Psalm 136 November 26, 2023
Last Thursday we celebrated our National Day of Thanksgiving. Over the centuries people who settled this land felt a strong need to formally give thanks to the Lord God for protecting them and for giving them all good things. The Puritans were first in celebrating a day of thanksgiving. There are many legends surrounding the first celebration of Thanksgiving Day. However, it is no legend that they were people of faith who wanted to give thanks to the Lord. Our celebration of Thanksgiving Day came out of the religious expressions and needs of our people. In the beginning, it was a time to honor and worship God.
Since that first Thanksgiving Proclamation on June 20, 1676, there have been many official government proclamations calling upon Americans to give God thanks. The Continental Congress issued their first Thanksgiving Proclamation on November 1, 1777. Samuel Adams wrote the proclamation in the form of a 360 word sentence. It read in part: “Forasmuch as it is the indispensable duty of all men to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with gratitude their obligation to Him for benefits received . . . together with penitent confession of their sins, whereby they had forfeited every favor; and their humble and earnest supplications that it may please God through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance . . . it is therefore recommended . . . to set apart Thursday the eighteenth day of December next, for solemn thanksgiving and praise, that with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feeling of their hearts and consecrate themselves to the service of their Divine Benefactor . . . acknowledging with gratitude their obligations to Him for benefits received . . . To prosper the means of religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth ‘in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost’.” History is clear that our American celebration of a day of thanksgiving has its roots in the Christian experience of faith and trust in the Lord.
As I read the Proclamation, did you notice what it called upon people to do during the day of giving thanks? The citizens were to “acknowledge with gratitude their obligation to Him [God] for the benefits received [from Him].” Thanksgiving is a time of gratitude in which the citizens of the United States of America give thanks to God for all the abundance He has given us. Thanksgiving is a time of “penitent confession” of sin. The day is a time to offer God our “intercessions.” The Proclamation is clear. They, Congress, set apart a specific Thursday “for solemn thanksgiving and praise, that with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feeling of their hearts and consecrate themselves to the service of their “Divine Benefactor.” Every Thanksgiving Day is a time to rededicate and consecrate ourselves to Christ Jesus.
It is sad to see how Thanksgiving Day turned from a holy day to a secular festival in which people overeat, over-drink and watch television. As the people of the Church become more and more like the people of the world, the Church loses its focus and power. It becomes just another service club. What would happen if we, the Church, led the world into the kingdom rather than letting the world lead us into the realm where people live as though God did not exist?
One of the key activities of the Church is to worship God. We are to lead the way for others as we follow our leader, Christ Jesus. There are many aspects to worship. However, two key aspects of worship are praise and thanksgiving. In praising God we honor Him for who He is. For example, “I praise you, Lord, for your saving power. I praise you, Lord, for your resurrection power.” Giving thanks is one of the finest activities we can do. When we give God thanks, we are showing gratitude for the blessings He has given us. People of faith traditionally have given God thanks before meals. We thank God for giving us food to eat. For without God’s benevolence, we would have starved long ago. For some, prayer before meals is a formality that vanished long ago. There’s a story of a farmer who was in town for business. At lunchtime he stopped at a local restaurant and ordered a meal. Before he began to eat, he bowed his head for prayer. At another table there were a group of young men who thought the farmer’s behavior was funny. They called out to him, “Old man does everyone do that where you come from?” The farmer calmly replied, “No, not everyone. The pigs don’t.” He is right. I have never seen a pig who gave God thanks for his meal.
Let us take a trip to Jerusalem around three thousand years ago. Solomon just had the temple built and the priests offered sacrifices and worship to the Lord God. Psalm 136 is a temple worship psalm. They repeated the verses and the responses as they gave God thanks and praise. Imagine the priest calling out the words, “O, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good,” then the people respond with the words, “for his steadfast love endures forever.” They continue reading and responding until all twenty-six verses are offered up to God. Their voices resound across the temple courts and into the city on the east and the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives on the west. They gave their thanks to the Lord God.
