THANKSGIVING IS A CHOICE
Sermon written by Martha-Jean Fitch
November 19, 2017
TEXT: Psalm 100, I Thessalonians 5:16-18
As we begin today, I invite you to get out your bulletin insert that says, “Thanksgiving Year in Review”. We have much to be thankful for at First Christian. You were asked, the last couple of weeks, to share ways you have seen God at work in the life of our church family throughout 2017. You see before you on your insert, just a sampling of the many ways God has blessed our congregation. We had so many wonderful responses that we couldn’t fit them all on this one-page insert. So we have posted them on the bulletin board downstairs in the small hall. I am hoping you can find time to read those – as well as taking this insert home to read. Celebrate the good things that are happening at our church and be sure then to share them with others!
Now, be sure and keep that insert out, because we are going to be using it near the end of the sermon.
If you would now get your pew Bible out and turn to I Thessalonians. I Thessalonians is at the back of the Bible, right after the book of Colossians. We are going to be looking at I Thessalonians 5:16-18.
I Thessalonians was written by the Apostle Paul. Paul was one who knew what it was like to suffer. He had to endure a lot of horrible things just to be able to preach the gospel: beatings, imprisonments, hunger and stonings. When he was preaching in Thessalonica, the Jewish leaders rose up against him and started a riot, attacking many of the Christians there. The believers sent Paul away from Thessalonica to keep him safe. But just a few weeks later, Paul sent them a letter to encourage these persecuted Christians.
Let’s hear what Paul tells these early Christians who were suffering…and the message he gives us today. Follow along as I read I Thessalonians 5: 16-18 –
16 Always be joyful. 17 Never stop praying. 18 Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.
But how in the world is this possible? How can anyone be joyful all the time? And no one has time to pray constantly - and it is even stranger to say give thanks in ALL circumstances. It is one thing to give thanks when things are going well in your life – but how do you give thanks for all the bad things that happen in life? Sometimes it is just really hard to be thankful.
Well, notice that Paul doesn’t say: be thankful “FOR” everything; rather he says “be thankful IN everything.” God doesn’t expect us to be thankful for the bad things – but rather, in the midst of our pain, to be thankful for how God is at work in our lives. We can be thankful that God never wastes any of our suffering but will work to bring good things out of bad. New life can come out of the ashes – mourning can be changed to dancing. By looking to the cross and Good Friday and the glory of the resurrection, we can see that truth!
I also believe that Paul told the Thessalonians – and us – to give thanks in everything, because gratitude is so GOOD for us. Gratitude turns our minds and hearts toward God and away from our trials and struggles. Gratitude gives us hope in the midst of despair and light in the midst of the darkness.
Interestingly, there has been a lot of research done about the health benefits of gratitude on our bodies and spirits. According to a 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences, grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and they also report feeling healthier than other people.1
When we take the time to focus on what we are grateful for, certain neural circuits in our brain are activated, giving us increased production of dopamine and serotonin – working like a natural antidepressant! Being grateful can actually reduce stress and anxiety. Your self-esteem improves as you look to what you are grateful for, rather than comparing yourself to others and becoming resentful. Gratitude can increase your energy and exercise and even improves insomnia – especially as you take the time to write down what you are grateful for, before going to bed at night. Gratitude increases mental strength – taking away all those toxic emotions that can weigh down upon a person. And, interestingly, gratitude has been shown to play a major role in overcoming trauma. Recognizing all you have to be thankful for – even during the worst times of your life – helps strengthen you.2
Just the other day, during one of our women’s circle meetings, Earlene Crouse shared that is exactly what happens in her life as she focuses on being grateful. Earlene starts and ends each day thanking God for her life – of being able to get up and take care of herself and she thanks God for her family and friends. She says that when she is thankful that her burdens seem lighter. She is able to get through whatever struggles she faces, because God is so good.
Candi Moulton knows that gratitude is what helps her get through life. It is the antidote for stress. She says: I have been trying to remember: instead of letting stress take hold, I try to think of all the things I have to be thankful for: I have a loving mother who is still functioning, maybe just forgetful. I have had so many wonderful things happen while working in Chicago so who cares I have to commute. My ex-husband is getting better and so, it wasn’t the retirement I dreamed of; I have no grandkids but my kids seem happy (grandkids might cause more stress any way!) The list goes on and my thinking become more clear and I hope my IQ stays steady with the help of the Holy Spirit. I will try to make Jesus my default focus and what more could we be grateful for than the gifts of faith and grace.
You see thanksgiving really is a choice. You can choose to hang on to our burdens – to dwell on them and let them weigh you down. Or you can surrender those burdens up to God and choose to be thankful IN the midst of the trials. When we do that – it really is a sacrifice of thanksgiving. We give up our pain and hurt to God and thank Him for His presence in and through all of life – the good times and the bad.
I think that the Christians at Sutherland Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas really demonstrate this idea of choosing to be thankful in the midst of trials. On the Sunday after 26 people in their church were shot and killed during worship, they gathered for worship in a make-shift tent near the church. The Pastor, who had also lost his 14-year-old daughter in the massacre, stood before the congregation to give a word of comfort and encouragement. He told the congregation: “We have the power to choose, and rather than choose darkness, like that young man did that day, I say we choose light.”3
In the sanctuary where so many lost their lives, a memorial had been set up to honor all those who had died. A chair with their name on it was there, along with a long-stem rose. And there at the front of the sanctuary was a sign printed with the Scripture that would have been read at the service, the day everyone was killed. And what was the Scripture? Psalm 100:4-5 –
his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
5 For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.
In the midst of their pain and sorrow, they were choosing to be thankful. They were choosing light over dark and putting their hope and trust in God who is good and faithful.
