Thanksgiving: Gateway to the Holidays

Many nations have special days for giving thanks. In the United States, Thanksgiving Day is always the fourth Thursday in November.

Wherever we are in the world, there are at least two requirements for any sort of thanksgiving to happen: something we’re thankful for and somebody to thank. As obvious as that may seem, it’s amazing how many people can say, “I’m thankful for . . .” in a sort of generic way without admitting, or even realizing, that God is there to hear their thanks. And they’re certainly not giving him credit for whatever it is they’re grateful for.

We who are Christians, though, know that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). And when Paul prays that the Ephesians would be “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:18–20), everything reminds us that not every good gift seems happy at the moment.

Thanks Be to God

So when we sit down to the table together this Thanksgiving and name things we’re thankful for, I pray that we can ask our Father to help us know wholehearted thanks for things that are hard amongst the things that come more easily to mind: illness or health, joblessness or fulfilling work, death or life of ones we love, and more.

There is one thing on our gratitude list that we who are following Christ all have in common: “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15). Of all people in the world, we have the greatest reason to give thanks and an inexpressibly great God who receives our gratitude. What more could we desire than that hope and salvation? “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Peter 1:3).

Waiting for Christmas

Which leads to the next great celebration on our calendar — Christmas. Granted, there are several human reasons for the timing of our Thanksgiving observation in the United States, some based in God’s work in American history and some growing out of commercial and financial pressures. But God is always sovereign, working through what look like merely human causes. And so I’m grateful that as we give thanks this last week in November, we’re throwing open the gateway to our celebration in December of Christ’s incarnation.

This year, as is often true, the first day of Advent falls on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. Then for the next four weeks, it’s as if we’re re-enacting, remembering the thousands of years God’s people were anticipating and longing for the coming of God’s salvation, for Jesus. That’s what advent means — coming.

When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Galatians 4:4–7)

And yet we are still waiting. Our spiritual redemption came to us with the baby of Bethlehem. But still, as Romans 8 says, “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). There is suffering and tragedy still, even for Christians. Someone we love is dying. We may be in pain. Sometimes we have trouble believing God’s promises. In other words, our redemption is not complete. We are waiting for the redemption of our bodies — waiting for Jesus’s second advent, for him to come again.

So here we stand in the middle. Advent is a season of looking back, thinking how it must have been, waiting for the promised salvation of God, not knowing what to expect. And at the same time, it is a season of looking ahead, preparing ourselves to meet Jesus at his Second Coming.

Preparing Our Hearts for His Coming

The first chapter of 1 Peter helps us examine ourselves during this season of introspection amidst our celebration. Peter gives us God’s high standard as we contemplate our standing with him: “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). This is a time to ask ourselves questions like:

  • Am I clear-thinking and sober-minded, or are my concerns mainly trivial? (1 Peter 1:13)
  • Is my hope set fully on the grace I will receive from Jesus at his Second Coming, or do I cringe at the thought of leaving behind the life I love? (1 Peter 1:13)
  • Am I an obedient child of my Father, or am I still shaped by the passions that drove me before I knew Jesus? (1 Peter 1:14)

If regular personal devotions are not part of our lives, this would be a time tailor-made to begin. The living water in our own hearts is the fountain from which we shower Christ on our family. Our time with God and his preparation of us is a necessary foundation. Without it our Christmas activities will degenerate into mere hoopla.

But however much we want a significant Christmas celebration for the ones close to us, that is not the primary reason for our contemplation and self-examination. Our deeper motivation is the strengthening of our ultimate hope in Jesus, “so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming” (1 John 2:28).

May this be a week filled with thanksgiving, leading us into a season of reflection on what our lives are — gratitude for the promises that were fulfilled when God gave us the gift of his son and anticipation of and preparation for Christ’s coming again. And may our lives, homes, activities, and celebrations reflect the true treasure of our hearts.

A Note on Advent Candles
by Noël Piper

Advent candles are a simple way to help us move with anticipation through the weeks until Christmas finally arrives.

Various helpful schemes of symbolism can be attached to the candles, their number, and color. But here are the basics — one candle for each of the Sundays of Advent, and if you wish, a fifth for Christmas Day. It’s not necessary to have a special wreath or other advent candle holder — just candles. On the first Sunday, only one candle will be lit, then two on the second, and so forth. That’s all that’s necessary. But if we want our Advent candles to be more than a centerpiece, we have to ask ourselves, “What makes these more than wax and wick?”

The flame is a symbol of the one who is called “the light of the world.” We who follow him “will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). As we move closer to the day when we’ll meet him, there is greater and greater brightness.

But we need to remember that our very young children will see only candles. No matter how much we explain the symbolism, they need some more years before they can comprehend it. That’s why I always incorporate a manger scene into our Advent candle arrangement. Tangible is my guiding word. What a child can see and touch, he might understand a little more clearly. It’s helpful for us adults, as well.

Each Advent Sunday, we Pipers gather at the table for a meal — whichever works best for the whole family — and hear a word from the Bible before lighting the next candle. When the children were younger, each week’s passage probably would be one part of the Christmas story from Matthew or Luke. As they’ve grown older, we’ve expanded to include Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah’s coming. (Also, you could read aloud one of the short devotional meditations from Good News of Great Joy.) Then on other days, whenever we sit at the dining room table where the candles are the centerpiece, we light that week’s number of candles.

The light, brighter by the week, points us toward Jesus who has called us to be “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that [we] may proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).