+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
We gather again this evening in preparation for tomorrow’s celebration of Thanksgiving. The way we most often think of this holiday is essentially reflective: we are urged to look back over the past year and to identify the people and things and events that inspire feelings of gratitude and thankfulness in us. No doubt many of us will have conversations like that tomorrow. At first blush, tonight’s reading from Isaiah is a perfect fit! It’s an unbridled declaration of praise and thanksgiving for God’s wondrous acts. In fact, it’s a declaration that God is so amazing that the whole world needs to be told! It’s very tempting to just read this passage and have a seat, implying that this word of Scripture says everything that needs to be said about our calling to give thanks to God for the gift of salvation.
I can’t do that, however, because there’s a slight twist to this evening’s reading that I think needs to be addressed, and it reveals something important about the nature of thanksgiving for us as we prepare for tomorrow’s festivities. That something is the timing of God’s glorious deeds, the “tense” in which this passage from Isaiah is written, and the key to recognizing the twist comes right at the beginning of verse 4: And you will say on that day… (Isaiah 12:4, NRSV). Suddenly, this reading isn’t quite so straightforward, is it? This word from the prophet is not a reflection on God’s past acts of mercy and salvation. It is a forward-looking word of prophecy, a hope-filled declaration that this nation, surrounded by hostile peoples and wracked by short-sighted leadership and unfruitful living, will yet be saved by God. It is a word which acknowledges all the challenges that face the people of Judah, and which nevertheless announces the conviction that God will move to redeem and save them.
I think there’s something to this notion of “pre-emptive thanksgiving” that’s worth thinking about as we prepare for another day of thanks in our country. There is much for us to be grateful for when we reflect on the year that has passed, and yet the reality is that all of us are dealing with situations that don’t call for thanksgiving. Illness and injury, grief and sadness, loneliness and isolation, all of these are signs of the brokenness of our world, and an honest acknowledgement of them – while it may not negate those other things for which we are thankful – gives us an awareness of wounds that are yet to be healed. As we look around our nation and world, we are also aware of the ways that social sicknesses like racism and sexism continue to infect systems and institutions and cause pain and suffering for many people. We are confronted with the reality of warfare and conflict that locks humanity into endless cycles of violence between people and nations. We continue to see widespread poverty and hunger and disease in many places around the globe, despite technological advances that have made the end of those problems more possible than ever before. As we prepare to celebrate thanksgiving, we are all too mindful of how sin wracks our world and prevents all from experiencing the abundant life that is God’s will for us in Christ.
That’s why this idea of “pre-emptive thanksgiving” is so important. It is a way of acknowledging our broken reality without being bound in fear and cynicism and despair. Because Scripture has revealed God’s will for salvation, and because God’s reign has broken into our world in the person of Jesus, we can give thanks both for the ways that God has already delivered us, and for the ways that God has promised to save us and our broken world in the future. If you find yourself feeling weak because your circumstances have beaten you down, God has promised to be your strength and your might. If your heart is dry and parched because of the pressure and stress and heat of a world that can be unforgiving, God promises that you will draw water from the wells of salvation, and drink deeply of the joy that comes from knowing God’s help in your time of trouble. If you find it difficult to lift your voice in praise, God promises that you will one day rediscover your son, and that joy will pour forth from your lips because of God’s glorious deeds. If you grieve the pain that so many in our nation and our world suffer daily because of what we have done (or what we have left undone), God promises a world renewed and restored, a world in which all will sing the praises of our good and gracious God.
Brothers and sisters, we stand at the hinge of the year. Advent is just around the corner, and with it a renewed focus on God’s promised coming to put everything right. Let us begin our preparation tomorrow with a day of “hopeful thanksgiving”, a day that is not only reflective of God’s blessings over the past year, but a day that holds up our fears and longings and sighs with the knowledge that they, too, will in time be healed by our good and gracious God. Amen.