THIS SERMON WAS PRESENTED ON NOVEMBER 23, 2013
While Thanksgiving is pretty much thought of as an American holiday, other countries have equivalent celebrations. For example, Thanksgiving Day in Canada has been a holiday on the second Monday of October since 1957. India has a number of harvest related festivals in its various regions. Asian countries such as China, Malaysia and Korea have thanksgiving celebrations as well.
For we Americans, Thanksgiving is a time to get to gather with friends and family, eat a lot of food, and often watch some football. Above all it should be a time of conscious gratitude for what has been given to us. I say conscious gratitude because often times the expression of gratitude may be superficial and not really reflect a heart felt appreciation for what we have, but more on that later. I would like to begin with a little history as to how our Thanksgiving celebration developed and how it became a National Holiday.
Our thanksgiving celebration is usually traced to the pilgrims who set out from England on a ship called the Mayflower in September of 1620. They arrived on the shores of Cape Cod in November. Cape Cod is present day Massachusetts. A scouting party was sent out and in late December the group set anchor at Plymouth Harbor where they established the first New England colony. They were met with a brutal winter in early 1621 where 46 of the 102 original settlers died.
The following spring and summer the remaining settlers were blessed with a plentiful harvest and they decided to celebrate this harvest with a feast. This feast included some 90 Indians who had helped the pilgrims survive the 1621 winter. It is this feast that many see as the first American Thanksgiving. This 1621 feast included a number of different kinds of foul but it is uncertain whether turkey was one of the kinds of bird prepared. There apparently was venison, corn and pumpkin. The food was prepared by four women settlers and two teenage girls.
The holding of a feast in appreciation for a good harvest was not something original to the pilgrims. History shows many cultures have for centuries held feasts of thanksgiving for the fall harvest. At the time of the Pilgrims, England celebrated an annual harvest festival around the time of the autumn equinox which is often referred to as the harvest moon. This had been going on in England for centuries. The Pilgrims were simply following a tradition they were familiar with.
The first actual mention of the word thanksgiving in early colonial history is not associated with the celebration feast in 1621. The first time this term was associated with a feast was in 1623. That year the pilgrims were living through a terrible drought that continued from May through July. The pilgrims decided to spend an entire day in July fasting and praying for rain. The next day, a light rain occurred. Then additional settlers and supplies arrived from the Netherlands. At that point, Governor Bradford proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving to offer prayers and thanks to God. However, this did not establish a yearly event.
During the mid 1600’s, Thanksgiving, as we have come to know it, began to take shape. In Connecticut valley towns, incomplete records show proclamations of Thanksgiving for September 18, 1639, as well as 1644, and also after 1649. Instead of just sporadically celebrating harvests and other special events, a specific day of thanksgiving began to be aside as an annual holiday. One of the first recorded celebrations commemorating the 1621 feast in the Plymouth colony occurred in Connecticut in 1665.
Over the next hundred years, each colony had different traditions and dates for Thanksgiving celebrations. On December 18, 1775, the Continental Congress declared December 18 to be a national day of Thanksgiving for winning the battle of Saratoga. Over the next nine years, they declared six more Thanksgivings with one Thursday set aside each fall as a day of prayer.
George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving Proclamation by a President of the United States on November 26, 1789. Interestingly, some presidents, such as Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, would not issue resolutions for a national day of Thanksgiving because they felt it was not within their constitutional power. Over these years Thanksgiving was celebrated on various dates in various states with most states celebrating it sometime in November.
A woman by the name of Sarah Josepha Hale is credited with making Thanksgiving a national celebration. In 1827, Hale wrote a novel in which she discussed the importance of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Beginning in 1846, Hale began her campaign to make the last Thursday in November a national day of thanksgiving. Each year she would write an editorial for a national magazine about the need to establish a national day of thanksgiving. She also wrote letters to governors in every state and territory. On September 28, 1863, during the Civil War, Hale wrote a letter to President Lincoln to have the day of annual Thanksgiving made a National Holiday and fixed Union Festival. On October 3, 1863, Lincoln, in a proclamation written by Secretary of State William Seward, proclaimed a nationwide Thanksgiving Day to be held the last Thursday of November.
After 1869, each year the president proclaimed the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. However, there was some contention over the actual date. Each year individuals tried to change the date of the holiday. Some felt it should commemorate the day when the armistice was signed between the allies and Germany to end Worlds War 1. The greatest argument for changing the date from the last Thursday of November came in 1933 during the depths of the Great Depression. In that year November had five Thursdays with the last Thursday falling on November 30th.
The National Dry Retail Goods Association asked President Roosevelt to move the date of Thanksgiving that year to the fourth Thursday of November. Since the traditional shopping season for Christmas started with Thanksgiving, if Thanksgiving were to be held on the last Thursday which that year was the last day of the month, the beginning of the Christmas shopping season would be a week later than usual and could hurt sales for the retailers.
