It’s November and I’m responsible to lead our congregation to worship through the season of Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’m excited about this opportunity. On November 23rd I will partner with a few coworkers to teach our congregation about the worship that is expressed to God through the giving of thanks. I have selected the theme of ‘give thanks in all circumstances’ from 1 Thessalonians 5:18. I have the goal today of studying through the Scriptures for our service that morning. I want to be centered in God’s Word but don’t want to get too wordy or theoretical as to miss the reality of where most people live their lives. I fear that I am a bit dry as a teacher. What I lack in the energy of humor I must make up for with the intensity of passion and conviction. I feel like my sweet spot is more in the area of interactive teaching, not preaching, so the normal feelings of inadequacy pop up. The approach I prefer most to take is the one of organizing a thematic worship experience for people around the topic of thanksgiving. And so I ask God to give me insight and clarity of thought and speech as I study and prepare today. I will then organize my thoughts with Steve and Larry who will join me to provide the Biblical teaching that morning. So where do I begin? Here are some questions:
What does God have to say about thanksgiving?
God has a lot to say about thanksgiving in the Scriptures – too much to list here. We have multiple commands to be thankful and we have wonderful illustrations of people who lived lives that overflowed with thanksgiving. We also see thanksgiving practiced in the corporate worship setting. The Psalms are packed full of statements of thanksgiving to God in both settings of celebration and within the darkness of personal depression. But, there is an amazing statement, actually, a command, in the Scriptures that defies all earthly reason stating, “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thess. 5:18) I’d like to spend some time in the Scriptures in our worship service uncovering this extraordinary command – the why we should and the how we can really do it. And then I will invite our congregation to practice this inviting them back for our Thanksgiving Eve service to do just that.
Why does the human heart struggle to produce thanksgiving? (the issue of sin)
I’ve done some thinking about this with Steve Springsted and we have arrived at the same conclusion. Thanksgiving is a worship response to God that flows out of a position of contentment and trust regardless of current circumstances. When God and his works and his ways are the central focus of our lives, we are thankful. When our works, our ways and ourselves are the central focus, we are at best stressed, yet struggling to be thankful, and at worst proud, angry and thankless. A thankful heart is a heart that feels no entitlement to God’s blessings, but instead, absolute awe and wonder that God would choose to bless us in the first place. A content heart, while honestly yearning for more is nevertheless at peace, deeply settled in God’s will, be it great blessing or great suffering. A content heart is a thankful heart – and that thanksgiving is poured out as a worship response to God through song and through the conversations of our life. It eventually becomes our mindset, our M.O. (method of operation), and a praise habit.
How does God transform our hearts to become thankful in all circumstances?
If we take a deeper look into the Apostle Paul’s life, we can see what thankfulness in all circumstances looks like and can learn the secret to practicing it. My brother-in-law mentioned an important foundation for thanksgiving – the place where it starts. He stated it something like this, “We will never be sincerely thankful for the salvation that Christ has given us until we realize what we would be without it.” It is that salvation which defines the life of a Christian. I think that this is where thanksgiving began in Paul’s life. Those who like Paul regard themselves as the “chief of sinners,” unworthy and yet lavished with the salvation of Christ, will certainly be thankful people. Those who are working hard to earn their salvation, or who feel entitled to God’s blessings will not get it. Those who are consumed with self for that matter will never get it. It is only those who are consumed with God, with a perspective on life that is shaped by the Scriptures, that will become and remain thankful. In a survey of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian believers, we see that an attitude of thanksgiving permeated everything Paul said. He felt deeply thankful, and took multiple opportunities to express that, often times outright gushing. Steve is going to take us through the passage to look at the context of Paul’s command to be thankful in all circumstances. In this we will see Paul’s practice of thanksgiving. Larry then will take the hand off from Steve and look specifically at a time in Paul’s life when he was thankful in very difficult circumstances. We will move to an incredible worship service with two men at midnight in a Philippian prison cell and we will note the outcome of their worship of thanksgiving – for themselves, for those who observed/heard his thanksgiving, and most of all for God. That brings me to my last question.
What does thanksgiving accomplish for God? for us?
I love to consider this question. It is certain that I cannot offer anything to God as if he was needy, but he is deserving, worthy of certain things that I can give him. Revelation states it best in a heavenly scene of worship. “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!” (Rev. 7:12, NIV) Thanksgiving is nearly always connected to other worship responses. Here it is found among a list of the attributes and responses that belong to God. In our passage from 1 Thessalonians, it is listed among the commands to rejoice, pray and be filled with the spirit. Namely, what we find is that the giving of thanksgiving as an act of worship accomplishes one main thing for God – namely, more worship. The worship in heaven is a call and response worship – angels and saints resounding praise back and forth in response to one another. And so on earth we find this to be true. The more I express thanksgiving to God, the more thankful I become until like Paul, I begin to gush. A great moment of Paul gushing is found in Romans 11 when after trying to comprehend and explain God’s plan of salvation for all people by grace through faith in Christ, he just can’t hold back. “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.” (Rom. 11:33-36, NIV) This also holds true in the jail scene found in Acts 16. God moves his hand, perhaps in response to their thanksgiving and prayers, and as a result, the jailer and his family are saved. It says that they were all “filled with joy.” I can imagine that thanksgiving was pouring out of that man’s life and his family from that day forward. More worship for God! We see this invitation to join the chorus of worship in the Psalms, “Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth! Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.” (Psa. 100:1,4, NIV) Finally, what did it accomplish for Paul? It brought literal freedom from prison, greater testimony with influential Roman leaders, and success in his mission to preach the gospel and build the church. It gave Paul another moment for which to be thankful. Ultimately it accomplished more worship for God! May that be the fruit of our thanksgiving worship as well!