What more can a preacher say on the Sunday before Thanksgiving Day than that? What application might they offer other than the obvious—be more thankful! How can the Thanksgiving sermon not sound redundant on the one hand nor come off like a reprimand on the other?
Six Years of Searching
For the six years I served as a solo then senior pastor, I found the sermon for the Sunday before Thanksgiving to be the most difficult of all holiday sermons to prepare. The primary reason should be obvious. Thanksgiving, as we know it, is an American holiday. Unlike Christmas and Easter that are tied directly to Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection and all the passages of Scripture pertaining thereto, the fourth Thursday in November has no direct ties to any biblical event or text.
The holiday wasn’t even permanently affixed to November’s fourth Thursday until Congress passed a law declaring it so on December 26, 1941. (Note the date. Less than three weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Amid all the clamor and uncertainty of a world war, our nation’s leaders took the time to reflect upon our national blessings and to establish a single date when all of her peoples should pause to offer thanks. There’s surely a sermon in there somewhere!)
Less obvious to the white middle-class congregations I served, Thanksgiving Day is an offense to many Native Americans. On that date every year they are again reminded of their peoples’ near genocide. How is a preacher supposed to develop a sermon that will prepare people to celebrate a holiday that recalls a painful past to so many?
It would’ve been too easy, and not really appropriate, to spend that Sunday preaching against the rank materialism of “Black Friday.” But who wants to hear that harangue? Besides, any small business owners who happened to attend the service that morning would’ve been well within their rights to have reminded me afterwards that they depend on post-Thanksgiving sales to keep their businesses afloat, to feed and clothe their children, and to support the works of the church.
I don’t recall now, to my shame, that I ever thought to mention the pain that Thanksgiving causes the Native American, nor the stress it creates for the people who clean up their homes and prepare the meals we enjoy that day, or the hourly employees forced to take orders, stock shelves, or ring up sales throughout that stressful holiday weekend.
Instead, like so many preachers, I turned to the Psalms for prayers of thanksgiving that I might expound, revisited what Jesus said about gratitude and a demonstrated lack thereof in Luke 17:7-19, and challenged my hearers to be more like Mary and less like Martha from Luke 10:38-42. Those sermons were okay, I suppose, but are probably remembered by no one but me. Even I am unsure if I preached that last one the Sunday before Thanksgiving or on another occasion! Worse, none of those sermons seemed to inspire much gratitude in anyone, least of all me.
My Most Recent Discovery
More than once I’ve heard ex-major leaguer Alex Rodriguez quote his former manager Joe Torre when offering commentary on a baseball game and talking about a batter’s struggles at the plate. Torre would say, “Think small, and big things will happen.” By that he meant the way out of a hitting funk was for the batter not to try and do too much. Instead, the player should concentrate on the little things like hitting behind the runner, hitting to the opposite field, and hitting a fly ball to the outfield if it would bring in a runner from third base with less than two outs. Paying attention to those small things would lead to big wins.
A few years ago, I discovered that Torre’s wisdom holds as true for struggling preachers as it does for struggling batters. I had been invited to fill the pulpit at a Sunday night gathering. I decided to focus my sermon on just one small, simple thing that most of us take for granted but for which we should be deeply grateful. I felt that if I could arouse my hearers’ gratitude for that one thing, it might help them to realize how much more they had to be thankful for. What was that one thing I chose? It’s something the Bible actually says a great deal about: water.
See below for the sparse outline from which I preached that evening. I’m sharing it with you without any embellishment or editing. My sermons are usually far more polished than this one, but I felt like this outline was enough for that occasion.
You’ll notice that I didn’t bring up the subject of water until near the end. Even then, I used it only as an example. But I spent a significant amount of time talking about how precious water is to those who lack ready access to it. I also projected a couple graphics onto a nearby screen to drive home my statistics.
By way of application, I asked my hearers to think throughout the upcoming week about what a blessing it is to have access to fresh water each time they turned on the tap. Practicing what I preached, I did it myself. Soon, I was thanking God for that water. To this day, there’ll be mornings when I’m standing at the shower door waiting for the water to warm up that I’ll feel that spring of gratitude welling up inside my heart again as I consider that blessing.
