What is Thanksgiving Day all about? What is so significant about a Thursday in late November that many people are given a day or the whole weekend off, that would send millions to the roadways or airports? Thanksgiving is a day of family, it is a day of relaxation, it is a day of football. Thanksgiving is a day to share in the bounty of the table, to enjoy a big meal together with those you love. But Thanksgiving is much more than food, family, and football. Thanksgiving is all about giving thanks! It is America’s own harvest festival. Here in November, having taken the bounty out of the fields and into the barns, an entire nation stops to give thanks. Today we have lost the significance of the harvest, even in rural Iowa; for centuries, if you didn’t have a harvest, you would starve. If America’s harvest failed, so would the nation. A harvest was worth celebrating! But from the very beginning, Thanksgiving Day has also been a day to give thanks for all that we have been given. So, Thanksgiving isn’t about a full table or a full house; even those who have very little, whose families can’t or won’t gather together, can still give thanks for what they have been given. And those who have much are called on to reach out to the less fortunate, extending hospitality and love to their neighbors in need, never forgetting that as they enjoy the bounty of Thanksgiving Day others go without.
But that still isn’t what Thanksgiving Day is all about; there is one crucial element missing. We don’t generically ‘give thanks’ on this day, we give thanks specifically, we give thanks to someone, we give thanks to God. Christians know the object of our thanksgiving quite well: He is our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, the only true God, the Triune God. Our God is due thanks and praise on this day, because He gives each and every one of the gifts we celebrate, as Paul declares in our Epistle lesson: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”
The Church prays; that is one of her great tasks in this world. She prays for ‘all people,’ that great multitude that surrounds us in our nation and around the world. Why do we pray for them? Because they have needs! Christian or non-Christian, they need our prayers. And we need them. God uses other people to put food on our table, to protect us, to bring us water and electricity. All that we have comes from God through others, from our family to those we will never meet around the world. And so we pray for their needs, we pray for their safety, we who are in God’s family through Christ petition our Father for those around us. We pray that He would provide for them; we pray that He would provide for us through them. We pray especially that they would come to faith, that they would have the great blessings that we possess. Pray, dear Christians, pray! Pray for your grocers, your plumbers, your doctors! Pray for farmers, for teachers, pray for all!
Pray for your rulers. Pray for them, whether you voted for them or not, whether you agree with them or not. Pray that they would repent, pray that they would stay the course, pray that they would fulfill their duties faithfully. Paul singles out rulers because he knows that we have trouble praying for them, especially when they are seemingly anti-Christian. But he knows what rulers provide, what God uses them to do. “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” God uses rulers to provide a peaceful and quiet life; to protect us from harm so that He can provide us with all of our needs of body and soul. Good rulers make it possible for food to get to our table; good rulers make it possible for the Gospel to go forth freely. Pray for your rulers, pray that they rule well, that they provide peace, safety, and justice, that they would be God’s instruments.
But while praying, while making your requests known before God, Paul exhorts us to give thanks for what God has already given. As we look through Paul’s letters, almost every time that he calls on Christians to pray, he reminds them to do this with thanksgiving. Our prayers flow more freely when there is a crisis, when we have a need, when something is on our mind. It’s much harder to remember to give thanks after God provides. And so Paul is constantly reminding us to give thanksgiving. You have many needs, many reasons to call on God in prayer; and He wants to receive your prayers, as we hear in our text, “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior.” But you also have many needs that have already been fulfilled, and Paul exhorts us to give thanks.
For God provides, He is a giver God. He provides all that our body needs, as Luther declared in the Small Catechism: “He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life.” He has given to you tremendous blessings throughout your life; He has provided through your parents, through your spouse, your neighbors, and countless others, including the rulers that provide for your peace and safety. He may not give you riches, but He provides for your needs. He may not give you perfect health, but He provides for healing or gives you comfort in affliction. His promise is that He will care for you, and He keeps His promises. In suffering or prosperity He is with you, providing, giving, sheltering you with His presence.
He provides for the needs of your body because He has provided for your greatest needs, the needs of your soul. Our faltering prayers and weak thankfulness are only surface symptoms of our greater problem, the problem of sin; sin which leads to death, sin which leads to eternal separation from God in hell. Without God’s provision of our need for deliverance from sin, death, and hell, nothing else He gives really matters. And so while Paul exhorts us to pray for the needs of our body, he reminds us that God has bigger gifts to give, for He “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” He provides for your bodily needs through other humans, but to save you, God became man. Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, who walked the way of the cross, paying the price for your sin. He provided for your greatest need with even His own life, for God “desires all people to be saved.” He desired your salvation and He accomplished it by shedding His own blood to redeem you. Now He works through people again, His believers who speak the Gospel, His pastors who preach, baptize, and distribute the Lord’s Supper, to bring this salvation to all, to provide for their greatest needs. Today we give thanks to Jesus for the salvation that He accomplished through the cross and empty tomb, but that is not the end of the story of Thanksgiving Eve.
For we celebrate two harvests on this day. We give thanks to God that He provides to us all that we need to provide for this body and life, we give thanks for the harvest of our crops. But we give thanks for another harvest, the harvest that is coming at the end of the age. In our opening hymn for tonight, we sang, “Even so, Lord, quickly come to Thy final harvest home; gather Thou Thy people in, free from sorrow, free from sin. There, forever purified, in Thy garner to abide: come with all Thine angels, come, raise the glorious harvest home.” Thanksgiving Day points us to the Last Day, the Day when Jesus will return in glory to gather in His harvest. Without a successful harvest, people starve. Without Christ’s harvest, all people die eternally. His harvest is His greatest gift, for it is the culmination and completion of all that He did for us through the cross and empty tomb.
The final harvest gathers in all those whom He has planted through His Word and the waters of Holy Baptism, all whom He has fed and nourished with His Body and Blood in the Lord’s Supper. He will come to gather in you and me, to bring us to His great barns, there to dwell forever with Him and all the redeemed. On this Thanksgiving Eve, our prayers and thanksgivings rise up to the God who has provided for all of our needs of body and soul. We give thanks for the redemption He accomplished and look forward to the harvest that is to come, saying with all the Church, “Even so, Lord, quickly come to Thy final harvest home… Come with all Thine angels come, raise the glorious harvest home!” In the Name of our returning Lord, who is coming again to gather in His people on His glorious harvest Day, Amen.