November 27, 2019 A+D
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
At the popular level, Thanksgiving is meant to remind us that we are dependent upon God. Ingratitude is distasteful. We are morally obligated to be thankful for body and soul, eyes, ears, and all the stuff needed for earthly life. It is the duty of all decent people to be thankful and of Christians to be thankful to God. That sentiment is not contrary to Christianity and we happily engage in deliberate gratitude. God is the Maker of heaven and earth. But such an idea, good as ti might be, is hardly the essence of Christianity.
The fuller reality than the fact that God provides daily bread is that without His mercy we would not only be dead; we would be damned to Hell. From a Biblical perspective, if body and soul, house and home, wife and children, and the like are to bring us any real satisfaction or joy we must first reckon with the punishment that our sins deserve. Without mercy, without forgiveness and grace, without Christ, there is nothing much to give thanks for since it is all going to be destroyed or sent to perdition.
This idea is embodied in the Bible’s call to thanksgiving which we associate with the Holy Communion: O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good. And His mercy endureth forever.
This particular call to thanksgiving, “O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good. And His mercy endureth forever,” shows up six different times in the Bible (1 Chronicles 16:34; Psalm 106:1; 107:1; 118:1, 29; 136:1). It is programmatic for us. It is what we do. We give thanks and we give thanks precisely for the particular goodness of God’s mercy.
This is important because the Lord’s goodness is not a matter of His morality or decency or competence, as though He were simply a good God or good at being God or carrying out His duties in accordance with the Law. Rather, His goodness is His mercy. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the life of the world. That sacrifice is His competence and morality, in a sense; that is, He can do and does this because He is God, but more to the point, judged in the ways of men, this sacrifice is somewhat insane. What rancher dies for his cows? What vineyard owner pays workers for not working? What king gives away His kingdom? Ours and that is what makes Him good.
The point that Jesus makes in calling Himself the Good Shepherd then is not that He is good at being a shepherd or is moral, that He brings a lot of sheep to market for wool or understands how to be a shepherd or is fair and decent, but rather that He is good for us. He is good for the sheep. He dies for His sheep because His mercy endures forever. Again: that mercy, insane as it might be, detrimental to profit and power and wealth gathering, and even potentially as unjust as it is, is His goodness.
Whatever unsung and unknown Englishman coined the phrase “Good Friday” for the day of the Cross was probably the best theologian in the history of Englishmen. Here we Lutherans must step back and admit with uncharacteristic humility that English serves better than the German or Latin. Good Friday is good not because the day is lovely with the sun shining and birds singing, or because all of our family is back home and gathered around the table for a feast and no one is yet fighting; rather, Good Friday is good because it is good for us. It is the day of God’s mercy, the day of atonement and salvation.
It is the goodness of Good Friday, the goodness of the Good Shepherd, that which is good for us, that colors the words of the Psalm in the cry after Holy Communion. The deacon says, “O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good.” He is calling upon us to thank God for daily bread or for all the things we need for this bodily life, though there is certainly a place for that. Rather there when he chants “O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good,” he is calling us to thank God for the peculiar mercy that He has bestowed upon us in the Holy Communion by giving us the risen Body and Blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins. The congregation’s response is almost a corrective, or at least it is a reminder of this. You there in the pews don’t want us up front to forget the rest of the sentence or the character of the Lord’s goodness. Here is the very reason we can give thanks at all, in any situation, for daily bread, for gainful employment, and even for crosses. Here is the definition of the goodness of God that elicits our thanks: “His mercy endureth forever.”
The goodness of God that loved us to the end, the mercy which sent a Substitute and Atonement in the person of His Son in our flesh to die our death and win us back for Himself, this is the fount of Christian thanksgiving. God does not punish us as the Law would demand; instead, He has mercy on us for Christ’s sake. He welcomes us to Himself and feeds us with His own Body and Blood for the forgiveness of our sins.
Luther teaches us to look upon the gifts of creation in this way. For he teaches us in the Small Catechism that God gives us all the stuff we need for this body and life “only out of Fatherly Divine goodness and mercy without any merit or worthiness in us.” We do well to remember that whenever we give thanks and indeed we should give thanks in all circumstances for this the will of God in Christ Jesus for us.
O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good . . .