It is not easy to focus on “thanksgiving” when we are in the midst of turmoil – the current political crisis, social turmoil, economic disruption, and the seemingly never-ending pandemic. And yet, this is exactly what the Continental Congress did in 1777 as it was forced out of Philadelphia by the occupying British army. The delegates voted “to set apart Thursday, the eighteenth Day of December next, for Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise.” As is always the case with formal days of thanksgiving, the focus was on history, based on their “obligation to God for benefits received” and a reliance on Him to “continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence.” The words of the psalmist come to mind here:
What shall I render to the Lord For all His benefits toward me? … I will offer to You the sacrifice of thanksgiving, And will call upon the name of the Lord. Psalm 116:12 & 17
By stepping back from our current crisis and remembering God’s historical faithfulness with thanksgiving, we gain perspective and grow in faith. One man who did just that is Martin Rinckart, who served his small church in Saxony during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). In addition to a wartime refugee crisis, his flock also suffered the ravages of famine and an outbreak of the bubonic plague. Thousands died in his village and the situation was as bad throughout northern Germany, though Martin himself was spared. In 1636, the height of the crisis, he wrote this famous thanksgiving hymn, set to music by J.S. Bach:
Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices, who wondrous things has done, in whom his world rejoices; who from our mothers' arms has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today. O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us, with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us, to keep us in his grace, and guide us when perplexed, and free us from all ills in this world and the next.
Martin Rinckart understood the sacrificial aspect of thanksgiving. He poured himself out on behalf of his “neighbors” with his feet of faith firmly planted on God’s work of salvation. Like Daniel, he trusted a sovereign God who is always able to deliver. What did he sacrifice? By choosing to give thanks to the sovereign God in the midst of these crises, he “sacrificed” his own sovereignty; he admitted his own total inadequacy to “fix” the problems and simply went about loving his neighbor as best he could in the circumstances. Also, notice that his “thanksgiving” was active – done with “heart and hands and voices.” One way we express our thanksgiving to God for what he has done is by actively loving our neighbors. This, too, might be considered a “sacrifice.”
As we approach this Thanksgiving season, let us remember with great thanksgiving the great things God has done throughout history; let us sacrifice our own feeble attempts to maintain our independence and sense of control, and let us make that sacrifice active in the way we serve and love those around us. Even younger children can enter into this “active thanksgiving.” A worthwhile dinner table conversation might include asking family members to think of a specific trial that they faced at some point in the past and consider how, with the benefit of hindsight, they can see God’s provision for them in that trial. Then use those insights to motivate a specific act of service for someone you know as a way of actively expressing your thanksgiving to God.
This Thanksgiving, let us all reflect on the faithfulness of God through past generations and say with the psalmist,
I will offer to You the sacrifice of thanksgiving, And will call upon the name of the Lord. Psalm 116:17