There’s a running gag in our family that occurs every time we dine together as an extended family. My father, a creature of habit, always blesses the meal and thanks God “for the hands that prepared it”—covering all the bases, as it were. After the “amen,” my wife and mother frequently chime in that it was just one of them who prepped the meal, poking fun at him for giving other “hands” credit. But, hey, it’s always good to cover all the bases.
For many, Thanksgiving is a day to cover the bases. We rejoice in generic blessings from the hands of a generic deity. We are much like the people of Athens, who added to all their altars to all their gods one altar to the “unknown god,” just in case they left someone out of their pantheon (see Acts 17:23)
What’s wrong with this?
To illustrate the problem another way, my kids borrowed a cheap, easy-reader Thanksgiving book from the library, in which Barney the dinosaur and his gang frolick around outdoors, thanking the animals themselves for all their contributions to society—songbirds for their songs, deer for their peaceful attitudes, and so forth. By thanking no one in particular for all our common graces, we thank everyone and everything. In the process of our covering all the religious bases, as it were, we become as pagan as those Athenians. Like ancient idolaters, we lustfully spread ourselves under every green laurel (Isaiah 57:5).
But being grateful to nobody in particular is equal to being ungrateful. Lauding the “hands” that made the meal is no different than extolling the spoon that delivers the cranberry sauce to one’s palate. Thanksgiving misplaced is thanksgiving denied.
When the Apostle Paul recognized the futility of the Athenians’ general worship, he called them to recognize the true source of all blessing: the Triune God, Yahweh. Specifically, he called them to recognize the supremacy of the crucified and risen Son of God:
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.… The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:24-25, 30-31)
Yes, this violates our inclusive, multicultural sensibilities. Yes, this makes Thanksgiving a religious holy day. But worship is an inescapable concept. We will either feast in honor of the songbirds and deer or we will feast before the God of heaven.
I am no marriage expert, but I can imagine my bride taking offense if I were to say today, “Honey, thank you for toiling over this phenomenal turkey… now, what was your name?” This would be so even if I covered my bases by bowing my head and thanking an invisible sky being for all the women in the world who make turkeys on this day. This type of thanksgiving is futile.
True thanksgiving requires that we name him who provides for and sustains us. And the God of heaven and earth, who showers us with the graces of turkey, football, and freedom, requires that we know him through his Son:
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” (John 14:6)
“Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1 John 5:12)
Because all our blessings are cruciform blessings, we may not have a holiday of generic, grateful warm-fuzzies. We must actually name the One to whom we owe our very life and breath. All these blessings come to us through Jesus Christ, the Lord of the universe. The Pilgrims and their heirs left the Old World to escape tyranny, yet our real freedom is found in a life of gratitude to this benevolent dictator of the universe for his free grace. “Give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 136:3).
Today is a day to give thanks to Jesus, and if you repent from your sin and trust him for forgiveness, he is able to save you from his judgment and give you a seat at his feast—a feast spread by nail-pierced hands graven with your name.