“Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised . . . . ." In his letter to the Hebrews, St. Paul was concerned – rightly so – that persecution or affliction might turn some away from the faith – just as we today ought to be concerned about the same thing – that affliction and heartache, and the various pains and traumas associated with life might turn Christians away from Christ. I thought about this serious problem the other day as I read 1 Thessalonians 5:18 "In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Notice please Paul wrote (IN everything – not FOR everything. I’ve heard that text misquoted many times). I memorized that verse decades ago. I’ve read it hundreds of times. But a few days ago, God focused my attention once again on that last clause: This is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. In other words, in all things (again, not FOR all things, but IN all things), God wants us to give Him thanks. All things. For good things like health, prosperity, dreams come true, hopes realized. But also in bad things, accidents, deaths, illness, chronic pain, loss of income . . .. All things. It’s called elsewhere in Scripture a “sacrifice of praise.” Like here: "For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come. Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name." (Hebrews 13:14-15) It is NOT a sacrifice to thank God when things go well. A sacrifice is not a sacrifice if it costs us nothing. Here is only one example of a Biblical principle behind sacrifices: The backstory of David’s sin takes a full chapter in the Scriptures, and we won’t take the time to rehearse it all. You can read it later in 1 Chronicles 21 if you like. What I will focus on, however, is the last part of this story when God demanded of David an atonement sacrifice for his grave sin (by the way, this chapter is not talking of David’s grave sin with Bathsheba. That happened earlier in David’s reign). The King went to a man who owned the site he wanted to use for the burnt offering, but the man – whose name was Ornan – said to him, “Take it for yourself; and let my lord the king do what is good in his sight. See, I will give the oxen for burnt offerings and the threshing sledges for wood and the wheat for the grain offering; I will give it all.” But King David said to Ornan, “No, but I will surely buy it for the full price; for I will not take what is yours for the Lord, or offer a burnt offering which costs me nothing.” (1 Chronicles 21:23ff) Sacrifice costs something. Even a “sacrifice of praise” costs us something. Listen, this is no surprise to anyone reading this. Life is full of turmoil and heartache. As Job reminds us: "Man is born for trouble, As sparks fly upward." (5:7) Later in chapter 14, he adds: "Man, who is born of woman, is short-lived and full of turmoil. Like a flower he comes forth and withers. He also flees like a shadow and does not remain.” (14:1) What then shall WE do when life picks us up and smashes us to the ground? When we pray for our beloved sick, and they don’t get well. Or they die? When we pray for family reconciliation, and it never happens? When we pray that we might have children, and yet remain barren? When we pray for the salvation of our family, and they never come to Christ? What then shall we do? God tells us what He’d like us to do: “Persevere” as He told us in our opening text from Hebrews 10, and here in this letter to the Thessalonians, “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” Is that easy? Of course not. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be a sacrifice. But is it necessary? If it were not, God would not have commanded it of us.
Why does He command it? Perhaps because not only can prayer change situations, prayer can also change US. And that is part of God’s plan for you and me – to be conformed into the image of His Son. That’s an important concept to grasp with our hearts, not only theoretically with our heads. “Conformed into the image of His Son.” And it seems from life-experience that kind of thing will not happen without successfully persevering through trials and tests. That’s probably one reason God tells us through the apostle James, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1:2-4) "Conformed to the image of His Son.”
Do you remember how in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus gave honor to His Father? Do you remember how He did the same while agonizing on the Cross? Many of you will recognize this passage from Romans 8: "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son . . .What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? . . . .
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, “For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I hope you caught that. Neither good things or bad things, neither death or life, neither storms nor nightmares nor floods nor fires nor broken families nor chronic pain nor life-changing illness – nothing can separate us from God’s wonderful, indescribable love. A “sacrifice of praise” means giving God thanks and adoration and laudation even when our hearts lie panting on the floor. It means giving Him praise even when we don’t feel like praising Him. Why do you think the psalmist wrote more than once in the psalms: “Bless the Lord, Oh, my soul. Bless His holy name”? The word David used is the imperative form of BLESS. In other words, He commanded himself to praise God – even when his circumstance were such that he didn’t want to praise God. He grabbed himself by the proverbial scruff of the neck and required of himself to praise God who, by virtue of who He is, is worthy of our praise and thanksgiving. God desperately loves you. So desperately that He did all that He could do, He did the maximum that God could do to prove His love for you and me – and that was to give His beloved Son as a sacrifice for your sin and for mine. When we know in the depths of our souls God loves us – regardless how things turn out in our lives – when we know in our spirit, and not simply in our head, that God always stands with us, and not against us – then the sacrifice of praise will flow more easily from our hearts. And it will be immeasurably easier to give Him thanks in all things. “In everything give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Please help us, our Lord, to do as you tell us to do. Amen.