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Why Do We Observe Thanksgiving?

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Late this summer I had the privilege of traveling through Central Europe. While sightseeing in several beautiful cities, local guides escorted us to a monument, a statue or a church and referred to it as a “thanksgiving memorial” while recounting its accompanying history. The memorials often commemorated a plague, an invasion, a great national victory or an impactful person in that location and culture. Most of the thanksgiving memorials pertained to events that affected the whole population of a nation or region.

As I listened to the historical accounts of great tragedy and victory and saw the effort and expense communities took to create a thanksgiving memorial, I thought about the power of such an act. Decades and centuries later, people are still viewing the monuments, reading the dedicatory inscriptions and hearing the history of WHY this particular piece of architecture, sculpture or artwork was created. Why was it important, after an intense season or event, to create a memorial expressing thanksgiving? While enjoying the beautiful edifices, I wondered if people today approach memorials with gratitude to God for His work in the events of mankind.

The Bible gives us several precedents for these kinds of memorials and their purpose. In the book of Joshua, the people of Israel needed to cross a large river with thousands of families including children, babies, animals, a worship tent and all of its holy articles, with priests and banners for each family tribe to follow. The massive crossing promised to be a daunting undertaking.

As the Israelites began their crossing, God graciously and miraculously pushed back the river’s flow to allow millions of people to walk across on dry ground. God literally ushered the twelve Hebrew tribes across a riverbed and into their new homeland with dry feet! As part of this dramatic event, God told Joshua that each tribe’s leader should collect a boulder from the riverbed and bring it out of the river with them. Joshua assembled the twelve stones into a thanksgiving memorial in a place named Gilgal. He spoke these words of instruction about the memorial:

“In the future, when your children ask their fathers, ‘What is the meaning of these stones?’ you should tell your children, Israel crossed the Jordan River on dry ground. For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed over… This is so that all the people of the earth may know that the Lord’s hand is mighty and so that you may always fear the Lord you God.” (Holman Christian Standard Bible, Joshua 4:21-24)

As Joshua commemorated this event that would become a pivotal part of the nation’s history, he explained why there was a memorial built in Gilgal. The memorial would provoke future generations, who did not personally experience this miraculous crossing, to ask about the significance of the memorial. The memorial would give opportunity for God’s blessing story to be told to those who saw the memorial decades and centuries later.

Most memorials carry a story of loss and suffering but also a story of God’s help, perseverance, and survival through difficulty. Joshua’s memorial in Gilgal followed forty frustrating years of travel to this new homeland and the death of an entire generation before they safely crossed the Jordan River. Memorials can bring hope to those who are facing difficulties and challenges because the memorial’s presence recalls God’s faithfulness in times past.

America’s Thanksgiving holiday memorializes the history of Europeans coming to North America in search of religious freedom and economic opportunity. Over half of the Plymouth pilgrims did not survive the voyage and first winter in Massachusetts. Suffering and death was a constant companion of these families. Yet, a year after landing at New Plymouth, their first harvest festival was purposed to give thanks to God for a good harvest before the winter, due to the aid and goodwill of Native Americans who taught them how to survive. Thanksgiving was named a permanent holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863.

Our memorial is a day set aside for giving thanks to God for His blessings in our land, reflecting back to the pre-colonial days of William Bradford, Samoset and Squanto. Such a significant meaning should be remembered and practiced on Thanksgiving for it is far more than a day of favorite foods, family, friends, parades and football. It is important to recall God’s goodness, even in difficult seasons, and to express our thanksgiving in the presence of our children, our loved ones and our God, being certain that we have not forgotten Him, His grace and His blessings.

In Joshua 4:7 the Hebrew word for “memorial” is translated into English with several similar words and meanings. The translations are:

  • A memorial
  • A sign
  • Something to mark the occasion
  • A reminder
  • A record
  • A memento or memorable thing, day or writing
  • (And if I could take license to add a word to this list, it would be “a witness”)

Thanksgiving 2021 will occur almost two years after the beginning of a world wide pandemic. Many have suffered, a multitude has died and the amount of stress and suffering is incalculable. Yet, God has sovereignly overseen humanity through it all. We have an opportunity as families to create a memorial to thank God for how He has walked alongside us, especially in the dark times of Covid-19.

Can I challenge us to create personal Thanksgiving Memorials this year? Use the words above to help your family memorialize gratitude to God for who He is. And WHY is this important? In the words of Joshua, “This is so that all the people of the earth may know that the Lord’s hand is mighty and so that you may always *fear the Lord you God.” The HCS Bible explains *fear the Lord your God as, “No single English word conveys every aspect of the word fear in this phrase. The meaning includes worshipful submission, reverential awe, and obedient respect to the God of Israel.”

Our thanksgiving memorials can be a perpetual witness that God is good, powerful, omnipotent and faithful to the people of the earth and that we can trust Him and worship, revere, respect and obey Him. Our prayer at Next Level Moms is that Thanksgiving 2021 is a blessed and meaningful memorial for you and yours!

A final note. An excellent children’s book about God’s sovereignty and Thanksgiving is Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving authored by Eric Metaxes, published by Thomas Nelson.

Cynthia Thompson enjoys living in the Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, Larry. They have two daughters, two sons-in-love and two grandsons. She loves prayer journeys, coffee with friends, and mentoring early career pastors and their wives.


One comment on “Why Do We Observe Thanksgiving?

  1. Thank you for sharing your observations about memorials. I love to think of them as “thanksgiving memorials”, and will remember this when I travel. God certainly deserves our thanks and reverence for how He sees us through so many giant obstacles such as Covid-19, and in history as well. And He cares about even the little things in our lives. It is a privilege to pass this down to our children.

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