Sunday, November 23, 2008

Nov 23, 2008 - Why Are We Thankful

This begins a standing tradition of posting my weekly sermons to this blog. Some may be pretty decent, some may be lousy, some may be full of typos (though I try to be pretty conscientious).  I welcome your thoughts and feedback.  Here's installment #1:

November 23, 2008
First Presbyterian Church of DuPage 8 am

1 Thes 5.16-18 -- “Why are we thankful?”

In four days it will be Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving begins one of my favorite times of year: the get-togethers with family, the waiting and reflection of Advent, and the excitement of picking out or handmaking just the right gift for everyone on our list. And then the hush and wonder of Christmas itself. It’s a beautiful time of year, even with the snow.

But very often the experience itself fails to live up to the hype and expectation. The expected snowfall turns to sleet, happy times with family and old friends ends up feeling awkward and estranged, we mistakenly give all of our friends and family socks and fruitcake for presents. More seriously, this season is often a time of heartache, loneliness, and loss. The cold brings with it pneumonia, the flu, funerals. At this time of year we’re haunted by the memories of those who are not with us. It’s difficult.

So my question this morning is, Why should we be thankful during this season? Do we call Thursday Thanksgiving simply because it makes us feel good to have a day off, a big dinner, and a chance to watch some football? Even more importantly, why should we be thankful at all? We see the world falling apart around us. We see ourselves falling apart, outside and in. Why should we be thankful?

In 1 Thessalonians 5, verses 16 through 18, Paul gives a command that places us right in the middle of these questions. Turn there with me and follow along as I read his words.
[16] Rejoice always! [17] Constantly pray! [18] In everything give thanks! For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

I. To get Paul’s full message in these three short verses, we will need to start this morning with some basic Bible study. To understand what Paul is saying here, we will need to read this passage in context. We will have to look at what Paul has said in the preceding paragraphs and pages to see what these verses are saying.

Paul himself directs us to do this in the passage, though we might not hear him say this on our first read through. Let’s begin looking at the text this morning by focusing on the last phrase: for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Now, not having read the better part of the letter that precedes this phrase, it probably just sounds like a spiritual, religious statement. But Paul rarely-if-ever just says things to sound religious. Instead, this phrase works like a signal, a catchphrase, that directs us to look back at what he’s already said in chapter 4, verse 3.

While you turn to 4 verse 3, it will be helpful to remember how the letters that make up most of our New Testament were originally read. When Paul sent this letter off to the church in Thessalonica, people read letters differently than we do today. I’m pretty familiar with how we use letters today. When my wife Cindy and I were just falling in love back in college, we sent quite a few letters back and forth. At Christmas when Cindy would drive home to Michigan and I’d fly off to my family in Bozeman, Montana, we would write a letter a day to each other. I would check the mailbox every day we were apart for a purple envelope from Michigan. When I found one, I would settle down in my bedroom or the family room or some quiet place to drink in every word Cindy wrote. This is not how letterer worked in Paul’s day. They were not a private affair. Rather, as Paul indicates at the close of the letter in 5.27, letters were to be “read to all the brothers and sisters.” Instead of scurrying away to a quiet room to read in peace, when the Thessalonians received a letter from Paul, they rounded up the church, had them gather round, while one of the member who could read (literacy rates were not high in the first century) read out what Paul had to say, to the whole church, at one sitting. I’ve thought about simply reading through one the New Testament letter as a sermon on a Sunday morning, just like the early church would have done, but that might be a bit much for our modern-day short attention spans. At any rate, this is the way we should hear Paul’s letter when we read it, as an excerpt from a much longer performance.

That said, let’s look at chapter 4, verse 3. The Thessalonians would have just hear this part of the letter minutes before hearing our text in chapter 5. In 4.3, Paul says For this is God’s will: that you become holy. These words should sound familiar. In our passage, Paul says For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. This rather formulaic phrase shows up in the letter only in these two places, binding them together and telling us that all the parts of the letter need to be understood together.

