That portion of Holy Scripture that we shall read and consider, the Holy Spirit has caused to be recorded in Deuteronomy 8:1-10, reading these words in Jesus Name:
“Every commandment which I command you today you must be careful to observe, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land of which the LORD swore to your fathers. And you shall remember that the LORD your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD. Your garments did not wear out on you, nor did your foot swell these forty years. You should know in your heart that as a man chastens his son, so the LORD your God chastens you. Therefore you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and to fear Him. For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, that flow out of valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing; a land whose stones are iron and out of whose hills you can dig copper. When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you.”
Every American child learns about the history of this holiday. We call it Thanksgiving. It isn’t a church holiday. It’s a national holiday. America has been blessed by God as few other nations in history. The American tradition of setting aside a day of thanksgiving began with the Pilgrims and was continued years later by George Washington who proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving to God. Abraham Lincoln later made this into a national holiday that we celebrate to this day.
There is another nation, a nation most singularly blessed by God, a nation to which we are heirs. I am talking about the nation that God formed in the Sinai Desert after miraculously delivering them from slavery in Egypt. It is their story that I would like to tell this morning because it is our story as well.
It is our story because it was promised to Abraham and Abraham is our spiritual father. The man lived four thousand years ago, but he trusted in the same Savior in whom we trust. Abraham, who sacrificed a ram on Mt. Moriah instead of his son Isaac, trusted in what that animal represented. He trusted in the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, and we do too. Abraham’s faith is our faith. This makes Abraham’s history our history.
God promised him a land that would belong to him and to his descendants. Abraham trusted in that promise, though he never possessed the land, neither did his son Isaac, nor his grandson Jacob, whose name God changed to Israel. In fact, Israel’s descendants found themselves enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years. It seemed that God had forgotten his promise.
God sent Moses to deliver his people from slavery. After many plagues, which demonstrated God’s superior power over the false gods of the Egyptians, God rescued his nation Israel by the miraculous crossing through the waters of the Red Sea.
God promised his people the land he first had promised to Abraham. But first he formed them as his people. He humbled them. He disciplined them. He taught them. For forty years he cared for them in the Sinai desert. They didn’t plow, plant, cultivate, harvest, grind, mix, and bake. God rained food from heaven and called it manna. They did nothing to receive it. It came directly from God. They couldn’t even save any for the next day. If they did it would turn rancid and impossible to eat. They learned to depend on God quite literally for their daily bread. Their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell with sores. God was in charge, and when they whined and complained about Moses, God reminded them who was in charge.
Israel learned humble obedience to God’s every command. They paid the price for disobedience. They learned to trust God’s promises by witnessing amazing miracles. They learned to depend on the One who had rescued them from slavery. But would they remember? When their bellies were full, the crops were abundant, and they were rich, would they forget? Would they put their trust in their newfound wealth or would they bless the LORD their God for the good land he had given them?
We know the story. God’s faithfulness was met with stubborn disobedience, false worship, rebellion, and apostasy. God responded by punishing his disobedient people. When they were suffering, God would send another prophet calling them to repentance. They would humble themselves before their God and God would pronounce them forgiven. They would be restored. Then they would again forget their gracious God, and the cycle would repeat itself. That’s the story of Israel, and that’s our story too.
There are, of course, differences. Ancient Israel was a theocracy. That is, God ruled them directly through his prophet. There was no separation of church and state. Moses was both pastor and governor. And he was elected directly by God alone. But despite these differences, the people described in our text are our people. Their story is our story. Their God is our God. And this is so because the promise which saved them from their enemies, which saved them from themselves, from their own sin, is the promise in which we trust. It is the promise, now fulfilled, of the blessed Seed of Abraham, the Seed of the woman who crushed the serpent’s head. It is the promise of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, the Savior of the world.
And the story of ancient Israel continues in the history of Christ’s holy church, which is the true Israel. God speaks to his people today through the same words that Moses spoke to God’s people 3,400 years ago. He humbles us today. He disciplines us. He teaches us “that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” If we will not learn this, we cannot thank him, bless him, or praise him, for if we will not treasure his word in our hearts, he can make us as rich as rich can be in every other blessing, and our hearts will remain as cold as ice.
We all know the story about the poor little rich boy who has everything except his father’s love and attention and who would gladly trade in all his expensive stuff for the affection of the father who is always too busy for him. Yet we make ourselves poor when we assume that it is enough to thank our God for the things he gives us while ignoring what God has to say to us. Oh yes, we say, God has blessed us, see how wealthy we are compared to others in this world, look at all of our stuff, the wonders of modern technology and the great conveniences of life. We readily admit that we ought to thank God for his blessings. We have more food than we can eat, more clothes than we can wear, we always have a roof over our heads, let us thank our God.
Then we wonder why we don’t feel the gratitude we ought to feel. If we aren’t grateful is this not because we have shut our ears and hearts to what God has to say? The stuff God has given us can never be the focus of our faith. The point of God’s generosity is that He is our God and we are his people. This precious relationship, recounted so many times in the Old Testament with the words, “the LORD, your God,” is not merely receiving with thanksgiving all the things God gives. It comes from receiving by faith the words God speaks. Lord, what would you have me do? Tell me, and that is what I want to do. A life of deliberate disobedience to God just isn’t worth living. Lord, what are your promises so that I will know in what to trust? I know that you alone can be depended upon on earth and in heaven, in life and in death. Or is a life of doubting God worth living? Speak, Lord, your servant is listening, so said Samuel, Hannah’s son. What do we say?
Do you want to give genuine thanks to your God? Do you want thanksgiving to be more than a national holiday but the prayer of your heart to your God? Then pray that God humble you, that he discipline you, that he teach you to do without as he did for his dear children whom he rescued from Pharaoh’s cruelty. Pray that you learn what it means when he says, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” It means that we will believe every word simply because God says so and we won’t dismiss God’s mysteries or difficult sayings simply because they aren’t popular with our friends. It means that we will learn God’s word, as if our very lives depended on it, for they surely do. It means that we will confess God’s truth, even when it costs us to do so. It means that we will treasure in our hearts what God says, even when it appears that God is speaking nonsense. It means that we will let God determine what is right and wrong, not our increasingly godless society. It means that we will cherish the truth our God has revealed to us in the Sacred Scriptures as more valuable to us than the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the things we own, the friends we have, indeed more valuable than life itself. For God’s word is our life.
God’s word is the precious cradle, which bears Christ. It is the only vehicle of God’s true love. When he disciplines, chastens, humbles us, and takes away what we love, he never does so for any other reason than fatherly kindness. For he alone knows our true need and he must show it to us. When you’re well off, content, satisfied with all the things you have, you may not know your true need. But God never forgets. We need Jesus in whom Abraham trusted.
We need Jesus, typified by the bronze snake on a pole, to whom Israel looked and was saved. We need Jesus nailed to Calvary. We need Jesus to whose death and resurrection we were joined in our baptism. We need that blessed exchange as Jesus takes on himself our sin and gives to us his righteousness. We need Jesus who absolves us when we confess our sins. We need Jesus, whose body and blood are put into our mouths. We need Jesus who intercedes for us. We need Jesus who will soon return to take us to the Promised Land.
And every word that comes from the mouth of God is given to us by the Holy Spirit for this purpose: that we may have Jesus, and having him, have God the Father, and having God the Father, have wealth beyond telling, satisfaction which no created thing can give, and thanksgiving, yes, eternal, joyful, thanksgiving to the LORD our God who has set us free to be his own. Amen