In his small catechism Luther gives a long—but nowhere near exhaustive—list of all the things God gives us out of His fatherly, divine goodness and mercy. Things like clothing and shoes, food and drink, body and soul, eyes and ears, and all that I need to support this body and life. For all of these things, Luther says, “it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.” We have come together tonight in partial fulfillment of that duty. We have come together to thank and praise God for the blessings He has given without any merit or worthiness on our part. He has given us innumerable blessings, riches greater than any can fathom, and a beautiful land as our inheritance. So, it is only right that we as a nation pause to thank God for what He so richly provides.
But what does Luther mean when he says it is our “duty” to thank and praise, serve and obey? How does Scripture explain our response to God’s outpouring of great and undeserved gifts? How do we go about giving thanks to God? We see from Luther that our thankfulness has two parts, first that we thank and praise, second that we serve and obey. Let’s unpack these together to find out what Thanksgiving is really about.
First, giving thanks to God. What does that look like? The Psalmist gives us a good idea in Psalm 116, words we know well from the Liturgy: “What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord…in the presence of all His people, in the courts of the house of the Lord.” What could the Psalmist refer to if he isn’t talking about the very thing we’re doing this evening, gathering for the Divine Service?! The greatest way to give thanks to God is to receive from Him! It’s not to give something to Him as if He needs it, but to take even more from Him. How can that be? Taking from God is acknowledging that all good comes from Him alone. We don’t have clothing or shoes, food or drink, land or animals of our own efforts. We may think we go to work and earn, that we go to the store and spend, we work the land and raise the animals, but all of these things come from God alone. Without His work in those six days of Creation there would be no earth to bring forth seed for the sower and bread for the eater. Taking from Him, but also returning a portion to Him, acknowledges that it’s all His to begin with and He has simply loaned it to us, entrusted it to our care. So, as we receive from His hand our very actions confess that all belongs to Him.
And the greatest gift He has given to us is not that which sustains our earthly life, but that which gives us eternal life. Our greatest act of thanksgiving is passive reception! When the Psalmist asks what he should do to give thanks to the Lord, the very first thing he says is that he “will lift up the cup of salvation.” What cup do you know of that gives salvation except for the Cup of Our Lord’s Blood? So, if you want to give thanks to God this Thanksgiving, you’re already doing it! By gathering here tonight, by coming to the Altar, you are giving God most hearty thanks. You are gathering in the courts of the Lord’s House, in the midst of your fellow members of the Body of Christ, partaking of the greatest Feast ever spread on this earth.
This Feast, as we know from the Post-Communion Collect, motivates the second part of our act of thanksgiving: serving and obeying God by living faithfully towards Him and in love towards the neighbor. The Psalmist reminds us of this in the portion of Psalm 116 mentioned earlier. His taking the cup of salvation happens “in the presence of all [God’s] people.” Thanksgiving, therefore, is not a merely vertical action, something directed towards God. Thanksgiving also takes on a horizontal aspect, living with one another in a God-pleasing way, seeking to obey all that God asks us to do. Of course, we cannot do that perfectly, which is also what brings us here tonight. We know that our thanksgiving towards God has not been combined with perfect love for the neighbor. So, we repent, we implore God’s grace to do better. We take up the cup of salvation knowing that in it is not only forgiveness but the strength to live in service and obedience towards God and love towards the neighbor.
And as we hear in tonight’s Gospel, that love towards the neighbor means giving from our abundance. It doesn’t mean selfish hoarding of the treasures entrusted to us because none of it goes with us in the end. Remember what Jesus said on Sunday in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. While our good works do not save us, God still expects us to do them. He still expects us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and lonely. So, this Thanksgiving as we receive from God and thank Him for it, we are reminded that there is room in all of our lives to be more charitable towards our neighbor, an action which, of course, is not limited to the November-December holiday season, but is necessary year-round.
A thought which shows how important Thanksgiving truly is. We have plenty for which to thank God, not an atom of which we deserve. Even though it is our duty to thank and praise, serve and obey, we’re bad at all of it. God knows that. He sees it, no matter how much we try to hide it or how much we try to convince ourselves that we’re “good” people. God knows the truth. But like a good Father, He abundantly provides for all our needs of body and soul. He doesn’t look at what we deserve or do not deserve. He doesn’t give in proportion to our goodness. He gives the most fantastic of gifts to the vilest of offenders.
So, come, take up the Cup of Salvation. Receive from the Lord’s nail-pierced hands forgiveness. That’s the best way you can mark Thanksgiving. Take more, because the Lord loves to give. Take more from Him because that is what will keep you steadfast in this life until death. Receive His forgiveness, the best way you could ever thank and praise, serve and obey Him.