Since 1863, on the fourth Thursday of November, families and friends in the United States have gathered to commemorate an old tradition linked back to the early European settlers.
You know the story: The pilgrims and Native Americans came together for a happy feast to celebrate the harvest and forge new friendships. A few hundred years later, this event became a legislated holiday and got Norman Rockwelled into the fabric of American life. We call it Thanksgiving.
The Aim of Paul's Ministry
It's interesting that we name a national holiday after an emotion — a very good emotion. In fact, an emotion for which the apostle Paul aimed his ministry. He tells it like this in 2 Corinthians 4:15:
It is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
"It is all for your sake." What's he talking about? In short, "it" refers to Paul's gospel proclamation along with its accompanying ethos of suffering and persevering faith (2 Corinthians 4:13–14). Or, said a little longer, "it" refers to Paul's gospel proclamation flowing from an ethos in continuity with the Old Testament writer of Psalm 116 — an ethos that perseveres in the midst of affliction by faith in the resurrection.
This is Paul's character. This is how he does it: afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:8–9). He went about as a missionary, taking the gospel from one city to the next, carrying in his body the death of Jesus, looking to the eternal weight of glory. And he did it for our sake.
He did it for our sake so that as the gospel continues to advance among all peoples, it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. As grace extends to more and more people, it makes more and more people grateful. And this whole act of extending grace and responding in gratitude glorifies God.
And it's a particular kind of gratitude. There is nothing generic about it. It is thanksgiving for the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God incarnate, who came to save his people from their sins. This is the kind of thanksgiving that the apostle is aiming for. The kind that no holiday can manufacture.
While we do have some writings from the early pilgrims, we don't really know the full details of the "thankfulness" present when the original attendees huddled around that now-famous meal. Were their hearts inclined to God in some vague sense? Did they call him Providence or Jesus? Were they just glad to have some food? We don't know, and for our purposes it doesn't really matter.
But what does matter is how we will huddle around our meal tomorrow.
More Than Food and Football
Here's a plea that we look along the beams of delicious turkey and good football to see Jesus, crucified for us, dead and buried for us, raised for us on the third day. For his grace has been extended to us. We've heard the good news. Paul (or one of the apostles) told someone who told someone who told someone. And eventually one of these "someones" told us. This grace has extended to "more and more people." It has extended to you and me.
So in the midst of our many thanksgivings, may we be mainly thankful for that — for Jesus and all that he is for us. And in so doing, may we fulfill Paul's goal, the increase of thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
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