Posted by: Johnold Strey | November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving Sermon on Philippians 4:10-20 (2011)


  1. Thanks in all circumstances
  2. Gratitude for all gifts

Text: Philippians 4:10-20


Finish this sentence: “It wouldn’t be a ‘real’ Thanksgiving without ___.”  For the first 25 years of my life, I would have said, “It wouldn’t be a ‘real’ Thanksgiving without going over to Aunt Jane’s house for dinner and then playing Royal Rummy with my mom’s side of the family.”  How about you?  “It wouldn’t be a ‘real’ Thanksgiving without ___.”  Dinner at Grandma’s house…turkey with all the fixings…that special side dish that mom makes every year for Thanksgiving…playing card games with the cousins after the meal…or something else?  Many of us have family traditions attached to our personal Thanksgiving celebrations, things we assumed will take place when we gather together to celebrate Thanksgiving Day.  The holidays just wouldn’t feel the same without those cherished traditions we have become accustomed to.

A liturgically-leaning Lutheran liturgist is the last person who is going to tell you to ditch your Thanksgiving family traditions.  Traditions and rituals are ways that we express significance and value when words seem insufficient to make that statement.  But what would happen if your Thanksgiving celebration took place without the usual hoopla?  No traditions, no turkey and trimmings, no tummies filled with delicious delicacies and desserts.  Could you still have a real thanksgiving celebration?  Our gut reaction might be to say, “No,” but our faith assures us that the answer is otherwise.  In fact, you could be standing in the unemployment line, not knowing where the next paycheck is coming from, and consuming nothing more than tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for Thanksgiving dinner, and yet you could still have a more joyous Thanksgiving celebration than the family next door who has more food than they know what to do with.

In this Thanksgiving sermon, we’re going to focus on the words St. Paul recorded in the First Scripture selection read earlier in the service.  Paul’s words will teach us that real thanksgiving is not attached to a meal or a family gathering.  Paul teaches us that real thanksgiving involves thanks in all circumstances, and giving with all gratitude. 


As joyful a day as Thanksgiving is meant to be, reality often gets in the way of that joy.  The economy is lousy and mom or dad are unemployed.  Health takes a turn for the worse and adds a burden to every day, and Thanksgiving is no exception.  Reality sometimes dampens joy.

The apostle Paul was in a similar situation.  His circumstances were pretty lousy.  He wrote this letter while under house arrest in Rome.  This world-traveling missionary was kept from preaching the gospel because he got in trouble for preaching the gospel.  He did have some degree of freedom; he was not in solitary confinement, people could visit him, and his eventual release seemed reasonably likely.  But this was hardly the situation that would fill a person with joy and gratitude.  And this was hardly the situation where you would expect someone to write these words: “I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

Saint Paul’s brief autobiography tells us that he lived through all kinds of circumstances.  He knew how poverty and persecution could humble him, and he knew what it was like to have more food on the table than he knew what to do with.  That experience taught him a secret.  “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.”  The word “secret” that he used here was sometimes used as a technical term to describe people who had been gone through the initiation rites of a pagan religion.  After that experience, they supposedly learned special insider knowledge that was available only to people in that cult.  Paul used that word, “secret,” and put a Christian meaning on it.  No other religion and no other philosophy could teach anyone the “secret” of being content no matter what the circumstances.  But Christianity could teach that secret.  Paul had gained that special, Christian “insider knowledge” because, as he said, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

We need to be careful that we understand what Paul actually meant with that statement.  He didn’t mean that he could literally do anything and everything he wanted—otherwise he wouldn’t have been under arrest.  We can capture his intended meaning a little more clearly this way: “I can endure everything through him who gives me strength.”  Paul had come to know and believe and proclaim the good news that Jesus Christ came to save helpless, hell-bound sinners like him.  Paul knew how the message of grace and forgiveness through faith in Jesus filled his heart with spiritual strength and confidence that you can’t find anywhere else.  He knew that in Jesus he stood right with God and ready for eternity.  And that reality—a reality that only belongs to those who trust in Jesus as their Savior from sin—enabled Paul to be thankful in all circumstances.

The other morning I stopped by one of the local Starbucks and happened to catch an article about the “Occupy Wall Street” protests that are happening around the country.  We can rightly disagree about political philosophies, and the church has no business trading the gospel message in for a political message.  But I couldn’t help reading about these protests and thinking to myself, “How can any American complain about the wealthy when the average American is wealthy by the standards of this world?  How can any of us complain when we have so much?—maybe not as much as the guy down the street, but certainly much when compared to everyone who occupies this world.

Then again, is it just political protesters who need an attitude adjustment?  Is there a soul among us here who doesn’t gripe and moan and whine and complain about something?  We gripe about the SMUD bill when we should be glad for heat and electricity.  We gripe about unexpected car repairs when we could be grateful that there are two vehicles sitting in our driveway.  We gripe about unreasonable people in our homes and offices when our own attitudes may be a good part of the reason why they seem so unreasonable around us.  We gripe that we don’t have what we want, when his Word tells us, “[God] … did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).

