I Thessalonians 5:16-24
Is there anyone here today who has ever written a letter to Santa Claus? Anybody? Maybe you or someone in your house? You know, sometimes those letters can be rather interesting. Let me share with you a couple that I came across. “Dear Santa: Last year you didn’t leave me anything good. The year before last year you didn’t leave me anything good. Santa – this year is your last chance.” “Dear Santa: My baby brother would like a cowboy suit. Do you have any that come with diapers?” “Dear Santa: In my house there are three boys. Richard is two. Jeffrey is four. Norman is seven. Richard is good sometimes. Jeffrey is good sometimes. Norman is good all the time. Signed, Norman.”
What an exciting time of the year this is! Everyone – especially the kiddos – are just really getting excited, right?
For many of us older kids, it can be an exciting time too! If nothing else, it certainly is a season for joy. In spite of the stress that we talked about last week that so many of us experience in the process of “getting ready,” it is a most joyful time of the year, wouldn’t you agree? This is a season of joy – and prayer – and giving thanks. Listen again to what the Apostle Paul has to say about this in our reading from I Thessalonians. “Rejoice always – pray without ceasing – give thanks in all circumstances – for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
If you’ve ever wondered what God’s will for you is, I want you to listen. However, this is not a message that’s going to tell you how to know what God’s will is for you when it comes to where you should live – or what school to go to – or what profession you should pursue – or what kind of car you should drive. Nothing like that. But it’s pretty clear to me anyway that God’s overall plan for you – God’s desire for you – and yes, let’s even say God’s will for your life – is that you learn what it means to “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances. For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
I know sometimes that when we read the Bible, things aren’t always as clear as we would want them to be. Which is one reason why I think Bible study is so important. Some things can just be difficult to understand. Sometimes we preachers can be difficult to understand!
But this reading from I Thessalonians is pretty clear. So let’s start with “rejoice always.” In every circumstance of your life – no matter where it is that you go, or what it is that you do – what God wants for you – is to rejoice always – or to say it another way – to live a life of joy. Now – this being the third weekend in Advent – the weekend of joy – I want to spend a few moments on this.
I know that when I say the word, “joy,” some of you are thinking, “Joy? What do I have to rejoice about?” Some of you right now might be thinking things like: “Randy, if only you knew what the doctor told me just this week.” Or “Pastor, I hate my job.”
“My investments are going down the tube.” “My parents are aging, and it’s a struggle.” “My kids are rebellious – and it’s a struggle.” “Pastor, I’m failing science.” Or “Gee – my arthritis is acting up again.” And that litany of woes sometimes just goes on and on. And yeah, sure, life is full of bad things. There are no guarantees in life! If it makes you feel any better – we all struggle – we all struggle with a wide variety of challenges – difficult moments from time to time. So we’re all in this together.
But you say, “Oh, Pastor. If only I could win the lottery. If only I could strike it big – then I’d have something to rejoice about.” Hey, listen! If you DO win the lottery – I want to know about it. And I’ll help you rejoice! But if you’re waiting to strike it big in order to find joy in life – let me tell you – it’s probably not going to happen. And most of those big lottery winners you hear about? Studies have shown that years later, a majority of those big winners are miserable. And in many cases it ruined their lives.
And let me repeat at this point what I say so often. There is a difference between being filled with joy – and being happy. Winning the lottery might make you happy, for a while at least, but it won’t bring you joy. Happiness depends on the right things happening to you. Joy is something that comes from God. Joy is a gift from God and doesn’t come and go depending on whether good or bad things happen to you. Joy is an attitude – a way of being – in spite of your circumstances. Joy is something that touches your whole being – every part of who you are.
Listen! May I be so bold enough to say that joy is a gift from God. So when it comes to my circumstances – regardless of what those circumstances might be – I can make a choice. I can learn to rejoice always – OR I can choose to be bitter. I can choose to be envious. I can choose to be greedy. I can choose to worry. OR I can choose to accept the gift of joy from God. I can choose to rejoice always. Not easy! I know that. I am NOT saying that this is easy. But if it is true that I can choose my attitude – then I want to learn what it means to “rejoice always.”
So what do you have to be joyful about? – How about the presence of Jesus Christ in your life? – How about the Holy Spirit at work in your life? – How about the gift of the forgiveness of sins, and the promise of eternal life with God? – How about that loving parent, that devoted spouse, that faithful friend?
Joy comes from knowing that God is with you in all of your circumstances – both good and bad. Joy does not depend only on things happening in your life that make you feel good. Although it’s easier to be joyful when things are going well, I know that. But joy does not have to disappear when the good times go away. Perhaps the one exception to all of this is if you or a loved one is suffering from clinical depression. Then you need to see a professional. After treatment, then you can work on restoring your joy.
And then, Paul says to pray without ceasing. Pray without ceasing does not mean talking to God through endless petitions. In fact, at one point Jesus tells us to keep it short. But he also tells us we can pray as often and as long we want. Kind of like the PUSH method. P-U-S-H. Pray Until Something Happens. PUSH!
Let me suggest that to pray without ceasing is just being aware that we are always in the presence of God. For instance – Nancy and I love to travel. Sometimes we fly, and sometimes we drive. We have driven cross country on several occasions. You know – we’re kind of stuck there in the car with each other. Sometimes we will talk for hours. Other times we can ride for miles without saying a word. But I am always aware that she is right there beside me.
To pray without ceasing is to be aware that God is with you all the time. No matter where you go – no matter what you do. And you can reach out to Him – and talk to Him – pray at anytime because God is always right beside you. That’s what Paul is talking about when he says, “Pray without ceasing.”
The last thing Paul mentions here is to “Give thanks.” Actually, he says “Give thanks in all circumstances.” All circumstances? Yeah, well. Okay. That doesn’t sound so easy.
Maybe what we need to do is to start with thanking God for the little things. We usually have no problem thanking God for the big things – like the birth of a baby. Like getting that promotion, or that pay increase. Like acing that science test that you were sure you were going to flunk.
But when we learn to start with the small things, giving thanks in all things comes a little easier. Like that first sip of coffee or tea in the morning. Like the first warm day of Spring. Like a Bills victory over the Green Bay Packers. Oh! That would be a big thing, wouldn’t it! But learning to give thanks for the small things develops a spirit of thanksgiving. And that’s what Paul is talking about.
You see, Paul is also a realist. He is not saying that as disciples of Jesus Christ we are to ignore pain and sorrow. No. But what he is saying – at least this makes sense to me – what he is saying is to find a way to give thanks to God even within the pain and sorrow. Even when you don’t feel like rejoicing – even when you don’t feel like praying – even when you don’t feel like giving thanks for anything. I want to suggest to you that rejoicing – and praying – and giving thanks – even when you’re going through the most difficult of times – can make your circumstances better.
Why? Because no matter what happens to you – no matter what circumstances you find yourself in – you have a choice. And I am NOT saying that the choice is easy – but the choice is this. Am I going to allow my circumstances to make me bitter? Or better? Bitter or better? Which would you rather choose? Which would you rather be?
So during this Advent season – as Christmas gets closer and closer – may I encourage you to choose your attitude – to the extent that you can. Choose your attitude – Dude!
Rejoice always! Choose joy! Pray without ceasing. Talk to God about anything at anytime. And in all things, give thanks. Amen