Thinking back on that sermon now, I shouldn’t have been surprised by its effect—at least in my own heart, if no one else’s. The Bible repeatedly makes much of small, simple things. In Proverbs, Solomon found great wisdom in ants, locusts, conies, and spiders. In the Gospels, Jesus taught profound truths drawn from farmers sowing, people fishing, and children playing. As I observed in my sermon’s outline, our Lord appreciated small things like a little boy’s meager lunch and a widow’s final coins. In 1 Corinthians 1:26-28, Paul points to each of us as illustrations that God delights especially in the foolish, weak, lowly, and despised.
If I may combine what Joe Torre told his team with what Jesus says in Luke 16:10, my point is this: “He that is grateful for little is also grateful for much.” If we can’t be thankful for the small, simple things in life, why should we be surprised that it’s hard for us to be thankful for the so-called big things?
Small Thinking Is Concrete Thinking
One of the reasons I struggled to prepare a sermon for Thanksgiving throughout my pastoral career is because I was thinking too big. I was thinking about how much all of us have to be thankful for. That thinking was too abstract.
I now believe that one solution for a preacher struggling to come up with a Thanksgiving sermon that will inspire true gratitude is to think small. Small thinking is concrete thinking. Seeing that one small, simple thing and realizing what a blessing it truly is can inspire real, spontaneous gratitude.
To carry this one step further, a preacher looking for Thanksgiving sermon ideas might consider which attributes of God are easily taken for granted. Is it his omniscience? Then why not preach a sermon from Genesis 16 on the God who sees me? Is it his providence? Then why not a message from Genesis 22 on the God who provides?
Lead your hearers to think small, to thank small, and big thanks just may happen.
Sample Thanksgiving Day Sermon Outline: Gifts, Both Expensive and Precious
Opening Illustration: On note cards write: "Expensive" / "Cost the Most" on one side; "Precious" / "Mean the Most" on the other (Ask if 2-3 volunteers would like to talk about one of their most precious gifts.)
Expensive: Car, College Education, Treadmill Precious: Comb, Air Pump, Beth's Card
Some Gifts Are Expensive
Jesus, during his lifetime on earth, received some expensive gifts.
Gold, frankincense, myrrh (from the wise men - Matt. 2:11). Jesus was born into a relatively poor family (Luke 2:22-24). The wise men's gifts may have financed their flight to Egypt or, later, Jesus' education. Costly perfume (twice - from a sinful woman, from Mary of Bethany [Matt. 26:1-16; Mark 14:1-11; Luke 7:37-50; John 12:1ff.] John 12:5 - Judas estimates the ointment to be worth 300 pence, ca. what a working man would earn in one year). A nice robe (John 19:23-24 from a nameless benefactor [nice enough that the Roman soldiers preferred to gamble for it rather than rip it into pieces]).
Some Gifts Are Precious
Jesus, during his lifetime on earth, received some precious gifts.
The simple trust of a working man (Matt. 8:10; Luke 7:9 - "I have not seen such faith in all of Israel"). A small boy's lunch (John 6:1-14 - 5 barley loaves and 2 fish). The widow's two mites (Mark 12:42 - 2 mites were equal to one farthing, a farthing was equal to 1/64 of a day's wage [e.g., 1/64 of $128 is only $2]).
Big Idea: A thing's value is often disproportionate to its cost. Some expensive things can be worth little; and some inexpensive things can be worth a lot.
To be mindful of and grateful for God's "small" blessings. (Illustration: water) Nearly 1 billion people lack access to safe water. That’s more than 3 times the number of people who live in the United States Women spend 200 million hours a day collecting water around the world. Every 20 seconds, a child dies from a water-related illness. Lack of access to clean water and sanitation kills children at a rate equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing every four hours. Not to allow the self-perceived smallness of your gift to keep you from giving. (Illustration--Little Drummer Boy)
(Additional Point for an Audience with Unsaved Members)
A Few Select Gifts Are Both Expensive and Precious
Our salvation is such a gift.
Salvation, i.e., God's forgiveness, has always been expensive. A spotless lamb (OT lamb; Jesus) A sacrificial death (OT lamb; Jesus) Salvation is precious. Paul counted all else but "dung" when compared to knowing Christ the Savior Paul wrote "Thanks be unto God for His unspeakable gift" (2 Cor. 9:15)
Gregory Hollifield is the Associate Dean at Memphis College of Urban and Theological Studies at Union University and Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society.