What is Christian Thanksgiving? (Sermon)
1 Thessalonians 5:18
Introduction: What is thanksgiving?
We don’t devote a sermon to every national holiday, but here’s one that overlaps with a key Christian virtue: thanksgiving. Paul says, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5:18). Thanksgiving is a basic disposition and daily habit of the Christian life.
But seeing gratitude as a virtue is not unique to Christianity. The atheist David Hume in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739) wrote, “Of all the crimes that human creatures are capable of committing the most horrid and unnatural is ingratitude…this is acknowledged by all mankind, philosophers as well as the people.” And there’s a significant popular movement in our culture of cultivating thanksgiving and inner-peace and calm as techniques of self-improvement. Positive psychology puts up thanksgiving as an exercise that can increase happiness, satisfaction, physical health, you’ll have lower levels of cellular inflammation, less fatigue and greater resiliency. Who wouldn’t want to be thankful!
But what makes thanksgiving distinctly Christian, is when we’re talking in God’s direction. This is the defining mark, the sine qua non of Christian thanksgiving: regardless of what we’re giving thanks for, we’re always giving thanks to God. Thanksgiving is actually a bullet point underneath prayer. Thanksgiving is one mode in which Christians talk to God. Thanksgiving should form a regular part of our prayer life, which assumes that we have an active life of prayer before God. Now I don’t assume that most of us are doing well at this. Dallas Willard said, “The ‘open secret’ of many ‘Bible-believing’ churches is that a vanishingly small percentage of those talking about prayer and Bible reading are actually doing what they are talking about.”
Why aren’t we any good at giving thanks to God or praying more generally? Probably for the same reasons in both cases. We may talk about being busy, or not having good role models or what not, and those may be legitimate partial explanations, but without the exception the root of prayerlessness and the root of thanklessness is PRIDE, as in, “I deserved this,” or a presumptuous attitude that doesn’t even recognize those points at which gratitude to God is appropriate.
Thanksgiving, on the other hand, is the response of a heart that recognizes, I am unworthy, undeserving. Any tiniest modicum of blessing or goodness I have is more than I should have. So how do I respond to that realization? “Thank you! Thank you God!” It’s talking to God about all the good things he’s done. William Cooper said, “Our continual praying shows that we are always beggars, and our continual thanksgiving shows us always debtors.”
BIG IDEA: Well now we know what thanksgiving is, we need to turn to what it is that we are to give thanks for. And as we look at the NT, there are three prominent reasons for giving thanks. Thanksgiving always goes in one direction, to God, but there are many reasons.
TRANSITION: Three reasons we see over and over again in the NT are 1) thanksgiving for circumstances, 2) thanksgiving for people, and 3) thanksgiving for the gospel.
1. Thanksgiving for Circumstances
In the gospels, thanksgiving is usually in the form of a verb, and it’s usually Jesus who is doing it. And usually he’s giving thanks for what? When they’re about to eat, he’s giving thanks for food When he feeds the thousands. And of course before the Last Supper, he gives thanks, then breaks the bread and pours the wine. And the verb give thanks is eucharisteo, where the word “eucharist” for the Lord’s Supper comes from. And so the Christian views daily provision, bread clothing shelter, as provision that comes ultimately from God. And we return thanks to him for it, following the example of Jesus himself. (Mt 15:35; 26:26; Mk 8:5; 14:22; Lk 22:16-18; Jn 6:11, 23). This is why we pray before meals.
We give thanks to God for his provision for us. In fact Paul says to Timothy, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim 4:4). He says everything, but in the context of 1 Tim 4, Paul is referring specifically to food and to sex within marriage. And the thanksgiving is directed toward God, the one who created and provided these things, who has provided everything.
Now at this point a word of caution may be in order. Many times we just don’t give thanks to God for things; we’re merely happy to have them. You’re glad you have your house, but you’re actually not thankful to God for it. But sometimes when we do pause to reflect on God’s provision to us, it doesn’t go far beyond car, clothing, house and food. Basically whatever material goods God has given us, that’s about as far as we go in giving thanks. Our thanksgiving seems to be tied rather tightly to our material well-being and comfort. And since as someone noted, “what we most frequently give thanks for betrays what we most highly value,” therefore…“If a large percentage of our thanksgiving is for material prosperity, it is because we value material prosperity.” So we should certainly give thanks for provision, but if we never go further, it may be telling about our skewed priorities.
