The Eve of the National Day of Thanksgiving
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
There seem to be some things that are just part of our identity as Americans, and this National Day of Thanksgiving that we’ll be celebrating tomorrow is one of them. A number of common experiences are shared by Americans over this holiday period: days off of school or from work, festive meals with family and friends, travel adventures or flight delays (spent trying to get to those meals), and, quite often, a Thanksgiving Day parade. But have you ever wondered about the point of those parades? The floats and marching bands can be great fun, but how are they or a forty-foot-high Energizer Bunny balloon connected with a day for giving thanks? And for that matter, who is such a parade thanking? Thanksgiving is not a church holiday. If it were, maybe we could get a big “Jesus ascending into heaven” balloon in the parade. Though it may surprise us, the world beyond our nation’s borders is not gearing up for a big Thanksgiving Day meal or a Thanksgiving Day parade, because they do not share our National Day of Thanksgiving. It is part of our American identity.
In our reading from Deuteronomy, the Hebrew people are about to head over into Canaan. This land had been promised to their father Abraham by God, Who told Abraham that He would raise up a great nation through Abraham’s child Isaac and his child, Israel. This same God blessed Abraham’s descendants and made them into a numerous people, bringing them out of Egypt, freeing them from captivity and slavery. Now the people of Israel stand ready to enter into the land where God will continue to fulfill His promise to Abraham and to them. And so, God directs them how to live in this land of promise, instructing the people to take a portion of the first harvest that they will receive in the land, setting it aside as a thank offering to God. This would be a special, specific way in which the people would give thanks to God for delivering them from the Egyptians, for giving Israel a home. This thanksgiving offering would mean something not just to God – He doesn’t need these crops – but also to the people. The thanksgiving would be connected to their identity as a people. Through Moses, God even gives the people words to say, words which recall their history and their journey. When they give thanks with this offering, they wouldn’t be parading their wealth before the world; rather, they would be remembering and celebrating the gifts that God provides.
The people would give thanks because of who they were, because of the identity that God has given to them. Thanksgiving comes as a response to fulfilled promise. What a great reason for giving thanks, for celebration, for parades! Psalm 100, our psalm for this day, expresses this joyful expression of thanksgiving. And as Christians, this attitude of joy in giving thanks is part of our identity, too.
Thanksgiving isn’t supposed to be just a one-day-a-year thing. Hey, looking at our parades, with their floats and bands and balloons, it might not even seem like we’re doing it right that one day! We tend to show more interest the gifts that God has given than we do in the Giver of the gifts. How many Thanksgivings have you spent focused on the good food, sports on the television, or the big Day-After-Thanksgiving sales? Or we get forget to give thanks because we spend so much time thinking about how things could be better. How many Thanksgivings do you remember where you spent more time being upset/stressed/resentful about the big meal that’s going out on your table, with the family and friends around that table, or with the pain of dealing with travel to be at that table?
Like the Hebrews, our attitude of thanksgiving comes in response to a fulfilled promise: God promised to deliver us from our sin and from separation from Him in death. He fulfilled that promise on the cross and empty tomb of Jesus Christ. You have been forgiven for the days that you failed to be thankful. You have been pardoned for the times when you did not celebrate God and His gifts. Like the Hebrews, you have been set free and delivered into a new land.
God the Father daily provides us with a parade of His gifts in our lives. In his explanation to the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed, Martin Luther – not much chance that we’ll see him as a parade balloon, eh? – details a minor inventory of these gifts: body and soul, reason and all senses, clothing, food and drink, house and home, spouse and children – all that we need to support this body and life! These First Article gifts, we might call them, are all around us. And our heavenly Father still takes care of them!
As Christians, we shouldn’t celebrate just one Thanksgiving Day and its parades: instead, our lives can be a parade of giving thanks! But how might you live out this attitude in response to God’s kept promise? Make an intentional effort to include prayer in your day-to-day life. If you don’t already, thank God for your food, home, and material blessings before each meal. When you wake up each morning, thank the Lord for the new day and the opportunities to serve others that it will bring. Regularly attend weekly worship services to hear God’s Word, and thank Him for the freedom that we have as Americans to do so. And when you feel yourself being tempted, thank God for the freedom that He won for you on the cross, freedom that means you are no longer captive to sin, death, and the devil.