Can an atheist celebrate Thanksgiving? Can an agnostic observe the Pilgrim feast? Many professed atheists and agnostics in America expect to do just that! Further, tens of thousands of people who say they believe in God will not include Him in their holiday plans. The very word Thanksgiving” implies someone to receive the thanks that is given. The Lord is that “someone”—yet He is often overlooked. Thanksgiving apart from God is like Christmas without the Christ. It is like beautiful wrapping paper on an empty gift box—of what value is it?

No, unless the Lord is at the center of our celebration, it is impossible to truly observe Thanksgiving.

Those early American pilgrims had a well-rooted understanding of giving thanks: they patterned their celebration after the biblical Festival of Tabernacles! Like the children of Israel, the pilgrims celebrated God’s goodness as well as the fact that He provides the harvest.

True thankfulness to God begins with who He is, not with what we have or hope to receive. “Oh, give thanks to the Lord for He is good!” (Psalm 107:1, emphasis supplied). Israel’s thanksgiving feast was not conditioned on a bountiful harvest. Through feast or famine, each year the people were to remember and thank God for His goodness. With the Feast of Tabernacles, even if the harvest was small, the people were reminded of how God delivered us from bondage in Egypt. You see, we can always thank God for something if we just take time to remember the good things He has done.

My pastor, Scott Rubin, exemplifies that kind of thankfulness. Twelve years ago, he received a heart transplant. The same medications that prevent his immune system from rejecting his heart have exacted a heavy toll on Scott’s body. He is in constant pain and is vulnerable to many illnesses. If that weren’t enough, last year Scott’s 14-year-old son Joshua had to undergo extensive surgery to remove tumors that had wrapped themselves around his spinal cord. Within months, Scott was also diagnosed with cancer. Just when you thought this family had used up their share of troubles, Joshua went into total heart failure. Doctors discovered that both he and his twin brother, Michael, have the same condition that led to Scott’s transplant. For two months, Joshua was hanging between life and death at Stanford Medical Center, awaiting a transplant. Praise God, Joshua received that transplant. But unless God performs a miracle, one day Michael will also need a heart transplant and the family will once again experience all the uncertainty and risk that go with it. Yet, with all the suffering the Rubins have endured, Pastor Scott stands in the pulpit, looks out over the congregation and with tears in his eyes he firmly and resolutely announces, “God is good.” No matter what the circumstances, Scott is determined to remember who God is.

How ungrateful the human heart can be! Have you ever noticed that forgetfulness, pride and ingratitude go hand in hand? We forget who we are (pride), we forget what God has done, and gratitude goes out the window! No wonder God instituted so many special days to remind my Jewish people of all He had done for us. And no wonder Jesus used one of those special days, Passover, to institute a way for His followers to remember the sacrifice He was about to make. They would need to remember and be thankful in the difficult days to come. Remembering the wonderful things God has done gives us confidence that His goodness to us continues, even (and perhaps especially) in the midst of the most painful circumstances.

Perhaps this year Thanksgiving isn’t coming at the happiest time in your life. It may even be a bitter reminder of the loss of a loved one. Remember, the pilgrims got off to a difficult start in this new land of America. They contended with famine and cold, sickness and death. Many people died in the first year of settlement. Amidst the joy of that first Thanksgiving, doubtless there was also sorrow as the absence of loved ones was keenly felt. Yet they also felt the newfound freedom from oppression, freedom to worship God and the opportunity to start a new life. They knew that God was to thank for this and so they acknowledged the good He had done despite their losses.

As Jews for Jesus enters our 25th year of ministry, we too feel sorrow over some of our losses—particularly a few former staff members who are not walking with the Lord. There are those whose absence we feel keenly. Moreover, as executive director, I face daily decisions and difficulties that occasionally threaten to overwhelm me. That is when I must recall all the good things God has done. I begin with the salvation He has given me in Yeshua. Then I reflect on the thousands of Jews and Gentiles who share that saving faith with me because God has been pleased to use Jews for Jesus for His glory. When I face the trials of leading a large ministry like ours, I can give praise to God for raising up a founding leader like Moishe Rosen, whose principles and hard work cleared a path for his successor to lead us into the new millennium. I thank God for so many of you who have been with us over the years to help us withstand opposition and move ahead for God. And I thank God for those of you who are just now beginning to see Jews for Jesus as your ministry. “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad.” (Psalm 126:3)

Thanking God for His goodness and remembering the good things He has done gives us confidence to thank Him for the good things He has yet to do. People who don’t know the Lord have no concept of this kind of thanksgiving. Limited by their own experience, they can be thankful only for what they see. But those who know the Lord can see and celebrate through eyes of faith. We can give thanks for what we have yet to apprehend because we know the One who has promised is faithful. John Piper calls this “future grace,” the yes and amen of God’s promises.

A thanksgiving without the hope of future grace is tenuous at best. It depends upon our present circumstances, and even should those circumstances be highly favorable, experience teaches us that they will shift. Problems and difficulties creep up like fog on an ocean breeze. In the last few months our society has been rocked by calamity and uncertainty. Scandal, terrorism and the threat of financial collapse have left many Americans fearful about the future.

How can we celebrate Thanksgiving in such a climate? The certainty of what God has done, combined with the certainty of His future grace, should promote within His children a heart of thanks—thanks that will always be ready to surface in outward celebration when opportunities arise. Through future grace, the child of God expresses gratitude with a surety the world can never know.

Late one evening I received a phone call from Avi Snyder who supervises our ministry to Russian Jews around the world. The news from Russia was not good. Chaos was mounting. The Russian ruble was in a free-fall. The government was near collapse and our bank account in Moscow had been frozen. What should we do? Avi and I prayed together and determined that God was presenting us with a great opportunity to proclaim the good news. Our 30-plus staff in Russia and the Ukraine should redouble their efforts to get out the gospel at once. We needed to write a new gospel tract in Russian titled, “When all else fails. . .” We have a message of salvation that people need to hear.

It troubles me greatly when I hear Christians who believe the best way to prepare for the Y2K problem is by hoarding supplies and planning to hole up in some remote cabin in the woods to safely ride out the storm. Brothers and sisters, if chaos and calamity strike our country in the year 2000, that is the time to be out on the streets declaring the love of God in Jesus Christ. If I have anything to say about it, that is exactly what all of us in Jews for Jesus will be doing on December 31, 1999! We have a hope, a certainty that the world is dying to know.

Let’s pray that God will help us to sow some true thankfulness in the hearts of unbelievers by planting that good gospel seed. We can offer no greater blessing than the opportunity for people to know Christ: “For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us.” (2 Corinthians 1:20) And as you join us in watching some of those people respond with gratitude to God’s offer of salvation, you will have even more for which to be thankful. You can join us in saying with the Apostle Paul, “For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe.” (1Thessalonians 2:13)