Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else. Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. -1 Thessalonians 5:12-24 (NIV) Read the whole chapter.
So our Scripture reading for this morning comes from the end of Paul's first letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, one of the places that he had gone on one of his missionary journeys to establish and found a church. He'd experienced some difficulties and hardships there, but in these final verses, he's giving some exhortations, greetings, and blessings to the people that are there. He's telling them as followers of Jesus here are the things that you need to do. He begins giving them instructions about how they should relate to one another, treat one another, and why and how all of this is possible.
Particularly for the series that I'm working through as we focus on gratitude, it was those central verses in this reading, verses 16-18 which really three verses that compromise one sentence where Paul says, "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." Now to hear all of those things together: rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances: any one of those seems rather daunting, doesn't it? How can you be joyful always? How can you pray without ceasing? Particularly for many people when our idea of prayer is that we're on bended knees, folded hands, head bowed, and eyes closed. If we pray without ceasing we would accomplish nothing else in the course of a day. Give thanks in all circumstances, how do you give thanks right now in 2020 when most people are just wishing and waiting for this year to end? And yet, Paul says here it is these three things: rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.
Now, what's more, he answers that question that so many people who come to faith want to know: what does God want me to do? What does God want me to do in my life? What does God want me to do in the church? How does God want me to serve and live my life? And yet, Paul has just told us, 'Well, God wants you to rejoice always, to pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances.' And if you didn't hear it, that's what you should do. He is very explicit at this point and says, "For this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus." This is God's will for you that you would do these things. But boy, it's hard. But Paul goes on and explains that it is God who sanctifies us. It is God who makes us holy. It is God who fills us, equips us, prepares us. It makes it possible for us to do these things in and through Christ Jesus.
To rejoice always is to allow God to so fill us that we're able to give joy back to God and to rejoice. Because joy doesn't depend upon our circumstances. Joy is something that we can have and experience no matter how tough the road may be in this moment. Not so with happiness. Happiness depends upon this moment. Happiness is driven by external things, what's going on around me that make me feel happy. But joy comes from within.
To pray without ceasing, well again it depends on your understanding of prayer. But if we understand prayer as the essence of having a relationship with God. The interaction that takes place with God, it may change a little bit about how we think about prayer. There are definitely times when it is necessary to sit, to focus, to bow our heads, fold our hands, and close our eyes. But yet there are moments when we just need to smile and listen to the wind blowing through the trees or the rain pelting the side of the building. There are times when you may wit on the porch with your beloved or a good friend and watch the sunset and not have to say a word to one another and still find that moment beautiful and peaceful. Those are moments that we can engage in and practice in our prayer life as well. That as we're walking through the grocery store to be mindful of this. The fact that God is there with us. That when you're driving down the road and stuck at that stoplight, to be mindful of the fact that God is still working and moving around the world. That as that ambulance goes by to say, 'God get them where they're going safely or give them the skill they need to help whoever it is that's in that ambulance or waiting for them to arrive. Praying without ceasing is something that we are invited to do. To just simply be mindful and to know that God is with us.
To give thanks in all circumstances. I'd reflected on this a couple of weeks ago actually in my newsletter article. But I want to really make this point clear. This particular sentence, this particular statement: give thanks in all circumstances, depends entirely on the preposition that's in there. He says, "Give thanks in all circumstances," not "for all circumstances." We don't have to give thanks for 2020. We don't have to thank God for COVID. We don't have to thank God for that cancer diagnosis or that loved one that we lost. We do not have to give thanks for the things that cause us pain and hurt. But we can give thanks in those times.
I believe I've shared that for Melissa and me, one of the most difficult things we experienced in our life was the loss of our first child that was biological. It was about 12 years ago. He was stillborn. Tough situation, not a situation that we would give thanks for. Yet in the midst of that, we discovered that there were still many blessings in that circumstance. The number of people who came and shared with us similar stories of the loss of a child who had not opened up to anybody else but felt comfortable sharing with us. They'd say, 'You know what, we've been there, we understand.' For the people who brought us meals to our house. For the people that were just there to talk to us. For the compassion of the nurse that was with us through that delivery. All of those things were things in the midst of a horrible situation that still allowed us to pause and to give thanks. Now it's easy we can say to give thanks when life is good, right? Most people would say that was easy to give thanks then. But the problem is do we when life is going good? Do we really have a reason to stop and say, 'Wow, thank you, God.' I know that I don't. I know that it's not always the natural and first inclination that comes to mind that, 'Boy everything's going great, no problems, no challenges, life is good, thank you, God.' That should be the first thing that comes to mind, but not always.
