I had a few different ideas about
directions that we could go,
places we could explore,
things that might be helpful for us as a community—
but then I had three of you—
at different times in different places say to me…
“We really need to talk about thankfulness—an attitude of gratitude.”
Three of you.
Different times, different places, different conversations.
So I’m trying to listen—trying to discern— the way that God is speaking in our community.
And so… I’ve been brought kicking and screaming into a series on thankfulness.
I’m actually really excited about it— I just have to make that confession from the get-go.
I guess I wanted to tell you this from the beginning— that this wasn’t my first (or even second or third) idea for a series because it opens the door for me to tell you why:
I’m not very good at thankfulness.
I want to be, but I don’t feel like I am.
And there’s a big part of me that doesn’t feel like I can (or perhaps even should) talk about something that I’m trying to learn myself.
I feel inadequate and a bit like a fraud talking about thankfulness for three weeks.
But then—the more I thought about it,
the more I realized that that’s another reason to talk about it.
I’m a fourth person in the community that admits,
“We need to talk about thankfulness.”
So for the next three weeks leading up to the season of Advent,
we’re all going to reflecting on a theology of thankfulness.
What does it look like for us to be joyful, grateful people in the world?
And for the next three weeks, we’re going to be giving particular attention to the fact that Jesus is the Great Pastor of Belleview Chapel— not me.
We’re delving into an area where I’m so inadequate that we need the Spirit of God to preach to us.
We need the presence and the energy of God himself to be meeting us during this time and teaching us, forming us, comforting us, challenging us, remaking and renewing us.
That’s something that we need every week in every sermon— but sometimes we pastors can fool ourselves into thinking that we have mastered some kind of material and now we’re going to give to others.
That’s one of the pinnacles of foolishness.
And—thankfully—talking about thankfulness
shatters all of my delusions of spiritual competence
and brings us all into a position where we can receive from God.
So let’s pray as we begin.
We need your help this morning—and every morning.
Meet us here in these moments—
because of your mercy, because of your faithfulness, because of your love.
Speak now, for your servants are listening.
We’re going to be 1 Thessalonians today—1 Thessalonians 5.
Two weeks ago we read an entire chapter, today we’re going to be reflecting on three verses.
We’re jumping in at the end of an ancient letter— the tail-end of an early Christian leader’s (Paul’s) correspondence with a new Jesus-community in Macedonian city of Thessalonica.
Paul been catching up with them—talking about a handful of things— and we’re jumping in as he’s finishing up his letter.
(1 Thess 5.16-18) Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
As Paul is finishing up his letter, he fires a shotgun blast of imperatives— here’s a number of things for his friends to practice doing.
They’re short verses.
Verses 16 and 17 are only two words.
They don’t get shorter than that.
It takes less than 10 seconds to read them out loud,
but it will take more than any of our lifetimes to understand them.
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
When you start actually listening to what Paul is saying here— it starts to hit you like a shotgun blast.
What is Paul saying?
Surely he can’t really mean this.
Rejoice always? Pray continually?
Give thanks in all things—in all circumstances?
It’s difficult to exaggerate how
sweeping and inclusive and all-encompassing
Paul’s language is here.
Is this psychologically possible?
Is this emotionally realistic?
Is this even a good thing for people to do?
And yet, Paul throws caution and subtlety and nuance to the wind
with these tiny little statements.
Paul is uncompromisingly concrete.
The life of celebration and prayer and thankfulness is meant to be always and continual and in all things.
Christians are invited to become the kinds of people who celebrating and praying and giving thanks.
And (good grief!) does our culture need that— does our world need that.
There’s a sickness in our culture— an un-wellness, an unhealthiness in our culture.
And we can feel it in our souls and in our families and in our relationships.
We’ve got more technology and medicine and entertainment and convenience
than anyone in the history of the human race,
and yet we are never satisfied.
We’re always looking for “the next.”
It doesn’t matter what it is—
whether it’s the next phone, the next career move,
the next pair of shoes, the next game, the next book,
the next life-changing experience, maybe it’s just the next weekend,
we’re looking for “the next.”
Or we’re looking for “the more.”
More food, more money, more clothes, more channels, more sex.
Our economy runs on those two words:
“next” and “more.”
Our culture ricochets between those two words:
“next” and “more.”
Our lives are imprisoned by these two words:
“next” and “more.”
I heard a brilliant quote years ago, and I think it might capture the sickness of our culture.
It’s a longer quote, so let’s throw it up on the screen:
“The God of Genesis is characterized in part by the pleasure he takes in what he has made. ‘And God saw that it was good.’ The worldview of the envious – and to a certain extent, of the lustful and avaricious too – runs counter to God’s vision. Nothing they see is good, or good enough, or else nothing they see is enough of the good. In other words, you can never please them, which is as good a definition as you may get of what it means to be damned.”
This gets at it, doesn’t it?
Where in our culture are the people who are learning to look at what God has created and to take pleasure in it with him?
Where are the people who are learning to look at their everyday lives—
and recognize that what we have before us—
what we already have before us—
Most of us can see—
we enjoy the miracle of light and sight and sky and smiles on a daily basis.
If you’re hearing me right now, then you can hear.
Most of us can walk.
Most of us can talk.
Most of us aren’t tremendously anxious about when or how we’ll eat next.
And yet most of culture is flirting with what Keizer says: “nothing in our life is good or it’s not good enough or there’s not enough of the good.”
We need next. We need more.
Every once in a while you’ll find an exception.
Every once in a while you’ll run into the uncommon, freakish kind of person who seems to actually be enjoying their life.
Who seems to be celebrating the goodness of the world—
the goodness of their life, the goodness of what’s already theirs— and they’re something profoundly inspiring about that.
