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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

16 November 2007

Thanksgiving? For What? To Whom?

PeanutsWhen the world was young and I was a lad, we thought ourselves fortunate if we had even two television networks come into our homes with reasonable clarity. (Such days probably seem as far removed as the Civil War or the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob for my younger readers.) Also, there were certain seasonal rituals ordained by the networks. New shows always rolled out in the fall and particular movies and TV specials were shown year after year. The various Peanuts shows were part of this, as were holiday specials from Bob Hope, Andy Williams, and others.

Before home videos, DVDs, and the like, we had to wait until they were televised for us to watch the seasonal programs. We also had to be patient until the networks decided to run movies for us. While newer films were regularly shown, you could also guarantee that at least two movies would appear annually. One was The Wizard of Oz and the other was White Christmas.

This latter, among its many well known songs, includes the Irving Berlin standard Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep). It begins, “When I’m worried and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep. And I fall asleep counting my blessings.” At first, it sounds nice and caring — but what if I have precious few blessings to count? This just seems a more subtle way of saying what a later song directly demanded: “Don’t worry; be happy.”

Many of us can make long lists; others have much less to enumerate. And all of us can get sidetracked from our counting by“what if” questions. Also, when we inspect all the good things in our lives, we face (and often succumb to) the temptation to compare what we have with what others possess. Just that quickly, contentment and thanksgiving fly out the window.

Even God seems to be a nag. The Psalm says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. ( 136:1)” Not only does He demand that we turn to Him in thanksgiving, He also reminds us that He’s the One who gives us everything. There’s no blessing without a “Blesser,” no thanksgiving without a “Someone to Thank.” However, God not only demands that we recognize His goodness, He also provides the means by which we are able to truly thank Him.

Thankfulness comes because His Word and Spirit actively work to change our very natures. As Paul told the Philippians, “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (4:7)” With this peace comes contentment and with contentment comes thanksgiving. He tells us that our afflictions are the discipline of a loving Father (Hebrews 12:6). He says that “all things work together for good (Romans 8:28)” and reminds us that His desire is not to continue to bring “great disaster” upon His rebellious people but to “bring upon [us] all the good (Jeremiah 32:42)” that He wants us to receive.

Rather than counting our blessings, maybe we should count on our blessings — especially the Father’s three-fold gift of forgiveness of sins, salvation, eternal life through Jesus Christ. The Son looked prophetically ahead from David’s time on earth to His own. Stretched out in agony on the cross, He fulfilled the counts and comparisons of Psalm 22. These include, “All ... mock me ... all my bones are out of joint ... I can count all my bones (vv. 7, 14, 17)”

Every one of us can confess with David, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. (Psalm 51:5)” Stained with sin from conception and birth we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (Romans 3:23)” However, because of Jesus’ suffering and death, “the one who does not work [for his own salvation] but believes in” Jesus Christ, has faith that “is counted as righteousness. (Romans 4:5)” God no longer numbers us as His enemies; instead, Jesus “was numbered with the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:12)”

We don’t count on our own righteousness — the Lord God warns us that the sum total of our good deeds amounts to wearing a “polluted garment. (Isaiah 64:6)” Instead, when we believe in His forgiveness for Christ’s sake, our Father covers and clothes us with “the garments of salvation” and “the robe of righteousness. (Isaiah 61:10)”

If we’re going to count our blessings, we certainly are encouraged to thank God for the things of this world. However, we don’t depend upon or hoard these “treasures on earth” because “moth and rust destroy and ... thieves break in and steal. (Matthew 6:19)” Instead, we accumulate and enumerate true “treasures in heaven. (Matthew 6:19-20)”

Wanting to calm our nights’ sleep and fill our days with contentment, the Lord moves us to count first those blessings which matter for all eternity, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)” Certainly, He promises to “give us this day our daily bread. (Matthew 6:11)” We know that the One who “clothes the grass of the field” will “much more clothe (Matthew 6:30)” us.

Need better food? We feed on Jesus, “the living bread that came down from heaven. (John 6:51)” The table He prepares before us (see Psalm 23:5) ultimately involves “the body and blood of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 11:27)” Want spiffy new duds? With Job, each of us can say, “I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban. (29:14)” We didn’t purchase this new wardrobe, nor can we keep our clothing clean. Instead, God lets His “priests be clothed with righteousness (Psalm 132:9)” and tells us that we are His “royal priesthood. (1 Peter 2:9)” When sin stains our new clothing, He moves us to wash our robes, making them “white in the blood of the Lamb. (Revelation 22:14)”

Thanksgiving? For what? To whom? “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? (Psalm 116:12)” Why not simply “offer ... the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord (Psalm 116:17)”?

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

To Ask the Pastor, send email to Ask the Pastor.

Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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Newspaper column #529


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