August 28, 2022

Always Joyful, Prayerful, and Thankful

Preacher: Bryce Morgan Series: Our Bible Reading Plan (2021-2022) Topic: One Truth: Walk in Truth Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18

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Children's Lesson (click here) 

I. 'Checkout Lane' Commands?

Some of the commands of the Bible are well-known as being exactly that; for example, “you shall not bear false witness”. Most people, even those who wouldn't consider themselves religious, recognize that Bible-kind of language. Some of the commands of the Bible are well known and sober us the moment we hear them; for example, “you shall have no other gods before me”, or “you shall not murder.” Some of the commands of the Bible are well known and seem especially difficult to live out; for example, “...if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also... Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:39, 44).

But the Bible also contains commands that some might describe as 'checkout lane' commands. Think about the items you find at the very end of your shopping experience, the ones lining the checkout lane; things like gum and mints, candy, magazines, lip balm, gift cards. These are usually little things that may catch our attention for the seconds or minutes we're standing in line, or things we may buy every once in a while; but most of the time, we think of them as something 'extra'; maybe something less important. It's a pack of gum, right? It's not a steak or salad or a cake from the bakery.

In our time together this morning around God's word, I'd like us to consider three commands that some may be tempted to treat as 'checkout lane' commands. Why? Because they are small, and seemingly simple, and we find them at the end... of our trip through I Thessalonians. Turn there if you haven't already, to the closing words of I Thessalonians 5.


II. The Passage: “Always... Without Ceasing... in All Circumstances” (5:16-18)

Look with me at vs. 16-18. This is what the Apostle Paul writes to this young church, to these new followers of Jesus, in the Macedonian city of Thessalonica. Now sit back and get comfortable as I read through this passage. Try not to drift off, okay? (v. 16) Paul calls them to...

Rejoice always, [17] pray without ceasing, [18] give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Yep, that's it. I don't think anyone's asleep, are they? So at first glance, these very short verses seem straightforward and simple. And in one sense they are. But just because something is simple from one perspective, that doesn't mean it lacks depth; and it doesn't mean it's easy. A command that's clear, that's simple and straightforward in terms of what you and I are called to do, that kind of command may still be very difficult to actually live out.

Let's explore the depth of these commands by thinking about three things. Sound good? Let's consider what these three short verses tell us about 1) becoming a certain kind of person, 2) submitting to the will of God, and 3) living these out without limits. So think with me about...

1. Becoming a Certain Kind of Person

Notice first that Paul has called his readers to three distinct actions: to “rejoice”, to “pray”, and to “give thanks”. Think for a moment about how you would put those commands into practice. Maybe for verse 16, you can picture yourself praising God using joyful language/song. Maybe for verse 17, you imagine yourself kneeling by your bedside or praying over someone in need. Maybe for verse 18, you can see yourself going through a list of things for which to be thankful.

And if those line up with what you had in mind, there's certainly nothing wrong with any of those pictures. Not at all. But when we think carefully about these commands, and remember the one who's writing this letter, who's speaking to his readers in this way, I think it's safe to say that Paul is ultimately concerned with each of his readers becoming a certain kind of person, rather than each of his readers doing certain kinds of things.

What I mean is that Paul doesn't simply want his readers to rejoice, pray, and give thanks as religious exercises. He wants his readers to rejoice, pray, and give thanks as spiritual express-ions; the outward expressions of a joyful, prayerful, and thankful people. Does that make sense?Can people simply go through the motions in terms of rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks? Yes, they have and they can. I'm guessing all of us have fallen into that trap before. But Paul's letters, including this one, make it clear that his first focus was always on inward, spiritual change. He was clear about what that inward change should look like outwardly (that did matter), but he wasn't calling his readers to simply do spiritual or religious things.

So again, the Apostle's call here in I Thessalonians 5:16-18 is that his readers rejoice, pray, and give thanks; but even more so, that they would be a joyful, prayerful, and thankful people. I also want you to see what Paul tell us here about...


2. Submitting to the Will of God

Notice how Paul concludes this rapid-fire list of these three, short commands: [be joyful, prayerful, and thankful...] for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. The will of God has always been a topic of, not only interest, but also confusion in the church. Christians, disciples of Jesus, rightly want to know and walk in God's will for their lives. But too often, discussions about God's will, prayer requests about God's will, even anxiety over God's will has been tied to certain life events and the need for divine clarity. For example, “I need to know if it's God's will for me to take this new job... or marry this or that person... or go to this or that college.” In some cases, the search for answers to questions like these ends with uncertainty, and then a fear that I may not be “in God's will”.

While it's right to seek God's wisdom in hard circumstances or at 'crossroads' like those mentioned, and while it may be helpful to look for how God is at work in our circumstances, Scripture rarely speaks to believers about God's will in this way. It does speak to God's what Ephesians 1:11 calls “the counsel of the will”, that is God's sovereign design in all things. But even more often, as we see here in Thessalonians (or as we hear about in the Lord's prayer, for example), God's will is simply that which God desires for us morally; the path God calls us to walk in terms of righteousness. Listen to how Paul talks about God's will in that same way a chapter earlier. This is 1 Thessalonians 4:3–5... For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God...

Why is it important that Paul emphasizes this in 5:18? Let me suggest two reasons. First, things like our sanctification, our set-apartness, our purity, things like being joyful, prayerful, and thankful are spiritually foundational things. They help produce and support and strengthen a God-honoring lifestyle; they fuel and shape our personal ministries. That's why God's desires these things for us. They are his will. Second, your desire to be joyful, prayerful, and thankful should flow from your desire to please God. Imagine wall décor that includes those three words: “joyful”, “prayerful”, “thankful”, in a cute cursive script, painted on distressed wood. Some people might buy a plaque that because they simply want to be that kind of person (maybe because their grandma was that kind of person, or the circle in which they want to be accepted is composed of people like that). But that's very different from wanting to be that kind of person because God wants you to be that kind of person; and trusting that if He wants that for you, it must be the very best thing. Why should we want these things? ...for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. But please don't miss that Paul is also writing here about...


