THE PRIORITY OF THANKSGIVING
By Pastor Glenn Pease
The famous author of Mary Had A Little Lamb had a lot to do with when we eat Thanksgiving turkey. Sarah Hale was the key person in persuading Abraham Lincoln to proclaim a national Thanksgiving Day. It was to be on the last Thursday of November, and for 75 years that is when it was celebrated. In 1939 it fell on Nov. 30, and this left only 3 weeks for the annual Christmas shopping spree. This was back in the day when merchants felt it was inappropriate to promote Christmas until Thanksgiving was over.
President Roosevelt, in order to help merchants make a bigger profit and keep people working longer, announced that Thanksgiving would be a week earlier in that year of 1939. What a bombshell that was. All the football games had been scheduled for the 30th. How could they expect to fill the stadium if it was not going to be a holiday?
In Massachusetts, where the first Thanksgiving had been celebrated in 1621, there was rebellion. One Republican Senator said the president just as well try and abolish winter. They refused to change. Other states followed, and when the new date of Nov. 23rd arrived the country was about evenly divided. 22 states celebrated it, and 23 said they would not celebrate until the 30th. Colorado, Mississippi and Texas said they liked both dates and so they had a double Thanksgiving that year. A civil war over Thanksgiving seemed inappropriate, and so Congress in 1941 passed a resolution that fixed the 4th Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day. Ever since we have been a nation united on when to eat turkey and watch football.
It is kind of silly when you think about it. We can't have people in states just going around being thankful anytime they feel like it. With that kind of freedom there would be eventual chaos, and people would be celebrating Thanksgiving on every Thursday of the year, and the next thing you know some would be sliding over into Fridays, or back to Wednesdays. You could end up with people being thankful every day of the week, and celebrating Thanksgiving anytime of the year.
Thankfully such chaotic thankfulness was nipped in the bud and limited to the fourth Thursday of November. I am just kidding, of course, for I know a national holiday has to be limited and specific. But it is tragic if we think our spirit of thanksgiving needs to be limited by what is appropriate to the state. There is no limit of time or space to the thankful heart of Paul. He was thankful at all times, in all places, and for all people in far away places. In his letter to the Romans Paul demonstrates that which should characterize every child of God. We see first-
I. THE PRIORITY OF HIS THANKSGIVING.
For Paul thanksgiving, not only comes before Christmas, it comes before everything, for the first thing he says after ending his introduction is, "First, I thank my God." He never goes on to say second or third. He just says first. The Greek word is proton, which is used over 60 times in the New Testament to stress priority. Matt. 6:33 says, "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness." Paul was not just being polite here. It was a priority of his life to be thankful.
He could have started on a different note. He had his problems and frustrations, and he could have begun with what he deals with later. He could have said, "I've been breaking my back to get to you, but this lousy world will not cooperate. Everything has gone wrong and I've about had it with people and all the bungling I've had to endure that has fouled up my schedule." This was real, and Paul does get to it later, but the negative is not his priority. He does not say first let me apologize, or first let me explain my problems, or first let me express my complaints. No, he said first I thank my God. The negative will come, for it is a part of life, and it has to be confronted, but it is not first.
The positive is to always have priority in the Christian life. If you are first of all thankful you are laying the foundation from which you can see the negative from a proper perspective, and better cope with it. If you start with a negative, that becomes a basis from which you see life, and you become a pessimist. Paul had more problems than anyone, but he was still an optimist because he gave priority to Thanksgiving. If you get that on your mental and emotional agenda first, then you can look down on the negatives from that higher perspective, and they do not dominate your life.
If you give Thanksgiving the priority and always look first at what there is to be grateful for, you will seldom be overwhelmed by the negatives. The thankful spirit keeps you ever alert to the present blessings of life in the midst of its burdens. It is never too late to be thankful, but the thanks that comes late rather than first is not as powerful in keeping you optimistic and strong in your service for Christ. It there is anything right now to be thankful for, then be thankful for it right now. Paul could have waited until he got to Rome to be thankful for the Roman Christians, but he made it a priority to express his thankfulness right away.
