Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Interposition of the Almighty Hand

Deuteronomy 8: 2-18

Thanksgiving Eve 2008

Abraham Lincoln was a Biblical scholar in a way we have not seen presidents be since, well, him. Hey may not have been the most faithful church-goer, but he was, in a way that cannot be denied, strongly influenced by the Bible.

We don’t have enough time for me to go through everything that Lincoln wrote that was influenced by or recalls incidents from, the Bible. But this evening’s passage from Deuteronomy sounds an awful lot like the first paragraphs of Lincoln’s Proclamation, the document that we take as the beginning of the modern understanding of Thanksgiving in America.

Moses, in this, his last speech to the Israelites before he dies, spends much time reminding the Israelites of all that they have passed through, from slavery in Egypt until that moment. The Hebrew Bible does this rehashing of the origins of the nation a lot—you’d think the Israelites would have paid more attention for all the speeches Moses and later Joshua made, and all the times they read it in the Torah. Our passage says it again here—remember when you didn’t even know what manna was, or even how to cook it? God provided. Remember how you walked for 40 years, and your feet didn’t fall off? That was God, too. So keep that in mind now that you are about to come into the Promised Land, with its sweet water and fertile fields. Don’t forget him as you build your fancy houses amid profit from copper mines and multiplying livestock. Don’t fool yourself----you didn’t do this—God did.”

Lincoln’s Proclamation does the same thing, sort of—“Yes, this civil war is a terrible thing, and we would do well to have avoided it, but in the midst of this great national trial, look at the fact that no one has taken advantage of the situation and invaded us, we are still producing stuff to build and trade with, and the population increases, despite the loses of war.” This is his next line, word for word;
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
Lincoln believed, I have seen it written more than once, that the civil war was not itself the commission of a sin, but God’s punishment for America’s sin. And I do not think that anyone reasonable will think that it is a stretch to believe that the primary sin in Lincoln’s mind was slavery.
The proclamation, which was issued Oct. 3 1863, was a year after the Emancipation Proclamation, the executive order that freed the slaves in all the states that were currently in rebellion. If it wasn’t part of Lincoln’s thinking when he assumed office, it certainly was by the end of 1862, and by this time in 1863, men throughout the north were singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as they fought, meaning every single word. Lincoln could very well have seen the country as another Nineveh, and not having heeded the identification of their sin, were now plunged into the punishment.
So it is very interesting that, as a President, he is as open as he is about the failures of the nation as he proclaims a day of thanksgiving. But buried within the last paragraph of the proclamation of thanksgiving is a very interesting line; see if you can pick it out.
I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

While in the midst of giving God the glory for what hasn’t happened to us, remember that we have committed grave sins, and we should also be penitent. Penitent for “national perverseness and disobedience”.

Moses writes of not crediting the gifts and providence of God to ourselves, but giving credit where it is due. Lincoln writes of the nation being in the mess it is in because of it’s failure to listen to God, and that we should all pray together on the fourth Thursday of November for God to return us to “to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union”.

Would that we would pray tomorrow, as we gather around our tables, for “The Interposition of the Almighty Hand.” Would that we would acknowledge that all we have is a gift from God, and be thankful for it.

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