Teaching Thanksgiving through Jesus’ Example

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, it’s appropriate to reflect on the importance of giving thanks from a Christian perspective, examining especially Jesus’ example and the impact it has for us. In this month’s blog, you’ll find valuable insights to share with students and ideas for reinforcing activities.

Giving thanks keeps us mindful of God’s continuous generosity.

And directing the crowd to sit down on the ground, he took the seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces left over. (Matthew 15:35–37 )

It’s easy for Christian families to fall into the temptation of celebrating Thanksgiving without the centrality of God. Often there is a great deal of stress on generalized gratitude for all that we have in this world. Children are told to be thankful, to value what they have received—but to whom are they thankful? Instead of being thankful to Jesus, they might substitute life, this world, nature, goodness, and the like.

Notice in the verses above that Jesus gives thanks to His Father in heaven even though He Himself works the miracle. Christ wants those present to connect this provision of bread and fish with their heavenly Father. The people see Jesus give thanks, and then they are fully satisfied.

During the month of November, stress the importance of giving thanks to God our heavenly Father. Help students to understand that food doesn’t merely come from stores, factories, or even the earth, but rather is a blessing from God Almighty. Talk about God’s constant provision. Highlight the number of meals we eat in a month, the variety of food which God provides, and how He is always faithful.

Try this illustration: Purchase a number of food items at the store and briefly present the ingredients of each. Lead students to trace the item back to the store, the factory, the farm, and finally, to God. Select a fun snack to share with the class as one of your items.

Giving thanks is an expression of our distinctive relationship with our Heavenly Father through Christ.

Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” (John 11:40–42)

While it is completely appropriate to give thanks to God, it’s vital that students understand why God is our Heavenly Father and why He accepts our expressions of thanksgiving. We thank God, but only through His Son, Jesus Christ. Thanksgiving is a form of prayer. God hears the prayers of all people, but only regards or listens to those of Christians. This is not because Christians are better behaved, but rather because of the work of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ has paid for the sins of all people, but not all are saved. The Holy Spirit brings the Gospel to the dead sinner and creates faith, through which we receive forgiveness and everlasting life. God regards the prayer of the Christian through the righteousness of His Son, Jesus.

In the passage above, Jesus points out that His Father always hears His prayers. Help students to understand that God accepts our prayers for Jesus’ sake, and it is in Jesus Christ that we are God’s children.

Jesus’ giving of thanks fulfills God’s righteous standard on our behalf.  

“For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:18–20)

Thanksgiving is an excellent opportunity to present Law and Gospel to Sunday School students. God calls us to give thanks for all His goodness to us. Like every one of God’s expectations, we fail to meet them. We enjoy God’s gifts without giving thanks, our expressions of gratitude are often perfunctory, and we take credit for what God alone provides.

In the Gospel, we recognize that where we fail, Jesus succeeds perfectly. Jesus is God, so it seems strange for Jesus the Son to offer thanks to God the Father—yet He does. Jesus came into the world and took on human flesh to fulfill God’s expectations on our behalf. He always expressed gratitude perfectly. God is aware of our failure to give thanks, but He accepts us through the perfect thanksgiving of His Son, our Savior.

It’s challenging to give thanks faithfully in the month of November, let alone throughout the year. Here are a few suggestions to help students.

  • Write a set of prayers that reflect the themes outlined above. Use these prayers in Sunday School throughout the year.
  • Make photocopies of the prayers and invite students to use them at home.
  • Include songs that stress thanksgiving throughout the year.
  • Create a thanksgiving turkey from construction paper. Begin with a simple turkey with a head and feet. Have students cut feather-shaped pieces of construction paper, write items they’re thankful to God for on them, and attach the feathers to the turkey.
  • If you have access to computers, help students research how to say “Thank you, Jesus” in various languages.

For more ideas on helping kids give thanks this year, download these free thanksgiving prayers for children.

Download Prayers
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Written by

Phil Rigdon

The Rev. Dr. Philip Rigdon and his wife, Jamelyn, live in Kendallville, Indiana, with their two rabbits, Frankie and Buttons. He serves as pastor of St. John Lutheran Church and School in Kendallville. He enjoys writing, running, and playing guitar.

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