This Thursday our nation will celebrate Thanksgiving Day. A couple hundred million people will feast all day long on turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, squash, cranberry sauce, and a variety of pies. In many locations, a prayer will be offered before the feasting begins, in many other places, no prayer will be offered. Millions of people will travel the day before and the days after Thanksgiving to be with their families. Then when the meal is finished, millions of people will venture out at night in search of those retail stores offering extra special Black Friday sales. If we step back for a moment, we see something unfold before us. We see that nearly the entire country is committed and conforms to near simultaneous and common celebration. And because it is such a common practice, most people do not want to miss out celebrating Thanksgiving in some way so that they are like everyone else.
If you could ask that couple of hundred million people, “Who started this Thanksgiving Day celebration?” The most common answered you would likely hear is that Thanksgiving started with a group called the “Pilgrims.” Now here is the surprising part about the Pilgrims. When they wanted to be thankful to God, they did not feast on great tables of food. Instead, they fasted; they would not eat. When it came to the option of doing whatever the rest of the world was doing, the Pilgrims did the other. The Pilgrims were concerned their children were becoming too much like the world, so they left Europe to come to the lands of the Americas to be free of the world’s influences. The Pilgrims were concerned that organized churches of the day demanded that they believe not only in the Bible but also in other teachings of the church. The Pilgrims believed that should follow only the Bible. When it came time to celebrate thanks before God, the Pilgrims issued the word to their people to attend a meeting from 9:00 in the morning until noon “to listen to ye pastor, and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.” [I am not sure how you would feel about a three hour sermon.]
The Pilgrims had definite beliefs and were willing to stand by their beliefs even if the price was high. As a group, they were unwilling to see their beliefs erode and so they set sail for a new land. The Pilgrims were thankful when they landed in Plymouth in 1620. But the 102 Pilgrims who were thankful they landed in late 1620, only 55 were alive just a few months later. Illness had taken nearly half of the people in just a few mouths. And yet, the Pilgrims were oddly thankful. They had beliefs that mattered and lived by those beliefs even when the cost was high. The Pilgrims were odd and did not conform to the world. A great Christian scholar once wrote, “A person with a definite belief always appears bizarre [odd], because he [or she] does not change with the world.” Everyone believes in something and that something drives their decision and choices. What you believe in may be very common and what you believe in may make you thankful or it may not.
But if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, if you are a Christian, then you need to know this; you are odd. You are odd because you have definite beliefs that are in many ways very different from the world. Nobody wants to be different. We want people to like us, and one of the safest ways to do that is to blend in, to be like everyone else. But following Christ has never been about just “blending in.” Following Him means to be like Him, to respond to life and relate to people the way He did. Inevitably, there are times when doing that makes you different. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, if you are a Christian, then you need to know this as well; you are odd also because you can be thankful in all circumstances. You might be saying, “Wait, Pastor. Right now, life is tough. Someone I loved is no longer in my life. Perhaps they died, or they left you to live elsewhere. Maybe you are without a job and you do not know how you are going to make it through the month.” We could go on with the list. I think you get the point. Some care is needed here. As Christians we are not thankful for difficult circumstances, but we can be thankful even in the middle of difficult circumstances. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, if you are a Christian, then you are very much a Pilgrim and you can be oddly thankful because God is with you in all circumstances of life; good and not so good.
We see this odd thankfulness unfold in our New Testament reading today. That reading was from a letter that we call Colossians. Why do we call the letter Colossians? Simply because it was written to people in the city of Colossae making those people known as Colossians. The letter is written by a man named Paul. Paul, and Paul’s companion, Timothy, were familiar with the people called the Colossians. Through Paul’s ministry, people in Colossae repented; they turned to a new different direction in their life. They turned from doing things their own way to doing this Jesus’ way because they came believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that through Jesus they are free from their sins. Now Paul was happy to be a Christian even though being known as a Christian, having those definite beliefs, led to Paul being beaten with iron rods, whipped, and having large stones hurled at him. Paul was a pilgrim and so he was odd thankful. Paul wanted his friends, the Colossians, to know why he was thankful.
I invite you to turn in your Bible and join me as we read and talk a bit about some of what Paul wrote. I will be reading from the New International Readers Version of the Bible today.
