THANKSGIVING: THE HOLIDAY FOR EVERY DAY
Written by Doug Ponder on November 21, 2015
The Eclipse of Thanksgiving
I’m hardly the first to have noticed that every year the Christmas season seems to start even earlier than the year before. Though we joke about Christmas in July, we’re slowly creeping our way there. Of course, there will always be Grinches and Scrooges to bemoan the coming of Christmas, no matter how early or late the celebrations begin. (They’re hearts are at least two sizes too small, with no room yet for the Holy Spirit.) But there is at least one good reason for slowing your sleigh ride to Christmas Town: Thanksgiving.
Yes, Thanksgiving. Far from being a blip on the radar, a brief interruption, a mere stopping point on the way to “the real holiday,” Thanksgiving is the holiday that calls us to focus on the most essential human response to all God’s gifts (including the gift of Jesus). That response is gratitude, or giving thanks.
Thanksgiving: A Short and Totally Not Boring History
The origins of Thanksgiving are rooted in the English Reformation during the 1500s. Puritans in England wanted to free God’s people from the horrible mess that holy days (holi-days) had become thanks in large part to centuries of corruption and abuse at the hands of the medieval Catholic church. The true spirit of holidays had been lost, and so these Puritans had initially sought to get rid of them all—even Easter and Christmas! Instead of regular dates on a calendar, God’s people would celebrate special ‘Days of Thanksgiving’ called in response to an outpouring of God’s blessing. Ultimately, it proved easier to add something new than take something familiar away, so Christmas and Easter stuck around and Days of Thanksgiving were thrown into the mix.
When some of those Puritans came over to America, they naturally brought their traditions with them. Every year, after the work of the Autumn harvest was done, they set aside a series of special days—sometimes a whole week!—to give thanks and praise to God for his provision. What better way to thank God for abundance than to celebrate with a feast and to share that feast with others? Thus began a pattern that eventually (with the help of presidential endorsement) became the official holiday we now know as Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving in the Scriptures
Long before presidents and Puritans, of course, other cultures understood the importance of gratitude (Acts 14:16-17). But the trouble is who they were giving thanks to and what they were giving thanks for. You can’t thank Jesus for fruitless deeds of darkness (Eph. 5:11), and the light of his death and resurrection show there’s no place for giving thanks to a false god either—much less is there any place for the all-too-common notion today of cultivating a generic “spirit of thanksgiving.” Thankful to whom? we rightly wonder. As G.K. Chesterton famously said, “The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.”
Yet we do have someone to thank, and his name is Jesus. He is the all-sufficient, self-sustaining, graciously-giving God who “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). That is why the psalmist couldn’t stop singing, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 106:1, 107:1, 118:1, 118:29, 136:1). Thus gratitude to God, thankfulness to him alone, is the fundamental response to the boundless riches of his grace.
But when sin enters the picture, as that dark and unwelcome guest who makes our lives a living hell, it corrupts us all the way to the core. “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21). Sin perverts what God has provided, so instead of thanksgiving to God we are filled with greed and envy and selfishness of every kind.
This is why salvation in Christ involves a renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2) and a reorientation of our hearts (Mal. 4:6). For when you see that everything you have is a gift, especially the inexpressibly wonderful gift you have in Jesus (2 Cor. 9:15), you could never stop giving thanks. This is why the apostle Paul says, “Give thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20). “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17).
Giving Thanks Every Day, Especially on Thanksgiving
But someone will ask, “If thanksgiving should be our ‘whole life response to God,’ why have a holiday for what we should be doing every day?” The question, while understandable, is misguided. We ought to be grateful for the cross of Christ at all times, for example, but we only celebrate the sacrament of communion once a week. In this way the eucharistic ceremony becomes the highlight of our weekly rhythm, the capstone and the cornerstone, the end of one week and the beginning of the next. Every sin is carried to that table and put into the context of thanksgiving—for that is what eucharisteo means. Through bread and wine we give thanks for forgiveness of sins, for communion with the saints, and for a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:28). In the same way, when we come to that fourth Thursday in November every year, we are invited to take our ‘whole life response’ and crank it up to eleven. Thus we are invited to remember Who we are thankful to and what we are thankful for in a way that results in a conscious overflow of praise to God.
So I am thankful to God for my family, for a wife adorned with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit (1 Pet. 3:4) and for children who are a heritage from the Lord (Psalm 127:3). I am thankful to God for the strength to earn a living (2 Thess. 3:12), for the generosity of God’s people that makes this vocation possible (Ex. 35:5), and for enough leftover to share with others (Eph. 4:28). I’m thankful to God for the brothers and co-laborers and fellow soldiers that I’m privileged to serve alongside (Phil. 2:25). I’m thankful to God for “every good and perfect gift from above” (Jas. 1:17)—and that includes the roast turkey and homemade cranberry sauce, lumpy mashed potatoes and giblet-free gravy, sweet potato casserole and the green beans with little fried onions on top, and loads of hot coffee to accompany more pies than my waistline can handle (1 Tim. 4:4).
But most of all I’m thankful to God for a table set in the presence of my enemies (Psalm 23:5). It is a table of victory, a celebratory banquet announcing the conquering power of Christ over sin and death and hell. It is a reminder that no matter how hard this year has been, “the sufferings of this present time are not even worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). It’s a table where I’ve got no right to be, having sold my invitation for a mess of pottage quite some time ago, and time and time again. Yet I’m there just the same, feasting with the Savior as one of God’s former-enemies, welcomed by the sin-subduing love of Christ (Rom. 5:8). There’s room enough at this table for everyone who trades in their hostility to God for “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20). For, as one of my favorite authors rightly says, “Gratitude to God is tantamount to surrender. It is a request to be baptized. It is a confession that God is good, Jesus is Lord, the company is kind-hearted, and the potatoes are hot.”
Happy Thanksgiving, friends.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder