The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
November 21, 2018 – Thanksgiving Eve
The Apostle Paul is in prison, but he’s no prisoner of his circumstances. He has learned how to be “content” and even joyful “in any and all circumstances”. How does he pull that off? He bears in mind he’s never without reason for gratitude.
Paul is thwarted from advancing his mission of taking the gospel to the ends of the earth, but he still rejoices and gives thanks for his imprisonment because it has given him a chance to bear witness to the entire Roman imperial guard. The churches he’s planted are being hurt by spiritual charlatans who are using them to build their own kingdom, but Paul still rejoices and gives thanks because, whatever their motivation, they’re still proclaiming Christ. Paul is living under constant threat of execution, but he still rejoices and gives thanks because his situation reminds him he can’t lose: if he continues to serve Christ under such danger and duress, he brings greater glory to Christ; and if he dies, he knows greater happiness with Christ in heaven.
Though a lot of bad things are going on and a lot of bad things are happening to him, Paul is good with it all; for he’s luxuriating in “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding”. He’s content and grateful whether he has plenty or little, whether he’s well-fed or going hungry, whether he’s kept alive or executed. After all, for him, “to live is Christ”, and knowing Christ is such a big blessing that the suffering of painful things or the loss of wonderful things is a small price to pay for a close and ongoing friendship with Jesus. Jesus is so great that walking through life with Him gives one a strength beyond one’s own, so that anyone can say what Paul said: “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me.”
Therefore, despite suffering much, Paul has no complaints. Instead, in an emotional miracle, he radiates joy and exudes gratitude. That does not, however, mean that he does not pray for God to change things. But he prays ready to rejoice and thank God regardless of whether God answers that or any particular prayer of his.
Notice, when Paul tells the Philippians not to worry about anything but just to let their requests be made known to God, he tells them to do that “by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving”. Did you catch that? While we typically reserve thanking God until after He’s granted us our request, Paul encourages our thanking God even before we know whether He will and regardless of whether He ever does. Paul trusts God always to answer our prayers well, even when He answers us by denying our request. Paul has the faith that God always knows what’s best and will always do what’s best, though we might be unable to see it. Paul believes that God works for good in all things, even the bad things. Thus, Paul always rejoices and gives thanks because he defers to God’s wisdom about what’s most beneficial even when it ends up being what’s the most difficult course for us.
Let me tell you about a contemporary “Paul”, Kara Tippetts, a mother of four and a co-worker with her pastor husband Jason, who died four years ago after a long and brutal battle with breast cancer. That tough but losing battle did not, however, leave her without reason for gratitude.
As the cancer spread throughout her body, Kara courageously embraced her declining health, as she counted on the Lord to work in all things for good and to be with her every step of her ordeal – through sickness, suffering and finally dying. She held to her conviction that neither her health nor her longevity was ever the point, but that Christ always was.
Kara refused to let her life be defined by cancer, but made sure her life was defined by Christ. Thus, she cherished every moment she had, as a gift from God, by which to know Christ better and make Him better known. She viewed her pain and physical diminishment, not as a sign of God’s abandonment, but of God’s grace in showing her and others the depth and power of His love.
Near the end of her life, Kara wrote, “My now little body has grown tired of the battle, and treatment is no longer helping. But what I see, what I know, what I have forever, is Jesus.” To her last day, Kara expressed gratitude for every breath the Lord gave her, and prayed she’d both live well and “fade well” into the next world.
With the moments left to her, she thanked God that she still got to hug those dear to her and tenderly tell them of her love and Christ’s; that she still could pray prayers of hope over them; and that she still could “laugh and cry and wonder over heaven”.
She wrote, “I do not feel as if I have the courage for this journey, but I have Jesus – and He will provide. He has given me, even in my dying, so much to be grateful for, and that gratitude…covers us all…and carries us all in ways we cannot comprehend.”
With Christ none of us are ever without reason for gratitude. Let us then, whatever happens, give thanks, rejoice in Jesus, and appreciate our loved ones. Let us pray.