God tells us, through the Apostle Paul, to "Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus." You may remember that these are the words I invariably use during the laying on of hands at ordinations and installations. I use them at such occasions because they are the necessary pre-requisite to faithfully serving the Lord as a pastor. There are too many things that tempt us pastor-types to fret, to be disappointed, to allow ourselves to be too busy for prayer in the life of the pastor of almost any congregation, so I know that remembering the goodness of the Lord and the joy of our salvation is fundamental to the effective work of the ministry.
But these words do not apply only to the pastors. These words are for all Christians. If you want to be and remain a Christian, you can find no better words of exhortation to listen to or meditate on. Rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving are the breath of the child of God. We could no more restrict our thanksgiving to one day a year than we could restrict our breathing to one day a year, or our eating to a single holiday. The child of God breathes in the grace and blessing of God, and breathes out praise and thanksgiving. Those who don't are either not Christians, or are not long to be a Christian.
Thanksgiving is fundamentally faith. It says that God is God, coupled with the thought that we are not. We are receivers of His largess. Take a moment and list what you can think of that God has given you, starting with life, air, consciousness, the ability to read and understand these words, a functioning body, and so on and so forth. God blesses the thankless and the unbelieving, and abundantly, although many would eagerly seek greater abundance. For those that believe, the abundance is coupled to the gifts of grace, forgiveness, eternal life, salvation and, well, so on and so forth.
Thanksgiving, prayer, and rejoicing are both what faith causes us to do, and, at the same time, works to keep us focused on the faith. First, faith causes these three things. Rejoicing, for example, is the only realistic response to understanding the Law and believing the Gospel. If you know what sin is and how destructive it promises to be for you, then the assurance of forgiveness is a cause for rejoicing. Death and hell are gone, taken out of your future. You will surely rejoice at such a thing, if it is real to you. Rescue from certain temporal death has that effect on people in other circumstances. It changes their lives, oftentimes. The Unsinkable Molly Brown, famous in song and story, got her title, "unsinkable", by surviving the sinking of the Titanic. Others spend their lives, sometimes constructively and sometimes destructively, in awe and wonder that they survived.
You have been rescued from death both of the body and of the soul - eternal death in hell. Your body might one day die - it certainly will if Christ delays His coming a while longer - but that death is temporary. You will rise from the grave just as surely as Jesus did, and His resurrection history! More than that, that death of the body will be more refreshing than a good night's sleep. When you awaken from the grave, your body will be utterly transformed into an eternal body, untouched by sickness, sorrow, or death. If you think about it, and you actually believe that, how can you keep from rejoicing? The prospect of resurrection and life eternal is more delightful than the prospect of vacation or a great night out after a long week of work. It is truly something to look forward to and be excited about, just as a little child is excited about Christmas and awaits the day with eager anticipation.
They only await gifts and toys. You await gifts too - but you know what they are, at least in part. You will be strong and healthy again. Those pains you have accumulated will be gone. Everything will make sense, as sin loses its ability to cloud your reason and perceptions. Life will continue with all of the joys and pleasures we know, and even greater ones, but without and pauses or downturns. Everything will be just right - just the way it should be, and we will know and sense the rightness of it because there will be no sin or evil around - not in us, or assaulting us. I am not saying we will have precisely the same pleasures - good food, our favorite books, and such. But the pleasures of that everlasting life will be of the same sort - life will be good and meaningful and filled with enjoyment and celebration. The Bible tells us that much. As we bear the burdens of the day of this brief life here, how can we not rejoice always in what awaits us at the end of this day?
The simple fact is that we cannot lose sight of what is promised if we are celebrating it and rejoicing in the love of God for us and giving thanks. If we don't think about it and rejoice in it, we can easily forget it, and with it, faith.
When you believe the love which God has for you, and the intimate involvement in your daily life which God tells us about ("the very hairs on your head are all numbered") it is difficult to imagine that you would not be in constant conversation with Him. That is what "Pray without ceasing" means. It doesn't mean that you cannot come to the end of a particular prayer, or stop thinking about prayer for a moment or two to concentrate on what you are doing. It means that you are never "done" with prayer. You never get to where you say, "I think I have prayed enough."
They like that line in the movies, but then again, the writers of those movie scripts tend to be unbelievers. They don't believe in God or grace and so they think just a little prayer is quite enough.
