By Pastor Glenn Pease
Edward R. Morrow once told of the commencement speaker who was a Yale graduate. He used the 4 letters of YALE for his speech outline. Y was for youth; A was for ambition; L was for loyalty, and E was for energy. After his tedious trip through these four points one of the board graduates turned to another and said, "I am so thankful he went to Yale." "What do you care where he went?" replied the equally unenthused victim. "Because," he responded, "Imagine what we would have had to endure had he gone to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology."
You have to give him credit for seeing the brighter side and finding the silver lining in the dark clouds. It is always there somewhere, or how else can be expected to obey Paul's command in I Thess. 5:18, "In everything give thanks." In every situation there is something in which to be thankful. But let's be honest as Paul was. There are days and circumstances when it is mighty hard to find. We find Paul in just such a tough time in his life in Acts 28. Most all commentators agree that Paul was in a state of depression. There was good reason for it. He was a prisoner on his way to Rome. He had more freedom than most prisoners, but he was still a captive heading for a very uncertain future, and it brought him down.
He was not thankful that he was down, but you and I can be thankful that he was, for that is more than likely where we would be if we were in his shoes. Paul's idealistic advice would be a burden rather than a blessing if we did not see that he too had to struggle to make it real. It is good for us to see the best of people at the bottom, and see that even heaven's heroes are not always on the mountain top. Thank God for biblical reality where we see the best of God's servants in their weakness, for this gives us hope, even as their strengths give us motivation to press on. Peter's many blunders make us realize we need not despair for our follies and mistakes, for like him we can be forgiven and welcomed back into the Savior's love. Thank God for Peter's multiple blunders, for they reveal that God's grace is sufficient for any of us.
Thank God also for Paul's depression for it reveals his sensitive human spirit that makes him easier to identify with than does his perfectionist sounding theology. Here is the man who says to give thanks in everything and to rejoice always, but now he is dragging. He is no robot, but a real man just like us. But notice what happens in verse 15. Christians in Rome heard that Paul was coming and so they sent out a delegation to meet him. It was 40 miles from Rome, but they traveled this distance to encourage this brother they had never met. The text says, "When Paul saw these men he thanked God and was encouraged."
Notice that Paul was thankful to God, but it was for these men that he was thankful. This does not seem like a very startling revelation until you begin to examine Paul's thinking all through the New Testament. You discover that man is the primary means by which Paul is made thankful. He is constantly thanking God, not for angels, or theology, or for high and exalted ideals, or for things. Paul's thanksgiving focus is on people. Look at the evidence:
Rom. 1:8, "First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world."
I Cor. 1:4, "I always thank God for you..." Then he goes on to describe how they have been enriched by the grace of God.
Eph. 1:15-16, "For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you.."
Phil. 1:3-5, "I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the Gospel.."
Col. 1:3-4, "We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saint."
I Thess. 1:2, "We always thank God for all of you.."
II. Thess. 1:3, "We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love everyone of you has for each other is increasing."
Paul is constantly giving thanks to God for man. He is thankful to God, for God is the source of the grace that makes man capable of exercising all of his virtues. He is thankful for man, for man can choose to be open or closed to God's grace. They can choose to grow in grace and in knowledge and be channels of God's love. Paul is so thankful for people who are saying yes to God and being instruments of His love. Paul could be content in any state because he did not need a home, chariot, fine clothes, or more money. All he needed was to know that other people cared. Paul was tough, but he still needed others.
We all need to recognize that God gives us most of what we need through others. His entire revelation came to us through people. We can thank God for the many authors of Scripture whom He inspired. We can thank God for the Apostles, early church fathers, reformers, pilgrims, pioneers, missionaries, founders and leaders of the many schools, books, and other resources that help us grow in Christ. We have such a rich heritage that has come to us through people.
Martin Luther stressed a doctrine that changed the history of the church. It was the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Every Christian can minister to every other Christian. In our text layman were ministering to one of the greatest of the Apostles, and Paul was saying thank God for these people. Blessings flow from the bottom up as well as from the top down.
Paul had found the key to perpetual thanksgiving. Just focus on what God has given you through people and you will never lack for things to be grateful for. This does not mean Paul never got discouraged and frustrated. He had his bad days, but at some point in that day the sun would shine and Paul would be lifted by his spirit of thanksgiving because he had so many people for which to be thankful. Paul could say with the little girl who was asked what she was thankful for and she replied, "I am thankful that I am thankful." It is one of life's greatest blessings to be a thankful person for other persons.
In Yuma, Arizona there was a motel that advertised, "Free board everyday the sun doesn't shine." Travelers coming into town on a rainy day would see this as a good gamble and check in. The owner never seemed worried, however, for he had been making this offer for many years and never lost money. At some point in the day the clouds would disappear and the sun would shine. That is the way it was with Paul. There would be depressing times as he reviewed the problems of the churches and the bitterness of his enemies, as well as the failures of his friends, but then he would focus on people and the sun would come out filling him with thanksgiving.
