One of my favorite football announcers insists on calling Thanksgiving “Turkey Day”. Whenever he does it, I bristle, because I feel as if he’s trying to make the sacred secular.
Thanksgiving Day was never intended to be a secular activity. The pilgrims who gathered at Plymouth to celebrate the first proper thanksgiving in 1621, did so because they wanted to thank God for a good harvest after a harsh winter.
Likewise, when the Continental Congress met during the 1770’s and 80’s, they set apart an annual day of thanksgiving so that the American people might, in their words, give thanks
… above all, that [God] hath diffused the glorious light of the gospel, whereby, through the merits of our gracious Redeemer, we may become the heirs of his eternal glory… [Journals of Congress, 1779]
Such days were not for thanksgiving alone. The intent was that
… together with their sincere acknowledgments and offerings, [the American people] may join the penitent confession of their manifold sins, whereby they had forfeited every favour, and their humble and earnest supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance… [Journals of Congress, November, 1777, pp. 854-55]
When George Washington announced a national day of thanksgiving in 1789, he did so with thanksgiving to God clearly in mind. He declared:
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly implore his protection and favor… Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the twenty-sixth of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that Great and Glorious Being… that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country;… for the great degree of tranquility, union and plenty which we have… enjoyed;… for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed;… and in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us [in PCA Messenger, November, 1993, p. 6].
Not long afterwards—beginning with the Jefferson administration—America came down with a case of “Thanksgiving Amnesia.” National celebration of Thanksgiving was sporadic during the first half of 19th century, until Mrs. Sarah J. Hale finally convinced Abraham Lincoln of the necessity of celebrating such a day every year.
Thanksgiving has been celebrated in America ever since. And yet we now suffer from a different strain of “Thanksgiving Amnesia,” not forgetting the day itself, but forgetting the God who deserves our thanks on the day.
Thanksgiving has gradually been reduced from Thanksgiving Day to Turkey Day, from a spiritual activity to a culinary activity, from a focus on the goodness of God and the grace of Christ to a focus on dark meat and white meat.
What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you think of Thanksgiving? Turkey? The Detroit Lions? Family? Or do you think first and foremost of the God in whom food, and football, and family find their ultimate purpose?
You see, the activity of giving thanks must be more than just a vague feeling of well-being, more than just a general satisfaction with life, more than just a full tummy. Whenever we give thanks, we are giving thanks to someone. Thank-you notes always have addresses on them. And if we’re not careful to remember who we are thanking, we run the risk of simply stuffing ourselves with self-congratulation.
This evening I want briefly to remind you of the teaching of the Bible and the practice of the church about giving thanks, so that you remember who it is that we do thank during this coming week, and why.
The Bible teaches that thanksgiving is to be a perpetual activity of the people of God. Psalm 100:4: Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. Philippians 4:6: In everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 1 Thessalonians 5:17: Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
The Old Testament people of God regularly brought thank offerings to the temple. In Psalm 50, the Lord says: He who sacrifices thank offerings honors me, and he prepares the way so that I may show him the salvation of God.
Now the Bible teaches that in addition to ongoing and perpetual thanksgivings, special seasons of thanksgiving are beneficial for the people of God. I suppose that Noah celebrated the first Thanksgiving when he praised God for delivering him from the flood and offered sweet-smelling sacrifices to the Lord [Genesis 8:20-21].
After the children of Israel had been delivered from Egypt, they had not just one or two, but several annual thanksgiving feasts. They celebrated both at the beginning and at the end of harvest, giving thanks to God both at the Feast of Firstfruits [e.g. Leviticus 23:9-14] and at the Feast of Weeks [e.g. Numbers 28:26-31]. The Feast of Tabernacles [e.g. Numbers 29:12-34] and the Feast of Passover [e.g. 9:1-14] were also festivals of thanksgiving to God.
Now the Encyclopedia Brittanica suggests that the American Thanksgiving Day is “rooted in native tradition.” Nonsense. Thanksgiving is rooted in the biblical traditions we have just mentioned.
It was that biblical tradition which was preserved and passed down to the American church by the Presbyterian Church of England and Scotland. The ministers who wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith in the 17th century were well aware of the biblical precedent for thanksgiving festivals. And so they included an entire section in The Directory for the Publick Worship of God on thanksgiving, entitled Concerning the Observation of Days of Publick Thanksgiving. They instructed ministers to do something like what I am doing this evening, writing that
When any such day is to be kept, let notice be given of it, and of the occasion thereof, some convenient time before, that the people may the better prepare themselves thereunto [DPWG].
George Washington and the Continental Congress were adopting this practice when they issued thanksgiving declarations to be read in pulpits throughout the nation.
The Westminster Divines also gave instructions for the proper conduct of thanksgiving when the day did arrive, mindful as they were of the temptations that a day of feasting might present to the people of God:
[T]he minister… is solemnly to admonish [the congregation] to beware of all excess and riot, tending to gluttony or drunkenness… in their eating and refreshing; and to take care that their mirth and rejoicing be not carnal, but spiritual, which may make God’s praise to be glorious, and themselves humble and sober; and that both their feeding and rejoicing may render them more cheerful and enlarged, further to celebrate his praises in the midst of the congregation… [DPWG].
These men were not spoilsports. They condemned excess, gluttony, and drunkenness. But they also assumed that thanksgiving to God would entail eating and drinking, mirth and rejoicing, cheerfulness and celebration.
We will be filled with such mirth and celebration in this Thanksgiving Week. But our rejoicing will not be directed towards no one in particular, or towards our own bellies. Rather, by giving thanks we intend, as the Directory says, to “make God’s praise to be glorious.”
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