By request, this is a loose verbatim of my Thanksgiving homily shared at Hope Covenant Church, Chandler AZ.
Thanksgiving was always one of my favorite holidays. My family would gather at my grandma Ford’s house in northeastern Ohio, which meant I got to spend a week with all of my aunts, uncles and cousins. My grandmother would make a batch of everyone’s favorite cookies. The cookie menagerie was excessive and unnecessary, but food was one of the ways my grandmother showed us how she loved us, so no one stopped her. I spent hours playing near the creek in the woods behind the Ford home, making skits and movies with my cousins and proudly showing them to our parents, putting together jigsaw puzzles, and sneaking out of our rooms at night for more cookies. In many ways it was a traditional American Thanksgiving; it was about family and food and football.
Tonight, we are here for a service of thanksgiving. What we are doing has little to do with the American holiday. We are here to experience Christian thanksgiving.
Our church is a part of the Evangelical Covenant Church, a movement of mission-minded friends which began in mid-19th century Sweden. Early Covenanters were known for their high view of the Bible. They so constantly gathered together in small groups to read the Bible that they became known as “readers” and “people of the book.” Our Covenant ancestors were so enamored of the message of scripture that they would test every message and philosophy they received from the world against the teachings of the Bible. They were always asking the question, where is it written? And so, in true Covenant fashion, tonight we go to the Bible and ask where is Thanksgiving written in the Bible? We will learn that thanksgiving in the Bible is so much more than family, food and football.
One of my favorite stories of thanksgiving comes from the Old Testament, from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. To understand what is going on in these books, we need a little back story.
We know that God’s people were given a promised land and each tribe was given a portion of this land. The capital city was Jerusalem; this was the site of the Jewish temple and God’s physical presence among his people. Things didn’t go well with the Jewish monarchy and eventually a weakened and vulnerable Jerusalem fell to a powerful Babylonian king. Jerusalem was ransacked, its walls and gates destroyed and the temple treasures stripped and carted away. The Jewish people were taken off as captives, becoming exiles in the lands of Babylon. Later a new and sympathetic king of the ruling Persian empire allowed the Jews to return to their promised land.
The Jews were in exile for at least 50 years. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of their return and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple. Nehemiah chapter 12 is where we get a beautiful picture of the nature of thanksgiving. Once the Jews rebuilt the city and the temple, they held a dedication service. Nehemiah 12:27 says, “At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were brought…to celebrate joyfully…with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres.”
Picture this – Nehemiah gathers all of the Jews together, including the priests, musicians and leaders. He calls for the forming of two choirs. Then he sends Ezra, half of the people and one of the choirs through the gates and around the city one direction. Nehemiah takes the second half of the people and the second choir through the gate and around the city the opposite direction. Once the people have encircled the entire city it says, “the two choirs gave thanks.”
For the people of God, thanksgiving was a loud and boisterous gathering. It was a rhythmic, musical procession. It was about coming together to praise God.
Nehemiah 12:43, “And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and the children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard from far away.”
The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard from far away. Imagine that!
For the people of God, thanksgiving was something you did because of God. Thanksgiving was a celebration for God. In the Bible, especially in this story told by Nehemiah, thanksgiving was praise for God’s work of restoration.
In this story the people gave thanks because God restored them to their land. He restored them to their city. He restored their freedom to worship. He restored their holy place of worship. God restored these exiled tribes, this scattered family, to each other. Sure, thanksgiving can be about people and places and things. But most of all, the Bible teaches us that thanksgiving is our response when God restores.
Hundreds of years before the stories told by Ezra and Nehemiah, we know that God entered into a covenant relationship with some chosen people. Part of this covenant relationship is a law the people were to keep. Because the people were human and therefore sinners, they couldn’t keep the law perfectly. God knew this so he established a system of animal sacrifice and burnt offerings the people could make to him. Leviticus chapter 7 tells us about these sacrifices and offerings. First God gives instructions about sacrifices made for guilt and sin. An individual or family purchased an animal. The priest would kill this animal and splatter the blood of the animal on the altar. Leviticus 7:7 says that the priest used these sacrifices, “to purify someone, making that person right with the LORD.”
Next we read God’s instructions for a peace or fellowship offering. The people were to offer these as, “an expression of thanksgiving.” (Lev 7:12) I don’t think it is a coincidence that God introduces offerings for peace and fellowship immediately after the sacrifices for sin and guilt. Leviticus 7 teaches us that thanksgiving is a response to God making things right. This fits with the big story of scripture. God loves us and invites us into relationship with him. We are sinners and break his law. A sacrifice is made. God forgives us. God restores us to right relationship with him. Because of God’s work we can have peace and fellowship with God and others. Our response to this grand, cyclical drama is thanksgiving.
So thanksgiving for the people of God is not just about food and family and it’s really not about football. A Christian thanksgiving is about God restoring things for us and to us…and in us. Ultimately thanksgiving is about God forgiving us our sins and restoring our relationship with him to peace.
Now, there are many stories and expressions of thanksgiving throughout the Bible. But none of these can eclipse the story of restoration and thanksgiving we know because of Jesus. The sacrificial system God gave humans was incomplete because we are sinners incapable of keeping a law to perfection. We would always be in need of sacrifice, forgiveness and restoration. Out of his great love for us, God fixed this problem once and for all by sending his son Jesus to earth to be the complete, perfect and final blood sacrifice for our sin.
When Jesus died on the cross outside of Jerusalem, our need to make continual sacrifice for our sins was finished. Because Jesus conquered sin and death on the cross, we can live in peace with God forever. Our lives can be a daily expression of thanksgiving for the many ways that God restores us. That is why we are here tonight, to experience and express thanksgiving.
(Here several of our friends shared their transformation stories.)
Before he left earth, Jesus established a new way to celebrate what God has done for us. What we know as communion or the Lord’s Supper was known to the earliest church as the Eucharist. This comes from the Greek word eucharistia, which means thanksgiving. As Christians we don’t just celebrate thanksgiving once a year; we celebrate thanksgiving every time we come to the Lord’s table.
I grew up in a church tradition that prepared people for communion by emphasizing our sinfulness. We were asked to take time to carefully examine our souls and confess our sins so we could be worthy and ready to come to the table. That direction is a bit problematic. Certainly we are all sinners, but if we have to wait to ferret out and confess every sin we’ve committed in the last month to be worthy of coming to the Lord’s table, we would never get out of our seats.
We don’t come to the table because we are finally worthy. We come because Jesus has invited us. We come because through Jesus blood sacrifice, we are made worthy.
So tonight as you come forward to participate in this public act of remembrance and celebration, make each step count. As you walk forward to the table make every step a joyful proclamation of your thankfulness. Take a step and proclaim in your heart and on your tongue – I’m a sinner, but I’m forgiven.
Step – Jesus paid my price.
Step – I’m redeemed.
Step – I’m no longer a slave to sin.
Step – I’m a child of the eternal King and loving Father.
Friends, when you are ready to celebrate, come forward in Thanksgiving.