But if we walk in the light, just as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:7

Thanksgiving – 2023

“Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.”

Tomorrow is our country’s national Day of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving became a national holiday in 1863, during the American Civil War, but the roots of this observance go back much further in American history.

What is often referred to as the “first Thanksgiving” was the autumn harvest festival that was observed in the Plymouth colony in 1621, by the surviving Mayflower Pilgrims. They were joined for this observance by the Wampanoag chief Massasoit, and by others from that neighboring American Indian tribe.

About half of the passengers on the Mayflower had died during the first winter, but those who survived, did survive, largely due to the help that was rendered to them by the Indians – especially Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, who was described by Governor William Bradford as “a special instrument sent of God.”

The Pilgrims’ faith in God’s providence was not shaken by the loss of so many of their party, because their certainty of God’s goodness and love was based on other things. They also knew that Jesus had told his church – as recorded in St. John’s Gospel:

“In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”

So, when they had passed their first year in the new world, and had brought in a bountiful harvest, it was only to be expected that the settlers would, in faith and with gratitude to God, pause to mark the occasion with a special feast. And it was only fitting that their native friends and neighbors would participate with them.

When the Pilgrims’ spiritual leader, Elder William Brewster, prayed over the food that was set before them that day, he and the other Plymouth settlers knew exactly to whom they were praying. Their Indian guests may not have, but the settlers all did.

Most of them were members of an independent Christian congregation in Leiden, Holland. Some of them were members of the Church of England.

All of them professed faith in the triune God of the Bible, and in Jesus Christ as the divine-human Lord and Savior of mankind. The Pilgrims were very much aware of an oft-repeated statement in the Bible that is familiar also to us:

“Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.”

Their gratitude to God for his protection and bounty was colored by an explicitly Biblical understanding of what God is like, and of why God is kind toward us. God is, in his essence, good, and is in fact the standard and measure of all goodness. God is not capricious and untrustworthy.

Their gratitude to God was also colored by an awareness of the fact that God’s benevolence flows from his mercy, and not from a duty to do for us whatever we want. So, when God allows a trial to come upon us, or when he chastises us for our transgressions, that’s something that he, as a good God, has the right to do.

Following the example of this 1621 festival, Thanksgiving became a New England tradition. Before the Civil War, the observance of Thanksgiving could be found also in places west of New England, where New Englanders had moved and settled.

And it continued to be a tradition among New Englanders – both inside and beyond New England itself – even when many of them became Unitarians and ceased to believe in the triune God of Holy Scripture.

I imagine that in the early years of Princeton’s existence, in the 1850s, Thanksgiving was observed here, since Princeton was originally settled by people with roots in New England. Abraham Lincoln, while born in Kentucky and raised in Indiana and Illinois, also had family roots in New England. And it was through him that Thanksgiving first became a national holiday.

As Thanksgiving became more national, it became – in itself – less explicitly Christian. But there was still a general awareness among all the Americans who did observe it – whether they were Christians or Jews, Congregationalists or Unitarians – that there is a powerful God in heaven who makes himself known through nature, and who blesses people through the bounty of nature.

Today, though, even this natural knowledge of God is being lost by many. The United States is becoming a post-Christian and secular society at a rapid pace. And Americans who have lost their faith in any kind of God don’t quite know what to do with Thanksgiving.

I remember an episode of the old “All in the Family” TV show, when Archie’s atheist son-in-law Michael sat down at the Thanksgiving table and said, “Let’s eat!” Archie, while never a very devout practitioner of his professed Protestant religion, did raise a protest to that, and insisted on a prayer to God being said first.

More recently, I saw, on another TV show, a totally secular family sitting down at their Thanksgiving table, and pausing – before they ate – not to thank God for his blessings, but to express thanks to each other for various kindnesses of the past year.

This was done in such a way as to suggest that they thought that this was always what Thanksgiving was supposed to be about. This television family – which sadly represents many real families of our day – seemed to have a total lack of awareness of what they had lost, in a life without God, and without thankful hearts directed toward God.

For us who are Christians, however, we observe Thanksgiving from within the parameters of our revealed Biblical faith – or at least we should. But do we?

Liturgically, we often repeat that well-known verse:

“Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.”

This statement can be found in First Chronicles 16, in Psalm 106, in Psalm 107, and in two places in Psalm 118. I think God wants us to be fully aware of the sentiments that are expressed in that verse! But are we?

God no doubt wants the sentiments of that verse to be deeply ingrained is us. But are they?

“Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good!”

I suppose everyone would agree with those words, on their face. But how should the term “good” be defined and applied?

Does the goodness of God mean that he will never judge and punish sin and wickedness? Does it mean that he will never chastise us, on account of our sins?

Does it mean that he will overlook and silently tolerate all acts of defiance against his law, and all acts of disrespect against his honor? Does it mean that he will ignore those who ignore him?

According to the whole counsel of God in Holy Scripture, the goodness of God doesn’t mean any of those things.

You will never have the right to shake your fist or your finger at God: demanding that he bless you as you want to be blessed, yet without your having to listen to him, believe as he teaches, or do as he says.

Because God is good, he is opposed to everything that is not good, in the world in general, and in your own life – in your attitudes and your actions. Because he is good, he wants you also to be good – as he defines goodness – and he will do what is necessary to cause you to become and to be good.

St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans:

“Consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.”

And in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, in his description of the fruit of the Spirit that properly characterizes the lives of God’s people, we read:

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”

Being reminded of these things does help us to understand what that well-known verse is teaching us when it then goes on to say:

“For His mercy endures forever.”

On Thanksgiving, we are indeed grateful to God for his mercies. He doesn’t owe us or our country anything.

Whatever good we have from him, we have because he is merciful, not because we deserve it. And this is true for everyone in the nation. In St. Matthew, Jesus teaches that

“Your Father in heaven…makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

In addition, the Small Catechism teaches us, regarding the petition in the Lord’s Prayer for daily bread, that

“God certainly gives daily bread without our prayer, even to all the wicked; but we pray in this petition that He would lead us to acknowledge this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.

What the Christian Pilgrims understood in 1621, we also understand. The greatest gift for which we are thankful – on this Thanksgiving Day and on all days – is the gift of Jesus Christ.

More precisely, it is the gift of his perfect life, lived in obedience to the law, for us; the gift of his atoning death, offered in sacrifice according to the demands of the law, for us; the gift of his victorious resurrection, opening the way of eternal life, for us; and the gift here and now of the gospel, preached and applied through Word and Sacrament, in which all these other saving gifts are packaged and delivered to us, for our forgiveness and justification.

“God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

These words, from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, have a profound meaning for us whenever we hear them. But today – as we ponder with thanksgiving God’s many gifts to us – these words mean even more to us than usual.

Our Salvation in Christ is the ultimate gift of God – the gift that puts all other gifts in their proper perspective.

On this Thanksgiving Day we certainly do know whom we are thanking. We are not thanking a nebulous and mostly unknown God, discerned by human reason from the observations of nature.

We are not thanking a God who is obligated to bless us as we determine, and whom we can scold when he doesn’t give us what we want. And while there is a time and a place for it, right now, we are not thanking each other, either.

We are thanking the triune God as revealed in Scripture, who created the heavens and the earth, who sent his Son to be the Redeemer of the world, and whose Spirit dwells within us, sustaining our faith, and sanctifying us.

Insofar as Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday, we do join with all our neighbors – both Christians and non-Christians – in observing it.

But insofar as we are indeed Christians – who know God as he has revealed himself; and who are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ – we observe Thanksgiving in a fuller and deeper way; in a more humble and a more joyful way; and in a way that more closely resembles the way the Pilgrims observed it in 1621.

“Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.” Amen.