2017 December Issue
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Joy To The World

Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

One day a certain minister was invited to speak at the chapel service at Yale University. And so the minister decided to speak about the four letters in Yale's name: Y, A, L, and E. So for 10 minutes he spoke about how Y stands for youth. Then for about 15 minutes he talked about how A stands for ambition. Then he went on for another 20 minutes about how L stands for loyalty. And finally, he wrapped up by speaking for another 15 minutes about how E stands for energy.

At the end of the service, as the minister made his way to the back of the chapel, he noticed that one student was down on his knees, deep in prayer. And so the minister went up to him and said: "Why, son. Would you be good enough to tell me what it was about my sermon that moved you so deeply.?" And the young man said: "Certainly. You see I was just saying a prayer of thanks to God that this is Yale. I was thanking God, because if this was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we would have never gotten out of here today."

Giving thanks to God. That is was this passage in the first letter to the Thessalonians reminds us to do. To give thanks in all circumstances. But is that what we really do?

There is a story about one day when God sent two angels down to earth. God sent each angel with a basket. The one angel was to gather up all the expressions of thanks that people had for God. And the other angel was to collect all the requests that people wanted to make of God. But it seems that when the angels returned to heaven, the basket of the one collecting requests was filled to overflowing, while the basket of the one gathering expressions of thanks was almost empty.

The passage we listened to this morning calls on us to pray without ceasing, to give thanks in all circumstances. Now those verses don't mean that we are to be saying prayers out loud all the time, day and night. But what those verses do mean is that we are to live each day keenly aware of the fact that God is always with us, no matter what is going on in our lives. Because that is what prayer is all about. Realizing how God is always with us.

Corrie ten Boom and her sister Betsie were imprisoned by the Nazis during the Second World War. They were imprisoned because the Nazis discovered that their family had been helping Jews to hide. Corrie and Betsie were kept at a couple of different prison camps, until they were finally taken to Ravensbruck, which was one of the most notorious death camps in all of Germany.

At Ravensbruck, Corrie and her sister were crammed into a barracks that was overflowing with women. They were forced to sleep on straw on a kind of bunk bed platform among dozens of other women all crowded together. And as the two of them laid down to go to sleep their first night there, all of a sudden they felt something on their legs. And then they realized that it was fleas. All kinds of fleas swarming around them and biting them.

So Corrie turned to her sister and in desperation said: "How can we ever live in such a place?" But Betsie looked at her sister and said: "God has shown us how. It was right there in the Bible this morning. Don't you remember?" And so Betsie pulled out the Bible that they had somehow managed to keep possession of and said: "Here, read it for yourself. It was in First Thessalonians."

And so with the dim light that was coming in through the windows, Corrie opened the Bible and began to read: "It says: Comfort the frightened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus."

And as Corrie read, Betsie interrupted her and said: "That's it. That is God's answer. Give thanks in all circumstances. That's what we can do. We can start right now and thank God for every single thing about this barracks."

But Corrie just stared at her, and wondered if her sister was crazy to suggest such a thing. But Betsie said: "We should thank God that we got assigned to the same barracks, so that we can be together. We should thank God that we still have this Bible. And we should thank God for all these women who are here with us. And we should thank God for the fleas."

But Corrie said: "Fleas! There's no way even God can make me grateful for a flea." But her sister said: "Give thanks in all circumstances. That's what the Bible says. It doesn't say, just give thanks in pleasant circumstances. Fleas are a part of this place where God has put us. And so we need to give thanks for them." And so lying there on the straw in that concentration camp barracks, those two women thanked God for the fleas.

And it was not until several weeks later, that Corrie and Betsie realized how in fact those fleas really had been a blessing. You see, they began to notice that the guards harassed and beat the women from just about all the other barracks. But for some strange reason, the guards left the women from their barracks alone. And one day they finally learned the reason for that. It was the fleas. The guards didn't want to get too close to those women, because they knew they had fleas.

Again this passage in First Thessalonians tells us to give thanks in all circumstances, and to rejoice always. But the word "rejoice" is a word that many people misunderstand. "Rejoice" does not mean that we are supposed to be happy all the time. But when you listen to people like Robert Schuller, they make it sound like when Jesus was hanging on the cross that he was happy, that he was singing, "Zippety do dah, zippety ay, my O my what a wonderful day!"

When Jesus was on the cross, he wasn't happy. But he was able to rejoice. And this is what I mean by that. Rejoicing means knowing that whatever happens in life, that we can ultimately put our trust in God to be our Savior. Because when Jesus was on the cross, the Gospels say that Jesus cried out saying: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Those are not happy words. But really they are words of rejoicing. Because there Jesus was quoting the 22nd Psalm, a psalm that goes on to say that even in our suffering, we know that God is with us.

Or think about what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. He said: "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven." When people persecute you and hate you, it's kind of hard to be happy about that. But Jesus tells us that it is possible for us to rejoice. To know that even in situations like that, that God is still with us.

And there is one more thing we should notice about this passage in First Thessalonians. And that is where it says: "May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." God is not just there for us for the sake of our spirits. And God is not just there for us for the sake of our souls. But God is also there for us for the sake of our bodies. And I think that is something we sometimes forget. That we can rejoice at all times, because no matter whether we suffer in our spirits or in our souls or in our bodies, God is with us.

There is a kind of saying that is often repeated in black churches. And that saying is this: "God is good all the time, and all the time God is good." Those are words that we need to hear. Because they remind us that God is always with us. That God is concerned about every part of our lives. So rejoice. God is good all the time. And all the time God is good.

Rev. Dr. C. Edward Bowen Vandergrift, PA