Following His Footsteps: “The First Thanksgiving” – Luke 2

thanksgiving-q-a-turkey-500Our nation, despite attempts by more modern historians to suggest otherwise, has a long history of offering thanks to the God of the Bible. In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the “first Thanksgiving” celebrations in the colonies. For over two centuries, days of thanksgiving appear to have been celebrated by individual colonies and nascent states, but it wasn’t until 1863, amid the Civil War, the weighted President Abraham Lincoln looked at his broken country and proclaimed a national “Thanksgiving Day” to be held each November. It is an increasingly uncomfortable part of our history to the modern secularist – but it endures in the American landscape.

Yet, I would suggest the first thanksgiving in the Bible was not a day of national celebration, but a story of seven people, tied together in a story of celebration of thanks in the face of the news of the birth of the Savior. Yes, the first Christmas was actually the setting of the “first thanksgiving”. I am not suggesting no one had ever been thankful before. What I am suggesting is the record of the birth of Jesus was the first structured attempt in the Bible to reflect on a uniform response to God’s hand at work in the redemption of the world. Luke is the first author that placed into systematic writing a treatise of thanksgiving – as he reflected on how each person came to recognize what God was doing.

In our last study, we attempted to delve into the Joseph story found in Matthew’s Gospel. We noted that both Matthew and Luke recorded genealogies, but after that they seemed very different in their perspectives on the “Pre-ministry” they disclosed:

• Matthew focused on how God directed Joseph.
• Luke focused more on thankful responses to the wondrous message that God sent Messiah.

Here is the question we are posing to the text of Luke today: “What does the Scripture tell us was the proper response to the coming of Messiah?” The answer is at the heart of our lesson…

Principle: The proper response to the Good News of Messiah is thanksgiving and praise, filled with JOY!

Look at the players that are mentioned in Luke and note their responses to the revelation that Messiah was finally coming to the world:

1. Elizabeth (1:41-43; 45) – representing the longing women of the Jewish world!

Most every woman in the ancient world desired to bear children – because it was the single act that gave them universally understood significance. In some cases in Scripture, as with Leah of old, it was a way to keep a husband’s favor. The telling reality of how deeply this was felt is expressed in the woeful weeping of Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel, before her womb was opened. Elizabeth was clearly among the women who felt “shamed” by her barren state, and because jubilant at the news that God remembered her tears and cries. Six months into her pregnancy, Elizabeth was visited by her cousin, Mary – who was also pregnant. This is the familiar exchange:

Luke 1:41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed [are] you among women, and blessed [is] the fruit of your womb! 43 “And how has it [happened] to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? …45 “And blessed [is] she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.”

Elizabeth exclaimed words of praise immediately when she saw Mary. They were LOUD praises, according to Luke! She called Mary “blessed”, she called the baby inside Mary “blessed” and then made the humblest of remarks. She asked: “Why would someone as important as the mother of my Lord come for a visit to my little home?” Yet her final words were the most significant and encouraging: 45 “And blessed [is] she who believed…” The pregnancy happened TO Mary, but the belief was her choice.

One of the aspects of the JOY of the news that Messiah has come is the continual celebration that reminds a culture and a nation that many have believed, and in believing they found life! We must admit that even that truth is quickly becoming a battle for the soul of our nation. I heard from another preacher friend some time ago:

A school teacher in the Midwest was told to remove her “Jesus is the reason for the season” pin when she entered the public school where she taught. She refused and was brought to the school principal, her immediate supervisor. According to her handbook she had the right to speak to the school board at their regularly scheduled meeting in the even that disciplinary measures were pending – and she opted to do so. Before the school board she asked: “What was offensive about the pin?” A school board member said: “This violates the establishment of religion clause of the Constitution – because we are a state-sponsored public institution in a pluralistic country.

• The teacher replied: “When, last Autumn, I wore a statement by a Christian minister – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.- concerning the inalienable rights of all men given by God for the whole month of black history, no one complained I was promoting Baptist causes.

• When in the winter I wore on a pin the words of Mother Teresa concerning the call to truly care for the hurting, no one complained that I was promoting Catholicism.

• When I wore for a whole month the words of Mahatma Gandhi “about peace within shown by peace without”, no one thought that I was promoting Hinduism.

Why is the simple fact that my pin states that we celebrate a winter holiday in our culture because of the birth of the baby Jesus now considered “an establishment of religion”? Since we teach our students each November that Pilgrims first arrived to allow the free practice of their Christian faith, why is Jesus singled out to be dismissed from public view? The board dismissed her from the meeting with an apology, and she kept the pin on for the duration of the Christmas season.