With all our sinful lack of thankfulness, where will we find the secret that leads to thanks in all circumstances?  Remember what Paul said in our reading: “I can do (or endure) everything through him who gives me strength.”  We find continual spiritual strength through the same person who continued to strengthen Paul throughout his life—the Lord Jesus Christ.  Jesus’ self-sacrificing work to rescue us from the hellish consequences of our sinful ingratitude is more than enough to fill our hearts with real thanksgiving!  For Jesus never griped about his God-given mission, but he went forward resolutely to the cross where he paid for every last one of our sins and failures, even our sins of selfish ingratitude and ungratefulness.  And Jesus continually strengthens your soul as he fills you up, not with a Thanksgiving feast, but with his generous grace, his forgiveness that knows no limits or bounds.  If you want a real Thanksgiving celebration, if you desire to be thankful in all circumstances, then fill your heart with the rich soul-food Jesus gives you in his Word and Sacraments, and feast on his never-ending grace!


Saint Paul was certainly grateful to God for the blessings of salvation that he had through faith in Jesus.  But our reading also contains a statement of Paul’s gratitude for blessings that he had received from his readers, the Christians in the ancient city of Philippi who received this letter.  Listen as Paul describes their gift to him, and his gratitude for their gift.  “It was good of you to share in my troubles.  Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need.”

Paul’s readers had a fine track record of supporting his ministry.  The Philippians sent Paul support twice in the past when he was carrying out mission work in the city of Thessalonica.  Now they had just sent him another gift while he was under house arrest—and they probably would have sent him something earlier had circumstances not prevented them from sending support sooner.

This discussion about special gifts might leave someone with the impression that Paul was just fishing for more from his readers.  So Paul clears up any potential confusion at the end of our reading.  He says, “Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account.  I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent.  They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.” 

The reason Paul talked about their gifts to him was not to get more from them, but to give proper recognition to them.  Paul was grateful for the gifts they sent through their messenger, Epaphroditus, and Paul wanted them to receive proper recognition as a way to express his gratitude.  But he was also grateful because these gifts came from hearts of faith, and that made their gifts pleasing to God.

When you read through a New Testament book written by Saint Paul, you can’t help but notice that he takes everything back to Jesus.  It seems that he can’t go more than a few verses without taking matters back to Christ.  And that’s what he does here to express his thanks to the Philippians for their gift.  He takes matters back to the greatest gift that they had in Jesus.  “And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.  To our God and Father be glory forever and ever.  Amen.”  The Philippians’ gifts to Paul were generous and wonderful, but no earthly gift can match the generous spiritual riches that belong to those who trust in Jesus Christ.  The real reason Paul could praise God and thank his readers was because he had been richly blessed to be a believer in Jesus and a child of God the Father.

Are your mealtime prayers on Thanksgiving Day a little awkward?  It seems like our standard table prayers should be set aside on a day like Thanksgiving.  Everyone defers to dad to lead the prayer; after all, he’s the head of the household, so he has to do it.  And suddenly dad’s mind goes blank.  “Okay everyone, let’s fold our hands and pray.  Ahh, dear Lord, we, um, we thank you for the food you’ve given us for this meal.  We thank you, um, for our family whose all gathered here.  And, um, we thank you for the food, and – oh! – also for our friends who have come to be with us today, and we thank you for the food and for everything else.  Amen.”  Sometimes it seems like all we can muster up thanks for starts with the letter “F” – food, family, friends…and maybe football.

Are those the only gifts we have to be grateful for?  Perhaps we need to be encouraged to think like the apostle Paul, who knew that real thanksgiving was only possible because of the spiritual gifts God had given him—gifts that God has also given you!  We have so many more gifts for which to be grateful—not just food, family, and friends.  And, ironically, these gifts also start with the letter “F.” For you have the God-given faith that Jesus Christ came into this world to live the perfect life in your place that now counts as your perfection before God the Father.  That faith in Jesus gives you the forgiveness of your sins which he secured by shedding his blood for you on the cross.  And that faith also assures you of your heavenly future made possible when Jesus defeated your grave by his resurrection.  And all of these truths assure you that you have freedom from fear in this life or in the life to come, for God has made you his own in baptism and keeps you his own through his Word and nourishes you through his Supper.


As the choir practiced its anthem (“Sing to the Lord of Harvest”) during last week’s rehearsal, it struck me how the last stanza brought all our thanksgiving back to Jesus.  After two stanzas that talked about our earthly blessings, the song concluded, “And with your lives adore him, who gave his life for all.”  Without even citing the name Jesus, the song’s ending took us back to Jesus.  If you want to have a real thanksgiving celebration tomorrow/today, remember to let all of your thanksgiving take you back to Jesus.  Whether your Thanksgiving meal is a full-fledged feast or a turkey sandwich, you have every reason for real thanksgiving when your faith is focused on the One who gave his life for all and for you.  With that knowledge in your heart, may you have a real, happy, and blessed Thanksgiving!  Amen.



  1. I liked the sermon. Yes, without Jesus thanksgiiving is bogus.


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