Let’s track with what Paul says in 4.3; follow along with me in your bibles. From the statement in 4.3, Paul launches into some strong words urging the Thessalonian believers to be holy in their sexuality. In verses 6 and 7, Paul says In this matter [of sexuality] no one should violate the rights of his brother or take advantage of him, because the Lord is the avenger in all these cases, as we also told you earlier and warned you solemnly. For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness. This is some strong language.

From here Paul moves rather abruptly to talk about the return of Jesus, the Day of the Lord. In 4.16 he says For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Paul assure the believers that whether we are “asleep”--his metaphor for being dead--or alive, we will be with Jesus. The day of Jesus’ return will come just as surely for those who die in Christ as for those who are still living.

Now listen to what Paul does in the next verses. In a brilliant, even poetic way, Paul shows how what originally seemed to be two very unrelated parts--his exhortation to sexual holiness and his instruction about Jesus’ return--are really just two faces of one thing, two sides of the same coin. Pay close attention now because the deep connections between these two parts will help us understand why Paul tells us to be thankful later in chapter 5.

In chapter 5, verses 1 through 3, Paul explains to his listeners that they need not speculate about when they day of Jesus’ return will come, because, as he says you know quite well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. Now watch what Paul does in verses 4 through 8: But you, brothers and sisters, are not in the darkness, that the day should overtake you like a thief would, for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness, so then let us not sleep as others do, but lest us be alert and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But since we are of day, we must stay sober by putting on the breastplate of faith and love and as a helmet our hope of salvation.

Paul here ties together the day of Jesus’ return and the way we live with a play on the ideas day and night, light and darkness. He says The Day comes just like a thief in the night--here he’s describing the surprising way Jesus’ return will come upon us. But we are also to live in the light of day--in light of the fact that Jesus will return--even in the midst of darkness. We are to stay awake and sober, not being lazy or getting drunk, as we watch and wait for the daybreak of Jesus’ return. It’s clever; it’s poetic. This daytime-living in the midst of darkness actually fills out what Paul means in 4 verse 3 by becoming holy.

II. This brings us back to out text for this morning. With this context set up, we can better understand what Paul asks of the believers when he says Always rejoice! Constantly pray! In everything give thanks! But what are we to rejoice for? Why do we pray? For what are we to give thanks?

For us to get the force of these commands, we need to undo some of the ways our culture has shaped our assumptions about rejoicing, praying, and thanksgiving. When we hear the commands to rejoice or give thanks, we usually think of mustering up some sort of feeling within ourselves. We seek some emotional state--feeling joyful or being thankful. We struggle to distinguish between rejoicing and mere happiness. And usually we only think about thanksgiving in the context of “being polite.” We’re taught early on our duty to say our please-and-thank-you’s. Do we mouth these same obligatory or grudging words to God?
Prayer is perhaps the one command of these three that has best resisted this sentimentalizing drift. But even prayer we can wrongly understand. All too often our prayers become a matter of only our self-expression before God, a quiet, seemingly one-sided conversation in our hearts with the greatest result being that maybe in the end we feel better about our situation. But when we say the Lord’s Prayer, not a single word is about our feelings. As the prayer Jesus taught us to pray teaches us, prayer is fundamentally about asking God to come and meet our needs--our need for bread, for forgiveness, for preservation from hard times, for deliverance from the Enemy, and, most basically, for his kingdom to come.

I think we are often afraid to pray like this. Maybe we’ve tried it--or maybe we’re too scared to--but when we’ve asked God to come and save us in some specific situation of need, we haven’t seen God come, we have not been rescued from this evil here in our lives. So we resort to quiet prayer in our hearts, hoping to manipulate them into accepting things the way they are, to be happy with it, even to be thankful to receive the world--broken as it is--as coming from God’s providence.

This is not what Paul commands the Thessalonians to do. He is not saying, “settle for things as they are. Be happy about it--in fact, be thankful. And as you do, quietly ask God to change your hearts.” God might in fact sometime say something like this to one of us--like he did with Paul and his thorn in the flesh. But this is not the usual way God works. God works by coming to save us; this is his characteristic way of relating to the world. We need to hear these words robustly: Always rejoice! Constantly pray! In everything give thanks!

