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Let Us Give Thanks: The Example of Jesus

By April Westbrook

Dr. April Westbrook is associate professor of Old Testament at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, California. She has earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in biblical studies, as well as a Ph.D. in religion, specializing in the Old Testament. April is an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God and has served the body of Christ for over 25 years in both the local church and in the academic community.

Thanksgiving — what a great holiday! What could be better than gathering together with loved ones over a delicious meal to celebrate God's goodness? This year, however, as I've been thinking about giving thanks, the joy of the season is overshadowed by darker realities that have become all too common in my own life and in the lives of those I love. Good and faithful people are losing their jobs and their homes. Some are enduring physical suffering for which there is no apparent solution. Family, work, and church relationships are strained to the breaking point. Leaders are struggling to discern God's direction in the midst of such challenges, often wondering how they themselves will get up and face another day, let alone encouraging others to do the same with any sense of credibility or effectiveness.

As the realities of community life in an economic downturn become up close and personal, it has pressed me to go back again to the Word in hopes of finding something fresh in my own understanding of this idea of "giving thanks." Though past experience has usually led me to Paul's letters to the churches, this year I was struck by an irony in my own spiritual journey. In all my time as a Christ-follower, I had never stopped to consider Jesus' personal experience of giving thanks.

With this in mind, I returned to the Gospels fully expecting to find Jesus giving thanks everywhere and at all times, like a good Christian should. Imagine my shock in discovering that the Gospel writers actually included very few occasions where they specifically describe Jesus giving thanks. As a self-proclaimed recovering perfectionist (with inevitably judgmental tendencies), my initial reaction to this situation was to be completely dumbfounded. Could it be possible that Jesus was unconcerned with the vital spiritual discipline of giving thanks in everything?

Curiosity pressed me forward, however, and as I reflected further on the few stories in which Jesus did give thanks, something became clear. The description of Jesus' life in the Gospels is far more concerned with how Jesus gave thanks, rather than how often Jesus gave thanks. Jesus probably did give thanks quite a lot, but by focusing on a few specific occasions in which to mention this point, the Gospels help us to see His understanding of the act of thanksgiving. If we can grasp this understanding, then we can better follow His example.

He gives thanks for basic, simple, and sometimes apparently inadequate resources, not out of fear and insecurity, but out of knowing who He is, having confidence in relationship with the Father.

And so, how did Jesus give thanks? In these related stories of Jesus, a pattern repeatedly occurs. Jesus first gives thanks for things that seem simple, but then these simple things turn out to be connected in some way with supernatural outcomes — outcomes that are always related to God's clear intention to give life in some way.

On two of these occasions, Jesus gives thanks for the most basic of food items, fish and bread, and then proceeds to feed masses of people with impossibly tiny resources (Matthew 14:13-21; 15:32-38). These occasions are surrounded by repeated accounts of Jesus enabling the disabled — all kinds of people in all kinds of circumstances. In the midst of these miracles, Jesus explains that He, himself, is the Bread of Life (John 6:33,35,51). That is, He is always the ultimate life-giving resource, even if the specific way in which that will work out in real time is not immediately apparent to those involved.

In response to Jesus' profound words and actions, His disciples celebrate the initial miracle, and then experience immediate panic when the next difficulty hits, quickly forgetting what Jesus had just done and said. At the same time, the Pharisees respond with contempt because Jesus did not do things the way they thought a Messiah should. How dare He provide life supernaturally without following their tradition of godly behavior? Clearly, no one is grasping what Jesus wanted to help them learn the first time, so with His typical grace and patience, Jesus does the whole thing a second time, once more giving thanks as He initiates the repeat performance of feeding the masses with a small meal, underscoring the fact the He, himself, is the Bread of Life.

On another occasion, Jesus again gives thanks for basic food — this time at a Passover dinner (Mark 14:22,23). Once again, a spiritual truth is given in association with His thanksgiving as Jesus proceeds to describe the simple food items as symbols of what He, the Giver of Life, is about to do on the Cross. Through His broken body and shed blood, He will rescue masses of people from spiritual death through the sacrifice of His own life. Here again, Jesus gives thanks for something that appears small at first, but ends up being far more than it seems — this time with the ultimate result being the fullness of life-giving power in every sense. Jesus gives thanks, both for the simple, natural food at the Passover table and for the indescribably magnificent greater reality that it represents.

The point is remembered again when the disciples on the road to Emmaus finally recognize their risen Lord only after He gives thanks for simple food and hands it to them (Luke 24:13-16, 30,31). It is a precious reminder of His life-giving presence that is sufficient for every aspect of their lives, including the experience of death itself which He has just conquered.

This is, of course, not the only occasion in which Jesus gives thanks in association with resurrection events. Before Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, He gives thanks (John 11:41,42). He wants the people who are in desperate need of life, both physically and spiritually, to recognize Him as the Giver of Life through the miracle of raising Lazarus. In order to be heard and known, Jesus gives thanks aloud, declaring that the Father hears Him as He stands before the tomb of His friend and, indeed, the Father always hears Him. Within this intentionally explained context of divine relationship and thanksgiving for that relationship, Jesus calls Lazarus forth into miraculous new life.

In turn, we can give thanks because we know who He is and who we are in relationship with Him.

And so, Jesus gives thanks. He gives thanks for basic, simple, and sometimes apparently inadequate resources, not out of fear and insecurity, but out of knowing who He is, having confidence in relationship with the Father. He does not give thanks with the attitude of, "Well, I'd better be grateful for the little bit I have here or God might take even that away." He does not give thanks in the sense of, "I'll make myself give thanks because that's what we're supposed to do regardless of the circumstances." He does not even give thanks as some kind of magical formula that will manipulate the situation into a better outcome, saying, "If I give thanks for this small piece of bread the right way, then something miraculous will have to happen and I can get out of this mess."

No, Jesus gives thanks from an essential understanding of who He is, and because He wants others to know Him, too. In turn, we can give thanks because we know who He is and who we are in relationship with Him. He is the Giver and Sustainer of Life, even if we cannot see how in the immediate circumstances. We can give thanks for the small and laughably (or sorrowfully) inadequate resources in our hands because they just might be the very means He uses to do something supernatural — either to meet the present and pressing physical need in a tangible way, or to remind us yet again that His own sacrificial brokenness will always be more than enough to rescue us from the painful reality of our own broken lives.

Even more so, we can give thanks because we know that He is the Risen Lord and, as such, is without doubt our great hope. Death itself in all of its vile forms is no match for His life-giving power, and He wants to give us life in ways we cannot imagine. Yes, we can even give thanks out loud in the face of apparent impossibility because we know He always hears us, and others will also hear and may discover Him through His visible life-giving presence in us.

And so, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves this season, let us boldly take up the Bread of Life with both hands. Let us feast richly on the One who gives life, and, together, let us give thanks because of who He is!

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