The recitation of thanksgiving in Deuteronomy 25 begins with Jacob,
son of Isaac, husband of Leah and Rachel, and father of 12 sons.
A famine forced Jacob and his family to move to Egypt in order to
survive. In the years that followed, the Hebrew families grew to
be a large nation, just as God had promised Abraham. So large, in
fact, that it frightened the Pharaoh, who made them slaves in order
to prevent them from taking over the land of Egypt. God called Moses
to help free the people from slavery, and through signs and miracles
the Hebrews escaped. I think you know the story of the waters parting
at the Red Sea so the people could get away.
Commentator Nick Carter continues the story. “Imagine this:
after 39 years, 11 months, and one week in the wilderness, the Israelites
are gathered on the plains of Moab, poised to enter the promised
land. After nearly forty years of feeling lost and unsure, having
had to learn a mountain of laws and rules, after being chastised
for bad behavior (often well deserved!), and after having spent
a good deal of their sojourn being confused, underfed, and poorly
housed -- they wondered why in the world they had left Egypt in
the first place. But now here they sitting on the highlands overlooking
the Jordan River Valley, the promised land lying in the distance!
Everything they have endured, worked, and sacrificed for is at long
last within their reach. The sense of God’s grace and blessing
must be overwhelming.”
And now they were in that Promised Land, harvesting the “first
fruits” of the land. God had instructed them what to do with
the “first fruits.” They were to be put in a basket
and taken to the place of worship where they should tell the priest
“I announce to God that I have entered the land that God promised
our ancestors.” Then they were to recite the story of God’s
deliverance and grace -- about Jacob and Egypt and God’s strong
You see, it wasn’t enough just to hand off their “first
fruits” on that First Thanksgiving. Part of their gratitude
was to remember who they were and where they came from. God delivered
them from slavery. God fed them in the desert. God brought them
out of homelessness to this fertile land. God deserves their thanksgiving.
If you think about it, there might be something unsettling about
bringing “first fruits.” They are the very best of the
crop. There is no guarantee that the rest of the crop will come
in. Yet giving back to God doesn’t really leave us poorer.
It is implied in every offertory statement we hear in Sunday worship,
that God is a giver.
In an AMBS online course I am immersing myself in the scripture
story any way I can. I highlighted all the verbs, read the text
out loud in several translations, drew pictures of the action, checked
commentaries and sermons from other preachers, used the Bible dictionary
to understand names, places and rituals.
Half way through the study, I noticed the changes in point of view
in this recitation of history. It begins in third person, referring
to Father Jacob who went down to Egypt. But then the recitation
switches to first person plural -- to “us” and “we.”
Although the reader probably didn’t experienced slavery first
hand, he nevertheless identified personally with his family history.
The Egyptians battered “us”; “we” cried
out to God, God listened to “our” voice, took “us”
out of Egypt, brought “us” to this place. Then it becomes
first person singular. Here “I” am. I’ve brought
the first fruits that “I’ve grown” on this ground
you gave “me.” To me, these changes in point of view
feel significant. The reader knows his history, but he also recognizes
himself as part of that heritage, and his gratitude is personal.
I also noticed a focus on time -- future, past, and present. When
the Hebrews offered their first fruits to God, they were trusting
that God would provide for future needs as well. The recitation
of the past recalls God’s strong arm of deliverance and God’s
provision during 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Having
offered God the “first fruits,” it’s now time
to have a party! Celebrate what God has given to you and your family.
Invite the priests and the strangers in your midst to join with
This celebration of first fruits was not a one-time thing. It became
a yearly holiday, known as the feast of the harvest or feast of
weeks. It was celebrated on the 50th day after the beginning of
the harvest, and was later given the name “Pentecost,”
which means 50. It was the same harvest festival taking place when
the Holy Spirit came to the disciples and others in Acts 2. Their
tradition became taking off work to travel to Jerusalem to give
a tithe of their crops. The recitation of “first fruits”
moved from thanksgiving for material things to gratitude for God’s
grace and protection. Our thanksgiving story is the culminating
act of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.
Sometimes in the excitement of opening gifts, a child forgets to
say thank you and the parent has to remind them, “What do
you say?” We can tell if a gift is appreciated by the enthusiasm
or lack thereof by the thank you. Sadly, there are some also adults
who seldom say thank you or express their gratitude for what people
do for them, as though they are entitled to the goodwill of others.
King Duncan remarks, “Our addiction to material goods may
actually make us less grateful than if we had very little.”
Often it is the poor person who is most generous, because they know
what it is to have need.
Once a minister who was called to the scene of a woman standing
on a roof ready to end her life. The minister said “I’m
sorry no one loves you. Your grandchildren must not pay any attention
to you.” The woman replied, “No, my family loves me
and my grandchildren are wonderful. I have eight of them.”
The pastor took a step toward her and said, “But then you
must be very poor to be so desperate to jump.” She said, “Do
I look like I need a meal? We live near Central Park in a beautiful
apartment.” The pastor took another step. “Then why
do you want to jump?” The woman paused and then replied, “I
don’t remember.” The pastor had successfully helped
the woman take her mind off her problems and reminded her to be
thankful. As they continued to talk, the woman shared pictures of
her grandchildren, and later became a volunteer on a suicide prevention
Being thankful takes our mind off material things and focuses it
on relationships. It is significant that our thanksgiving to God
is not complete until it has been shared with others.
You remember the children’s classic, “How the Grinch
Stole Christmas.” In this story “the Grinch enters all
the homes [in Whoville] by way of their chimneys, disguised as Santa
Claus. He takes all the presents and ornaments, the trees and stockings,
and even their food down to the last morsel. He drags his loot up
the mountain and then looks down on Whoville with a sinister grin.
He is listening for the cries and wailings of the people to start
as they wake up on Christmas morning to discover a Christmas lost.
What he hears instead surprises him. Up from the town of the Whos
comes a joyful Christmas carol. They are singing! “Why?”
he asks. He learns it is because Christmas resides not in things,
but in the heart which is thankful. He could not steal their gratitude.”
In a few minutes we will close this service with the hymn, “Now
thank we all our God.” It was written by “Martin Rinkert,
a minister in the little town of Eilenburg, Germany, some 350 years
ago. He was the son of a poor coppersmith, but somehow, he managed
to work his way through an education. Finally, in the year 1617,
he was offered the post of Archdeacon in his hometown parish. A
year later, what has come to be known as the Thirty-Years-War broke
out. His town was caught right in the middle. In 1637, the massive
plague that swept across the continent hit Eilenburg... people died
at the rate of fifty a day and the man called upon to bury most
of them was Martin Rinkert. In all, over 8,000 people died, including
Martin's own wife. His labors finally came to an end, just one year
after the conclusion of the war. His ministry spanned 32 years,
with all but the first and the last overwhelmed by the great conflict
that engulfed his town. Tough circumstances in which to be thankful!
But he managed. And he wrote these words:
Now thank we all our God
With heart and hands and voices;
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom his world rejoices.
The Christian faith affirms that in the midst of everything --
in death, in loss, in hardship -- we are to turn to God in praise.”
So now, my friends, let us thank the Lord our God with heart and
hand and voices! And all God’s people said, “Amen!”