Paul's philosophy was, if the blessing is present let the thanks for it be present as well. Don't postpone thanks and set it aside. Don't make it secondary and put it on the back burner. Make it a priority so that in everything you are ready to give thanks. Henry Ward Beecher wrote, "As flowers carry dewdrops, trembling on the edges of the petals, and ready to fall at the first waft of wind or brush of bird, so the heart should carry its beaded words of thanksgiving, and at the first breath of heavenly flavor, let down the shower perfumed with the heart's gratitude."
It is the priority you give to thankfulness that reveals your personality. Almost everybody is thankful at some point, but it is those who are thankful first who reveal the true optimist, and Paul was one. He saw the scar, but first the star. He saw the blight, but first the light. He saw the gloom, but first the bloom. He knew there were thorns on roses, but his focus was on the roses, and he was thankful for them. Helen Keller had every right to be a pessimist, but she said, "The world is full of suffering, but it is also full of overcoming it." She was thankful in spite of her handicaps.
This was not just a personal idiosyncrasy of Paul that he did not expect other Christians to imitate. He did expect all Christians to make thanksgiving a priority, and he urged them to give thanks in everything. In verse 21 he makes it clear that one of the major reasons for the judgment of God on people is because they are unthankful. The pagan world became dark and foolish, and descended into the pit of barbaric immorality, because they knew God, but did not glorify Him, nor give Him thanks. Thankfulness was not even on their list of priorities, and when that is the case you are looking at people who are headed for the sewer.
The non-Christians of the world who did not eliminate thankfulness did not descend to the sewer, but often lived admirable lives that have been a blessing to the world. Plato said, "I thank God that I was born a man and not a beast, that I was born a Grecian and not a barbarian." As pagan people can be rated according to their level of thankfulness, so also can Christians be so rated. The most mature, helpful, and blessed Christians are those who, like Paul, give first priority to thanksgiving. The depraved have no thanks at all. The wise pagan is thankful for much. The Christian is thankful for more. The wise Christian is thankful first and always, and in everything gives thanks.
Paul recognizes that the pagan world did not have the revelation of God that the Jews had, and that they had not received the Gospel of Christ, but he said that they are without excuse in their state of ingratitude to God. God had given them abundant and adequate revelation even in nature. God holds man accountable for being thankful for all the generosity He has displayed in the way He created the world to meet man's needs. One of the most eloquent descriptions I have ever read of God's generosity is by Charles Jefferson in his book The Character Of Jesus. He wrote,
"The God revealed by Jesus is the same God revealed by
nature. The God of nature has always been known as a
generous God. The days and nights, the sky and sea and
land, the changing seasons, all bear witness to His amazing
generosity. He is prodigal in all His doings. He is lavish
in all His benefactions. He scatters good things with the
bountiful munificence of a King. He scatters the stars not
in paltry thousands but in countless millions. He creates
flowers not in numbers which we can count, but in a
profusion which confuses and confounds the imagination.
He always gives more than can be expected. He throws
sunsets away on eyes which do not care for them. He gives
fruits trees more blossoms the trees can use. At every
feasts which He spreads there are fragments remaining
filling twelve baskets. He is a munificent, free-handed,
bountiful, and extravagant God.
He runs constantly to profusion and exuberance and
overflowing plenty. He fills the measure, presses it down,
shakes it together, and causes it to run over. The measure
is full of beauty apparently going to waste. He breaks the
alabaster box upon our head everyday we live. He spreads
a table before us, He makes our cup run over. There are
a thousand toothsome things to eat, and a thousand lovely
things to see, and a thousand exquisite pleasures to
experience, and a thousand sublime truths to learn, and
a thousand good opportunities to seize-more than we can
make use of in the short span of life allowed us. In the
realm of nature he is assuredly a lavish and bewilderingly
bounteous God, and what he is in the world of nature He is
likewise in the realm of the spirit."
