“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high position.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Thanksgiving is the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of Paul’s first letter to Saint Timothy. Dear friends in Christ: Thanksgiving, like most other secular holidays, is not without its rituals. The practices of most families include a big meal, some football, and in my family at least, the putting up of the Christmas tree. Many families go around the table and ask each person what they are thankful for. Think of all the tables in America, where this same question is being asked over and over again. Think of your table, your family. Think of yourself. How do you answer that question? What are you thankful for? I don’t have any survey data to back it up, but I’m guessing that most people aren’t thankful for the government around the Thanksgiving table, and the poll data at least indicates that most people aren’t thankful for their president. Nor do I expect that many people are thankful for the blessings that have come to strangers or to their enemies. Most people are thankful for is what has benefited them, what has come into their lives for their own good.
And we certainly should be thankful for such things, and thankful to the One who has given them all, as we are taught in the Small Catechism. “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.” Do you want a list to work with around the Thanksgiving table tomorrow/today? Luther gives us one: “Daily bread includes everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.” The primary difference between the Christian and the non-Christian at the Thanksgiving table is the object of their thanks, it is to whom that thanks is given.
But the differences run much deeper. Not only is the object of thanksgiving different, but so is the subject, what we are thankful for. The non-Christian gives thanks for what good has come into their own lives, and their prayer (as much as they do pray) is the same. They think first of their own needs and their own blessings, and they rarely, if ever, pray for their enemies, for their rulers, or for those outside their immediate circle of family and friends. The Christian is called to be different. Saint Paul directs us: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people.” The Christian prays first for others, even non-believers, even enemies, even strangers. We give thanks when our neighbors receive blessings, when God provides for them the fruits of the earth. We say at the end of the explanation to the First Article, that marvelous exposition of all the gifts that God gives us: “For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.” We thank and praise Him for all the gifts of the earth, even when they come to someone else, even to someone we consider our enemy. It is very difficult to hate someone you are praying for: try it sometime, in fact, try it today, because that is what you are called upon to do if you bear the name of Christian. We are to pray for the good of others first, we are to hold them up to our heavenly Father before ourselves, begging Him to provide for their every need before we ask Him to provide for our own.
The Christian prays for all people, but one group in particular. “First of all then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and petitions be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions.” We are called upon ‘first of all’ to pray for our rulers, for those in authority over us. We are to pray for them, whether we voted for them or not, whether we agree with their actions or not. Christians are not subversive, we do not despise our government; Saint Paul wrote these words about a government that would unleash vicious persecution of Christians, that would even put him to death. Christians pray for the health of their rulers, they pray for wisdom and discernment, that they would rule with honor and justice. In this way, we are simply acting in accord with the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother.” What does this mean? “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.”
We pray that our rulers would fulfill the task which they have been given; the task of preserving temporal peace and security. This is not so that we have a comfy life, but so that the Gospel can go forth freely into the entire world. We pray for rulers “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” The gifts of the First Article are here given for the sake of the Second Article. This has happened before; God used the temporal authorities to be the instruments of His Son’s sacrifice—we have the name of a Roman governor in our creed! The temporal authorities, in the hands of almighty God, were used to accomplish salvation, through them His holy, precious blood was shed; through them the innocent was declared guilty, so that we, the guilty, would be declared innocent by God.
Through them the price was poured out that redeemed you, me, and all people. Why? “That I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.” The resurrection of our Lord is the guarantee that all this is true; that the price has been paid, that salvation has been accomplished, that God intends for all people to live under Him in His kingdom forever. And after the empty tomb God is not finished with the temporal authorities. He used them to accomplish salvation, and He intends to use them (often without their knowledge) to distribute salvation. He is interested in temporal peace so that the proclamation of His Son’s death and resurrection would go forth freely into the entire world, even to you and me.
Therefore we pray that the Gospel would go forth, that all people would be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. We do not pray against our enemies, we do not pray against unbelievers, we pray for them, that God would work through the proclamation of His Word to bring them to repentance and faith. That is God’s will, and it is then to be the will of every Christian, as we are taught in the explanation to the Third Petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “God’s will is done when He breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, which do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His kingdom come; and when He strengthens and keeps us firm in His Word and faith until we die.” Our prayer for our enemies is that they would be converted, that they would cease to be enemies. We pray that God would bring an end to their evil so that others are not harmed. It is God’s will that all people are saved, and His will is to be our will, as we hold all people up to Him, praying that He would provide for all of their temporal needs and all of their eternal needs.
What can you say to all this? After hearing all that Saint Paul expects from the prayers of one who is called a Christian, do you realize that you fall far, far short, that your prayers and thanksgivings have imitated those of the non-believing world around you? Repent. Cast your sin upon the sin-bearer, upon your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for we have a God “who desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” God’s will, His desire is that you would dwell in heaven for eternity, and His Son paid the price to fulfill that will by shedding His blood. God’s good and gracious will is to break Satan’s hold upon you by proclaiming the Law which puts to death and the Gospel that makes alive. God’s good and gracious will is that you would be called to repentance and forgiven by Christ’s blood-bought mercy and grace. The Gospel that is for all people is for you. It is God’s gift to you; you are forgiven, you have eternal life; He has redeemed you, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won you from all sin, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death. It’s all for you; He did it for you, for that was His good and gracious will. And it is given to you this day, as it was on the day of your Baptism, as a gift. “I believe that I cannot by own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept in the true faith.” The Gospel is entirely His gift, and this day He gives from His abundance one again, placing forgiveness, life, and salvation into your mouth in the holy Supper of His Body and Blood.
And if all that comes to you comes as a gift, without any merit or worthiness in you, the gifts of the First Article, the gifts of the Second Article, and the gifts of the Third Article, then there is nothing left but thanksgiving. We give thanks to God for giving us all the fruits of the earth, we give thanks to God for giving His Son into death to redeem us from sin, death, and the power of the devil, and we give thanks to God for bringing that salvation to us in the means of grace. What better way to celebrate Thanksgiving than to gather in His house, giving Him great thanks and praise for the gifts He gives, and receiving those very gifts in Word and Sacrament? And thus this Thanksgiving is a foretaste of the thanksgiving to come; for when we dwell with our Lord in the new heavens and the new earth that He won for us, what is left but thanksgiving? Thanks be to God, for all of His great gifts, poured out in abundance upon us, poured out in abundance upon the entire world. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.