The modern push to change the memory of our nation belies the truth of why we are here and how we got to be what God made us to become. We have been blessed, and the practice of joyful celebration over the coming of Jesus is one of the opportunities we have to show our faith as tender, human and compassionate. It is a time we can pronounce the goodness of God – not leaving broken man in darkness. Our remembrances of Jesus’ birth offer a positive and reinforcing practice that helps us keep our faith in the public eye in America. It is for that reason the observation has come under attack; and it is for that reason we must joyfully and lovingly keep that engagement going!

2. Baby John (1:44) – representing all unconscious creation!

In that same visit scene, I skipped over the baby John’s little tumble in the womb of Elizabeth:

Luke 1:44 “For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy.

I see two important applications here, and I hope I am not drifting too far from the text:

• First, am I stretching the point to say that the coming of Jesus also affects the REST of creation? Consider the words of the Apostle Paul to the Roman believers:

Romans 8:18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. 23 And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for [our] adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.

The baby in the manger was the invasion of God from the spiritual world into the physical world. It was part of the battle plan to regain that which was stolen away… but it isn’t completed yet. God is taking back His world, but the full redemption of it hasn’t happened until He calls for an end to the fight. Those who walk in rebellion look strong in this hour – but they are not equal to His mighty hand. His great patience with men make them think He is unable to silence them – but they are wrong. Creation waits for the completion of redemption, and John’s little partially formed body could not hold back from joining the chorus of excitement on behalf of all creation!

• Second, not to press the point too far – but is it not ironically true in our day that those who truly believe in Jesus as their Savior represent some of the most ardent advocates for an unborn baby who is yet in the womb?

A literal approach to the Bible yields the sense that God is at work in a child before the time of their delivery and self-sustained life on the planet. The very breath of God is within them as living beings, and God has therefore given them intrinsic worth. I*t is for this reason that believers are so ardently PRO-LIFE. The fact that our GOD became a baby, and was delivered into our world by the means all of us came into it, makes our story unique and compelling – but it also reminds that even the birth process is a created and God-ordained action.

If all creation awaits final redemption, if the fallen and broken systems of this world are anticipating the time when they will be fully free of the effects of the “Fall of mankind”, should we not JOYFULLY and THANKFULLY celebrate the reality that Jesus was sent here to save mankind? Must we not press to keep that celebration at the fore of our calendar?

3. Zacharias (1:67-70) – representing the doubting but now convinced!

We noted in the previous two lessons some thoughts about Zacharias, but it is worth mentioning his role here, because Luke does:

Luke 1:67 And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying: 68 “Blessed [be] the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, 69 And has raised up a horn of salvation for us In the house of David His servant—70 As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old…

The celebration of God’s goodness at the Advent Season is a renewal that God kept His promises delivered through the prophets. Skeptics attack, but many thinking skeptics are changed by what they see, both in the study of the Scriptures AND in the testimony of those who uphold the truth of the Word! Sir William Ramsey sought to prove Luke an inaccurate historian and ended his days in defense of the Gospel. The sheer weight of the archaeological evidence and geographical detail convinced him. Yet, for Lee Stroebel, it took watching other believers and the way they remembered Christmas.

Lee, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and a self-professed atheist was sitting at his desk on Christmas Eve. A slow news day he found himself reminiscing about the Delgado family that he had featured while writing a series of articles about Chicago’s neediest people a few days earlier. The Delgado’s were comprised of a grandmother named Perfecta and her two granddaughters, Jenny age 13 and her sister Lydia 11 years old. He remembered how unprepared he was when he walked into their two room apartment on the west side of Chicago for the interview; bare halls and bare walls, no furniture, no rugs, nothing but a kitchen table and a handful of rice in the cupboards. He learned during the interview that Jenny and Lydia only had one short-sleeved dress apiece, plus a thin gray sweater that they shared. On cold days when the girls walked the half-mile to school, one of the girls would start with the sweater and then give it to the other at the halfway mark. It was all they had. Perfecta wanted more for her granddaughters and would gladly have worked, but her severe arthritis and age made work too difficult and painful. Since it was a slow news day Lee decided to check out a car and drive to Chicago’s west side to check up on the Delgado’s. When Jenny opened the door he couldn’t believe what he saw! His article on the Delgado’s had touched the hearts of many subscribers who responded with furniture and appliances, rugs, dozens of coats, scarves and gloves. The girls wouldn’t have to share a sweater any longer. There was cartons and cartons and boxes of food everywhere. They had so much food that the cupboards and closets couldn’t contain it. Someone had even donated a Christmas tree, and under it were mounds of presents and thousands of dollars in cash! Lee was astonished! But what astonished him the most was what he found Perfecta and her granddaughters doing. They were preparing to give most of it away. “Why would you give so much of this away?” Lee asked. Perfecta responded, “Our neighbors are still in need. We cannot have plenty while they have nothing. This is what Jesus would want us to do.” Lee was dumbfounded. After regaining his composure he asked Perfecta another question. He wanted to know what she and the girls thought about the generosity that was shown to them. Again, Lee was not prepared for the answer. She said, “This is wonderful, this is very good.” “We did nothing to deserve this; it’s all a gift from God. But,” she added, “It is not his greatest gift, Lee. No, we celebrate that tomorrow. Jesus.” Lee was speechless as he drove back to the office. In the quiet of his car he noted a couple of observations. He had plenty and along with it plenty of anxiety, while the Delgado’s despite their poverty had peace. Lee had everything and yet wanted more, but the Delgado’s had nothing and yet knew generosity. Lee had everything and yet his life was as bare as the Delgado’s apartment prior to the article running. And yet the Delgado’s who had nothing were filled with hope, contentment and had a spiritual certainty. Even though Lee had so much more than the Delgado’s, he longed for what they had in their poverty. (From a sermon central illustrations quote by Bryan Fink “Christmas is for all the Lees/Leighs of the World” 12/25/2008)

