Date: November 27, 2019
Festival: Thanksgiving Eve & Day
Text: Word study on the word “thanksgiving”
Preaching Occasion: St. Paul Lutheran Church, Union, MO
Exegetical Statement: There are four uses of the word “thanksgiving” in all of Scripture: (A) toward a human being, (B) a religious ritual toward God, (C) in a choir of people singing praises and doxologies to God, and (D) a short composition sung by a single person.
Focus Statement: God does His gracious work among His people during the liturgy of the Divine Service.
Function Statement: That my hearers will desire to give thanks to God through our traditional liturgical singing.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
What are you thankful for? Maybe your family practises the American custom of going around the Thanksgiving dinner table sharing what you’re thankful for, maybe specifically what you’re thankful for this year. So, again: What are you thankful for? As Americans who participate in a culture of consumerism, this should be rather easy for us. We have a lot of things others do not have. We even have things in excess.
How many streaming services are you subscribed to, for example? There are so many different ones that offer their own varieties of movies and TV shows. One person can be simultaneously subscribed to Netflix, HBO Now, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Crunchy Roll, and Disney Plus. That’s a lot to be thankful for right there!
So, what are you thankful for? Consider your daily bread. Do you have food, clothing, heating and cooling, books, health, education, musical instruments, video games, cars, etc.? Whether you have much or little is not the point. As Job aptly pointed out in his incredible suffering, the Lord gives and takes away [Job 1:21]. The Lord gives as He sees fit. What you have, however much or little it is, is a blessing from the Lord. That is why we say the cliché: “Count your blessings.” However, we give thanks, then we run to the store for Black Friday sales, full on turkey, but never full enough on stuff.
So, we have all these things we’re thankful for, or should be thankful for. How, then, do we give thanks? How do we express our gratitude? In the simplest of ways, it can be as easy as saying two small words: “thank you.” If you read my article in this month’s Epistle, you have some idea of how we thank each other by saying “thank you” to someone, such as to the person at the drive-through of a fast food restaurant, or a waitress, or when your spouse does something for you without you asking, or even when you do ask (and especially then).
This is how we give thanks to people, but how do we give thanks to God? Again, it can be as simple as a prayer of thanksgiving by praying “thank you” to God. But is that the only way we give thanks to God? Biblically speaking, it is not.
Earlier, you didn’t hear me say what text of Scripture this homily is on, and that’s because it’s on a word study I did on the word “thanksgiving,” which only appears 36 times in the entire Old and New Testament combined, yet with four different uses:
- The first is giving thanks to a human being.
- The second is thanksgiving as a religious ritual toward God.
- The third is thanksgiving in a choir of people singing praises and doxologies to God.
- And the fourth is a song of thanksgiving as a short composition sung by a single person, such as Mary’s Magnificat, Hannah’s Song, and any Psalm.
Interestingly, only 1 of 4 of these is concerned with thanksgiving toward people. 75% of the time, Scripture speaks on thanksgiving toward God. Giving thanks to people is simple, but how do we give thanks to God?
Let’s consider only one of these ways in which we give thanks to God, and that is thanksgiving sung in a choir of people. This thanksgiving is what takes place during our Divine Service.
There is a purpose for why we sing our liturgy and hymns. Someone might say, “Jesus didn’t sing the Word of Institution for the Lord’s Supper; He spoke them.” Yeah, but that’s not the point. We sing them because singing forces us to slow down and consider the words we are singing, and in this way they teach us and inform us of what the Word is doing among us. We also sing them because giving thanks to God through ritualistic liturgical song is a long, historical practice of the Church, dating all the way back to God’s Old Testament people.
For example, when the people of Israel returned to their homeland after their Babylonian exile, they were preparing a celebration for the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they had just built, and Nehemiah writes, Then I brought the leaders of Judah up onto the wall and appointed two great choirs that gave thanks” [12:31].
They praised God through liturgical song as they marched throughout the entire city with stringed instruments and percussion instruments. Why did Nehemiah appoint choirs to give thanks through song? Because of what God had done in their midst.
So, why do we give thanks to God through song in our hymns and liturgy? Because of what God is doing in our midst. In the Divine Service, God’s kingdom breaks through as He comes to us in Word & Sacrament, beginning with the invocation of our Triune God, which is to invoke or call upon His name in this breaking in of the kingdom.
Then we confess our sins before God the Father as Jesus forgives our sins through His under-shepherd, the pastor. After this, we sing songs of thanksgiving for what we just received with the entrance hymn, Kyrie, and Gloria in Excelsis. Then after we pray, the Word is read to us, and we respond with a song of thanksgiving for the Word we just received. We sing again both before and after the sermon for the Word of God the pastor (or vicar) just brought to us.
Then we sing during what we might consider the centrepiece of the Divine Service: the Eucharist. This is a fancy word for the Lord’s Supper. The word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek verb that means “to give thanks,” which is eucharisteo. Why do we call the Lord’s Supper the Eucharist?
Well, when we hear the Words of Institution, which are taken from Scripture, we hear the pastor sing, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it… In the same way also, He took the cup after supper, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them…”
The verb used there in the New Testament is eucharisteo—to give thanks. Before Jesus gave the elements to His disciples, He eucharisteo’d—He gave thanks—for the meal of His body and blood.
When do we give thanks for this meal? Not only during the Words of Institution when the pastor repeats the words of Jesus, but also in the preface of the Sacrament when the pastor sings, “Let us give thanks unto the Lord our God,” and we sing back, “It is meet and right so to do,” then we sing the Sanctus as that song of thanksgiving to the Lord for the gift we are about to receive.
After we all have received the Eucharist, we sing the Nunc Dimittis (Latin for “now release”). We sing this for what we just received as we are about to be released into the world as the salt of the earth. Then the pastor sings thanksgiving, “O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good.”
Now, why do we do this in song? Can’t we just say the words? Of course we can, and we do. Yet I don’t think I have to tell you the deep effect music has on us. Frederic Chopin’s Prelude No. 15, “Raindrop,” moves me to tears. Pink Floyd’s album The Wall resonates with the major depression that once haunted me. Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody brings good memories of head banging to the rock song with my dad in the car as we mimicked Mike Myers in the movie Wayne’s World. No doubt, you also can think of music that has deeply affected you.
God knows the effect music has on us. Martin Luther said it well, “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. The gift of language combined with the gift of song was given to man that he should proclaim the Word of God through music.”
The Finnish hymn, Be Still, My Soul, deeply moves the Christian to tears because of the hope of the resurrection declared in it. Great Is Thy Faithfulness reminds the Christian of God’s faithfulness in spite of her faithlessness. The Gloria in Excelsis we sing in Divine Service 3 deeply moves the Christian as he is reminded of the cost of Jesus’ precious, holy, and innocent blood to remove all of his sins.
There is a purpose to this Lutheran tradition of ours, having begun first in Israel. The kingdom of God breaks into our fold as we give thanks through choral song for God’s gracious acts toward us. With how powerful music is with the Word of God combined with it, what better way is there for us to give our deep thanks to God for what He has done, is doing, and will do in Christ than through song to exalt the name of the Lord with the exaltation of our voices?
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.