“Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” John 1:17
There is a sense of thanks to God for reaching the beginning of this new year; giving thanks for having endured the trials of 2020 and praying for that 2021 will be a better year.
For Anglicans, the words of the prayer of General Thanksgiving from the Book of Common Prayer express that sense of God with his people through time: “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 they are said. But when people say that prayer, how much of it is beautiful literature, and how much of it is a statement of what they believe? How far can we people go through the General Thanksgiving and say, “yes, I believe that” and “yes, I believe that?” If they are honest, do they reach a point in the prayer where they say, “I am not sure?” Do they reach a point where the prayer becomes more a piece of poetry than something they are saying with their 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 people realize how little 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 is always surprising 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 they are not sure who or what that person might be. If people are agnostic, they might use the words to speak of the God in whom they are not sure they believe.
If someone is participating in worship today, it might suggest that their confidence in God is more than that of an agnostic, that they 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 all around, 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.
Are people like those Deists sometimes? Do they believe in a God who is “out there,” but not in a God who is active in their own lives. Do they believe in a God who did great things at the beginning of time, but not in a God who can do miracles in 2021? How many of people, when they say their prayers, expect God to answer? Do they expect God to break into his world? Or are they like the Deists, believing God will remain firmly “out there” somewhere? When people came to church in Advent and listened to the Scripture, did they 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:” people are confident in those words, and, being sharing in worship, they are presumably happy with the words that follow, “We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life.”
When people look at the year that is past and look forward to the year to come, they may be conscious that they are people who have much for which to give thanks, and, if they are, then they will be happy to bless God for all he has done.
But is people’s faith an Old Testament faith at times, is it about a God to whom they look for reward or punishment in this life without a sense of a life to come? When they think for a moment, they might realize that a faith which was only for this world would be a very hard faith on to which to hold. Everyone knows 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). People can bless God “for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life”, but they need to move beyond those things.
Edward Reynolds, who wrote the words of the prayer of General Thanksgiving, had an understanding of the way human faith grows. From being uncertain, to believing in a God who is out there, to believing in a God who has blessed his 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 God sent his Son into our world so that people’s hope would not just be for the years of their lives, but for the moment when time itself ends.
There is still one more step though. The Christian faith can be something people have learned about; like the God believed in by the Deists, it can be something out there, something that does not affect their lives. They can say that they thank God for the redemption of the world, but not let that moment change them.
Thanksgiving today is for redemption, “for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory”. Saint John Chapter 1 Verse 17 says, “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” God’s grace, his gift to humanity, is something people have to receive for themselves. Just as a gift not received does not become a gift, so if people choose not to welcome God’s grace, the decision is theirs, he does not impose it. If, in the words of the General Thanksgiving, “our hearts are unfeignedly thankful”, people will have hearts open to God’s grace, grace that brings them 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 a personal thanksgiving. May that thanksgiving fill the year to come.