1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
Be honest. How many of you skip to the ending of a book or of a story to find out how it turns out, or whodunit, or if it’s going to be a happy ending before you read the rest of the book? Sometimes you need to know how things are going to turn out so you can make it through the rest of the story. When I was a little boy watching TV, I would run and hide behind the big wing chair in the living room when Lassie got trapped in a cave, or when Sky King’s airplane engines caught on fire, or when a rattlesnake was creeping up on the Lone Ranger. And what added insult to injury was that my parents would laugh at me, hiding behind the chair until the coast was clear. It took me years to figure out what they knew – that Lassie and Sky King and the Lone Ranger were going to be OK because the show had to be on again next week. Knowing that somehow the story would turn out OK let my parents do what I couldn’t – relax and enjoy the story.
For the past two weeks we’ve been talking about how New Testament letters like 2 Peter and 1 Thessalonians are addressed to early Christians confused about why Jesus hasn’t returned already, as they thought he had promised. These baby believers are caught between the “now” and the “not yet” of God’s promises. How should they live in the present, believing that all this might vanish in the blink of an eye? Should we get married? Should we save for retirement? Should we have children? Should we look for a new job, or a new house, if the world might end tomorrow?
How did it feel when you were about to experience a major change in your life? Maybe it was when you were about to graduate, or about to get married. Maybe when you were getting ready to leave one job for another, or about to retire. Maybe it was when the kids were getting ready to move out – or maybe when the parents were getting ready to move out! Or maybe it was when somebody you loved was leaving, or dying. How did it change your feelings about what was happening at the moment, as you waited for what was to come?
One way to treat everything around you that you’re about to leave is to despise it. That’s pretty typical for people getting ready to leave home for college: parents and brothers and sisters and friends and everything you’ve known for seventeen or eighteen years become amazingly stupid, dense, ugly, and worthless. If you’re a survivor of that from a rising college freshman, take heart – that’s a sign that he or she is really having a hard time leaving everything they love. I confess that I do something like that when I’m moving from one church to another – I decide that things will be so much better in that new place than they are back here. Of course, that’s true about moving to Providence – but I have used that emotional cheap trick to get some distance from people I love and am leaving.
Paul urges the Thessalonians to use a different strategy as they wait for the new world to come. Instead of distancing themselves from what’s all around them, instead of discounting and disparaging their lives, Paul tells them to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Easier said than done, isn’t it? How do we rejoice when we’re struggling to make ends meet? How can we give thanks when people we love are suffering and the world seems to be going to hell before our eyes?
The November issue of our Virginia Conference magazine, The Advocate, featured some telling stories about being thankful. One story was about Mississippi City United Methodist Church in Gulfport, Alabama, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The sanctuary organ was tossed upside down. When recovery workers picked their way through the debris, a United Methodist Hymnal was lying open on top of the upside down organ, with the pages opened to Hymn of Promise, the second verse of which sings There’s a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me. From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery, Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see. The article went on to talk about the gratitude of people on the Gulf Coast for the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who came to help. Another article cited noted preacher Barbara Brown Taylor’s amazement at friends of hers who have responded to losses and painful experiences in their lives with thanksgiving, because, as she writes, Most of them tell me that (gratitude) is one of the few choices left to them: to decide how they will respond to what has happened to them. The minute they find something to be grateful for, they cease being victims of their circumstances and become people able to give thanks. The same article cites TV host Deborah Norville, who in a book on gratitude says that scientific research has discovered that an “attitude of gratitude” actually alters brain chemistry and reduces physical signs of stress.
It seems to me that the clue to Paul’s instructions to rejoice always and to give thanks in all circumstances is found in the admonition found in between them: pray without ceasing. Prayer is the peanut butter that holds the bread slices of rejoicing and thankfulness together. Paul is telling us to turn our lives into a prayer – a continuous conversation with God, who is the giver of all the gifts we experience moment to moment.
Christmas is coming, or so I hear. Imagine that your life is Christmas Day, and God is sitting by the tree, handing you one present after another. You open one, and it’s an amazing sunrise. What do you say and do about that? God hands you the next present, which is that you’re out of your favorite breakfast food. Since is God is right there, are you going to cry and pout, or are you going to rejoice and thank God that there’s something else to eat? Maybe later in the day God hands you a diagnosis from your doctor that isn’t good. What is God using in that to teach you, or to teach someone else through you? But then later God connects you with an old friend, or surprises you with a song you’d forgotten, or sends you a message in a TV program that you needed to hear. Every day is Christmas, and God is handing us gifts, some lovely, some not, but all opportunities to learn and grow and love. When every day is a non-stop conversation with God, then there are endless opportunities to rejoice and to give thanks, no matter the circumstances. This, Paul says, is the will of God in Jesus Christ for you. This is how Jesus lived, and how you and I are called to live as well.
And, we don’t have to hide behind the wing chair in fear or in fury, because we’ve peeked at the last page of the book. Not only are Lassie and the Lone Ranger and Sky King going to be on next week, but we know that God wins. Oh, we might not win. In fact – I hate to break it to you – but we’re not going to make it. Nobody makes it out of this world alive. But the last page in the book says that God wins. It says that there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and that God will dwell in the midst of his people, and that mourning and crying and pain will be no more, because all the former things have passed away.
So, I offer you these three simple suggestions, knowing that God has destined us for salvation, as Paul says in verse 9 of this chapter:
1. Before you get out of bed, repeat this verse: This is the day the Lord has made: let us rejoice and be glad in it. Keep saying it until you mean it, and only then put your feet on the floor.
2. Find ten small things to be thankful for, as soon as possible: sleep, coffee, central heat, indoor plumbing, your home, breakfast, family, school, a job, the car, health, the dog or the cat, friends, erasers, socks, deodorant. Start small, and you will start giving thanks for the most unlikely things.
3. Play the glad game. The children’s classic Pollyanna is about a young orphan who goes to live with her unhappy and overcontrolling aunt, but who transforms the entire community by finding something to be glad about in any situation. Pollyanna invented the glad game when she went to the mission barrel at Christmas hoping to find a doll, but all that was left was a pair of crutches. Pollyanna decided she was really glad because she didn’t need the crutches. When sentenced to a meal of bread and milk, she is glad because she loves bread and she loves milk. Where is the glad in what you’re facing this moment?
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. We know how the story turns out. Christmas is coming, no matter how far it may feel at the moment. God wins, no matter how much it looks like he is losing. And every moment is a gift from God, because, after all, we are not victims as long as we can choose to give thanks.