Paul opened his letter in the style of ancient writings by introducing himself. He said, “I, Paul, am writing this letter. I am an apostle of Christ Jesus just as God planned. Our brother Timothy joins me in writing. We are sending this letter to you, our brothers and sisters in Colossae. You belong to Christ. You are holy and faithful. May God our Father give you grace and peace.” Paul was connecting with the people in Colossae just as we connected with each other earlier in the service as we greeted one another. To Paul, his friends in Colossae were new family members, brothers and sisters, and they all equally belonged to God. Paul was saying, “I acknowledge your dignity and the beauty God sees in you because you were made in the image of God.” No matter what was going on in their life, for Paul these people were family and God gave each of them dignity. The world did not see these people in that way and sadly, many of you know the world does not offer dignity to you. In fact, the world does not believe much in protecting the dignity of another person. Studies show that even the word “dignity” is being used less and less each year. That is the world. Well, allow me to echo Paul’s oddly thankful beliefs. I am glad and thankful to call each of you brother or sister and I want you to know that no matter what your circumstances may be at this moment, whether good, fair, or not so good, you have dignity as God’s child and you are worthy of respect, compassion, and comfort. And is my hope that you genuinely sense those feelings here because we are not like the world. We seek to be like Jesus.
Paul continued with his letter, “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you. We thank him [we thank God] because we have heard about your faith in Christ Jesus. We have also heard that you love all God’s people.” Paul, along with Timothy, are oddly thankful because news had reach them about their friends. News that their friends were placing trust in Jesus and not in false beliefs. They were placing trust in Jesus and not in wild pleasures. They were placing trust in Jesus and not in hatred, revenge, or anger. And how did Paul know for sure these people were people of faith in Jesus Christ? Paul told us. He said news had reached Paul that his friends in Colossae were “loving toward all of God’s people.” The people of Colossae held strong beliefs that were different from the world around them. So different, so odd were their beliefs, that they loved other people. Paul was thankful that he could see that his friends were willing to love people in the name of Jesus, through the power of Jesus, and in faithful obedience to Jesus. We can be odd and love other people in our circumstances. We can love others despite our circumstances. We can love others as an expression of our thankfulness to God for loving us. That is what Paul saw his friends doing.
Paul continued to encourage his brothers and sisters. He said, “Your faith [in Jesus] and love [for others] are based on the hope you have. What you hope for is stored up for you in heaven.” Heaven is the place of God. Heaven is where there are only circumstances of joy and peace. There are no struggles with sin, illness, or anger in heaven. Paul wrote to his friends, “You have already heard about it. You were told about it when the true message was given to you.” Paul wanted his friends to hold onto the promises of the future.
Now someone who received Paul’s letter or someone reading it now might say, “Heaven sounds great but what do I do until I get there?” Paul wrote in the middle of verse 9, “We keep asking God to fill you with the knowledge of what he wants.” God wants something very specific for your life. God has a plan for your life. He wants something for you and something from you. He wants that for you and from you now; not in heaven. Paul was praying his friends would be listening for God. You see we are odd. We believe that God will speak to us. I know I am thankful that God does speak to us and that on a several occasions I was listening to Him. I am sure there were other moments when He spoke, and I was listening to someone else or more likely talking.
Paul continued, “We pray he will give you the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives. 10 Then you will be able to lead a life that is worthy of the Lord. We pray that you will please him in every way. So we want you to bear fruit in every good thing you do. We pray that you will grow to know God better. 11 We want you to be very strong, in keeping with his glorious power. We want you to be patient. We pray that you will never give up.” In this life, we need wisdom and understanding in all circumstances. I think every person here has said many times, “Lord, what am I supposed to do now?” Paul said God will lead you to do the next right thing that it worthy of him. God will give you the strength to do it and the patience to see it through until it is time to take the next right step. Just don’t give up. This is how we can be thankful in all circumstances. Because God is there to give us wisdom in our circumstances. He is there to lead us out of difficult circumstances. He is there to slow us down so that we can enjoy the good circumstances of life He is there to help us never give up. This all sounds so very odd to the world.
Our friends, the Pilgrims of Plymouth, needed great wisdom in their difficult circumstances. They needed patience and they needed the strength not to give up. The Pilgrim’s leader, William Bradford, wrote, “Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things of nothing and gives being to all things that are; and as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation; let the glorious name of God have all praise." Everything we do should reflect the very best of the light of the Gospel and regardless of the immediate circumstances we may find ourselves in, we should give all the praise and thanksgiving to God.
As we approach Thanksgiving this year, look at life, all of life with a Christian view of being oddly thankful. Think about all that you have been blessed with and see God through it all. Be willing to ask for his wisdom, guidance, and patience in your circumstances knowing God will answer you through the Bible and through his church. Don’t give up. Love other people with light of hope that burns within you. Do not hid that light. When Thanksgiving Day comes, certainly approach the day grateful for whatever meal you may have and with whomever you share it with, but think deeper. Give thanks to God for your salvation, for the blessing of being in his church, for the blessing of grace, and the blessing of peace. Pray for family and friends, even difficult ones. Pray that God will continue to move to be oddly thankful and to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord. Amen.