4. Mary (2:10) – representing those to whom God has made a personal promise – and then delivered EXACTLY as He said!

Mary’s story is so well known, we need only touch it here:

Luke 2:1 Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. … 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn…17 When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.

The memory was hard. Mary wasn’t accepted by the whole family, and gave birth in the room at the rear of the cave in the three-room cave style home. She listened to the shepherds, and she pondered what God was doing. She would suffer the pain of loss later, but for now she could lay quietly and drift along between thought and sleep… Did not God do exactly as He promised? Yet, in the days to come, the world would make that gift about their own gifts, and that day about everything BUT the Savior that came to rescue a lost mankind.

We shouldn’t be surprised… that is what the world does when God shows Himself through the lives of men and women – they shift the subject!

“Valentinus was the name of a young man who lived in Rome during reign of Claudius II (Gothicus) during the third century, when Christians were being persecuted. Though Valentinus did not claim to be a Christian himself, he was instrumental in helping early believers. For that he was imprisoned. From that dank holding cell he surrendered his heart to Jesus Christ and was later condemned to death. He was beaten with clubs, stoned and finally beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate (near modern Piazza del Popolo) on February 14, 269 CE. After his death, this gate was known as Porta Valentini, but that name faded into history. While he was in prison he sent messages to his friends saying, “Remember your Valentine!” and “I love you.”

Can you imagine the story moving from God’s “agape” love from a believer to “eros” and modern Hallmark cards for lovers? Of course you can. It is what people do with the testimony the church doesn’t insist is kept alive in our culture!

Here is the truth: If believers don’t hold on to the truths of the events of our faith – the world won’t do it for us. The USE our faith to make more products and get more wealth. Those who know what God said must make a priority out of keeping the truths of God’s Word a part of our celebrations, and allow the world to observe how these things have changed us.

5. Shepherds (2:8-20) – representing a caring few!

We can all remember the shepherds and their involvement on that strange night:

Luke 2:8 In the same region there were [some] shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 “This [will be] a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” 15 When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds [began] saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.”…

Look at the way the Heavenly army framed the coming of the Savior. They offered a Savior, a sign and a song – and off they went. Did they go with anticipation and joy, or solemnity and sorrow? I think of the words of Charles Haddon Spurgeon:

It is joy to all nations that Christ is born, the Prince of Peace, the King who rules in righteousness…Beloved, the greatest joy is to those who know Christ as a Savior…The further you submit yourself to Christ the Lord, the more completely you know Him, the fuller will your happiness become. Surface joy is to those who live where the Savior is preached; but the great deeps, the great fathomless deeps of solemn joy which glisten and sparkle with delight, are for such as know the Savior, obey the Anointed One, and have communion with the Lord Himself…you will never know the fullness of the joy which Jesus brings to the soul, unless under the power of the Holy Spirit you take the Lord your Master to be your All in all, and make Him the fountain of your intensest delight.

6. Simeon (2:28) – representing anxious believing Israel!

On the eighth day, Jesus needed to be named and circumcised. Joseph and Mary took him to the Temple in Jerusalem, where He first shed His blood for the covenant with Abraham.

Luke 2:21 And when eight days had passed, before His circumcision, His name was [then] called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. … 25 And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to carry out for Him the custom of the Law, 28 then he took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said, 29 “Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, According to Your word; 30 For my eyes have seen Your salvation, 31 Which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 A LIGHT OF REVELATION TO THE GENTILES, And the glory of Your people Israel.” 33 And His father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about Him. 34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this [Child] is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed—35 and a sword will pierce even your own soul– to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.

