Humbled and Thankful. Thanksgiving Day 2015.
St. Peter Lutheran Church
November 26, 2015
“Humbled and Thankful”
The people of Israel had been slaves in Egypt who were cruelly abused by their masters. They had groaned in their bondage for centuries, and no one came to help them. You would think that such an experience would have been enough to teach them humility, that no further humbling would have been necessary for them. But being humble or humiliated in the eyes of men is not the same thing as humility before God. Even in the most wretched of people there is by nature an arrogance, a surging pride toward or against God. It manifests itself in unbelief, when we disregard and disbelieve and dispute God’s Word. It is a spiritual pride that holds to its own thoughts and feelings and disputes with God’s Word. It says, “How can this be?” to God’s clear Word and promise instead of saying with the mother of God, “Let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)
In the reading from Deuteronomy God is about to bring the people of Israel into the promised land of Canaan after forty years of wandering in the desert. As they are about to cross into the land that God has promised them, He tells them: “You shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.” (Deut. 8:2) Even though they had been slaves, the Israelites were not humble. They had seen the plagues the Lord sent on the Egyptians; they had seen Him part the Red Sea for them and drown the hosts of Pharaoh. They had seen God descend in fire on Mount Sinai and heard His voice speak the Ten Commandments from the mountain. But these wonders were not enough to make them humble before God. When they first came to the border of the land of Canaan, and they heard that the inhabitants of the land were strong, they rebelled against the Lord and would not go in. They did not believe that God would give them the land. They said, “’Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ And they said to one another,’ Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.’” (Numbers 14:3-4)
That doesn’t sound to our ears like pride; it sounds like despair. But the Israelites were being proud because they regarded their thoughts as higher than God’s Word and their weakness as greater than God’s power. They didn’t recognize that it was the Lord’s hand that had brought them out of Egypt and didn’t believe that His hand would drive out the nations before them. All they could see was the strength of the nations in the land of Canaan and their own weakness. That was pride, because they did not regard the Lord and His Word as more powerful than the might of men.
So God humbled them. He made the Israelites wander in the desert until the people of that generation died. Their children would go in and receive the land. And all the while they wandered around the desert they were dependent on God. He had to lead them by a pillar of cloud and fire—they had no idea where they were going. He had to feed them with manna—bread from heaven. He had to give them water in that dry and weary land. “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deut. 8:3) As they wandered in the wilderness where there was no food, they were supposed to learn that it was not really food that sustained them, but the Lord’s Word. His Word sent the bread from heaven to them faithfully. Each morning they awoke and found bread to eat in a place where there was no bread. For forty years this great multitude of people was sustained in a desert which was unable to sustain them because the Word of the Lord said that it should be so. They were being disciplined for their unbelief and rebellion, but disciplined as children, not destroyed in God’s wrath. God was teaching them not to depend on their senses and reason and experience but on His Word.
Now as they are about to go into the land of promise God tells them to remember their wandering in the wilderness and what He taught them there. “The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing…” (Deut. 8:7-9) They are to remember their time in the wilderness because when they come into this good land it will be easy for them to forget what really sustains them and gives them life. It will be easy for them to think that it is the good land that gives them life instead of the Word of the Lord. Then instead of “bless[ing] the Lord for the good land he has given” (Deut. 8:10), they will be unthankful or give the Lord’s praise to idols.
What does all this have to do with us on this day of national thanksgiving in the United States of America in the year of our Lord 2015? The United States is not Israel, and America is not the land of Canaan. No, the Church is Israel, the believers in Christ from every tribe and nation scattered across the world. And our promised land is not in this world, but the new heavens and earth that Jesus will bring about when He comes again.
No, now is the time of our wandering in the wilderness. We live as faithful citizens of this country. We pay our taxes; we pray and work for the well-being and prosperity of our nation. But we are pilgrims here. We are looking for another country to come in which Christ reigns and all enemies—sin, suffering, death and the devil—are banished.
While we are wandering, the Lord humbles us, but sustains us. He gives us life by His Word. He sustains us with the bread from heaven—Jesus Christ, crucified for our sins and raised from the dead the third day. He gives us this life-giving bread in the preaching of His Word and in the Holy Sacrament of His Body and Blood. He gives us spiritual food in this desert and sustains us. And as He does this He is humbling us, teaching us not to regard what we can see and sense but His Word. His Word proclaims to us that Christ’s righteousness is ours, although we cannot see or sense it. It proclaims to us that the Kingdom of heaven is ours, not by our doing but by the obedience and suffering of Jesus in our place. When our numbers are small and weak, when we wonder how we will survive the next day or week in the wilderness—much less enter into the promised land—God is disciplining us, teaching us to depend on His Word to provide for us. We are learning to trust His Word that declares the kingdom of heaven is ours, that death and sin will not harm us. As we learn to trust that Word we come to recognize that everything that sustains our lives comes from that Word as well—food and drink, clothing and shoes, house and home, family, and everything we have.
Otherwise, by nature, we think the way the unbelieving world does. We sort of vaguely recognize that God exists and that He made everything, but we don’t really recognize the gifts we receive as coming from God. This makes real thanksgiving to God impossible. That was what eventually happened to the Israelites in the land of promise. They ate and were full and then forgot God, thinking that their own hand or righteousness had gotten them all the blessings they had. They forgot how they had nothing in the wilderness but the Word of the Lord faithfully provided them with bread from heaven in a place where it should have been impossible for them to live.
The Lord has us in the wilderness to humble us, to discipline us, to teach us to hold to His Word as our life. And yet in this wilderness He has still given us so much. We go home to plates of food and to families that love us, to homes that are warm and comfortable, in a country where despite all our sins we are still blessed with peace and order.
We have those things and we should give God thanks as the one who has given them out of great mercy. We should pray that He keeps giving those gifts to us and our country. But we should not depend on them as our life nor set our hearts on them as our highest joy.
God is able to give us life even in the absence of those things—peace and freedom, family and friends, food and drink. “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deut. 8:3) He gives us life by proclaiming Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and the devil for us, by plunging us into His death and resurrection in Baptism. Believe that Word and claim the Kingdom of Heaven as your own, despite what you see and feel and sense. Then you will see that all the good things you receive on earth are not accidents or flukes—they are the Lord providing for you as a father.
Let us give thanks to the Lord for those good things we have received and are still receiving on earth. Let us also give thanks for His discipline that teaches us to believe His Word instead of our own thoughts. And let us thank the Lord our God for the good land He has promised us—the new heavens and the new earth, bought for us by Jesus’ suffering and death and sealed to us with His blood.
Soli Deo Gloria