Thanksgiving Day 2008

Thanksgiving is a good day for us to reflect on our relationship with God.  We can look at two past Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations to get some sense of how American leaders understood God and why they saw it as important to give thanks to the Creator of the Universe.

First you can read the entire Thanksgiving Proclamation of George Washington, 3 October 1789 and even see his actual handwritten letter of the proclamation.  I want to quote only part of it:

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor– and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness. … and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions– …   To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us–and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

In other parts of the proclamation Washington acknowledges the favor God has shown to the people of the United States by the outcome of the Revolutionary War.   Thanksgiving is offered because people understand God’s favor is given freely by God not because we have earned or merited that favor.  Washington acknowledges this by asking God to forgive us our sins.  This part of a Thanksgiving proclamation may seem strange to modern American ears – why mention our sins when we are giving thanks to God?   It has to do with the strong sense of unmerited grace.  God favors and blesses America “while we are still sinners” not because we are righteous.  This is the nature of God’s grace, and why we should be thankful.  If we had earned God’s blessings, we wouldn’t need to be thankful as the blessings would be our just payment for work rendered.

Second, you can read the entire Proclamation Establishing Thanksgiving Day by Abraham Lincoln from  October 3, 1863, but I will quote in part:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.  To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.  … No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.  They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. …  I do therefore invite my fellow citizens …  to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.   And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

Lincoln like Washington had to acknowledge a war as being part of the nation’s recent experience.   Lincoln like Washington also brings to mind the sins of the nation in his Thanksgiving Proclamation.  He too understood that God shedding His grace on America was not because of America’s righteousness, but because God is favorably disposed to set things right.  It is the sense of one’s sinfulness that makes the experience of God’s blessings so pronounced and which leads to a joyful expression of thanksgiving:  We don’t deserve to live in a blessed land, we are sinners, and yet God has blessed us with abundance.  It is an experience of grace not a story of hard earned payment.

Unfortunately in modern times, we Americans have forgotten about our sins, and see little need to repent and even at times make it to be unpatriotic to refer to our sins or to acknowledge that we Americans individually and as a nation are sinners in need of God’s mercies.  It is however in recognizing our sinfulness and the undeserved favor we have received from God that leads to our Thanksgiving.   We thank God out of our humbleness not in our arrogance.  In arrogance we might think we deserve God’s favor because we are so righteous.  In humility we understand ourselves as sinners, and yet and in spite of our sins, God has showered favor on us.  Thanks be to God.    Thanksgiving certainly is much in line with the spirit of the Nativity Fast and asking God’s forgiveness.  Repentance gives us a greater sense of thanksgiving as we realize how undeserved God’s grace really is, and how special it is to experience the blessings of God despite our sins.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.   (Ephesians 2:4-9)

The God who Submits Himself to Human Will

“The risk-taking or kenosis on God’s part, inaugurated at the creation, came to its full innerkingdom1expression at the Incarnation.  In choosing to become a creature, the divine Creator embraced a situation of complete vulnerability, an entire and unreserved solidarity with us humans in our pain and brokenness.  He willed to effect our salvation, not through any exercise of transcendent power, but through the utter powerlessness of His incarnate state: ‘My strength is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Cor 12:9).”   (Bishop Kallistos Ware, THE INNER KINGDOM)

It is certainly true that God in creating the world and in giving humans free will took a risk – He created a world which He was determined not to control, not to predestine.  He created a world in which humans could create pain and brokenness – a pain and brokenness that God would in time be willing to take upon Himself!  God took the risk of choosing to submit His love and His will to the free will and choices of His created humans – in fact to their judgment.   He willingly contained and curtailed His power making Himself work with us humans, accepting our free will and choices as well as our weaknesses and sinfulness.   He suffered and grieved because of what He saw in the human heart and what He saw the humans doing (Genesis 6:6).    In His all-powerful love, He submits Himself totally to all that is human in the incarnation.   His power is revealed in weakness, His perfect love revealed in his powerlessness.  Christmas is the revelation of the God whose perfection and power is not limited by human reason or logic.   The God whose heart was grieved became the man of sorrows (Isaiah 53:3) in order to heal, restore and redeem the broken heartedness of  human beings (Psalm 147:3, Isaiah 61:1) .