Roosevelt refused to make the change. However, when Thanksgiving would again fall on November 30 in 1939, Roosevelt caved in to pressure from retailers and agreed to make the change. What is interesting is that Roosevelt's proclamation only set the actual date of Thanksgiving as the 23rd of November for the District of Columbia and not for the nation as a whole. This whole matter caused quite a national stir. Many people felt the president was messing with tradition just to satisfy profit hungry retailers. What followed is that each state decided for itself what day to celebrate Thanksgiving. Twenty-three states chose to celebrate it on November 23 and twenty-three stayed with celebrating it on November 30th, thus staying with the last Thursday of the month tradition. Texas and Colorado decided to celebrate Thanksgiving twice!
Confusion over the date for Thanksgiving continued through 1940 and 1941. Due to this confusion, Roosevelt announced that the traditional date of the last Thursday in November would be reinstated in 1942. However, many individuals wanted to insure that the date would not be changed again. Therefore, a bill was introduced that Roosevelt signed into law on November 26, 1941 establishing the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. This has been followed by every state in the union since 1956.
As can be seen, despite there being controversies pertaining to what day or days should be set aside, the giving of thanks as a nation goes back almost four hundred years into our historical past. Yet I have to wonder how many of today’s Americans actually express sincere heartfelt thanks on this day or any other day for that matter. Do we really understand what it means to be thankful? I know we all speak the phrase “thank you” any number of times during the week and others direct that same expression toward us. But are such “thank you’s” genuine or are they just habitual rote expressions that we expect of others and they expect the same of us.
It’s like the word “Sorry.” We use that word rather mindlessly to excuse our interference with what someone else is doing. For example, during a sporting event people would get out of their seats while the game is going on and pass in front of you to go out and get beer, food or go to the bathroom. They will often repeatedly say “sorry.” Well if you look up the word “sorry” in the dictionary, you will find this word to mean “to regret or feel remorse over your choice of action towards another person.” Now I don’t think the people passing in front of you during the game have regret or remorse over their actions, especially in view of the fact some engage in this action three or four times during the game with the usual “sorry.”
I sometimes have to wonder why people spend a lot of money to see a game or a concert and then spend half of their time parading in and out of their seats to get beer, food or do whatever. But that’s another issue. At any rate, like the word "sorry," we often use the word “thanks” in a rather rote and mindless manner.
We have all probably witnessed a child receiving a gift from someone and a parent of the child will say to the child, “now what do you say.” And then the child, sometimes reluctantly, says thank you to the gift giver. Such superficial giving of thanks is common not only with children but also with adults. We often mouth the words but do we really have a gut feeling of gratefulness toward the person to whom we say thank you. What does it mean to be truly grateful?
In looking in the Scriptures for understanding as to the meaning of gratefulness I found in the writings of Apostle Paul an interesting parallel between gratefulness and grace. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, in chapter four of that letter, Paul provides an overview of his ministry. He begins by saying it is through God’s mercy that he has his ministry in which he is setting forth the truth plainly. He goes on to show how God has made His glory to shine forth through Christ. He then instructs how he and his associates are willing to suffer for the benefit of his listeners and how by extending grace to more and more people, thanksgiving is being generated to the glory of God.
2 Corinthians 4:15: All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.
The Greek word translated “grace” in this passage is used 156 times in the NT documents and is generally translated into English with the word grace but also at times with the word favor. In consulting the Greek Lexicons, I found that the basic meaning of this word in the Greek language is the granting of something favorable to another person.
God has granted us salvation through the sacrifice of Christ and in so doing has granted us something very favorable. While Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:15 may be using the word grace to reflect upon God’s granting of salvation, the context of this chapter indicates Paul may be here using the word grace to reflect upon his own giving of time and effort in order to bring the gospel message to people. Regardless of how he is using the word, the end result is that it causes thanksgiving which in turn brings glory to God.
There is a relationship between grace and gratitude. When some one does something favorable for someone else, there should be a response of thanksgiving for the favor that is done and this response should bring glory to the giver of the favor. Gratitude is the experience of joy that should be expressed when somebody has shown us a kindness, has extended us grace. In expressing happiness and joy at the graciousness of the giver of grace, the giver of grace is honored. He or she is recognized as being loving and kind and in this manner is glorified just as God is glorified when we express thanksgiving for what He has done for us.
The expression of gratitude is tightly associated with recognizing the self worth of another individual and the value of what they are doing. A major reason that the expression of gratitude is often done in a very superficial manner is that we fail to recognize the self worth of a giver of grace or the worth of what they are offering us. We fail to envision the time and effort that went into providing us with a gift or a service. We often take for granted the grace offered by others and while we may say thank you, it often is a hollow, shallow thank you because there is no real recognition of the value of the person or the service the person has provided.