Which is why I've encouraged you with these gratitude journals. To begin thinking about and writing down in the course of your day, or week, the things that you're thankful for. But if you're like me, sometimes you think, 'Well, that's too simple. That's kind of sill. I don't need to thank God for that.' Prior to COVID, we would come down here into the sanctuary and on Wednesday mornings, we'd have a short chapel time with the kids in the academy. The staff would often come down, Marlane led a lot of those, but we'd often ask the kids during a prayer time what do they want to pray for. And occasionally those things would be what are you thankful for? Well, these children, from ages 3-5. So you got all kinds of things that they're thankful for: moms, dads, pets, toys, candy, getting to play with their friends. The things that kids rightfully so should be thankful for. They don't have a problem saying thank you for the things that bring them joy. The things that bless their lives. So why should we? Why should we feel silly or like anything is too small or too insignificant to bring to God? I sometimes think, 'Okay, what are the good things? What do I need to write down? What's a really good meaningful thing that I can write down in this journal?' But guess what, yesterday was Saturday. The things that made it onto my list for yesterday: I'm thankful for lazy days because we didn't have much to do yesterday. I'm thankful for football games because I got to watch a couple of them even if it wasn't a great day for Purdue. I'm thankful for comfort food, we had chicken and noodles and dumplings for lunch.
The point is, don't think something is too insignificant to say "Thank you" to God for it. Because guess what? When you look around, everything in this space, everything in this world belongs to God. God is the one who created it. God is the one who has given it to us and blessed us with this world, the roof over your head, the bed that you sleep on, that hot shower that you got to take this morning. Give thanks to God for all of these things. In all circumstances, give thanks. This is God's will for us that we would be a people who would learn how to find joy at all times. To pray without ending. And to give thanks in all circumstances. Because to have this attitude of joy, of prayer, or gratitude is one in which our lives will be transformed. An attitude of gratitude and praying without ceasing and rejoicing at all times will shape us and form us to be the people that God needs desperately in this world right now. What are we doing to find peace and joy in this world around us? Well God is calling us to be a people of gratitude who will go and share that gratitude with others. To help point in a difficult time to say, 'Look at the good things that are still there.'
This morning if you've looked at your bulletin, and have a better memory than I, you may have noticed that the closing hymn is the same hymn that we sang last Sunday. I did that on purpose. George pointed this out to me. I did a little bit of reading but the story of that hymn is such that we need to sing it again today. That hymn was written by a Lutheran pastor names Martin Rinckart in the 17th century. He lived in Islandberg, Germany. Islandberg was a walled city during the 30-year war. Now the city became a place of refuge for people who were military and political refugees. So the city was packed and overcrowded. Famine was rampant. There was a severe plague that broke out in 1637. Rinckart was the sole surviving pastor in this city. Times were tough. The city had been overrun by armies on three different occasions. His home became a refuge for people that had no food. He and his family lived on as sparse of rations as possible so they could help other people. But the plague was severe and began to take its toll. During the course of that year, this pastor averaged 40-50 funerals a day over the course of that year. He performed 4480 funerals, including that of his wife. This hymn that we often sing around Thanksgiving now, "Thank we all our God with heart and hand and voices" was written by this pastor during that time. Talk about giving thanks in all circumstances.
We're hard-pressed right now. Things are different. Things are challenging. We're having to decide: is it safe to come to worship, is it safe to go to the grocery, will our family get together for Thanksgiving or Christmas? And yes, even those who are gravely ill, friends or family that we have that we know of that are hospitalized, and I know some in our congregation have even lost family to COVID in this past several months. And yet, even in these times, by the grace of God, by His sanctifying spirit, we're called to be a grateful people. So may we continue to give thanks in all circumstances, knowing that God is with us, knowing that we're not alone, knowing that even when the world seems rather dark, God's light and goodness is always there. Give thanks for that is the will of God for you.