In the final episode of the excellent Mini-series about the life of John Adams, based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer prize winning biography, Adams is at the end of his epic life…
He has led through the Revolutionary War, he was a founding father of our nation, he became the second president of the United States…just amazing stuff.
Now at the age of 90, he has also experienced much disappointment and loss.
His middle son Charles, once precious to him, became an alcoholic as an adult…they had a falling out and Charles died unreconciled to his father.
Adam’s only daughter lost her life to breast cancer and then his beloved wife and best friend Abigail preceded him in death.
Now he is old, and largely forgotten…the country now 50 years old has moved on from him…and he is walking in one of his fields with a son…let’s pick up the dialogue there…
“I have seen the Queen of France with 18 million levers of diamond, I declare that all the charms of her face and figure with all the glitter of her jewels did not impress me as much as that little shrub right there. Your mother always said I never delighted in the mundane but now I find that if I look at even the smallest thing my imagination begins to roam the Milky Way.”
“Rejoice evermore. Rejoice evermore. Rejoice evermore.” He cried out spontaneously.
“I wish that it had always been in my heart and on my tongue.” He said “I am filled with an irresistible impulse to fall on my knees in adoration right here. If only my knees would bend like they used to.”
This man now filled with joy at the mundane…was once filled with passion, anger, pride…ready to verbally duel with anyone.
Some of that was helpful in his role as a young leader in the new nation…but it caused some regrets now.
He had had a decades long break in friendship with Thomas Jefferson, that had been restored after both of them had lost much.
Suffering and time had caused them to rethink what had once divided them…it wasn’t worth it anymore.
Now, at the end of his amazing life…he wished for what?
He wished that he had rejoiced…heart and tongue more.
Must we become 90 before we see what matters the most…do we have to have to be on death beds to have death bed perspective?
And becoming old (if that even happens, it may not) is no guarantee that we will suddenly become filled with perspective.
We gather together in community to worship, to remember, to train ourselves to live in truth, to become thankful, joyful, prayerful people.
“Rejoice evermore”…he said… “Oh, how I wish that it had always been in my heart and on my tongue.”
Me too…President Adams, me too.
How about you?
What has filled you with anger or anxiety this past year, month, week?
What has caused you to become unhappy with a friend, or family?
What has captured your heart and streamed forth from it…through your lips?
It is, Jesus said, from the heart that the mouth speaks.
Do you wish you had been, this past year, more joyful, prayerful, thankful?
Yeah, me too.
But, here we are…we have this chance to have joy in our hearts and on our tongues.
We have, once again, the chance to practice together…who we want to become.
Look at the passage Adam’s statement came from…1 Thess. 5:16,18
16 Be joyful always; 17 pray continually; 18 give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
The three imperatives are precise, concise, and powerful as continual, enduring ways of life.
Give thanks in everything
Is this even realistic?
Realistic as what, a compelling life goal?
Of course it is.
In fact, it is God’s will for your life and mine.
How can it not be “realistic” since it is what God wants for us?
Many search intently for the will of God.
Desperately seeking to hear his voice to know what he wants.
Seeking after signs…fleeces laid out to discern his will.
“Oh God, what is your will for me…why is it hidden from me?”
It’s not…it is here.
16 Be joyful always; 17 pray continually; 18 give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
“Yeah, I know, but I mean his “real will”…what he wants me to do, what he wants me to be.”
It’s here…he wants you to do and be this.
Joyful, prayerful, thankful…always.
His will for our lives is that we become people who do these things and people who are becoming these things.
John Adams did as much of historical importance as just about anyone ever has…yet at the end when he was off history’s stage, what did he wish for?
That “rejoice” had been more often in his heart and on his tongue.
So, today…I am going to tell you what God’s will is for your life.
16 Be joyful always; 17 pray continually; 18 give thanks in all circumstances,
When we get to Paul’s letters to the Church at Thessalonica in January we will discuss the back story…but today, as a prelude to Thanksgiving week we will look at this single passage from his first letter.
I will say this much about the church Paul is addressing…they were doing well in their faith in spite of tremendous pressure, much suffering.