In Scripture we see repentance tied to the acknowledgement of the sacrifice of Christ. Why is that the case? Why can’t we just accept Christ as our savior and go on living like we always have. We can’t because it would be disrespectful to God. It would dishonor God. It would be a failure to recognize the value of what the Father and the Son have done for us. It would be a profound lack of gratitude. Repentance is a response to the grace of God. It is an expression of gratitude for what has done for us.
The reason God provided a sacrifice for sin through Christ is so that we don’t have to pay the ultimate penalty for sin ourselves. To go on sinning would be to denigrate the worth of what God provided and what Christ suffered on our behalf. We express gratitude for what Christ did by doing our best not to sin. In so doing we honor what the Father and Son have done for us and bring glory to them.
The Scriptures speak a great deal about humbling ourselves before God. How do we do that? We humble ourselves by expressing gratitude for the grace of God. Such gratitude is expressed by our recognition of who God is and our willingness to do His will. We glorify and honor God by maintaining an awareness of who we are compared to who God is. Scripture reveals we are to be humble toward each other as well.
Ephesians 4:2: Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.
1 Peter 3:8: Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.
It is often the absence of humility that prevents us from expressing genuine gratitude. We consciously or sub-consciously see others as having less worth than we do and in so doing we fail to sincerely be thankful for services they might render to us. If we express sincere gratitude to someone, we are in essence humbling ourselves before them in recognizing that they are fulfilling a need we have and in this sense we exalt them as one who can meet such need.
For example, when we say thank you to a waitress who is serving us a meal in a restaurant, is it just a thoughtless rote kind of thank you or do we actually feel a sense of appreciation for what the waitress is doing? Now we may feel that the waitress is performing a duty we are paying for and therefore there really isn’t a need to say thank you at all. But that misses the point. The point is that we all have self worth and we need to recognize such self worth in each other by expressing sincere gratitude for the things we do for each other. By expressing gratitude to the waitress we are telling her we appreciate her doing what she is doing and we thus honor her for meeting our need for a meal.
Even though we may feel the waitress is just doing her duty for which she is getting paid, she still is extending grace toward us by taking care of our need to eat a meal. Remember, the basic definition of grace is the granting of something favorable to another person.
Now I know we are not going to be consciously thinking about the self worth of others every time we offer up a thank you. But we do need to maintain an inner sense of personal humility and always be aware of the self worth of others. If we do this our thank you’s will be more sincere and others will sense that we really are grateful for what they do for us.
Philippians 2:3-4: Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
What Paul writes to the Philippians is really the key to developing and expressing sincere thankfulness. So much of human behavior is based on selfish ambition and vain conceit. We all are infected to some degree with the “what’s in it for me” attitude. Paul is instructing that we are to do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Not only are we to do nothing out of selfish ambition and vain conceit, we are to consider others better than ourselves. Paul goes on to say we should not only look to our own interests but also look to the interests of others. Image that, considering others better than ourselves and looking out for their interests. What a novel idea. I’m being facetious of course.
This is not a novel idea. This is a fundamental and foundational way we need to be conducting ourselves as Christians. This is a passage of Scripture it would be wise to type out and tape to our refrigerator so we can read it every day and be reminded as to what kind of attitude we should bring to the table day in and day out.
Now some do look after the interests of others but only if by so doing it somehow fulfills their own interests. Politicians are great at this. They will often look to fulfill the real or imaged interests of others if it fulfills their own interest of getting reelected.
I don’t think that is the kind of looking out for the interests of others that Paul was referring to. Paul says we are to in humility consider others better than ourselves. One way we do this is to express sincere gratitude to others for their service to us. In so doing we recognize their talents and skills and by expressing thanks for what they do we lift them up.
Let’s now return to the passage of Scripture we started with.
2 Corinthians 4:15: All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.
Paul is saying that his ministry is all for the benefit of those he is ministering to. Because this was his focus, grace would reach more and more people which in turn would cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. People were hearing from Paul a message of God’s grace in providing salvation through Christ and entrance into the Kingdom of God. Those who believed and accepted what Paul was preaching expressed thanks to God for what God had provided. This expression of thanksgiving reflected on the love and kindness of God and thus glorified God.
Responding to the grace of God with thanksgiving was not only for Paul’s day. The grace of God is still very much in evidence. We are to continue the practice of responding to the grace of God by expressing our gratitude for what God has provided. We need to also extend grace toward each other and respond to that grace by expressing gratitude for what we do for each other. Let’s think on these things as we gather together to celebrate our up and coming National day of Thanksgiving. Better yet let’s have everyday be a day of thanksgiving insomuch that we daily reciprocate the grace shown to us by both God and man by expressing genuine gratitude.