There was a small, rural elementary school up in the mountains of North Carolina. One morning about a week or so before Thanksgiving the teacher was trying to help her first-grade students learn to read. She chose a passage which included the words, “Thank you for all you have done.” There was one little girl from the mountains who was having a hard time with that sentence. She was struggling with the first word. The teacher came over to her desk, leaned over and compassionately sought to help the little girl. “Bobbie Sue, I’m sure you’ll be able to read that first word.” There was no answer from the little girl. But it was apparent the poor little thing was racking her brain. The teacher could see that the mountain girl needed help. “Bobbie Sue,” with her index finger pointing to the first word in the sentence, “thank, thank, thank.” The poor child shut the book and in exasperation looked up at her teacher and said in her pure Western Carolina accent, “I’m thanking, teacher! I am thanking! But I just can’t thank of what that word is!”
Sometimes the obvious is right in front of us, as well, and we just can’t get it. It is so easy to miss the essence of Thanksgiving. This is, after all, simply and profoundly, a national holiday in which the United States government officially calls the people to pray and give thanks to God for His blessings and protection. And yet we can miss it. We can miss it through distractions — “Turkey Day,” family reunion, football, parades, food, food, and more food. We can miss it through delusions — the pilgrims were thanking the Indians, we are thanking each other, or we are thanking our lucky stars. But all of this truly misses what Thanksgiving is all about. There can be no doubt that our national forbearers in Plymouth and in Jamestown, as well as the Continental Congress, during the American Revolution, then Gen. George Washington at Yorktown, Abraham Lincoln during the trying days of the Civil War, and every president since then, were calling out to Almighty God with petitions and with prayers of gratitude for his providential protection in his sovereign guidance through another year. So how do we keep focused on the true meaning of Thanksgiving?
The Bible instructs us that our thanksgiving is due to God. The book of James says that all good things come from God. Psalm 100, in particular, is a Psalm of thanks composed for the liturgical worship of Almighty God by the people of God. I think this Psalm provides not only a personal response to the mandate to give thanks to God but is a corporate response of the Church to give thanks. It is a way to keep Thanksgiving in the right spirit. To borrow the language of preparing a Thanksgiving meal, we might say that Psalm 100 is a divine recipe for a great Thanksgiving.
So, what of the steps in the ingredients in this recipe for a great Thanksgiving? As we look at the text there are three irreplaceable ingredients that must be in any biblical Thanksgiving.
The first irreplaceable ingredient that goes into a great Thanksgiving is what we might call Missional Worship (versus 1, 2, 4).
The word “missional” is a new adjective used within the church that has a diverse usage. When I use it to describe the truth of this text I mean to say that Thanksgiving must have the ingredient of intentional global missions. No one why say that? Because the Psalmist is urging not only Israel to come before the Lord — and do notice that it is the covenant name of God that is used here — but is also addressing in verse one “all the earth.” This is, then, a missional and even eschatological aspect of the song anticipating what St. Paul wrote in Romans chapter 8. The apostle Paul wrote that creation itself is eagerly awaiting the coming of Christ in the full worshiping of God by all of the earth. This is anticipated also in the vision of John in the book of Revelation. Every tribe and tongue and nation will gather to worship the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. The glorious thing about this command is that it is already taking place now. And to take part in Thanksgiving is to take part in this wonderful mission of God in the world today.
The church that I served in Chattanooga, Tennessee held Thanksgiving services each year on Thanksgiving day. It was one of our favorite days of worship. On one of those Thanksgiving days a solitary car made its way down McCallie Avenue and past the line of closed churches. Yet the driver of that lone vehicle noticed an opened front door at First Presbyterian Church, the oldest church in the city. She pulled over. She was able to see that a service was going on inside. She felt so alone that Thanksgiving day and to see people gathered together in worship with the door wide open was a welcoming sign that God was inviting her to leave her loneliness and find the company of a congregation of others. She came in that day. She took her seat in the back. She watched as person after person and family after family made their way to the front to simply testify to the goodness of God. We would sing the old Thanksgiving hymns. I would give a brief devotional. The rest of the time was spent, literally, in giving thanks. During that sacred hour of worship God spoke to her heart and her soul was renewed. I would later have the joy of counseling her and hearing her profession of faith that she stood before our church. For the rest of her life she gave thanks for Thanksgiving.
There is a redeeming quality about Thanksgiving. There is a converting power within Thanksgiving. There is even a healing quality within Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is all about fulfilling God’s plan in the world so that all the earth will come and give thanks to him.
If your Thanksgiving is a little bland it may just be missing this essential ingredient: Missional worship—Thanksgiving that seeks others to join in the feast of heavenly praise.
The second irreplaceable ingredient for a great Thanksgiving is Personal Dedication (3).
The Psalmist grounded his charge for gratitude in the knowledge of God and God’s shepherding relationship with his people. This comports perfectly with James chapter 1:16-18, where the brother of our Lord teaches that every good thing comes from God above.
There are many books published each year designed to fill the unending search for significance. It is, of course, one of the great existential questions of life: “Who am I and why am I here?” Yet, I wonder if the “search for significance” is a bit overrated? What I mean is this: of eternally greater significance and consequence to Man’s search for significance is God’s pursuit of people! It is not the existential question of “who am I?” that is central to our being. It is the existential reality of “who am I in relationship to the Supreme Being that is undeniably there?” It is the truth of the cosmos: there is a God. That God has spoken. He tells us that he created us and he loves us. He welcomes us into a relationship with him. This is what the Psalm is saying when he talks about the knowledge of God in verse three. This is what the Psalmist is talking about when he talks about God’s relationship with His people: “the sheep of His pasture.”.
