Sunday, 14 December 2008

Rejoice, pray, give thanks!

An address given on 14th December 2008 at Templederry and Killodiernan.

‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you’.

In these words from today’s NT reading (1Thessalonians 5:16-24), St Paul encourages the Christians in Thessalonica to hold fast to their faith in the goodness and love of God – and encourages you and me too, thanks to their preservation of his words.

And surely this is exactly what Isaiah is doing in today’s OT reading (Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11) as well, in his beautiful, heart-stirring poetry: The Lord God
‘has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners'.

It is powerful stuff, isn’t it? The Israelites to whom Isaiah is speaking would have drunk in his words. They had been living in exile in Babylon for many years. They knew all about oppression and captivity. In a few years the armies of Cyrus, king of Persia would conquer Babylon, and the Israelites, or some of them, would be allowed to return home.
‘Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed’,
says Isaiah.

‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.’

These words of Paul echo down the centuries to us. But let us be very clear just what a hard thing Paul is asking. To rejoice, pray and give thanks when all is well is one thing. But always? Without ceasing? In all circumstances? What of the man who has just lost his job? What of the single mother who cannot pay the fuel bill? What of the parents I spoke to recently, whose son has just been killed in an accident? Isn’t Paul asking the impossible of them?

When everything seems to go against us it is very easy to become obsessed with our own misery, and fall into clinical depression. For those who have been there, as I have, life is very bleak for a time, and to be told to pull your socks up is worse than useless – it makes such people feel worse. Many people find that medication helps. But at root depression is a spiritual disease, I think. It is about feeling cut off from the love of the Father – as Jesus himself said on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

Depression starts to be cured when, for all our troubles, we begin to see things to rejoice over, things to pray for, things to be thankful for.

For this reason, Paul’s words are wise advice, both for the Christians in Thessalonica, and for all who believe in the goodness and love of God: quite apart from the theology, they are a tool to help us resist depression. You might like this analogy: if you stand with your back to the sun you see your own shadow, but if you turn to face it your shadow is behind you.

‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.’

It is different for those unable to experience God’s love, those who are depressed. Paul’s words won’t help them directly, only make them feel worse. But we can help them - you and I - by showing through our love and care that there are things to rejoice about, things to pray for, things to be thankful for.

The coming Christmas season will be psychologically difficult for some people. Society seems to demand that everyone should be jolly, when sme people don’t feel jolly at all. And this year for many it is made even worse by the consequences of the recession. So let us make a special point of letting those who have lost a loved one in the last year know that we are thinking of them. Let us keep an eye out for our neighbours who are lonely, old, or finding life difficult, and show them love and support if they need it. And let us give as generously as we can to those agencies who are trying to relieve the shocking poverty too many are living with in this rich country.

God sends us, just as he sent Isaiah:
'to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.’

‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.’

1 comment:

Daniel Owen said...

And a very Happy Christmas to you and yours too. Thank you for your kind words.

Daniel.