Sermon by Pastor Bill Chadwick | November 24, 2019
I Thessalonians 5:12-18
Life is hard. If it isn’t hard for you today, it was last month or will be next month. That’s just a fact of life this side of heaven. You or your someone in your household may be facing health issues, financial struggles, relationship challenges, employment difficulties…you may be grieving the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a dream or …who knows?
And yet scripture calls us to “give thanks in all circumstances.”
That powerful line comes from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Thessalonika, chapter five. He concludes his letter this way: …we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; 13 esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15 See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.
And then the crescendo: 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
I admit that there are parts of Paul’s letters that make me squirm, but I believe this is truly inspired.
Listen again. In fact, repeat these last few lines back to me. I Thessalonians 5:16-18: Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Now that might seem like an insensitive platitude to some of you. How can I give thanks when this is the first Thanksgiving without my mother? How can I give thanks when my child has just been diagnosed with something very scary? How can I give thanks when I don’t have a job? How can I give thanks when my lifelong dream is slipping away? How can I give thanks when my family is a mess? How can I give thanks when the world is such a mess?
Giving thanks in all circumstances is not an invitation to mindless positive thinking.
Giving thanks in all circumstances is not a call to ignore or suppress grief. In fact, isn’t grieving a form of gratitude? We are grateful for the person we are now missing.
“Give thanks in all circumstances.” This is one of those cases where the precise wording is crucial. Mark Twain reportedly said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Paul is NOT saying, “Give thanks FOR all circumstances.” Heavens! How can one be thankful for the devastating occurrences in life? No, Paul is saying, “Give thanks IN all circumstances.” The difference in preposition is huge.
Now, my friends, Paul is well acquainted with challenges in life. Remember that he is not living some cushy life writing books in some luxurious office protected from the vicissitudes of life. In II Corinthians he writes of some of his struggles in life thus far: “Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. (He’s not talking about weed; he’s talking about rocks.) Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters;27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.” II Corinthians 11:25-27
And yet he says, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Do you remember when it was that Thanksgiving became an official US holiday? What year? 1863. What was going on then? The Civil War, in which more Americans would die than any other war in history, including WW II. Yet Abraham Lincoln called for a national day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. At the height of the Civil War, Lincoln called Americans to remember that “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies . . . are the gracious gifts of the Most High God.” Although the country was mired in deep conflict, Lincoln recognized both God’s provision and mercy, exhorting Americans to give thanks to God and to intercede on behalf of their country and its citizens who were suffering.
Now let me be clear: I don’t believe that God sends us terrible things. Yes, terrible things happen, but I don’t believe God sends them; not to test us, not to make us better people, not to teach us what we need to know. As one victim of a horrible car crash noted, “Don’t confuse God with life.” Some horrible things happen because people act stupidly—driving drunk, living unhealthfully, etc. Some horrible things happen because people act horribly, violently. But a whole lot of horrible things happen for no discernible reason at all, simply because the universe is a largely random place.
So, my point is to recognize the wisdom of Paul’s words of encouragement: “Give thanks in all circumstances.” To illustrate: We don’t say “Thank you, God, that Mom has cancer.” But in the face of Mom’s cancer, can we say something like: “Thank you, God, that we’re not facing this alone. Thanks for our friends and for our church. Thanks for the medical team. Thanks for the chemotherapy drugs, and for the pain medications. Thanks for the love that we share that makes this so scary, for how dear Mom is to us. And thanks, God, for your presence in these trying times.”
Even in the circumstance of death there are things for which we can be thankful. Thanks for the deep love and affection we shared, that makes this time so painful. Thank you, Gracious and Eternal God, for your love that never ends, for the promise of resurrection and joyous heavenly reunion.”
Often within a few seconds of waking I am pretty tense, as I remember hard things going on in my life right now, or all I have to do today. So each morning I write in my gratitude journal. It’s the first thing I do in my daily quiet time. I write down all the things for which I am thankful. And I take a few deep breaths and get my day off to a better start.
I invite you to take a moment right now. Think of the situation in your life that is troubling you the most. For what in these circumstances can you give thanks? I give you the opportunity to do so now in silent meditation.
One more story. Do you know the name Martin Rinkart? Rinkart was a pastor in Eilenburg, Saxony (today Germany) in the early 17th century. That town was besieged several times during the Thirty Years War. Rinkart’s home became a small refugee camp, even though there was barely enough food for his own family. Then the plague swept through the town. One of the town’s four pastors fled. Two others died. Rinkart was left as the sole pastor. At the height of the plague, in 1637, Rinkart performed sometimes 40 or 50 funerals a day. All told that year he officiated at almost 5000 funerals, including that of his wife.
Rinkart was a poet and wrote the words to many hymns, including a table grace that was later set to music. We know it as “Now Thank We All Our God.” In the midst of circumstance beyond our imagining, Rinkart was thanking God. I invite you to stand and sing.