Sermon

I Thessalonians 5:16-24

Christmas Cheer—All Year!

By Richard Niell Donovan

This is a happy time of year—for everyone except turkeys. We just finished celebrating Thanksgiving, and are now preparing to celebrate Christmas. The days are growing short, but Christmas brightens our nights. Children look forward to Christmas presents, and parents look forward to the children’s joy. It is easy for us to be thankful at this time of year.

In his letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, Paul provides a guide to victorious Christian living. At the heart of it all is a spirit of thanksgiving. God wants us to be thankful, because thanksgiving leads to abundant living. Paul says:

“Rejoice always.
Pray without ceasing.
In everything give thanks,
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus toward you” (5:16-18).

This tells us that there are three marks of a faithful Christian. Christians are supposed to be (1) joyful (2) prayerful and (3) thankful. Consider that for a moment. We are supposed to be (1) joyful (2) prayerful and (3) thankful.

Paul is not suggesting that we mask our true emotions with a veneer of thanksgiving. He is suggesting that we allow ourselves to discover thanksgiving—in all circumstances.

We talked about this passage in our adult Bible study. Someone asked, “How can we give thanks in all circumstances? If I lose my job, must I be thankful for that?”

The answer lies in a careful reading of the verse. Paul does not ask us to be thankful FOR all circumstances. He asks us to be thankful IN all circumstances. There is a vast difference. Being thankful FOR all circumstances would require us to pray, “Thank you, God, that I lost my job!” That would not be honest. God does not want dishonest prayers.

But Paul does teach us to pray:

Thank you, God, that you are with me,
even in tough times.

Thank you, God,
that you have the answer to every problem.

Thank you, God,
that you are faithful to those who love you.

Thank you, God,
that you can turn every Good Friday
into an Easter!

Help me, Lord!
Save me, Lord!
Thank you, Lord!

• That is not a prayer FOR all circumstances. It does not thank God for our troubles.

• It is a prayer IN all circumstances. It says that, no matter how terrible the moment might be, we believe that God will redeem us.

• It is not a prayer of thanksgiving FOR the circumstances––but for the God who lifts us above the circumstances.

A number of years ago, a friend gave me a copy of a book on this subject that affected me profoundly. The book is Prison to Praise, and was written by Merlyn Carothers. The book sold two-and-a-half million copies the first year it was in print. It obviously struck a responsive chord in many hearts.

Carothers started life poorly. He was a hard-core juvenile delinquent, who ended up in prison. Except, for Carothers, prison was not the end but the beginning! In prison, Carothers found Christ.

Once Carothers became a Christian, he used his jail time to read the Bible. He made an important discovery! He discovered a note of joy and thanksgiving that ran throughout the Bible—joy and thanksgiving that transcended circumstances—joy and thanksgiving that were not the result of prosperity but of faith.

• Carothers read the prayer that Jesus prayed this prayer just before his death. Jesus prayed, “that (the disciples) may have my joy made full in themselves” (John 17:13). Here was a dying man, praying that his disciples might have joy.

• Carothers read Jesus’ words about persecution. Jesus said:

“Blessed are you when people reproach you, persecute you,
and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad,
for great is your reward in heaven.
For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you”

(Matthew 5:11-12).

• Carothers read our text for today. Paul said:

“Rejoice always.
Pray without ceasing.
In everything give thanks,
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus toward you.”

• Finally, Carothers read the passage in Romans that helped him to understand why it is possible to give thanks in all circumstances. He read:

“We know that all things work together for good
for those who love God,
to those who are called according to his purpose”
(Romans 8:28).

Carothers decided to take God at his word. If God called him to give thanks in all circumstances, Carothers would do that. Even though he was still in prison, he would give thanks. He would not give thanks for the troubles that his eyes could see, but would give thanks for the salvation that his faith could see.

When he began giving thanks, God began to do wonderful things in his life. Doors that had been closed now opened wide, including prison doors. Carothers was released early.