3. Living These Out Without Limits

Listen again to what all of these short, simple, and straightforward commands have in common:

Rejoice always, [17] pray without ceasing, [18] give thanks in all circumstances...

Always... without ceasing... in all circumstances...” Paul qualifies each of these commands, doesn't he? He qualifies them in light of the possible limitations we may be tempted to place on things like rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks. I think you understand those temptations. Paul seems to be saying...

I know it's tempting to only rejoice when things are going well, when things are going your way, but God is calling you to always rejoice. And I know you may be tempted to only pray when you're in trouble, when you need something from God; and I know it's tempting to not pray when you don't see your prayers being answered when and how you want them to be answered, but God is calling you to pray all the time, and not to give up on prayer. And I know you may be tempted to be thankful when the blessings seem abundant, and not when the blessing are difficult to see; when things are hard, painful, confusing. But God wants you to be thankful in every and any circumstance.”

Remember, what this letter has already revealed about the “circumstances” in which the Thessalonians found themselves: “you received the word in much affliction” (1:6); “For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews” (2:14) Apparently, some in their faith family had also died. Thus Paul writes in 4:13, “...we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”

But in spite of those “circumstances”, in fact, “in all circumstances”, these Christians could and should “give thanks”; they could and should “pray”; they could and should “rejoice”. Joyful, prayerful, thankful. Do those words describe you? Actually, I think God would want us to ask, “Am I joyful, prayerful, and thankful... in all things and at all times?” That's a harder question, isn't it? It's one thing for Paul to instruct his readers to “rejoice”, “pray”, and “give thanks”. But it's quite another thing to call them to these things as a lifestyle; as the regular pattern of their lives, no matter what they face; no matter how they feel.


III. When You Don't Feel Like It

There's the rub, right? What if I don't feel like it? What if I don't feel joyful, or prayerful, or thankful? Would Paul want me to, would God want me to, 'fake until I make it'? If I feel depressed or despairing, should I simply try as hard as I can to generate feelings of joy, because that's what God wants me to do? If I don't feel like praying, is God really honored if I pray, but my heart isn't in it? And if I don't feel thankful, is Paul telling me to simply run through a list of things for which I could (and maybe should) give thanks... just to do it... because somehow it will realign me; because it will eventually make me feel thankful? What if I feel so bad, and life feels so hard, and everything feels so heavy that joyfulness, prayer-fulness, and thankfulness are the furthest things from my heart?

First of all, those are great questions; and if that's how you feel, God wants you to ask those questions. He wants you to be honest with yourself. Those are questions about your heart, and He wants you to consider your heart, in all honesty and sincerity. And He wants you to trust that he has answers to your questions, and... that he's big enough to change your heart.

Second, Paul's letter to this church provides us with ultimate truth, the kind that inspires a joyful, prayerful, and thankful heart... in all things and at all times. For example, Paul wanted them to “give thanks in all circumstances”, not because every aspect of every circumstance was a gift from God, but because every circumstance included something for which they could be thankful. Think about last week's message. God was not calling them to be thankful for their mistreatment at the hands of their neighbors. He was calling them to be thankful (for example) for the word that gave them hope in the face of such hostility, for they “accepted [that word] not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (2:13) Just think about the ultimate truth, the joy-inspiring truth, prayer-inspiring truth, gratitude-inspiring truth, to which Paul pointed them 2000 years ago, and to which God is pointing us this morning...

The “joy of the Holy Spirit” was at work in them (1:6). They no longer served dead “idols” but a “living and true God” (1:9). They were waiting for Jesus, the One who had beaten death, the One who “delivers us from the wrath [from the judgment] to come.” (1:10) God in fact had called them, “into his own kingdom and glory” (2:12), and his word was “at work” in them (2:13). One way that was clear is that God himself had “taught [them] to love one another” (4:9). Further-more, they and we do “not grieve as others do who have no hope” (4:13), but when Jesus returns, those who have died as believers will come with him, and “we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” (4:17) You see, when it came to their future, when it comes to your future, believer, “God has not destined [you] for wrath, but to obtain salvation [deliverance, rescue] through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:9) What does that mean? Paul spells it out a few verses after our main text. Look at 5:23–24...

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. [24] He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

When our feelings are only informed by what is temporary and earthly, being joyful, prayerful, and thankful will be exactly that: temporary and earthly. But when we seek a 'perspective corrective' from God, and he reminds us of what is eternal, what God has done, is doing, and will doing, what no one can ever alter or take from us, then, and only then, do we find inspiration and power to be joyful, prayerful, and thankful in all things and at all times.

We can “rejoice always”, we can “pray without ceasing”, we can “give thanks in all circumstances” because Jesus “always” lives, because “without ceasing”, the Holy Spirit is at work in us, and because God's grace is sufficient “in all circumstances”. Amen?

Brothers and sisters, friends, there are no 'checkout lane' commands in God's word. The short, simple, and straightforward instructions we find in I Thessalonians 5:16-18 are powerful calls to walk as joyful, prayerful, and thankful people in light of the gospel, the Good News about Jesus. And we find these at the end of the letter because we needed everything that came before this to inform our perspective; so that even when we don't feel like it, we can go to God and find that change, the change (the transformation) for which Jesus died.


other sermons in this series

Oct 2