So, this compact summary statement of the well-lived Christian life comes at the end of his letter to a church who were under the gun of suffering…but doing well.
It is, for me, memorable, challenging, encouraging, motivating, intimidating…any other descriptors you would add?
16 Be joyful always; 17 pray continually; 18 give thanks in all circumstances
Let’s think this through together.
First…Please, don’t think about it with:
-Guilt: “I’m so far from this, I’m terrible”
-Guilt will distract you, stay focused on the possibilities here.
-Resignation: “This is never going to happen in my life”
-Apathy will cripple you, be optimistic (God is in this)
-Skepticism: “This isn’t practical, or real”
-“What has been true for you…doesn’t change what can become true”
Think about this, not with guilt, or resignation, or skepticism but with…an “Already, Not yet” mind.
The Thessalonians were struggling with how to reconcile the reality of the promises of the gospel with the struggles of their current situation.
In fact, some were doubting because they thought the Lord would return in their lifetime…and some of them were dying…probably some were being martyred.
Paul gives them in this letter that great biblical lens to look at life through.
In the gospel, in the work of Christ…the kingdom is already here…the eternal, good, beautiful kingdom of God is already here.
It is changing hearts, then little communities (churches) and then the world at large.
The kingdom is among you already…but not yet here in full.
So, in this life you will have trouble, opposition…you will die.
In this life you will not be perfected but you do have clear life direction.
So…joyful, prayerful, thankful, always…is a very real and practical possibility…we can and must move that direction.
But we will die moving that direction…we will not reach there in perfection in this life…but we are able to live joyful, prayerful, thankful…all along the way to the destination.
Let’s think about this as journey and destination.
When I was very young, we lived in Alaska.
One year we flew to Dallas and purchased a car (not a van or suburban) but a six-seat car and there were six in my family.
We drove that car from Texas to (essentially) Alaska…my sister, got front middle.
The three boys, fought in the backseats…the backseat boys.
My dad has said that there were times when he wondered about that decision…in fact he thought he had lost his mind along the way…my mom kept him sane.
One thing my dad was good at was casting vision for the destination and looking for ways to enjoy the journey.
He would break trips down into “doable” mental parts… “One more hour till we stop for a drink or lunch.”
We would sometimes stop early at a hotel so we could swim in the pool longer.
There was the vision of the destination…super important.
There was the process of enjoying the journey…also, super important.
We traveled a lot when I was young…if we didn’t have the capacity for joy in the journey…we would have missed out on a lot of life.
Biblical joy and thanksgiving and prayer…have this journey/destination aspects to them.
I. JOY: Rejoice evermore/be joyful always
How does being joyful/or rejoicing always…work in terms of this journey/destination combo?
The way the Scriptures present “rejoicing” in the Lord is as a thing completely independent of current circumstances…WHAT? Yeah.
In fact, Paul is writing as a man who has endured terrible circumstances to a church enduring difficult circumstances…and he says “rejoice ever more”
One way of thinking about this is that Paul didn’t actually think this is possible…
He was more like a parent telling a child “You should happy with what I have given you and not complain.”…knowing full well…that though this factually true,..no way that kid is going to stop crying and suddenly become grateful because of those words.
But that is not all how to think about this…Paul knows from experience this is possible, and from experience that this is necessary.
We simple must become people who are learning to be joyful always…or we will become people who are never joyful.
If our joy (our capacity for contentment, being “okay”, delight) is dependent on circumstances all being “just right”…then how often will we actually be joyful?
Not very often.
In fact, our capacity for increasing discontent is so profound that if we do not nurture joy in all things…we will eventually have joy in nothing.
This is how addiction works…it takes more and more to enjoy less and less…until there is no joy at all, in anything.
So, what are we to do?
Hold journey and destination in healthy tension.
John 16:22 “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”
Grief was coming to his friends…they would see him killed on a cross…but joy was coming because they would also see him resurrected.
This resurrection joy, Jesus has risen…was to be a promise of their own future…no one and nothing could separate them from Christ…or the future he had for them.