To give thanks to God is to, first, personally dedicate yourself to the knowledge of God and your dependence upon him. It is to acknowledge that without Him we are nothing. It is to confess that He is altogether sovereign. It is to recognize His activity in the affairs of mankind. What James stresses in his letter is so important. If you feel you have nothing to give thanks for and you are breathing than you can give thanks for that. You can give thanks that you are a created being fashioned by God in His image and loved by God. This is an essential ingredient to a great Thanksgiving.
The third irreplaceable ingredient for a great Thanksgiving is very important. It is what I would call Covenant Renewal.
I take this from the majestic fifth verse of the 100th song: “For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”
Notice here that the Psalmist is calling the people of Israel with Thanksgiving service because love the person of God — “the Lord is good” — the provision of God — “his steadfast love endures forever” — and the promise of God — “and his faithfulness to all generations.” There is so much rich theology in that one verse then we could feed off this Thanksgiving meal and be eating those delicious leftover turkey sandwiches for the next 10 years. This is so incredibly good. But let me show you how that works in life.
In and around the year 1776, a Patriot by the name of Isham William left his home in Orange Co., North Carolina, near present-day Chapel Hill, and joined in with an artillery company during the Colonial insurgency against the rising despotism and tyranny by a mad King. Isham’s brother also joined the fight, enlisting into a different Regiment. That brother, James, died with many others under Gen. Washington in a freezing winter’s retreat at Valley Forge. Isham William would go on to fight at Camden and at Cowpens and would testify that he looked on as Cornwallis surrendered that Yorktown. This Patriot returned to his home, like so many others, and found that it had been devastated by the war. The records of that day demonstrate that Isham William was a clergyman who preached along the North Carolina and South Carolina border, near where we worship today. His son, Michael, begat Michael; who begat Joseph; who begat George Michael; who begat Jesse Ellis; who beget the one who speaks. And then each of these generations there were believers who taught the faith to the rising generation. In a real way, then, I am the product of covenantal prayer by an itinerant preacher – patriot who traveled these woods and valleys proclaiming the unsearchable riches of Christ Jesus and whose faith was shared with generations yet unborn.
My story is not unique. It is, in fact, the norm. For when the covenant of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ our Lord breaks through the sinful hold of Satan, lives are released from the grip of Hell and not only lives, but generations of lives. Verse five is a veritable crescendo in this Psalm of Thanksgiving, because it rises to the heavens with gratitude for God’s covenant of grace—His “steadfast love—His “hesed”,” that blessed Hebrew word for God’s covenant love fulfilled so perfectly in Jesus Christ and mediated by Him through grace to whomever calls upon His name with repentance and faith.
Fathers, you should think about this when mother ask you to offer the prayer at the family Thanksgiving table this coming Thursday. We should each and all follow this passage each day. For we are God’s instruments through prayer and through our own testimonies to ensure that there is a great family celebration at that most glorious thanksgiving service: the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. There will be generations and generations of blessed souls gathered around the feet of the Father, worshiping him with eternal thanks, because of the faithfulness of God in extending his promise through each generation.
But for some of you here today that promise begins with your own generation. His “steadfast love” faithfulness to successive generations is inaugurated today, as you turn to the Lord Jesus Christ and receive him as your God and your Savior. When you do God sets in motion a glorious covenant of grace that extends through the generations as each generation hears and is responsible to respond – but they hear, which is a grace unto itself.
So the irreplaceable ingredients to a great Thanksgiving according to Psalm 100 include:
1. Missional worship;
2. Personal dedication; and
3. Covenantal renewal.
I want to tell you a story about a professor-preacher-artist who lives not too far from here. For many years the Tom Clark Museum was on Main St. in Davidson, NC. It was a real destination. Busloads of people would come in to see the artwork of Dr. Clark. Dr. Tom Clark had been a professor of theology at Davidson College for many years before retiring to a new career, as a sculptor. In that field, he became renowned. He has recently been listed in a new book as one of the 50 most influential North Carolinians. It will come to no surprise that my favorite sculpture, and perhaps Tom Clark’s favorite sculpture, as well, is his “Parson Patterson” figurine. That sculpture was based upon a real-life pastor in West Virginia during the depression: Dr. C. Houston Patterson of Bluefield, West Virginia. At the time the Rev. Tom Clark was his young assistant minister. The sculptor would later recall, while describing this piece of art, that he wanted to capture the virtues within poverty that Dr. Patterson brought to his West Virginia congregation. The statue figure leans into the pulpit in his old pastoral robe seeking to bring dignity, warmth and comfort in the closeness of God to the mining families before him. I first saw the sculpture almost 30 years ago. I saw it again this week as I was preparing this sermon. It still speaks deeply to me about dignity in the face of adversity, love in the face of loss, and unshakable faith in the presence of the inexplicable mysteries of life.
What I’m saying is this: it is precisely in such times—times of trials and difficulties—that thanksgiving to God transcends the trappings of a holiday and becomes a deeply spiritual moment between creature and Creator. This is the gratitude exhibited by our Savior on the cross seeking forgiveness for those who crucified. This is the Thanksgiving of a George Washington in his barefoot and blood frozen band of brothers at Valley Forge. This is the Thanksgiving that is born out of the soul transformed by Jesus Christ. This is the Thanksgiving were we guarding on the goodness of God who gave us his only begotten son.
These are the ingredients to a great Thanksgiving. It is up to each and every one of us to apply the ingredients to our Thanksgiving today.
Oh, and by the way: the door of this church is open today for any who are lonely and wanting family, or cold and craving warmth of spirit. The arms of Christ are wide open. And we give thanks.
In the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.