Summary: The key to a distinctively Christian Thanksgiving celebration is giving thanks for the right things.
This morning, I’d like to begin with a question. Is Thanksgiving a Christian holiday? The word "holiday," after all, comes from the phrase "holy day". And so, is Thanksgiving a holy day for those who serve and worship Jesus Christ? Does the twenty-eighth of November have any special spiritual significance for us, or is it merely an opportunity to gather together with our families, and enjoy a good meal, and take a day of rest from our labors?
You might think this is an easy question (or maybe a trick question). Of course it’s not a Christian holiday! After all, there’s nothing in the Bible identifying the fourth Thursday in November as a feast day, or as a day of worship. The holiday we observe was established, not by the Word of God, but by an act of Congress; Section 6103 of Title 5 of the United States Code. It’s also traditional for the President to issue an annual proclamation calling upon the people of the United States to observe this day. George Washington did it, and John Adams, and James Madison, and since Lincoln every President has done it, even those who weren’t noted for their great piety. Therefore, this must be a civil holiday, not a religious one, right?
Well, before you answer, listen to what is actually in these Presidential proclamations. As I was preparing for this message, I read through a good number of them, going back to the ones issued by Washington (note: see www.pilgrimhall.org/ThanxProc.htm). And I was somewhat surprised to learn that many of them either refer to, or explicitly quote, the Bible. Ronald Reagan, for example, quoted Psalm 35, "And my tongue shall speak of thy righteousness and of thy praise all the day long." (Psalm 35:28, KJV) Harry Truman included this phrase which occurs in several of the Psalms, "O give thanks unto the LORD, for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever." (Psalm 118:1, 29) Presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt, to Richard M. Nixon, to George Herbert Walker Bush, all referenced the Scriptures in their Thanksgiving Day proclamations. In fact, FDR, in his 1944 statement, called for a, "nationwide reading of the Holy Scriptures," from Thanksgiving to Christmas, for the purpose of national spiritual renewal.
Often, it’s even apparent in these documents that these men are encouraging us to give thanks specifically to the God of the Bible – God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In 1799, John Adams recommended that the people of the United States, quote,
"devote the time to the sacred duties of religion in public and in private; that they call to mind our numerous offenses against the Most High God, confess them before Him with the sincerest penitence, implore His pardoning mercy, through the Great Mediator and Redeemer, for our past transgressions, and that through the grace of His Holy Spirit we may be disposed and enabled to yield a more suitable obedience . . . in time to come."
As incredible as it seems to us today, there was a time when the President of the United States could issue a proclamation calling on its citizens to confess their sins to God, so that they might be forgiven through Jesus Christ and enabled by the Holy Spirit to serve Him more faithfully. And no one thought there was anything wrong with it. In fact, as I was reading through these proclamations, many of them, especially the early ones, sounded like sermons. I found God referred to by such titles as, "the Great Sovereign of the Universe," "Almighty God," "the Author of all good," "the Lord and Ruler of Nations," "Creator," "Heavenly Father". Here’s a short passage from Andrew Johnson’s 1867 address:
"Resting and refraining from secular labors on that day, let us reverently and devoutly give thanks to our Heavenly Father for the mercies and blessings with which He has crowned the now closing year."
And so it’s clear that the history and heritage of this day are quite religious and even Christian. In fact, in the early days, Thanksgiving had nothing to do with family gatherings. It was entirely a day of worship and prayer, a day in which people went to church, a day of fasting instead of feasting. However, over the years it has become more and more secular. In fact, our public life in general has become secular, or at best, religiously pluralistic. So that now, when any mention is made of God by public officials, they feel it necessary to couch their statements in terms that don’t imply any particular set of beliefs. They don’t want to offend anyone; they don’t want anyone to feel excluded. And so we have, in George W. Bush’s 2002 Thanksgiving Day proclamation, not the Christian Trinitarian God, not even the Judeo-Christian Creator God, but rather a generic civil deity, one that any citizen can interpret according to his or her own religio. Frankly, when you read this year’s proclamation, and compare it to the ones issued by George Washington, or Lincoln, or Roosevelt, or even Nixon, it sounds like pablum. It’s just this insipid, watery mush. It can’t offend anyone, because it doesn’t say anything. The statements issued during previous generations were robust, devout, eloquent, full of gospel truth. But what we have now is worse than nothing. It’s pantheistic pap. You could be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, Native American, or New Age, and you would have no problem with it whatsoever.