We must continually rejoice in the reality of the resurrection…Christ’s, and in turn our own someday.
As we do, we must filter current circumstances through that future reality.
“Okay, I can see how that can help me endure difficult…but how does it help me be joyful now?”
Good question…If I am suffering, I can use the future promises of God to remind me that this will suffering not last…It will have an end…a destination focus.
But how does that help me enjoy (or rejoice) in the journey now?
John Adams…old, physically in pain, bereft of most of those who were dear to him…took immense delight in a shrub.
So, joy is a fruit of the Spirit…it grows on people who live connected to Jesus.
It is a choice…and a fruit…we choose to delight in Jesus, we choose to “re-joy” our minds…and then our hearts, over time, become shaped into things that can delight in a shrub.
WE choose, then we become…joyful.
We can, to learn to rejoice in the journey, though it is difficult…because of the sure destination.
As we do…we can learn to enjoy, to love…the journey.
*Last Wednesday my dad, brother and I met for lunch…it was my mom’s birthday.
-We had, that day, a few minutes of joy (mixed with sorrow) as we talked of my mom.
This is a small example…but it illustrates the reality of joy in the journey because of a sure destination.
My dad sometimes visits my mom’s gravesite…just to thank God that she is not there.
We celebrated over a bowl of soup on a windy November day my mom…by just talking together…there is joy in the journey because of our confidence in the destination.
II. PRAY CONTINUALLY
John Lightfoot, a 17th century pastor once wrote “It is not the moving of the lips, but in the elevation of the heart to God, that the essence of prayer consists.”
This doesn’t mean that we are not to verbalize our prayers, of course we must.
NT scholar Leon Morris wrote about this passage:
“It is not possible for us to spend all our time with the words of prayer on our lips, but it is possible for us to be all our days in the spirit of prayer, realizing our dependence on God for all we have and are, being conscious of his presence with us wherever we may be, and yielding ourselves continually to him to do his will. Such an inward state will of course find expression from time to time in verbal prayer.”
This is about living mindful of the presence of God…ready, always to speak with him about the things of front of us.
Journey…we train ourselves, for this lifestyle, like we train ourselves for any other good habit…through practice.
We find ways to keep the reality of the presence of God before our minds.
Sometimes we may not “feel” his presence…sometimes we feel anxiety, sometimes we are surrounded by evil, or discord and dissension.
Sometimes, we go lengths of time…without having God in our thoughts.
But we can, if we will, practice the presence of God in all of this.
If you haven’t practiced something much, it’s just hard and not that much fun at the beginning…
It things get better, easier, habitual with practice.
To live in the presence of God…we must do the work, make the choices…to hold in more regularly in our thoughts.
But as we do, it will become “natural”…more normal, more habitual.
That’s the journey…practice to make habitual that which is good and beautiful.
Destination…the day will come, for the believer. when we will live in the full experience of the presence of God.
The really good news is that we don’t have to live apart from the experience of God’s presence now…what we will experience in full then, we can experience in part now.
We can grow in experiencing him, but we must grow, we must seek him
Not because he is hiding from us, but because our minds, hearts, wills have not been properly trained to keep him front and center.
I’m going to jump on that “guilt producing” stat again…but indulge me.
Americans average just over 5 hours per day looking at their phones.
Maybe you read books, and scripture on your phone…great.
My point is that we are training ourselves to become something or someone.
Who do you want to be? What are you willing to do to become that person?
III. GIVE THANKS IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES
One way to think about this is:
Journey: “Thank you God FOR…”
Destination: “Thank you God THAT…”
Journey, “I thank God FOR Norah, FOR her life, her little heart.”
Destination, “I am sad when I consider her (and her parents) struggles…but I God THAT the day will come will all sickness will be gone, every tear will be wiped away.”
We don’t have to wait until we reach the destination to be thankful.
We don’t have to ground our thankfulness in unreality either…trying to pretend that terrible things are not terrible, or difficult things are not difficult.
We can be thankful FOR so much because we can thankful THAT God will do what he has promised.
Joyful, prayerful, thankful…God’s will for us in Christ Jesus.