I believe we are called to make a choice every day of how we are going to follow the Lord and live our lives. And the choice we make will make all the difference in life.
We are called to choose worship over worry. Paul tells us in Philippians 4:6 & 7: 6 Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. 7 Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.
When her children were rebelling against the Lord, Ruth Bell Graham found herself occasionally torn apart by worry. One night, she awoke suddenly in the middle of the night worrying about her son. She lay in bed and tried to pray, but she suffered from terrible anxiety. She looked at the clock and it was around three o’clock. She was exhausted, yet she knew she would be unable to go back to sleep. Suddenly the Lord seemed to say to her, "Quit studying the problems and start studying the promises."
She turned on the light, got out her Bible, and the first verses that came to her those words from Philippians 4:6,7. As she read those words, she suddenly realized that the missing ingredient in her prayers had been thanksgiving.
She put down her Bible and spent time worshipping God for Who and what He is. She later wrote, "I began to thank God for giving me this one I loved so dearly in the first place. I even thanked him for the difficult spots which had taught me so much. And you know what happened? It was as if someone turned on the light in my mind and heart, and the little fears and worries that had been nibbling away in the darkness like mice and cockroaches hurriedly scuttled for cover. That was when I learned that worship and worry cannot live in the same heart. They are mutually exclusive." (In Everything Give Thanks)
We are called to choose worship over worry. We are also called to choose presence and promise over pain and problems. We have the assurance that God is with us always and that He always keeps His promises. Our focus needs to be on Him – turning our eyes towards Him, even in our grief and sadness, knowing that He will always be there to carry us through the storm.
Elaine Jehling is one who knows about storms. She recently lost her husband Jeff to an aggressive form of cancer. She is definitely walking through a time of deep grief … and yet she is thankful. She shares this testimony: As hard as it is, I choose to not wallow in my pain but to get up and do something every day and to be thankful for prayers answered. I choose to thank God rather than be mad at Him. I remember all the random things Jeff did or said. And I remember that God is carrying me and I will see Jeff again. God answered my prayers by not letting him suffer and giving me and others time to say good-bye. Jeff was sad that he would not be there to protect me and love me anymore. I reminded him that was God’s job now. I am so grateful I was the one to walk him home. God is good all the time. All the time, God is good.
Choosing to be grateful – choosing worship instead of worry, presence and promise over pain and problems. And then finally faith over fear. All throughout the Bible we are told to not be afraid. And Paul tells us in Colossians 3 to let the peace of Christ dwell in our hearts and to always be thankful. “Whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father”. (vv. 15, 17)
One woman who really exemplifies this choice of faith over fear is Risa Hellenthal. Many of you may not know Risa. Risa is an associate member of our church. Risa is in her 30’s and recently moved to Quincey for a new job. About 3 months ago, Risa lost her sight completely due to glaucoma. How do you think you would respond if that would happen to you? Would you be grateful? I think it might be easy to be angry or bitter or depressed. Life had dealt you a lousy hand.
But that is not how Risa is responding. Risa was recently back in Galesburg, on leave from her school in Chicago where she is learning braille and how to use a cane. She had a big huge smile on her face. When I asked her how she was handling this huge change in her life, she was thrilled to share how her life is a blessing. She is so grateful for her life and how she gets to up every morning and feel God’s presence. She now knows the true meaning of her favorite Scripture, II Corinthians 5:7, “We walk by faith and not by sight.” She cannot see anything – not light nor shadows. Everything is dark. She said, “Of course I cried when I knew I could no longer see. But I chose to turn to God in prayer and rely on Him. I had to put away all that I’ve ever known and grow closer to God.” She said she had to have grace and gratitude because otherwise she would have been so depressed. So, she chose to be joyous because now, whenever she looks up – she sees God. And He is getting her through this darkness. And she said that if God can get her through this – He can get others through whatever their darkness is.
Risa is learning how to give thanks in everything. And she tries to remember that God is good ALL THE TIME – 365 days a year and that He doesn’t let us down.
How has God been good to you? Can you say with Risa and all the others who have shared their testimonies that you are thankful for the way God is at work in your life – even in the dark and difficult days of life?
As we close, I am going to challenge you to write down a few thoughts about how God has been at work in your life. Remember that insert I told you to keep out? Turn over to the back of that insert, to the blank page. At the top of that page, I’d like you to write the words: “I’m grateful for ….” And during the next 2 minutes or so, I’d like you to jot down some things that you are grateful for – and be specific. How has God blessed you – not just in the good days, when it is easy to thank God…but in the difficult days – how has He worked in your life? How are you going to choose to be thankful?
Take the next couple of minutes to pray – and to write down your words of thanksgiving.
1Amy Moran, “7 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude that will Motivate You to Give Thanks Year-Round”. www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2014/11/23/7
Ben Greenfield, “The Christian Gratitude Journal” https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/bengreenfield/the-christian-gratitude-journal
3Dakin And one and Timm-Garcia, CNN, “Texas church holds first service since mass shooting”. www.cnn.com/2017/11/12/us/texas-church-service-memorial/ndex.html.