III. But the question still has not been answered: Why rejoice, pray, give thanks? Before we find the answer to this question, I want us to notice one other feature of what Paul says here. In our text this morning, Paul stresses the “all-ness” of the commands. In fact, this motif shows up all over the surrounding chunk of text. In verses 14 and 15, he urges the Thessalonians to be patient with everybody and to pursue everyone’s good. In the following verses he stresses that they are to test everything and to avoid every form of evil. In the same way, the believers’ rejoicing, praying and giving thanks are to exhibit this same “all-ness.” The all-pervasive character of these three commands pertains particularly to when and in what circumstances they are to be carried out. When are they to rejoice? Always! When are they to pray? Constantly! When are they to give thanks? In every circumstance.

Maybe this sounds too idealistic--a nice thought but out of touch with the pressures and pain of real life. But before we excuse ourselves from Paul’s commands, let’s look back at the circumstances of Paul and the believers in Thessalonica. Already in the very first paragraphs of the letter, as he’s thanking God for the way the believers have let the gospel blossom forth in their lives, Paul comments in verse 6 that the Thessalonians first heard the gospel amid persecution. In chapter 2 verse 2, Paul briefly rehearses the story of his preaching in Philippi and then his arrival in Thessalonica. He relates how he faced suffering and harsh treatment in Philippi--we remember the story in Acts 16 of Paul and Silas being whipped and thrown in prison only to be rescued by a God-sent earthquake that resulted in the jailor becoming a Christian--and he continues to tell how he met continued opposition form the Jews in Thessalonica. 2.14 and 3 verses 3, 4, and 7 all indicate that this suffering and persecution continue, not only for Paul but also for the Thessalonian believers. Acts 17 narrates how a violent mob lynched the owner of the house where Paul was staying in the city, how the owner was dragged into the streets and thrown into prison.

Paul is not unacquainted with pain and suffering in his own life, nor is he out of touch with the trouble and violence facing the believers. Yet he says Always rejoice! Constantly pray! In every circumstance give thanks! Why?

IV. We do not rejoice because of suffering. We do not pray that things remain the same. We do not give thanks for pain. This world is broken and groaning. We feel in our relationship, in those people we love most. We know it when we look inside ourselves. You don’t need me to give a list of examples or illustrations of how bad things are. You already know them in your hearts, in your worrying thoughts, in the dark hours before you fall asleep.

We rejoice because God will save us. We pray that God will save us. We give thanks because God will save us. More specifically, and this is Paul’s argument here, we rejoice because Jesus, who bore our suffering and sin on his cross, was raised from the dead and he will come again. This is what we ask for in every prayer. We give thanks because even if we suffer and feel forsaken now, Jesus is coming again to save us from every trouble, every need, every pain, and from every evil.

All the exhortation to holy, daytime living in the preceding chapters and verses find their deepest motivation, their final reason and goal, in this singular object of joy, prayer, and thanksgiving. We live as children of the daylight in the midst of the darkness in hope and confidence of the coming Daybreak. It is this sure hope of Jesus’ return that our lifestyle and actions are revealed as anticipation--joyful and prayerful and thankful anticipation of Jesus’ return. Beyond this we have no reason to rejoice, to pray, or to give thanks.

I don’t know if the church in Thessalonica used the Lord’s Prayer in they gathered together. If they did, perhaps this is what they prayed constantly: Our Father who is in heaven, let your name be holy. Your kingdom come, your will be done. When we need bread to eat today--Your kingdom come, your will be done. When we need forgiveness--Your kingdom come, your will be done. When we are suffering--Your kingdom come, your will be done. When we need to be saved form the Evil One--Your kingdom come, your will be done.

And we rejoice; we give thanks. For as Paul says in the close of his letter Faithful is he who calls you, and he will bring it to pass. Amen.

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