Thanksgiving Eve Sermon
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 Sermon
November 22, 2007
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
444 "For The Beauty Of The Earth"
450 "We Praise Thee O God Our Redeemer Creator"
363 "Come Ye Thankful People Come"
443 "Now Thank We All Our God"
364 "We Plough The Fields And Scatter"
THANKSGIVING THROUGH THE AGES
TEXT (vs. 1-2): “When you have entered the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the first fruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land that the LORD your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name…”
Thanksgiving has probably been on your mind for at least the last several weeks. The reason people think about it in advance is because the day seldom happens without some sort of plans being made. Who’s going to host the dinner this year? How many people are coming? Who’s going to be making the turkey, the sweet potatoes, the cranberry sauce, or the pumpkin pies? These things don’t just happen by themselves you know, it takes a lot of work to make Thanksgiving happen!
So why Thanksgiving in the first place? For so many people, Thanksgiving is a holiday that is centered around a big meal, maybe getting together with family, and watching football on T. V.
But everybody usually has plans of some sort. In fact, you could stop just about anybody on the street and ask them what they’re doing for Thanksgiving, and they’ll probably be able to tell you; and most of the time it will involve a special meal of some description. Even the homeless can go to various shelters and enjoy a special Thanksgiving meal.
What are the roots of Thanksgiving? Why do we celebrate it? As citizens of the United States of America, we often point back to the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock. The Pilgrims were being persecuted in England for practicing their religion, and so they sought religious freedom on American soil.
The year was 1620. When the Pilgrims touched Plymouth Rock in that year and made it to shore, they found a deserted village, which they eventually appropriated for themselves and named it Plymouth Colony. The village had been named Patuxet and was the former home of an Indian tribe who were a branch of the Wampanoags. The majority of these people had died from smallpox in 1618. The village was a ghost town.
The Pilgrims were helped out by Squanto (or Tisquantum), a Wampanoag and a former inhabitant of Patuxet. Squanto spoke English. He had learned this language over a period of several years, following his capture by English traders and sale into slavery in Europe. He had made it back home, a heroic nine-year journey, only to find his people pretty much wiped out.
After teaching the Pilgrims basic survival and agricultural techniques, the Wamponoags and Pilgrims kept peaceful relations for well over fifty years.
Legend has it that the first meal shared between the Indians and the Pilgrims was the first Thanksgiving meal, and is cited as the basic reason why we continue to have these massive feasts on Thanksgiving. Well that explains the meal anyway.
But Thanksgiving is a national holiday, right? How did that happen? Was it something the Pilgrims or the Indians did? Why do we need a holiday centered around a huge meal?
The year was 1863, and the people of the United Sates were bruised and discouraged because of the War Between the States, or the Civil War as it is commonly known. On October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln made what is known as the Thanksgiving proclamation. Here are a few of his words:
“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God….No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens…”
So now we have the date; the last Thursday of November each year has been the holiday of national Thanksgiving in the United States ever since 1863. By the way, Canada also has a day of national Thanksgiving, which they celebrate on the second Monday in October.
Now all the elements are in place; we have the Pilgrims, Plymouth Rock, the Indians, and Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation. It all seems so neat and tidy; we couldn’t be forgetting anything, are we?
Indeed we are, because the celebration of Thanksgiving started way before the Pilgrims were even born almost 400 years ago. Thanksgiving, also called Harvest Thanksgiving has been an official, and often overlooked celebration in the church for a long, long time. And before Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863, it was pretty much up to the church to make sure it was celebrated.
If we want to be really technical about it, we could say that the real first Thanksgiving is described in our text for this evening, from Deuteronomy 26. What we read here, is a sermon delivered by Moses to the Israelites before they crossed the Jordan River into Canaan.
As we read this account, we see that it gives the details of the celebration of the harvest and the giving of its first fruits as a thanksgiving offering to God for delivering them from slavery in Egypt. In ancient Israel, the festival was celebrated in the spring on the fiftieth day following the cutting of the first sheaf of grain.
Thanksgiving celebrations have a much wider connotation. Thank offerings of many kinds had been known in Israel and in other cultures from earliest times. Frequently a festive meal was associated with the sacrificial offering. One can easily see why the English practice of celebrating harvest thanksgiving services and the later North American custom of marking a special Thanksgiving Day have ancient sacred roots.
But Thanksgiving, just like so many other things has become secularized. For example, celebrating the joy of the birth of the Christ Child has become almost unrecognizable with all of the materialism and the merchandising and the greed. Christians have to work extra hard to put the meaning of Christmas back where it belongs.