It was an unusually dark day for Paul in our text, but then the brother's from Rome came and Paul was encouraged, and he gave thanks to God for men. We are dealing with such an obvious truth here that we often become blind to it and miss out on the thanksgiving spirit of Paul. Not a day goes by in any of our lives that we are not blest by other people. Even if you never leave the house or talk on the phone you are blest by others. The food you eat was planted, raised, harvested, transported, and sold to you by other people. There is no telling how many people made it possible for you to enjoy your meals today. The same is true for all of your pleasures of life. Your clothing, home, car, and all the things you enjoy are yours because of the labor, skill, and creativity of other people. The freedom you have to worship was also one by other people.
We enjoy the holiday of Thanksgiving. It is a uniquely American holiday. There are billions of people who will not have such a day of thanksgiving and family feasting. We owe it to the determined efforts of Sarah Hale. She wrote an endless flow of articles and letters to get a day set apart for thanks to God. She pleaded with Presidents Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanon, and finally she won the ear of Abraham Lincoln. He made a national proclamation in 1863. He only lived to enjoy two Thanksgiving holidays, but Sarah lived into her 90's and enjoyed many of them. This is not a biblical holiday, but came to us through the love and labor of another person.
If you start to get specific and focus on people in your life the ground for thanksgiving becomes an expanding universe. People gave you life and brought you into this world. People gave you an education so you could enjoy the world. People provided you with resources to become what you are. People have encouraged, loved, and supported you through life.
The point I am getting at is that everyone of us would be more thankful everyday if we focused on people for whom we could give thanks. Paul was thanking people constantly, but to often most of us can better identify with Albert Schwitzer in his Memoirs of Childhood and Youth. He writes, "When I look back upon my early days I am stirred by the number of people whom I have to thank for what they gave me or what they were to me. At the same time I am haunted by an oppressive consciousness of the little gratitude I really showed them while I was young. How many of them have said farewell to life without my having made clear to them what it meant to me to receive from then so much kindness or so much care!"
I have always been grateful that I wrote to my Grandmother and an uncle I had, and shared with them before they died how much they meant to me. But I never did write to a high school teacher I had who changed my life and gave me a love for literature. William L. Stidger of the School of Theology in Boston was over 50 when he remembered a teacher that blest him. He wrote her a letter thanking her and her reply has been published around the world and used in many Thanksgiving messages. It never gets old because it speaks so clearly to the need of being thankful for people. Stidger was a 50 year old scholar, but to her he was still Willie. She wrote:
My dear Willie,
"I cannot tell you how much your note meant to me. I am in my 80's, living alone in a small room, cooking my own meals, lonely and, like the last leaf of autumn, lingering behind. You will be interested to know that I taught in school for 50 years and yours is the first note of appreciation I ever received. It came on a blue-cold morning and it cheered me as nothing has in many years."
For a few pennies of praise Willie's investment brought forth a fortune in gratitude. Thank God for people who are thankful to God for people. Paul's life was lifted to a higher level and he was cheered because he knew somebody cared about him. If Paul needed this, who does not need it? David MacLennon tells of the employer who was so proud of his efficient staff, but one day his assistant took his own life and left this note: "In 30 years I have never had an word of encouragement. I'm fed up."
How many people could be saved from despair if the people in their lives could be conscious of the need to give them encouragement. William Barkley, who has been a blessing to millions by his Bible Commentaries, made this powerful statement: "One of the highest of human duties is the duty of encouragement. It is easy to laugh at men's ideals; it is easy to pour cold water on their enthusiasm; it is easy to discourage others. The world is full of discouragers. We have a Christian duty to encourage one another. Many a time a word of praise or thanks or appreciation or cheer has kept a man on his feet. Blessed is the man who speaks such a word."
There is nothing more practical than being an encourager by expressing your thanks to other people. How often have you said to someone, "I thank God for you?" Paul was doing it all the time and that is why he was able to rise above the storms of life. Thankful people have sunlight every day no matter how cloudy the sky, and they lift others above the gloom as well. People who are grateful for what they have, have more to be grateful for.
James Irwin, the Christian astronaught who walked on the moon, tells of the awesome experience of watching the earth shrink as the spacecraft sped away from it. He wrote, "From the size of a basketball to the size of a baseball, to the size of a golf ball, to the size of a marble...you look back and realized that everything that you ever cared about and loved was out there. That does something to you inside. It brings a man back profoundly changed, with a deep appreciation for the earth and everything we have on it."
He came back from the moon more thankful for the earth, but thank God we don't have to go to the moon to develop a more thankful spirit. We just need to open our eyes to all that is around us. Some years back Christianity Today gave a list of things to be thankful for in everyday life that illustrates just how endless our list could be if we would look. Here are five things listed:
1. Arn't you thankful that grass does not grow up through the snow making winter mowing as well as shoveling a responsibility?
2. Arn't you thankful that teenagers will eventually have children who become teenagers?
3. Arn't you thankful that the space for messages on tee shirts is limited?
4. Arn't you thankful that women whose husbands take them for granted don't all scream at the same time?
5. Arn't you thankful that hugs and kisses don't cause cancer or even add weight?
Thankfulness does not cause cancer or add weight either. In fact, it make us lighter. It lifted Paul out of his pit and it can do the same for us. Say a word, write a note, or do something that will make you someone that others will thank God for. Let us heed the Word of God and be thankful people, and especially be thankful to God for other people.