If this leaves the pagan without excuse, how much more so we who have the light of God's Word shining alongside the already illuminating message of nature? In the most trivial events of life we should make it our first priority to be thankful for God is the author of every good and perfect gift we enjoy in life. John Oxenham put it in poetry.
Kneel always when you light a fire!
Kneel reverently, and thankful be,
For God's unfailing charity,
And in the ascending flame inspire
A little prayer, that shall upbear
The incense of your thankfulness
For this sweet grace
Of warmth and light!
Nature, history, and God's revelation make it clear that there is no excuse for being unthankful, but there is every reason to be able to in everything give thanks, and make it a priority. The second thing we note in this text is-
II. THE PEOPLE OF HIS THANKSGIVING.
Paul gave priority to thanks, but he had a set of priorities within his thankfulness as well. Paul was thankful for most everything, and thankful in every thing, but his priority was people. He was most often thankful for Christians who gave evidence they were growing in their faith. He is thankful for the Romans because their faith is being reported all over the world. Paul is by far the most thankful person in the New Testament if you go by the number of times he uses the word. I counted 47 times that Paul used the word, and this is in contrast to 3 for Matthew, 2 for Mark, 11 for Luke, 4 for John, and 1 for Peter. Paul uses the word thanks over twice as many times as all other New Testament authors combined. And the majority of uses refer to his thanks for people.
We do not want to imply that Paul was super-spiritual, and that he did not stoop to be thankful for lesser things like food, clothing, and shelter, as if these were sort of a low class gratitude. Paul was thankful for all the physical blessings of life. In Rom. 14:6 he writes, "He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God, and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God." Paul did not look down at all in thanks for lesser things. He is the one who tells us that Jesus gave thanks before He broke the bread at the Last
I read of a man who went to a pet shop to buy a talking bird, but it would not talk. He went back to the store and they told him to buy the bird a ladder, and so he did. But he was soon back again for the bird would still not talk. They said to buy him a mirror, and so he did. But still the bird was not talking. Finally they told him to buy the bird a bell, and so he did. But the bird died, and when he came back to the pet shop they asked if he ever talked? "Yes," said the owner. "Just before he died he looked into the mirror, climbed the ladder, and rang the bell, and then he said 'Didn't they have any bird seed?'" You can get all kinds of fancy stuff, but it is all worthless without the essentials.
So the point is, it is legitimate and spiritual to be thankful for food and all the necessities of life. But it still remains that a higher level of thanksgiving is achieved when our priority is people. The unthankful pagan world Paul describes is a world where people do not care for others. In contrast, people who are thankful for other people are a blessing to any culture, and they help people experience all their potential for life. Paul was thankful for other people, and that is why his life was devoted to their salvation and their growth in Christ.
Paul did not say, "I am thankful you heard of me and my faith." They had, of course, but that was not his message. He was thankful for them and their faith. He was a people person, and in the last chapter of this letter he sends greetings to 28 individuals. He was ever giving of his life, gifts, and resources because he loved both Jews and Gentiles. Yet we do not see him expecting any thanks from others. This was very Christ-like. Jesus gave His life to teach, heal, and comfort, and yet we never find Him fishing for gratitude. Mature leadership and service calls for an ability to give a lot and not expect a lot of thanks in return.
I cannot conceive of a leper being healed and not making it a priority to get back to the one who did it with all the gratitude a human heart is capable of expressing. But 9 out of 10 lepers that Jesus healed never even said thanks. If ever Jesus felt like calling the whole plan of salvation off, and just ascending back to heaven, I would think it would be right then when only one of the 10 returned. But Jesus did not do it to get thanks. He enjoyed the one who returned with a grateful spirit, but that was not His motive for doing it. His expressions of love were pure caring, and not an ego trip for Himself. If you do God's will to get thanks, you are on a different level than those who do it to express love for people.
