As we reach the final stretch of the most peculiar of years, many are coming to terms with another hard realization. Thanksgiving–like most things this year–will be different and for some, painfully so.
Some dining rooms will be sparser because the risk of COVID travel outweighed the reward. Other seats will be empty because the furlough turned final, leaving no cushion in the budget for travel. And many who do come will arrive at the table spiritually fatigued, weary of a year marked by masking, debating, and seeing the world through the lens of potential contagion.
When cast in this admittedly somber light Thanksgiving could feel like something of a painful irony. Should we simply lower our expectations this time around, or perhaps take a rain check until the next year?
A Paragon of Persistent Joy
The Apostle Paul gave us insight into how the Lord wants His people to think in something he wrote to his friends in the city of Thessalonica:
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
This is a verse that is easy to read but hard to practice if we are honest. Give thanks . . . in everything? Even for the trying Tilt-A-Whirl™ of 2020? Yes.
Paul’s pastoral encouragement to the Thessalonians is as much needed now as it was then. And if we listen with the ears of faith, I believe it will help prepare our hearts to engage this strange season well, with God-glorifying hope and expectation.
Now, lest we think the Thessalonians had a cushy life making the above verses a cakewalk to heed, Paul made it clear earlier in the letter that this was emphatically not the case:
“And you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe.” (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7)
The Thessalonians were an afflicted people, and yet they become a paragon of perseverant joy. So, what was their secret? The answer is as simple as it is deep, and is hiding in plain sight in the verses we’ve already read. It did not arise from a flurry of wishful thinking, or a favorable change of circumstance. Their joy grew on a Trinitarian trellis, and it reached higher than any earthly care.
3 Imperatives Beneath a Towering Indicative
To understand this better, to see how this really works, let’s get our hands dirty in this scriptural soil.
In 5:16-18 we have three imperatives (things we should do): Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks.
However, these three dwell in the shadow of a towering indicative (the “why” behind the “what”): … 18b for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Their deep, settled, and abounding thankfulness was based firmly on what Christ Jesus did for them. God, knowing their (and our) tendency to focus on the temporal, instructs them to lift their eyes to a higher horizon. To remember all that is theirs in Christ Jesus. The Apostle Paul expounds upon this in glorious detail in Ephesians 1:
“[God the Father] has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace.”…(Ephesians 1:3-7)
Yes, life was hard for the Thessalonians but they still had much reason to rejoice. They had an eternal treasure chest of riches that the Son purchased for them: redemption, forgiveness, every spiritual blessing. They had a new identity: Beloved.
This is grace. This is gospel.
And how incredible to see the Father and the Son conspiring for the joy of the saints? Dwelling on this is a powerful antidote against joylessness and thanklessness. But how do we actually internalize and activate these gospel truths this Thanksgiving, or this morning for that matter?
A Gift Through the Holy Spirit
Earlier I mentioned that Thessalonian joy grew on a Trinitarian trellis. Which means our construction is not quite complete. The final piece–or Person–is to be found back in 1:6:
“And you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit.”
This verse reveals that it is possible to know about the Bible, or Jesus, without it actually making landfall on your own soul. There are many Bible scholars who were never saved. What is essential is the regenerating and illuminating work of the Holy Spirit they experienced–through faith. This happened to the Thessalonians and Paul wanted to encourage them in it, by way of reminder.
Sovereign Trials that Strengthen Our Trellis
This is my encouragement to us as we engage Thanksgiving this year. Let us take the opportunity to focus even deeper on all that Christ accomplished for us. Let us marvel that God the Father predestined it for us. And let us believe, from the heart, that the same Holy Spirit that regenerated us stands ready, willing, and able to activate afresh these gospel truths in a joy-producing, thanksgiving-inducing way.
Perhaps God has allowed 2020 to be so strange so that we would be reminded of how precious our salvation, and our Savior, is. To strengthen our own trellis, if you will. This certainly would not be the first time He worked in this way. So, let us gather around the table this year with a heart overflowing with thanksgiving, that will glorify our God and strengthen the faith of our friends and family. Let us join in the song of King David when he sang,
“I will praise You with my whole heart;
Before the gods I will sing praises to You.
I will worship toward Your holy temple,
And praise Your name
For Your lovingkindness and Your truth;
For You have magnified Your word above all Your name.
In the day when I cried out, You answered me,
And made me bold with strength in my soul. (Psalm 138:1-3)