If we said there is a great deal of angst and bitter division in our nation these days, I think most Americans would agree. Thankfully, Thanksgiving is approaching, and perhaps we may get a momentary reprieve from the never-ending cultural quarrel that besets us. It has always been one of our favorite holidays, a day originally set aside to thank God for all His myriad blessings, nationally and personally. But for many, Thanksgiving today may be seen as little more than a day off work, at least for those not responsible for preparing “Thanksgiving dinner.” As with many American celebrations – originally called Holy Days but known in modern times as holidays – Thanksgiving has lost much of its initial holy intent. As we consider The First Thanksgiving we see that:
The English colonists we call Pilgrims celebrated days of thanksgiving as part of their religion. But these were days of prayer, not days of feasting.
Initially, this was a time devoted to the corporate worship of God for His goodness and provision. What Did The Pilgrims And Wampanoag Indians Celebrate In 1621? rightly points out:
The First Thanksgiving: The Thanksgiving Feast. The English colonists we call Pilgrims celebrated days of thanksgiving as part of their religion. … Our national holiday really stems from the feast held in the autumn of 1621 by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag to celebrate the colony’s first successful harvest.
The trip across the ocean was very difficult. When they landed, winter was already setting in, and the end of the voyage certainly wasn’t the end of their trials. At the end of the first brutal winter, only fifty of the one hundred people who made the trip had survived. The small band celebrated with their benefactors, the Wampanoag Indians or “Eastern People.” Despite the hardships and losses the Pilgrims suffered, they viewed this first Thanksgiving as a time of celebration and appreciating the blessings of God’s protection and provision. They had endured constant reminders of the precarious nature of human life, and out of great loss, there was great joy and thanksgiving.
The Pilgrims had a decidedly different outlook on life than most of us do today. They expected life to be very hard and were not surprised when it was exactly that. They did not expect ease and comfort, in part because they had never known anything close to the comforts and conveniences we enjoy today. They had great difficulties establishing themselves in a new land but likely had known great difficulties in their homeland as well. Being deeply persuaded that this life was short and mean, while eternity was long and satisfying was how they made it through the hardships of life. And so, they were thankful for their deliverance. That’s not to say they were superhuman, floating through life without ever experiencing emotional despair, frustration, or deep sorrow, but they had an eternal perspective that kept them going.
As we consider the history of this day, we are mindful of all that we should be thankful for on this particular Thanksgiving Day. Just for beginners, we don’t have to go out in the cold to track and kill an animal for our upcoming feast. Most of us have no experience hunting – we do our “hunting” in a climate-controlled environment where our biggest challenge may be the hordes of shoppers in the checkout line, especially if we need to shop on Wednesday.
In that way and so many others, most of us do have a much easier life than people in past generations. However, we are not being Pollyannish. We experience loss and frustration and sometimes great sadness in our own lives, and we personally know many Christians who are right now experiencing terrible illness or great loss. We must work, as do all Christians, to keep an eternal perspective on the trials we go through and remember that God is in control of things that are completely out of our control.
And, as Christians, we need to be able to identify the forces we are compelled to fight in this life, forces that aim to destroy us and our faith and witness. Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12) Those spiritual forces seem to become more brazenly apparent every day, which is the result of vast numbers of people turning further and further away from God, leaving a spiritual vacuum to be filled, and it is being filled.
No matter the appearance to the contrary, the true division that matters for eternity is not about being black or white, rich or poor, bikers or drivers, but is between those who are adopted children of God vs those that reject Him. As God’s children, we are thankful for God’s many material blessings. We are also very thankful to God’s people from times past – like the Pilgrims and so many others – who made it their business to share the faith and pass it down to our generation. Their spiritual resilience – their determination to live as Christians despite hardship – is our blessed heritage. We can certainly be thankful for that.
We are personally thankful for the opportunity to be in ministry, and to share the gospel with those that God puts in our path. Yes, life even today is difficult and may become more difficult as our nation and indeed the whole world drifts further and further from the true God, but like our Christian forebearers, we know and strive to remain mindful that this life is short and mean and eternity is long and satisfying.
The apostle Paul experienced a few minor difficulties in his life. He recounted some of these to the Corinthians:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:24-28)
Sounds pretty brutal… Yet he is also the one who wrote:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
God’s will for us is to give thanks for our blessings, both spiritual and material, despite whatever hard or contrary circumstances we may find ourselves in. Why? Because He is bigger than our circumstances and will carry us through until the day we meet Him face to face. Perhaps one of the most popular Thanksgiving songs we have was penned by Henry Smith:
Give thanks with a grateful heart
Give thanks to the Holy One
Give thanks because He’s given Jesus Christ, His Son
And now let the weak say, “I am strong”
Let the poor say, “I am rich
Because of what the Lord has done for us”
Our hope is that every person reading this will experience an interlude of peace and gladness this Thanksgiving. Our prayer is that we will all as Christians remember to pause and thank God for all our blessings. We also ask Him to help us maintain the eternal perspective we all need to live out Christian holiness in our lives and pass on our faith to our children and others. Happy Thanksgiving with love and blessed celebration of the incarnation in a few weeks…Ω
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