The Reason for Thanksgiving

No, I’m not talking about the story we all learned in elementary school, about the starving pilgrims and the friendly Indians who saved their skins that first winter.  I’m talking about why God commands us to give Him thanks. It does seem a bit odd, on its face.  Why would a supreme deity need thanks?  Is He that desperate for affirmation?  Yet there it is, over and over again in the Scriptures….

In Colossians 3:15-17, Paul writes, Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do,whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.   Three separate times, he refers to gratitude or giving thanks.  It’s almost like he’s your mom, reminding you three times before you go to spend the night with a friend, “Make sure you thank his parents for having you over!”  1 Thessalonians 5:18 says, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. We may be tempted to say, “I don’t really have anything to be thankful for at the moment.”  But God won’t accept that excuse.  We should be thankful in “all circumstances.”

Psalm 100:4 says, Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. So God is telling us that when we come into His presence for corporate worship, we don’t come with an attitude of “Entertain me; instruct me; inspire me…I paid good money for this.”  No, we come into corporate worship with an attitude of thanksgiving.  Everything we do here should be done to express our appreciation to Him.  Some of us learned that entire Psalm in the King James, where it starts with those famous words, Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the Earth.  In the modern translations, it says “Shout for joy to the Lord.”  That’s a pretty good translation, because the Hebrew word literally means “a sound that splits the ear.”  God doesn’t care primarily about how you sound.  He cares mostly that you sing to Him out of a heart of sincere gratitude and joy.

Then there’s Psalm 50:23, He who sacrifices thank offerings honors me, and he prepares the way so that I may show him the salvation of God.  When God established the nation of Israel, He gave them a system of sacrifices they were to perform.  Some of these sacrifices were called sin offerings. If you sinned against God and wanted to get right with Him again, you took the best animal in your herd or flock, and brought it to the priest to be sacrificed.  As it says in the book of Hebrews, Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. But there were other offerings that God wanted His people to give.  The thank offering was one example.  If you had experienced the blessing of God in some profound way, you would offer a sacrifice just to say thank you. It was a way of saying, “Without you, I wouldn’t have anything.  So I am going to take something valuable to me and give it over to you.  Not because you need it, but because it does my heart good to say thank you.”

So back to our question: Why does God insist on thankfulness from us? It’s not because God needs to be thanked.  It’s because gratitude is good for us.  There has been an incredible amount of study on this.  I won’t take time to cite the individual research studies, but you can look them up on your own.  Just go to your search engine and type, “benefits of gratitude.”  But let me just sum up some—not all—of the good things that happen when we’re thankful:

Studies have found that thankful people feel better, exercise more often, visit the doctor less, are more optimistic and cheerful, have better marriages, have better relationships with everyone, and if they are in a position of managing employees, their employees produce more work. You are literally a better boss if you display gratitude to your workers.  Not only that, but kids who are thankful get better grades.  People who have suffered the loss of a loved one have an easier time overcoming grief if they have established the pattern of thankfulness in their lives.  Thankful people have healthier heart rates, stronger immune systems, and get better sleep.  In one specific study, researchers took a group of 411 people and wanted to see what made them happiest.  For weeks, they gave their group assignments that were supposed to produce happiness in their lives, and then at the end of each week, the research group reported how that week’s assignment made them feel.  One week, their assignment was to write a letter to someone who had been meaningful in their lives, expressing thanks for the way that person had helped them.  The group reported that out of all the assignments they did, that week produced the greatest surge in happiness.

There once was an old man who ran a gas station in one of those little bedroom communities near a big city.  His young granddaughter was working in the store with him one day, when a man came in to buy a few things while his car was gassing up.  The man looked at her grandpa and said, “What’s it like living in this town?”  The old man asked, “Well, what is it like where you come from?”  The man replied, “It stinks.  Literally.  The air is foul.  And the houses are rundown, there’s crime everywhere, the schools are terrible.  And worse, it’s so political.  If you don’t know someone in city government, you never get anywhere.  I want to move, so I was wondering if living here would be better.”  Grandpa said, “Sorry, friend.  It’s pretty much like that here, too.”  Later that day, another man came in.  As he was paying for his Snapple and almonds, he asked, “What’s it like here?”  The old man again asked, “What’s it like where you live?”  The man replied, “It’s wonderful.  People have a lot of pride in the town, so the schools are great and homes are really well-maintained.  The police do a good job, too.  And everyone is so friendly, it’s like a small town in a lot of ways.  I hate to think about moving, but my work might move me to this end of town.”  The old man said, “Well, you ought to move here.  It’s a lot like what you described.”  After he left, the granddaughter asked why he had given the two men such different answers.  He said, “Because one thing I’ve learned, sweetie, is that wherever you go, you take your attitude with you.”  The old man is right.  Granted, some places are better to live in than others.  But if you think you can’t possibly enjoy life under your present circumstances, why not first do something about your attitude?  God commands us to be thankful because gratitude makes us happier and healthier.

So this week, my challenge to you is to give a thank offering to God.  No, I am not telling you slaughter any livestock.  Jesus died for our sins once and for all, and that brought an end to the Old Testament’s sacrificial system. So the sacrifices we bring now are different.  What would a thank offering look like today?  I have two suggestions.  You pick the one that works for you.

