December 31, 2023

Giving Thanks in All Circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

Preacher: Bryce Morgan Series: Misc. Messages Topic: New Year's Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:18

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I. The Usefulness of New Year's

The closest the Bible comes to something like a New Year's recognition is found in Exodus 12, where we read this just before the first Passover, while the Hebrews were still in Egypt:

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, [2] “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you.”

This was the month of Abib, later called Nisan. As you may know from the connection between Passover and Easter, Nisan 1 takes place in either March or April on our calendars (with the Passover on Nisan 15). Now this can be confusing because Jews do celebrate a New Year's Day, but that observance, called Rosh HaShanah, takes place in either September or October. No one knows how their calendar shifted, but there's good evidence that by the time of Jesus it had.

All that to say, Scripture has very little to tell us as followers of Jesus, about observing any kind of specific calendar, including a New Year's observance. But that doesn't mean recognizing the end of one year and the beginning of another is a waste of time. Absolutely not. For the believer, New Year's, like so many other days on our cultural calendar, can be a wonderful opportunity for God-glorifying and Christ-centered reflection. Let's explore that idea as we deviate from Our Bible Reading Plan this week and look together at 1 Thessalonians chapter 5.

II. The Passage: “In All Circumstances” (5:18)

Beginning in verse 16, Paul provided for his readers (and God has provided for us this morning) several brief and well-known calls to action. Listen to these:

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

Now, since this is the last day of our calendar year, and a brand new year is almost upon us, we could look at these verses and be inspired to pray, “God, by your grace and Spirit, let this new year be one in which I really am rejoicing always, in which I am truly praying (or in a prayerful mindset) at all times, and one in which I am sincerely giving thanks in all circumstances.” That would be a wonderful prayer and resolution right now, or at any point throughout the year.

And in years past, my New Year's messages have often looked forward in that very way, asking “How does God want to renew our vision in the year ahead? In light of His grace, in what ways can we recommit ourselves to spiritual growth and to his glorious work in the coming months?” Again, I believe that approach, especially at this point on the calendar, is a great way to honor Jesus Christ and grow in grace.

But let me suggest we do something different this time around. Let me suggest that, first, we narrow our focus down to 1 Thessalonians 5, verse 18, and second, that we use a day like this on our culture's calendar, not to think about what could be in the new year, but instead, to reflect on what has been; that is, to look back on this past year with the singular goal of gratitude.

Verse 18: “...give thanks in all circumstances”. Why? “...for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” I can't think of a better reason. Can you? Paul tells us something similar in Ephesians 5:20, where he writes about, “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”. I love how that enhances our main verse. Now, I could take a few more minutes and establish the importance that Scripture places on giving thanks, on the virtue of gratefulness in the life of the believer. But having heard some excellent verses earlier in our Gathering, I will simply assume we're on the same page about the importance of gratitude.

Now, with that being said, let's go back to our main verse. If you would... stop for a minute, and let 1 Thessalonians 5:18 inspire in you this 'take your spiritual temperature' kind of question: “Over the course of this past year, was my life characterized by a tendency to give thanks, no matter my circumstances?” That's a convicting question, isn't it? If that question represented the final exam of a class on thankfulness, sadly, I don't think I would pass that class.

And no, I'm not here just to make you feel bad about your 12-month track record regarding gratitude. I simply want us to encourage one another to be honest about how 1 Thessalonians 5:18 helps us better understand the condition of our hearts. If we struggled with thankfulness this past year, why was that? Is it because we're distracted? Or because we believe we've earned something? Or maybe the influence of entitlement culture? Or is it both, woven together by a deep belief that we deserve this or that, and ultimately fueled by our own sinful pride?

This morning we're not going to answer that question regarding “why”. Instead, I hope that an honest consideration of your attitude of gratitude this past year will simply result in or strengthen a deep desire to do that very thing today, and over the course of the next few days. Do what thing? To give thanks for all your circumstances over the course of the past year.