There’s something beautiful about that.
There’s something—if this was a word we could use—sacred about that.
There’s something hellish about a life that’s never satisfied— that’s always deferring thankfulness—always putting off celebration— until “next” or until “more.”
And there’s something holy—there’s something heavenly— about a life that is learning to join God in his celebration and his delight right now.
That’s the kind of life God wants for us.
That’s God’s will for us (v18).
It’s never that God has rules on chalkboard that he just wants us to obey because he invented some rules.
God’s will is that we would be fully alive.
That we would be fully human.
That we would be like him.
The life of heaven is a certain kind of life— the life of thankfulness.
Eternal life is always grateful life.
I think that’s why Paul writes what he writes. He’s inviting us to become the kinds of people who learn how to opt out of “next” and “more.”
He’s inviting us to become the kinds of people who are
learning to rejoice always
and give thanks in all things and be walking, talking lives of prayer.
In the way that parents want the best for their children,
this is what God wants for us.
He wants our lives to be whole and well and healthy.
He wants to learn how to celebrate, and how to pray, and—perhaps at the heart of it all—to be thankful.
And God wants this for us right now.
So this is what we’re going to be reflecting on the next couple of weeks. And we’re just going to stay right here in this passage.
We’re going to look at what else Paul is saying at the end of this letter— before and after these three verses— and see there’s anything we can learn.
Because it’s one thing to recognize what God wants for us, but it’s another thing for us to begin entering into it.
What does this look like in our lives?
What exactly does this mean in a broken world?
Because this seems impossible at first glance.
Maybe at second or third glance.
And maybe crazy and unbalanced. Maybe emotionally unhealthy.
How could we wrap our heads around a theology of thankfulness
and how can we begin entering into lives of thankfulness?
Especially as the empty promises Black Friday bargains begin to escalate, what might it look like for us to opt out of “next” and “more”
and enter into the life of thankfulness here and now?
Because I think that’s what God invites us into.
He invites us to lay down “next” and “more” and receive “here” and “now.”
The goodness of life—here.
The contentment of God—now.
What would that look like?
Like a lot of things in life,
we don’t have direct control over
the reflexes of our heart and the shape of our soul.
giving thanks in all things—
Paul is advocating things that we don’t know how to do.
He hits us with a shotgun blast of imperatives that we don’t know how to live into even if we wanted to.
These short little verses, push us to the limits of human free will.
There’s only so much we can choose to do.
It’s not like there’s a “thankful switch” that we can choose to flip and then we’re set.
I wish there were.
And yet we do have some kind of agency— some kind of real sway over our lives.
Every single day we make choices, decisions, resolutions, to do certain things and not other things.
From simple decisions like what kind of shampoo we want to buy to deeper kinds of resolutions like whether we’re going to forgive a person.
Every single day we make choices, decisions, resolutions, from the small to the more significant.
And I think here—in this shotgun blast of imperatives— we’re challenged to consider the tremendous responsibility that we’ve been given in the gift of life.
One of my favorite theologians, Henri Nouwen, puts it this way:
“The choice for gratitude rarely comes without some real effort. But each time I make it, the next choice is a little easier, a little freer, a little less self-conscious. Because every gift I acknowledge reveals another and another until, finally, even the most normal, obvious, and seemingly mundane event or encounter proves to be filled with grace. There is an Estonian proverb that says, ‘Who does not thank for little will not thank for much.’ Acts of gratitude make one grateful because, step by step, they reveal that all is grace.”
Perhaps that’s where begin.
We begin by choosing to be thankful for little.
It’s too much—it’s too overwhelming—to try to be thankful in all things, so perhaps we make the real effort to be thankful in small things.
Small things like
and loved ones,
and good conversation,
and board games, and football games,
and coffee—oh my word, for coffee—
I mean these are small things,
but that’s the point.
They’re small enough that we can choose to be thankful in them.
And if Nouwen is right, it may just be that as we practice being thankful small— in what we take for granted, in what is “here” and “now”—
It may just be that as we start practicing thankfulness in the small things that we may begin learning thankfulness in all things.
Like an athlete who drills in same stupid ways hour after hour,
like a musician who practices scale upon scale day after day,
like anyone who becomes excellent at anything,
maybe we’re invited to practice thankfulness.
Maybe we begin where we can.
Maybe we begin with God’s small gifts.
Maybe we begin with God’s small graces.
Over time the scales will begin to sink in.
Over time the drills begin to gives us muscle memory.
And eventually we’ll begin to learn that all is grace.
The invitation of this table is to practice thankfulness by receiving something small—something stupidly small.
In just a moment you’ll be invited to come and and receive from this table—
receive some bread, dip it in the cup, and return to your seat.
God gives us a new kind of life—his very own life— that’s what this table is about.
God relentlessly gives grace to us.
At our absolute worst—
when we’re hard and selfish and bitter and unthankful— God takes our hellish lives upon himself.
The body of Jesus is broken.
The blood of Jesus is poured out.
But our hellish lives do not have the last word.
The light of Easter banishes all darkness, and the living Jesus is inviting all of us into lives of resurrection.
It almost never looks possible.
It almost always begins stupidly small.
But it’s what God wants— for us to rejoice and be with him and be thankful in all things.
May God get what he wants.
On the night in which he gave himself up for us,
Our Lord Jesus took bread, gave thanks to you, Father, broke the bread
gave it to his disciples, and said:
“Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Likewise, when the supper was over, he took the cup,
gave thanks to you, gave it to his disciples, and said:
“Drink from this, all of you, this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
And, Father, it’s in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.
Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here,
and on these gifts of bread and wine.
Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.
By your Spirit teach us see that all is grace,
may we enter into your life of delight and contentment learning gratitude in the small until we learn gratitude in all.