- Written by Pastor Shawn Nettleton Pastor Shawn Nettleton
- Created: 04 November 2014 04 November 2014
Some people refer to November as "the month of thanks." This label and focus is obviously due in large part to the fourth Thursday of the month, our National Day of Thanksgiving. It is certainly a good thing that some people see the spirit of Thanksgiving transcending its national holiday. We know, however, that thankfulness transcends even the month of November! Writing the Christians in Thessalonica, Saint Paul says, "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”
Paul not only calls us to give thanks in all things, but to rejoice always! In fact, Paul says, “Rejoice in Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” It is almost as if Paul knew he was going to get some pushback, so he says “I will say it again: Rejoice!” But have you ever struggled with these words? I know that I have. Was Paul living in the real world? Or was he just caught up in the moment, the moment of something worthy of rejoicing?
We indeed rejoice and give thanks to God for all His good gifts of life and salvation, daily bread and so much more! And there are certainly times in life that bring much joy and times of rejoicing: graduations, anniversaries, birthdays, weddings, etc. It’s always a privilege and joy to visit with a young family in the hospital after the birth of a child, rejoicing with them for God’s gift of life!! And yet, at other hospital visits and heavier moments in life I sometimes question Paul’s exhortation to rejoice and give thanks always.
“Rejoice in the Lord always!” Surely Paul is not serious! If he is, he’s not living in the real world. But, in fact, Paul was living in the real world. He’s not writing these words from the French Riviera or an exotic beach! He’s writing these words from a real jail cell, watched by real guards and under a real threat of death—death was almost certainly awaiting him. And in the midst of these difficult circumstances, in the midst of this real suffering, Paul says to the Philippians (who had their own share of struggles and dark days of persecution ahead), “Rejoice in the Lord always”.
This is not Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy" or Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. Paul isn’t talking about mere happiness, which is always tied to circumstances. He is talking about something much deeper and more lasting, precisely because it is not centered on the situations or circumstances of our life. Rather, it is centered in the Savior of our life, Jesus Christ. That’s why Paul doesn’t just say “rejoice”, but “Rejoice in the Lord”.
In last October’s Lutheran Witness, Pastor Will Weedon gave a one-page history behind Philip Nicolai’s the hymn “Wake, Awake! For Night is Flying.” A late-century Lutheran pastor in Unna, Westphalia, Pastor Nicolia’s parish was being destroyed by the plague that swept through Europe in the middle ages. Between July 1597 and January 1598, Pastor Nicolai buried 1,400 of his parishioners—300 in the month of July alone. Weedon writes,
He could have fled, but he stayed, he preached, he prayed, he comforted, he buried. He prayed some more. And he did one more thing. He wrote a book, a book he called The Mirror of Joy. It was all about the joy that filled his heart as he thought of the heaven his Savior had won for all upon His cross, and the more he thought about the life that Jesus gives that death cannot take away, the more he wanted to sing. So at the end of his little book he wrote three poems and set two of them to music; “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright” and “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying.”William Weedon, “Feeding Us Richly” (The Lutheran Witness, October 2014)
In the face of unspeakable tragedy, with no family left untouched by the horror of death, Pastor Nicolai sang the hope of heaven to his people as they waited for the Savior’s return—even with tears in their eyes.
It is important to note that Paul does not say give thanks for all circumstances, for certainly not all circumstances are good. Rather, in all circumstances, Paul says, give thanks. Why does he say this? For neither Paul’s difficult circumstances nor the frightening dangers faced by his fellow Christians could strip or rob them of their joy in the Lord. This joy depends not on changing circumstances of life, but on the One who does not change, the One who suffered and conquered death and lives now and forever! The only way we can rejoice always, even in the face of cancer, death, and other awful circumstances, is if we find solace in the Lord. The only way we can give thank in all circumstances, is if we know the truth that Paul professed, “The Lord is near.” Rejoice in the Lord. He is near! He is faithful! The God of all peace has come to you and He is with you! Rejoice and give thanks.