Isaiah 65:17-25, I Thessalonians 5:12-24
November 14, 2010
The inspiration for this sermon title comes from the title of a popular song in the Contemporary Christian world. It’s all about praising God in the difficult times of our lives. It’s powerful, and it’s one of my favorites! And I couldn’t help thinking it, and hearing it in my head, as I considered the subject for today.
We’re going to narrow our focus today. Again, we’re thinking about Thanksgiving, which we will celebrate in less than two weeks! (If you’re not sure, just notice all the Christmas ads on television!) I’m giving you this “lead time,” and I’m asking you to think about being thankful, and more specifically, choosing to be thankful. As I said last week, we “choose our attitudes.” (or we need to choose them!) And one of the attitudes I asked you to choose is the “attitude of gratitude.” Do you remember that from last week?
Well this week, I want us to think about making that choice when it is difficult to do so. Paul told the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” That’s not easy, is it? And oh how we wish he hadn’t said that last part! It could have just been Paul’s own idealistic, yet unrealistic, thoughts! But no! He is calling us to do the more difficult job of doing those things even when we don’t feel like it, and he said it’s God’s will that we do! So it’s “rejoice always! Pray constantly!” and our key verse, “give thanks in all circumstances!” There’s our focus for today.
So, how do we do that? How do we give thanks in all circumstances? I don’t need to remind you that there have been some tough circumstances in our world in the past few years! And I know there have been though circumstances in some of your lives! And I pray you are all doing ok. But as we make our way through those things, how do we give thanks? Let me offer you some suggestions.
Well, the first thing I want us to consider is that Paul says “give thanks in all circumstances,” not “give thanks for all circumstances!” I know I’m going to sound like a broken record on this one, folks. But I don’t care. I want to be very clear on this. I truly believe that bad circumstances are not given to us by God. Not as a general rule. Everything I’ve learned over the years tells me that. And I believe it with all of my heart! From time to time, God brings things into people’s live to teach them. More often, he allows those circumstances. (Which is a whole other subject!) But God does not cause all the bad circumstances in our lives! I’d like to repeat that over and over again for the next 15 minutes and let that be the sermon! Because it’s a hard thought to get around!
I can’t tell you how many times to I hear people say, “God is testing me with this.” or “God’s doing this to make me stronger.” Again, sometimes God does test people – occasionally! But it’s a mistake to apply that to all circumstances. I have a friend who likes to say, “I believe everything happens for a reason.” And I think sometimes people find comfort in such sayings. But that particular one always makes me nervous! Because I’m concerned about what it says about God! It sounds too much like he’s responsible for all the bad things that happen. It implies that everything is a test, or everything has a higher purpose, or is intended for a later result farther down the line. And again, that’s a problem for me, because it implies that God causes the bad thing to happen. Sometimes “the reason” bad things happen is that sometimes bad things happen.
In Romans 8, Paul says this. “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love the Lord, and who are called according to his purposes.” (Romans 8:28) That’s wonderful! But it doesn’t say God causes everything to happen – good and bad. It says that God can use all things that happen for his purposes. He can work those things for good. But he doesn’t send us bad things – again as a general rule. In fact, the “general rule” of that whole eighth chapter is that, in all circumstances, God is with us. And as he concludes, nothing, “neither death, nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from his love.” (Romans 8:38-39)
God sometimes allows things to happen to us. But he doesn’t cause them. He doesn’t just give us things to teach us and then stand back and watch. He walks with us! In fact, it is often in the darkest times of our lives that many of us have experienced God’s presence the most. You have testified to that! And, as I’ve said before, if that’s a reason God allows things, it makes more sense to me all the time! Frankly, I think that’s way more comforting than just believing “everything happens for a reason,” as though figuring out the “reason” will make things bearable. ’Cause, what if we don’t like the reason?! Watch out for they “why” questions. “Why is this happening.” Ask instead the “what” questions. “What must I do?” “How is God with me in this?”
I know you’ve heard me say similar things before. And I guarantee you’re going to hear them again. Because I think that kind of thinking causes so many people to have a poor image of God. It causes them to see God as aloof, as living “somewhere way out there,” and as one who deals out sorrow and hardship for his “reasons.” It makes people think that God doesn’t care all that much, except to teach us stuff – the hard way – and it causes them not to want to be all that close to a “God like that.” It misses the greatest thing about God, that he does want to be close to us! He wants to be with us, in joy and in sorrow! He wants to share those things, to rejoice with us, and to uphold us in the difficult times. And I think getting a handle on that is one of the most important keys in our being able to choose to “give thanks in all circumstances!”
Then I think the next key is to concentrate on the good God has done. Again, go to the Psalms. They were full of that thought. “Give thanks to the Lord. Make known his deeds known among the nations…” You find that everywhere. In Philippians 4, Paul writes “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is anything worthy of praise, if there is any excellence, think on these things.” Paul (and I think the psalmist, too!) knew that that takes a conscious effort to remember. They knew that we need to choose to think on these things! The natural thing, that will otherwise happen, is that our minds will go off to the races on thinking on the bad stuff. Like a bad song we can’t get out of our heads, we will dwell on the difficult circumstances. That’s our emotions working! More specifically, that’s our emotions leading our thinking. Paul wants it to be the other way around! He wants us to use our reason to temper our emotions. He wants us to “take every thought captive in obedience to Christ.” So remember the good God has done!
The other thing that helps is for us to think about how God has upheld us in the past through difficult times! And sometimes that’s easy to forget! Isn’t it? That’s the history of God’s people! God upholds them in the dark times, and the they forget! Again, it’s our emotions that betray us on this. They give us “spiritual amnesia.” We feel like “we’re never going to get through this!” – even though we may have before. We feel like “God’s not going to help!” – even though he has many times before. God has helped countless people in the past, but we feel like our problems are too big for him.” Again, the scriptures are full of passage where we are called to “remember what God has done for us.”
Because we do forget, don’t we? And that hurts our ability to give thanks in all circumstances. And when we do, sometimes it a matter of simply “starting over.” Sometimes it a matter of learning to trust God – again. Sometimes it becomes a time of discovering again, that God is good – all the time! And that’s not easy. When we’re down and out, when we’re in the middle of tough times, that’s when we hold on tighter to the controls of our lives. That’s when it’s hardest to let go, and to trust God!
The good news is that the God we worship is the God of the second chance – and the third chance, and so on… And lest we think those chances are finite, remember the words of the psalmist. “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His steadfast love endures (how long?) forever! Very good! And his faithfulness to all generations.”
And when we worry about what God must think of us, may we remember the image of God – Jesus gave us – in the story of the Prodigal. When we stray, when we push him away, when we can’t let go because circumstances are so difficult, when we’ve even have convinced ourselves that those circumstances are God’s fault, or at least his doing, he is waiting – patiently. And he runs to meet us! And not only is he happy, but as Jesus described it, “all the angels in heaven are rejoicing.”
“Praise him in the storm.” No, it’s not easy. It’s not easy to “rejoice always,” to “pray constantly,” and to “give thanks in all circumstances.” That’s all part of the “practicing” of our faith. And maybe that really is a good way to describe the life of faith. It is a matter of “practice!” Because that is part of being God’s people. And his people we are! Let us “practice” being his thankful people. All the time. “Rejoice always! Pray constantly! Give thanks in all circumstances. For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you!”
Eternal God, we thank you for all you have done for us, for your power in our world, for your comfort and presence in all times of our lives. Help us to remember all those things, to rely on you, and to trust you no matter what the circumstances. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.