Thanksgiving. What a beautiful holiday. Personally, it’s my favorite. It’s a chance simply to gather with family and friends, those we hold near and dear in our hearts, celebrating the bounty and goodness that is ours. I have many fond, warm, memories of Thanksgivings gone by. Perhaps you do, too. Bring to mind those memories, of gathering together, of family and dear friends. Every Thanksgiving, I find reason to say with our Psalm this evening, “Give thanks to the LORD for he is good, his steadfast love endures forever.” And I imagine, that holds true for all of us gathered in this room; we all have reason to give thanks to God.
Such was also true for the author who penned these words, “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” Those are Abraham Lincoln, writing his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1863. He continues by thanking God for the manifold blessings the country is experiencing. Beautiful words, but let us consider what had happened in the months leading up to this 1863 proclamation.
The battle of Gettysburg was fresh in the minds of the people. The union had won the battle, but at a tremendous cost. A reorganization of the Union armies hadn’t produced the results hoped for, and the people had little hope of anything except a continued long, costly, brutal, war. In 1863, the people just knew death, destruction, and desolation at their doorstep. And then in that year, Lincoln continued his suspension of the constitutional right of Habeas Corpus and issued a draft, the first in the history of the country, causing riots across the northeast.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, American poet of fame, writing that same year and reflecting on the reality of death, destruction, and desolation, penned these words, “Then from each black accursed mouth, the cannon thundered in the south, and with their sound, the carols drowned, of peace on earth, goodwill to men.” He could speak from personal experience. His son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, had joined the union army against his father’s express wishes. In November, 1863, he was severely wounded. And so Longfellow continues, “And in despair, I bowed my head. There is no peace on earth, I said, for hate is strong, and mocks the song, of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
This was the reality for the country in 1863. And yet, Lincoln writes that the year “has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” How can he say that, knowing the destruction and devastation? The loss of constitutional rights and the expansion of executive power? The death that touched nearly every family across the United States?
There are parallels to our own time. We have come though perhaps the worst of the pandemic, but we have all been touched by death. We have also witnessed over the last few years news reports that have filled us with fear, recounting destruction and devastation. And we have worried over the past several years about who has political power in this country, fearful about what the other side will do if they gain power. And here we are, gathered together to give God thanks, as the Psalm says, for God’s steadfast love that endures forever.
Doing so can feel challenging when, in Longfellow’s words, it seems that “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
Perhaps Longfellow understood the times better than Lincoln. Was Lincoln delusional with his words? The rest of his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation makes some mention of the war, but generally gives thanks to God for all that the country is, in his word, “enjoying.” How could Lincoln write such a thing?
Could we, ourselves, utter such words today, mindful of the trouble we know?
How are we to give thanks this day?
I have had troubling Thanksgivings of my own. During one particularly tough Thanksgiving a few years ago, I felt beset from every side, saw no way forward through the sheer conflict and trouble I knew at the time. My Thanksgiving that year was full of fear, worry, as I gazed upon the desolation and destruction I knew in my life. And then at church, we sang these words, words that we will sing together in our final hymn this evening:
Ponder anew, what the Almighty can do.
And those words said to me, in the midst of my trouble, “God’s not done with you yet, Ted. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.”
Indeed, just a few Psalms over, in number 107, the author adds these words after saying how God’s steadfast love endures forever: “Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, those he redeemed from trouble.” And today, I stand before you and say God redeemed me from my trouble, and while I would not want to repeat it, I give thanks for how I have seen God move in redemption power in my life; how I know that God’s steadfast love does indeed endure forever.
Psalm 100 calls us to praise God for how God’s love has endured and brought us to the other side. God’s steadfast love has indeed brought us through all the trials and tribulations we have known in recent years; the desolation, destruction, fear, and death we’ve witnessed and experienced in the last several years. It’s by coming through trouble, emerging from the other side of desolation, destruction, and death on our doorstep, that we best experience how God’s steadfast love brought us through the time of trial. We have experienced God’s redemption, and so we can say, “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,” for we, the redeemed, can say so this evening.
It seems Lincoln knew that reality; that God’s steadfast love redeems our troubles. He believed that God would provide, God would take care, and so it was good and right and true to give God thanks in the midst of devastation, destruction, fear, and death, because he knew God wasn’t done with him yet. So he could give thanks to God despite the troubles that enmeshed, enveloped, enjoined, and enraptured him. He could say, “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, those he redeemed from trouble!”
And so let us, today, no matter the destruction, devastation, fear, or death we know, say, “God’s not done with me yet. ‘Give thanks to the LORD for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.’”
Sometimes, we declare that as a statement after the fact. We’ve been through the time of trial, we’ve come to the other side of the trouble, and we can see how God has redeemed. And so we exclaim, “let the redeemed of the LORD say so, those [like me! who] he redeemed from trouble!”
But sometimes, perhaps more often, it’s a statement of faith, a clinging to the reality that God will provide, God will take care, God will bring us to the other side of the trouble that enmeshes, envelops, enjoins, enraptures us. Because, as Psalm 100 says, “it is [God] who made us, we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” When we’re in that time of trouble, when we feel surrounded, when we look out at the world around us, or even just our family, and say that we see destruction, desolation, fear, or death, let us ponder anew what the Almighty can do. Then we will discover that God’s steadfast love endures for us, redeeming all our trouble.
Even with his son severely wounded, knowing the devastation and destruction of the Civil War, Longfellow pondered anew what the Almighty can do. After saying, “and in despair I bowed my head, there is no peace on earth, I said, for hate is strong and mocks the song, of peace on earth, goodwill to men,” the very next stanza of his poem says this:
“Then peeled the bells more loud and deep. God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
We are God’s people, the sheep of his pasture. God will prevail. The wrong shall fail. The trouble we know now, it will not be forever. God will provide. God will redeem. And we, on the other side, will say with Psalms 100 and 107, “O Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his steadfast love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, those he redeemed from trouble.”
That’s reason for thanksgiving. So today, no matter the trouble you have known, no matter the trouble you may know now, whenever you find yourself in the midst of trouble, ponder anew what the Almighty can do. For his steadfast love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the LORD say so this evening.