“Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” 2 Corinthians 9:15
“Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory . . . ”
Like much that we find in the Book of Common Prayer, the words of the General Thanksgiving are beautiful literature; they have a poetry, a rhythm, about them as we say them. But when we say that prayer, how much of it is beautiful literature, and how much of it is a statement of what we believe? How far can we go through the General Thanksgiving and say, “yes, I believe that” and “yes, I believe that?” If we are honest, do we reach a point in the prayer where we say, “I am not sure?” Do we reach a point where the prayer becomes more a piece of poetry than something we are saying with our whole hearts?
Let’s look at the prayer.
“Almighty God” it begins. There are very few people in our world who do not believe in some sort of god; Psalm 14 says only a fool says there is no God. When we realize how little we as humans know about the universe, to say there is definitely nothing does not make sense. Almost everyone, in extreme circumstances, will call out for help. Ask many people and they will say that they are agnostic, that they don’t know, but they think there may be something out there. Being agnostic seems to have its limits: it always surprises me that people who profess no belief in God then blame him for things that go wrong, “why did God allow this to happen?”
“Almighty God” might be said by many people, it might be said as an expression of real faith, or it might be said as an acknowledgement of a belief that there is someone out there, but we are not sure who or what that person might be. If we are agnostic, we might use the words to speak of the God in whom we are not sure we believe.
If we are in church at a harvest thanksgiving service, that might suggest that our confidence in God is more than that of an agnostic, that we can say the next part of the General Thanksgiving with conviction, “Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men.” The prayer is beautifully poetic:”humble and hearty thanks,” “goodness and loving-kindness,” these are words which speak of a God who is someone more than an idea, someone more than just a being who might exist.
Back in the 18th Century, there were thinkers who became known as Deists, they believed in a God who was behind the natural order, behind the wonderful universe we see around us, but they did not believe that God intervened in his world, they did not believe he could be a personal God. They might have been happy to give humble and hearty thanks to the God who had set everything in motion, but they did not believe that God would answer their prayers.
I wonder if we are like those Deists sometimes? I wonder if we believe in a God who is “out there,” but not in a God who is active in our own lives. I wonder if we believe in a God who did great things at the beginning of time, but not in a God who can do miracles in 2014? How many of us, when we say our prayers, expect God to answer? When we sing, “Come, ye thankful people,come”, what do we think when we reach the last verse, “Even so, Lord, quickly come, to thy final harvest home?” Do we expect God to break into his world? Or are we like the Deists, believing God will remain firmly “out there” somewhere? When we come to church in Advent and listen to Isaiah Chapter 40, do we have faith that God really is going to come into his world?
“Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men:” we are confident in those words, and, being at this service, we are presumably happy with the words that follow, “We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life.”
Genesis Chapter 1 is very much at the forefront of our thinking as we give thanks to God, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth”; “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” When we around at the good land we have been given, when we are aware that the promise of seedtime and harvest has been fulfilled for another year, when we are conscious that we are people who have much for which to give thanks, then we are happy to bless God for all he has done.
But is our faith an Old Testament faith at times, is it about a God to whom we look for reward or punishment in this life without a sense of a life to come? When we think for a moment, we realize that a faith which was only for this world would be a very hard faith to which to hold. We all know people who never received the reward they deserved in this life time (and perhaps some of us have met people who never received the punishment they deserved in this lifetime). We can bless God “for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life”, but we need to move beyond those things.
Edward Reynolds, who wrote the words of the prayer of General Thanksgiving, had an understanding of the way our faith grows. From being uncertain, to believing in a God who is out there, to believing in a God who has blessed us as a people, to believing in a God who sends his Son into the world. “But above all”, wrote Edward Reynolds, “for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The greatest thanksgiving is that the blessings that surround us are just things along the way, that God sent his Son into our world so that our hope would not just be for the harvest of the land each year, but for the great harvest at the end of time when God gathers his people in.
There is still one more step though. The Christian faith can be something we have learned about; like the God believed in by the Deists, it can be something out there, something that does not affect our lives. We can say that we thank God for the redemption of the world, but not let that moment change us.
Our thanks is for our redemption and “for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory”. God’s grace, his gift to us, is something we have to receive for ourselves. Just as a gift not received does not become a gift, so if we choose not to welcome God’s grace, the decision is ours, he does not impose it. If, in the words of the General Thanksgiving, “our hearts are unfeignedly thankful”, we will have hearts open to God’s grace, grace that brings us the hope of glory.
Moving from agnosticism, to Deism, to an Old Testament faith, to knowing about Christianity, to believing in Jesus – the General Thanksgiving becomes truly a thanksgiving when it becomes our personal thanksgiving. When, like Saint Paul, we can say,”Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”