Thanksgiving Re-imagined


For many people, Thanksgiving is either about Pilgrims or family, food, and football. In the spirit of our upcoming Advent sermon series, “Christmas Re-imagined,” I wanted to offer some thoughts that might help us approach Thanksgiving a bit differently this year. Some of these thoughts will be more historical (looking at the history of the holiday) and others of them may be more theological (thinking about it from a Christian perspective).

  1. Think Abe Lincoln. One of the interesting things about the American thanksgiving celebration is that it has not been a continuously celebrated holiday since the time of the pilgrims. They had a feast in line with their religious heritage of having days of thanksgiving (and days of fasting as well). This was a custom in many colonies and states in the early days of America, but it was not a national holiday (and not always done on the last Thursday in November) until Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday. One of the interesting tidbits of that story in light of our current setting is that this holiday was meant to offer unity in the midst of a time of great division in this country. In fact, both the image of pilgrims and Honest Abe should point us to unity, as the Pilgrims and Native Americans ate together and Lincoln called for a divided nation to come together. Pray for unity and peace in our land.

  2. Think freedom, foreigners, and strangers. Those pilgrims were refugees, people who had left their homeland (on multiple occasions, actually, as they had gone to the Netherlands from England before they had come to America). May we think of our brothers and sisters in the Christian faith who do not have the freedom to worship and gather, who are longing for religious liberty that America has had. May we also think of those who are in our land who are here because of persecution in their own lands — the refugees and displaced peoples of the world, people whom we know God called the Israelites to care for (“Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” [Deuteronomy 10:19]) because of God’s character:: “The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless” (Psalm 146:9). To tie this into American language, are we to think of ourselves as the pilgrims or the natives? May we think and pray for freedom for brothers and sisters and care for foreigners and strangers.

  3. Think fasting, not just feasting. Thanksgiving is a day of celebrating God’s provision of food, often by overconsuming. We need to remember that not all people are blessed, both in our land and in the world. That is not meant to make us feel guilty about what we have; we should be thankful for what God has given us and eat it with thanksgiving (I love 1 Timothy 4:3-5 on this idea of thanking God rather than being an ascetic!), but hopefully, that also tempers our overconsumption (we can consume but let’s not overconsume!). Do we have a day of fasting as well, to look forward and long for what God will do in our world? We feast because Jesus has come, but we also fast as we wait for him to come again (see Matthew 9:15). Do we truly, and even literally at times, hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6)? In fact, the way that American Thanksgiving falls on the church calendar is at the cusp of Advent; while the Christmas season is one of spending and consuming, the season of Advent is one of waiting and longing. What if we engaged in a fast for Advent (like some people do for Lent), as we long, like Israel, for our Emmanuel to be here?

  4. Think about challenges of the past year. The pilgrims feasted because of the harvest, but it was only after a tough winter. In fact, the preservation of the people through difficulties was a major reason for the holiday. Often, we only think of the good things at Thanksgiving, but we can also give thanks for the things that God had brought us through this year, the difficult moments. Perhaps we are even going through one right now; may the day of Thanksgiving be one to rejoice in the already-not yet fact of that Christian faith, that we are already made right with God but do not fully experience that, that Jesus Christ has come and brought redemption but we do not yet see it in its fullness. We can give thanks to God because we know he will act! As the song “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” reminds us: Hitherto Thy love has blessed me, Thou hast brought me to this place, And I know Thy hand will bring me, Safely home by Thy good grace.”

  5. Think about a lifestyle and not a day. I blogged last year about the fact that the Christian life is a life of gratitude, as the Heidelberg Catechism teaches us about that we live in gratitude in response to God’s grace, which includes living out the Ten Commandments, but I re-read it and wanted to quote myself (if I am allowed!): “Christians celebrate Thanksgiving not by having turkey and pumpkin pie, not by going around the table to say what we are thankful for one time a year, but each day by inviting others to our tables, by loving our neighbor as ourselves, by praying that God’s kingdom might come and his will might be done on earth as it is in heaven … This should mark on lives each and every day, not just a 24 hour period in November.”

I love Thanksgiving. It is a day to give thanks for what God has done, which should spark us to love God more and love our neighbors, who have been made in the image of God, more and more. Think about these things as you enjoy food, family, and football!

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