Surveying the previous twelve months is something that's been happening all around us the past few weeks. Have you noticed that? Whether it's in your inbox or your social media feed or on the evening news or in your favorite publication, there's no lack of 'year in review' articles. From celebrity deaths to the year's top news stories, or best movies, or best music, or most influential people, this kind of looking back (or survey) is extremely common. Brothers and sisters, if that's true for temporal and often trivial things, may that be true of us as believers in terms of reasons to give thanks to our good and gracious God.

So how might we do this? Well, let me suggest that, first, you make room and take time to think back over the past year. As you do this, some things will come easily to you; they'll be right there at the forefront of your mind, especially those “circumstances” that were wonderfully memorable or extremely painful; great gain or great loss during this past year. For the things that may be harder to remember, you may need to sit down and look over a journal (if you keep one). Or you could look over the calendar on your wall or desk, or the calendar in your phone or one connected to your e-mail account. Speaking of your phone, you could also look over your text messages, or social media messages and postings; or, if you're someone who uses the camera on your phone, take time to look over your photo gallery from this past year. If it's possible, you might even talk with friends and family about what they remember most from this past year. Doing so may stir your own memory. Ultimately, there are lots of different ways to remember. Whichever you use, do so in a spirit of prayer, asking God to help you with such memories.

And as you do that, let me suggest, second, that you divide up those memories into three categories for which you are thankful: using the “circumstances” language of 1 Thessalonians 5:8, those are 1) happy circumstances, 2) hard circumstances, and 3) heavenly circumstances.

Could there be other categories as well. Of course. But biblically-speaking, these three are a good place to start. So let's walk through each of those areas and apply God's word as we do:

First, thinking back over this past year, give thanks for your happy circumstances. James 1:17 reminds us that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights”. He is the One, according to 1 Timothy 6:17, “who richly provides us with every-thing to enjoy.” These are the obvious things that put a smile on your face; that warm your heart. Good friends. Good times. Good news... about your family, your health, your future. A friend saved. A relationship repaired. A trip you enjoyed. A book you enjoyed. A project completed. A new job. A new chapter. A new perspective. Food in your stomach. A roof over your head. Even those unexpected blessings. Give thanks to “the Father of lights for them”.

Second, looking back over this past year, also give thanks for your hard circumstances. Those are often the circumstances we'd prefer to forget. But remember God's word in 5:18... “Give thanks in all circumstances”. But why should we? Why should we give thanks for the painful and confusing and trying times of this past year? Because Scripture affirms over and over that God is at work in our sufferings. “...but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” (Romans 5:3-4)

Why could Paul give thanks that he and his fellow workers “were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Because he understood it “was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” (2 Cor. 1:8–9) Give thanks for the promises of God, the power of God, and the presence of God that are always available to us and at work in us in even the hardest of circumstances. Believer, that was true in your life this past year.

Finally, third, thinking about your life this past year, be sure to give thanks for your heavenly circumstances. Brother, sister, even when we take the happy things for granted, even when the hard things inspire grumbling rather than gratitude, what is far above our earthly circumstances are heavenly realities that were just as powerfully true in your life this past year as they ever were in your story, and just as powerfully true as for any believer who has ever lived. Think about it, no matter what has happened or is happening in your life, you can and should give thanks that “your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20), that Christ is “seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1), that “he always lives to make intercession for [us]” (Hebrews 7:25), that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37), that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3), and that God has “seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:6), “that he who began a good work in [us] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6), that... “all things are yours, whether... the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Corinthians 3:21–23)

III. Training for the New Year

Friends, let us look back and give thanks, again... or for the first time in light of every circum-stance from this past year.... happy, hard, heavenly... even for the most mundane ones; things that from your perspective just were. For even when you weren't aware of it brother, sister, God was at work. And do you know what will happen when we give ourselves to this kind of reflection and thankfulness? Our looking back at what has been will prepare us, will train us, for what will be in the new year. What a beautiful and powerful and God-glorifying resolution for the new year: to be more grateful; to truly give thanks in all circumstances! By His grace and gospel, I believe that that resolution is even more within reach when we begin by remembering.

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