The nation observes its annual day of Thanksgiving this week. While I am happy to join with the people of my country in giving thanks to God, I don’t really need a presidential proclamation to do so. Every Sunday is Thanksgiving Day for the church of Jesus Christ.
Giving thanks may be the most basic of Christian activities. When we hear the stories of what God did – giving Abraham and Sarah a son, parting the water for the Hebrew slaves, giving instruction through Moses, routing the armies of Israel’s enemies, handing his people over to exile and then restoring them, establishing Zion as the place for his name to dwell – how are we to respond? I think the basic answer to that is “Give thanks.” The same is true about the story of Jesus’ life, the establishment of church and the coming of the kingdom. The basic response of faith is to give thanks for what God has done.
God didn’t give us the Bible primarily so that we could extract simple morals and life lessons for ourselves from it. God revealed himself so that we would know what he has done (and is doing and will do) on our behalf. When we hear of the works of God, our response should be like that of the Psalmist:
Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done. Psalm 105:1
In one sense, faith and thanksgiving are almost synonymous. It’s probably better to say that faith is the decison to trust in God’s actions on our behalf, to believe that his deeds accomplish what he promises. But if we believe that God’s mighty deeds on our behalf are an outpouring of his grace, then the most essential response is to say “Thank you.” That’s what you do with a gift.
Not all gratitude is the same because not all gifts are the same. A box of chocolates received at an office Christmas party deserves a “thank you,” but it’s not the same “thank you” that I offer for my creation, preservation and salvation in Christ. The gift is different, and my relationship to the giver is different. God’s gifts affect us and our world deeply, and our salvation came at a great price.
Still, thanksgiving is not primarily an emotional experience. “I’m not really feeling it,” is not a reason not to give thanks. True thanksgiving is an act of the will that proceeds from a profound awareness of what God has done.
The Great Thanksgiving
The most central act of worship is called (among other things) the “Eucharist,” from the Greek word for “Thanksgiving.” Following Jesus’ pattern at the Last Supper (take – give thanks – break – give), the church gives thanks for the most precious gift of all. The celebrant begin and the church responds:
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give him thanks and praise.
It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.
The Eucharistic prayer (or “Great Thanksgiving”) then recounts some of God’s mighty deeds and culminates with the story of Christ’s sacrificial offering of himself on the cross.
On occasions when the Eucharist is not celebrated, the church still gives thanks. The General Thanksgiving proceeds:
Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.
This kind of thanksgiving that has little to do with the popular idea that you should “count your blessings.” The church gives thanks as a body for what God has done for the entire world in Jesus Christ. It is certainly proper to regard the good things in one’s life as gifts from God, but the church’s worship is primarily focused on the story of what God has done for all his people. That story puts my life in perspective. I am not at the center of the universe; God is. The good of my neighbor is no less important than my own wellbeing. I worship a God who achieved our salvation through the death of his humble servant. Therefore I can do all things – endure all things – bear all things – through Christ who gives me strength. Therefore I can give thanks in all circumstances, and not just when the items on my wish list are checked off.
Join with all the people of God, then, and give thanks to the LORD. Call on his name. Make known among the nations what he has done. Sing praises to him, and tell of all his wondrous works!