Thanksgiving was one of my favorite holidays when I was growing up. Every year my family would pile into our car, drive three hours up to Minocqua, WI and visit with Dad’s family. My father is child eleven of twelve, and nearly everyone from his family would come. We’d get to my uncle and aunt’s house and there would be kids running around, the adult would sit upstairs and talk. I got to hang out with about 30 of my cousins, eat delicious food, including famous Heise deserts like suet pudding. I remember years when we had talent shows, when we had we played pool in the basement, watching my uncles ice fish when the ice wasn’t nearly thick enough, and even more. It was a grand time. But, let me be honest with you. Thanksgiving was a holiday, and that’s how I thought about it. I don’t remember many times when I actually had the sense to take the word apart to realize the day was about giving thanks. Sure, we went to church, but it was just church to me. I did it, but I didn’t sense that this was a special day.
What are you going to spend time remembering this Thanksgiving? I know that we all want to look back on what we did and think about how blessed a year we had—how good things were and how happy we are to be where we are today. But, there’s so many ways that this might go wrong. Someone, for instance, might like to look back with pleasure at things that ought never be done. They are people who give thanks by saying, “At least, I was never caught.” There are some who might look back and think about the good old days. They are the ones who give thanks by saying, “At least, it was good while it lasted.” There are those who might look back and see only the bleak disappointments, the losses, all the sorrow. They are the ones who give thanks by saying, “It could be worse, I guess.” There are those who look back at this year with a sense of accomplishment, and maybe even arrogance. They are the ones who give thanks by saying, “At least I got what I wanted.”
What is it that is missing behind these attitudes? Maybe some of you are already thinking, “Well, we’re forgetting God.” And you’re partly right. God should not be forgotten among us—he doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. But we aren’t all the way there even if we are remembering the Lord and his blessings. An attitude that forgets the Lord and his many benefits goes deeper than just our mind. It has penetrated deep into our hearts and taken control. Moses is giving the Israelites a very poignant warning, more than just “remember the Lord.”
Try and feel what these Israelites were feeling and sense what they are sensing. They have wandered in the wilderness for so long that most of them have only ever known that barren wasteland. But, the Promised Land was coming. Soon, they would cross over that Jordan river, right up to the cities of Canaan and begin their conquest. Wouldn’t that be welcome after 40 years wandering? Wouldn’t it be amazing to enter into the land that would be exactly as Moses was describing it? We can eat and be satisfied, no more of this manna and quail. We’ll get real food. We’re going to be able to build beautiful houses, grow our flocks of animals huge, and have as much silver and gold as we can find. Finally. Finally, life will be good. We can leave behind the wilderness, the thirst, the snakes and scorpions, all of that. Of course, we’ll also remember the Lord. Of course, we will. Why wouldn’t we?
If the Israelites thought that the temptations of the wilderness would give way to the ease of the Promised Land, God wants them to know that’s not the case. That just isn’t the way of life or the way of the human heart. The real danger lurked here, where they might praise the Lord, remember the Lord, follow his commands, and yet forget him. He would be remembered in their words, maybe in their minds, but their hearts would be far from them. Instead, they would look at everything they had—their houses, their flocks, the gold and silver, they’d feel their full bellies—and they would enjoy how much they had gotten. Not how much they had been given, but how much they had earned. They, their work, their effort, it was all theirs. Remember the Lord? Sure, they’d do that as long as you didn’t talk about what was in their hearts. Hearts that had forgotten the Lord in their pride.
That is what’s behind our Thanksgiving attitudes, too. We’re here at church, we remember the Lord, but is that what is in your heart? Was worship the part of Thanksgiving you were even looking forward to? Or was it the food and the family? Was it football? Was it pie and turkey? What’s in your heart today? We’re just like those Israelites who remember the Lord, but hiding is ours hearts is pride of accomplishment for all the things that we have. Or, maybe it’s pride that causes us to feel jealous of the things you don’t have, or wish things were the way things used to be, or lamenting the meaninglessness of it all. What are you going to spend time remembering this Thanksgiving? Will it be the power and the strength of your hands, the way the power of your hands has failed, or will it be the fact that you don’t deserve any of this? The Israelites didn’t deserve that Promised Land; they didn’t deserve the good gift, much less the Good Giver. What do you have in your life that you deserve, that you can take pride in as if you earned it?
