Thankful For What?

For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.

When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

He led you through the vast and dreadful desert, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the desert, something your fathers had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.—Deuteronomy 8:7-18

The national holiday of Thanksgiving, observed in October in Canada and November in the United States, can be a time for us to take a careful look at how God works in our lives. This holiday can also remind us how God feeds us with the spiritual food we need. Sometimes he feeds us with spiritual food we don’t always expect or want, but it is, nonetheless, spiritual food we always need. Thanksgiving is a wonderful time for us to carefully look at God’s gracious work in our lives, even when his gracious work may offend our religious sensitivities, even when his love overwhelms the status quo of what we think God ought to do and ought not to do.

On the surface, Thanksgiving is devoted to giving thanks for our food, our shelter, our health, our clothing. Thanksgiving reminds us of a time when our ancestors lived on the edge, a time when severe hunger loomed on the horizon.

It may be difficult for those of us who live in North America to imagine such a culture, but back in the day, the time that Thanksgiving reminds us of, remaining alive meant being dependent on the wind, weather, rain and harvest.
Thanksgiving is, of course, a traditional harvest festival, a time to give thanks for the harvest that is now over, a time when the barns are hopefully full, or a little later on, when the freezer was well-stocked, when the mortgage on the farm could be paid and when farm implements could be repaired or replaced.

Our passage today is from the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth and last book in the Pentateuch, that section of the Old Testament devoted to the old covenant law. The book of Deuteronomy is a survey of how God worked with the nation of Israel in the immediate past, during the 40 years they spent in the wilderness after he rescued them from slavery in Egypt. But, Deuteronomy also discusses the distant past—all of it focusing on what God had done for his people.

The immediate context is that of the nation of Israel as they were gathered on the banks of the Jordan river, ready to enter their inheritance, the promised land. They were ready, after 40 years of wandering, to establish a home of their own. And just before they entered the land, God rehearsed, through his servant Moses what Israel should be thankful for.

God reminded them to be thankful for both physical and spiritual blessings, but, when you carefully examine what he told them to be thankful for, the spiritual blessings are by far and away the most significant blessings he had provided them.
Just as Deuteronomy reminded the Israelites of their dependence on God for their physical and spiritual nourishment, so too does Thanksgiving remind us of our dependence on God. While he supplies both physical and spiritual needs, our spiritual needs are met with eternal food which fills our soul so that we never hunger again.

Jesus recalled this time, when the nation of Israel had spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness.

I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.—John 6:48-51

In our passage, Deuteronomy 8:7-18, God is speaking through Moses, reminding the nation of Israel that it was easy to forget God. He was reminding them what they should be thankful for, as we ask via our sermon title, Thankful for What?

For the nation of Israel the temptation was that the more time that had expired since the harsh realities of Egyptian tyranny, the less the people were aware of their need for God. The more self-sufficient the nation of Israel became, the more they forgot about the direct role God played in releasing them from slavery. As time went by they were tempted to think that it was their army that defeated Pharaoh. They were tempted to think that they had earned the right to enter the Promised Land, and that their destiny was in their own hands.

So it was on the banks of the Jordan River, the river they would cross to leave the wilderness behind, the river that was the boundary marker for the land God had promised to them for their national homeland that God reminded them about the divine Source of their blessings.

During their journey in the wilderness, Israel was given manna every day, except for the seventh-day Sabbath, which, according to the terms of the old covenant, they were commanded to observe. So as the daily supply of manna ended, it was a reminder that their bread came from heaven. God reminded them that they would not be where they were unless he miraculously provided for them.

The same lesson should not be lost on us today. May we never forget that were it not for God’s grace we would not be where we are today—physically or spiritually. Grace was the bottom line of God’s relationship with his people then—and it continues to be the foundation of our relationship with him today.

After all, who would have given Abraham two cents for the promise of being the father of a great nation when he and his wife Sarah had no children, and given their age, had no human chance of having any heirs at all? What kind of chance would people have given Joseph that his God-given dream of being a leader would ever be fulfilled when he was, with the complicity of his brothers, sold into slavery in Egypt—spending years forgotten in prison?

What odds would have been given by the Egyptian odds makers that a group of slaves in Egypt would be led out of the most powerful nation on earth by Moses, a man whose resume said that he had spent the last 40 years as an itinerant shepherd? Who would have given that seemingly disorganized, scraggly group of slaves, who had no military of their own, any chance of making it to the Red Sea—or any chance at all of making it across the Red Sea?

It was only by God’s grace—that was God’s reminder to the nation of Israel back then—and it’s his reminder to you and me today.

In the last verse of our passage, verse 18, God characterized the spiritual poverty of any Israelite who, after entering the Promised Land, enjoying a land whose houses were already built, whose fields were already planted, whose barns were already full, whose wealth was already built up, would say “my power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” This same attitude is alive and well today, isn’t it?

I’ll always remember a line from the 1965 movie Shenandoah. The movie is about the impact of the American Civil War on a hardworking, peace loving family living in Virginia. Jimmy Stewart is the patriarch of the family, a man who lost his wife, a man who has worked hard, who does not keep slaves and refuses to fight for the Confederate Army who believes in slavery. In one scene Jimmy Stewart’s character is leading the family, saying grace before they ate their meal:

Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, we sowed it and we harvested it. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you Lord just the same for the food we’re about to eat. A-men.

That prayer sums up many surface reactions to Thanksgiving today. In so many words, some say, “We have worked hard. We have earned what we have by the sweat of our brow. We are gathered around this table to give thanks for what we have done—giving thanks for ourselves. Thanks just the same Lord.”

Being thankful is one of the products of God’s grace, it leads us to humility, to a proper and accurate assessment of what our life consists of, and who and what we would be apart from God.

Physically, Thanksgiving reminds us that hunger and thirst are fundamental and necessary to maintain life. We must eat to remain alive. If we don’t have anything to eat, or if our supply of food and water is at all endangered, all other concerns in our life come to a screeching halt, and we focus on where our next meal will come from.

We are also in desperate need of spiritual food. Our abundant, physically blessed North American culture is overwhelmed with the physical. While most of our physical needs are provided for (along with many of our physical wants and desires) our Western world remains a spiritual wilderness.

Our world is stumbling along, alone, alienated, frustrated, and spiritually empty. Many hunger for a healthy, loving relationship with God even as our prosperity is the envy not only of our world, but of the vast majority of the history of humanity. Never have so many had so much, physically, while being so spiritually impoverished and empty.

Thanksgiving can be a wonderful time for us to focus on God. May your Thanksgiving table be filled with more than physical food that perishes. May God’s grace overflow at your table, in your home, in your prayers, in your conversations, in your family, and in your life.

May you give thanks for Jesus, the Bread from heaven, who gives us spiritual food that imparts eternal life. Because of Jesus, we are not like those who live from day to day, having to gather manna. We live in the security of our faith, the assurance of God’s grace, knowing that we have been given life eternal, crossing over from death to life, believing and trusting in Jesus to do for us what we can never do for ourselves.

Because of Jesus we are not condemned, we have been given eternal life.

Thanks be to God for his incredible, matchless and priceless gifts. May we thank him with every ounce of our being, with every breath we take, with every thought we think, with every morsel of food we eat—for he and he alone gives us the greatest gift. Thanks be to God.