Not too long ago Ron and I went to hear Peter Sagal, described by Wikipedia as “an American humorist, writer, and host of the National Public Radio game show Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me” at the Shalin Liu in Rockport. We didn’t really know what to expect, being only familiar with the quiz show he hosts on NPR, but we were pleasantly surprised to hear him structure his comments around the theme of “This I Believe” during which he shared the top five lessons he’s learned over the course of his life thus far.[1] Sagal borrowed his title from Edward R. Murrow who, according to the This I Believe website at NPR, back in 1951 Murrow “asked Americans from all walks of life to write essays about their most fundamental and closely held beliefs.”[2]

As I was thinking about this Thanksgiving meditation I thought it might be helpful to pose a similar question: what would you answer if asked about your most “fundamental and closely held beliefs” about your walk with Jesus Christ? Specifically, what practices have been most important to you as you seek to live your life with and before our gracious and kind Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? For me, in addition to spending time in God’s Word, I would say that learning to see my life as being held in God’s hands and therefore being able to thank and turn to him in all circumstances are among the most important belief and practice I “most fundamental[ly] and closely [hold]” for this outlook has helped shape my identity as a follower of Jesus Christ through both good times and bad.

And as Edward R. Murrow was the inspiration for Sagal’s talk, the apostle Paul has been the inspiration for this evening’s meditation for among the parting admonitions he includes in his letter to the church in Thessalonica are these:

16 Rejoice always,

17 pray continually,

18 give thanks in all circumstances;

for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

If these three things are God’s will for us in Christ Jesus, then they’re worth our considering them. And I’ll start with what I consider the easy exhortation first—namely, pray continually.

We’re called in Scripture to pray continually because God is personal. He is one God in three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And our personhood comes from him for he has made us in his image[3] therefore our entire identity should be grounded in our relationship with him, who is the source of that image, and in our relationships with each other for we all equally share in his image. Now one of the most important ways in which we develop relationships is by talking with each other. And if talking with each other is a means of getting to know and drawing closer and forming bonds with each other, so, too, talking with God is a means of getting to know and drawing closer and forming a bond with him. Fundamentally, talking with God is what prayer is.

Now the extraordinary thing is that even though God has made all of heaven and earth, the skies and the seas and everything that exists in each of those realms, he nonetheless desires to have a relationship with us. He wants to hear from us. And he’s responsive to us. And if you don’t believe me but feel instead that God couldn’t possibly bother with our picayune, mundane concerns, then perhaps you’ll believe Jesus. Among the things he taught was this: “…[D]o not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?[4] Or again, “29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”[5] I share Jesus’ teaching about our heavenly Father’s love for birds and sparrows—not to mention his knowing the number of hairs on our head!—because these truths should stop us in our tracks. Isn’t it amazing to think that God, who made all heaven and earth and therefore whom heaven and earth is unable to contains, does care for creatures that are so abundant and small? So we take Jesus’ point: If God cares for—and takes care of—the birds of the air, how much more will he care for and take care of us! And this gracious Father in heaven wants to hear from us. Though, being God, he knows everything that happens in our lives and even our every word before we utter it[6] and every request before we make it,[7] he nonetheless wants us to share these with him that we might draw closer to him and learn to see our lives through his eyes.

Now I’ve suggested that praying continually is the easiest of Paul’s exhortations because it’s something we can do at any and all times. We can pray silently or out loud; alone or with others; in times of sadness or joy; when we are bored or thrilled; when we’re in danger or feeling safe; when we’re afraid or feeling happy. In all of these circumstances, it can be natural and even intuitive or instinctive to pray to—to talk with—our LORD and Maker.

But how do we “Rejoice always”? Even in the brief three and a half years I’ve been pastor at Linebrook, we’ve had dear family who have lost loved ones—and had health challenges—and financial struggles—and have struggled in relationships—and have fought depression. Sure, it’s easy to rejoice when we are feeling well or aren’t otherwise struggling but Paul doesn’t tell us to “Rejoice sometimes” or “Rejoice when things are going well,” but he calls us to “Rejoice always.” Rejoice at all times. Rejoice on all occasions. How in the world are we supposed to be do that? Is Paul calling us to deny the reality of our struggles in life? Are we supposed to pretend to feel great joy or delight even when we’re sad and suffering? No, I don’t think this is Paul’s point at all.