But giving thanks for the circumstance of God’s provision is only the beginning. Not just in provision, but in privation as well, when things we wish we had are withheld. In a number of places, Paul speaks of the importance of always giving thanks, even when things are difficult.
So in Philippians 4:6, he says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (ESV) In the midst of things that might cause anxiety and turmoil, what’s the right response? Prayer and supplication with thanksgiving. And notice how giving thanks brings about peace. Giving thanks changes the giver of thanks. Moving from anxiety to peace.
And again, in 1 Thess 5:16-18, Paul says, “Rejoice always,  Pray without ceasing,  give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Have you ever wondered what God’s will for your life is? What would God have you do in regards to your marriage, or your singleness, or that troublesome work relationship, etc? Give thanks. That’s God’s will for you. Give thanks in all circumstances.
It’s funny, sometimes we rack our brains over what God might want from us in this or that situation as if it’s the most difficult decision in the world, and if someone said, why don’t you just start by giving thanks, we might call their advice simplistic and impractical. “It is folly to pretend to seek God’s will for your life, in terms of a marriage partner or some form of Christian vocation, when there is no deep desire to pursue God’s will as he has already kindly revealed it.”
So then we must prepare ourselves to give thanks not only when it’s the natural spontaneous response to provision, but also when it seems counterintuitive.
Of course part of the background to Thanksgiving as a holiday is that the Pilgrims (separatists who held Puritan Calvinist theology) who arrived near present-day Cape Cod in mid-November 1620 basically unprepared for a winter far more severe than what they were used to in England. They endured a bitter winter upon arriving and were decimated by it. 102 had sailed; only fifty remained. Over half of them died. Widowers and orphans abounded. Fourteen of the eighteen wives who had set sail on the Mayflower had perished during the winter. So in the autumn of 1621 as they feasted and gave thanks, those wounds were still fresh. No doubt their thanksgiving was leavened with heartache, but they gave thanks still for what provision they had. Give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
No one would choose the difficult path, but when God brings you that way, his will is clear. For, “Worship is not only doing what pleases God, but also being pleased with what God does.”
And if you find yourself in a season of relative calm and happiness, consider the things that could be your crosses that are not. Give thanks for suffering you have been spared. And at the same time, think of those in the church who are suffering those things and spend time in prayer for them.
TRANSITION: So we give thanks to God in all circumstances. And then as we survey thanksgiving in the NT, we find another reason for giving thanks to God, especially in the prayers of Paul, we see thanksgiving for people.
2. Thanksgiving for People
Occasionally in his writing Paul gave thanks to somebody. In Romans 16:4, which Tom preached just a few weeks ago, Paul says, “Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus  who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I have thanks, but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well.”
But much more typically, Paul is not giving thanks to someone, but giving thanks for someone to God. Again, what makes thanksgiving Christian is when it is one mode of prayer, speaking to God in thanks.
So to the Romans, Paul says, “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world.” To the church in Ephesus he says, “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers” (Eph 1:16). To the Colossians he says, “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people” (Col 1:3). To the Thessalonians he says, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope” (1 Thess 1:2-3). “For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face” (1 Thess 3:9-10). And then in his second letter to the Thessalonians he says, “We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing.  Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring” (2 Thess 1:3-4).
Three quick observations about these verses. First, Paul observes specific patterns in the lives of others. Your love for each other is increasing. You’re persevering in faith through trials and persecutions. You’re steadfast in hope. You’re laboring for the gospel with a loving heart. He takes the time to note these growth patterns in them.
And then second, he gives thanks to God for these things. When there’s good forward movement in our lives, that’s God’s grace being played out through us. So it’s right when we see that happening in someone else’s life that we should feel encouraged that God is at work, and we give him thanks for that.
And then third, Paul articulates those patterns to them by way of encouragement.
Now one of the great challenges for us to give thanks for others, is that it requires caring about others. And if we’re honest, we can be so self-centered that sometimes we have a hard time caring for things that don’t directly concern us. It’s a habit, or a discipline we have to develop. You may have noticed we didn’t do a Turkey Bowl this year like we have in the past…maybe part of the reason for that was to avoid injuries for the 40 and above crowd, you know for some 40 year old guys that’s like their one physical activity each year. And when that’s true, you know, the next day you’re sore and in pain because you were working muscles you didn’t even know were there. And thanksgiving for other people is often one of those muscles we never exercise.
