In Thanksgiving to God
November 18th, 1979 @ 8:15 AM
WITH THANKSGIVING TO GOD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
11-18-79 8:15 a.m.
It is a beautiful and a happy day in America. It is hard for me to realize there is only one nation in the world that has a National Day of Thanksgiving, and that is the United States of America. And the sermon this morning, addressed to the congregation here in Dallas in our First Baptist Church, and to the uncounted thousands of you who are listening on the two radio stations, is entitled With Thanksgiving to God.
And the text – which is a background passage – the message is not an exposition; it is a subject sermon on Thanksgiving. The background text is the one that you read a moment ago, Psalm 100, verse 4: "Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, into His courts with praise: be thankful unto Him, and bless His name." Twice in that beautiful little verse, are we admonished to come before God with gratitude, and praise, and thanksgiving.
Doubtless one of the most poignant of all of the moments in American history was the fifth day of April in the year 1621. At the conclusion of the harsh winter in January and February of that year, one-half of all of the Pilgrims who had come over on the Mayflower had died. There were one-hundred two passengers on the Mayflower; and in January and February of that year, fifty-one of them had died.
They were buried on Cole’s Hill overlooking Plymouth Harbor. And to hide the smallness and the weakness of the little colony that remained alive, they were buried in a cornfield and the graves leveled with the ground.
That day, the fifth day of April – the spring day after the harsh and terrible winter – there were twenty-one men and six lads old enough to work. And by their side a little handful of women and children standing on the shore; and they watched the Mayflower on which they had come to the new land, they watched that ship raise anchor and move out to the open sea, returning to England.
But not one of the Pilgrims boarded the ship, not one of them returned to the homeland. All of them stayed here in the wilderness, and stood there watching that ship sink beyond the horizon of the sea. They were a devout people, those Pilgrims. When they came to the shores of this new world, they came to establish a new social order in the name of Christ. And in that blessed name, they came to establish a base for the evangelization of the world.
They carried with them to America this Bible, the King James’ Version of the Bible. It had been published nine years before. And they built their homes, first: and centered them around the Word of God. Second; they built their little church and centered it around the preaching of this blessed Book. And third, they built their little school and they centered the school around that same blessed Book. The text of the school was the King James’ Version of the Bible. If you would like to know how far we have departed from the great spiritual Christian foundations of our nation, just look at the modern court, prohibiting the faith of our Lord in the public school.
That fall of 1621, William Bradford, the elected governor of the little colony, proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day – in gratitude to God for the harvest – to us so very small, but to them so very significant. And for three days in November, the little Plymouth Colony of Pilgrims celebrated in thanksgiving to God for the food the Lord had bestowed upon them. They shared it with the friendly Indians, who outnumbered the Pilgrims. And it was the beginning of a great spiritual commitment on the part of America.
William Bradford, the governor, had a noble precedent in the Bible – this Bible – for what he did. Here in the Study Bible I hold in my hand is a presentation of the feasts in Leviticus. And if you look at that Study Bible, you will find that there is one feast that is unique among all others. It’s called a peace offering [Leviticus 3:1-17]. We would call it a Thanksgiving Offering. It’s the only feast in which the offerer shared.
He came before the Lord with an offering of gratitude and thanksgiving for what God had done for him; and he ate the sacrifice on the tabernacle grounds. He ate it with his family, with friends, and with the priest – the officiating minister. That’s the only such feast in Leviticul offerings. It’s a thanksgiving offering, called a peace offering; and it brought together – in beautiful and sublime proportions – the families of Israel who were praising God for His goodnesses to them.
When you read through the Pentateuch, you will find a tremendous season in the Israeli year called the Feast of Tabernacles [Leviticus 23:33-44; Deuteronomy 16:13-17]. That was in the fall. And it was also a thanksgiving week in which they sat in booths and praised God for the ingathering, remembering the providential guidance of the Lord through the wilderness when they came out of the slavery of Egypt.
In the New Testament, the apostles no less laid upon us the privilege – beautiful, heavenly – of thanking God. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, the apostle will write: "In everything give thanks to God." That’s a beautiful admonition, and hard to do. "In everything give thanks to God."
In Philippians 4:6, the apostle will write: "Be anxious for nothing; but in everything, in prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God."
A beautiful and heavenly, and precious facet of the Christian faith is this of giving thanks to God. So it was in the tradition of those first Pilgrims who came to America, that after the Revolutionary War, with its hard and harsh and terrible days, and after the Continental Congress had framed the Constitution of the United States; by action of both houses of Congress in 1789, both houses of Congress voted to ask the president of the United States to proclaim a national day of thanksgiving. The president was George Washington. And this is the first thanksgiving proclamation:
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and; whereas, both Houses of Congress have, by their joint Committees, requested me to recommend "to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer. . ."
Therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of the good that was, that is, or that will be – That we may then unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the People of this Country. . .
Given under my hand at the City of New York – then capital of the Nation – the third day of October, AD 1789.
[Signed by George Washington.]
And after the terrible days of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln made the day a national holiday to be observed by our people through all the generations yet to come.
This is uniquely American – the only nation in the world that has such a day. It is uniquely Christian. It reflects the foundations upon which our republic was made. And now we live in this day, and in this generation, and with no less cause for gratitude and thanksgiving to God.
First: we shall thank God as a church, and as a people, for our nation. A career diplomat resigned from the service and came back home to the United States. And I remember what he said. He said, "I had rather hang on a lamppost and live in the United States than in any palace in any nation of the world." He may have been overly, emotionally enthusiastic about his love for America, but having traveled extensively, I feel and sense that same gratitude to God that I live in this country, in this state, and in this city. I never go abroad but that the best part is coming home. We can thank God with every right for our homeland of America; just praying that God will keep it as those Pilgrim fathers founded it, in the love and grace and mercy of the Lord. Dear God, be good to America. God bless America.
Second: we shall thank God for our church and for our blessed Holy Book. This is why the Pilgrims came to these shores, that they might worship God without the heavy hand of government upon them, that they might preach the gospel, and forming a base in the New World, evangelize all the nations and families of the earth. What a noble commitment on the part of a little handful of Christian people.
But God has never conquered by excellence and superiority of numbers. God moves in faith, and in dedication, and in commitment. These are the things that God looks for; not our abounding wealth or our resources, but our commitment and love for Him. And those first Pilgrims possessed that. Not much they possessed of this world, but they were rich in faith toward God.
And those pioneer preachers pressed over the Alleghenies to the wilderness beyond the mountains and into the prairies, and finally out in the West where I grew up as a boy, listening to those old pioneer preachers preach, uneducated – only had two books: a Bible and a hymn book – eminently evangelistic, trusting and loving God, pleading for the lost.
Dear me, what a marvelous foundation they laid for us. All of these institutions that we enjoy today, including Baylor University, were founded by those pioneer preachers. All of our churches, our convention – how much we owe to their dedicated hands. And out of all of the blessings that we have in America, I think the first, and the most precious, is the blessing of assembling in the House of God, listening to the preaching of the Word of the Lord.
How many there are in the earth today. Even half of the communist world occupies half of this globe. There the preaching of the gospel, if it is not completely interdicted as it has been in China, is so hampered and burdened, as it is in Eastern Europe, as to be almost oblivious, non-effective.
But in America – look at this church, and the freedom we have to assemble, and to teach, and to preach, and to visit, and to call to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Lord, how grateful we are for this open door.
I love Thy church, O God.
Her walls before Thee stand.
Dear is the apple of Thine eye,
And graven on Thy hand.
For her my tears shall fall.
For her my prayers ascend.
To her my toils and cares be given.
‘Till toils and cares shall end.
[from "I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord," Timothy Dwight, 1800]
Grateful to God for our country, grateful to God for our church and its blessed and Holy Book, grateful to God for even our hardships and our troubles: what did the apostle say? "In everything – in everything, give thanks to God. Be careful for nothing, but in prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God" [Philippians 4:6]. That’s hard. I don’t know anything harder. "Lord, You mean, in this trial, and in this trouble, I am to give thanks to God?"
A young man, like these teenagers up here – a young fellow by the name of Tom was talking at the head of the "holler" to an old Christian man named George Burton. And the young fellow said to the old pilgrim, he said, "I don’t see any good in religion. I just don’t." The young fellow said to the old man, he said, "It seems to me that Christians have just as much trouble as anybody else in the world. I don’t see that it does them any good to pray or to go to church. I don’t see it."
And the young fellow said to the old pilgrim, George Burton, he said, "Mr. Burton, just look at old man Monroe who lives down the creek here. Just look at him. All his life he’s prayed that he’d have enough money to send his children to school, but he never has. For years he’s prayed every day that his little boy, Charles, would get well. He doesn’t, and not only that, Mr. Burton; but last year a lightning bolt killed one of his horses, and he had only two. And this spring a wind blew down his barn. I don’t see that his praying, and his worship of God, his going to church, and his religion does him any good. I don’t see it."
And the old pilgrim, George Burton, said, "My son, have you talked to old man Monroe since the lightning killed one of his horses and the wind blew down his barn? Have you talked to him?"
And the young fellow said, "Yes."
And the old man said, "Son, I ask you. When you talked to him, did he complain?"
