence with thanksgiving! And we trust that our Good Shepherd Jesus will look upon us, the sheep of His pasture, with love and mercy. And Shepherd Jesus will guide us with His gentle voice and bring us unhurt to His eternal rest. Amen.