How much would our churches be transformed if each of us made it a practice to thank God for others and then to tell these others what it is about them that we thank God for? Not constant flattery, but thoughtful thanksgiving to God, which is then verbalized to others.
You can shape another person’s understanding of what God is doing in their lives. You may see it more clearly than they do, and when you take the time to notice and then further take the time to encourage them with it, you may actually be furthering that very work that God is doing in them. You make them a better person by giving thanks to God for them and then telling them about it.
At the same time, you might make yourself a godlier person. It may be very helpful to think about someone that you really struggle with. Someone you just honestly don’t like. If you’re married, sadly that may be your spouse. How much of our unhappiness, if we’re honest revolves around the people closest to us, spouse, children, etc. These are people for whom we should be giving thanks to God. And we may find that the practice of giving thanks is a great remedy, a suitable antidote, to the sickness of discontentment family relationships.
High school students, give thanks for the parents God has given you, give thanks for their wisdom even where you feel like in your great wisdom you may disagree, and then after you’ve thanked God for them, go to them thank them for taking care of you and putting up with you. How shaper than a serpent’s tooth is a thankless child (Shakespeare, King Lear). Don’t be a thankless child.
Starting with family relationships but then moving outward in expanding circles, we should be cultivating thanksgiving to God for other people.
TRANSITION: So Christians give thanks to God in all circumstances, we give thanks to God for other people, and then finally, and above all, the third reason for giving thanks that we see as we survey the NT teaching on thanksgiving is giving thanks to God for the gospel.
3. Thanksgiving for the Gospel
If someone holds the door for you, it would be appropriate simply to say thank you. But if someone gives you a thoughtful gift, you would go a step further, perhaps a hand-written thank you note is in order. But if someone risked or even gave up their life for you, if someone saved your life, the debt of gratitude would be immense.
You remember the story about the ten lepers in Luke 17. Men with a terrible and terminal disease, and Jesus heals them. Rescues them. But only one returns praising God and giving thanks and Jesus says, “Didn’t I heal ten of you? Where are the other nine?” Too often we are the other nine. We get our good things and go on our way, but never give thanks.
And what God has done for us in Christ exceeds even the gift those lepers received. Those lepers received temporary healing, those who are in Christ receive eternal healing. Yes, they went away ungrateful, but our debt of gratitude is even greater. If we are unthankful the offense to God is greater. And Jesus looks at his church and says, “I healed you, where are the other nine?”
So then, we must learn above all to give thanks for the gospel. Paul writes to the Colossians, he tells them how he’s praying for them, what it is he wants God to do for them. And listen to how he prays.
“May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; [May you be] giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.  He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,  in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:11-14).
Paul is praying for them, that they would be giving thanks to the Father (again notice the giving of thanks has a direction: to God the Father), and the grounds of this thanksgiving is that the Father has done three things for them, just as he has for us: they have been qualified and delivered and transferred.
First, they have been qualified to share in the inheritance of the saints. God’s been making promises from the very beginning. The Bible tells the story of a perfection ruined by Adam’s and Eve rejection of God. But God in his great kindness, immediately, even as he enacts consequences, at the same time enacts a promise: the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. God further makes a promise to Abraham, that offspring of the woman will come through your people, and you’ll inherit the land and you’ll be blessed. And Paul says that God has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints.
God has promised there will be a new heavens and a new earth. You don’t like your disease, God will give you a new body. A brand new world will be yours. And best of all, the greatest inheritance, which God has always promised his people: He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will be with them as their God (Rev 21:3). You may feel bad you didn’t get an inheritance from your parents, or that you don’t have an inheritance to leave your children. But you’ve got Jesus, give them Jesus!
There is a day coming, this is not a fairy tale, when Jesus is coming back on a white horse. He says, Behold I am coming soon. And those who are in Christ look forward to a new world. You can start saying thank you for that today.
And then second, he prays that they would be giving thanks that they have been delivered from the domain of darkness. There is a place where darkness rules. Darkness has a kingdom domain. It’s like the title of a horror movie, but in real life where darkness rules, is on this earth. It’s human rejection of God. Yes, there are natural disasters and diseases, but most suffering in the world comes from what we people do to other people and what we do to ourselves. It’s the tyranny of the devil who daily dupes us into doing his will.
