1 Thessalonians 5:18 In everything give thanks. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
For many churches, the hymn we just sang: “Now Thank We All Our God” is as much a part of Thanksgiving as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, NFL games, turkey, pumpkin pie and napping. This hymn conjures up the image of a congregation singing in unison, following the lead of a stately pipe organ. It is a bold and beautiful hymn as we prepare for our Thanksgiving feast tomorrow.
But, the history of this hymn recalls a very different image: A minister and his family singing this hymn with no accompaniment. It is their hymn of thanksgiving to God for the scraps of food they have on the table in their meager home. They live in a desolate refugee city that is afflicted with famine, disease, and war.
To fully appreciate the beauty of “Now Thank We All Our God,” you need to know its story. So, for a moment, let’s leave behind the comforts of twenty-first century America and travel back to the dark and dreary days of seventeenth century Germany.
Martin Rinkart, the author of this hymn, was a Lutheran pastor in Eilenburg, Germany. He faithfully served the townspeople during The Thirty Years War (1618-1648). That war remains the deadliest religious war in the history of the world, leaving eight million people dead. Catholics and Protestants were in violent disagreement in the countries of central Europe and their battleground was Germany.
The population of the walled city of Eilenburg swelled as many sought refuge from the conflict. As a result, food became scarce. Extreme poverty was rampant. Then, with all those hungry and poor people crammed into the city, the plague struck with deadly force. It was like the angel of death had passed through the town in 1637.
Four pastors began the year in Eilenburg. By the end of the year, one had abandoned his post and Pastor Rinkart presided over the funerals of the other two.
Approximately 8000 residents died that year. Rinkart was conducting 40 to 50 funerals a day. One of them was for his wife.
The stench of death was all around him. Wailing and mourning filled the air. But, so did the songs of thanksgiving for the promise of salvation God had provided through His Son. Martin Rinkart recognized that, even during the struggles of a lengthy and destructive war, the Lord is the one who “wondrous things has done” and who “has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love and still is ours today.”
If you are not living in constant fear of starvation, the plague, and invading armies, you are already more fortunate than this faithful seventeenth century servant of the Word. Having suffered and survived all that, Rinkart was able to see the Lord as “this bounteous God” who provides “ever-joyful hearts” and “blessed peace to cheer us.” He had suffered through tremendous ills, but Rinkart saw this as a way for God to “free us from all ills in this world and the next.”
Despite everything that Rinkart endured, still he was able to sing a doxology to the Triune God in the third stanza.
You can imagine that, at times, Rinkart’s grief and sadness was overwhelming. Yet, his faith in the Lord helped him move beyond his feelings. He based his confidence on facts. The fact that God had sent His Son into the world to live, die, and rise again for eternal salvation for all those who believe in Him. This knowledge allowed Rinkart to trust in God’s abiding presence and accept the Lord’s divine comfort. Rinkart based that confidence on St. Paul’s inspired words to the Thessalonians: “In everything give thanks. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Are you struggling to give thanks in everything? Do you disagree with God’s will for you in Christ Jesus?
Imagine that you are sitting with your family around your dining room table tomorrow. Before you can dig into the turkey and stuff your face with stuffing, everyone at the table must list reasons for why they are thankful.
Perhaps that might be easy for some of you. You might mention your health, the love of family and friends, decent employment, an answer to a recent prayer, or any of a number of other blessings.
But, what if you honestly can’t think of something for which you are thankful? Maybe you are alone for the holiday? Perhaps your family has been ravaged by illness, doctor visits and hospital stays? Perhaps the angel of death has visited your family – tumors, cancer treatments, visits to the funeral home and cemetery. Maybe you’ve lost your job or the love of your life? Maybe you are scared that your children are rejecting you and the Lord? Maybe it feels like your prayers have gone unanswered. How can you be thankful when blessings are scarce?
Our ingratitude, our inability to discover blessings, our unwillingness to say “thank you” are all sins. They come from a blackened and ungrateful heart. They come from a heart that expects instead of accepts; a heart that wants everything easy instead of a heart that works for what it has; a heart that cannot say “no” to our children, so doesn’t like it when God says “no” to us.
We sang earlier from Psalm 100: “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever.” Notice what the Psalm writer does not say. He doesn’t say, “Be thankful, for life when it’s good.” He says, “Give thanks to him … For the Lord is good” (Psalm 100:4,5).
Thanksgiving is not just an ability to see the good things in life, but a new attitude of joy towards God who has been good to you. Even when it feels like God has removed everything else from you – your job, your health, a child, a spouse … still God has been good to you. He has shown you that good in the person of His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
The sum of the Christian life is one of thanksgiving to God in everything, especially for sending us Jesus. What greater goodness can there be than God sending His Son to take on human flesh and blood to save His fallen humanity? Can God demonstrate a more resilient love for you than allowing His Son to do battle with the Ancient Serpent in the desert for 40 days? Can there be a greater blessing than the Son of God giving up His life so that you might have life eternal in heaven? Can God show you a deeper love than adopting you by His grace into His holy family, washing you with His baptismal waters, strengthening your faith with His divine words, and feeding you with His Son’s body and blood?
When you are sitting around the dining table tomorrow, you will be grateful for your Second Article eternal gifts in Jesus. Gifts such as redeeming you, a lost and condemned creature, purchasing and wining you from all sins, from death and the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood and his innocent suffering and death.
You will be grateful for your Third Article spiritual gifts through the Holy Spirit. That that Holy Spirit has called you be the gospel, enlightened you with His gifts, sanctified and kept you in the true faith.
You will also be grateful for your First Article physical gifts of God richly and daily providing you with clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, spouse and children, and all you need for body and life.
You can learn to thank God everything. Even for those things that don’t seem all that good.
Thank God for the cancer. It allows your children the opportunity to keep the Fourth Commandment by caring for those who cared for them.
Thank God for the hospice diagnosis. It gives you the time to prepare your heart to meet Jesus.
Thank God for the grief of losing a loved one. God allows us the great ability to love. Be grateful that you loved someone so much that you are able to grieve when that loved one moves to heaven.
Thank God for difficult financial times. Instead of having a life complicated by stuff, busy schedules, and multiple payments, be grateful that God allows you the clarity to see what really matters in life – and it isn’t stuff, schedules or expensive payments.
Thank God for all the difficult times – whatever they are. For in your baptism, in the Lord’s Supper, and in His holy Word, the Holy Spirit has given you the faith to overcome and still be thankful.
Thanksgiving is more than a pious prayer and an attitude of gratitude sandwiched between the turkey and the pumpkin pie. Thanksgiving is a concrete, tangible, real act of worship. Heads bowed, knees bent, hands folded, hearts uplifted in psalms and hymns and songs. Money in offering plates. Rear ends in the pews. Ears inclined to the Word. Mouths filled with prayer and praise.
No matter what struggles or problems we face, we can still sing with joy, “Now thank we all our God.” We know that even in the midst of pains and hardships, this is God’s will for us in Christ Jesus. If you have a hard time seeing that, tomorrow make a list of all the good things you have in your life compared to living in seventeenth century Eilenburg, Germany.
Join your voice today and every day with the voice of Martin Rinkart and the billions of Christians who for nearly four centuries have been able to sing, in good times and in bad, “Now thank we all our God.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.