What are you going to spend time remembering this Thanksgiving? Here’s what I hope it is. There is nothing in your life that you have earned or deserved. Even the blessings you receive from working hard and not deserved, because you couldn’t do the work if it weren’t for the Lord. That you have good things in your life is not something to pride in. The blessed fact behind everything in your life is that it is all a gift of God’s grace. For those Israelites, it was pure grace that God remembered the covenant he made with people like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God promised a land where his people would live, and he kept that promise. For us, it is pure grace that God remembers the covenant that he makes with people like us. It’s a covenant in which God says, “Because of Christ Jesus, I will look on you favorably and give you every good thing you need.”
It is a humbling fact to look at the people in your life, to think of how much you love them—like your children or your parents, your spouse, your best friend—and recognize that God didn’t have to give you those people. But, he did, because of his grace towards you. This was a fact one of my best friends helped me see. He and I were sitting outside looking at the stars one night. He pointed out as we were talking that God didn’t have to make us friends, he didn’t have to give us the many blessing that he had given us. Things could have gone in a completely different direction. Maybe we never met, maybe we ended up living in different states, or whatever. But, God worked it out everything so that on that one night we would sit and talk under the stars about that small grace he had shown to us. That goes for everything in your life. It’s all grace shown to you. That is the heart of your God.
May your hearts be lowly and humble as you see how your God takes care of you and confirm his covenant to you. Christians are the best at giving thanks because they are the ones who see God’s grace behind every blessing. So of course, when they eat and are satisfied they praise the Lord; this food is from him. Of course, Christians want to follow and observe God’s commands so that they can spend their lives saying thanks to God. Christians spend time remembering the Lord, not just with their lips, not just with their minds, but deep in their hearts where they are so convinced that all of this is his grace—the ability to produce wealth, the covenant he made through his Son, the food, the family, the friends, the good times, the tragedies, the abundance, and the wanting.
I want to finish with a parable. There was a farmer in ancient Israel, after the days of Moses, after the days of Joshua, when the land was settled. This farmer had a horse that he had raised from a little colt. He took care of it, fed, groomed it, and sometimes thought about it more like a friend than like a horse. He was thankful for the horse. But one day, when he walked over to the horse’s pen, he found it open, and the horse gone. Some friends came over and they all made a big scene about how unfortunate all of this was and how sad the farmer must be. But, he wasn’t sad. The farmer was thankful and trusted that God was still being gracious to him. One week later, his horse came back. And, the horse had three wild horses with him. The farmer gave thanks to God for being so gracious to him. The friends came back, and they all told the farmer how lucky he was. They said things like, “It’s because you trained the horse so well, that it came back.” But, the farmer knew it wasn’t about it. It was about God’s grace.
Afterward, he set about trying to break the wild horses so that he could use them on his farm. While he was doing this, his son was bucked off one of the horses and he fell and broke his leg. The farmer was taking care of his son when his friends came back. They talked all about how unfortunate it was that the son had broken his leg. It was going to mean less could be done on the farm. But, the farmer just gave thanks He trusted that God was still being gracious to him. A week after his son broke his leg, some Moabites came into the village. They had come to take men and force them to be in their army. When they came to the farmer’s house, they asked about the farmer’s son who was just the right age to join the army, but they didn’t take him because his leg was broken. All of the farmer’s friends came back and talked about how lucky the farmer was that his son wouldn’t have to go to war. They even said things like, “You must have known the Moabites were coming, that’s why you had the horse throw your son.” But, the farmer knew it was nonsense. He knew that God was gracious to him every day of his life and that he that he always had something to be thankful for. That’s why in every situation, he was content, gave thanks to God and trusted him.
Here’s a simple way that you can have the same attitude, the grateful, humble one, God desires. You’ll probably see friends and family that you haven’t seen in a while. They’ll probably ask you how you are doing or how you have been. When those questions come, say, “Blessed in spite of myself.” Take the credit for everything you have and give it to God. You might get some odd looks, but embrace it. Remember the Lord’s grace. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good and his love endures forever. Amen.