This Thursday, our nation will celebrate Thanksgiving Day. As a nation, we will gather and consume great quantities of food, turkey, all the fixings, and pies. We will watch on television the Macy’s Day parade, a football game or two, we will sleep, and then some will venture out late at night to see if they can capture a deal on some new merchandise at a Black Friday sale. This is our modern-day Thanksgiving Day.
Now most people are familiar with the "First Thanksgiving." In 1621, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts celebrated their first harvest. The Pilgrims held a feast; inviting the Wampanoag Indians, who had helped them adapt and survive, to join the feast. The Pilgrim's Thanksgiving in 1621 was more than likely a continuation of a traditional harvest feast they had experienced in Europe, then it was a time to celebrate God’s provision. When the Pilgrims wanted to be particularly expressive of their thankfulness to God they fasted, they stopped eating, so that they could devote themselves to praise and prayer.
Later in our history, Presidents George Washington and James Madison each asked for the nation to celebrate a day of thanksgiving. But it was not until 1863, that President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that set-in motion the annual celebration of a Thanksgiving Day. There is no mention in Lincoln’s proclamation about feasts, parades, football, sleeping, or shopping. Lincoln then said this: “It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.” Lincoln also asked the people of the United States to pray that God would “heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”
The Thanksgiving Day Lincoln envisioned was focused upon the entire nation pausing for one day to acknowledge God’s blessings amid the strife of a civil war. It was a call for the nation to praise God for what God had done through His mercy. It was a call for the nation to pray for those who were suffering and to pray that God would heal the wounds of the nation so that all could enjoy peace, harmony, tranquility, and union. For Lincoln, Thanksgiving Day was not about food, it was about the work being done by the God, being done by God, and would be done by God, the Lord of the Harvest.
We come to understand the fullness of work of the Lord of the Harvest that Lincoln contemplated by reading the Bible. Our New Testament reading from the Gospel of John is a particularly good place for us to understand the work of the Lord of the Harvest and a response of thanksgiving. In the fourth chapter of John, we would read the Jesus and his disciples stopped at a well that had been first established by Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. After stopping at the well, Jesus sent his disciples into the neighboring Samaritan town for food. This was the first time since Jesus called the disciples that Jesus sent them on their own. It was also at this point, as Jesus’ disciples had departed that a Samaritan woman came to the well with a jar to draw water to bring home. In John’s gospel, we are provided a wonderful dialogue between Jesus and this Samaritan woman, and I encourage you to read that passage from beginning to end. As you do, you will come to see that the last words that Jesus and the Samaritan woman exchanged were these, “25 The woman said [to Jesus], ‘I know that Messiah’ (called Christ) is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.’ 26 Then Jesus declared [to the woman], ‘I, the one speaking to you—I am he’” (John 4:25-26). This is a dramatic conclusion and revelation by Jesus that He is the one anointed by God to bring the message of salvation. The Samaritan woman understood the significance of Jesus’ announcement. There are many sermons that can be derived from Jesus’ encounter with this woman. But today, I would like us to begin at the end of that encounter. And that ending began with Jesus’ announcement that He was the Messiah and the near simultaneous return of Jesus’ disciples from the town to the well.
John wrote, “27 Just then his [Jesus’] disciples returned and were surprised to find him [Jesus] talking with a woman [a Samaritan woman no less]. But no one [none of Jesus’ disciples] asked [the woman], “What do you want?” or [asked Jesus] “Why are you talking with her?” I suspect that no one needed to ask these questions because likely the questions, each of which contained an air of condemnation, were written on the faces of Jesus’ disciples. We can say a lot with facial expressions. I think the woman got the point that as far as Jesus’ disciples were concerned it was time for her to leave.
John continued, “28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?’” The woman, left in haste leaving behind her water jar, went to the town and began giving her testimony to her neighbors by acknowledging a sign that this man at the well knew everything about her. Who could know everything about another person except perhaps God? Because of this sign in knowing everything, the woman asked her neighbors to consider the possibility that this man she met at the well could be the Messiah. Jesus testified to this woman he was the Messiah, but she only offered in testimony to her neighbors the possibility that Jesus could be the Messiah. We are left to wonder why she was not direct in share Jesus’ own testimony that He was the Messiah. Regardless of the reasons, the Samaritan woman’s neighbors responded to her question of possibility, “Could this be the Messiah?” And so John wrote, “30 They [the woman’s neighbors] came out of the town and made their way toward him [Jesus at Jacob’s well].”
The Samaritan woman had done what needed to be done. She stirred up the imagination of her neighbors to the possibility that God was at work in their lives. She planted and made alive within them the seed of faith and now the people were responding to see if any of what she said could be true. For if God was at work in their lives, then truly their lives would be blessed.
John continued the story this way. “31 Meanwhile [back at Jacob’s well] his [Jesus’] disciples urged him [Jesus], ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ 32 But he [Jesus] said to them [Jesus’ disciples], ‘I have food to eat that you know nothing about.’ 33 Then his [Jesus’] disciples said to each other, ‘Could someone have brought him food?’” You imagine Jesus hanging his head just a bit, perhaps holding his head in his hands in disbelief at the denseness of his disciples thinking.