Imagine standing on the south porch of the Temple that day! You moved into the line at the Mikveh (the ritual bath) and emerged from its chamber with a ticket that said “cleansed”. You made your way into the Hulda gates, your ears catching portions of the crowds singing as they entered the Temple of the Lord. Up the stairs you climbed, and onto the open space of the Gentile court. You turned back, and the crowd was gathering around an old man who was prophesying. He was proclaiming that what God said in the PAST WAS COMING TRUE and what God was promising for the future would also be upon them people in the days to come. The celebration of Messiah’s coming was seasoned throughout with people who proclaimed God’s faithfulness to His prophetic word!

In his book Science Speaks, Peter Stoner applied the modern study of probability to eight prophecies regarding Christ. He offered these words: “The chance that any man might have …fulfilled all eight prophecies is 1 in 10 to the 17th power. That would be 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000″ (one hundred quadrillion). Stoner suggested by way of illustration that “if we take 10 to the 17th power in number of silver dollars (which we could not do) and lay them on the face of Texas (which because of the value – we WOULD not do!)… they will cover all of the state two feet deep. If we were to mark one silver dollar and mix the mass thoroughly… and if we were to blindfold a man and tell him he can travel as far as he wishes, but he must pick up [that one marked silver dollar.] What chance would he have of getting the right one?” Stoner concludes, “Just the same chance that the prophets would have had of writing those eight prophecies and having them all come true in any one man,…providing they wrote them in their own wisdom.” – Peter Stoner, Science Speaks.

7. Anna (2:38) – representing the people God redirected!

If there was ever a case of God’s redirection, it was in the life of Anna. She learned a critical lesson: God may call upon you to reset your personal expectations to be of best use to His service:

Luke 2:36 “And there was a prophetess, Anna (shortened: Channah, or “Grace”) the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years and had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. 38 At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Anna was very old by the time we are introduced to her in the Word. She was widowed after a marriage that lasted only a brief seven years. Now eighty-four years old, Anna learned patience and dependence upon God. She fasted and prayed day and night, never leaving the Temple. She was not like most women of her time. She chose a different path. Instead of finding her identity in a second marriage and raising children – she heard God’s direction and went a different way than people expected. She chose to serve the Lord. Her expectations, probably the same as other women of her day, were dramatically altered by God’s superintending in her life. She learned to move through the terrible pain of losing her husband, relying on God to financially and emotionally meet the needs of her life.

The people who have encouraged me the most were the people who over the long haul of life have learned to drink from the well of satisfaction from the Lord even when their life circumstances were not ideal. Sixty-five years of waiting is incredible patience to wait for anything – much less a baby to mark the redemption. God is in no hurry! We will not experience instant depth, instant passion, instant deep praise. Genuine change of heart takes time. Genuine weaning of self-satisfaction to God’s purposes requires time and a painful transition as I leave the throne of my heart and He takes it.

What if Anna decided not to come in on Tuesdays because she was feeling lazy? What if she accommodated her feelings of disobedience and thought: I don’t feel like looking for the Messiah this morning – I will go in latert? The blessings of being obedient far outweigh the temporary satisfaction of placating my wants and desires.

Luke 2:38 At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Others are defined by their roles – Anna’s role was stripped from her and THEN God defined her real purpose. God used her in spite of being the definition of poor and hopeless. She was not forsaken, she was being set up to accomplish her life’s purpose!

One after another, the people of Luke’s account gave PRAISE to God for what He did in sending His Son! Can we not do the same?

In the midst of the moral collapse of our generation, can we not ask: “What happened to our JOY as believers?”

I recognize the need for sobriety in these days. I see the same news you do. Yet. GOD invaded the planet. His salvation is now freely available – regardless of my background and any of my past failings. I can KNOW GOD, I can WALK WITH GOD… and all of that happened because Jesus put on skin and took my place in the penalty of my rebellion.

He came to set men free! We can hang our long faces as much as we choose to – allowing the enemy to make those who have been set free weep like the world is still bound in chains… but it IS NOT! The Son has come to dispel the darkness, to break the chains, to lift the fallen, to crush the enemy. The Savior has become our Rescuer, and our lives need not be dominated by the momentary issues of the flesh. We CAN celebrate. We SHOULD celebrate. Our world will be nothing but dreary if those set free by Messiah succumb to living like they are still in chains. Truly, the proper response to the Good News of Messiah is thanksgiving and praise, filled with JOY!