Rejoice Always? Give Thanks in All Circumstances? - 1st Thessalonians 5:16-18
A little boy was asked to return thanks before a holiday dinner. The family members bowed their heads in expectation. He began his prayer, thanking God for Mommy, Daddy, brother, sister, Grandma, Grandpa, and all his aunts and uncles. Then he began thanking God for the food. He gave thanks for the turkey, the dressing, the fruit salad, the cranberry sauce, the pies, the cakes, and even the Cool Whip.
Suddenly he paused, and everyone waited—and waited. After a long silence, the young child looked up at his mother and asked, “If I thank God for the broccoli, won’t he know that I’m lying?”
My brothers and sisters, we have gathered tonight for our Thanksgiving Service. WE are entering what many consider to be the most festive time of the year. We gather to give thanks for the many blessings that God has poured into our lives. We rejoice, or at least anticipate rejoicing a month from now, remembering the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. It is a celebratory season.
The irony is, my brothers and sisters, that for many folks this season does not bring about joy and feelings of thanksgiving, but instead brings about sorrow, misery, regret, or sadness. These are the folks that hear the words of Paul and say, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances? You’re kidding, right? Don’t you understand what I’m dealing with?”
How many of us here tonight have that feeling? We think that Paul was out of touch with reality. How many of us have had times in our lives, whether during the Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s season, or at other points in our lives where rejoicing and giving thanks were the furthest thing from our mind?
Maybe it was when we were laid off from our job. We had bills to pay. We had a family to support. There was no other work to be found. Rejoice always? I don’t think so.
Maybe it was when a friend betrayed us. We thought we could count on her, only to find out that she told our darkest secret to another group of friends, making fun of us in the process. Give thanks in all circumstances? I don’t see it happening.
Maybe it was after the doctor called and asked us to come in to discuss our test results. “It doesn’t look good,” he says. “Stage Four,” we hear. Rejoice? Get real Paul.
Maybe it was when a policeman knocked on the door at 2 am, “I’m sorry to tell you, there’s been an accident….” Give Thanks? For most of us thanks is not what would want to pour forth from our lips.
We have all had those circumstances in life where we just could not find reason to rejoice or give thanks. For others of us, it is not even circumstantial…some of us here battle in the same way that I do, and it really makes it hard to rejoice and give thanks many, many days. A few of you that have been in Bible Study groups with me know this, the rest of you, especially from our sister congregations, do not.
Around 1990, while a student at Methodist College (now Methodist University), I was diagnosed with a chemical imbalance resulting in manic-depression, or as it is more commonly called now, bipolar disorder. The manic phases were limited, the depression waves were dark. Poetry that I wrote during that time was rejected by magazines that specialized in dark poetry because of how dark my writing was. Nothing seemed hopeful during that time. Suicide seemed like a viable option. I was in multi-visits a week therapy and heavily medicated, and very close to being hospitalized. I want to tell you that rejoicing and giving thanks were not really part of my vocabulary.
I give thanks to God now that for 20 years this January I have been off of the medication and out of regular therapy. I give credit to the medicine, a wonderful social worker and compassionate psychiatrist, and my relationship with God for bringing me to this point. It was only after the meds slowed my thinking down that the therapy and faith were able to get a foothold in this war and pull me to the point of coming off the medicine.
Mental illness is a stigma that many folks want to hide or deny. I understand why. I had my diagnosis used against me very early on, in of all places, the church. I have had family members, who after seeing that I have been off medicine so long, have suggested that the doctors may have just misdiagnosed me because they don’t like the label of mental illness. The problem is that they cannot see the battle that rages inside with, at some points, is almost daily. When I talk about it in some groups I state that I am a “recovering manic-depressant,” because like alcoholism and addiction, it is not a battle that once won is never an issue again, it is a life-long recovery process. Sometimes it makes rejoicing and giving thanks hard.
I share my story tonight for many reasons. First, because God laid it on my heart to share it tonight, not because I wanted to, but because God put it there. I have been anxious about it and I have many colleagues and friends praying me through this tonight. Secondly, because though I have had my illness used as a weapon against me in the past, I have seen God use it as a gift in talking with others who are in the battle, or helping their families understand the reality of the battle. And finally, because six years ago, when some circumstances in my life compounded this daily battle, I finally learned one reason why Paul says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.”
If there was anyone in Scripture who could have argued for seasons of life where rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks could be dismissed, Paul had the credentials. As Paul became premier evangelist to the Gentiles, he endured one trial after another…many of which would make our worst days seem like a holiday.
Paul tells the church in Corinth, for reasons other than learning to give thanks and rejoice, of what he has endured for the sake of spreading the Gospel:
Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 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; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.[i]
Like I said, if there were a person who could argue against a celebratory attitude, it would be Paul. Yet it is Paul who said, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” It is Paul that we read of in Acts, who, during one of his imprisonments, is reported to have been “praying and singing hymns to God.”[ii] Paul did not just talk about rejoicing always and giving thanks in all circumstances. He lived it out…and I now understand why.
Six years ago when a family situation weighed on my heart and mind so hard that had I still been seeing my psychiatrist, I would have likely been back on medicines, I found a new tool from God in the battle with the depressive swings. Praising God—rejoicing and giving thanks. During this season of darkness there were two songs that I listened to repeatedly on my iPod. The first was “Stand in the Rain” by Superchick, the other was “Praise You In This Storm,” by Casting Crowns. Because I want this to continue to be an evening of giving thanks and rejoicing, I am not going to sing either of those for you, I encourage you though, if you are not familiar with them, to listen to them The first is an encouragement to stand firm in the face of difficulties knowing that we won’t drown to me calling up the promise from Isaiah 43: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”[iii] The second a reminder of the promises of Christ, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age...”[iv] and “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”[v]
What does rejoicing do when, whether circumstances or mental illness leaves us feeling like there is no reason to rejoice? It does so many things.
1) It reminds us of the promises of God, especially the promises that He will give us the strength to endure and that He will never leave nor forsake us.
2) It gets our focus off of ourselves and our circumstances (the places of darkness) and onto God (the light of the world). It takes away the power of darkness in our lives and replaces it with hope and life.
3) It bears witness to the world that our relationship with Christ enables us to rise beyond our circumstances—that what we face in this world can never separate us from God—whose faithfulness to us is greater than anything that could assail us.
Is life good right now? Then “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” For God is the source of all blessings.
Is life hard right now? The “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” For that is how the battle is won…
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.