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Thanksgiving: the holiday God requires

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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A family gathers around the Thanksgiving dinner table for prayer (Credit: Pearl via Lightstock)

What is your favorite holiday?  According to all the surveys, Christmas is America’s first choice.  Yet it may surprise you to learn that it was not celebrated until 336 A.D. and did not become popular in America until the 1860s.  And no one is sure when Jesus’ birth actually occurred.  It is observed on December 25 because early Christian leaders wanted to replace Saturnalia, a popular pagan holiday observed on that day.

It is a glorious and wonderful thing to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  We should do so every day.  But thanksgiving is the one American observance which is commanded by our Lord, absolutely mandated by Scripture: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).  Thanksgiving is the will of God.

For the typical American, today’s holiday is more about food, football and shopping than gratitude for God’s favor.  Why?  I’ll hazard two guesses, one today and the other tomorrow.

The first comes in the form of a story.  A farmer bought a plot of undeveloped land and worked for weeks to make it into a flower garden.  He uprooted stumps, pulled weeds, mowed grass, tilled dirt and planted seeds.  When his flowers were in bloom, he invited his pastor to see his work.  The impressed minister remarked, “What a beautiful example of God’s creation.”  The farmer grinned and replied, “Preacher, you should have seen it when God had it all to himself.”

It’s hard to thank someone else for work we did ourselves.  We can be polite, pausing for a moment of appropriate gratitude, but all the while we know we worked hard to do what we do and have what we have.  Let’s examine this attitude for a moment.

Did you deserve your physical health and capacities?  Your body is made of 100 trillion cells, of which 300 million die every minute.  Your brain possesses 100 billion nerve cells.  Each square inch of your skin contains 20 feet of blood vessels; placed end to end, your body’s blood vessels would measure 62,000 miles.  That same square inch of skin has an average of 32 million bacteria on it.  Every year 98% of the atoms in your body are replaced.  And when you sneeze, all your bodily functions stop—including your heart.  Did you design or create the physical capacities you are using right now?

During my recent Holy Land travels, we visited the world-famous Israel Museum.  We stood before the casket of Caiaphas, the high priest who sought Jesus’ death; the “Pilate stone” bearing the inscribed name of the man who ordered his execution; and the remains of a first-century crucifixion victim.  And we considered the grace by which the Father sent his Son to die in our place for our sins, purchasing our eternal salvation.

Doesn’t your Maker and Savior deserve a day of gratitude?  In fact, doesn’t he deserve a lifestyle of thanksgiving?  May you and yours have a blessed, heartfelt Thanksgiving Day—and life.