One miraculous door led to another, and Carothers found himself in the ministry. He taught other people about thanksgiving in all circumstances, and they too began to experience miracles in their lives.

Prison to Praise tells of many marvelous things that happened when people gave thanks to God. The most dramatic story involved a young woman whose name was Sue.

Sue’s husband was in the Army. He had received orders to go to Vietnam, and there seemed to be no way out. Sue had nobody else. She had been adopted as a child, but was estranged from her adopted family. She had nobody but her husband, and he was getting ready to leave. Sue was threatening suicide.

Carothers’ heart went out to the young woman. He knew how desperate she must feel. Truly, there was no way out—except for God! Carothers told her of his experiences with faith. He told her how God had honored his prayers of thanksgiving. He asked her to pray, asking God for his help and giving him thanks for his power to turn even this hardship into something good. Sue was not fully convinced, but she decided to try. She prayed for God’s help, and gave him thanks for his love.

Later that day, Sue found herself talking to a stranger in a waiting room. The young man showed her pictures of his family. As he flipped through the photos, Sue was stunned to see one that she recognized.

Sue’s adoptive parents had always kept her adoption certificate in a drawer. Attached to the certificate was a small photo of her real mother. She had never met her real mother, and did not know anything about her. Now she found herself looking at a photograph of a woman who was the spitting image of her real mother.

Excited, Sue began to ask questions about the woman in the picture. The man was able to give her the woman’s name and phone number. Sue contacted the woman, and told her the story. The woman was as stunned as Sue was.

As it turned out, the woman really was Sue’s mother. Before Sue’s birth, she had signed papers giving up her baby for adoption. She had never seen Sue, and had no idea where she was. They were quickly reunited. Sue’s husband did go to Vietnam, but now Sue was no longer alone. She had her mother.

That sounds like hocus-pocus, but it is not. I decided to try giving thanks in all circumstances, and have been blessed by it. I am convinced that a thankful heart becomes a clear channel through God can send blessings.

In the years that have passed since I read Prison to Praise, God has honored many of my prayers of thanksgiving. I have also heard many other stories of honored prayers. One of my favorites has to do with Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch woman who survived the Nazi Holocaust.

Corrie and her family sheltered Jews in their home to save them from the Holocaust. A neighbor betrayed them, and they were condemned to a concentration camp. Several members of Corrie’s family died in the camps, but Corrie survived. One of her many stories of God’s grace had to do with fleas.

Corrie and her sister, Betsy, were imprisoned together. The camp was horrible. Fleas nearly drove them crazy. Fleas were everywhere. Fleas got in their hair and under their skin. Fleas made it impossible to sleep. Corrie and Betsy had no soap or flea power. The fleas swarmed unchecked. It was terrible.

But one day, Betsy (Corrie’s sister) said:

“I have found something in the Bible
that will help us. It says, ‘In all things give thanks!'”

Corrie said, “I can’t give thanks for the fleas.”

Betsy said:

“Give thanks that we are together.
Most families have been split up.”

Corrie said, “I can do that.”

Betsy said:

“Give thanks that, somehow,
the guards did not check our belongings,
and our Bible is with us.”

Corrie said, “I can do that.”

And she did. She gave thanks that she was with her sister, and she gave thanks for their Bible. She did not even consider giving thanks for the fleas.

But much later, Corrie learned what Paul Harvey would call “the rest of the story.” She learned that the guards often assaulted and raped women prisoners. But the guards never touched the women in Corrie’s section of the camp. The guards did not want to expose themselves to the fleas, so they stayed away.

Corrie said that this taught her to give thanks for all things—because you never know….

We are in the midst of a season of joy and thanksgiving. Let us hear Paul’s call to make all of life a season of joy and thanksgiving. He says:

“Rejoice always.
Pray without ceasing.
In everything give thanks,
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus toward you.”

We can do that!

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2006 Richard Niell Donovan