There’s a story of a man whose wife had unexpectedly run off with another man after their children had grown and left the house, and as a result he had become lonely, bitter and completely depressed. He had lost all faith in himself, in other people, and in God. He no longer found any joy in life – not in his work, or his friendships or the activities that had once meant so much to him.
One rainy morning he went by himself to a small neighborhood diner for breakfast. Although several people were at the diner, almost everyone was sitting alone, and nobody was speaking to anyone else. The depressed man hunched over the counter, absent-mindedly stirring his coffee with a spoon for several minutes as he waited for his food to arrive.
In one of the small booths along the window there was a young mother with a little girl. They had just been served their food when the little girl broke the silence by almost shouting, "Momma, why don't we say our prayers here?" The waitress who had just served their breakfast spun back around and said, "Sure, honey, we pray here. Will you say the prayer for us?" And the waitress turned and looked at the rest of the people in the diner and said, "Bow your heads." Surprisingly, one by one, every single head in the place went down. The little girl then bowed her head, folded her hands, and said, "God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food. Amen."
Well, that basic, little child’s prayer of praise and thanksgiving changed the entire atmosphere of the diner. People lifted their heads, smiled, and even struck up conversations with strangers at neighbouring tables. The waitress laughed and said, "We should do that every morning.”
"Just like that," the man said, "my whole frame of mind turned around. From that little girl's example, I started to wonder if I should be thanking God for all that I did have – a bed to sleep in; a hot breakfast to eat; children and grandchildren I was proud of; the respect of colleagues I had worked alongside of for many years; - and if I should stop dwelling on the things that I had lost. I took a deep breath, and started to feel grateful, and it made all the difference in my life."
Most of us understand and appreciate the importance of gratitude - how it can radically change our attitudes, our relationships, and our lives. A couple of decades ago, Oprah Winfrey started to bring the importance of gratitude into the collective social consciousness by talking of her “Gratitude Journal” and encouraging people to keep one, and every day write down the things they were grateful for. But I think deep down we’ve all always been aware of its power.
One of the first things we are taught and that we teach children is to express gratitude. A person gives our child some candy or a gift and we say: "Now what do you say?" Or, “What’s are the magic words?” and the child learns from an early age to say: "Thank you." They’re “magic” words! Words with power. And certainly we all know as adults that it feels nice to be thanked for the things we do for others, or to receive a thank you card for a gift that we’ve given someone.
When it comes to giving thanks to God, though, we often forget just how much He has done for us. He has, in fact, done everything for us, and all that we have and all that we are is by His gracious providence. Or maybe we know it, but it seems so obvious that we’ve just come to take it for granted.
I remember one woman in a congregation I used to serve who said that every single morning the first words that come to her mind and to her lips were, “thank you God that this morning I woke up on this side of the grass.” Since then - because of her example – even though I can’t tell you that I thank God every morning for waking up, I have tried to appreciate that every single day (even the bad days!) it is a gift from God to be alive: to be able to listen to music, to smell the lilacs or the pumpkin pie, to have a warm bed to sleep in at night, and a hot coffee with cream to wake me up in the morning (although Chris might be more grateful that I have coffee in the morning).
Each day there is beauty to see and hear, warmth to feel, things to taste and touch and smell that are the gifts that come just from being alive; and that - no matter what our day-to-day circumstances - can only be taken away from us by the inclination of our own hearts: are our hearts inclined to be grateful for the small things we have, or to be bitter about the things we think are going wrong in our lives or in the world?
When it comes to giving thanks to God, I don't suppose there is any example in the Bible that is so amazing, such a powerful reminder for us as the Apostle Paul. As the words of this passage ring out, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” it sounds like the words of an elated man - who just won Lotto 6/49 maybe! Or whose girlfriend just said ‘yes’ to his marriage proposal; or who just got accepted to his first choice University. It sounds like the words of someone so overflowing with joy and excitement, he wants to declare it to the whole world.
The letter of Paul to the Philippians, however, was one of several letters that Paul wrote during a long and difficult imprisonment in Rome. When I was in Rome 3 years ago, we passed by the place where Paul had been imprisoned. It was not exactly 5-star accommodation. We weren’t able to go inside the prison, but the Professor for our course pointed it out to us. It’s remarkable that those buildings are still standing, those ancient, centuries-old, stone Italian buildings. The prison, we were told, was in the basement of the building, which I imagine 2000 years ago was probably about the dankest and coldest place on earth, with no light or heating or running water or sanitation.
While in this prison, we know that Paul was subjected to deplorable treatment as well: humiliation, starvation and dehydration; he was chained up, and he was beaten and tortured. But we get a sense from his writings that the most difficult thing for Paul during his time of imprisonment was that he was prevented from being with the people of the churches he had founded; he was prohibited from preaching the gospel, and denied fellowship with his fellow believers.
So, from the dark despair of his roman prison cell, what is Paul writing to those people he calls his brothers and sisters? Does he say to them, “Come and get me out of here,” or “I despair that this may be the end of me?” No, what Paul writes is this: “Give praise and thanksgiving…do not be anxious …the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” And perhaps the most astounding of all, Paul writes from the cold misery of his prison cell these words: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice!”