"No," said the boy.
"Was he bitter that other people didn’t have their horses killed, and their barns burned down, and they were better off than he? Was he bitter?"
"No," said the lad.
"And did you find him leaning on the grace of God and the strong arm of the Lord to help him in the trials of his life? Did you find him like that?"
And the boy said, "Yes, sir."
And the old man replied, he said, "Son, you’re looking in the wrong place for the blessing of God."
"I remember," the old man said, "when Monroe was a bad man, an evil man. And we fed his family. Then he was wonderfully saved. And now they have a home and a shelter, and they have food, and they care for themselves. And old man Monroe loves God and trusts in the Lord."
"Son," said the old pilgrim, "you’re looking in the wrong place. When a man becomes a Christian that does not mean that the outside is changed. That’s just the same. You still have the pestilence. You still have the famine. You still have the wind. You still have the storm. You still have the lightning. The outside is just the same!"
"But son," said the old man, "when God comes into a man’s heart, he’s changed on the inside; he’s a new man. And when the winds blow, and the storms beat, and the waters rise, the Christian man has a peace that passes all understanding. That’s what it is to love the Lord."
And that’s what Paul meant when he said in everything we give thanks [1 Thessalonians 5:18]. "Maybe, Lord, I need to kneel lower. Maybe, Lord, I need to pray more fervently. Maybe, Lord, I need to lean on Thy arm the more completely and absolutely." It’s a great message we have. It’s a great Lord we love, and a beautiful commitment when a man gives his heart to Jesus.
Would you spare me one other observation – one other? We’re thanking God. We’re praising the Lord. We’re grateful to God for His remembrance of us. That includes the little things of life; the little things of life, not just the big things but the little things of life. And the reason I mention it is because of something that happened in this pulpit years ago.
Many years ago, long time ago, I was invited to bring the closing address to a Brotherhood convention that met here in Dallas and met here in this church. And I was seated right there, waiting to be presented to the convention to bring the closing address. And before I stood up to speak – I did not know of the program, but before I stood up to speak – seated there there was a man in our convention and in our Brotherhood work, who was gifted in winning convicts to the Lord. And he had gained permission from the warden of the Texas State Penitentuary in Huntsville to bring four lifers, who had been converted, here to the convention.
And they sat there – four of them, dressed in their convict’s uniform and bound so that there wasn’t any possibility of anything going wrong, and guarded by several guards – and one-by-one, those four convicts stood in this place and gave their testimony of how they had found the Lord, and what God had meant to them, and does mean to them. The four men had far over two hundred year’s meted to them in conviction and judgment in penitentiary life.
Sweet people, as I sat there and listened to those four men, all four of them, though in a very different way, all four of them said the same thing, all four of them. After years of penitentiary life – the steel cells, the iron bars, those concrete bunkers – after years of penitentiary life, this is what they said: there wasn’t anything that they once reached for that meant anything to them now. They didn’t miss it. In the years gone by, they reached for money, and of course, murdered and robbed for it. They reached for the big pleasure and the big time. And they reached for egotistical preferment and advancement – big shot, with a gun, and with money, and with all the things that men of violence seek to possess. All four of those men said, "We don’t miss it at all."
"What do you miss?"
"We miss the freedom of walking down a country road, listening to a bird sing, the smile of a little child, and home, and friends."
Dear me; how our values get all mussed up, mixed up! Man, these are the blessings we want to thank God for: freedom to walk , come to church, looking at a child, praising the Lord, being at home, loving somebody close-by, friends who help us along the way.
O Lord! Give me a thankful spirit, and help me, Lord, not to reach after things that are tawdry, and cheap, and temporary, but after the eternal things that only come from the gracious hands of our dear Lord.
May we stand together? And our Lord, if we have been tempted to be pulled off into another direction, panting after fame or cheap success, or money, or the stipends and emoluments of this world, God, forgive us. But may we treasure to our souls the beautiful things that come from Thy gracious hands, thanking Thee even for the hardships of life, and above all, praising Thee that God has been thus good to us to give us a church, to give us these who love us, friends who help us, and an open door to walk with Thee.
And, in this moment of appeal – no one leaving, no one moving excepting down here to the front, you will be dismissed in time to go to Sunday school – and our people praying and waiting; in a moment when we sing, down that stairway, down this aisle, "Pastor, this is my family. On this Thanksgiving Sunday, we are all coming." A couple you, or just one somebody you, "Today, I want to take Jesus as my Savior." Or, "Today, I want to be baptized, like it says in the Book." Or, "Today, we want to put our lives in this dear church." While we pray, while we wait, while we sing this song, do it now, and welcome.