In a similar sense, celebrating the joy of Christ’s resurrection from the dead has become overshadowed by Cadbury chocolate eggs, and marshmallow peeps, and Easter baskets.
As we consider these celebrations in the Church, there is something we tend to overlook. Our celebration of Christmas in the church is a good thing, and it is very proper that we mark this important day. And in a similar sense, we properly celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead on Easter, which we also continue to proclaim throughout the entire Church year. It is good that we do this.
But do you know what? There is no command anywhere in the Bible that we celebrate these holidays. Nowhere does it say that we have to sing Christmas carols, or have Easter festival services, or Advent services, or Lenten services or any of that. We do these things because of what these events mean to us, and we praise God for them.
Thanksgiving is the only church festival that has a command attached to it. Thanksgiving is something that God wants us to do. And I can’t even begin to count the times in the Bible that we are told to do this! We even have the example of early Thanksgiving celebrations amongst the Israelites in the Old Testament!
If we go to the Psalms, we have so many exhortations to give thanks. We can recite the words of Psalm 118, 1 so easily from memory: “O give thanks unto the Lord for he is good, for his mercy endures forever.”
And then we have the example of Jesus giving thanks. He gave thanks when he broke the bread and fed the five thousand. He gave thanks when he celebrated the last supper with his disciples. Even Jesus was always giving thanks!
The Apostle Paul was another person who was full of thanksgiving. Even when he was being persecuted, he still found the opportunity to give thanks, even under those adverse conditions.
So why give thanks? As human beings, we tend to take things for granted far too much. When a baby cries in hunger, he or she expects to be fed. There are no thank-you’s for the spoons of strained carrots shoveled into their mouth, it’s just something they expect and take for granted.
In so many ways, we are like that baby. We flip a switch, and we expect a light to come on. We turn a key and expect our car to start. We go to the supermarket and expect to find food on the shelves. We turn on the tap and expect water to come out. We open our mouths, and expect there to be air to breathe. We take so much for granted.
For these things, and so many other things, we are to be thankful to God for providing them. The things God provides maybe aren’t exactly what we want, but he still provides for us just the same.
Jesus is the reason for the season—that has been a popular phrase at Christmas time, but it is also true for other times too. It is true at Easter, and it is especially true at Thanksgiving.
We not only are to be thankful for our material blessings, but our spiritual ones as well. In his Thanksgiving proclamation, Abraham Lincoln said, “They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
Our heavenly Father has every right to be upset with our shallow brand of thankfulness. He continually gives out of love for us, and we treat him like he owes it to us. He would have every right to cut us off, and let us go.
But he doesn’t. He has, as Abraham Lincoln stated, “nevertheless remembered mercy.” This is shown in Jesus our Lord. In spite of our sins, God deals with us according to his great love. Not only does he provide for us physically, but spiritually as well.
That’s why Jesus came to this earth. He came so that through faith in him, we would know the reward of heaven. Heaven is sometimes described as “the great feast.” It is happiness and joy beyond any comparison.
God continually deals with us in love. He loves both our bodies and our souls. Even though we sin often and continually take God for granted, Jesus has brought this love to us on a very personal level. We are redeemed and saved by grace through faith in him. And for that, we must be eternally grateful.
Thanksgiving has sometimes gotten pushed into the background. Merchants clear out the Halloween decorations and make way for Christmas. It can be difficult to even find Thanksgiving decorations in the stores amongst the marked down Halloween candy and the new Christmas displays. Thanksgiving has become unimportant in society, except to have a day off work and eat a big meal.
How do we regard Thanksgiving? Is it a cause for celebration, or just a nuisance? If we push the real meaning of Thanksgiving aside, and find ourselves saying things like “I’m too busy fixing dinner to go to church on Thanksgiving,” it would be like saying “I’m too busy wrapping Christmas presents to go to church,” or “I’m too busy filling Easter baskets to go to church.”
There is a command when it comes to Thanksgiving, even when it isn’t very convenient. Psalm 119 verse 62 says, “At midnight I rise to give you thanks for your righteous laws.” It can’t be very convenient to get up out of bed just to give thanks, but David did it.
In a similar sense, Jesus after he healed ten lepers was discouraged because only one bothered to take the time to come back and give thanks. Were the others thankful? They certainly would have been; but for them to come back and give thanks was inconvenient.
This Thanksgiving, let us take the time to give thanks to God, as it says in our liturgy: “It is truly meet, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks unto thee, O Lord, Holy Father, Almighty and Everlasting God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
God most certainly established the first Thanksgiving. May we continue to keep its celebration among us always.