November 19, 2023
Scripture Reading: Thessalonians 5:12-24
Before you ask, yes I do know that Thanksgiving is next week and not this coming week but I got a special dispensation to talk about gratitude out of order. I can defend it because we’re having our Thanksgiving meal here at St. Johns today! AND, I personally need to hear whatever it is I’m going to say this morning! I can’t wait!
Paul has an annoying habit of leaving stuff out of what he says, changing the meaning from what I thought he should be saying. A case in point: You heard it read just a moment ago. Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (I Thessalonians 5:16-18)
In three other cases talking to three other churches beside this one in Thessalonica he clusters rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks in everything together. He says it to the Romans, and the people at Colossae, and Ephesus as well.
That’s all fine. These are nice things to do, but where he messed up was this: First, there is the matter of WHEN we should be joyful, when we should pray, and when we should be grateful. Paul seems to imply that it can be anytime – not just when we have a good, logical reason – like something good just happened to us.
Second, he implies that being joyful, praying, and being grateful is a choice we make, and not the simple consequence of things going the way we want. It sounds so much like he is saying: “Just do it!” His editor must have been on vacation!
We, in the enlightened 21st Century know that particularly joy and gratitude are the result of good things happening to us! Right? It is 100% wrong-headed to tell me to be thankful in all circumstances!
But wait a minute! What if Paul was in his right mind and wide awake when he said these words to the church! After all, he said it four times in his letters! What if there is truth in this word that says, in effect: You can choose joy! You can choose gratitude! The choice can come before the change in circumstances. The word from Paul is that we can be joyful and grateful IN THE CIRCUMSTANCE, and you can choose to be joyful and grateful because “this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus!”
Now I know and understand that there are times when this idea of giving thanks in the middle of things that are so painful seems impossibly hard and maybe even impossible, period! But what little I know about this sort of thing is that gratitude when I am suffering works like a steel wedge when I am trying to split a difficult log. It doesn’t always work right away. It just starts to exert a force counteracting the force that wants to keep the log all in one piece. The wedge is joy, prayer, and gratitude!
I know what it is for negative thinking – anger, jealousy, bitterness, fear, dread, and a hundred other varieties of attitudes- to begin to take hold in your life and occupy your thinking until it pushes everything else out. That kind of thinking can become like the forces inside a gnarly old log that resists with all its strength being opened up to something new. The discipline and the decision to be grateful and to rejoice is like the wedge that gradually counteracts the forces in the log until something better breaks out. It is like forcing your focus to shift on to things for which you are grateful.
It’s like a wedge – it opens you up!
And I know it is so easy to say to yourself: That may be good for some, but my case is different. There is nothing good or hopeful about my situation. There is ONLY darkness. I am here to say that this is an illusion. Now I know people who have decided to make the decision to practice joy or gratitude and they distort this principle in such a way that everyone knows
they are faking it! They smile and it looks pasted on. They may adopt a syrupy tone and say they are fine when you know it isn’t true. I’m not talking about faking anything. It’s not “fake it till you make it.” But it could be “say the truth until you feel it!” There’s a difference.
When I think of that feeling that comes over me sometimes that there just couldn’t be more darkness than what I feel, then I am drawn to what seems to me to be one of the most horrible times in human history. The Holocaust. I personally can’t imagine a worse situation – although I could be wrong. When I hear or read the stories of individuals who endured that sort of suffering and still managed to express gratitude, my own situation feels so insignificant.
Etty Hillisum is one such person. She managed to write and pass her journal (The Interrupted Life) out of the camp before she was executed by the Nazis. It is full of gratitude – unbelievable gratitude. “When you have an interior life, it certainly doesn’t matter what side of the prison fence you’re on…I’ve already died a thousand times in a thousand concentration camps. I know everything. There is no new information to trouble me. One way or another, I already know everything. And yet, I
find this life beautiful and rich in meaning. At every moment.”
Katie Gasho told Mary Ann who told me of a woman named Jane Marczewski, born in Zanesville, OH. She goes by the stage name of Nightbirde, and performed her original song: “It’s OK” in 2021 on “America’s Got Talent” even though at that very moment she had such a severe case of cancer that she only had a 2% chance of survival. That performance was with the most positive, upbeat and heartfelt assurance. She won the competition that night with the Golden Buzzer! I want to say that if Nightbirde and Etty Hillisum can find a reason to praise, so can you and I.
Joy, prayer, and gratitude can lift us out of despair and lift those around us. It is not just the right of the church but its responsibility. Joy and gratitude and prayer are not options, they are obligations. And they are not just the natural human response to good times, they are the daily option, the daily assignment for God’s people.