In the first part of Psalm 136, they are giving God thanks because they recognize two of His qualities or characteristics. We affirm that God is good. I have heard such a litany. I knew a bishop who enjoyed calling out, “God is good,” and people learned to respond by replying, “All the time.” The Bishop would then say, “All the time,” and the people responded by calling out, “God is good.” How wonderful it is that God is good. The ancient gods and goddesses were anything but good. They were capricious. They were fickle, unstable, volatile, and changeable. One never knew how they would respond. One time they might bless the pagan worshiper, the next they would harm him. Pagan worship is designed to appease the gods hoping that one can get them on your side. One of the worst of the pagan gods was called Moloch. In order to try to appease this evil god people burned their children in fire. Archaeologists have found graveyards filled with the bones of infants sacrificed to Moloch. First and foremost, we thank God because He is good. His love for us is forever. He does not give us what we deserve. Instead He gives us mercy.
We give thanks to the Lord God because He is the “God of gods,” and the “Lord of lords.” Let me be clear about gods and goddesses. They are figments of human imagination. There are no gods and goddesses. They are false. They are shams. They are religions made up by the evil one to deceive people. When the priests and people worshipped “the God of gods” and “Lord of lords” they were using figures of speech. Faithful Jews knew the gods and goddesses worshiped by the pagan peoples around them were false. Better still, they knew that the Lord God is good, is real, is eternal and seeks to bless His people. We give God thanks because there is no god but the Lord God, and His steadfast love endures forever. His love is not just for a moment; it is forever.
In the next section of Psalm 136, the priests and people are recognizing that God is Creator of all that is and that God works in history. We give thanks to the Lord because he created everything. Some today say that the universe just happened, and that life simply emerged out of the chance meeting of certain chemicals millions upon millions of years ago. For me it is hard to believe that everything evolved by accident from simpler forms but easier recognize that behind all creation is an Intelligent Designer. It does not take a rocket scientist to look at the wonders of creation and see evidence that behind all creation is intelligent design. Of course, if one has an axe to grind against theism, against the Lord God, then one will see and believe what one wants to. A few years ago I was reflecting and something came to my mind. I realized that I am a collection of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and trace minerals, and I am conscious of my own existence. Not only that, I can communicate with other collections of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and trace minerals. We can interact with our world, and do many marvelous things. For me it is hard to believe that we just happened over time, and that we were some kind of accident that nature worked out. People of faith give thanks to the Lord God who created everything. We recognize that behind the wonders of creation is the Intelligent Designer, the Lord God.
The Hebrew people saw God working in history. They never thought that Pharaoh just happened to let his slaves go. Behind the Exodus from Egypt was the Lord God. From the beginning to the end, the Lord God worked in history leading the people of Israel out of Egypt through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. At every turn, God was there working good for His people. History did not just happen but God works His good work in history. We Christians give thanks because God works for us in history. He is not just up there somewhere sitting on a cloud. He is right here among us working for our good. When Augustus was Emperor of Rome, at that point in history, God was born into a humThanksan family and set in motion the greatest of His saving acts. Over the decades, people have argued that Jesus of Nazareth was a legend, not a real person. Today even some skeptics recognize that Jesus was a flesh and blood historical figure. They may not recognize that He is Lord and Savior but they do acknowledge that Jesus was a real man. We who believe in Christ Jesus recognize Him as God’s only Son. We believe and recognize that through Him we find genuine salvation and eternal life. God worked great things in history and continues to work in history. Like the ancient Hebrews, we give thanks to God who does His good work in history.
As the Psalmist ends the psalm, he gives thanks to God who gives all His creation food to eat: “Who gives food to all flesh.” God gives us all we need to live well and to sustain ourselves. Our celebration of Thanksgiving Day usually involves large quantities of good food. In this feast we recognize just how much God has blessed us with good things to eat. God made the Midwestern United States the breadbasket of the world. He has blessed this Nation, not so we would become bloated with wealth, but so that we would be a blessing to other nations and peoples. God has blessed us so that we can be a blessing to others. As God blesses us, we are called to bless others. That is our job; that is our task; that is our calling.
When we sit down to a sumptuous Thanksgiving Dinner or any meal, it is good to offer a prayer of thanksgiving. When we survey our abundance, do not feel guilty. God has blessed us. God has blessed you for a purpose. He has blessed you so that you can be a blessing to others. Instead of feeling guilty, ask God to show you ways you can bless others.
“O, give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for His steadfast love endues forever.”
A Sermon Preached by
CH (COL) Michael W. Malone
at Veterans Memorial Chapel