Jesus broke the frustrating silence and answered, “34 ‘My food,’ said Jesus, ‘is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). Let’s pause here for a moment. What is food? We have Thanksgiving Day coming up in which tremendous quantities of food will be eaten, somewhere on average between 3,500 to 4,000 calories per person that day. So food is any nutritious substance that people eat or drink to maintain life and growth. Jesus’ disciples wanted Jesus to eat some food. But Jesus said His food, what maintained Jesus’ life, was not to be found on a dinner table. Jesus’ food was to do the will of God who sent Jesus and to finish his work. Jesus was perhaps harkening back to the Old Testament words that, “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3b). What truly sustained Jesus was God and God’s Word and not bread, or fish, or meat. What refreshed and renewed Jesus was not protein but the proclamation of God. Jesus wanted his disciples to pay attention to the work of God that was all around them and for which Jesus was calling them to become part of doing.
To shift the disciples’ attention away from perishable food and onto to the impressible food of God, Jesus said to them, “35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’?” (John 4:35). This is a rhetoric question that Jesus did not expect his disciples to answer because there was and is an understanding that in nature there was a measurable separation of time between when one plants seeds and one can expect to harvest a crop. We know that when we start enjoying the fresh vegetables of the summer, that someone had to have planted seeds months beforehand. But Jesus wanted his disciples to know that is not how the harvest of God works.
John wrote, “35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? [But] I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together” (John 4;35-36). I think as Jesus said those words, “Open your eyes and look at the fields,” Jesus was pointing to the road coming to the well that was now beginning to fill with people coming from the town to Jesus at the well.
Jesus had had the encounter with the Samaritan woman and as soon as she heard the word that Jesus was the Messiah, she went at once to her neighbors sharing the word about Jesus and immediately her neighbors responded to come and see. The seed had been planted and the eternal harvest was about to happen all in a matter of minutes. Jesus was glad at seeing the people coming out to him and so too would have been the sower, the Samaritan woman.
Jesus continued with his disciples, “38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for” (John 4:38). John said that Jesus sent the disciples into town for food. And all the disciples came back with bread and perhaps some meat. These are the same disciples that when they met Jesus’ excited found their brothers and best friends and said, “Come and see we have found the Messiah!” That was food from heaven in which the seed was planted and harvest happened within minutes. Now when Jesus sent the same disciples for food, to do the will of God, not one of them shared with anyone in the neighboring town that the Messiah was at Jacob’s well. Why did they not share what they knew to be the good news of the Messiah? We are left to speculate. Jesus concluded with his disciples saying, “’Others have [now] done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor’” (John 4:38b).
John concluded the story, “39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him [Jesus] because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I ever did.’ 40 So when the Samaritans came to him [Jesus], they urged him [Jesus] to stay with them, and he [Jesus] stayed two days. 41 And because of his [Jesus] words many more became believers. 42 They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man [Jesus] really is the Savior of the world’” (John 4:38b-42).
Now harvest described to us in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John is a Thanksgiving story of an eternal significance brought about by the food that never perishes, that is God’s Word. Jesus disciples thought Jesus’ mission to them in going into the town was about obtaining food upon which to feast and be satisfied for a few hours. The Samaritan woman understood Jesus was about quenching a thirst and hunger that is eternal. She spoke to as many people as she could and they sought out Jesus.
What then shall we do with our upcoming harvest celebration, our next Thanksgiving Day story. I think there are two things for us to consider.
First, I would encourage you to enjoy the turkey dinner and family gatherings. But we should remember that the food we eat that day, or any day, only sustains our bodies. What sustains our lives now and forever is the food God provides through His Word. So as we feast on perishable food for our bodies let’s not neglect the sustaining food of God for living. Let’s follow Abraham Lincoln’s charge to make the day a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to God. Why should we do that? If you believe in Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world, then be very thankful for you have been harvested into eternal life. Give thanks to God that someone sowed the seeds of faith for you and you have been saved.
Second, I want to encourage you to look around at those people seated at your Thanksgiving Day table or those people you encounter elsewhere this week. See that some of them do not know Jesus in any meaningful way. People need to know the Lord and they need to know that you love them enough to share God’s Good News with them. Be like the Samaritan woman and invite those who do not know God to join you in your joy for God. Invite those who have become separated from the church to return. With Advent approaching, we are entering a time of year in which the hearts of the people are stirred toward God. Those seeds have been sown and it is up to you to reap the harvest. Invite those you know to join you at church. Offer to pick them up. If you have accepted Christ, then your food is to do the work of Christ. Think how blessed and thankful you will be if God works through you to bring another soul to salvation or to bring a wounded Christian back to church. We should rejoice and be thankful that we know Jesus and that we can share that Jesus is truly the Savior of the world. Now that is harvest celebration, a Thanksgiving Day for which we can eternally thankful. Amen and Amen.