The command to “rejoice always” needs be considered within the broader context of the letter Paul has written which not only ends with thankfulness, which we’ll consider next, but also begins with thankfulness. In the opening verses of 1 Thessalonians Paul tells these believers, “We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”[8] And notice the reason for giving thanks that Paul states in the very next verse: “For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you,…”[9] And how does Paul know this? Because he’s heard about how these Thessalonians “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.”[10] This context of faith, of belief in and being changed by God through God, Christ Jesus, provides an important context to what Paul is teaching. Again, and in his own words, he later goes on to state “we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe”[11]—and this was true despite the suffering these believers underwent as a result of turning to Christ.[12] Paul’s point is not that we are able to “rejoice always” because suffering is but an illusion or state of mind. No, we are able to “rejoice always” knowing that God has given himself to us in his Son and by his Holy Spirit in order that we might never be separated from him or each other. Therefore difficult though life may be at times, we have an eternal cause to rejoice for we belong to him. This means that he will never leave us. It means that he will never forsake us.[13] It means that not even death will be able to separate Christ from those who follow him.[14]

Similarly, Paul’s exhortation to “give thanks in all circumstances” is meant to be understood in the context of being Christ-followers. For, again, following Jesus doesn’t mean that we are spared suffering, whether due to living in a fallen world or due to our own unwise or even foolish decisions and choices. But following Jesus does mean that even in our darkest hour—or darkest days—or darkest months—or even darkest years, we can be certain; we can be confident that God loves us and will never abandon us. And we can know this, again, because God came in human form in the Person of his Son, Jesus, in order that he might, once and for all eternity, conquer the sin that wounds us, and the devil that seeks to harm us, and the death that haunts and lingers over and around us. As John proclaims, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”[15] God in Christ came to rescue us from all that wounds and harms and haunts us. But in order to be saved through him, we must recognize that we need saving. And, having acknowledged our need, we must then believe and follow him. Otherwise, we condemn ourselves to living life without him, both now and for all eternity.[16] So it is knowing God in and through Christ by his Holy Spirit that allows and enables us to give him thanks in all circumstances for we know he is with us;[17] and we know he is for us;[18] and we know that he cares; and we know that one day all who know him will be released from those circumstances that now cause us grief and pain and be welcomed into his presence as his good and faithful servants.[19]

Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, this I believe, along with the prophet Habakkuk:[20]

17 Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

19 The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.

So, too, along with the apostle Paul, I also believe this: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”[21] And the only thing that makes these astonishing confessions of confidence and hope in the midst of paucity of suffering possible is the reality of who Jesus Christ is and what he has done to rescue us from all our suffering and pain.

So let us embrace and cling to “God’s will for [us] in Christ Jesus” as we together, with his and one another’s help, seek to “16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, [and] 18 give thanks in all circumstances.”

Let us pray.

[1] To the best of my memory, the five lessons were: 1) Speak truth to power; 2) Power doesn’t listen; 3) Don’t underestimate the power of fart jokes (i.e., a sense of humor is important); 4) Democracy is a religion (i.e., we all share and believe in its principles); 5) Everything is evitable. Sagal spoke at the Shalin Liu on August 25, 2018 (we went to the 5:00 PM show).

[2] NPR later revived this tradition for a four-year run. See Celebrating Four Years Of ‘This I Believe’ on the npr.org website, April 27, 2009.

[3] Genesis 1:26–27: 26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

[4] Matthew 6:25–26. See parallel in Luke 12:22–26: 22 Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? 26 Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

[5] Matthew 10:29–31. See parallel in Luke 12:6–7:Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

[6] Psalm 139:4: Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely.

[7] Matthew 6:8b: your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

[8] 1 Thessalonians 1:2–3.

[9] 1 Thessalonians 1:4a.

[10] 1 Thessalonians 1:9b–10.

[11] 1 Thessalonians 2:13.

[12] 1 Thessalonians 2:14:  For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews

[13] Deuteronomy 31:6: Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. This is also quoted by the author of Hebrews 13:5:Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

[14] Jesus told his disciples when he appeared to them after rising from death and before he ascended to heaven, as recorded in Matthew 28:20b: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Paul similarly states in Romans 8:38–39: 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

[15] John 3:17.

[16] As John goes on to teach in John 3:18–21: 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light,and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

[17] Immanuel, one of the names by which God has disclosed himself, means “God is with us.”

[18] Romans 8:31–35: If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?

[19] See the Parable of the Bags of Gold in Matthew 25:14–30.

[20] Habakkuk 3:17–19.

[21] Romans 8:18.