“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Last November I wrote about the extent to which America’s Thanksgiving celebration bears wonderful witness to our Christian faith. Our Thanksgiving tradition began with the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Known as “Separatists,” they believed they would never be able to reform the Church of England and decided to separate from it. When persecution dogged them at every turn in England, they fled to Holland, and ultimately set sail for America on the Mayflower, landing on the shores of what we know today as Cape Cod.
On November 11, 1620, the Pilgrims put pen to paper to create The Mayflower Compact, which is recognized as the first governing document created in the New World. The Mayflower Compact began with these words:
“In the name of God, Amen. . . . Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine our selves together into a civil body politic . . .”
Isn’t that remarkable? The first governing document written for America was set forth “in the name of God . . . in the presence of God . . . for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith.” No matter how hard secular revisionist historians labor to rewrite American history, it is clear that America was founded and built upon the Word of God and the God of the Word.
Thanksgiving was and is a Christian Holiday. I am well aware that many simply celebrate Thanksgiving as a family day of food, fellowship and football. But whether they know it or not, they are actually celebrating a Christian holiday that was forged out of faithfulness and thankfulness to the Redeemer God of the Christian Bible.
The unbelieving world is openly antagonistic to Christmas (replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” and removing manger scenes from public places), but they not only embrace Thanksgiving, but millions enjoy watching the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Why? Because they no longer acknowledge it as a religious holiday. They have divorced themselves from the firm foundation upon which this day was built: the Bible and the Savior that the Scriptures present.
I often find myself in conversation with men and women who flatly reject the truth of God but insist that they are just as thankful as any Christian. They tell me that they are thankful for family and friends, health and wealth, possessions and possibilities. But when I ask them, “Who do you thank for these blessings?” I get only a blank stare in reply.
GK Chesterton put a sharp point on this dilemma: “The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.” Think about it this way: the concept of thanksgiving presupposes a “receiver” who is thankful to a “giver.” If you have no one to thank for your blessings beyond thanking “your lucky stars,” your words are as silly as they are empty and short-sighted.
It makes absolutely no sense to say you are thankful unless you have someone to thank who is responsible for the blessings you have received. If you get a birthday gift, you thank the gift-giver. If you get a Christmas gift, you thank the gift-giver. But who do you thank for your gifts of family and friends, health and wealth, purpose and possibilities? Lucky stars? Chance? Mother Nature? Yourself?
The apostle Paul explained exactly what is happening when we thank anything smaller than God for the blessings we receive in life: “They exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator . . .” (Romans 1:25). Celebrating Thanksgiving Day is a celebration of the One for whom the day was created, whether we acknowledge Him or not.
I’d like to close with this truth about thanksgiving from the story of the ten lepers cleansed. Ten lepers who were cast out from their families, their friends and their faith community because of their disease, cried out to Jesus for healing. But instead of healing them instantly, Jesus told them to go show themselves to the priest, who was authorized to pronounce them clean and restore them to the community.
Notice this: Luke’s gospel account reports that the lepers were cleansed “as they went.” Bible commentator Matthew Henry observed that “This was a trial of their obedience.” Their obedience preceded their healing. But when only one of the ten returned to thank Jesus, our Lord exclaimed, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God?”
Don’t miss the depths of what Jesus was teaching! All ten lepers had already demonstrated absolute obedience to Jesus and His command to go and show themselves to the priest. But we see that Jesus still wanted something more. He wanted their thanksgiving — not because He needed to get it, but because they needed to express it.
Expressions of thanksgiving are part of our DNA, and they are as vital to our humanity as food, water and air. Undoubtedly all ten lepers were truly thankful for their miraculous cure. How could they not be? They were thankful for being restored to their families and friendships. They were thankful for being restored to their faith community. But simply being thankful was not enough. They needed to be thankful to the One who had restored them and given them new life.
This Thanksgiving season, look for opportunities to share the good news of the Gospel with those who celebrate Thanksgiving but have no one to thank. Tell them there is a way to experience the true riches of a thankful heart by offering thanksgiving to the One who has given them every imaginable blessing in life. Suggest to them that instead of thanking their lucky stars, they consider thanking the One who created the stars . . . the One who gives them life and breath and everything else. By God’s grace, they may learn to “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Tommy Boland is senior pastor of Cross Community Church in Deerfield Beach. He blogs regularly at tommyboland.com.