For the Thanksgiving holiday, St. Peter Lutheran Church in Greene, Iowa, held a Thanksgiving Eve worship service on Wednesday evening, November 23, 2016.
Our texts for the evening are 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24 and John 6:24-35.
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
For my first time planning a Thanksgiving service, I picked the most obvious Thanksgiving Bible passage that I could think of. And to be honest, part of this is inspired by a lesson my wife Christin did on Sunday with the Luther League high school students.
St. Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” That’s about as blunt of a Thanksgiving message as there is.
Why should we be thankful? Because the Bible says so.
The challenge, of course, is that giving thanks is much easier in some circumstances than in others. One helpful key is to notice that the command is to give thanks in all circumstances, not for all circumstances. Sometimes it’s despite the circumstances. Even in the darkest times, we can always find something to be thankful for.
In the Gospel reading, there is a crowd of people looking for Jesus. They realize he’s gone over to the other side of the lake, so they get into boats and go to find him. When they get there, he tells them they’ve been looking for him for the wrong reasons.
This incident happens right after the feeding of the 5,000, and the people are following him hoping he’ll give them more food. Who wouldn’t want some free food? It’s like the secret to getting people to show up at church – have good donuts afterwards!
The people are thankful, but not for the right reasons. They don’t grasp the magnitude of Jesus’ message. They want bread, but he wants to give them something much more important.
He wants to give them a whole new purpose, a whole new life. He wants to open their eyes to the fact that God is the source of their life, not just physical life by providing bread for them, but their spiritual life.
The command to be thankful doesn’t depend on whether you have literal bread or not. Instead, we’re to be thankful for the life that comes through God. We can always be thankful for God’s love, for the Father sending the true bread of life, Jesus. When Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty,” he doesn’t mean we won’t have physical needs.
What he’s trying to explain to the crowds is that God’s gift of life goes beyond tangible bread. Good things like food, shelter, clothing, and all else we need in life come from God too, but God’s gift goes far beyond that.
When we come to the table in a few minutes for communion, we’ll receive a wafer and a taste of wine, but the reason we celebrate communion isn’t about those physical, tangible items. We come to the table because of the promise Jesus says, that in these ordinary, earthly things, his body and blood are present.
We come to the Lord’s table not to receive merely the physical food, but to meet our savior there. We come to receive the bread of life. That’s the promise for which we ultimately give thanks.
If you take the word Thanksgiving, you can break it apart into two parts, thanks, and giving. In this holiday we’re celebrating tomorrow, we usually focus on the “thanks” part. Maybe you have a family tradition of going around the dinner table and sharing one thing you’re grateful for, or something good that’s happened in your life this year.
These traditions are important, because even though we know we’re supposed to give thanks in all circumstances, we often forget to say thank you to God for all the blessings we have, and this holiday is a great time to do that.
Even though we know it’s only a small portion of God’s blessing and promise for us, we are still called to show gratitude for the physical things too, and for the relationships we have, because in them, we catch glimpses of God’s promises.
Sometimes it’s the little things in life that we take for granted. I have a book, given to me by a coworker at my internship congregation, called 14,000 Things to be Happy About. It’s literally just a list of things in life, all of which we could thank God for.
One of my college friends often ends prayers by saying, “And thank you God for chocolate milk.” There’s always more reasons we can come up with to say thank you to God.
So the first part of the word thanksgiving is thanks. The second part is giving, and I think that’s just as important. Whenever you read a Bible verse, you should always look at the verses around it, putting it into context, so I checked, and right before that great command to give thanks in all circumstances, Paul tells his readers, “We urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.”
Always seek to do good. And it’s not just that we should do good to one another, but that we should do good to all. Paul is a little vague on what this doing good might look like, but that just leaves us room to be creative.
I’m sure you can come up with ideas. Maybe it’s donating food to the food pantry, or making cookies for a neighbor. Maybe it’s reaching out to a friend you haven’t talked to in a long time. Maybe it’s giving someone a ride to church. Maybe it’s paying for someone else’s pie at the coffee shop. Maybe it’s intentionally praying for someone.
We shouldn’t expect this to be easy all the time. If it was always easy, then Paul wouldn’t need to tell us to be at peace, or to encourage the faint-hearted, or to be patient with everyone. There are lots of circumstances where giving thanks takes effort, and that’s ok.
Thanks and giving go hand in hand, because when you realize you are blessed, the appropriate response is to give thanks, and to pass on the blessing. How can you help others realize they are blessed by God in all circumstances? How can you be a blessing to others, so they might catch a glimpse of God’s love and care for them?
As you celebrate this holiday of thanksgiving, may you realized that you are blessed, and may you be a blessing to others, and may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.