When we talk about “giving thanks”, to whom are we supposed to give these thanks? Why, to God, of course — yet I’m amused (somewhat) that most of the world resolutely tiptoes around who’s supposed to be receiving these thanks. We’re supposed to give thanks, but they never tell you to whom. Christians gladly confess who is the source of all their good things — God the Heavenly Father (James 1:17.)
I chose this text for two reasons: 1) it was a text that got skipped earlier this year for us (my brother Peter, a senior at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, guest preached for Seminary Sunday), and 2) The Lutheran Hymnal appoints this as the Gospel for the day for a Harvest festival. I’d read a suggestion to use this text as an alternate instead of Luke 17:11-19, which if you look at it isn’t even about thankfulness per se as it is about faith, and our people had already heard a sermon on that text from me this year. I figured I’d switch it up a little. It worked pretty well. Maybe in the future I’ll just use the standard readings. This sermon went well in the preaching. Now it’s on to Sunday! May God bless you and yours as you give thanks this Thanksgiving.
“Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21 “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”” (luke 12.13-21 niv)
God has surely blessed us, hasn’t He? We are privileged to live in one of the richest nations in the world. The standard of living that we take for granted here would seem like a fantastic dream to most of the world’s population. We all have enough to eat, as far as I know – in fact, we often have a problem not eating too much. We have good health care, even if it does cost at times. We don’t have to worry where our next meal is coming from or where we’ll find a place out of the elements to spend the night. We may complain about our government at times, but we don’t have wars taking place on our doorsteps or rampant crime in the streets. Some people still struggle, but overall God has richly blessed in our country. “God bless America” isn’t just a bumper sticker slogan – it’s the truth.
Sometimes that’s part of the problem, though. God doesn’t give any gifts so good that our flesh can’t misuse them. No matter how beautiful or wonderful God’s gifts are, our sinful flesh always finds a way to misuse them. Our flesh can take God’s bountiful goodness to us and curl in on itself. It grasps onto the good things God gives and then turns away from God, instead looking at and delighting in the things God gave rather than the Giver. The parable Jesus tells in our text is an example of this. The prosperous farmer has a great year, and he’s musing about what to do next. “What should I do now that I’m set for life? Let’s see – I’ll build bigger barns, and then I’ll live it up. Every day is going to be a vacation from now on.”
Pay special attention to the attitude behind the rich man’s thoughts. He gloats over his wealth. He luxuriates in thinking about it. He dwells on it, almost like the child of God dwells on thinking about God. In his mind he keeps running his fingers through all his money. He’s lost in daydreaming about all the good food he’s going to eat, all the time he’s going to spend on the beach working on his tan with one of those drinks with an umbrella in it in his hand. All he’s thinking about is himself – what he’s going to do with his money, the pleasures he has to look forward to. He doesn’t have a thought for the God who gave him that great crop and all his money. In his heart he bows down to his wealth, and his sinful flesh says, yes, this is good. This is right. This is the way it should be. Serve yourself. Love yourself. It’s all for you.
God’s blessings to us can become an occasion for our flesh to crowd God out. It can happen in big and small ways. We need a new car, so we start looking at new cars, thinking about them, and pretty soon that fills our thoughts. It doesn’t have to be cars – it can be gear for hunting or fishing or nice clothes or even new equipment we can use to earn our livelihood. For me I’d have to say it’s books. I like books. It doesn’t matter what it is – it’s the attitude with which we think about and use the things of this world. We need to make sure we don’t fall in love with the things we use.
God has a way of dealing with love of money and possessions. He takes them away. Many times God allows people who love their things to heap up lots of money or possessions, and then He blows it away with a breath. All the stuff they’ve worked so hard for for so long – it’s gone in an instant. They lose all the possessions that they loved more than God. We need to guard ourselves against slipping into that kind of grasping attitude, because the time to die comes to everybody, and we could have nothing with which to appear before God. We could lose our spiritual riches, because we ignored those in pursuit of earthly wealth. All the stuff we love and want more than God won’t be ours anymore when we die. When you look ahead to that day, God’s question makes a lot more sense: “This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”
It’s not that we’re not supposed to use the things of this world. God gives them to us for the maintenance of our bodies and our lives. He wants us to use earthly things for our good and others’ good – but we need to have the right attitude about it. We need to give thanks for our physical blessings, but even more than that, our spiritual blessings. Some people preach that God wants you to be rich. He wants you to drive the fancy car, live in the big house, have the fat bank account. If you follow Jesus and commit your way to Him, He’ll make you rich in this world. Some people call this the “loaves and fishes” gospel, or the prosperity gospel. God wants you to move up a tax bracket — or two.
This is half a truth at best. God indeed does want us to be rich. He wants us to abound and to overflow with riches, but in the right way. God wants us to be rich toward Him first and foremost – not toward earthly possessions. Remember where your real wealth is. Only God’s Word is the pearl of great price with which nothing else can compare. His great and precious promises are the only sure ground for our faith and our only assurance of good things in this life and the life to come. His dear Son as our only guarantee of eternal life. Christ is the only real, stable, valuable thing in our lives, both in our lives here and in eternity. Christ’s suffering and death for us is the treasure that buys heaven for us. God pours out mercies on us every day through Christ and blesses us freely and without hesitation through the sacrifice of His Son. Jesus gives us all those blessings – indeed, His very self, something nobody can beg or buy, no matter how much money they would offer – and He offers His blessings freely every time we come to His altar and receive His forgiveness and love. What God has done for us and what He does for us every day through His Word and faith are the true riches. Not our cars, our houses, our boats, our stocks, our clothes, or whatever else we’re fond of and enjoy using is this world, because those things are destined to perish with use. Christ will not. He endures forever, and He lives to give blessings to us forever.
This Thanksgiving, make sure you thank God for all His blessings – not just the physical ones. And His physical blessings to us are great. Without them we wouldn’t be able to preserve our lives in this world. Use them, enjoy them, be good stewards of them. Be thankful for them to the God who gave them. That’s what Thanksgiving is about. But don’t store up for yourselves in this world only, because what God gives are the true riches and the lasting wealth. Value your spiritual possessions above your earthly ones. Treasure what Christ gives you, because that’s more important, ultimately, than whatever else we have in this world. If you keep this in mind, you can use the things of this world and even enjoy them, but not become attached to them in your heart. Save your heart for your Lord, the Giver of all good gifts. Then you will please Him and you will praise Him here in this life, and forever in heaven. Give thanks to the God of heaven and earth for all His good gifts. May God grant each of us a right use of all His gifts, for the sake of His Son. Amen.