It’s that time again – turkey and a host of other wonderful foods, gatherings with family and friends, and the Christian obligation to give thanks to God. Obligation? Well, yes, to be honest, sometimes taking the time to give thanks can be a bother, especially when someone suggests it right as the food is put on the table piping hot. Right as your mouth is dripping with expectation, someone plays the spiritual card and goes into a long dissertation on being thankful, which leads into a long prayer. And the mashed potatoes are getting colder by the minute.
I don’t mean to be sacrilegious, but let’s be frank, even for those who love the LORD, thanking God at Thanksgiving can feel more obligatory than spontaneous, more ritual than real. The thing is, we know that we have lots to thank God for. Our short memories and our five senses scream out examples of God’s blessings that we could name ad nauseum. So why aren’t we more thankful at Thanksgiving?
For the last two years I’ve been immersed in the story of the first Christmas in the Gospel of Luke as we have brought this story to life in the animated musical The Promise: Birth of the Messiah. Luke’s story encompasses just two chapters in Scripture. The thing that has surprised me about these two chapters is the amount of praise that leaps off the lips of the characters in the story. This story about Christmas is a perfect prototype for a Thanksgiving celebration.
For instance, Mary exclaims, “He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Luke 1:49). Zechariah says, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people” (Luke 1:68). And it is said of Anna that after seeing the infant Jesus, she began to “give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). Add to this the praises Simeon, Elizabeth and a host of others.
You may be thinking, “of course these biblical characters were joyful. They were honored with front-row seats to the biggest party ever staged on earth – the Advent of the Messiah, and they were each blessed greatly.” That is certainly true! But upon deeper inspection, the thankful hearts of these folks did not begin with their good fortune, but began long before. And in fact, for all the worldly blessings they received from God, most of them endured much more worldly suffering due to the role they were asked to play in His Advent. One could say that their blessedness was a double-edged sword, and indeed, Simeon used a similar metaphor to inform Mary that tremendous pain was in her future, saying “a sword will pierce through your own soul” (Luke 2:35).
The life circumstances of Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, and Anna were very difficult. Mary was poor, betrothed to a poor carpenter, and it didn’t help matters when she and Joseph had to endure tremendous public ostracism because of her unplanned pregnancy. Never again would they be treated the same in Nazareth. Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless, and this was considered a clear sign of sin and the disfavor of God in one’s life. All the people in their lives – family, neighbors, and fellow priestly families – cast a suspicious eye on them, wondering what they did to incur the punishment of God (see Luke 1:25). Anna lost her husband after only seven years of marriage, and was a widow for over 60 years! This was not the kind of life others considered “blessed.”
Nor would their earthly circumstances improve in the future after Jesus’ birth. Joseph passed away leaving Mary alone to navigate the rejection and crucifixion of her son. Zechariah and Elizabeth, if still alive when their son John the Baptist ministered, endured his denunciation by the religious authorities and horrendous beheading by Herod. Anna likely died shortly after seeing Jesus, passing from this world as a poor widow.
So, the spirit of thankfulness in these characters was not based on circumstances before the coming of Jesus, and certainly not afterward. If not, then why were they thankful? The answer that I arrived at after working with this story for over two years is this: they had the right eyes. Eyes? Yes, eyes. It appears that each of these persons had developed eyes to see beyond this world, to see into the spiritual realm of God, to see the things that matter to God, to see things that matter period.
The question is, as we prepare to sit down before our turkey and mashed potatoes and take a moment to be thankful (or not), how did they gain such a God-centered worldview? Where did the fountain of thankfulness well up from? Certainly the first answer is that faith is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8-9). But aside from this theological reality, what means did God use to deliver or at least develop this faith in their lives? The facts of the story shocked me. The vehicle God used was PAIN.
What a surprising thing to find in the midst of the joyful Christmas story! The faith and other-worldly thankfulness of the biblical characters was a product of great difficulties which stripped away any false hopes of peace, joy or hope based on the things of this world. God’s blessing of pain – from their poverty and rejection by others – helped them to yearn for things beyond this world, to search for realities beyond what they could see and touch. With all worldly hope removed, they found the reality of the God of Scripture, and clung to Him and His promises as their ultimate reality.
It would be fun to have Mary, Zechariah, or Anna at Thanksgiving dinner. I can just imagine their prayers. They would not only thank God for all of His material blessings and His undeserved mercies: for their jobs, their families, or their health. I am pretty certain that they would praise him for the incredibly difficult circumstances of their lives that taught them their most important lesson – that He is all they need. He is their salvation, their peace, their hope and joy.
Thanking God for the pain that gives us eyes of faith never becomes obligatory, because each painful circumstance helps us to appreciate that which is eternal, and to let go of that which is passing away. As Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. . . His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (ESV Luke 1:46-47,50).
Okay, now pass the mashed potatoes.