Prayer is 'talking to God.' Heaven knows (quite literally) that there is enough trouble and pain in this life that we can always use a little help. Sometimes, the most disturbed people are helped significantly by simply being able to talk about what troubles them. We generally are not among the most disturbed, but, boy!, it does feel good to 'air it out' once in a while and talk about the pressures and the pains, the sorrows and the obstacles of life. God says, "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." He invites us, "Call upon Me in the day of trouble." There are promises in these passages, but first and foremost it is just good to know that God wants us to talk directly to Him, and He is such a good listener! He almost never interrupts. And He never gives you bad advice. And when you ask Him He will unfailingly gives you the best help you can hope for.
He even gives you a shoulder to cry on, if that is what you need. He sends you your brothers and sisters in Christ for that purpose. He strengthens you both through His Word and in the Holy Supper. And He does miraculous things. He knows your need even before you tell Him, and He is at work setting up the circumstances of your help and relief long before you think to ask. The only problem you can have with this prayer thing is if you don't use it, or you don't expect it to actually work. James writes in his epistle, "You do not have because you do not ask."
Setting aside the help stuff and the trouble, when you know that you have the Creator of all there is to talk to, and He is listening and eager to hear you, why would you not want to talk to Him? People will talk to themselves. Why not talk to God? The single reason that makes any sense is that you don't believe - that He is listening, or that He cares about you, or that He will do anything. But all of those thoughts are discounted in the Bible. He is listening, and He wants you to share with Him. Prayer keeps God real in your mind. God is real anyhow, but prayer reminds you of that truth. It keeps His good will toward you in the forefront of your thinking. If you are talking to Him 'all the time', then you will have much more peace of mind, and less fear and tension - even in situations that generally cause fear and tension. Prayer reminds you that you believe. Not praying allows the physical realities of the world around you to blind you to God's presence and love.
"In everything give thanks", is an act of firm and clear-eyed faith. Anyone can "give thanks" once a year. Who it is that many in our society may be giving thanks to is up for debate, but it requires no special qualities to acknowledge that things are better than they might be in other circumstances. The thing that requires a well-grounded and active faith is the giving of thanks "in everything". That means giving thanks in sickness and in sorrow. It requires thanksgiving in pain and times of deep trouble. In short, it means that you are to be giving thanks no matter what is happening around you or in your life. It is that persistent and constant quality that makes a firm faith so essential.
In order to give thanks 'no matter what', you must believe that no matter what you experience here and now, God is with you, and He is blessing you, and He is guiding you, and you are safe, ultimately. Your faith needs to see every experience as coming from the hands of God and for your eternal welfare. You need to face the reality of the situation which you cannot perceive with your senses, and measure the realities that you can perceive by sense in the light of the unseen truths. This means you must be the sort of Christian who actually does walk by faith and not by sight, and not merely parrot those words because they sound right.
We have our lives for which to thank God. We have Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins and all of the wonderful promises of the Gospel about which to give thanks. We have the high privilege of sharing in the work of God by bringing the Gospel to others, and by loving one another as His people. This, too, is worth our thanksgiving. Every moment of our lives is made possible by God's on-going attention and care, and when our physical life is over, it is not really over. For those that believe, the end of life here is the beginning of a new and eternal life in the presence of God and away from sin and sorrow and death.
It should be plain that such all-the-time thanksgiving will never allow the goodness of God or the magnitude of His promises to be far from our minds. Thanking God deepens our love and respect for Him as we remember all of His goodness, grace, and love for us. Not thinking to give thanks, or doing it only now and then, can allow us to lose our awareness of just what God does, and how much He loves us, and can make it possible for our sinful flesh to deceive us into judging God by how well He meets our demands and how we feel about the moment. It is dangerous.
Lack of thanksgiving is listed in Romans 1:21 as one of the fundamental and first sins of men, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened."
Each of these three things are related, and each of them - rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving - are reflections of faith and the natural behavior of faith. They also keep our faith before our eyes, so to speak. It is analogous to the TV commercial which said that if you took every cigarette in the world and laid them end to end, you wouldn't have time to smoke a single one of them. Rejoicing in God's goodness to us always, doesn't give you time or the inclination to grumble or find fault or be dissatisfied with what God gives you. Praying without ceasing keeps the Lord in your mind and heart, and assists you with handling the many pains and pressures of this life. Giving thanks in everything leaves no room for doubt or for the devil to work despair or unbelief. So these three both breathe out the nature of faith, and breathe in blessings and comfort for the believer.
And, given all of that, who needs a special day? We will honor that day, so that we do not give the world a reason to forget, or to doubt our faith, but just one day of thanksgiving? I don't think so.
Yours in the Lord,
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