Whenever I read through the New Testament, the Apostle Paul always astounds me because of his conviction and his joy. True confession time: I myself don’t always find that I rejoice in all circumstances! In fact – and you are welcome to verify this information with my husband, Chris - I am quite liable to grumble and complain over any number of minor inconveniences: over a hangnail that keeps catching on my sweater, or because someone doesn’t do things the way I think they should do them; And God forbid someone cut me off in traffic!
But here is Paul, in a cold, dank 1st century Roman prison, suffering, starving, being tortured, knowing that any minute they could take him away and execute him if they felt like it, and instead of whimpering or grumbling or complaining, he encourages his friends with the simple advice: “Rejoice in the Lord, always; and again, I say, rejoice.”
How can he talk about praise and thanksgiving; how can he talk about rejoicing; how can he say “do not be anxious;” given the dire circumstances he is living through? How does he think the Philippians can rejoice when they are struggling in this new faith they have accepted; when they are struggling in their church and with their family members; when their leader has been imprisoned and may be executed, and they know that unless they turn away from this new faith the same thing that’s happening to Paul could also happen to them?
How is it possible to “rejoice in the Lord always”? How is it possible to give thanks in all circumstances? Sometimes, in our lives, we live through circumstances where we feel like we are imprisoned too, trapped in our own difficult situations that we don’t know how to get ourselves out of. They may situations we are trapped in due to circumstances beyond our control, or we might be in a difficult situation brought on by our own bad choices. But in those times, the last thing we want to do is rejoice. Like the man in the diner, we become so focused on our difficulties, we hang our heads, absorbed in the circumstances swirling around us, consumed with finding a way out; and the last thing on our minds is praising and thanking God for all that we DO have in our lives. We don’t even know how to give thanks and praise at times like this, because often this is when it most feels like God is keeping his distance. If we are thinking about God at all, it’s usually with regards to how He should be helping us to get out of our difficult circumstances, and the longer we stay in them, the less we feel like thanking God.
But today I want to assure you – and I can tell you from personal experience - that God is not distant, not even in our times of difficulty. God is not distant especially in our times of difficulty. He draws close to us, and looks upon us with compassion, and in His compassion he reaches out to us - but often it is in gentle, quiet ways that we can only see with eyes of faith. During these times of difficulty in life, we can reach out and take Jesus’ hand, and know that He too suffered; he too was anxious in the face of his circumstances; he understands injustice and temptation; and he has promised to walk with us through our difficulties. We are never lost or trapped or imprisoned when we are walking with Jesus. His love can never be taken away from us by any person or any circumstance.
When Paul was suffering in prison, he could rejoice because he knew that no matter what happened to him, no matter what anyone did to him, God was with him, and that because of his faith in the resurrection of Jesus he would share in God’s final victory over evil and death. Even if he didn’t understand why things were happening the way they were, he trusted God. For Paul even death itself could not destroy the joy he had found in Christ Jesus.
That’s why Paul could rejoice in any circumstance, because no matter how he was rejected by people, he was loved by God; no matter how he was beaten by people, he was consoled by God; no matter how he was starved of food, he was filled by the Holy Spirit of Jesus, who is the bread of life; and even if they murdered his body, he would be taken eternally into the loving arms of the Father. He lived for Christ; his purpose and meaning in life was Christ. And so he had every reason to rejoice and give thanks; he was not anxious, and he knew the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.
When we suffer or experience trials or challenges in life – especially when we suffer unfairly - Jesus is with us and knows our suffering. We can lift up our hearts in prayer, pour out the pain in our hearts with sincerity, and Jesus consoles us, assures us He is with us forever, assures us that He knows how we feel because nobody ever suffered more unfairly than he did. Maybe our circumstances are such that they won’t get better; sometimes that happens – an illness, and accident, the loss of a loved one. But maybe we can learn to live with the peace of Christ in our hearts, even in the midst of difficult circumstances, knowing that while we are not in control, God is, and our lives are in His hands. It is usually in retrospect that we see this truth – it’s hard to see it when we’re in the midst of something. But then the next time we are in difficult circumstances, we can recall that prior experience of God’s closeness. We can remember how God’s love strengthened us in past circumstances. This is what Paul did – he could rejoice in the Lord while in that dank Roman prison because he recalled the times when God had been with him in past struggles.
This is our first and foremost reason to rejoice and give thanks to God. On Thanksgiving, we give thanks for all the wonderful things God gives us, and all the blessings he bestows on us; but the most important thing God has given us is Himself. He is not distant from us; he is as close as the air that we breathe, and He is the one thing that can never be taken away from us. And so we thank God, not just for what He does, but for who He is: loving, merciful, righteous and perfect, all-creating, all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-forgiving.
Paul says, “Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing…if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…Keep on doing the things you have learned and heard and seen in me…and the peace of God will be with you.”
This is one of my favourite memory verses. I memorized it so that when I find myself in difficult circumstances it would remind me to turn my focus to God, and give thanks. When we do this, when we focus our minds on these things – all the things that we DO have to be grateful to God for - all the beauty in creation, all the goodness of our loved ones, and the love and mercy of God - then we will experience God’s peace, and even in the midst of any trials we will be able to rejoice in the love of God, and give thanks and praise to Him for his great love for us. Amen.