Paul had the same people caring spirit as Jesus, and that is why he was thankful for others. He was thankful for other people's faith that was a blessing to many. What an encouragement to the churches that Paul started to learn that even in the capital of the empire the Gospel was working in power. It did for the churches of the empire what it does for us to hear that groups of senators in Washington D. C. get together to pray and study God's Word. It is an encouragement to know that people in high places are seeking God's guidance. It makes us thankful and stronger in our faith.
So Paul was thankful for the faith of the Romans, for their faith was strengthening the faith of other Christians everywhere. It was not anything they did directly, but what they did for the body of Christ as a whole made him thankful for them. This is a level of maturity that we often do not achieve in the Christian life. We tend to be thankful only for that which is a blessing to us. The weakness of this limited thanksgiving is that it tends to limit our care to those who benefit us, and our service to that which pays off by leading to some sort of personal credit.
Paul is dealing here with a church he did not start, and he can take no credit for it, but yet he is thankful for their faith. It was benefiting the kingdom, and for one who seeks first the kingdom of God that was all that mattered. History is full of people we can all be grateful for because of their faith in Christ. Thanksgiving is harvest time, and the man who made this back-breaking task so much easier was Cyrus McCormick, the inventor of the reaper. He changed the history of farming. He was 25 when he made a public confession of his faith in Christ. He felt the church needed educated pastors, and so he gave what was the enormous sum in 1859 of 100 thousand dollars to establish the McCormick Theological School in Chicago. He gave generously to Christian causes and evangelistic work in over 25 countries.
We may not have been personally blest by his generosity, but we should still be thankful for his faith that touched the lives of many all over the world for Christ. Children are taught about the invention of McCormick in school. I remember this in my youth. It is a shame, however, that his Christian life and influence is never mentioned. That is why we need to study people on a deeper level, for the more you know about people who love and serve the Lord the more grateful you will be for them and their role in history. Paul paid attention to people and what they were doing for Christ, and that is why he was always thankful, for there is always much that people are doing for the kingdom. It is a common saying that hell is other people, but the fact is, heaven is other people as well for those who are people oriented. Everyone who will be in heaven is someone reached by other people. We are saved by the Gospel, but someone had to see that it got to us. Paul was grateful for those who got the Gospel out to others.
William Barclay wrote about Peter Green. He wrote 40 books and became the greatest perish priest in England. It was a young companion of his in school that turned him toward Christ. Young Green asked him what religion meant to him and he said, "Do you really want to know what religion is? Well it waking up in the middle of the night and remembering that you belong to God, and turning over and going to sleep happy because of it." That was not profound theology, but this personal faith has an impact on a man who went on to have an impact on a whole nation of people. Thank God for people and there faith, and for their willingness to share it. That is why Paul was thankful for the Romans.
Ray Stedman looking at this text says we have a tendency in America to be thankful for the size of the church and the organ rather than for the faith of the people and their reputation for spreading the faith. Paul was thankful for those who were famous for their faith. The Pilgrims has to endure awful conditions in getting to America. They were treated like cattle on the ship, and they had to pay great interest on the money they needed to get here. They had great odds to overcome and great sacrifices to make. They suffered greatly, but they were a thankful people in the midst of all their trials. They did not have a faith that said only if all goes well and we are a great success will we be faithful to God. Their faith was more like that of Job when he said, "Though He slay me yet will I turst Him."This is what makes us thankful for them. Thank God for people who can exhibit a thankful spirit in the worst situations, for that encourages us to press on.
People who are thankful for people are thankful people. There is probably someone who has had a great influence in your life, or who has been a great blessing in some way, and you have not really let them know how grateful you are. It is always the right time to express thanks, and so do it. May God help us all to follow Paul as he followed Jesus, and make thankfulness a priority, and make people a priority in our thanksgiving.