Tell someone how they’ve blessed you.  When I look back on my life, I see a huge number of people who have invested in me, supported me, mentored me, and helped me get to the point I am today.  I think about the man who taught me Sunday School when I was a teenager.  When I felt called to the ministry, he committed to send us $35 a month until I graduated.  For three years, he sent that check.  It doesn’t sound like much, but it made a difference to us, economically and emotionally.  I think about my fifth grade teacher, who had a profound impact on me, spiritually as well as academically.  I think also about the minister who performed our wedding.  As my wife’s youth minister, he had a powerful influence on her becoming the kind of woman, wife and mother she is.  And the summer before our wedding, he and his family hosted me in their home, rent-free, for the entire summer.  I think about a woman at another church who was a constant friend and encouragement to me and my family.  I don’t have contact with any of these people anymore, but two years ago, I wrote them each a letter telling them how much they mean to me.  I heard back from each of them, and they told me what a blessing it was.  But I didn’t do it just for them.  I did it as an offering of thanks to God, who brought them lovingly into my life.

Pay God’s love forward. We are all rich in some way. As you make a list of the things God has given you, and given in abundance, ask Him to show you a person who doesn’t have as much.  Give that person a gift.  It may be that you have enough money to help someone out with a gift card to a grocery store, or help with one of their bills.  Or maybe you can offer them the gift of some quality time; take them out to lunch one day.  Invite someone who will be alone on Thanksgiving to join your family for the day.  Or maybe you can pay forward the gift of the Gospel; find some organization that is taking the good news to unreached people and bless them.  After all, if you’re a Christian, that means that at some point, someone told you about God’s love and the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Why not make it possible for people around the world to have that same blessing? God won’t love you any more if you do this—it’s for the purpose of expressing thanks to the One who said, “whatever you do for the least of my children, you do it for me.”

Try it, and just see if it doesn’t turn out to be even more of a blessing to you than it is to the people you reached out to.  Gratitude, you see, is a gift; a gift from the God who can’t stop giving us stuff.

Good news about the election


In a recent sermon, John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, told the following joke: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are stranded in the middle of the ocean in a small boat.  Suddenly, the boat springs a leak. Who is saved?  America.

In light of how many of us feel about this election, that is the very definition of gallows humor.  We laugh to keep from crying (or throwing a brick through your TV screen, depending on your personality).  I am not here to offer an endorsement.  Many thoughtful people who are more politically astute than I have written about which way Christians should vote (Here’s a series of short articles that argue for three possibilities).   Either way, and I cannot sugar-coat this, it’s hard to be excited or optimistic about the next four years of our nation’s political life.

However, I still say it is the responsibility of all Americans–especially we Christians–to vote.  Whether  you choose one of the two major candidates, or a third option, don’t waste your opportunity.  Besides, the down-ballot races will affect our lives in more direct ways than the presidential race, so don’t miss the chance to vote in those. But what is the good news that the title of this post promises?  There are three reasons I am hopeful about this election:

1. Our political system.  Thanks to the genius of our founding fathers, we are electing a president, not a dictator. He or she will oversee one of three branches of our government.  That means that even if our next president is the worst person we’ve ever elected, the damage to our nation will be limited.  Another great thing about our political system is that it is adaptable.  The current primary system is less than a century old.  Now that it has produced arguably the two most uninspiring, untrustworthy candidates in our nation’s history, I have hope that the process will be amended to produce better, more qualified nominees for our highest office.  I am not a political scientist, so I don’t know what a better process would look like.  But I have faith in this country’s ability to make positive change for the future.  In other words, I am looking forward to better options in 2020.

2. The renewal of God’s people.  Many of us have been praying for a revival of the American Church for many years.  Wouldn’t it be just like God to use an event like this election to spur that long-awaited revival?  If it happens, I believe it will be because this election will finally wean us away from our idolatrous relationship with politics.  Please understand, I believe Christians should be involved in the political process, particularly in a democratic republic like ours.  But when the Church becomes just another political voting bloc, whose loyalty to one particular party is unquestioned, it loses its prophetic voice.  In my experience as a pastor, too many evangelical Christians are more likely to memorize the words of Hannity and O’ Reilly than the words of our Savior; too many of us are quick to jump into a political debate, but slow to share the Gospel that can change a person’s eternity.  Perhaps an election like this will finally show us that our nation’s hope is not in electing the “right” candidate; it’s in people coming to know the One who loved them enough to die for them…and our job as Christians is to help make that happen.  If we repent of our political idolatry and take responsibility for our true mission, I believe God will do amazing things.

3. Our Amazing God.  Earlier, I referenced a joke in a sermon by John Ortberg (Click here to watch the entire sermon.  It is well worth your time).  In that same sermon, Ortberg pointed out that the most important election in human history took place over 2000 years ago.  In that election, the people of God chose between two candidates: On the one hand, there was Jesus of Nazareth, who had spent three years feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and helping the poor, while also sharing the most beautiful platform for peace and justice the world has ever known.  In addition, He was the absolute fulfillment of the Scriptures they revered and had memorized.  On the other hand, there was Barabbas, a murderous thief and assassin.  The people of God chose Barabbas; they called for Jesus to be crucified.  Yet God took their wrong choice and turned it into the greatest event in human history, an event that led to our eternal redemption.

Many of us feel a strong sense of fear regarding this election.  I hear Christians say, “This is the most important election in our history.”  We seem certain that if the wrong candidate wins, it could lead to the speedy downfall of our nation. But God is not bound by our electoral choices.  God is not the least bit worried about who will win on election day.  The outcome of our decision will not affect His ability to accomplish what He desires.  That doesn’t mean that everything is going to be okay in the short term.  Our next president is certain to make some decisions that make life harder for us, and others that history will judge to be huge mistakes.  But guess what? That would be true even if we were electing a candidate who embodied all the best qualities of Washington, Lincoln, Reagan and both Roosevelts.  That candidate would still be human.  But God is not.  And no matter what happens on election day, His primary occupation is still the redemption of human beings, and we are still His primary tools to accomplish that.  So whatever happens, ask Him to use you, to use our church, to use all His churches to be the light this nation needs.

And say hallelujah for this: The people of God chose wrong on Good Friday…but three days later, there was a divine recall election that changed everything.