Church Calendar: Thanksgiving Sunday
Scripture: Deuteronomy 26:1-11
One of the TV shows I’ve enjoyed is “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates.” Gates, a Harvard scholar, journalist, and filmmaker, has explored the ancestry of dozens of influential people who come from a very diverse background. During the show, he takes each person on a trip back in time and reveals their family history. Even when the person knows some of their family history, there’s always something that’s revealed to them that they didn’t know. Sometimes, what they learn makes them gush with tears of pride. And sometimes, what they learn makes them cringe with tears of shame. My guess is that if everyone one of us were to do a deep dive into our own ancestral history, we’d discover aspects of our past that we’re proud of and things which leave us feeling sad or angry or confused.
In the shows I’ve seen, involvement in slavery is the most common regrettable family history that gets revealed. But for as upsetting as it usually is to the person learning about this aspect of their history, it’s interesting to note that in every instance, somewhere between that lamentable period of time and the present day, the family chose a different path. Somewhere along the way, they chose to branch off in a different, better, more righteous direction. Obviously, there are people alive today who maintain the racist and bigoted pathway trod by their ancestors. But I’m glad to say that the great majority of people in our nation have rejected that sordid past where it existed in their family roots. Most of us have chosen a better way. Now, that doesn’t erase the past, but it does prove that the past doesn’t have to determine the present nor the future.
This was true for the ancient Israelites as well. Today’s reading came from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. The word “Deuteronomy” means “second law.” This name is believed to be related to a phrase in Dt. 17:18, which instructs future kings to write for themselves a “copy of this law.” The book of Deuteronomy is believed to contain the “second law.”
You might recall that “first law” was given to Moses at Mt. Sinai not long after he led them out of Egypt. That’s when God gave him the 10 Commandments as well as the laws pertaining to the sacrificial system and worship. However, calling Deuteronomy a second law is not to suggest that it’s a mere repetition of the instructions found in Exodus and Leviticus. The “first law” given at Mt Sinai came early in their desert wanderings. The law as presented in Deuteronomy came at the end of their wanderings, at the point they were about to cross over into the Promised Land. And if you think about it, those roughly 40 years of living together gave them ample time to clarify and expand the laws. So, at this point in time, Moses “re-gives” them the law, but now casts it terms of a treaty between God and his people.
The portion Ellen read for us earlier comes at the end of this re-reading of the laws, and it includes instructions for what they’re to do once they cross over and establish themselves in their new land. Once they take possession of the land, the first thing they supposed to do is present an offering of food from their harvest to God. They’re to put the food in baskets and bring them to the priest who will present it to God on the altar. Specifically, Moses tell them to “set the produce before the Lord your God, bowing down before the Lord your God. Then celebrate all the good things the Lord your God has done for you and your family” (Dt. 26.10-11). He didn’t specifically say, “give thanks to God,” but I’m pretty sure that attitude or mindset is at the heart of “celebrating” all the good things God’s done for you.
So, for what, exactly, was Moses telling them to celebrate? What will be the “good thing” God will do for them that will merit their gratitude and thanks-giving?
Their new life! In their new land, a land that had been promised to them hundreds of years earlier when God first told Abraham what would someday happen. But that event took hundreds of years to unfold, upwards to 645 years. And except for the immediate 40 years they’d been wandering the desert, the last 430 of those years were spent where? In Egypt. As slaves.
He didn’t specifically say, “give thanks to God,” but I’m pretty sure that attitude or mindset is at the heart of “celebrating all the good things God’s done for you.”
Those 430 years in Egyptian bondage are an important part of the identity of Jews. So much so that Moses instructed them to talk about it as a part of their initial food offering. I’ll read it to you.
The priest will then take the basket from you and place it before the Lord your God’s altar. Then you should solemnly state before the Lord your God:
“My father was a starving Aramean (a reference to Jacob, the father of the twelve sons who later became the twelve tribes of Israel). He went down to Egypt, living as an immigrant there with few family members, but that is where he became a great nation, mighty and numerous. The Egyptians treated us terribly, oppressing us and forcing hard labor on us. So, we cried out for help to the Lord, our ancestors’ God. The Lord heard our call. God saw our misery, our trouble, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with awesome power, and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land—a land full of milk and honey. So now I am bringing the early produce of the fertile ground that you, Lord, have given me” (Deuteronomy 26:4-10).
According to Moses, only after they recounted the horrendous story of their ancestral history could they then set their baskets of produce before the Lord and begin the festivities of thankfulness.
Their present blessings were to be viewed through the lens of their lamentable history. But more importantly, and more to the point, they were to view their current blessing of freedom as the work of God. God heard their cry. And he answered by fulfilling the promise he’d given to Abraham wherein he brought them out of their bondage and into their own land. All of that was God’s doing.
Can’t we say the same thing about our own lives? We all have a history, parts of which we’re not proud of. Maybe even ashamed of. But the good news is that God’s not ashamed of us, no matter what our backstories are. No matter what happened with our forebears. None of that really matters. The only thing that matters is today. Walking with Jesus Christ today. Living in the new and eternal life he offers us. The freedom—the true freedom—that only Jesus can give.
That life and freedom from the power of sin is ours in Christ. Not by anything we’ve done, but through the work of Christ on the cross of Calvary. And the new life we have in Christ is the biggest reason we give thanks. We have every reason to celebrate and give thanks to God. Not only for the current blessings of today, of which there are many for sure. But more significantly, for God’s faithfulness and love which he poured out on the cross and which he pours into our lives today. Thanks be to God! Let’s pray.