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Giving Thanks in All Circumstances
Sermon on Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Philippians 4:6-7, 10-20
I don’t know about you, but I think this fall has been somewhat less spectacular than usual. Maybe it was the long drought and then the sharp turn to colder weather, but there didn’t seem to be a real “peak” this year. Even so, the maple trees have reliably done their annual trick of changing “from glory into glory,” to use a Biblical expression. I couldn’t find words to describe their beauty if my life depended on it. But there are words of thanksgiving, and I hope God has heard my thanks.
In the Jewish prayer book you can find a specific expression of thanksgiving for almost everything God presents to the human creature. For example, there are set praises to be said when you see a beautiful tree or a falling star. There are also thanksgiving prayers for when you wake up and find that God has once again restored your faculties after the oblivion of sleep, for when you smell fragrant herbs, grasses or flowers, for “when you eat eggs,…when you meet a good teacher, when you hear good news or bad news.”
Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Judaism has developed such a vast and intricate liturgy of praise for all the small and large occasions of life. Of all the people in the world, the ancient Israelites understood that they were put on earth for the express purpose of giving praise and thanks to God. Praise and thanksgiving run like a recurring melody through the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures. The very first Christians borrowed and added to this language of praise in the writings that became the New Testament. The most soaring praise of all is for God’s mighty act of salvation in Jesus Christ.
For most of the church year, we focus on God’s acts of salvation, or deliverance: rescuing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, safely leading them through the wilderness years, bringing them home from exile in Babylon, and as the crowning act, releasing all of humanity from the iron rule of sin and death through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are invited to find ourselves in this great story of redemption, and to recognize God as the Lord of history, not just for one people or nation, but for the whole world. However, our very American holiday of Thanksgiving lets our focus shift to the God who is also Lord of nature, the God who not only saves but also, and from the very beginning, gives: the God who provides and sustains.
Today’s passage from Deuteronomy shows that the Lord of history and the Lord of nature are inseparably and always one and the same. God is both Savior and Provider.
The description of the offering of the firstfruits of the harvest shows us an ancient worship ritual – something like an Israelite Thanksgiving service in which the participants were invited to pretend that they were among the generation that first came into the Promised Land, the “land flowing with milk and honey.” Think of our own modern-day reenactments of the First Thanksgiving dinner, with everyone dressed up as Pilgrims or Indians and eating lots of corn along with their turkey and dressing and cranberries. The Israelite liturgy, like our Thanksgiving reenactments, was meant to evoke remembrance and gratitude for the land they had been given. This ritual, with its tangible offering of the gifts of the harvest, was an offering of praise and gratitude for all they had received.
The Israelites were not people who believed that they were self-made men and women – they knew that without God they would still be groaning under a load of bricks in Egypt or perishing of hunger and thirst in the desert. When they sacrificed the first of their harvest, they not only expressed their gratitude to God, they also asked God to bless all the rest of the harvest. That is the idea behind both the tithe and the Sabbath, by the way. By setting aside one tenth of one’s crops or other income to God, you’re saying you trust God to bless the remainder. By setting aside one day a week to be dedicated to God, you trust that God will bless and make holy the other six days as well.
The context of the offering in Deuteronomy is thanksgiving in the midst of plenty. When we turn to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the situation is different. Paul is writing this letter from prison. He has been stripped of all his worldly possessions, and has to depend on the folks in his churches to bring him food, warm clothing, and other necessities. Yet the dominant note of the entire letter to the Philippians is the note of joy. Paul offers thanksgiving for the Philippian congregation, for their care for him and their love of Jesus Christ. He gives thanks for his imprisonment, because it has given him the opportunity to preach the gospel to the prison guards. He even gives thanks for the privilege of suffering for the sake of Jesus Christ. In the midst of deprivation and hardship, Paul gives thanks. Let’s hear him again, as he tells us the secret to his joy:
“I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me.”
Two very different situations are presented to us today. The Israelites offer their thanksgiving sacrifices in the midst of the rich provisions of the Promised Land. Paul, shut up in a dark and airless prison cell, also offers praise and thanksgiving. That is the paradox of Biblical faith: In both situations God’s blessing is known. “In any and all circumstances” God may be praised and thanked.
For the people of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, thanksgiving is tied to trust in God. The Israelites bring their tithes and offerings in the knowledge that they can give freely because God will continue to care for them and provide for their needs. And Paul can face the absence of everything that makes life enjoyable – fresh air and sunlight, good food, the company of friends, the freedom to move about in the world as one wishes – because he trusts that God will never forsake him. It is worth noting that the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving had not been spared any hardship, and there was still hardship to come: they were thankful for being alive. They overflowed with thanksgiving for the God who had once again proved reliable.
The simple ability to say “thank you” is itself a great gift. It is an even greater gift to be able to recognize grace received “in any and all circumstances.” The greatest gift is to be able to act on our thanksgiving, as we do when we offer our gifts to God.
I’d like to share with you a poem by Anne Sexton that is in the spirit of the Jewish prayers of thanksgiving I spoke about at the beginning of this sermon. It’s called “Welcome Morning.”
There is joy
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
in the spoon and the chair
that cry, “hello there, Anne”
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
and I mean
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.
so while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.
The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,
May the gift of joy and gratitude in all circumstances be yours to share this Thanksgiving.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
November 24, 2019
 Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Boston: Cowley Publications, 2001), p. 39.
 Davis, p. 30.
 Thomas W. Mann, Deuteronomy, Westminster Bible Companion Series (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p. 138.
 From Good Poems, Selected and Introduced by Garrison Keillor (New York: Penguin books, 2002), pp. 5-6.