And for those who begin following Christ, God delivers them from the tyranny of the devil. You’re no long enslaved to that master, no longer subject to his capricious temptations. You remember what Romans 6:6 says, “We know that our old self was crucified with Christ in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin, for the one who has died with Christ has been set free from sin… So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Again this is something you can wake up in the morning and thank God you aren’t under the tyranny of the devil. You aren’t ruled by that master. Darkness is neither your home nor your future.
And then third, they (and we who are in Christ) have been transferred to the kingdom of God’s believed Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. This is the positive movement, not only delivered, but transferred into a new kingdom and into a new status: redeemed, forgiven of sins.
Sin was our greatest problem, it’s the source of all misery. And we’ve been delivered from its kingdom and transferred to a new one. D. A. Carson points out that, “If God had perceived our greatest need was economic, he would have sent an economist. If he had perceived our greatest need was entertainment, he would have sent us a comedian or an artist. If God had perceived that our greatest need was political stability, he would have sent us a politician. If he had perceived that our greatest need was health, he would have sent us a doctor. But he perceived that our greatest need involved our sin, our alienation from him, our profound rebellion, our death, and he sent us a Savior.”
What kindness. No wonder Paul prays that they would be giving thanks to the Father who has 1) qualified them to share the inheritance 2) delivered them from the tyranny of darkness and 3) transferred them to the kingdom of light.
So what has this sermon been about? Really simple: saying thank you to God. Give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Thanks goes in one direction—to God—for three reasons—circumstances, people and the gospel.
I know the simplicity of that may feel insulting, we’re trying to teach our three-year old to say thank you, and here I am, saying basically that same thing to you. But honestly, saying thank you to God is the essence of being a Christian. First, I had a need, death was my destiny. I was in a miserable condition because of my sin. Second, in God’s grace through Christ I may be qualified, delivered, transferred. And third, I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance. Those three steps, I was miserable, I may be delivered, I ought to be life-alteringly thankful…that’s a Christian.
Why do we forget these things? These are the basics. You may know that Ronnie Winterton, one of the pastoral interns here, is into jiu-jitsu and he pointed out that one of the most respected jiu-jitsu coaches in the world said in the world of jiu-jitso, “What is described as elite performance is mostly just the fundamentals taken to the limits of their vast potential.” The same thing is true in this case. Being a Christian at its core, is simply being deeply humbled before God and grateful for God that the deliverance we needed he provided in Jesus Christ.
Let’s pause now to give thanks. I want you to quietly in your seat there to think about 1) something in your circumstances you can thank God for 2) someone in our life or in this room you can thank God for and 3) above all, give thanks for the good news of deliverance through Jesus Christ.
This sermon was originally preached at Christ Covenant Church on November 24, 2019.
 David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 3.1.1, Of Morals: Of Virtue and Vice: Moral Distinctions Not Derived From Reason. Likewise Shakespeare, “How shaper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.”  Kori Miller, “14 Health Benefits of Practicing Gratitude According to Science,” https://positivepsychology.com/benefits-of-gratitude/.  Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, 186.  William Cooper, “Why All Should Be Thankful,” Free Grace Broadcaster, Issue 190, p. 1.  Jesus also gives thanks for the Father hearing his prayer at the resurrection of Lazarus (Jn 11:41). Giving thanks used as a verb 38 times in the NT. In the gospels, it is normally Jesus giving thanks before a meal. Thanksgiving is used as a noun 15 times in the NT, usually in Paul, and usually in a more comprehensive way.  Carson, Praying with Paul, 23.  In addition to the passages addressed above, see also Ephesians 5:20, “…giving thanks always and for everything to God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Carson, Praying with Paul, 82.  Some of these details and phrases come from Robert Tracy McKenzie, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History, 130.  Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, cited by William Barcley, “Ungratefulness as the Root of Sin,” Tabletalk, 2019.  Carson, Praying with Paul, 66, “Although the thanksgiving is addressed not to the Thessalonians but rather to God for the Thessalonians, nevertheless it is cast in such a way as to encourage them.”  D. A. Carson, Praying with Paul, 88.  These three points come from the Heidelberg catechism, question 2, “What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?”